Monday, November 7, 2005

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