Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Movie Theater Games

An anthropological view on game design

Game Anthropology
There is a concept in product design called product anthropology that can be usefully applied to game design.

"Plain anthropology is about watching how remote tribes go about their everyday lives and joining in with them eating nasty things. Product
anthropology is about watching how ordinary Westerners go about their lives;
what sort of things do they do, what do they want to do, how do they use the
things they have?" - Lon Barfield
I asked the same questions and applied that information to the design of a simple game that crowds can play while they wait for a movie to begin.

The basics of game anthropology are straight forward. First we examine the day to day life of a potentially underserved market. Perhaps it is women who do not game. Perhaps it is 60 year old baby boomers living in suburban situations. Then ask some game related questions...
  • When might games played?
  • How long can the games be played?
  • What is the social environment?
  • What are the cultural elements that influence the game?
  • What are the psychological needs?
Example game designs built using game anthropology
There are numerous examples that fit this mold:

  • Nintendo Gameboy: The stunning popularity of the GameBoy platform stems from the anthropological insight that Japanese boys spend quite a bit of time waiting for parents and riding on trains with nothing to do. They are bored and would react positively to a quick gaming fix. The product design solution resulted in games that offer rapid loading times and came bundled in a small easy-to-carry form factor. Recognition of this niche explains much of the longevity of the Gameboy platform.
  • Sony PSP / Gameboy Micro: There exists the same basic cultural environment for adults. They too find themselves on buses or waiting around. However, they also demand style. A gadget demonstrates an adult's social status. In mainstream American culture, childish gadgets are less popular with adults. The Gameboy with a product design focus on meeting the needs of children fails at this. Enter Sony with their style-heavy PSP. (I worry that they still don't understand the benefits of quick games and this may hurt their product long term.) Nintendo is countering with the Micro, a stylish Gameboy Advance product extension. They seek to fill a niche in their product line by offering a status symbol oriented version of their Gameboy that also appeals to adults on the go. From a game anthropology viewpoint, the Gameboy Micro and the PSP are direct competitors where a DS and GBA are not. It will be interesting to see the results in the market.
  • Financial Gameboy: I postulated a 'financial gameboy' that let you control your money supply using a PDA-like handheld. The cultural insight is that many people have difficult managing their money due to the poor feedback cycle created by our current system of purchasing and bank account reporting.
  • Serious Games: All serious games are examples of game anthropology in action. We may call the process of identifying needs a 'business case', but in reality this is just game anthropology applied to a business environment. Typical questions that might be asked are "In your daily training, what is the environment you are in?" Game designers come up with interesting solutions like a tablet PC that let repair men wirelessly get a repair code from a damaged aircraft and then play a game that teaches how to fix the particular defect before the plane lands.

The Movie Game
Let's put this into practice. This naturally occured to me was when I was at the movie theatre waiting for Star Wars to begin. We had a good 45 minute wait and the only thing to do was listen to painful pop music. Blech. Wouldn't it be nice to be entertained in some fashion?

So I invented a game that fits the cultural environment. Some details I latched onto:

  • We have big crowds of bored people.
  • Everyone has a cell phone and reception is quite good considering how much people are chatting up a storm.
  • Very few people are game players so complex control schemes are undesirable.
  • In many crowd situations, people play a variety of games such as chanting, the Wave and shout offs.
  • Theaters are culturally seens as 'quiet places' so these crowd games are not typically played here.

The interface
Imagine a computer hooked to the movie screen. It displays a phone number that anyone in the theatre can call. When they call the number, they are automatically logged into a massively multiplayer rhythm game and their avatar is displayed on the screen.

For control they have access to one button. Press a button on the cell phone and the character on the screen yells out a phrase. The character also flashes. Press short, long, short and the character flashes in this pattern. Even in a crowded screen, it is very easy to find your player by 'messaging' to yourself.

The games
The first game people play is shout off. A shout off is very simple. The screen is divided into two sides. One side says 'Pepsi' or some other phrase and the other side says 'Coke' when the button is pressed. The left side flashes Pepsi with a graphic for pushing the button. The more people who push the button in rhythm with the flashing, the louder the chant. There is full polyphonic sound so people can use their natural timing to synchronize the chanting. After period of time, the side gets a score.

Now it is the other side's turn. They try to shout louder than the previous team. Back and forth it goes for X rounds and then all the scores are tallied. The team with the most points wins and random people get an SMS giving them a free Coke. Of course the theater benefits because people never buy just a soda when they go to the concession stand.

The Results
We just trained a large group of people on how to play the game. We gave them a tangible reward. We increased theater revenue. And we made the theater going experiance both more enjoyable and unique. You'll never be able to do a digital 'shout off' in your living room.

The cultural trick we are playing here is that no one is actually shouting. Real shouting would break the cultural constraints of being quiet in a theater. That would be embarassing. What you are doing is performing a waiting activity endorsed by the establishment. This is an entirely different social proposition and lets you entertain yourself in an otherwise sterile, boring environment.

You can easily extend the system with games like the Wave, group chants and rhythm games. You can also add a huge variety of advertising and promotional elements that offer high impact advertising opportunities to the theaters compared to typical movie ads.

I hope this is a useful overview of the concept and practice of game anthropology. Correctly used this technique can help designers create potently original game designs that are more than just 'fun'. They are game-like activities that flourish within a cultural niche. If you have any ideas along these lines, feel free to add them to the comments.

take care

Sunday, May 29, 2005

How small game team efficiency compares to other media

Often people who deal with Serious Games ask very different questions than people in the game industry.
  • Game developers, driven by intense competition and the urge to have a king of the genre title will typically ask "How can I make the best game possible, no holds barred"
  • Business instead as "How much does it cost to get a basic job done?"
You end up with productivity comparison charts that look like this:

Getting the job done
The reason is pretty straight forward. Often simple fact that you have a system in place will bring the company benefits over not having the system. Some repair training is better than no repair training program. Business decisions makers focus on creating an improvement over the current state of the company. The subtle quality elements that are key determining factors for the success of games are far less important.

The most blatant example of this is the training world. Many (though thankfully not all) groups value quantity over quality. Creating thousands of pages of 'training' that detail procedures that few people will ever use or learn is preferable to creating learning experiences that actually teach.

Let's put some numbers around this discussion...

HPD for Training
In a previous post I talked about HPD, a metric that allows us to calculate hours of gameplay per developer year of production. We have some numbers for casual games (Fate) and commercial games (Diablo). Let's calculate HPD for training.

Training folks already have basic metrics that are comparable so we simply have to do some conversion. They measure hours of training per hour of authoring. In numerous conversations with training organizations I've found the typical range to go from 20 hours of development for 1 hour of training. Some very advanced groups that produce very specialized training with an advanced development pipeline are able to squeeze 1 hour of training out of each hour of development.

Here's the chart that shows the equivalent HPD for games and training. I've included the cost of making cut scenes as well for comparison.
  • Movie (Cut scenes): 0.22
  • Large Game Team (Diablo): 0.54
  • Small Game Team (Fate): 7.5
  • Training (20 hours of dev time): 104
  • Training (1 hours of dev time): 2080
If we plot this data on a log chart, we get a lovely straight line that shows how each category of content is approximately 1 order of magnitude more less expensive to produce.

This is where Serious Games has a great challenge. We can promote the benefits of Serious Games over other types of training, but we will always need to contend with the bean counters who are looking at metrics like HPD as a major determining factor of viability. When you have regulations that specify 'hours of training' as a key metric and cost per hour as an important evaluation point, Serious Games lose out when compared to PowerPoints and PDFs.

