Friday, December 23, 2005

What is the critical mass necessary to create a major world culture in an online game?

So World of Warcraft has reached five million accounts. Good for them. You have a population that is substantially larger than the size of the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. Now there was a culture that gave us some great fruit paintings. (And wonderful droppe!)

Will online games one day give us a meaningful world culture?

This got me musing about how major cultures of the world formed and what it would mean for an online world to act as a seed for a new major world culture. It is a very idle thought exercise.

Thought #1: Creating a great culture just requires the right recipe
Culture is not magical or divinely created. Put enough people in an isolated environment for a long enough period of time and strong, highly unique social norms will develop. It is a natural human dynamic evident in any group of any size. Give me an island, a bumper crop of people and enough time and we can grow you a unique culture that has a more outrageous accent than either France or Alabama.

Thought #2: Critical mass matters
Any size group can create a culture. It happens in companies, in families, you name it. But to create a culture that sustains itself over generations and influences others without itself being corrupted requires a certain amount of mass. Population is one measure of mass. Money is another.

If you look back through the years, most major cultures seem to really hit their stride with with populations ranging from five to thirty million. These are numbers that are arrived at in a very rough manner. I looked up the population of countries with strong cultures in the 1700’s and assumed that at the very least, this is what you needed to sustain a major culture that generates its own unique language, rituals, identity and history. Games are starting to reach substantial population levels. Five million is a good start.

With their ties into gold farming and other real world economic activities, online games are beginning to build a strong economic foundation that can anchor deeper social behaviors. We are seeing thousands of people dedicating their lives to performing the rituals in the game for economic reasons. At the very least this creates a classic split between population classes.

How do you greet a gold farmer? What words do you use? What is their social class? Do you look down upon them? Do you hate them? Are you justified? Such rich human biases driven by economic realities are fertile soil for the creation of lasting cultural flavors.

Thought #3: Cultures diverge from their source
All cultures borrow liberally from the cultures that found them. It is only through economic, social, or geographical isolation will cultures begin to diverge into their own unique cultural identify.

Online games will initially be highly derivative places. Early America colonial culture was highly derivative of European culture. Early online games ape the social mores of Western geek fantasy culture or Eastern pop heroic culture.

Game worlds are isolated electronically, but their users can always log off and go home. Is there enough isolation of users in an online world to create a strong divergence from the original source culture? I wonder.

Thought #4: Time is critical
Put a few million European criminals on an island and come back twenty years later and you’ll still have a few million European criminals. Come back in a generation or two and you have a unique culture that is influenced by its past, but is defined by the cultural environment of its present. There seems to be a strong generational element to the renewal of cultural memory.

Online games are short lived commercial entities. It is difficult to imagine any sort of generational maturation process occurring within the population of modern online worlds. Online games at this point in our history blip in and out of existence just long enough for excited child-like cultures to be born and then snuffed out.

But what happens when several generations grow up playing online games? What happens when a single world with a critical population lasts not just years, but decades?

Thought #5: When is a gaming culture meaningful?
When a large group of online users is willing to die in order to maintain their world and way of life, then the online world will be meaningful.

This is perhaps harsh, but is a critical point.

Culture exists because the community declares its existence. They gather up all the quirky little habits and behaviors that surround them, label them, and set them high upon pillars of unassailable values and ideals. “This is my culture and I value it” the members of the community declare to the foreigners at their gates. “I am willing to defend it.”

It isn’t about a few unstable individuals who do something violent. It is about normal, rational men and women who choose a path despite the consequences because they deeply believe in its inherent value.

Until then these worlds we builds are just a hobby. Idle play by idle children. There may be rants, raves and passion, but until an online world becomes a preferred way of life, they have no more meaning than a cheap Sunday play attended by crowds of crowing foppish dilettantes.

Closing thoughts
If I were to create a score card of the key categories that are necessary to create a great culture and then rank modern online gaming, we still have such a long ways to go.
  • Population - B+: The population numbers are looking good.
  • Economic leverage - C+: There’s promise, but it isn’t there yet. I expect this to catch up quickly in the next couple of decades.
  • Divergence Time – D: This is a big problem. Online worlds still don’t last very long. This leads to a series of ephemeral toy cultures. Perhaps the days of the Roman Empire are long lost and our Golden Ages can be measures in seasons instead of centuries.
  • Core values – E: The basic human values of friendship and companionship are in place, but no online world has managed to give players something bigger than themselves to believe in. Until this evolution occurs, online game worlds will remain a pleasant adornment that rests lightly on the real world we all must inhabit.
Did I mention that these were very idle thoughts? :-)

Take care

Completely meaningless references

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Convergence: A great word to hate

We are entering the mythical land of game consoles as convergence devices. The Xbox 360 can play music, movies and games. So can the PS3. So can the PSP and it even has a web browser. Nintendo might toss in a bit of DVD playback into the Revolution for a chuckle or two. The dream of big media conglomerates and technologists seems to finally be coming to fruition. Just imagine: a single box that does everything. What could be better?

Yet most attempts at forcing convergence of disparate devices fails. A few geeks buy into the hype, but consumers tend to ignore mutants like PSX and other technological monstrosities.

What drives the big console manufacturers to create convergence devices if they have such poor historical track records? Technological hubris is of course always a player, but there are certainly deeper issues worth exploring.

Mind you, convergence is a messy marketing term that is going to need a bit of structure in order to discuss in a meaningful fashion. Let’s look at the two key strategies that are often described as ‘convergence’ and pick them apart to see why they are attractive to those shiny boys in sharp suits.
  • Convergence as a product design strategy
  • Convergence as a platform strategy.

Why convergence as a product design strategy sucks
I’m not a fan of convergence devices that promise to do everything. They tend to under perform in the market due to a variety of factors. There a several great articles wandering about the net covering this topic in more detail, but here are the four basic reason the sink these brilliant technological marvels.

Issue #1: Confusing benefit statement
Instead of a single clear benefit statement, consumers are bombarded with a dozen half-baked benefit statements. You need to be able to sum up your entire value proposition in a short sentence.

Look at the PSP’s promise to the customer “Experience entertainment without boundaries.” That, my fine lady friends, is vague and meaningless marketing speak that fails to describe any sort of concrete benefit. Check out the value statements of some successful non-convergence products:
  • iPod: 5000 songs in your pocket.
  • Google: Find anything on the web easily and quickly.
  • Nintendogs: Own a cute dog (even if you can’t own a real one)
  • Gmail: Friendly webmail that never forces you to delete your messages.
  • Tivo: TV without the crap. (Admittedly, Tivo’s biggest problem is that they aren’t allowed to promote this as a value proposition without irritating the advertisers)

Issue #2: Compromised solution that competes poorly against single purpose solutions:
Look at the classic VCR TV. You end up with a crappy TV and a crappy VCR glued together by a weakened user interface. Many consumers would rather buy a quality TV that gives them those warm post-purchase fuzzies. The quality of the individual buying experience matters.

The complexity that attends convergence is typically the kiss of death. A poll the Consumer Electronics Association found 87% said ease of use is the most important feature for users when they are purchasing new technologies.

Issue #3: Higher cost of entry
A multi-function device forces you to buy a bundle. What if a VCR TV costs $300 and you only have $200? By increasing the entry point, you limit your audience. Often consumers will buy the cheaper single component and then save up to get the secondary or tertiary elements of the bundle.

Issue #4: Single point of failure
When one piece fails, the whole thing fails. The perceived risk of system failure is much higher for multi-function devices. This is quoted as a typical issue, but it sounds a bit academic relative to how consumers typically purchase.

The failed logic of convergence focused product design
The traditional product design logic of a company focused on convergence is deeply flawed.
  • Both product A and Product B are valuable to consumers.
  • If we combine product A and Product B into a combined Product C, we will end up with a product that is twice as valuable to consumers.
  • Other companies aren’t selling converged devices so our super product will have a unique competitive advantage that will help us dominate the market.
Customer value however is not an additive property in consumer products. For all the reasons listed above, a converged product will often have dramatically less value than its individual parts.

A company strategy based on convergence is often that of the lazy corporate strategist who attempts to avoid the radical cultural shifts required by real innovation by playing a childish game of mixing and matching existing product lines.

Product successes are not based on convergence
I can only assume the myth of convergence as a product strategy came about when someone saw the occasional success of a convergence device and mistakenly assumed that the chimeric nature of the device was indeed the source of the product’s sales mojo. Let’s look at a couple convergence devices and dissect the real reason why they were successful.

