Being Too Greedy Too Early

One of the things I’m very proud of when we monetized SWTOR, is how generous we were to the new users.  Players don’t get asked for any money before level 10 in SWTOR (roughly 4-5 hours of gameplay) – a design stance I had to defend hotly a few times.  My rationale: we had done focus testing out the wazoo on our newbie experience, and gotten the test scores as high as the various meters would go.  Why mess with a good thing?  As such, I tried to make it that the only change a free player saw below levels 1-10 was the button that opened the store.  Hopefully, by the end of newbie planet, you’ve decided you want to live there – then it’s appropriate to suggest some upgrades.

It seems like more game companies should see the light in this regard.  Gamasutra did a recent article where they did metrics on people who quit after playing first.  One finding: 70% of the games that people quit early are noted as being overly aggressive in their monetization.  Asking for money before there is even a remote chance you have earned that devotion is a huge turn-off, but still one I see all the time.  A few weeks ago, I played a game where how to spend money in-game was the second tutorial!  This communicates to the player that the game ISN’T free.  When a game asks for a dollar in the first two minutes, the player extrapolates that outward – the game will ask for $30 bucks in an hour!  $150 bucks in 5 hours!  Christ, this game is expensive!

The most successful free-to-play games are uncommonly generous.  Consider League of Legends and Candy Crush.  They let you play, often without fear of timers or energy mechanics, for as long as you want.  They offer pathways to experience most of the important parts of the game without paying a cent.  And most importantly, they allow you to fall in love with the game before they ask you for money.  Most people love to spend money on hobbies that they love.

 

 

The Kobayashi Maru Is Not Usually Mass Market

On one hand, I am sympathetic to how fast, and how transparently, game developers rip each other off in the casual and mobile space. It’s particularly galling when the company doing the ripping off has the gall to file legal action against people who came before them. So on one hand, the saga of 2048/Threes is familiar and depressing, and not at all surprising, give that we’re talking about a game design so simple and elegant it likely will be a tutorial lesson in game development classes for years to come. Hearing the dev team of Threes speak out about feeling ripped off, as well as this spirited defense here – well, it certainly makes you want to take sides.

On the OTHER hand, I did note this one paragraph in the Three’s developer’s litany of sour grapes.

But why is Threes better? It’s better for us, for our goals. 2048 is a broken game. Something we noticed about this kind of system early on (that you’ll see hidden in the emails below). We wanted players to be able to play Threes over many months, if not years. We both beat 2048 on our first tries.

Get that? The Threes developers are irritated because they made an unwinnable game, and are mad that someone else made a winnable version of it. This is like the makers of Demon Souls getting mad that it turns out the mass market prefers playing Diablo.

Now, don’t get me wrong — making a more hardcore game is a tried and true tradition, and there is definitely room in the market for games that take a harder edge – Demon Souls, Ultima Online and Banished are all great examples of this. And there’s certainly a tendency for easy games to add harder modes later, such as Hardcore Diablo, which adds permadeath for those players who want to experience how brutally unfair network lag can actually be.

But game genres have historically ALWAYS backed down from what designers consider appropriate levels of difficulty to more mass market ideas of difficulty over time. We almost ALWAYS start too hard, and back it up. As an easy to reach for example, hardcore MUD players (Text MMOs before MMOs) were aghast at how noobish the death penalties were in Ultima Online. You only dropped all your stuff – you didn’t lose a full level equivalent of character growth! WoW simplified it even further – a minor durability penalty and a short ghost run. On SWTOR, we simplified it further to a respawn in place (which Diablo also does). It turns out that for many players, the shame and knowledge that you failed is more than appropriate enough.

2048 may be heavily inspired by Threes (or more accurately, by 1024, a go-between). But the difference in difficulty means, quite simply, that the two are decidedly different games. One simple, challenging but beatable game experience. The other is the Kobayashi Maru. Especially given the market that buys these casual games, it’s really not surprising why one caught fire over the other.

