Sunday, July 31, 2005

A short interview with a lady friend: Why video games are pointless

The majority of titles in my prefered genre, computer strategy games, are played by men. The few statistics I've seen put the number in the upper 90th percentile with a few notable exceptions such as Heroes of Might and Magic. This rather random thought floated through my head while I was at the local Dragon Boat Festival on a decadently hot Sunday here in Colorado. About forty of us, both men and women, were lounging about in camp chairs underneath the rowing team's big tent, drinking chilled beverages, watching the boat races and generally practicing the fine art of relaxation. A classic lazy summer afternoon.

Naturally, I brought up the topic of games. How could I not? One athletic young lady, a new acquaintance of mine, mentioned that she was an avid board game player. Yet, in the same breath, she also claimed that video games were a worthless activity. I posed to her a simple question. "Why?" (I'm honestly ashamed that I've taken this long to ask such a question in the first place.)

Her answer was quite succinct:

  1. Mastering the learning curve: Most video games require learning complex reaction-based skills in order to player competitively. The required investment in these skills creates a large entry barrier.
  2. Lack of social elements: Board games are social and therefore time well spent. Many video games have very limited social interaction and are therefore worthless.
Admittedly, this was a sample set of one, so I proceeded to pull another charming lady into the fray. The same question was posed and shockingly enough, the same basic answer came out. Now, I know for a fact that there is more to the story than just this perspective. The burgeoning casual games market demonstrates that at the very least many women are willing to play simple games as a form of relaxation. Yet, I was intrigued by these honest answers from women who clearly dislike an activity that I hold so dear to my heart.

"You have 8 out of 10,000 games that match your query"
First, it is quite obvious that the vast majority of commercial video games on the market do not fit within the guidelines above. If you value a social game that doesn't rely on skills mastery, it is remarkably fair to generalize video games as being 'worthless.' Most existing games focus on mastery of some twitch-style gaming and only a few could be classified as social. I've even heard from many gamers (all male, 16 - 25 surprisingly) who claim that unless a game has a mastery element to it, it is not worthy playing. If you can't beat Half Life 2, what is the point? Strike one against the game industry.

And for your information, shooting people in deathmatch while periodically typing "OMG ROTFLMAO" is not exactly social. I asked. Strike two against the game industry. From my small female sample set's perspective perhaps it is us, the hardcore male gamers, who are missing the point.

Imagine a game with a large social element that focuses on non-mastery activities. Off the top of my head, I can pick out a rather short list of The Sims, several MMOs, Nintendogs, Mario Party, Animal Crossing that fit this definition. Each of these has a substantially larger percentage of female players who mysteriously choose to purchase. For the Sims, that extra market boost was worth over $500 million in additional revenue. The benefit of appealing to women gamers is certainly obvious.

I'm sorry, my brain is broken
I'm not here to berate game designers for not designing more games playable by women. Instead I want to talk about how surprisingly hard it is for me to wrap my head around these two very simple concepts. Consider my basic design process. Put me in a room with the task of generating new game mechanics and I immediately latch onto new systems that involve shapes, patterns, timing sequences and other 'obvious' challenges that relate to mastery.

But there's a whole class of social problems that I don't even consider. I've got these big design blinders on that are so overpowering, I miss some of the most obvious challenges that our ape brains are dying to solve. My fiancee recently posed a problem to me that is no doubt a constant dilemma in her world. "I'm going to a dinner where the dress is described as 'casual'. However, most of the people there are older and are the cream of a politically important social group. What should I wear in order to make the best impression?"

This is a very real social problem that requires substantial mastery in order to pull off. In fact, you could argue that applying social skills, not shooting things, drives the majority of our daily lives. Yet, I'm completely unqualified to contemplate the subject. For example, in my little bubble world, I wear pants and a shirt. Beyond the basic physical benefits afforded by these simple and durable items, I rarely consider the implications of my dress. If I don't even realize that there is a problem, how can I design a game that manipulates the subtle psychological systems driving this pursuit?

Huh, I really suck as a mass market game designer. So do the vast majority of game designers practicing in the business today. Ouch.