The classic one is the “clock radio” combo. Though this is certainly a ‘convergence device’, the ultimate driver of adoption was a simple, easily articulated use case: “Wake up to music.” Customer benefit drives adoption.

I find camera phones to be another interesting example of customer benefit being the real driver of adoption, not convergence. At first glance the combination of cameras and phones seems to validate the logic of convergence. Cameras are successful and cell phones are successful. And what do you know; camera phones are successful as well!

Yet something curious occurs here. The marketing people at phone companies are running around frantically trying to come up with ‘convergence’ products and services that take advantage of this obvious ‘camera-cell phone synergy’. This task ends up being really quite difficult. Why? Because the benefit of having a camera phone has very little to do with synergy.

The reality is that the benefit of a camera phone is really quite simple: “Always having a camera with you helps you take better pictures.” Any professional photographer will tell you that the real trick to taking great photos is having a camera with you when the right moment occurs. By stashing a camera in an item that is on your body 99% of the time, you increase the value of the camera.

By this argument, if the technologists had managed to figure out how to pack a camera into a standard keychain (and people were constantly encouraged to upgrade their keychains), the “camera keychain” would have been nearly as successful. The customer value is what matters. The fact that the value takes place in a convergence device is mostly random happenstance.

What I’m harping on here is that most ‘convergence devices’ are in reality just a combination of technologies that happen to tap into a concisely defined customer need. Rarely does someone use a radio-alarm clock as a main clock. Nor do they use it as their main method of listening to music. Instead, they use it for a narrow, highly specialized purpose that has a very strong value proposition.

So focusing on “convergence” in consumer products is a silly, meaningless product innovation strategy. What you should be focusing on is serving a customer need. Sometimes that involves slapping two mature technologies together, but more often it involves traditional product design techniques that attempt to solve unrealized customer requirements.

As a game designer, the obvious lesson is that you shouldn’t expect to create a RTS-FPS-RPG that is an overwhelming success in the market place. But we have bigger fish to fry today. If convergence is a poor product design strategy why do console manufacturers insist on designing consoles that promote convergence?

The other face of convergence: Platform creation
The other face of convergence is when a company attempts to create a technology platform that serves as the foundation of a wide array of successful products.

The logic here is straight forward.

  • Create a technology base that allows product companies to make innovative products.
  • Product companies will focus on filling the needs of real customers with great, easy to use products.
  • Customers will buy the well design products and in the process the platform will come along for the ride.
  • Ultimately, network effects will start to make their effects felt and it becomes silly for anyone to develop products without the help of the underlying platform.
You provide technology so that someone can create a Grand Theft Auto and then when everyone wants GTA, you happen to sell them a large number of PS/2s in the process.

Platforms are about potential, not about results
Platform creation is often mislabeled as convergence by the ignorant press and the marketing lackeys that goad them onward.

It is in the platform provider’s interest to claim that they do everything under the sun. They have no idea what the killer application will be for the platform, but the last thing they wish to do is define the platform too rigorously and turn off potential developers.

We are entering into a turbulent time in media. The traditional console game industry is stumbling and future growth is coming from poorly defined markets like cell phones, online games and casual games. Pundits are describing an all digital future where media is downloaded on demand. Digital music and movies are driving the creation of radical peer to peer distribution system outside of the control of traditional channel owners.

In short, if you are a large company such as Sony or Microsoft, you can’t afford a narrow focus. If you focus on a few carefully chosen product benefits and fail to pick correctly, you’ve put the entire platform at risk. What happens if you don’t include great movie playback features and in the next few years someone comes out with an amazingly popular movie distribution system that doesn’t run on your platform? Billions of dollars of potential revenue are lost.

When platform strategy meets product design reality
This thinking puts Sony and Microsoft in an interesting position. They release products that hedge their bets and promise to do everything. All the standard convergence flaws apply.

  • The new consoles have confusing benefit statements. Is the PS3 a game playing device? Sony isn’t saying.
  • Convoluted UI’s. The classic consumer devices of the world have two or three buttons that a grandmother could use. To really tap into a PSPs capabilities, you need to be an uber geek. Downloading a special program to download movies onto your PSP using you PC is not a strong value proposition. Where is my ‘download music’ button?
  • The new consoles are overly expensive. Do you really need Blue-ray or HD capabilities? Most people don’t, but you end up paying for those technologies now because they need to be part of the bundled ubiquitous platform capabilities.
From a product design stand point, all this is very silly. From a platform design standpoint it is essential. When some of those extra features are used by a killer product that plays on the platform, the platform can explode into the market. Your risk is greatly reduced because by building a platform, you have hundreds of smart companies trying to create a killer product for you. You don’t need to rely on your own (often questionable) product design capabilities.

Sony makes a bet that a GTA will come along and use the streaming capabilities of their DVD player to create a must have game experience. Microsoft makes the bet that a Halo will come along and use the Xbox Live capabilities to create a must have experiance. They don’t know what the ultimate hit product will be, but they pack enough attractive goodies into their offering that someone, somewhere will build a success using their platform.

Do platform companies innovate?
There is a big difference between the culture of a product company and a platform company. At the most basic level, the DNA of how they think, react and value products and innovation diverge.

Innovation is almost always about creating a small set of easy to use functionality that serves an underserved customer need. The initial results are unpolished and compare badly to established products. However, because they have little competition in their niche, they thrive and grow at a rate far better than the main industry.

Platform companies are horrible at creating new products that target customer needs. They are always looking for someone else to make the hard customer-centric decisions for them. Trimming features is agonizingly difficult since there is always the little voice in the back of their head saying “But this could be useful in the future.” The result is bloated product offerings that do everything for everybody.

The closest a platform company comes to innovating is when they spot a product category that is critical to the adoption of their platform. Superior resources will be spent in order to own that product category and ensure that its predominant home is the company’s platform.

For Microsoft’s original Xbox this product category was the FPS genre. They invested heavily in making Halo the predominant FPS title on any platform. Halo was certainly a good game, but the combined marketing and hype that Microsoft lavished up on it was critical to its ultimate success and recognition as a major brand. They spent this money because they realized that owning the product category would strongly drive the adoption of the overall Xbox platform.

Since they own the dominant brand in this product category, it is doubtful that they’ll lose it to another platform. Nintendo made this mistake with Final Fantasy. Instead of creating their own RPG offering that dominated the RPG genre, they relied on Square. Ultimately the relationship faltered and Square took Final Fantasy over to the Playstation. The N64 platform suffered a major blow. A product category leader moved to a different platform and took their customer base with them. The lesson for a platform company is the importance of owning your product category leaders.

As we’ll see, this mistake was not an isolated incident, but instead was a classic result of Nintendo’s product focused philosophy.

Why do product companies remain small?
Product companies are great at innovating, but often poor at building up platform-style network effects.

Nintendo is quite happy to make hard choices and try to understand customer needs. Last generation, they made the choice that online services didn’t bring enough value to their customers. This generation they are rolling out a service that has only a few features (what, no match making?!), but serves the true needs of their customer base far better than any current solution. The claim of twice the percentage of gamers playing Mario Kart compared to Xbox Live is a strong one.

Again, we see the philosophy of choosing simple products that serve clear needs and leap into the market with impressive success.

The downside is that product design is a heavily centralized activity. If you look at three very different product innovation companies, Nintendo, Apple and 3M, the vast bulk of their innovative products are designed internally. The culture and processes required to make great customer-focused product decision are highly refined and quite delicate. The fundamental activity of cutting the junk and keeping the good stuff can be easily sidelined by ever a few doubter or hedgers. You literally need to build your entire company around the product design process.

This product design process is not easily transferable to external firms. You can’t easily imbue a 3rd party developer with the design processes that Miyamoto and crew have built up over the past decades. You can’t easily replicate Steve Jobs’ eye for design. In fact, there is limited strategy focus in most companies. The more you are a product company, the less energy is put into being a platform company and vice versa.

Instead of hundreds of developers innovating on your platform, you have one. That one company is generally a highly profitable powerhouse, but its output often will rarely compare to the shear bulk of people putting out content for a broader platform. The result is that massive platform momentum is hard to generate

A tricky balancing problem
All of this creates a complex set of difficult-to-balance requirements.