Most Serious Games groups that are heavily promoting the benefits of Serious Games over other types of training. Better retention, less drop out, etc. This is a very worthy promotional tactic. Another tactic that can help ensure the adoption of Serious Games is a focus on techniques and technologies that radically reduce the cost of production. The focus is on being competitive using standard metrics. Each developer should ask themselves, "How much is it costing to produce this 1 hour of content?" and seek ways to improve their HPD metric.

We also start talking the language of our business customers. We can stop saying "Dude, it's a game and games are expensive!" when someone asks us about production costs. We can instead say "Well, this past title gave us 7.5 HPD. If you are willing to cut down on the video sections by 50% and add in more gaming sections, we can keep the effectivness the same but increase our HPD to 12.6. That will save you $40,000."

take care

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Small Teams Kicking Arse: Defining "HPD"

The classic question that any game developer with an inkling of project management is bound to ask is "how do we do more with less?"

A more pertinent variation is "How do we do just enough to make the game addictive while consuming as few development resources as possible?"

I was recently playing the game Fate by good folks over at WildTangent. It is a lovely little Diablo clone with a bit more of a delicious old school Hack flavor than I was expecting. There's an article on the development of the title in the latest CGW magazine.

Fate took 6 months to develop and had a team composed primarily of 1 programmer and 7 artists. I crunched some numbers and found that Fate had a stunningly efficient production cycle compared to comparable teams. More after the break.

Fate took 6 months to develop and had a team composed primarily of 1 programmer and 7 artists. They were supported by WildTangent's QA team. The title sells for $25 over the internet and is available as either a 27.5 meg file or a 128 meg file with improved graphics. They estimate 20 to 30 hours of game play.

Market-wise I would classify this as a niche title. The PC Action RPG genre appears to have tailed off in the past couple of years with the release of Diablo II and there are few major blockbusters announced. Fate follows the proven market strategy of releasing a competent B-grade title in a niche genre and then taking advantage of existing genre addict word of mouth. Though it is marketed as a 'casual game', I'd be curious to see what percentage of buyers had played a Diablo game in the past.

Why you should care
The impressive point of all this is 1 programmer and 7 artists. This is substancially less than Diablo with its 17 programmers and 39 artists. I'm not even counting the bloat from Diablo's producers, designers, or the four semi-random lasses listed under "Mr. Dabiri's Background Vocalists".

Diablo, admittedly, had quite a few more hours of gameplay than 20 to 30 hours. Let's say that on average someone would spend 60 hours on the title. (I'm being generous) That roughly translates to a 2x or 3x factor. So Fate managed to squeeze out 50% of Diablo's gameplay using 5.8% of the programming resources and 18% of the artists. And don't forget that Diablo took 2 years to make vs 6 months for Fate.

HPD, baby!
If you'd like, you can calculate "hours of game play per developer year" value. A developer year is similar to the mythical man month, except longer. Let's call this value hpd (Hours per developer). For Diablo, that comes out to 0.53 HPD. For Fate, that comes out to 7.5 HPD.

An order of magnitude
Certainly you could argue that this is a bit academic since game developers care a lot more about more than just how long people play the game. Other factors like the intensity of the experiance and the amount of money the game makes also matter.

Still, I'm seeing a team that is roughly 10x more efficient than another benchmarked team. In the immortal words of Keanu, 'Whoa'. An order of magnitude improvement in efficiency is worth exploring.

Teams who are making casual games or serious games on a fixed budget can learn a lot from the development techniques involved in a title such as Fate. What if you could successfully finish your project and spend 10% of a typical game budget?

Questions about HPD
  • How do these small teams achieve such impressive efficiency compared to full game development teams? Are there techniques we can apply to other projects?
  • How does HPD compare to the HPD of other media production. What is the HPD for a movie? What about for an hour of training? How far does production efficiency for games need to advance before it can compete with other serious games-style applications.
take care

PS: Diablo also lists in their credits Alan Dabiri as a 'dunsel', which as far as I can gather is 'a nautical term for a part with no obvious function or purpose' Despite his undoubtedly essential presence in every game up until World of Warcraft, I did not include dear Alan in my number crunching.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

E3: There and back again

Yet another E3. Noisy, intense and blinged out the wazoo. I go to a lot of trade shows each year, but E3 is the only one that consistently manages to outfit midgets (aka little people) with such marvelous costumes.

Other than the inevitable meetings, the thing I look for on the show floor is innovation. A couple of thoughts:

The graphics plateau will never be reached
People still get excited about graphics that are 2% more detailed than last year's graphics. It's an attitude promoted by the ultra hardcore. I live this technology and I can barely tell the difference between a gorgeous game like Shadow of the Colossus and a 'new' Xbox 360 title. Oh, there's 5 years technology difference? Who knew? The geeks know and they are still willing to use polygon count as a measurement for gaming goodness.

At first I cursed "You are focusing on graphics at the expense of gameplay! How can you be so blind." But then it occurred to me that something far more intriguing was happening here. For the hardcore, technology stats are a defining cultural badge. It is no longer about fun, sales, or profit. It is about belonging and exclusion of those who do not belong. Technology worship becomes a potent symbol of a gamer's tribal association. Even when games machines are indistinguishable to the human eye in graphic capabilities, the predominant gaming culture deems it emotionally important that a distinction must exist. How else will you tell who is elite and who is not? In terms of gameplay, it matters not one whit if the PS3 is more powerful than the XBOX 360. In order to win the allegiance of the hardcore opinion leaders, both companies must claim superiority.

Before I poo pooed the fixation on game graphics. Now I am waiting with great anticipation for the day someone comes out with a game console that builds a cult without relying on the current techno-fetish fanboys. If you can do it with meaningless polygons, you can do it with something equally abstract (iPod's style, Hollywood's glamour.) What will be the symbol of cultural identity that takes on the hardcore culture and unleashes a new way of defining the game market? Whoever figures this out will make billions.

Innovative games are jump started by controller innovations:
Say what you will about the DS. Percentage wise, it had the most innovative games of any platform. A surgery game where you make incisions and sew sutures? A puppy simulator where you talk to your pet? That's sweet innovation at work. I get the feeling that developers are frantically exploring the new interface of the DS and churning out dozens of core game mechanics.

Minigames are core game mechanics by another name
I've talked about core game mechanics quite a bit, but I've not mentioned mini-games. Warioware is a very informative library of core game mechanics. It has always struck me as such a blatant lesson in game design that I'm surprised at it's success as a product.

What is happening with the DS is worth watching by every game designer. Many DS games are still pure action / reward based core game play in the mode of Space Invaders or Pacman. People deem them primitive and they certainly are. However, these gameplay seeds will evolve rapidly and I wouldn't be the least surprised to find one or two major new game genres finding their birth place on the DS. We get to watch the path from Spacewars to Quake 4 happen on a new platform in front of our eyes. What a wonderful opportunity for the design community.

take care

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Serious Games: A broader definition

I was hoping to polish off a simple, easy to use definition of serious games. I ran into the following difficulties immediately:
  • A wide spectrum of groups are interested in serious games
  • Each group has a radically different understanding of the term ‘serious games’
The company I work at is in somewhat of a unique position. We’ve been working on game technology for the past 10 years and have been successfully selling solutions into businesses for many years. Our customers include Boeing, Panasonic, USAF, Maseratti, AMD, Nvidia, Sony and more. We’ve sold both product and services to everything from large enterprise companies to defense to game companies. I’ve personally been able to witness hundreds of projects from start to completion.