My Review(s) of Call of Duty 4 and Battlefield 4 Single-Player

It’s my own fault, I suppose.

CoD4 and BF4 both came out in Autumn of last year, but in both cases, I deferred my purchase of them to the Winter, in order to have a couple of other games to play on my XBone, therefore attempting to justify my decision to be an early adopter.  As a result, I played the two games’ single-player campaigns back-to-back.  There were two problems with this plan.

1) I believe, as many of my generation does, that the only proper way to play a first person shooter is with a mouse-and-keyboard.  Hell, I’m an athiest, but I’m pretty sure if there’s a God, he would have included ‘thou wilt play FPS games with mouselook’ as the eleventh commandment.  There are some exceptions – I loved Splinter Cell, but that’s a game where if you shoot your gun, you’re likely doing it wrong anyway.

2) I know, I know, gamemakers have a lot to say on the horrors of war, and hoo-rah and all that, but I kind of like it when my games, including my first person shooters, are, you know, FUN.  I vastly preferred the old Doom and Serious Sam mentalities of ‘mow down comical amounts of very silly enemies’ to what has become the de facto standard for shooters nowadays, which is gameplay that is more akin to the shooting gallery at the county fair.  But even the tone helps – I loved Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes their games to be — you know– FUN.  I was completely able to get into the Bad Company offshoots of Battlefield, largely because they did such a good job making an entertaining band of misfits as your adventuring partners.

By contrast, I pretty much hated both Call of Duty and BF4.  In fact, my favorite part of both games was the loading screen sequences in Call of Duty, which were wonderfully Reznor-on-Acidesque in execution.

Now, I know that these games are really about multiplayer – which is unfortunate, since as an old geezer, I’m going to pretty much refuse to play these on multiplayer.  On a mouse and keyboard, maybe I could hold my own, but I’m pretty sure with a controller, 90% of my time will be spent trying to line up a shot while cursing, and the other 10% of the time will be spent dead.  While still cursing.

So I’m only judging the single-player experience.  Which in both cases, was kind of wretched.

Call of Duty 4′s was so easy and vapid that one hesitates to call it ‘gameplay’.  You simply lurch from shooting gallery to shooting gallery, trivially lining up shots on ineffectual bad guys, then moving to the next set piece.  Most deaths come from world designers being overly cute – spawning a guy behind you.  There was only one mission that I thought was particularly tough – a fight on an oil derrick that seemed to go on forever and that I never could seem to win – but it turns out that it, too, was easy, the mission was just bugged and wouldn’t trigger it’s ending cinematic sequence.

By contrast, BF4 actually had moments that required strategy, planning and tactics, so I guess it gets the nod for actually being a better game.  That being said, a lot of that difficulty comes from the Worldbuilders apparently being allergic to placing save points on levels, and then attempting to lure you into using vehicles halfway through that have all of the durability of a wet paper bag.  Also, their AI is so simplistically psychic that the difficulty is artificially inflated.  There is no sneaking and flanking enemies while your squad holds their fire.  Once shooting starts, all AI will apparently focus on you, which makes most of the gameplay ‘find a corner of the building so that you can edge around it in such a way that only one enemy will have line of sight on you at a time’.  Of particular note, the world is full of rooftop turrets which lure you in, but if you attempt to use them, you will be shredded faster than Richard Nixon’s secret files.

The story in Call of Duty can be charitably described as ‘powerfully stupid’.  Our gigantic space gun is captured by an undetectable small army of astronauts with machine guns that work in space, which results in us being attacked and pretty much conquered by South America.  And by ‘conquered’, I mean that they managed to capture San Diego, but not LA.  But the end result of this is that we have nothing – no army left.  Except for a rag tag group of soldiers including yourself.  And, you know, an aircraft wing.  Also, a column of tanks.  And some high-tech air strike capabilities.  And a dog, who happens to be the single deadliest thing on the whole goddamned battlefield.