  • A new console must be marketed to consumers with a clear value proposition at time when there is very little value and lots of potential.
  • If you increase the potential of your device, you make it more expensive by bloating it with extra features.
  • If you increase the out of the box value of the device, you limit the breadth of the platform’s capabilities and tend to focus on first party innovation at the expense of 3rd party development.
A snapshot of the console manufacturers
Using some of these thoughts we can come up with a snapshot of each of the console manufacturers.

  • Microsoft is a pure platform company that dabbles in product design only as a method of ensuring the dominance of their platform. Innovation is secondary to creating a rich and full featured platform. This ties heavily into the culture and history of the company.
  • Sony historically has been a strong consumer product design company. In the past 10 years, they’ve caught the platform bug and are still figuring out how to deal with it. The success of Playstation literally saved a company that was hemorrhaging money from a stalled electronics business. The shock to Sony’s DNA is that it succeeded as a platform offering, not a product offering. With the Playstation 3, they are embracing the platform strategy fully. The question is whether or not they have the skills and the internal culture to pull it off. They certainly have the brand.
  • Nintendo is a strong product company that dabbles in platform development to the degree necessary to make their products succeed in the marketplace. It is quite likely that their individual products will be surprisingly successful in the next round, yet overall market penetration will still be dragged down by a basic lack of platform momentum.
And so end my meandering thoughts on the topic of convergence. The important takeaways:
  • A product design strategy relies on a focused product targeted at a strong user need.
  • A platform strategy relies on creating a broad and flexible foundation that accelerates the development of successful products. Where products are about fulfillment of needs, platforms are always about potential.
  • The cultural DNA required to pursue each strategy is very different. Product design involves making hard choices for the customer. Platform design involves throwing in the kitchen sink for the developer.
  • Product design requires a strong centralized system of decision making. This creates amazing successes, but limits the scalability of the platform.
  • A platform focus creates a business model that scales impressively based off the contribution of numerous 3rd party developers. The real trick is getting it off the ground in the first place since the initial value proposition is mere fluff without products to back it up.
So when you heard Microsoft and Sony marketoids blathering on about super technology and cool things you can do with the convergence of all media, you are right to dismiss it as hot air. They are simply filling time until a developer creates a great product that uses their platform.

At that point, their tune will change. Suddenly the message will be all about the newly minted product successes. It is the same pattern that occurred with GTA, Halo and Final Fantasy. They will then use the success of the golden child to drive further adoption of their platform. In turn, their platform success will encourage more developers to take risks and build great new products. Over time, if enough killer products come out, the platform will snowball and gain momentum.

Nintendo, on the other hand, will come out of the gate with a concisely defined product offering that a target audience will love. The most successful teams will be internal Nintendo development teams and closely held 2nd parties who are well indoctrinated in the process of creating unique solutions around specialized hardware and software.

There are certainly many unknowns. Nintendo could realize their product design bias and beef up their 3rd party support structure to counter the weakness inherent in their cultural predisposition. Sony could rediscover its product design background and launch with strong games tailored to the strengths of their target platform, thus avoiding the early lull that hits most platform focused products.

We can’t predict the future, but at least we’ll have a reasonable vocabulary to discussing what happens.

Take care


Sunday, December 4, 2005

Idly gathered game industry statistics of doom

While I’ve been settling into the comfy moist goodness that is Seattle, I thought I’d jot down a few of my research notes. A blog is a remarkably nice method of recording information for later. It is searchable, automatically indexed by posting time, and has the surprising habit of collecting comments from people who are much better informed than the original poster.

Without further ado let’s look at today’s game industry numbers

American console adoption flatlined since the 80’s
“So this chart is pure number of units sold. It doesn't take into account duplicate ownership, and doesn't take into account population growth. You overlay those two facts to get a percent population with a console in the household, and that's what it looks like. 8 Bit years, 31% of households had a gaming system. This year, where is going to end up? Somewhere between 31-32%. The growth we have seen has been driven by population growth, and by duplicate ownership.”

Reggie Fils-Aime, Chief Marketing Officer of Nintendo

This was a stunning tidbit to me since it has been a matter of public knowledge that game revenues have been growing steadily for many years. The always forthcoming ESA claims that US revenues increased from $3.7 billion in 1996 to $7.3 billion in 2004.

The most basic conclusion is that we, as an industry, have become increasingly sophisticated at squeezing more money out of our current customers. However, we have done quite poorly at expanding beyond of a relatively fixed core audience.

Half as many (arcade?) gamers as in 80’s
“In 1982, he tells us, there were 44 million gamers. Today, there are 18 million.”

Kotaku on Nolan Bushnell, Founder of Atari

I can only assume that Mr. Bushnell is referring to arcade gamers in the US since the number of console gamers alone is dramatically larger than 18 million. Add in casual gamers and the numbers grow even larger.

Weak 2005
“Much of the problems have occurred in the last few months. After a strong first half of the year (up 9% over last year), sales growth has stalled over the last four months, declining by 17% year-over-year. Year-to-date sales are down 2.1% through October.”

"Our most recent forecast predicted U.S. console and PC software sales growth of 6% for 2005, and we now acknowledge that our forecast is too high in light of the weaker than expected October and likely weak November sell-through data. On balance, we now expect sales for 2005 to be flat to slightly positive."-

We are at the end of a console generation and slow sales are to be expected. The Xbox 360 is kick starting the next console transition early, but supplies are still quite limited. These numbers really aren’t that surprising. Except to see the inevitable mergers, closings and buyouts that accompany the mini-shake down when old consoles die and new ones are born.

Longer term declines over the last console generation
“In 2003, the global market combining hardware and software sales fell 10 percent year-on-year to 1.1 trillion yen (10 billion dollars), according to Tokyo-based Computer Entertainment Suppliers' Association.

That represents a 27-percent drop from 2001 when the market stood at 1.5 trillion yen and Tokai's Kawamata said Sony and Nintendo aim to reboot the sluggish game market with brand-new hardware.”

When an entire market drops by a third during what was predicted to be a growth cycle, there are interesting dynamics at work. A 27% drop in global sales despite mild growth in the US is quite likely driven by the shocking contraction of the Japanese gaming market.

I’m trying to track down links to document the actual numbers behind the Japanese market collapse. I know I’ve run across them, but foolish I forgot to bookmark them. If you run across such information, drop me a note.

In a mature multi-billion dollar market you expect a bit of slow down in revenue growth as you reach maturity. However, that isn’t what is happening here. Instead we are seeing dramatic fluctuations that belie an industry built upon an unstable and poorly diversified value proposition.

Success rates of new games
“A new report on the risks involved in game publishing and development has been released suggesting that, in the next generation, as few as 80 games a year will turn a profit.”

There are around 1000 titles released each year in Japan

Just for reference, there are roughly 500 to 600 retail titles released each year by the top 20 game publishers. There are hundreds of smaller titles that don’t quite make it on the radar and are much harder to track.

This is roughly 16% of all titles that hit profitability. Now, I’ve heard some people claim this is a decent percentage. However, for a new product launch this is pretty darned miserable. Robert Cooper’s research found that typical success rates of various product categories are as follows:
  • Highly innovative: 78%
  • Moderately innovative: 51%
  • Low innovative: 68%
Even low innovation brand extensions are kicking the butt of your typical game. Now, the number of highly profitable games is even less. If Halo accounts for 20% of the industry profit during last year’s Christmas season, there really isn’t that much to go around for everyone else.

Profit equals return on investment. If profits are low for a product category, then investments in new products will also often be low. Low profitability threatens the entire industry and makes it far less likely for there to be support for artistic innovation.

The culprits for low profitability are slightly more nuanced than the “increasing technology costs” that everyone is so quick to blame. Rational companies only invest in technology when there is competition forcing their hand.

We have hundreds of teams pursuing a mere half dozen highly saturated product categories (aka game genres) in which there are only one or two market leaders possible. It doesn’t help that most current genres are mature and their population is fixed or contracting. Also that ‘rationality’ of game industry management is questionable. Poor management practices, a lack of mature product design processes and a fixation on technology for the sake of technology also contribute.

End of data dump
All in all, the latest numbers provide a delightful snapshot of our dysfunctional yet lovable industry. The next two years are certainly going to be quite the rollercoaster ride for a lot of folks. Longer term, great difficulties are certainly lurking on the horizon. Many have been sitting under our noses for years.