We’ve learned some good lessons about this new movement people are now calling ‘serious games’. Sometimes the lessons were painful. Sometimes they were surprisingly positive.

I’ll begin this series of essays on Serious Games with something fundamental. The public definition of serious games doesn’t match the experience of people selling serious games.

Lessons 1: The man on the street doesn’t understand the benefit of games, but he does understand the benefit of game technology.

Why does the following situation occur?
  • Show a business leader a game of chess and ask them to purchase a strategic training application and they’ll laugh you out of the office.
  • Show them a great 3D engine and ask them to purchase a strategic training application and they’ll ask you how much it would cost to ship them one by next Friday.
A broken definition of serious games
“The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its
overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game
industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health,
and public policy” - seriousgames.org
This definition of serious games is too narrow. The goal is admirable, but there is more value hidden within game development than just games for ‘education, training, health, and public policy.’ We need a definition of serious games that includes the core reason why businesses care.

The problem with selling ‘games’ to business
The benefit of a game is still questionable to many people. First, there is no concrete evidence that says ‘games increase learning by X%’. There is great work being done here, but overwhelming evidences that games are an inherently useful tool does not yet exist.

Second, when I start a conversation with the claim that ‘games are good at teaching people.’ I get blank stares. This theory may be common knowledge within academia and game design circles, but to the broader world (people over 40) games are still seen as toys. Every time I sit in on a sales call, I’m reminded that we have decades left of intense public relations before we change this basic cultural stereotype.

As a developer, this irks me. As a businessman, I have to bite my tongue and admit that it will take a long while to boil this particular ocean.

3D means replacing real world experiences
Game technology, surprisingly, is a completely different matter. Modern games use 3D to let users experience realistic simulated situations that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to experience in the real world. People grok this concept intuitively. When a business person looks at Half Life, they may not care about the game design aspects of the title, but they grasp that they are witnessing impressive technology that has the ability to change how we interact with the world.

I’ve heard variations on the following scenario many times. “My son was playing Half Life and he had to turn on a bunch of valves to get the water level to drop. Why, we do the same thing in our company training. If I could give people an application that lets them virtually mess with valves, I could save millions.” People use different words based off their individual problem, but the core concepts are the same

  • 3D games let people experience real world activities
  • It is expensive, dangerous, etc to let people perform certain real world activities at my company.
  • A 3D application that replaces certain real world activities would be immediately valuable to me.
3D matters
I’m going to broach a subject that is a bit of ‘the elephant in the room’ in my conversations with my colleagues who are deeply excited by the concept of serious games.

Are you curious why serious games only started to take off in the past couple of years? ‘Serious games’ have honestly been around for ages. Call them edutainment or simulations if you wish, but the basic concept of learning games has been a niche aspect of training and education for at least a decade or more.

It is only with the introduction of 3D that this market is taking off. This makes me suspicions that the learning / edutainment / game design aspect of serious games is not the key factor driving current growth.

Based off my experience, many companies are not primarily looking for games per se. People with money are looking for 3D applications to solve previously intractable business problems. The modern game industry with its hyper-realistic, low cost 3D worlds is hitting business over the head with a potential solution to their business problem.

We’ve made the intractable possible. People are flocking to serious games because we are finally offering the right technology at the right price.

Lesson 2: When a business person says ‘game’ there’s a good chance he is talking about a ‘3D application.’
Game developers and designers are fooled by this sudden interest in 3D game technology. They bring their decades of expertise in game design to the table and immediately start talking about learning, reward systems, and ‘fun’. Stop. Take a deep breath.

There are 3D applications that use modern game technology that are not ‘games’. They don’t need to be fun. They don’t need learning or reward systems. They have none of the formal requirements of a game based on any one of the dozen definitions you might throw at them.

We work with a large company that sells airplanes. They love our game technology because it lets them save about $10 million per airplane they configure. The application dynamically builds up an entire 3D airplane from information stored in a database and interactively lets customers change out parts. It replaces a telephone book of options and a large, but relatively useless, physical mockup.

This is a 3D application that solves a business problem. It is described as ‘game-like’. It is described as ‘using game technology’. But it isn’t a game. We need a name for this very useful application.

Two overlapping categories
I see two categories of serious games:
  • Games: Applications focused on learning, simulation and fun.
  • 3D applications: Applications that use 3D game technology and techniques to solve business problems.
Both types of applications are valid and useful. The goal of this article is to broaden the concept of serious games, not dismiss the wonderful learning applications of games. The two categories certainly overlap.

  • There are 3D applications that are not games
  • There are 3D applications that are games
  • There are games that are not 3D applications

Looking at serious games from a business perspective
Serious games aficionados should avoid jumping to the conclusion that serious games customers want games. Instead ask some basic questions first.

  • What is the business problem?
  • What are the tools required to solve the business problem?
  • What is the solution the solves the business problem?
You may find that they need a 3D application that only uses game technology and not game design. In my experience, this is the case in approximately 90% of the customers who approach us. (Your experiences naturally will vary. We are all blind men describing a different part of this new market.)

The fuzzy boundary between games and 3D applications
It is tempting to say that serious games only deal with the gaming-focused solutions and other types of 3D applications are not serious games. But the differences are not clear cut.

Borderline Game #1: Let’s consider the airplane configuration tool that I mentioned earlier. It turns out that there is a quite a large amount of simulation involved in its creation.
  • Application of complex business rules to give feedback on weight distribution and object placement. The system can tell you if you are going to be able to fly to Seattle or not.
  • The physics of navigating a large aircraft.
Are there goals? The buyer certainly has goals and they manipulate the tool to reach certain cost, distance and maintenance goals. It still isn’t a game, but it has many of the attributes possessed by games.

Borderline Game #2: There’s another application that we built for a maintenance repair project. Technologically and architecturally it is nearly identical to the plane configuration tool. The user is placed in a training scenario where they have 15 minutes to repair a broken seat monitor. They rush around through a virtual airplane, replacing parts and running tests. If they succeed, they are told ‘good job’ and given a score in the LMS (Learning management system).

Is this a game? The customer thinks of it as a training application. It turns out that there is an element of ‘fun’ to it, even though it was never built as a game. You could even take each training scenario and plunk it into the middle of Half Life 2 and no one would suspect that these ‘levels’ came from a training application.

In short, if the definition of a ‘game’ is poorly defined, then the definition of a serious game is even fuzzier. I find it difficult to draw a clean line between games, simulations, and 3D applications. Even more to the point, many customers do not make this distinction. In the immortal words of a friend who works on these problems daily, “It uses game ‘stuff’, therefore it is a serious game.”

Broadening the Serious Games definition?

Tunnel vision
Many websites that cover serious games focus on the game aspect of Serious Games and very little on the technology and process transfer into 3D applications.

I believe this is short sighted. Serious games has the potential to be far more than an simple opportunity for game developers to make games that happen to exist in a business setting. The serious games movement acts as an ambassador that promotes the adoption of modern game technology, processes and thinking throughout the larger business community.

We are finally getting the rest of the world to talk about games in a positive light. Serious games is the start of a wave that is spreading into the mainstream press. Do we really want to promote the implicit message that “Game technology is only useful for training and nothing else.”?

Ambassadors of the beneficial side of games
If the serious games community wants to embrace its growing role as the pragmatic, beneficial face of the game industry, we need to set our sights higher. Discussing the joys of finished game is a start, but we also need to promote the rest of our secret sauce outside of the gaming community What about:

  • Game development techniques and processes
  • Game development skills and expertise
  • Game design techniques and philosophy
Make it pertinent
In order to serve as ambassadors we need to make each of these elements pertinent to the people paying our bills. As game developers, we need to go to the mountain since the mountain isn’t going to come to us.

