Archive for Industry 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.

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.

Free 2 Play is Not a Cancer (Unless It Is)

Sometime ago, someone sent me this article, in which a Free-to-Play designer described how he is not a ‘cancer’ on the games industry.  I read it, but I didn’t fully agree with it, but it took me a little while to figure out what’s wrong with it.

This is it:

You see, game development is a business and businesses in a capitalist society are ruled by market forces….But games like those published by Electronic Arts are paid for by the people who own stock in the company. At the end of the day, these investors do not care about artistic integrity, Metacritic score or DRM solutions, they only care about stock price and return on investment

Okay, a little preachy.  But preachy isn’t what bugs me.

When a developer loses her job—when she’s got rent to make and bills to pay—she needs to find new work. More and more, jobs are coming in the form of games that do not cater to the core Gamer who reads Kotaku. Gaming as an industry has been expanding outward for a long time and increasingly, the “Gamer” is becoming a less relevant part of the overall gaming pie as more dollars are spent on free-to-play games for mobile/tablet, PC and now consoles too.

See it yet?

Most of the article talks about desperate developers who have to get a job to survive.  Your average Kotaku reader does not care about the plights of poor developers.  They care about their games changing in a way they can’t control.

Most other articles about Free 2 Play make a similar, unforced error.  They are on game development sites like Gamasutra, and are eager to explain why Free 2 Play is wonderful – for DEVELOPERS AND PUBLISHERS.  They throw around discussions of increased concurrency, ARPU, savings on inventory, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera.

There is shockingly little on the Internet, it turns out, that talks about how Free to Play is good for the PLAYERS.  How millions of players do get thousands of hours of gameplay for free, and the vast majority pay less than they would if they bought a $60 box.  How MMOs that go free end up filling up their worlds and becoming interesting and lively social spaces.  How game developers no longer can try to fool you into buying a $60 dollar box, or do unholy things to try to pressure you into never leaving and maximizing subscription revenue.

Free 2 Play can be very good for gamers, and we should be coaching it in these terms more.  Right now, the hardcore gamers who dislike Free 2 Play dominate the conversation, and get nothing but echoes in return – despite the fact that they are rapidly becoming the minority. Skeptics are just too eager to ascribe the worst motives to game companies, and to assume that the worst practices of the worst games are how all games must monetize.  More should be done to explain that Free is good, and not just because its free.

And if your Free 2 Play model isn’t good for gamers?

Well, then you’re not going to be around for very long anyway.

Penny Arcade is Still Mostly A Force For Good

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: it’s pretty much criminally stupid to put out a t-shirt of what effectively has become the spirit animal of the worst mouthbreathing misogynistic trolls on the Internet, and then act surprised when it becomes a thing.  That’s not nearly as stupid as publically saying you regret taking it down.  So there’s that, and I won’t defend it.

That being said, I love PAX.  It is currently the best game show available, largely because it was organized by gamers, for gamers, and the event therefore feels like a real and genuine love affair with gaming, completely unlike the publisher-driven plastic-coated circle-jerk that is E3. The gaming is great, the independent games portion is a feast for people like me, and the convention has a hundred little subcommunities that are all welcoming and affirm your love for gaming.  I will continue to love PAX.  Despite the fact that it no longer is cool to do so.

My Facebook feed is currently full of outrage towards the Return of the Dickwolf (General summary here).  In a recent Q&A at PAX, Mike of Penny Arcade said that he felt that removing the Dickwolves shirt they briefly sold was a mistake – to generally horrifying applause from the audience.  To Mike, who is first and foremost a humorist, the Dickwolf shirt is a statement about free speech.  Comedians of all stripes tend to be among the most vocal defenders of free speech you’ll find in the world, because it’s almost impossible to do anything other than the Family Circus unless you’re willing to offend someone.  But in this case, the point was lost on Mike – the Dickwolf shirt was and is a bad idea because it effectively says to some in the audience (particularly women) ‘I’m on Team Rapist’.

Which is not cool.

Despite Mike’s statement, Dickwolf shirts have not made a reappearance on the Penny Arcade store.  (Surprisingly, you can’t even get one on eBay).  Which means that Mike is effectively being pilloried for having an opinion regarding comedy and political correctness.