(I recommend business model modifications and adoption of improved product design methodologies. :-)

Take care

Friday, November 11, 2005

Mini Game Design Reviews: Guitar Hero and Wierd Worlds

I wanted to briefly mention two very different games that I’ve been spending time with recently. The first is Guitar Hero by Harmonix and the second is Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space by Digital Eel. Neither is a traditional game, and both have some good lessons about game design to share.

Guitar Hero: The Importance of Setting
Guitar Hero is a rhythm game at its core. The abstracted game mechanics are little different than DDR or the dozens of other titles that have come before. Yet this is one helluva amazing title. I just watched my friend rip through a couple of sets and I’m completely pumped. Adrenaline, air guitar…my lady keeps looking at me with a bemused look when I break out into “More than a feeeeling. Baawah, bam, bam”

Deep down in the core of your being, you know Boston rules. And what about Black Sabbath playing Iron Man? I grew up listening to such music and I suspect a lot of folks did as well. These songs resonate.

And this is the genius of the title from a game design perspective. The risk / rewards schedule are driven by more than just abstract tokens. When you hit a wrong note, you are letting down your audience. When you hit a note and the crowd cheers, you are experiencing a microscopic moment of rock stardom. This is an experience you’ve been wanting for years. The psychological reward of hitting a correct key is multiplied by every time that you’ve air guitared in your bedroom (with the door shut) or sung the words to your favorite rock song.

The controller completes the psychological bridge. It is a guitar in the mind of the player. The immersiveness of the basic verbs – playing cords, wailing on the whammy bar – is accentuated by the player’s ability to carry a familiar object, and holding a familiar stance. This is a game controller loaded with cultural meaning. We’ve talked before about the ‘juiciness’ of low level risk / reward schedules. The controller turns a mechanical experience, “pressing a button” into a tactile experience with strong emotional connotations, “playing my favorite power chord.”

The star power activation method is ingenious. You tilt the guitar straight up, rock star style. Give that designer a raise.

When you tie into real world desires, you strengthen the power of your risk / reward schedules dramatically. Guitar Hero is an addictive game, far more than its Simon-style mechanics suggest. The title fills a real psychological need and that gives the design impressive power over its audience

Potential to tap into the non-gamer market
I love the audience profile on this one too:

  • If you’ve ever taken guitar lessons

  • If you’ve ever air guitared to a rock song

  • Doesn’t matter one lick if you are a gamer or have never touched a game console in your life.

This market has approximately zero competition in the US and is huge. A title such as this is the equivalent of inventing karaoke (Yes, I’m aware of Guitar Freaks…doesn’t count since the ever-so-critical setting isn’t American enough). Given the proper marketing, this is the sort of the title that could spark a crazy cultural fad.

Yet, I had to call around just to find a box. Dumping a title with such broad appeal in game stores is not the path to rock star level success. My thought? Harmonix should get Nintendo on the phone right away, sign up for the Revolution and get on their marketing schedule ASAP. Get a publisher behind this who knows how to sell to non-gamers.

Weird Worlds: The Benefits of Randomly Generated Worlds
Weird Worlds is the sequel to one of my favorite indie games of all time, the wonderful Strange Adventures in Infinite Space by Digital Eel. I have to wait until I’m in my new home before I can order one of the antiquated CDs from their new publisher, but I managed to snag a Weird Worlds demo.

The core game design is roughly the same with a coat of new graphics and new user interface and lots of new content. The interface could use a bit of polishing, but the game play here is the key.

First, this is a very small team. I count three main people with the sequel seeming to have a few extra folks helping out part time. They’ve managed to create a highly addictive single player experience that evokes a strong adventure feel without spending massive amount of money on content, cut scenes or elaborately scripted set pieces.

ROI of Randomly Generated Maps
Instead, the player travels about a randomly generated map. I’m sure balancing was a complete pain, but the end result is a nearly infinite number of short adventures. Others have tried this style of game play, but SAIS and Weird World have managed to produce something that is addictive and has surprisingly long term appeal. Even after playing SAIS for months, I’ve yet to burn out on the title.

There’s an ROI that comes from randomly generated worlds that is very impressive. Content costs for static levels increase in a linear fashion. Every level you add costs roughly the same as rest. Randomly generated levels have a higher up front cost. You need to create the map generation algorithm, develop the various classes of objects and create balancing metrics for those object classes. A simple static level might take a day or two to throw together, where a competent random map generator might take two or three months.

However, after the initial investment, the random map generator is insanely efficient. New objects can be added in an iterative fashion. Major balance changes to the entire game can be made nearly instantly. What you lose in your initial investment, you gain back a hundred fold in flexibility and the ability to provide your players with lots of content.

Also, static levels have their own hidden costs. As you add new tokens to your game, the cost of building a level increases. Later levels will often take substantially longer to polish than initial test levels. Randomly generated maps don’t have this issue. You only have to pay the cost of creating the token. There is little additional level creation cost since it is an automated process.

Benefits of automated builds
The phrase, “automated build process” excites me more than you can possibly imagine. Games initially were about software development. Over time, they have turned into a production heavy activity with the vast majority of effort being spent on waterfall-style Disney-esque content creation. Production heavy endeavors tend to have a lot of momentum and be difficult to change. Project managers have a tendency to minimize changes to high risk items such as core game mechanics in order to preserve the heavy investment in existing content.

When you start making your game development more like software development and less like production work, you can more easily take advantage of agile development processes. Core game mechanics can shift more fluidly if you aren’t weighed down by the thought of breaking a hundred handcrafted levels. There is nothing worse than changing the jump distance on your character and ruining multiple man years of labor because your character can no longer successfully navigate the lovingly handcrafted map files. With content being ‘built on the fly’, such a change is trivial.

Fluid core game mechanics means more low risk opportunities to polish those game mechanics. You can iterate on original mechanics more freely and ideally create games that are more psychological addictive. If the game play is what matters, build your game using a process that gives you the freedom to make changes to your game play at a low cost.

You’ll see the term algorithmically generated content tossed around. The money men focus on the cost savings over static content. That is a good benefit. The ultimate benefit however is the unique ability to inexpensively polish the game play of your new designs. Think of it as a critical building block in the practile of agile game design.

Turn-based: Fits into your life
The other aspect of Weird World that is exciting is this is a turn-based title. A busy player can stop it at any point with no worries about dying or losing their path. Life for many is a series of constant interruptions and games that fit into a multitasking environment occupy a useful niche.
I’d love to see this concept expand out into a setting with a bit more appeal. Space is great, but it is somewhat abstract and can alienate the more casual, female gamers (though there are more women sci-fi fans than men these days). Would a treasure hunting, exploration game be more popular with the casual audience? What about an urban shopping title? It would be interesting to take this great game design in additional directions.

These are two very different games with two powerful lessons. If you haven’t checked them out, you need to.

I can’t help thinking about combining the two. What if you had algorithmically generated game with a setting the resonated with a strong customer need? I’m not sure what that might be, but it certainly is a fun design exercise to contemplate. :-)

Take care


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Off topic: Lessons from Starbucks

The raw desolation of an empty Midwestern strip mall in the waning hours of the noon embodies the essence of the American suburbanite’s desperate existence. Outside the sun beats down on the endless empty parking lots, baking the soul out of both plants and people. Personality is eradicated. The neighborhood shops are generic big box chains. Another Walgreens. Another Pottery Barn. Another Kwiki Lube.

This is not a landscape meant for people. You can’t even walk from one store to the next. Instead, you get in your car, drive through a convoluted artery of dead pavement and cracked concrete and get out at your next capitalistic theme park destination. A sign blares at you “Yes, we have Mickey Mouse salt shakers! 50% off!”

You are not a human being to these stores. True fact: in suburbia, they model the cashiers’ stations after the queues used by the cattle industry. I’ve run the equations and calculated the break even point for adding another point of human contact. You are a source of income whose needs must be served to the minimum degree necessary for you to open your wallet.

Mile upon mile, the stores stretch in every direction. They speak a simple message, “You are here to be used. You’ll enjoy it because you know no better.” Wide eight lane streets with mini exits for Target and Walmart are packed with heavily armored SUV’s. In Middle America, it never was about community or being ecologically friendly. It has always been about surviving in a psychologically hostile wasteland.

Welcome to Big Business’s vision of the American Dream.