  • Speak the language of business: We need to understand business problems at the same level and often better than the businesses do.
  • Integrate with their systems and processes: We need to work within their ecosystem of databases, security concerns, and business logic.
  • Understand business value of our solution: We need to clearly understand the value our fancy technology brings to the business.
A new definition of serious games
I don’t have a perfect definition of serious games, but here is a more inclusive attempt:

Serious Games: The application of gaming technology,
process, and design to the solution of problems faced by businesses and other

Serious games promote the transfer and cross fertilization of game development knowledge and techniques in traditionally non-game markets such as training, product design, sales, marketing, etc.
I want to see a 3D application headlining the next Serious Games Summit. Serious games is still young and flexible. This is our chance to show the world that there is more to serious games than rebranded FPSs. There is more than 2D city planning games or mathlete shooters. Let’s start talking about the wide array of intractable business problems and how we are solving them using our flexible and powerful set of game development tools.

The broad definition of serious games will grow into multi-billion dollar markets and will fundamental change how businesses and governments operate. As developers who are passionate about serious games, we are one of the few groups that is ideally suited to spread the gospel.

I’m curious to see what path the community will take. Are serious games only about games or are they about the broader application of games and gaming technology?

Take care

Note: These are my views and don’t necessarily reflect Anark’s views. C'est la vie. :-)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

SpaceCrack: Game Concept Sketches

Ah, SpaceCrack. This is a simple multi-player game played in the spirit of Spaceward Ho. It is all played over the internet and uses a simple match making service similar to evite. Set a date, the system bugs everyone incessently to log on, and then within 3 minutes of clicking on the link you are playing against your buddies.

The goal is to get people playing quickly and to convince their friends to play. In short, a viral turn-based strategy game. I'll write up some more on the design when I get a chance. In the mean time, enjoy the pictures.

More pictures after the break.

Miscellaneous ships.

Space stations. They serve french fries and lovely malts in the lounge.

This is where the game developer union lives and works. Moving boxes...that's our business.

A world with a space elevator. Everyone needs space elevators. I have two.

Various types of ammunition

Various weapon pods you can get

Exploration of the 'white space', space with an iconic board game feel.

An alternative interface for a rogue-like varient.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

Book: Raph Koster's "Theory of Fun for Game Design"

My charming (and tall) friend Lennart turned me onto Raph Koster's book "Theory of Fun for Game Design" and I must say it was a delightful read. This book fills the 'game apologist' niche in my bookshelf. Every game designers, at some point in his career, feels the urge to justify his work to the broader community. We need more such writing that talks about what is good in games.

Games as learning activities
Koster discusses the concept of games as learning activities. This ties in remarkably well with the idea of psychological risk / reward systems that underlies many of my essays. The question must be asked, "What are these systems?" We know they have a risk activity that the player must perform and we know that they have a reward system. We even know some aspects of what makes an 'elegant' risk activity.

Koster claims that these risk activities tie into the natural learning systems of the brain. When a player first encounters an activity, they try to understand it and grok it so completely that it can be turned into a simple rote pattern. If the pattern is too difficult to understand, we dismiss it as noise. If it is too simple, we immediately understand it and file it away as a solved problem.

Dance, Dance, Revolution
Great stuff and it makes me want to measure brain activity when someone is learning a task vs. when they are playing a game. However, though it may be nice to go to sleep thinking of our profession as 'teachers of the future' we are not completely off the hook. I can buy that there exist primitive structures inside our brains to encourage mastering patterns of activities in the presence of rewards. However, what we learn (and Koster makes a similar point), may not always be useful.

In effect, game designers are hijacking the learning systems of the brain. Think of it as the same as when a doctor hits your knee with a little rubber mallet and your leg jumps. A talented doctor can make a person dance by hitting them in the correct spots or jolting certain nerves with electricity. A macabre image to say the least. Often times, the same thing occurs with games. Designers are applying carefully constructed stimuli to our learning systems and getting people to react in a desired fashion.

With Simon (or any fighting / dancing game for that matter) I can train you to become delightfully skilled at pushing a set of buttons in an intricate pattern. The pure game apologist would claim that this activity trains general timing skills, a clearly valuable evolutionary skill. I share this view. But I am also struck the obvious thought that what specifically is happening is that user is being trained on timing within the context of the game. Do those timing skills translate to other activities? What are factors involved that make them transfer more easily? I am curious.

Serious Games
Where all this become really quite fascinating is when you start applying it to Serious Games. Military trainers claim that the shooting ability of kids trained on video games is on average higher than people who have not trained on video games. Even such a broad statement opens a can of worms both good and bad.

As game designers, we are just beginning to tap the practical and theoretical implications of games as learning devices. As the traditional game industry moves towards consolidation, many decry the stagnation of innovation. Poppycock. We are at the beginning of a new stage of modern gaming's remarkable market explosion: the application of game design beyond entertainment to real world problems. Exciting times. :-)

take care

Game Genre Lifecycle: Part IV

Profiting from the Genre Lifecycle
Let us revisit the genre life cycle and summarize what we have learned. I'll also discuss basic design strategies for succeeding during each phase of the genre lifecycle. I apologize ahead of time if some of these comments are a bit tongue-in-cheek.

"A new and addictive set of game mechanics are created."

During the introduction phase, there is lots of risk and not a lot of profit. You don't have genre addicts to boost your new game sales. The good news is that there isn't a lot of competition either.

  • Focus on innovative risk mechanics: The only way you'll create a new genre is by creating new risk mechanics. If you are able to think about game rules abstractly, attack the problem directly. If you are more focused on reward systems, pick a unique and powerful reward mechanism and then iterate on innovative risk mechanics that can package the reward more effectively. The Simon-style boss fights in God of War are a good example of this in a modern game.
  • Use Design Testing: This will reduce the risk of creating an non-addictive game and increase your chance of creating a massively addictive game.
  • Use an existing brand or theme : From a marketing stand point, game mechanics don't sell during the introduction phase. Remember, people can't get addicted to your title until they play it. So hoodwink customers into playing the title by using a brand or them that they already identify with.
  • Create a small diverse team: Interesting people from interesting backgrounds make for great creativity. Heck, hire folks who may not even be gamers. The original Sims development team or the team for Katamari Damacy are good examples of this tactic.
  • Avoid heavy plots, cut scenes, non-algorithmic animations, etc: These are expensive and inhibit your ability to rapidly iterate on the game's core addictive qualities. You'll need them when you enter into a hard core king-of-the-genre competition, but you don't need them now.
  • Focus on the learning curve: The initial few seconds of the game are critical. No one will know how to play your game and you'll lose most people the moment they pick up the controls. Tutorials and streamlined control systems are your friends. Tweaks to the control system for expert users can come later.
  • Focus on replay value: Word of mouth is important and the more someone plays they more likely they are to tell their friends about 'this exciting new game' on the top of their mind.
  • Aim for the future : Your goal during the introduction phase is to create a modest success by doing something different. Ideally, this lets you build a unique brand and fan base that can dominate your new genre in the future. Developers who followed this path include id (FPS), Peter Molyneux (god games), Will Wright (Sim games), and Westwood Studios (RTS).
"The game mechanics are experimented with and genre addiction begins to spread."

The growth phase is the primary period to set up a strong brand in a genre you have not invented. This is the perfect time for an opportunistic team to be heralded as an innovator without all the risks that comes from creating a new genre from the ground up.