Which is also not cool.

One of the things that is infuriating about reading about any Penny Arcade debacle (and yes, it’s not good that that’s a plural) is how quickly it escalates to stupid – on both sides.  People who criticized PA were receiving death threats.  But so was PA.  PA was absolutely unwilling to admit they were wrong.  So were their critics.  Their critics tend to be women, and are very invested in the cause of reducing the amount of douchebaggery that women face in games.  Cartoonists are very invested in the cause of protecting their freedom of speech.

For (mostly) better and (somewhat) for worse, Mike and Jerry are now an important, major voice of gamers in the industry.  I suspect that Mike and Gabe wake up in the morning and wonder how the hell they became a cultural force that suddenly has to play nice across cultural bounds.  If their comic had a fanbase the size of, say, Sinfest’s, this would be a non-issue.  But the fact that they’re a major brand, complete with a convention, a web magazine and whatnot, means they are a major force.  Plus, their audience is monstrous in size and utterly devoted to them . The fans will fight to the death for them, even sometimes when the PA guys ask them not to – Penny Arcade has made one of the greatest gaming communities on the planet, but they’ve also created a monster they can’t entirely control.  All this means that when they say something you disagree with, it quickly becomes a thing.  And now, likewise, saying you’re going to boycott or not go is also becoming a thing.

Let’s take a step back for a second, and consider the possibility that perhaps, even if you happen to think this event is reprehensible and some subset of their audience is beyond hope, that Penny Arcade is on top of all of this one of the most positive and progressive major voices in gaming.

And this is all supposed to be undone because a humorist would fight to the death over the ideal that he should be able to tell unpopular jokes that might offend some parties?  Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and George Carlin are all spinning in their graves enough to drill into diamond.

Elizabeth Sampat is one of the most widely quoted of the critics:

But I have to go for work! PAX is mandatory in the game industry or you fail!

That is total bullshit. If you are the person deciding to bring your game to PAX: the game industry existed long before Penny Arcade and it will exist for a long time after. You can be successful without PAX, just ask The Fullbright Company. And if you’re an employee being told to go to PAX: does your company know how shitty the Penny Arcade guys are? Maybe tell them. If you’re afraid it will sound too personal, you can just link them to this article where the Financial Post compares Mike to Chris Brown. That’ll sound plenty official.

But there are no other cool conventions to go to!

I already linked Geek Girl Con and GaymerX. There’s also GenCon, Dreamation, DexCon, DragonCon (who successfully ousted their gross owner!) and a million others. You can do this. I believe in you.

First off, doing tiny cons is not usually very cost efficient unless a sizeable game audience is there.  GeekGirlCon has a population of 4000.  GaymerX is about 2000.  Building a pre-release demo build of a game is incredibly time-consuming and demanding, and not worth it for those tiny numbers.  Each of the American PAX shows, by contrast, draws more than 70,000 fans.  Building a demo for that is effectively what allows game companies to hit these smaller shows. Also, it goes without saying that if you’re a small indy company who can only do two conventions per year, reaching 140K potential customers is a lot better than reaching 6K.  I guess you could just do E3 — but joe and jane consumer can’t get into that.

Secondly, given that passes for PAX sell out in less than a day, I very much doubt there will be much financial impact to them if a minority of gamers opt to boycott.  You might push that sell out to two days.  Worse, the douchebag ratio will only increase negatively.

Third, game culture is in desperate need of dedouchification, but you don’t change public opinion by preaching to the converted.  You don’t need to sell girls on Geek Girl Con that the concept of ‘fake geek girls’ is broken and insulting.  You don’t need to sell GaymerX attendees that trans gamers need understanding.  You need to bring this understanding to the gaming audience at large.  In America, that audience’s largest gathering is PAX.

Bank robbers rob banks because that’s where the money is.  If you are an activist who wants to enact social change in the gaming community, you need to go where the gamers are.  You can set up talks, you can challenge the PAX guys to give you a booth like they did AbleGamers, you can organize protests, you can set up debates, you can wear coordinated T-Shirts designed to shame and expose douchebaggery in all its forms.  Or, you can run away and hope somehow that the problem fixes itself.  Turning the largest american consumer-oriented gaming show into even more of a sausage fest makes it pretty unlikely that that’s going to happen.