Recently, I was in the odd situation of having a spare hour to relax. As I drove around in circles for a good twenty minutes, it occurred to me that there is not a single location was built for satisfying this simple, basic human need. I could have headed off to the nearest King Soopers (a grocery store chain that demonstrates American’s rebellion against the most basic forums of intellectualism), but what good would that do me? Should I hang about in front of the mini-bank while I read a paper?

Finally I spotted a Starbucks and felt a wave of relief. Here was a place that I could catch a quick drink and doodle in my notebook for a short while.

As a snob and a humanist, Starbucks represents to me a derivative mockery of real culture. At some point in the past, there was a simple coffee shop with a community of patrons. The owner made the coffee. Rich aroma filled the air and comfortable jokes about the weather or the latest news were lazily exchanged. Little tables welcomed you to hang out for a moment and may even think a deep thought or two. Starbucks took that atmosphere, upped the caffeine, commercialized it, productized it, and turned it into a $1.5 billion a year business that is growing at 22% annually.

But it occurred to me as I sat at a table surrounded by the now iconic brown and green interior: “This is the best most people have.”

No wonder it is popular.

take care

PS: This one is for Ray and Zoombapup. Zoombapup wanted to see me rant. Ray, well...I just like talking with Ray about the midwest. :-)

Monday, November 7, 2005

Random Notes from Mr. Fever

I’m sitting here in plaid bathrobe, drinking tea in my nearly empty house. Just imagine a somewhat scruffy Arthur Dent and you’ll get the picture. Due to a rather poorly timed illness, my move out to Seattle having been delayed by a week. I’m left with Civ IV, a web browser and handful of new home loan applications. Yes, I am a dangerous man for the next five days.

Track backs has been mentioned on several sites that I frequent rather regularly. If you haven’t stopped by, check them out.

  • Gamasutra: Best game development site ever.

  • I feel like I’m starting to be a regular over there. Luckily with the new bandwidth package, my site no longer goes down at the smallest mention.

  • Raph Koster: I rather envy the turbulent, but fascinating experience he must be experiencing over at SOE. The rules shift that is happening with SWG is a precursor to the virtual Revolutions of our modern time…major shifts in governmental policy followed by violent public outbursts. These transitions have occurs hundreds of thousands of times throughout human history. Their scale and significance is only increasing in the online worlds we build. Luckily, most players aren’t French and only rant on forums.

  • The Long Tail: If you aren’t familiar with the long tail concept, head over and check it out. It is one of those brilliant ideas that are remarkably difficult to build out in practice. All I can say to the casual games folks who live by it is that portals are the new retail storefronts.

  • DROD: I also wanted to put a yell out to Erik who does some fine work on a title puzzle/dungeon crawl indie title called DROD. He’s experimenting with some of the market concepts I mentioned in my Learning from Touring Bands article. He has a dedicated community with a large focus on user created content and an interesting ‘massively single player’ system of building community. Good stuff.
I have approximately a half dozen essays in various states of disrepair. I know a blog is supposed to be impromptu and exciting, but I’ve come to realize that my rough drafts are considerably rougher than what most people consider comprehensible. A few that come to mind include:

  • Designing an Advergame: Some thoughts that go into design a game as an advertisement.

  • From Donkey Kong to Mario 64: The process of extending a prototype core game mechanic into modern title. This will not be about Nintendo products in case anyone was wondering.

  • The stage gate product design process applied to game design: (Warning, this one is likely to turn into a book at some point. :-)
If any of these sound exciting, drop me a note and it may give me enough mental energy to finish them off.

I’ve been getting some nice feedback from folks at Austin Games and Serious Games Summit. Overall the comments are “Good, long articles that deal with subjects in-depth. Did I mention long?” I worry that I may be causing eyestrain.

Random disappointments
I have been waiting in intense (perhaps even frothing) anticipation for the release of the destined-to-be-great Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space from the heroic folks at Digital Eel. Unfortunately, it is currently only available on CD and not for direct download. Since I’m in the middle of a move, encountering such a retro distribution scheme puts a crimp in my plans.

It is strange how rapidly I’ve come to depend on electronic downloads. The games stay safely on my hard drive, my backup software manages all the save files just like any other bit of data. There’s no physical clutter to worry about and most of the time I end up giving more money to the actual developer instead of the inevitable middle men.

So it is with a distinct sense of melancholy that I slip the CD of Civ IV into my CD drive and dream wistfully of a time when games finally leave the physical world behind. Oh, to have WW:RIS downloading in the background at this very moment.


Gameface news
I’m still keeping tabs on Anark Gameface and heard recently that they had just uploaded the October release. Anark Gameface, for those of you who haven’t checked it out yet is a solution for building game user interfaces, a traditionally dreary and thankless task. If you haven’t had the pleasure, building a UI is far worse than it sounds.

The sweet part about it is Anark Studio, the authoring tool. Basically, the artist gets to build the UI using a tool they love and the programmer just needs to hook up a basic kernel to the game engine. Then they get to wander off and do more important stuff (like not be the artist’s bare chested man slave)

I’ve been meaning to write up an article on the economics of art tool development. Suffice it to say that no development team’s internal tools will ever get to the level of polish that you’ll find in a dedicated tool like Anark Studio. Artists are too damned picky and you’ve got a game to build.

The new version has some lovely Lua-based scripting and well as a set of drag-and-drop interface components. Right now, it is best suited for console titles and there are some great titles in the works using it for the PS3, Xbox 360 and others. If you are building a front end or even an in-game UI, this is the way your process should work.

Empower the artists using powerful, highly productive, easy-to-use tools. That is a game development mantra worth repeating for the next decade or two.

Take care

A five step program to move beyond the game geek culture

Folks in general completely missed the point of the last little post on the culture of the game design community. I want to particularly thank Zoombapup and the other great commentators who pushed me to clarify. Kudos to Gamasutra and Elias for getting the gist of the article.

The post wasn’t about lambasting programmer-designers. It was about pointing out a strong blind spot in our culture and practices. Instead what we got was a stream of prerecorded comments that were triggered by the words “programmer” and “designer” being on the same page.

I touched a nerve, but unfortunately it wasn’t one that I was writing about. :-) It is like telling your grandparents that smoking kills and they spend the next few hours arguing about whether menthol or regular is the better flavor.

Take two
Let’s take a different look at the original issue. The premise is this: The game industry is a highly interdependent ecosystem that is the natural consequence of historical starting conditions. It is not however the only form that a game development culture can take. It is almost certainly not the most profitable form.

We need take a step back and introduce some systems thinking to understand the dynamics of the industry. If we blame the publishers or the programmers or the consumers or the designers as individuals, we gain little understanding of the issue and manage to create a lot of denial, hand wringing and hurt feelings. The truth is that most individual actors in our industry are doing what they think is best. The result may be a degenerate system, but the individuals are operating with a clean conscience. There is absolutely no paradox here.

Ultimately, I’m not concerned by individuals doing their jobs poorly. My concern is that they are fixating on an insignificantly tiny market when a much larger one awaits. By blindly devoting their efforts toward the current market, we starve the market expansion process.

Everyone is doing a great job
First, let me assure everyone that they are doing their best. Let’s run through the list.
  • Publishers are being impressive optimizers: They exist to take successful products and built upon their success. This results in great profits. Who could blame them?
  • Developers learn from the best games: Most game developers are absolute experts at the various game genres. They know what they personally like and they use this creative vision to improve upon their past game play experiences. Who could blame them?
  • Programmer designers were just having fun: Of course, all those original designs come from programmer-designers that were building games for themselves. Can you blame them for their personal preferences? Heck, they started the industry. Throwing stones at geniuses like Yu Suzuki is like beating up on Jesus.
  • The customer want more of what they like: Two kids walk into a store and ask for candy. The guy at the counter only has sour candy. One kid loves it and the other one doesn’t. The kid with the sour tooth comes back the next day and asks for more. Heck, he even invites comes of his friends that also like sour things. The statistics? 100% of children who purchase candy love sour candy. Can you blame them?
The result across the board is a classic self-selection bias on the part of developers, the customers and publishers. Everyone is doing a great job, but the system that results has issues.