An oath
I'm willing to admit that I'm an ignorant male game designer who is finally putting into words what millions of women around the world assume is common knowledge. I'll never be a new age sensitive guy, but I can learn. From this point forward, I swear the following oath.
  • I will question basic assumptions: Just because I like blowing things up as a demonstration of my elite skillz, it doesn't mean that everyone feels the same. The obvious, intuitive game mechanic that pops into my head like stroke of creative genus is not always the right one. Sometimes, it is just my hormones raging away.
  • Ask women for their opinions (and listen): When a woman dismisses your game design, it is unlikely that she is fundamentally uninterested in games. More than likely you've simply designed something that is fundamentally unappealing to her. Listen to why your game sucks in her eyes. Be willing to go back to the basics (see the previous point)
  • Include women as a target demographic in your design: All I want to do is double my potential market. If I need to improve my skills as a designer to pull it off, so be it. No one ever said this job would be easy.

In the future, I'll also be comparing my game designs very carefully to my new rules of thumb. Is the title social and does it let new user jump right in without being at a major disadvantage to the experts? Imagine if I can make a strategy game that garners a population of 30 or 40% women. That is a worthy design challenge. Of course, I may be kicked out of the Elk Lodge in the process, but I'm okay with that.

take care

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Space Crack: Financial Mechanics

This is part 13 of an ongoing game design document written as a blog. Be sure to catch up on previous posts. In the last installment, we talked about the benefits of plot. This time we'll look at what it takes to design money making capabilities into an online game.

Your kind isn't welcome here
In the various financial scenarios I’ve put together, the most glorious TBS game ever concieved (aka Space Crack) reaches break even at 8000 subscribers paying $5 a month. We reach an expansion state at which we can begin building a second title at 13,000 subscribers. To put these numbers in perspective, here are one analyst’s predictions of comparable break even numbers for the mainstream game industry.
“A game on all three consoles would have to sell around 600,000 in its first year, plus another 600,000 over the next couple of years just to break even. A million unit seller isn’t what it used to be.”
- Analyst Michael Pachter, Wedbush Morgan (EGM, September 2005)
Ah, such different universes and a rather good summary of why most big publishers will never invest in games like Space Crack. The moment you state “I want to make a casual TBS game that I’m hoping will sell over 13,000 subscriptions!” you’ve effectively killed your title before it even reaches the starting gate.

In order to make a friendly title like Space Crack, we can’t rely on the old “Sell a million copies” business practices. We’ll need to forge new business ground in order to make Space Crack a viable enterprise.

In the spirit of launching a new financial adventure, we’ll dig into practical options for making money with the Space Crack game design. There are several viable mechanisms including pay-to-play, micro payments for new content, subscriptions and retail-style pricing. I’m going to tweak and judge these various mechanics in light on two major criteria
  • Market Needs: Do the financial mechanics fit with the requirements outlined in game anthropology exercise I went through at the beginning of the design? Are these mechanics, as game mechanics, fun?
  • Financial Needs: Do the financial mechanics allow me to build a viable business?
Balance, Grasshopper
The intelligent balance between these two items should result in a game that people enjoy spending money on. It is important to realize that proper mix of financial success and player fun is not an ‘either / or’ situation. You can do both and you can do both well, but it takes a conscious effort.

You cannot simply focus on the art of game design and hope that that miraculous thing called ‘genius’ gains you financial success. Many indie game developers are caught in this trap. Nor can you focus on the financial mechanics and hope that cold-hearted process will yield a critically successful title. Many publishers are caught in this trap (Tomb Raider comes to mind). Hone both skills and success will be yours.

Market Factors
The market factors involved in using financial game mechanics are numerous and difficult to navigate. Money has complex social and cultural connotations and even small missteps can result in a dangerous poisoning of Space Crack’s gaming community. Ultimately, a game must provide a fair psychological value to the player in order for them to keep playing and keep purchasing our virtual goods.