Your dad spent his whole life telling you how awesome ‘Ghosts’ were, and coming up with ‘tests’ to prepare you.  These are just described to you – who knows what the hell that means.  Ten years later, he sends you off to rescue a Ghost.  At some point, you are rescued by a Ghost.  Who turns out to be dad.  Surprise!

The bad guy is also a Ghost.  He apparently holds a grudge because dad had the audacity to leave him for dead when, you know, a reservoir was dumped on him.  Yes, in this reality, governments destroy dams and flood their own cities in order to kill 3 special forces units.

In most games, you get angry when it turns out to be only 3 hours long.  With Call of Duty 4, there was instead a sense of palpable relief that I no longer had to endure that so-called ‘narrative’.

Battlefield, by contrast, is a much more believable story, if you can disregard the preposterous level of badassitude that you apparently have compared to the rest of the army.  Entire US military actions are stalled until your 3-man squad come and save the day.  Humorously, every time you leave the battleship your squad calls home, you’ll return to find that it’s been taken, and your squad has to retake it.  And when I say, ‘your squad’, I mean ‘you’, as if you ever put your controller and watch for five minutes, you’ll quickly discover that your squad is about as lethal as a declawed kitten.

Call of Duty has all of the cast diversity of a klan rally.  If you see a woman or a black man, you can rest assured that they’ll die before the end of the mission you’re in.  Even the primary enemy, the former ghost, is white, assuring homogeniety in cutscenes even as you cut down swaths of South Americans in normal combat.

Battlefield 4 is much more diverse, with the second half of the game putting both a black man AND a woman in your squad!  Of course, they hate each other, and spend most of the time reminding each other – and you – that they don’t like or trust each other.  Despite the fact that you are ostensibly squad leader, there is no hotkey for ‘please, you two, shut the fuck up, we’re STEALTHING here’.  But don’t worry, at some point they’ll suddenly have a whiplash-enducing change of heart so sudden that you’ll be somewhat surprised they don’t pull the jeep over and start dry-humping on the spot.

Both games have the beautiful set pieces you’ve come to expect, but I guess I’m no longer impressed by these, especially since both games had the SAME SET PIECES.  Destroyed dam?  Check.  Enduring an attack on an Aircraft Carrier?  Yep.  Call of Duty does get points for having more LUDICROUS set piece fights, so there’s that (I’m talking about you, airplane rescue scene).

Both games also have the mechanic of ‘hit X to do something cool, special-forces-like and scripted’.  Hit X to rappel on the side of the building, hit X to activate the pumps, hit X to play tiddlywinks, you get the idea.  I get what they’re trying to go, I guess, but the net result is a sense that these moments were designed by people who felt like Quick Time Events would be too complicated.  X OR Y?  Fuck that!  Just X!

Both games also have ‘stealth’ missions, and in both cases, they’re impossible to stealth through.  Battlefield, in particular, has a mission where your boss warns you, for the LOVE of GOD, DON’T SHOOT OR KILL ANYONE.  This mission forces you into a gunfight within 60 seconds of starting, and ends with you blowing up a battalion of tanks before you’re allowed to escape.  Somehow, on your return, your commanding officer neglects to admonish you for apparently kickstarting World War III into gear.

Special mention should be given to ‘the fucking Dog level’ in Call of Duty.  Your dog gets shot in the leg, and you get tasked with carrying the dog for the rest of the mission.  Needless to say, you can’t carry a dog and a gun at the same time, so the whole mission is ‘haul the dog 30 feet, put the dog down, and then attempt to kill all the bad guys, rinse, repeat’.  Note that everytime you put the dog down, your teammates will shout at you to pick it up again, despite the fact that there are still bad guys shooting at you, and that your squadmates seem about as effective on their own as a toddler with a potato gun.