  • Track new titles to spot innovation early: Has a new title emerged that has solid reviews, but poor sales? This is often a sign of innovation since good review indicate addictive game play is at work and the lack of sales may be the result of genre addicts ignoring the title because it is too different.
  • Watch for new game mechanics: Does the title differentiate itself with game mechanics or is it considered unique because of setting, plot, etc? Ignore the dressing. You'll likely want to replace that anyway. But new successful game mechanics can be like a pot of gold.
  • Spread your net far: Sometimes the most interesting game mechanics come from smaller companies. This is good, because these companies don't have the resources to build a strong competitive brand. If you just focus on high profile innovative titles (like the Sims) you'll have to compete with their brand and the comparison can hurt you.
  • Focus on a rich setting: If you know you have addictive game play that has no major competition, you can put substantial energy into creating an appealing mass market setting. This is an investment in a unique asset that cannot be stolen or copied. You can use this setting as part of a strong brand in the future to enhance your games. The KingsQuest setting is a good example of this tactic in adventure games. The Warcraft setting accomplished the same goal in the RTS genre.
  • Grab a setting niche: This is related to the above point. By being the first in a genre to release a solid fantasy, historical, or science fiction setting, you establish your title as the king-of-the-hill for players who prefer that setting. Often, you can maintain your leadership position for multiple months (perhaps even a year) which in turn gives you enhanced sales as the genre grows in popularity.
  • Focus on polish: No original game is perfect. There are typically usability flaws, a lack of length, etc. Play test the game substantially and fix the major issues. By 'bringing the game up to standards', in terms of graphics, cut scenes, etc you increase your chances of creating a break out hit.
  • Don't be too innovative: Be wary of reinventing the core game mechanics dramatically. This can pay off, but it introduces additional risk. Someone has already went through the work of validating the main game mechanics and now you just need to commercialize their efforts. 'Z' is a great example of a bright team that went too far in the RTS growth phase.
"The game mechanics are standardized and genre addiction forms a strong market force."
Unless you have a strong brand or legacy from early lifecycle phases, competing in the maturity phase can be difficult. You are in the middle of a vicious battle for king-of-the-genre status.

  • Standardize your interface: Genre addicts are out in force and you want to make it as easy as possible for them to adopt your title. Look at other popular games and copy their interfaces down to the smallest detail.
  • Focus on the higher layer design: Your mature title is all about elements like graphics, plot, license, etc. You are trying to squeeze out the last bit of addiction from game mechanics that are locked in stone by the demanding genre addicts. This means fluffy plot and lots of it. Why not add a half-naked alternate character? Script writers, Hollywood directors, voice actors...these are your bread and butter.
  • Craft finely tuned game mechanics: Your designer should be someone who has made at least three or four major titles in this genre and everyone on the team should be completely and absolutely addicted to the genre. Are they hardcore? Keep them. Are they innovative or different? Kick them off the team. The goal is not innovation. The goal is perfection.
  • Focus on movie-like pacing: Treat the title like a block buster with each minute of the game play massaged for the optimal (and identical) player experience. It is okay of the game has no replay value. You don't need to worry about word of mouth and you want to sell sequels.
  • Spend lots of money: The maturity phase is one of the few times you can buy your way to the top. Better graphics, more content, etc can sway players wallets as they search for their next big fix.
  • If you can't do the above, leave the genre: If you aren't a big player, don't play the game. You generally aren't going to out-KingsQuest a genre leader like Sierra. Why spend millions of dollars on a highly competitive genre and ultimately fail in the market place? Drop out and try to innovate. The rewards are likely much higher than almost certain financial failure.
"The market consolidates around the winners of the king-of-the-genre battles"

Big brands rule the roost with only a few smaller 'appetizer' titles making money. The number of titles is dropping, but the consolidation that comes from genre addiction still means there are a few big hits left.
  • Be a big boy: If you have won a genre battle or two during the maturity phase, you are a fat cat. Your games may sink in quality, but you'll still release one or two more sequels that do reasonably well financially. The big teams of hardcore craftsmen and bloated budgets left over from your glory days are slow to change. Either bankruptcy or other publishers will cull you in due time.
  • Release off season: If you release a B-grade title off season, you can avoid the massively hyped release of the genre kings. You may pick up some addicts who need a fix immediately. But when the next Half Life 2 comes out, you'll be forgotten.
  • Leave now!: Get out while you still can. Too many great titles are released with a whimper during the decline. Grim Fandango comes to mind.
"A population of hardcore genre addicts provides both the development resources and audience for the continued development of games in the genre."

By this time, most of the publishers no longer support the genre. Now is the time for the indie copycats and Eastern European sweatshops to clean the carcass.
  • Go independent: Release online and market to remaining genre addicts through fan sites and ancient journalists still remember your niche genre fondly.
  • Copy the most popular game possible: Some innovation is okay because the player don't have many choices, but be warned that many addicts will complain feverishly that "Your title doesn't work exactly like genre king XYZ!" If it does work just like their favorite title, you can build a cult addicts that will spread the gospel of the Second Coming across the net like wild fire.
  • Try to pick up a license for cheap: Sometimes publishers are in financial straits (cough, cough) and it is amazing the deals you can get.
  • Pay lip service to higher layers game mechanics: Definitely keep things like plot and such because the genre addicts expect it. However, you can do it on the cheap with no real retribution. Sure, your game will look 5 years old, but that's okay. The addicts will still buy it.

Well, it took longer than I thought, but we've started a great discussion about game genres and how they evolve. Some key points of this essay include:
  • Risk mechanics are the most meaningful defining aspects of game genres
  • Rewards grow with intensity as genres out compete one another in the market place. Sometimes, intense rewards will cause the evolution of risk mechanics and spawn a new genre
  • Genres grow and fade away just like a traditional product category. The standard product evolution stages of innovation, growth, maturity, decline, and niche are very applicable to understanding how genres evolve.
  • There are distinct, optimal strategies for both game design and marketing that should be followed during each stage of the genre life cycle. Break these rules at your own risk.

As I journey down this exploration of genres, it is apparent to me the importance of innovation, both as a market shaping activity, but also as a sound business strategy. In a period of several years, a genre can go from the introduction phase to the mature phase. Only the genre kings can play in the later stages of the genre life cycle and their advantages are substantial.

Innovators like Peter Molyneux and Will Wright are onto something. Each game, they drop out of the race and start the battle anew with fewer competitors and the chance to make their own way in the world. If all else fails, why not innovate?

take care,
- Danc.

Read previous chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part III

Game Genre Lifecycle: Part III

How to create a new genre
We've seen how genres die. Now let's look at how they are born. There are two clear cut methods I've come across for founding new genres:

  • Innovate in terms of more potent reward mechanisms
  • Innovate in terms of more cost-effective risk mechanisms.
As we will see, innovating in terms of reward mechanism is merely a path that leads towards creating new risk mechanisms. Ultimately new genres rest upon the uniqueness of their risk mechanisms and nothing else.

Improving reward mechanisms
As I was perusing the data for graphics adventures I came across an unexpected growth period in the genre, starting in the mid-90s. Could it be that graphics adventures were experiencing renewed popularity? Such a discovery would add a serious kink to the simple generalized curve of the genre lifecycle chart.

Upon closer examination, I found that innovation wasn't dead. Clever designers in Japan had used the oldest trick in the book to invent a new genre. They added pornographic images.

Pornographic video games, though a distasteful subject, is a good test for the conceptual structure of game genres that I've been building in these essays. Fringe content is often useful in testing the flexibility of a theory.