You know how you beat a free speech zealot?  Challenge him to give you the megaphone.

(By attending), [y]ou are giving them something more valuable than money: legitimacy.

This reminds me of when the Obama White House tried to delegitimize Fox News by taking away their front-row seat in the press briefing room.  It didn’t work – Fox News is already legitimate in the eyes of their viewers.  All the White House did was worsen their relationship with an important news outlet and create a martyr in the eyes of their viewers.

But yeah, Mike saying he wishes they didn’t take the t-shirt off the store was mindbendingly stupid, in oh so many ways.

Candy Crush Not As Unbeatable As You Might Suppose

Candy Crush Saga is used frequently as an example of Free 2 Play gone awry.  Critics argue that Candy Crush Saga is insidiously designed to force monetization, which can be the only reason why the game has 15 million players, and why King Games is now estimated to be worth $500 million dollars.  As Ramin Shokrizade points out on Gamasutra:

Another novel way to use a progress gate is to make it look transparent, but to use it as the partition between the skill game and the money game. Candy Crush Saga employs this technique artfully. In that game there is a “river” that costs a very small amount of money to cross. The skill game comes before the river. A player may spend to cross the river, believing that the previous skill game was enjoyable (it was for me) and looking to pay to extend the skill game. No such guarantee is given of course, King just presents a river and does not tell you what is on the other side. The money game is on the other side, and as the first payment is always the hardest, those that cross the river are already prequalified as spenders. Thus the difficulty ramps up to punishing levels on the far side of the river, necessitating boosts for all but the most pain tolerant players.

All but the most pain tolerant players.  Only crazy people can possibly hope to beat Candy Crush without shelling out some serious coin!  Longtime readers of mine will know where I’m going with this.  If you were to make a guess, as to how many of the players who actually beat the game paid money to do so, what would you guess?

Would you guess only 30%?

That’s right, a vast majority of the gamers who actually manage to beat Candy Crush do so without dropping a dime.  Which is one of the reasons the game is successful – it can be beaten for free.  There are a handful of conclusions to draw from this, though.

  1. It sounds like Candy Crush still monetizes at a pretty good rate.  Comparing Endgame users to all users isn’t exactly a clean comparison, but for many facebook games, only 2% pay, and World of Tanks boast that 25-30% of their number pays.  Still, clearly we’re talking the most hardcore of hardcore Candy Crush players (those who get all the way to the end) – so that 30% number is still impressively low.
  2. Gamers who can’t see this number are going to assume that its impossible, and therefore assume that games like Candy Crush require money to win, when in fact the game has just ramped up in difficulty.  In a non-free to play game, players would assume that they simply haven’t found the right answer to a puzzle, or that they got unlucky with a board state.  In a game with microtransactions, players (and analysts, apparently) immediately jump to the conclusion that a purchase is required, even when its not.  This is an interesting design problem, and addressing it might be an opportunity to make some criticisms of CC’s free to play market go away.
  3. Some analysts need a dose of Candy Crush Learn 2 Play.

XBox One Announces Self-Publishing Program

Color me cautiously optimistic:

Microsoft said there are no application fees, no certification fees and no title update fees…. Registered developers will receive two Xbox One development kits at no cost, and access to the console’s full features, including the “full power of the console,” cloud, Kinect and Xbox Live toolsets and more…. Revenue splits will be “industry standard” Charla told us. (Digital deals often give the platform holder 30 percent, and the developer 70 percent.)

Oh, wait, are Microsoft still evil because they want developers to make money?  I lose track.

Bringing World of Tanks to the 360

One of the oddest parts of the Microsoft XBox One announcement was the announcement that World of Tanks was coming…. to the 360.  Just as an aside on this article.

“The biggest hurdle that Wargaming had to overcome was not a technical one at all. Wargaming had to convince Microsoft to change its business policies and procedures. “This is a risky thing for us and for Microsoft,” said Kislyi. “If you look at this objectively this is probably the first big project to come into Xbox free-to-play. Because Microsoft is a huge corporation… they have rules, they still sell boxes, there are dozens of aspects we are working with them to overcome. They have to change; they understand this.”