Call of Duty’s saving grace, I suppose, is the ending sequence, which is a triumphant climax involving a well-done tank battle and a moderately well-done train chase, which has a fulfilling and satisfying ending – which immediately after the credits, they torpedo in order to set up the inevitable sequel.

Battlefield 4′s ending, by contrast, is utterly befuddling.  Not to give away any spoilers or anything, but the last 60 seconds involve you choosing which one of your squadmates to sacrifice for the greater good, you pressing the button to blow them up, and then the credits rolling.  Try not to think too hard about that final mission, because if you do, you’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that you have no idea how what you did should really resolve anything.

If I had to play one game again, I would beg you to reconsider what you’re doing to me, but if a gun was involved, I would hesitantly reach for Battlefield 4.  There was just more actual fun and interesting challenge there.  Call of Duty’s terrible single-player is well-documented, enough so that Zero Punctuation named it the worst game of 2013, something I considered to be hyperbole at the time and, while I don’t know if I’d go that far, I definitely see how it merits being in that discussion.

Meanwhile, if you want to play a GOOD single-player shooter-like experience on the console, go play Splinter Cell: Blacklist.

SimCity Engineer Describes Tough Technical Effort

One of the things that programmers hate are designers who can kinda sorta code, and then use that to float wildly optimistic estimates for how long it will take to code a new system.  For example, they might say “I can code a minipet system in 3 days!”  And then they do.  And then they claim the programmers who swore it would take 2 months were sandbagging.

Only it’s not a very good minipet system.  The storage is inefficient, the additional pathfinding chokes the server, they somehow break certain boss fights, there’s no GUI for storing or extracting them, they don’t animate when idling, swimming utterly breaks them, etc, etc, etc.

So now the supposed sandbagging engineers inherit this code, which is now considered ‘part of the game’ because a producer somewhere saw it and said ‘make it so’, and now it takes 3 months to do because you have to deal with the horrible, rotten hacked code that made its way into the system, and any content or player data that depends on said horrible hack.

If you’re a designer, don’t be that guy.

All of this comes to mind from reading the SimCity programming lead’s patient explanation that, yes, it took six months to make SimCity run offline, and even though some modder claimed he could do it in two weeks, it turns out that conversion was… a tad incomplete.

This is just a friendly reminder that if you don’t develop games, you really don’t know how hard it is to do so.  And even if you do, something that is trivial in one codebase may be godawful difficult in another.

 

What’s Wrong with Game Journalism?

Here’s a good example:  SimCity launched with technical problems, to be sure, but what offended many people was that the game was designed to be online-only, not just technically but also for some game features to work. It was a clear case where the game design didn’t match player expectations, which is always unfortunate, and in this case, that design was instrumental to the overall architecture of the game. Last March, the SimCity team announced that fixing this would be difficult to do.  They now have announced that they are finally wrapping up this change to allow for single-player mode.

Which prompted this headline: “EA continues race to the bottom with unexplained SimCity offline reversal.”  Yes, that’s the headline for Maxis COURSE CORRECTING THEMSELVES AND GIVING THE PLAYERS WHAT THEY WANT.

The official statement from Maxis’ Patrick Buechner didn’t address how the addition of offline mode was possible, and that may be the most infuriating aspect of this sudden reversal. All the seemingly insurmountable technical details that were supposed to make this close to impossible have been hand-waved away

Gee, I don’t suppose the fact that a YEAR WILL HAVE PASSED since originally asked about this is a factor?  It turns out you can do difficult technical things if you have time.

There never seemed to be communication that offered realistic explanations or apologies, even when a modder released evidence that many of the company’s statements were falsehoods.

Having something released that kinda sorta works probably isn’t hard. Having something released that is fully functional, including dealing with aspects of the game design that are no longer there (other cities and their economies) as well as dealing with opening up the client-server relationship without threatening the security of existing servers, as well as being sure all of this doesn’t somehow break existing cities and savegames… it turns out this ISN’T trivial, which anyone who has ever worked on a live game before could have told you.  Possibly with intermittent sobbing.