Defining Core Game mechanics

  • Risk elements are composed of simple clicking on dialog choices.
  • Basic reward comes in the form of watching adult video clips.

Defining Metagame mechanics

  • Limited player statistics or meta-game elements.
  • A linear narrative is used to connect the series of dialog trees

Notes on the Genre Definition: Trouble 'a brewing
Again, the major apparent shift here is in the reward system. The introduction of sexual images provides a more intense reward for the player.

A major concern should arise at this point. Our original definition of genre specifically excludes contextual design layers such as plot, setting, and contextualized token. The existence of a genre that is defined by contextualized tokens (naked women) calls into question our original assumption. So we must ask: Is context fundamental to the definition of a genre?

How rewards influence risk mechanics
The answer sheds light on the importance of risk mechanics in the definition of genres.

What we've uncovered is the feedback link between strong reward systems and underlying game mechanics. In any game system risk and reward work in concert to create player addiction. When you introduce new reward mechanisms, the risk mechanics inevitably evolve as well, creating a new genre.

Historically the adoption of new reward systems has caused the rapid evolution of risk mechanics. The addition of graphics to the traditional text adventure resulted in designers developing new ways of creating visually rich puzzles that took advantage of the graphic rewards. It was the "point and click" risk mechanics of the evolved graphic adventure that ultimately defined a distinct genre in a market landscape filled with 'graphical games' such as RPGs and FPSs.

With this perspective, let us return to adult graphic adventures. In the presence of a strong reward system (pornographic content) we should observe an evolution of the game mechanics that better showcase the rewards. Games listed in Moby Games have moved strongly towards simple dialog trees and simplistic 'relationship simulators'. This is a radically different risk mechanic than you find in puzzle-oriented graphic adventures. In fact, these are "games that can be played with one hand" to quote an anonymous player.

Adult graphic adventures are a genre, not defined solely by their adult content, but by the underlying risk mechanics. A simple test can be performed. If this genre is truly context independent, we should find other examples with the same core risk mechanics and non-adult content. In fact these are easy to find. Particularly in Japan, there are a wide range of so called 'relationship simulators' that use a choose-your-own adventure form of gameplay to show case non-adult anime movies.

The historical pattern of reward escalation in genre 'speciation'
Over time, we see a clear pattern emerge. Later genres contain psychological risk / reward mechanisms that are substantially more potent than later game genres. Consider the escalating reward mechanisms for the adventure games we've covered so far

  • 80's: Text-based plot rewards
  • 90's: Generic graphical rewards
  • 00's: Sexual graphical rewards
The reward mechanisms in games have been slowly and steadily becoming more intense both in terms of graphics and psychological impact. An early game like Planetfall gained substantial emotional impact from a textual description of the droid Floid's heroic death. Modern games like God of War give the player an emotional rush by relying on visceral depictions of human sacrifice.

The driving mechanisms behind the creation of these more intense experiences are self evident. Better hardware allows to improved graphics. King-of-the-genre competition results in designers striving for bigger explosions, more violent deaths, and more glorious landscapes. If you want to differentiate your design through improved reward systems, the tools and techniques are available to even the crudest game designer. Even Pong can be made into a more impactful game by replacing the ball with a human head and the paddle with a boot.

The next step however is crucial to the development of new genres. As reward mechanism are introduced, developers evolve the critical risk mechanics to better take advantage and showcase the rewards. As risk mechanics converge on a standardized interface and set of player activities, a well-defined genre is born.

Improving risk mechanisms
Now we are getting somewhere. We've isolated the risk component of psychological risk / reward mechanics as a critical aspect of defining genres. In hindsight this is perhaps not surprising. Another, less academic way of saying the same thing is that genres are defined by the basic activities that a player must perform.

Now let us dig into a deeper understanding of which risk mechanics survive in the marketplace. There are some trends apparent here as well.

  • Text based puzzles that often required an intimate understanding of plot to solve: From a design perspective this required large amounts of custom design work for each puzzle.
  • Graphical puzzles that were more mechanical in nature: This required less design work, but was still heavily customized.
  • Simple dialog trees: This requires very little design work and is only slightly customized.
This is a small sample set, but we can form a basic theory. Over time, the market values genres that use risk mechanism that are more modular and reusable. Early genres had the equivalent of assembly programming for their risk mechanics. Everything was custom tailored to a specific game experience. This is economically inefficient. Imagine if every time you fired a bullet in a FPS, you had to recode from scratch new mechanics for aiming and firing.

Economics make this unreasonable. Consider the trends of ever growing reward intensity. Creating a more visceral reward require substantial resources. As a genre matures, developers spend more time and effort on the reward elements of title in an attempt to maximize the 'fun' (aka positive feedback).

Risk and rewards come in pairs
Risk and rewards come in pairs. If you add more rewards, you inevitably need to add more risk activities. Unfortunately, core game mechanics have a substantial cost of implementation. Below is a simple conceptual graph that shows the increasing cost of core game mechanics compared to more reward and learning curve oriented systems.

What is a designer to do? They cheat like hell (aka innovate) and come up with activities that are still enjoyable, but can cost effectively service a wide number of reward scenarios without growing stale.

The concept of elegant risk mechanics:
We can go further and state that there are rules behind the design of 'good' risk activities.

Elegant Risk Mechanics: Small rule sets defining activities that result in long term, high levels of player addiction.

  • Low burnout: Players don't burn out even though they are performing the same basic actions thousands of times.
  • Reusable: Can be repeated throughout the game with minor modification.
  • Scalable: There are economies of scale as additional content is added.

Text adventures are a great example of an inelegant risk mechanic.

  • Not Reusable: Each time the author creates a puzzle, he cannot easily reuse the puzzle without custom programming and writing.
  • High burnout: If you do repeat a puzzle, the player becomes rapidly bored and experiences burnout. "Oh, no...not another lever puzzle."
  • No economies of scale: Adding an additional puzzle costs you just as much as adding the last puzzle. Occasionally, it will cost you more because you've run out of ideas.
Alternatively, consider a FPS. You invest substantial up front development costs in perfecting player movement, enemy AI, and shooting physics. Yet once these basics in place, it becomes trivial to set up additional activities. Drop some objects down and voila...player can fight against one monsters, player fights against two monsters. Minor risk / reward variations on the more 'elegant' risk mechanic allow the designer to economically maintain the player's addiction.

An argument for the importance of elegant risk mechanics
Is it theoretically possible to create a game that has inelegant game mechanics such as a graphics adventure that competes in terms of addictiveness of a more elegant system such as GTA? Certainly. The economics of the endeavor would be unthinkable however. Instead of the dozens of puzzles found in adventure games you would need thousands of puzzles. The effort required to imagine each unique puzzle and associate it with a meaningful plot-based rewards hurts my noggin. Adventure games died because their fundamental design simply did not scale.

Ultimately, it is risk mechanics that helps differentiate 'fun games' from their brethren. All else being equal, games that improve risk mechanics yield more fun for longer periods of time. Done correctly creating innovative elegant risk mechanics can help a developer carve out a unique sub-genre that is difficult to replicate by competitors. Elegant risk mechanics are the magic sauce that let developers do more with less and rock the gaming world in the process. Here is the beginning of my post.

take care

Read next chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part IV
Read previous chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part II

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Game Genre Lifecycle: Part II

How to kill a genre: Revisited
In my previous article, I discussed how a single king-of-the-genre title can take such a large market share of genre addicts that it gains a market monopoly that crushes future competition. This tale is certainly quite palatable to many craggy old genre addicts who reminisce about their favorite genre. However, now that I've looked at some more data I'd like to revise my theory of genre death.