I really don’t know how much convincing you need to do.  Microsoft has shown all signs of seeing the writing on the wall, and realizing this is where the market was trying to go.  The fact that they went out and pursued a partnership with one of the largest microtransaction games in the world suggests to me that they are interested in having solved all of the problems before this business model becomes the norm instead of an asterisk.  Anyone whose ever tried to buy anything quickly on the XBox 360 knows there’s a lot of work here to be done.

It’s still weird that they’re not focusing their efforts on WoT on the XBox One, though.

The EA NCAA Ruling

I write this as an independent thinker, and not as an EA employee.  I really don’t know anything about this lawsuit other than what’s in the press, and I really have no inner insight into EA’s thinkings.  All comments are my own.  That being said…

The interesting thing to me about the court ruling against EA regarding the likenesses of NCAA players is not so much what it might mean for EA as much as what it will mean for the NCAA.

Student athletes are not permitted to receive compensation for their skills, and NCAA bylaws prevent colleges from exploiting a student-athlete’s fame as well. Yet, the NCAA and CLC granted EA exclusive rights that, in effect, enabled EA to exploit over 8,400 players, including those appearing in EA’s NCAA Football, NCAA Basketball and NCAA March Madness titles.

The NCAA denies that it granted EA rights to student-athlete images, but instead only licensed stadiums, team names, and identifying trademarks. As proof, they point out that, by default, student-athlete names do not appear on team jerseys in any of EA’s games

The short form is that this ruling seems to imply that no one is allowed, under current NCAA bylaws and court rulings, to put the likeness of an NCAA player into a video game.  The NCAA can’t do it, nor can the players license it out themselves (which would be a hellish exercise for a company to do, as it might involve getting rights from 8400 individuals, exactly the reason why the NFL has organizations like the Player’s Association).

Of course, the fact that NCAA players cannot receive compensation anyway remains one of the great inequality of sports anyway.  College sports earn their schools millions and millions of dollars – so much so that the highest paid public official in around 40 of the fifty states are college coaches.  And yet, the college kids who make all of that money for their schools can get banned from the sport if they sign autographs or accept gifts that pale to a modern day NFL salary.  That would be $405K for a rookie NFL player.

The fact that these players pay for free, but are uncompensated, is particularly galling when considered the pain that they face.  The NFL salaries are a lot more understandable when realizing thatplaying any amount of football in your life risks leading to concussions, chronic pain for the rest of their lives, and possibly even suicide.  And only a very few college athletes (about 2.4%) will break into the NFL, largely because skills that make you a superstar in the college ranks completely fail in the faster, harder world of the truly elite.

I have nothing against gladiators providing bread and circuses, but it seems like the least we could do to take care of those bashing their skulls together for our amusement.  The NCAA should adjust their bylaws to allow them to make deals on the player’s behalf, but some cut of that should go to the players – perhaps directly, perhaps in a trust fund.  Then companies like EA would be able to use names AND likenesses without fear, which is good, because games without those likenesses always feel like weak sauce.

But then what do I know: I’m firmly of the belief that college football is a joke anyway.  Thank god the NFL is almost here.

Price Reductions on the XBox One

So the most annoying thing about the Steam Sales last week was the number of people I saw on various message boards who wished that they could get these awesome Steam prices for games on their console.  *sigh*

Some people doubt that Microsoft would reduce prices with the frequency and voraciousness of Steam.  I disagree.  The reason: Steam exists.  Once both are digital and therefore roughly equivalent in terms of all other costs — well, if you have a choice to buy Assassin’s Creed IV on Steam for $30 bucks, or on the XBox One for $60, which would you choose?  If Microsoft One really wants to go fully digital, these kinds of discounts are inevitable.

There is another movement by the fans to get Microsoft to set prices for online games to be $10 dollars cheaper on launch day of a particular game.  This is a good thought but less likely, at least initially.  For the most part, pricing for games is set by the game publishers themselves, not Microsoft, and companies like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft are not willing to screw over Gamestop and Wal*mart in favor of digital until they are sure they don’t need those retail partners anymore, and until Playstation comes onto the digital bandwagon, that’s not going to happen.  It is something Microsoft would be reasonable to try for their first party exclusive titles, since assumedly they’ve already burned that bridge to the ground.