I’m not saying that mistakes weren’t made, or that SimCity is a perfect game now — hell, I don’t know much about SimCity or its plans from EITHER the player’s or the developer’s perspective.  But again, this article was written about what is unqualified the Developers giving the Players exactly what they asked for.

I’m disappointed.  Polygon is usually better than most of the noise machines.

The Evils of Up-front Payment

This is a good article on Gamasutra that challenges the notion that the $60 box price necessarily creates better industry practices.

Sticker Shock

Lost in the noise of the holidays was news that Mechwarriors now sells solid gold mechs – for $500 bucks.  Despite the fact that these appear to be mostly cosmetic only (one coworker said “you’re paying $500 bucks to paint a bullseye on you on the battlefield”), the community was, predictably, completely up in arms about this.  It was, predictably, very similar to the Eve Monocle situation.

Only worse.  People right now are still used to the idea of buying a game fully for $60 bucks.  Whether its right or wrong, the mental math a gamer does when he looks at the Mechwarrior page is that, to buy everything in the game, you would need to spend $4000 bucks at least – to get these eight mechs.

Will people spend that much to play a game?  Certainly.  People have paid $10000 or more for items in video games going back, at least, to Gemstone 3 and Dragonrealms.  In Warhammer, a $400 army is a good start.  Buying all of the cards a la carte to build a competitive standard Magic the Gathering deck is $400 bucks as well – and well more if you get into legacy formats.  Devoted fans of a game will spend on that game if they love it – just as fans of any hobby is want to do.  If you’re a high spender in a video game (a ‘whale’), you don’t mind the spend – and hey, maybe even appreciate it (the ‘I have a porsche’ effect).

The question is all about perception.  I saw a talk given by someone who worked at Eve once, and he said that the Monocle was actually a strong financial success.  Tons of people bought them.  But was it worth the beating they took from their fans?

It really is about that sticker shock.  Magic packs sell for $3-4 bucks, and you can easily get into cheaper formats, such as draft, and avoid the high price tag – at least until you’re sure you like the game enough to invest.  Lucky players can get the cards they need for Standard by opening random packs.  Savvy players can trade for them.  A casual magic player is not going to have a huge price tag slapped in their face – a careful like that Wizards walks, particularly given at the top end, it very much is a ‘pay to win’ game design.

One of the most important things to having a successful F2P business is having a good, healthy relationship with your fans, when it comes to the store.  Those who spend money should feel good about doing so, and those who don’t shouldn’t resent those who do.  This is an incredibly tricky line to walk, but vital, given how important long-term relationships with your players are good not only for your bottom line, but also the communities within your games.  Given the outcry over the $500 mechs, that game’s developers may have crossed that line.

 

 

Policing Your Own Pool: Netflix, Google and Reddit

Three articles that are not strictly game design related, but interesting nonetheless.  First off, here’s an article that discusses how Netflix has reverse-engineered Hollywood in order to categorize all of their films – an article that will surely interest anyone who works with massive amounts of data.

“What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature above are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database.”

Next up are a couple of articles about companies trying to protect the sanctity of their own data.  Here is an article about how Reddit banned Quickmeme links because the founders of Quickmeme were reportedly using dummy accounts and/or moderator privileges to push their content.  Quickmeme was, previous to this, one of the most dominant content sources on Reddit before this, being a quick way to provide Philosoraptors or Yo Dawgs that seem ubiquitous on the Net nowadays (Memegenerator is now, I believe, the meme creator of choice).

[Reddit's success] has resulted in the media organization like the Atlantic and BloombergBusinessweek paying off influential redditors to promote stories. These organizations have even had their own staffers embed themselves within Reddit to spam the site daily with links to their articles. Such activity has resulted in domains being temporarily banned on Reddit. It has also made redditors hypersensitive and paranoid about businesses taking advantage of their communities. This has particularly been the case on r/AdviceAnimals.