  • First, genres do not seem to die. Instead they fade away with a long tail of minor product releases during the niche phase.
  • Second, genres die because they are out competed in the market place by other more addictive genres. These new genres typically improve on some core game mechanic of a precursor genre.
  • Third, the consolidation that results from the epic king-of-the-genre battles creates a rigid development structure that is unable to adapt to market challengers.

Near the decline of a genre, companies have clear investment patterns:

  • Investment in higher layer design activities: Major effort spent on elements such as plot and setting.
  • Investment in low-yield low layer design activities: Minor tweaks to game mechanics that don't fundamentally change the addictive nature of the game play.

From a portfolio management stand point, this investment pattern makes a lot of sense. Publishers want to reduce risk and out compete the other publishers for the king-of-the-genre dollars. Winning these battles can mean life or death to a publisher.

From a genre management perspective, these publishing tactics merely put a nail in the coffin of a potentially long lived genre. By focusing on pleasing genre addicts, the genre becomes prone to stagnation.

The craftsmen's downfall
This last point is worth exploring further. In both the case of text adventures and graphics adventures, there emerged a strong, highly dominant genre leader. With text adventures, this was Infocom. With graphic adventures this was Sierra (with perhaps LucasArts sharing the title). These companies became market leaders through mastery of their chosen game genre.

Yet, their skills were their downfall.

  • During the peak of each genre, the genre leaders released large numbers of titles with fundamentally the same core game mechanics.
  • Innovation was limited to variations on a theme (A Mind Forever Voyaging, Police Quest, Hero's Quest, etc).
  • Decline phase titles focused heavily on high layer design techniques. Skilled craftsmen and cowboy designers, schooled in the 'perfect genre formula' moved into key leadership positions. They caused massive amounts of money to be poured into elements like plot, improved graphics, new settings, etc. These low yield design activities did not substantially increase the addictive qualities of the titles.
  • If game's addiction rating stands still, it falls behind other more innovative titles. Players began sampling other genres.
  • Average per title sales began to decline. Even though they were 'following the formula', the dramatic leap in sales that accompanied early successful king-of-the-genre titles was not reproducible. This increase in sales traditional came from genre addict consolidation, not from pure market growth.
The craftsmen attempted to adapt, but this was difficult. With their skills so heavily entrenched in a specific genre, their attempts in other genres were of limited success. Infocom was sold to Activision. Sierra released a large swatch of poor titles that failed to achieve king-of-the-genre status in emerging markets. LucasArts dumped their adventure teams and focused on the safe haven of the Star Wars license. The hemorrhaging of talent in all cases was brutal.

When I see the great craftsmen of past genres, I'm saddened by their end. The truest craftsmen amongst them rarely make a comeback. They succeeded because they were polishers, not innovators. They fade into obscurity, unable to escape the rigid lessons learned during their long ascension to mastery of a faded genre.

And this is how the genre is put on life support. The best development teams are destroyed and the skills to create great titles are lost. A passionate few attempt to keep the genre alive, but they focus on recreating the past. Historical blinders prevent them from creating a new mix of potent game mechanics that can compete in current market conditions.

take care

Read next chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part III
Read previous chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part I

Game Genre Lifecycle: Part I

The life cycles of game genres and the lessons that they teach us

Over the years people have bemoaned the rise and fall of various gaming genres, but there has been little analysis behind the functional processes that drive this critical market systems.

Genres are a major defining factor in the creation of rich markets of avid gamers and designers ignore them at our own risk. We cannot assume that a genre will always exist, or that a genre will have competitive room for our latest title. A genre in the wane is a dangerous market where past success is no indication of future success.

Equally important is the opportunity that genres present. If we can understand how genres arise and change over time, we can tilt fate in our favor by releasing and developing new titles that hit emerging genres with the correct timing and release strategies.

Several pressing questions come to mind:

  • What are the stages of a typical genre's lifecycle
  • What does genre evolution tell us about creating financially viable new genres?
  • What are the common success strategies associated with each lifecycle stage?

Adventure Games: Just the Facts

It's all about the numbers

I have been guilty in the past of focusing on theory and not relying using a foundation of real world data to back up my discussion. Luckily, this the topic of genre evolution has a rich resource in the form of the MobyGames.com database. The database lists over 20,000 games across 55 platforms. Games range from 1978 through 2005 and are organized according to a wide variety of categories and sub-categories.

Though by no means perfect, I was impressed by the breadth and accuracy of the information I found within. The large quantity of games and the historically minded nature of the site's contributors limits the 'survivor' bias that is common to data recorded after the fact. When possible, I double checked genre classifications against my personal recollection and other resources on the web.

I choose adventure games, a genre that many claim as 'dead' and tracked it from its first recorded inception in 1978 until the last valid data point in 2003.

The primary focus was the number of titles released per year. I would have loved to use sales numbers or aggregate review ratings, but neither piece of information as publicly available in any reliable form.

(A great service to the game research community would be sales numbers for all games released in a particular time period. Unfortunately, the competitive realities of the game industry make this unlikely.)

Adventure Games: "I'm not dead yet!"
The initial graph I ran just looked at 'adventure games' as defined in the following fashion:

Adventure: Denotes any game where the emphasis is based on experiencing a story through the manipulation of one or more user-controlled characters and the environment they exist in. Game play mechanics emphasize decision over action." - Moby Games

This was a good starting point and fit my preconceived notion of the traditional adventure game including classics such as King's Quest or even Grim Fandango.

Surprisingly, the number of adventure games rises time goes on. I was expecting to see a precipitous drop at the end of the 1990's. In fact, adventure games and their descendents are the second most popular genre as late as 2003.

Number of titles released in major genres in 2003
  1. Action: 573
  2. Adventure: 317
  3. Strategy: 266
  4. RPG: 179
  5. Simulation: 159
  6. Sports: 137
  7. Racing / Driving: 125

Genre Mutation
The major genres are by no means exclusive categories. On closer examination, day traditional plot driven adventure category has been mixed (or 'cut' in the language of gaming addiction) with game mechanisms from almost every possible alternative genre. There are strategy adventures, action adventures, etc. There are even racing-adventure games. (Beyond Good and Evil is one of the more interesting examples of this sort of genre-bending) The adventure game is dead, long live its mutant offspring.

Creating a useful definition of Game Genre
Much of this apparent growth in the adventure genre stems from poor classification. Let's go back to the definition of a genre that we started to develop in the genre addiction article.

Game Genre: A common set of game mechanics and interface standards that a group of titles share. The common set of psychological risk/reward systems present in a game determine it's membership in a genre grouping.

This is a rather rigid definition of genre, yet it explains much of life cycle trends the various genres. I hope to tackle the following topics with this particular definition:

  • Obtain a clear working definition of genres using concretely definable game mechanics, not ill-defined concepts such as 'fantasy' or 'science fiction'.
  • Track the lifecycle of various genres in a statistical fashion.
  • Gain insight into game design guidelines that may help reduce the risk of creating innovative game designs.

Market Factors: It is all a wash
To be clear, I'm intentionally ignoring differences such as whether or not a game is a fantasy RPG versus a science-fiction RPG. I am well aware that platform, setting, and plot, and license are important secondary market factors. The contextual elements of a game design can make or break a specific game.