Here are some rough guidelines to keep in mind:
  • Good fit with the game anthropology: Space Crack is a game about spending time with friends. Any mechanics that break this core value proposition hurts the game community. As such, the financial mechanics lean more toward team-based system like “signing up for a bowling league together”, rather than individual mechanics like “buying lots of cards so I can kill the other teenage nerds.”
  • Meets user expectation of standard features: Given the open-endedness of Financial Mechanics, it is easy to imagine systems like “every time you want to save, pay me $2.” Talk about an instant player rebellion. Focus your efforts on value added features, not expected features.
  • Fairness (aka Game Balancing): No one likes to play a game that is impossible to win. If you build financial mechanics that give one player a substantial advantage over another, you’ll end up with some frustrated players. This is game balancing 101, but too often game designers let people who spend the most money ruin the game for paying majority. Balance financial mechanics just like you would any other mechanics.
Financial Factors
On the other side of the coin are the financial factors.
  • Viable economic model: The game has to pay for its upkeep and provide the game developers with a reasonable profit. Game developers need to eat and if they make something great, they deserve to be own luxury yachts much like Gene Autry, Cake or other powerful rock stars of yore.
  • Moral financial practices: I’m a great believer in the power of games to effect human psychology for both good and for ill. Creating a game that ties into a player’s finances increases the potential for harm. In online titles, the game developer is morally obligated to take on the roll of a bartender for those who are obviously over indulging. “Sir, I’m afraid you’ve been investing a bit too much in Space Crack. I’m going to have to cut you off for the night.”
Financial Mechanics are similar to Game mechanics
The concept of financial mechanics is based on the risk / reward sequences we have discussed in the past.
  • Action: The player performs an action in the context of the game. However, this action results in the direct or indirect transfer of money to the developer.
  • Reward: The player gets some in-game reward
  • Penalty: The player doesn’t get some in-game reward
The wonderful thing about these mechanics is that they are almost completely open-ended. Any existing game mechanic can be turned into a financial mechanic. All it takes is a bit of imagination and knowing when to stop.

In-game currency
A useful method for unleashing the potential of financial game mechanics is to create an alternative in-game currency that behaves like a standard in-game resource. Space Crack users will be able to buy new power ups and other items using ‘Stars.’ This currency is completely artificial and its value is controlled by the game developer.
  • Players can buy Stars by purchasing them with real world cash. 10 stars might cost $5
  • Players can earn Stars by performing in game actions such as winning battles, being rated well by other players, etc.
  • Stars cannot be transferred to other players (except perhaps in the form of gift certificates)
The result is a very simple 'one-way' economy. Players generate Stars by either buying them or earning them. The stars are spent on in-game items. As soon as they are spent, they are effectively removed from the economy. In many ways, this system is not so different than the token system used by casinos and arcades.

Benefits of an in-game currency
There are some rather substantial benefits here:
  • Additional control of use in-game mechanics: Authorizing payments, entering credit card numbers, etc is slow and irritating. It breaks the flow of the game. By having an in-game currency account for each player, you avoid this problem. Everything is pre-purchased so Stars can be treated by the game designer much like any other resource.
  • Players don’t treat in-game currency like real money: The player is psychologically distanced from the act of spending real money. Since Stars come from a variety of sources it is difficult to evaluate the opportunity cost of making a purchase. This disconnects results in less hesitation when snap purchasing opportunities are made available to the player.
  • The game developer can print money: Stars become a valuable reward that can be used as part of the standard game play. This can be a powerful incentive that helps the designer guide the player’s actions.
  • Sunk costs result in more active players: If a player has a bank account of Stars, they feel obligated to play. They’ve paid their cash and it seems a waste to simply ignore the Stars sitting in their account.
Potential Financial Systems in Space Crack
The following are potential systems that can be used in Space Crack to bring money into the game. These will have to be play tested extensively before they are implemented.

All financial systems have two stages. The first is a trial stage in which the player gains an appreciation of the mechanic. The second is the purchase stage in which the player spends money in order to take fuller advantage of the mechanic. This two stage approach is important since game mechanics are ultimately a rather abstract systems that are on the surface valueless. We need to get past the learning curve, addict the player and then hit them up for money.