If Reddit Drama isn’t your thing, then there’s Google Drama.  Google has apparently banned Rap Genius, a lyrics site, for attempting to manipulate its way up the google search rankings.  Which is interesting, because figuring out how to move your link up the search rankings of google is now part of the core job description of about a gazillion marketing people.  Apparently, this can be taken too far.

Google took down Rap Genius after it was revealed that the lyrics website, which received $15 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz last year, was offering bloggers exposure through its social media accounts in exchange for links to its website on their music blogs

When dealing with player-created content, game creators often have to deal with similar scams and attempts to ‘manipulate the market’ by organized and charismatic players.

Assassin’s Creed 4 Design Review: Oh The Random Directions You Will Jump

It’s odd, but the worst part about Assassin’s Creed 4 is the part that theoretically has gotten the most iteration and polish, which is to say the movement model of running, jumping, climbing, and attacking, which is oddly fickle and difficult to control.  I would say that, roughly, 80% of my deaths in this game are from missed jumps, such as attempting to leap from one mainmast to the other, and instead plunging onto the deck beneath my feet, having jumped in an entirely different direction.

This is especially frustrating because most of the game mechanics are quite good.  Killing people is fun, being stealthy is fun (although the lack of crouching seems odd), brute force is fun, shooting your pistols is fun, and exploring the world is fun.

And the life of the pirate is very fun – exceptionally so.  Ship-to-ship combat is a novel and engaging experience, with a very smooth advancement curve that has you picking and choosing fights carefully early on, while charging ahead full-steam into a fleet of Man o Wars later on.  The experience also is an absolutely beautiful treat, complete with waves that wash over the deck of your ship and smoke that lingers in the air post-barrage, barely concealing your enemy.

I’ve talked to a number of people who said that they would love to play the Pirate game without the Assassin game.  I’m not one of those people.  I found that the two experiences complement each other very well – once you get a little tired of one experience, you can jump to the other experience, which helps keep you engaged with the game.

I would, however, love to ditch the Assassin’s Creed story on the next go-round.  I’m not hugely familiar with Assassin’s Creed backstory – before this one, these games were consistently games I’d buy then get not-very-far into – but the narrative in AC4 is a muddled mishmash of gibberish and pseudohistory.  They also throw you into the deep end of the core AC story – including the part where you’re just a modern-day nameless person reliving ancestral memories thanks to high technology – which are utterly mystifying if you’re not well-versed in the series.  The game needs a much better on-ramp to the story.

It could also do with a less despisable protagonist.  The character you play, Edward Kenway, isn’t actually an Assassin, he just happens to kill one in the opening act and then pretends he is one for the rest of the game.  True assassins point this out repeatedly – you’re not one of us!  To be fair, Edward is truly a jerk, with almost every action he takes.  Which again, is pointed out to you repeatedly.  The story gives you little choice but to be a jerk, and then other characters reprimand you for the decisions that the writers made for you!

Raiding fortresses is hugely fun, and I wish the payoff was better.  Kenway’s Fleet is half-realized – it is effective at providing goals for the pirate game, but by the time you’ve got a fleet of Man’o'Wars, you no longer need the cash they provide.  The number of alternate activities available – diving, whaling, etc – is impressive, but don’t really add a whole lot to the game experience.  And I realize they are an effective story delivery mechanism without being cutscenes, but cutting the number of ‘tailing’ missions to be about a third of what they are currently – or alternatively making them less fickle or putting effort in reducing loading times between efforts – would be a very strong step.

Overall, I completed 84% of all goals before I finished the main story.  I’m glad that I played the game, although I really wish that it had been slightly less ambitious in order to have time to polish its problem bits.

Collectibles Design

Extra Credits did a couple of great pieces talking about collectables design, discussing for example how Magic: the Gathering is brilliant and Rage of Bahamut is effectively ‘game design strip mining’ that threatens the public’s faith in F2P at the very core.  Worth a view.