My initial assumption is that many of these factors are long term cultural trends that exist on a time-scale much larger than an individual game. Well delivered plot is eternally delightful. Visuals that fit the whims of the public are a development technique that was available to past designers as well as future designers. Smart developers across multiple genres will always take advantage contextual elements to increase their sales.

The point is I'm assuming that developers will execute on all these contextual elements equally well or badly in some statistically uniform distribution. I'm taking the grand bet that these factors are a wash when it comes to examining the lifecycle of various games genres. In fact, my initial look at the problem using aggregate game rankings shows same basic normal distribution of game scores within any genre at any point in time.

Modeling: "Imagine a spherical cow"
So why focus on game mechanics as the defining factor? Because we can. According to the game design layers theory, core game mechanics are the most tangible, well-defined aspect of a game. We are going back to the basics and seeing what that gets us.

In physics, we have a joke that sums up this attitude quite nicely. A man asks a physics professor how long it would take for Holstein cow dropped from a 747 to hit the ground. The professor replies "First, let us assume a spherical cow..."

Sometimes we need to simplify a complex real world situation in order to begin modeling it. My hope is that this simple mechanics-based definition of game genres will provide substantial insight into how genres grow, evolve and eventually fade away.

Interactive Fiction
Let's use our new genre definition to tightly define a genre. Interactive Fiction is pretty clear cut.

Defining Core Game mechanics

  • Risk elements are composed of puzzle solving with a simple text-based parser. Puzzle solving tends to consist of acquiring an object and then using that object in the correct location.
  • Basic reward comes in the form reading new plot elements.
Defining Metagame mechanics
  • Limited player statistics or meta-game elements.
  • A linear narrative is used to connect the series of puzzles.
Other Game Design Layers
The above definition takes care of almost any text adventure I came across in during data collection. We can talk about contextualized objects, plot, etc, but these vary dramatically across games in the genre without giving us too much additional insight.

Notes on the Genre Definition
When defining the basic elements of the game, I'm splitting up the core game mechanics into two groups:
  • Risk elements: The actions that the player must perform successfully
  • Reward Elements: The 'treats' that the player gets for successfully completing the actions.

Immediately, we run into an interesting discovery about reward systems. The physical form of the reward system appear to matter greatly in the definition of the genre. In this case 'plot' arises as a reward mechanism. As we look at additional genres, we'll be able to make some conclusions about how different reward systems affect the addictiveness of the title.

A side note on plot. When you start thinking of games using mechanics-based definition, eternal debates such as the importance of story become very clear cut. Plot points are merely one of the many forms of reward that the designer has in their tool box.

The Data: Interactive Fiction

I graphed the number of titles released in a particular year using frequency polygons. The data was culled from an automated search on Moby Games and then compared to my above definition to make sure that each title fit.

We can see five clear phases of the genre lifecycle. These correspond with the typical product lifecycles you would see in most consumer categories, with some key differences.

  • Introduction: A new and addictive set of game mechanics are created.
  • Growth: The game mechanics are experimented with and genre addiction begins to spread.
  • Maturity: The game mechanics are standardized and genre addiction form a strong market force. Product differentiation occurs primarily through higher layer design elements like plot, license, etc.
  • Decline: The market consolidates around the winners of the king-of-the-genre battles that occurred during the Maturity phase. New games genres begin stealing away the customer base. With less financial reward, less games are released.
  • Niche: A population of hardcore genre addicts provides both the development resources and audience for the continued development of games in the genre. Quality decreases.

The first four phases are quite standard product phases. The last phase 'niche' occurs in many products, but is worth calling out due it's impact on indie development design decisions. Let us see if this pattern holds in other genres and if we can glean any addition insights from it.

Graphical Interactive Fiction
Graphical Interactive Fiction is a clear evolution from the interactive fiction genre. Not only do games in this genre add graphics as an enhance reward, but they also focus more strongly on graphical puzzles.

Defining Core Game mechanics

  • Risk elements are composed of puzzle solving with a simple text-based or icon-based parser. Puzzle solving tends to involving gaining an object and then using that object in the correct location.
  • Graphical puzzles make an appearance as a major activity.
  • Basic reward comes in the form of watching new plot elements.

Defining Metagame mechanics
  • Limited player statistics or meta-game elements.
  • A linear narrative is used to connect the series of puzzles.

Notes on the Genre Definition
The major apparent shift here is in the reward system. The introduction of graphics provides a more intense reward for the player.

The risk systems also change to a more graphically oriented method. Text parsers start to die as developers figure out that iconic puzzle solving offers a more streamlined approach to puzzle building.

The Data: Graphic Adventures

This graph was generated in the same method as before. It was a bit more interesting coming up with the data this time since the adventure genre was in full evolutionary explosion. The graphic adventure may be the clearest descendent of the text adventure, but it was not alone.

Others include:

  • Action Adventure
  • Puzzle Platformer
  • RPG
Examples of each of these emerge in the early 80's and some have a strong market presence even today. (A delightfully future project would be creating a chart that shows the evolutionary relationship of historical genres. Unfortunately, the query engine of Moby Games is limited in the current iteration and I did not have the ability to cull through the thousands of games in the database in an efficient fashion.)

A more informative graph shows the relationship between text adventures and graphics adventures

This chart shows three identifiable genres: Interactive fiction, graphical interactive fiction, and an unexpected new genre: adult graphical interactive fiction. We'll dig into this later.

Text adventure were some of the earliest games and peaked in popularity in the mid-80s. Graphic adventures came into existence shortly after the text adventure, but peaked in the early 90s.

It is impossible to determine an exact causal relationship, but graphics adventure arguably supplanted text adventures.

take care

Read next chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part II

I'm starting to build up a list of specialized terms from my previous essays. Here is a short cheat sheet

  • Genre Addict: Someone who strongly prefers to play a specific genre. There are elements of psychological addiction driving this preference.
  • King-of-the-genre: The top title in a genre that wins the purchases of a majority of genre addicts.
  • Game design layers: The concept that a game is built in layers with the most basic systems being core psychological risk / reward systems and higher layers focusing on contextual elements such as plot, characters and setting.
  • Craftsmen designers: Designers who prefer to focus on higher layer game design elements such as plot, characters, etc instead of core game mechanics. They are often strong genre addicts.
  • Design testing: The process of systematically instrumenting and logging player addiction statistics as a feedback mechanism for turning core game play. The goal of design testing is to increase the addictive nature of the game.
  • Player addiction: The concept that games are psychologically addictive systems that use risk / reward mechanics to produce measurable player behavioral change.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Short Games rock

Here's a wonderful article on short games by the fellows who made Strange Adventures in Infinite Space:

I like this design philosophy for several reasons:

  • Innovation friendly: You can try a bunch of interesting systems and you don't have to rebuild a dozen levels.
  • Design testing friendly: You can test these games rather quickly and gather interesting statistics. Gathering 3 - 4 game play data sets per day from a user is a lot better than gathering one data every 2 weeks.
  • Minimal plot: I love how they really just 'suggested' a plot with bits of setting randomly strewn about, but didn't really put one there. Good enough for me and a more economical use of development resources.
Some users will dismiss this type of game for not having an epic story. Wake up and smell the innovation. There are other forms of pyschological reward than an arbitrary injection of plot. Character building, social rankings, and such are equally enjoyable and actually give you more gaming bang for your buck.

Here's a dirty little secret. Most game genres are in the form of short games that just happen to be tied together by a simple metagame that relies on plot snippets as a reward mechanism. RPGs? Short tactical battles. Adventure games? Short puzzles. FPS? Short tactical shooting sessions. Remove the story and you still have a delightful gaming experience.

take care