I like current games
You end up with a market that eats its own tail. We’ve seen this before in the comic book industry and the same pattern reoccurs in many other industries. I’m reminded of Garret Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons where Hardin describes the process as “the remorseless working of things.”
  1. The game development community is limited to people who like existing games. The skills, the extracurricular interests, and the passion necessary to build new genres for different audiences rarely exist. In fact, the community actively rejects those who do not fit a rather narrow hardcore mold. We’ve all seen the insidious hiring phrase “Must have a passion for video games.”
  2. The population of existing genres is derived from a very small genetic base. This base was historically built by programmer-designers for people who have tastes that are similar. The 8 or 9 dominant genres are the sour candy that the industry is built upon. The thought that different types of games might bring in new customers is typically brought up by fringe elements only.
  3. The publishers optimize what is available. The publishers look at the limited set of existing options, cut out the least profitable ones and start building efficiencies of scale into the creative and marketing operations. Considering you didn’t have much to start with, you aren’t left with much variety. It is the equivalent of practicing eugenics when you start out with a population of only 4 or 5 healthy animals.
  4. The audience self selects based off the products being offered. People who like the limited population of games buy them. When publishers offer better versions of the same basic software product, the customers buy more. In the process of focusing a limited audience, the industry systematically alienates large swaths of the population.
Occasionally, game developers get a chance to expand the industry. I was just chatting to a friend who worked on a title targeted at pre-teen girls based off a highly popular brand. The designer on the project could have made almost anything and the right design might have turned into a billion dollar franchise.

What he created was a Zelda clone. He also ‘innovated’ by adding insanely difficult jumping puzzles because everyone knows that is how all the cool platform games work. I got stuck completing the tutorial and can’t even imagine what an 11-year old who barely knows their way around a game controller would think of it. By follow his gamer heart, the designer royally screwed up a great opportunity.

No one is to blame. Everyone was doing their job remarkably well. Games for gamers, by gamers. It seems like heaven.

All of this is perfectly fine and results in a small core audience that is well served. If you liked Halo 1 and 2, I have some really exciting news for you about an upcoming Microsoft blockbuster. (I’ll give you a hint. It ends in a ‘3’.) If you want to make product that predominantly serves young, white, introverted, analytical men, I’m certainly not going to stop you.

What about the money?
My problem is that I think a lot about money, profitability and competition. Yes, I am a greedy bastard. Let’s run a few numbers. The current ‘active’ population of US households that own one or more consoles is around 35 million. This is different than number of consoles sold and represents the current addressable market in the US.

Now 35 million is much less than the 300 million potential customers. For a consumer electronics device, it is also far less than the 500 million PC’s in service. It is even less than the over 200 million have cable TV in the US alone. It is less than the 200 million cell phones used world wide.

It is okay to be small since we are growing rapidly, right? Unfortunately, no. We are currently growing at around 7.3% a year with much of this arguably driven by population growth not market expansion. It’s a far cry from the 15-20% you hope to see in a thriving high growth industry. For example, that little cell phone market that is 4X larger than the game market? It is growing at a reasonable 19.1% a year.

Also, when you have hundreds of companies targeting the same 35 million person audience, the result is considerable competition. We do not even end up with is eight or nine media categories like you might find in music or movies. With genre king dynamics, we end up with eight or nine software categories. People buy games closer to the way that they purchase copies of word processor or tax software. They don’t need 20 FPS any more than they need 20 copies of Word. Being a first mover on a new genre that serves a new need is like being the first company to master the sale of photo editing software. Big opportunity, low competition.

So, our great population of gamers is really a tiny insignificant fly speck if you look outside our insular little community. We fool ourselves into thinking the industry has ‘made it’ because the few gamers we’ve hooked spend a large amount of money. We even have splashy events on MTV. Sorry.

“If the tribe gathers roots and follows tradition, it will survive”
The crazy thing is that so few people in the industry are publicly discussing these very simple numbers. Whether we are talking about the economics of publishers and their portfolio models, or we are discussing about the limitations of programmer-designers, a major element driving the dynamics of the industry is this massive historical and cultural blind spot. We act like a rapidly maturing industry.

We really don’t see all those other people out there. They aren’t gamers so they don’t count. Maybe this is what young men do. They create a self-contained community that values homogenous personality traits and excludes people who are different. That is great if you are attempting to build a fraternity. From an objective business perspective, however, we need to look outward.

One simple strategy on a golden platter
I’m an optimist. I see this as an opportunity.
  • There are lots of folks out there that don’t currently play games that could play games.
  • If we could get out of our cultural rut and design games that appealed to them, we could make money.
If you don’t, someone else will
I’d like to say I came up with such a brilliant strategy, but of course I didn’t. We’ve seen it executed with impressive success on titles like Sims, Nintendogs and DS Brain Training. Nintendo in particular is trumpeting it lately. But we’ve also seen it pop up in the birth of the vast populations of MMOGs in Asia. In 6 years, one enterprising young man has gone from founding a small start up to become the second richest man in China.

You begin to see these surreal numbers tossed around. Over a billion dollars earned by the Sims. The portable gaming market is another billion a year market. A large-scale MMOG will earn upwards of a billion dollars over its life span. This is what happens when you start targeting billions of potential users instead of the same old 52 million.

Some people have figured it out. They’ve made a major shift within their organizations. They are not engaging in market optimization activities like the rest of us. Instead, they are actively pursuing market formation activities.

A five step process for moving beyond the gaming geek culture
Here are a few simple steps that any part of the game development community can take in order to start forming new markets and expanding the industry.
  • Step 1: Stop fixating on the current game market
  • Step 2: Stop listening to your gut
  • Step 3: Learn about product design
  • Step 4: Surround yourself with other perspectives
  • Step 5: Build an integrated business plan
Again, this isn’t for everyone, just those people who are interested in pursuing the biggest group of opportunities that our infant game industry has ever known. The rest are very welcome continue with their rarified discussions on how to make a better FPS. :-)

Step 1: Stop fixating on the current game market
We all have a favorite game. In our dream world, we would spend our days making the ultimate version of that game. The dreams are laced with the kudos we would get from our gamer friends. Not surprisingly, for 90% of the game developers I’ve talked to, their dream game is a clone and serves the existing game market. We need to stop lusting over the thought of creating a better Mario Kart, a better Doom, or a better RPG.

Instead, look beyond the current demographics singularity for people who are not being served by the current game market. It is okay to make a great game for people who are not part of our tribe.

Step 2: Stop listening to your gut.
If you happen to have an INTJ or ISTJ Meyer-Briggs profile, you need to stop listening to what your ‘gut’ tells you is a good game. If you happen to love FPS, Platformers, and anything involving WWII violence, put an ice pick through the part of your brain that digs these clone monsters.

Admitting to yourself that you don’t instinctively possess the magic answers to all the game design problems is the first step towards starting to truly listen to your target audience.

Step 3: Learn about product design
Product design is a fascinating, successful field practiced by almost every consumer industry except game development. It deals with creating products for a vast and ever shifting spectrum of customers and seeks to meet needs that they may not even have expressed. Here are some really great aspects about it that are lacking from the current field called ‘game design.’
  • Product design is an established, highly successful field. There is a lot of depth to tap into in the product design field. There are books that contain validated results, not theories. There are thousands of published case studies. In comparison, the game design field is composed primarily of wandering sages-for-hire and overly dramatic blogs like this one. :-) If our goal is to learn a new perspective, having a rich guide is helpful.
  • Product design has techniques for identifying needs: Once you stop listening to your gut, you still need a body of knowledge to inform your design decisions. Customer observation, ideation tools, rapid prototyping, on staff customers and others methods can be invaluable.
  • Product design has techniques for mitigating risk / improving creativity: In particular, the stage-gate product development process allows smart decisions to be made at the appropriate times with the appropriate amount of resources at stake.
To get the most out of a product design philosophy, you need to accept the assumption that games are software products that serve real market needs. This is a bit different than the perspective that games are primarily “an artistically expressive entertainment experience.” Each philosophy has its place, but if you are interested in market formation, I highly recommend sticking with the product design viewpoint. It allows you to tap into existing tools and drive toward concrete results in a pragmatic fashion.

Ultimately, product design has one fundamental lesson to share. A game designer must make games for their customer, not for themselves or for their preferred tribe. There is an objectivity and professionalism that comes with this perspective that keeps us honest. Market orientation is remarkably satisfying if you can pull it off.

Step 4: Surround yourself with other perspectives
A typical product design team has people from all walks of life. Engineers, artists, psychologists, men, and women partake in the cross functional design meetings. We can’t all be Leonardo da Vinci (though we should all strive to be.) However, we can certainly build teams that have a mass of experience across a wide spectrum of talents.