The following systems are all interlinked and offer three paths to encouraging players to spend money on the game.
  • Purchasing Game Sessions
  • Purchasing Stars
  • Purchasing Powerups
  • Purchasing through Retail
Purchasing game sessions

Trial: Customers get a fixed number of game sessions. Each user gets 5 free games session by signing up for the trial.

Paid: If they want to play more than 5 games, they can purchase additional games for a fee. A single game is rather inexpensive at 5 stars, but a pack of 5 games might cost 20 Stars. There are a variety of promotional packages that can be put together using this system
  • Single game session: If they only want to purchase a single game, they can spend 5 stars
  • Unlimited game sessions per month: 10 Stars. If they want to play an unlimited number of games, they can purchase a package that gives them unlimited games for a set period of time period of time. This purchase acts as a subscription and auto-renews at the end of each month.
  • Purchase game for a friend: 5 stars
The idea here is that if someone is invited to a game, they can easily sign up for a trial. Or they can make a small one time purchase. Or they can invest heavily in the game and not worry about pricing.

The interface is very important here since complicated sales processes ruin the momentum of the purchase. Items to be purchased are displayed much like a traditional in-game shop keeper. You have:
  • A list of items to be purchased
  • The cost of each item in Stars
  • The number of Stars in your bank account.
  • A big happy button that says “Buy more Stars?”
When you are out of stars, it is a simple trip to the Star Store to gain some more. Ideally, you never even have to leave the in-game store screen.

Purchasing Stars
: During the trial stage, the player is given 10 stars that can be spent on pretty much anything. If they spend their 10 stars, they are given the opportunity to put a credit card on file. Couching the request in a non-threatening manner is critical, since getting the credit card on file allows for streamlined purchasing in the future.

Paid: In order to purchase Stars, click on the ‘Buy more Stars” button on any purchasing screen. A small in-game dialog will pop up with several packaged options
  • 5 stars for $2.49
  • 10 stars for $4.99
  • 25 stars for $9.99 (20% off Sale)
  • 50 stars for $19.99 (20% off Sale!)
  • 100 stars for $34.99 (30% off Sale!)
The credit card is stored online much like how does it. As soon as you select the amount of stars you want, you can select ‘purchase’ using the stored credit card. You can also select a new credit card at this point and tweak your various account options. In general however, purchasing new stars is an in-game activity that happens in two simple clicks.

There is some fun sales psychology that going on here.
  • With one basic system, we can hit the player at several different price points. Some players will only want to dip their toes in the water. Paying $2.49 is rather painless. Other players are driven by discounts and will go for the bigger packages.
  • By having smaller purchases, people are less likely to get upset when they review their bank statements. A $4.99 reoccurring cost is likely to go unnoticed.
  • The money is transferred to the developer as soon as the stars are purchased. Getting cash upfront is an important financial factor for a new business.
Power ups: A brief description
Now we come to Power ups, the most risky and potentially the most financially profitable portion of the system. So far, the subscription based system I’ve described has a built in revenue cap per user of $4.99 per month. In order to make a profitable business out of that, I would need 8,000 subscriptions to pay for a staff of 3. (I have a little financial model I used for these calculations that I’ll share in future posts).

This may be a small number for a retail title, but it is large amount for an independent title. The more money I can get per user, easier it will be to break even with a lower number of users. This is where the power up system comes in handy by providing an additional uncapped incremental revenue source.

Power ups are simple tokens that change the game in some way
  • Aesthetic Power up: These can change the color of your ships, replace the head of your avatar, make flowers come out the exhaust instead of flame, etc. In general they do not affect the game mechanics, but instead act as a social statement by the player.
  • Meta-game Power up: These change the rules of the game in some fashion. Typically they give players more power or the power to do new things that were previous not possible. Ideally, the player sees value in these because they offer him a strategic advantage. An example of a power up might be a Nuke, which automatically wins one battle, but destroys both the attacking and defending ships.
Purchasing Power Ups
: Power ups in Space Crack are somewhat unique in that each player shares their power ups with all the other players in a game session. Remember, we are trying to promote spending time with friends, not competition. The user’s collection of power ups is spread throughout the map (with a higher concentration of their collection located closest to their home planet). Any player in the game may stumble upon another player’s power up and use it if they own that planet. All power ups are tagged with a notice of whose collection it came from.

Thus, even a relatively new player can play a rousing game with even an advanced player. In fact, the system encourages newbies to play with high level players since they get to play with all the various cool toys that the advanced players possess.

Power ups are divided into two categories: Trial and Advanced. If the user is still in the first few games of their trial account and does not have a credit card on record, they can only use the trial power ups. However, as soon as they get make a commitment to the game, they gain access to the universe of advanced power ups.

Paid: Paid power ups are purchased at a store and added to the player’s collection. Power ups can range in cost from a few Stars to several hundreds Stars. We have a variety of ways to increase the joy of buying new power ups
  • Rarity: Some power ups are rarer than others. How much would you pay for a nuke that you can use twice instead of once? Only 20 exist in the entire game and you friends will be in awe if they find out you own one. Be aware that it will cost you.
  • Intermittent rewards: Some “mystery power ups” are unlabeled in the store. You only get to see what they are after you purchase. But the joy of paying a small amount for a great item is hard to beat. In short, players can gamble. Also, the store has only certain power ups available for purchase each day. Unless you check in daily, you never know what you might be missing.
  • Volume discounts: Players who purchase multiple power ups in a day get bonus discounts. Heck, if you spend enough, we might even toss in a couple of uncommon power ups just for fun.
  • Bundling: Want to buy a 5 pack with one guaranteed rare? Want to buy a pack of fire upgrades? By bundling, we create packages that capture more customer value and increase the unit price of each purchase.
  • Cost increases with popularity: Costs of power ups increase with their popularity. If everyone and their mother are using nukes, the price of nukes rises proportionately. This way, we make more money from popular items.
  • Periodic expansion packs: Interest in the game can be renewed by releasing periodic expansion packs that include new sets of power ups.
Purchasing through Retail
Most distribution channels still sell packaged goods. In order to reach a large number of potential players, Space Crack will need to form relationships with both online and retail distributors. Both groups expect an executable that provides a valuable experience for a fixed price.

Trial: We provide the online retailers with promotional code and an exe just like any other retail package. They can wrap it in their trial software as desired.

Paid: The promotional codes can only be used once and automatically give an account two months of game play for free and include 25 stars.

Of course, this isn’t just any other retail package. As soon as the Space Crack file is launched, it hooks up to the internet and acts as a full online account. This hybrid model is similar what is used by MMOs and will continue to be a necessity for many years.

Miscellaneous financial systems
We are scratching the surface of the purchasing opportunities that can be included in the game.
  • Bonus purchase opportunities: You can also move purchasing systems directly into the game. For example, some planets could be littered with rare power ups that take Stars to purchase instead of Crack. Not only do you get to add a rare item to your collection, but you also are guaranteed to use it in your current game. These “once in a life time opportunities” play the part of spur of the moment purchases. This isn’t quite as bad as raising the price of Coke on hot days, but the economic theory behind it is similar.
  • Match Making: Players can purchase advertisements on a central website with a ‘dance card’ that give their vital player statistics and the type of games that they like to play. There would be a standard listing of players, but if you wanted top billing or you wanted to promote a tournament, you could pay a small fee to get a better ad. This may fall under ‘expected’ features and not be a valid financial game mechanic.
  • In-game advertising: This is another one I’m staying away from. I want to provide a wonderful experience. Being a shill for someone else could easily cheapen the Space Crack experience.
Naturally, none of these systems can be created without first investing in considerable infrastructure. Several core technology elements come to mind:
  • Maintaining customer data: Customer data is king. Players may not be purchasing physical goods, but they are purchasing electronic goods that are stored on your servers. If you screw up and delete their data, trust with the community is critically damaged. In the worst case scenario, the community will punish you by leaving in droves. An effective and reliable backup system is a must.
  • