Archive for General Musings

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.

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.

Hero Rotation in League of Legends

It’s nice to see a piece on Gamasutra about free-to-play business models that don’t demonize it.  Sheldon Laframboise’s piece is lengthy, exhaustive and well thought out.  It’s a very nice change from normal, when articles on Gamasutra about the topic tend to make my teeth grind.  Every time the concept of Free-to-Play or Microtransactions comes up on Gamasutra, I can feel my teeth start to grind.  Free-to-play has quickly positioned itself to be the predominant billing model in gaming for a variety of reasons good and bad, and yet it seems like it just never gets a fair shake on what is supposedly the home turf for game development in the United States.  Instead, we get blatant scare tactics, junk science ), caricaturish descriptions of free-to-play games as “coercive” and bad for kids as well as frequent contributors openly cheering for the layoffs happening at these companies.  The commenters on the site frequently are even more anti-free-to-play than the writers.

So this article is a nice breath of fresh air.  I did note one thing in the comments section that I thought merited mention from a design perspective:

(The way Riot rotates their heroes) is actually the worst part of their model, IMO. Heroes are the core content of your game and arbitrarily gating off a vast majority of them leaves a bad taste for me personally. Compare that approach to something like Heroes of Newerth where all the characters are available for everyone from the start and I know which one I’d pick every time. Given that their userbase is so much larger you wouldn’t think it’d be a problem for them to get by exclusively on vanity items and account level modifications like HoN does.

HoN is not alone — The recently released Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2) also gives away all of their heroes for free.  To quote Valve:

“We believe restricting player access to heroes could be destructive to game design, so it’s something we plan to avoid.”

It may be that this new way of doing things may become the new normal.  Players tend to see ‘free-to-play’ games as naked attempts to nickel and dime them, but over time, the opposite tends to be true as competitive pressures reset player’s expectations of what is free vs. what is charged for in any given genre, pushing them downward as new entrants attempt to turn these sales pitches on price.

That being said, I disagree with the Valve quote pretty violently.  At least in the case of LoL, Hero Rotation does very good things for their billing model and their game as a whole.  To wit:

1) Choice Paralysis is a real thing.  Studies have been done that show that, if you present too many choices to a consumer, they are actually more likely to NOT MAKE A CHOICE AT ALL.  There is a very real and valid concern that you will make the ‘wrong’ choice, even in cases where the costs of making a wrong choice are very low.  By limiting free hero options to just 10, Riot effectively removes the pressure of having to choose from 141 options, of which the new player knows nothing about.

2) Hero rotation encourages players to play new heroes on a regular basis, rather than choose one and stick with it forever and ever.  Giving each one a spotlight also helps ensure all of the content gets focus, and helps guide community discussion towards the currently featured heroes.

3) Riot clearly uses the free heroes to both encourage a wide mix of roles (ranged vs. melee, support vs tank, etc) as well as to ensure there are always some easier heroes for you to easily reach for.  As an example, it seems like Ashe is always freakin’ free - she is widely perceived as being a good noob-friendly character, and also popular enough she’s one of the faces of the game.  Far better than hoping that players find something playable and resonant by serendipity.

This is not to say that there aren’t better ways to accomplish these goals.  That being said, sometimes Microtransaction designers make these decisions for reasons other than making money.


The Damsel in Distress Trope

You may remember the kerfuffel around Anita Sarkeesian being slammed by every gamer asshole on the Internet for her attempts to kickstart a video series of feminist criticism of games.  Fortunately, the harassment crusade against her kickstarter failed (and failed hilariously, I might add), because her videos have been coming out and they are seriously, seriously awesome.  Deep, well-researched, and thought-provoking.  Watch them all.  Do it.

This is not to say I completely agree with her.  Like most media critics on the topic of gender equality in media, she takes her position too far and is somewhat naive about what the ramifications of her viewpoints.  At one point, she pretty much claims that rescuing men isn’t really a problem, but rescuing a woman almost always is, because it reinforces the idea that women are trophies that need to be rescued.

My problems are as follows: first off, the idea that more protagonists in games should be females is completely accurate.  Should they ever be the majority of protagonists?  Not while our target market is mostly male.  Players prefer characters that they can identify and bond with.  Most players prefer a character like them.  (Some may float the idea that both the protagonist and the rescued target should be  gender swappable – this is not a casual change and has dramatic, not-very-good effects on both a games’ budget and the quality of whatever storytelling, writing and character development goes on in it)

The second issue is that the general prevailing school of thought amongst modern pop culture writers is that making stakes personal is a much more mature and emotionally resonant motivation for a hero than generic ‘save the world’ or ‘steal the macguffin’ type stories.  For example, Mission: Impossible 3 was considered a much more serious movie than the first two in the series because the stakes were about the protagonist rescuing the woman he loved, rather than fighting over vaguely indistinguishable shadow agencies with interchangeable, disposable evil plans.  Taken, as well, is a movie that resonates because it is about a CIA operative who is forced to use his skills meant to topple countries and assassinate dictators, in order to kill thugs in order to rescue his daughter.  These are both damsel-in-distress stories, but they are both considered to have much stronger storytelling than, say, your average run-of-the-mill James Bond flick.

The reason why is simple: the damsel in distress trope is not uniformly negative.  One could argue that it creates the idea that women are simple objects without emotions, goals, or capabilities on their own.  And that’s fair.  However, it also teaches our kids that ‘above all, love is worth fighting for.’  And that, I would argue, is not a negative message.

That being said, the fact that Nintendo actually greenlit Super Princess Peach (1:25 in the video above) is staggering.


Planning for Obsolescence

It would seem like common sense that if you tell one of your game players that you’re going to devalue all of his shiny toys, he’d get upset.  But in practice, game designers do this all the time, and players, eager to continue their devotion to their hobby, happily jump on board.  This is most commonly visible in MMOs, of course.  Every time we add a new raid, or add 10 levels to the game, we devalue all of the ph4t purples you earned before.  In SWTOR, we do allow you to salvage that gear by putting in higher level components, if you want to keep the appearance.  But the intent is clear: we want to deliver new content, and we want that new content to have powerful carrots to pull the player through the experience.

FIFA also devalues their customer’s shiny toys.  FIFA makes millions of dollars selling packs of ‘cards’ with soccer players every year, and every new FIFA season brings a new edition of the game, and resets the card chasing game as well.  Rather than be upset about this, FIFA players hungrily jump at the chance to collect again – which isn’t too wierd, when you consider the close parallels to real life sports trading cards’ seasonal releases.

However, no one has mastered this design concept quite like Magic: the Gathering.  Magic releases releases a new base set (currently Magic 2014) and a new 3-part expansion (called a ‘block’) every year.  Late in September of this year, the first part of the new block (the greek themed ‘Theros‘) will come out.  More significantly, though, is that with the release of that block comes the annual ‘rotation’ when old cards become invalid – cards from Magic 2013 will become invalid, as will cards from the Innistrad vampire-themed block.  Casual players will still be able to play these cards against friends, and these cards will still be legal in older formats like Legacy and Modern, but they will by-and-large disappear from Standard, which is by far the most common constructed format for Magic.

Put another way, on August 27th, Wizards of the Coast will decree that roughly half of the cards that players are playing with right now are no longer legal and must be retired from your decks.  And make no mistake: players are ecstatic.  Why does this work so well?

  • New cards.  It probably goes without saying that this rotation will happen at the same time as a new set will be added to the mix, which means that players’ attention is already devoted to hunting down new strategies and tactics amongst their new shinies.  The need to fill holes left by disappearing cards undoubtedly sells packs, but it also forces players to rethink decks and entire strategies.
  • The hunt for hidden treasure.  There are plenty of cards that aren’t played right now because there are better alternatives (Deadbridge Goliath, for example, will probably enjoy more play once Thragtusk leaves) , or are affected poorly by the overall meta (decks involving any amount of use of the graveyard generally suffered because everyone was building hate for Unburial Rites, a powerful standard deck linchpin now).  Certain players (myself included) love searching for undervalued gems.
  • A controllable metagame.  Rotating out cards means that in Standard format, there is a controllable number of interactions to track.  Gatherer currently lists 1734 standard legal cards, which seems like a hell of a lot of game components to balance against each other until you realize that more than 15000 unique cards have been printed in Magic’s 20-year life.  The generally smaller pool of cards has managed to allow the Wizards’ team to do a good job at least preventing utterly abusive card combinations, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve only had to ban 2 cards from standard in the last decade.
  • Shifts in the metagame.  The rotating environment allows Wizards to experiment with major changes in the overall flow of the game, adding major new mechanics or shifting key balance points.  As an example, for the last two years, the addition of a card called Cavern of Souls has pretty much resulted in the disappearance of pure counter control decks, where the opponent never gets to cast a spell.  I don’t know what Wizards thinks about that experiment, but I think that it’s probably not entirely coincidental that interest in Magic has blossomed in that time.
  • The death of hated cards.  Perhaps most importantly, now is the time when the dominant cards that you’re sick of playing against (including whatever mistakes Wizards made from chances they took) get corrected.  As an example, Thragtusk is currently appearing in 35% of top end decks, and is the only non-land card to appear in the top 9.  It appears almost as frequently as the aforementioned Cavern of Souls, which is staggering.  Which means that if you don’t play green, you will likely dance a jig once Thragtusk disappears forever.

 Magic is a master of reinventing itself every year.  Strategies that work today won’t work tomorrow.  This means that there are always new cards to try, new strategies to consider, and new combos to experiment with.  This idea of planned obsolescence is what makes this design strategy work.