This means actively bringing women onto the team. It means bringing in people from different races and cultures. It means actively recruiting non-traditional skill sets from the cognitive sciences and art fields. Even if they know nothing about game development, their perspective into customer behavior is still incredibly valuable. They can always learn.

As a side note, most of what current designers do is not rocket science. In our egotism, we often fail to realize that our mystical powers of game mastery differ only mildly from the highly refined tastes of a Star Trek geek. When you move outside of the very narrow market segment that celebrates the high art of chain mail pasties, you’ll find that smart people from other fields may make even better game designers.

Here is an imponderable. Are Will Wright’s design skills universally unique, or are they seen as unique simply because he happens to be surrounded by the rest of the highly homogenous game development community?

Step 5: Build an integrated business plan
Market building requires you to think through a lot of activities that previously you took for granted or simply followed a formula. You often cannot rely on standard retail channels or marketing channels. The status of your relationship with Marie Claire magazine is something that rarely comes up when marketing Doom, but it may be critical to the success of your dress making shop simulation.

You need to build a business plan that demonstrates the entire chain of activities that will make your product profitable. The product must support the business and all aspects of the business must be intimately integrated with the core customer benefits that support the product.

This is quite different than the loosely coupled system we have now. The publishers make strong suggestions based on historical data and then the developers attempt to build their dream game within what they see primarily as a set of arbitrary and often harmful constraints. Often each group sits in a different silo and barely communicates.

The customer-centric approach puts both marketing and development on the same cross functional team. The same team exists to shepherd the product through from conception to market launch. Responsibilities shift, but there is no ‘tossing’ the product over the fence. Everyone on the team is equally responsible for the product’s final business success.

This works because there is a single common goal “make profit by serving the customer.” This is much more workable than managing a set of cultural assumptions and dreams.

A philosophical shift
What I’m describing here is a process and philosophy. It isn’t an answer, but a method of getting to an answer.

I’m not going to point out a specific market opportunity for you. In reality there is not one big market, but thousands of potential markets. By listening, observing and putting aside our subconscious biases and cultural assumptions, we can discover the underlying needs of new customers and begin to serve these markets. This process is more about market discovery and building than it is about market exploitation.

A shift in priorities occurs when you pursue a customer oriented market expansion strategy. Your biggest focus is no longer “Will this new rendering engine work” or “Will these graphics be seen as the best”. Instead you are constantly asking “Does this product meet and exceed the needs of my customer?” The tactical, technical details that are so often the primary focus of our industry are sublimated into the broader concept of making the correct product.

Now you get some interesting decisions that result from this perspective change. You have the opportunity to hire another person for the team. You can hire another programmer to improve your effects system or you could hire a cultural anthropologist to help you gain a better understanding of the target audience needs.

In a market formation situation, if you don’t understand your customer needs, you will fail. The cultural anthropologist becomes a far superior hire from both a business and quality perspective.

This essay is asking the game development community to do something that it historically has almost never done: Make games for people who are different than you.

My hope has been to point out the following:

  • There exists a self-reinforcing cultural bias within all systems of the game industry that limits our definition of the target market for games.
  • There exists a larger market outside of our current market that can be highly profitable if they are served with well designed products.
  • By increasing our self awareness and following product design methodologies using broadly cross functional teams, we can serve these new markets.
There are plenty of people who are happy with the current state of the industry and will defend their lifestyle choice to the grave. They drank the Cool-aid. They dressed up for the Star Trek convention. They beat Ninja Gaiden on hard. They love making games for the current gaming audience.

Many will actively attempt to discredit or dismiss attempts to create new genres. When opportunities arise to spread games into new areas, they intentionally or unintentionally will sabotage the results and try to turn them into games just like any other. They are not being spiteful. They are merely trying to do what they feel is right and enhance the culture they grew up with.

Who really wants to work in an industry where lavender is an acceptable color and shoe shopping an acceptable pastime? Ask your workmates if that is what they want to do with their lives. Eew, yuck, change it to blue! Chances are that you are part of this group. I am.

Cultural change is hard. We often make choices in life because of our implicit value system. Rarely do we ever question that value system or actively seek to change it.

There is, however, a big fat carrot awaiting the few who can make the transition to thinking about customers. It involves obscene profits and legendary status as one of the industry’s early innovators. Yes, there are still slots open in the game developer hall of fame.

The game industry is still young and has enormous room to grow. Stop looking at only your little corner with the assumption that it is the limit of the entire universe. Start listening, observing and imagining how your art can serve others. It is a life worth living.

Take care

Miscellaneous stats

Ernest Adams’ discussion of philosophy behind the current game industry

Reggie talks ‘disruptive innovation’

Tragedy of the commons

Stage gate product development process

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

The myth of programmer-designer greatness

Here’s a phrase from an earlier post that harkens back to the ancient days when game developers beat their dinner dead with bone weapons. “The best game designers are also programmers.” (Apologies to Dylan Fitterer for taking this out of context.)

In the distant past, only a programmer could make a game. You could fumble through the tasks typically done by an artist, a game designer or a sound guy. All game designs from this era were created by programmers often for programmers. Most involve shooting or killing things and the industry bears the cultural bias of our founders to this very day.

In under funded teams where there are one or two people involved, you still need the programmer-designer. For the clone-tastic fringe of indie game development, someone who is a renaissance talent with skills in programming, design, and illustration is essential. Most modern teams however, have grown beyond this limited and restrictive state of creativity expression and they are better for it.

Modern game design is a specialized discipline that rarely correlates with a particular technical profession. Imagine the absurdity of the following statements.

  • The best authors are also be typesetters
  • The best directors are also camera men
  • The best product designers are also engineers
We have outgrown the need for all game designers to be programmers.

The liberal arts game designer
The best game designers certainly possess a passing understanding of the materials of their medium. This includes a knowledge of art, programming and sound. But it by no means suggests that in order to be a great designer you must also be a great programmer.

Instead, game design has emerged as its own distinct discipline. A modern game designer should be someone who understands risk / reward systems, prototyping dynamics, human psychology and basic market dynamics. They should understand the process and practice of game design. They need familiarity, but not stunning expertise in other areas of the game creation process. They need to be able to communicate with people who possess specialized technical skills. The result is that designer works as part of cross functional team.

Here’s a quote from Shigeru Miyamoto about how he designed Super Mario Bros:

It started with a simple idea. I thought: "I wonder what it would be like to have a character that bounces around. And the background should be a clear, blue sky." I took that idea to a programmer, and we started working on it.

Mario ended up being too big, so we shrank him. Then we thought, "What if he can grow and shrink? How would he do that? It would have to be a magic mushroom! Where would a mushroom grow? In a forest." We thought of giving Mario a girlfriend, and then we started talking about Alice in Wonderland.

Here is one of the greatest designers of our industry, working hand in hand with a programmer to bring his vision into reality. He focuses on the core game mechanics, the setting and how the prototype evolves. The programmer focuses on creating the prototype, rapidly implementing new features and communicating technical constraints with the designer.

This setup augments the natural talents of both team members. The result is a product with great game design and great programming. You avoid creating a game that is restricted to the often limited talent palette of a single individual.

The innovation explosion that comes from tapping non-technical creators
In most forms of new media, we go through a period of time where an intimate understanding of technology is critical to the successful completion of the creative process. Early book authoring required the mastery of print making. Early movie auteurs built custom cameras from scratch. Photographers developed their own film for decades.

With time, tools and team structures emerge that do away with the need for such jacks of all trades. Printers would turn an author’s raw manuscript into a finished book. Movie makers created the position of Director, Script Writer, and Camera man so that people with inherent skills could focus on what they did best. Most photographers eventually discovered that a digital camera and a print lab let them focus more fully on the creative aspects of their art.

Specialization results in increased efficiencies and also impressively improved creativity. The unique voices of people that possess creative skills, but not technical skills are unleashed. In books alone, we would have lost 99% of all modern literature if typesetting was a hard prerequisite for writing a novel.

Games are going through the same maturation process as other industries. Ultimately, by tapping into non-technical game designers, we can increase the talent pool of visionaries by a hundred fold.

The dark side of a programmer worshipping game design culture
Old habits still linger and not everyone has adapted to the new world of true cross functional game development. If your bias is that your game designers to be programmers and you work in a team larger than one person, you are doing your game a grave disservice.

You eliminate out of hand talented individuals who are quite likely better suited for the position. If you look around, you may find artists with the correct skill set skill set. You may find programmers or writers. If you look even more broadly, you may find psychologists or housewives.

Any cultural bias towards promoting programmers to game design positions is the equivalent of promoting only white men to positions of decision making authority. At the very least, this practice is morally repugnant.

The limits of programmer design
At the worst, game designs created by programmers tend to focus on a very limited spectrum of human experience. They involve spatial skills, not social skills. They involve risk mechanics focused on extreme die and repeat-style punishment, not exploration or discovery. This is a generalization to be certain, but one that is not far off from reality.

By selecting game designers that are programmers, we let our incestuous history determine the creativity of our future. We build iteratively on the limited seeds of past efforts and create games for programmers and people who think like programmers. The result is more Doom 4 and less Nintendogs.

If you really want to contribute to the growth of our art form, build a team that doesn’t have a programmer as the main designer. Think of it as affirmative action for the game industry. Be sure that they know the craft and techniques of game design. Be sure that they can talk the language of the people on their team. But never make elite technical skills a prerequisite for a game design position.

I dream of seeing an explosion of vibrant game designs that expand our industry. This will only come about by putting people who are not traditional, technology-worshipping game developers in positions of great creative power.

Take care

Shigeru Miyamoto Interview:

Friday, October 28, 2005

Programmer Design: Sinistar graphics put to use

You know, I could get a huge kick out of just dumping game graphics onto my site and seeing the sort of games people make with them. Maximilian from stopped by one of my older threads and posted a game he is making with my old Sinistar-clone graphics. Thanks Maximilian! Quite fun even in this early state. :-)

Here's his comment:

It will not really resemble the old Sinistar, but be more like Freespace, but in 2D.If you even want to download the demo:

In this demo, you have to pursue the other (lightbrown) ship and destroy it in order to win. Controls are: WASD or cursor-keys to move, space to shoot.

Free graphics
For those of you who missed it, I have two relatively complete sets of 2D graphics from ages past that you can down load for free and incorporate into your own game designs:
  • Sinistar graphics: Random tidbit. I had a chance to meet with RJ Mical, the fellow who worked on the original Sinistar (as well as the Amiga, 3DO and Lynx). He's now working with Sony helping get the PS3 whipped into shape. Brilliant fellow. It is a wonderful thing that we are in such a young industry that you can still meet your childhood heros.
  • RTS graphics: Another random tidbit, the original programmer for this game went on to become the CEO of Snow Blind, the good folks behind the title Dark Alliance.

Programmer Design
Space shooters in particular seems like the open source text editors of the gaming world. Put a programmer in a room and 9 times out of 10 he'll make a space shooter. It is barely a surprise that Space Wars is often heralded as the first computer game.

We've all heard the phrase 'programmer art'. Programmer art is truly horrendous artwork that typically results from a programmer being forced to scrape together artwork when making a game, user interface, icon, etc. You tend to get artwork that looks how programmers think. There are a lots of iconic shapes, thick black outlines and shading that had super sexy linear gradients.

Here's a new phrase that riffs off the same theme. "Programmer Design" is the standard game designs that result from a programmer being forced to exercise their game design skills. :-) Again, the design tends to represent the programmer's most comfortable patterns of thought. Lots of die and repeat type of risk / reward systems, an emphasis on spacial thinking and reacting.

It's just a matter of priority really. Programmers love programming. That's why they do it. Art is something that needs to be created in order for the programmer to get on with programming. Game design typically exists as an excuse for the programmer to program and the path of least design resistance is the most optimal. Natural priorities are a damning thing.

You can't claim that the designs are bad. After all 'programmer design' is what launched the current industry. Maximilian's game looks like it might be quite enjoyable and borrows from genres long established in our hardcore vocabulary.

At a certain point though, you have to ask, "Does the world really need another text editor?" I suspect that it takes someone with a perspective outside of the common programmer mindset to make new genres of games that appeal strongly to non-gamers.

And the reality of the industry is that most of the people who work in it are perfectly happy playing programmer designs. Heck, those designs may be ancient and misrepresentative of the population at large, but they are also are the singular reason why we are involved with the game industry.


  • Programmers set the stage for the game industry with their 'programmer design'
  • The only people interested in making games are those that love, breath and think in terms of programmer design. The result is, not surprisingly, more programmer design.
  • We need non-programmers to help make games that avoid programmer design
  • Very few of these people really exist in the game industry, because they dislike the games that sport programmer design. The last thing any company wants to do is give money to someone who actively dislikes playing most successful games.
  • Even fewer exist on the fringes of the game industry because...wait for order to be an indie, you need to be a programmer.

Sweet. Bring on the space shooters. :-)

take care

PS: I'm calling out Phil on this one. Dogfighting planes is merely a hairs breadth away from a space shooter. Be honest. Did you come up with the design for this by yourself? :-) "By programmers. For programmers." It is a market.

Article: "How to prototype a game in under 7 days" on Gamasutra

Here's a great little article on prototyping. It is rare that you see such a dedicated prototyping effort described in such detail. At times I feel like those who write about game design are anthropologists wandering deep in the Amazon looking for signs of some highly elusive tribe. Most activities are done in secret, under the cover of darkness. and when you actually get a chance to a design ritual in action, you should whip out your notebook and frantically take as many notes as possible. :-)

One of the suggestions that came up was to make a 'toy' first and then add goals like scoring. This concept of toys has come up repeatedly. Chris mentioned it in his book and numerous other authors have attempted to make the distinction between toys and games. Each is describing a different slice of the same basic puzzle.

A toy has been described as a simple fun activity that 'feels good'. It also has been described more formally as an environment that allows players to create their own goals. Both of these can be categorized as low level core game mechanics that do not have higher level meta mechanics.

A toy is really a simple risk / reward system. Do A and reward B occurs. The risk is often minimal and can be described in terms of opportunity cost or irrevocable decisions. Rewards do not need to be numbers increasing or stars. A little animation, a new graphic or a sound effect are all simple rewards. The article describes this as 'juiciness', which is a delightful term that speaks to the inherent reward in many tactile activities.

We often forget that mechanics like score are meta game mechanics layered ontop of simple tactile mechanics. The coin collecting in Mario is a layer on top of the simple activity of jumping. The score in asteroids is a layer on top of the highly rewarding act of shooting asteroids and watching them explode.

In games like that Sims that are described as toys, there is a simple risk / reward to watching your Sim perform an order. There almost always is an existing core game mechanic. Where many people get confused the nature of such a game is that they expect a plethora of higher level goals to direct their actions. They look for things like a score or a mission or other familiar mechanics that have been used in their favorite games.

None of these elements are needed really. All they do is explicitly reward and enhance a particular play strategy that emerges from the players interactions with the existing game mechanics. Here's a thought experiment. Imagine playing Space Invaders. A particular player enjoys sitting in the right hand side of the screen as a method of controlling the space around their character. He has a series of implicit goals about not moving too far out of his zone.

This player is creating his own rules, punishing himself when he breaks his rules and feeling satisfaction when he executes them well. This emergent goal creation is evident in almost every game that I can imagine. The mere fact that you have choice means that you must choose a play style and build up internal goals.

So the boundary between games and toys is remarkably fuzzy. All games have emergent goals. Most games that are described as 'toys' have risk / reward sequences at their core. At best, I see the term 'toy' as being useful to describe the general flavor of the gameplay to an existing experianced gamer. More often than not, it gets you very little practical information for further refining your design.

I lean towards a term like 'highly layered' when I judge a prototype. A title like Civilization is has a large number of concretely defined strategies that are explicitly rewarded and expanded upon with complex layers of meta mechanics. A new game prototype will have one or two of these risk / reward layers and the player will be forced to make strategic leaps without much guidance.

Measure the player strategies
Here is a useful method for adding additional layers to your game prototype that the article touches on very briefly. Start by building up a game is to create a core game mechanic with a focus on an enjoyable 'juicy' activity. Then watch what the player does. What activities are repeated? Which goals does the player set for themselves? Often this takes the designer's touch at the early stages since it can be difficult to get players to explain their momentary urges.

Once you've identified these primitive strategies, try to create risk / reward sequences around them. When you are popping bubbles, perhaps popping three in a row gives you points. When you are jumping on something and yelling 'Gotcha!', wouldn't it be nice if the thing you were jumping on broke and maybe gave you something for your efforts.

take care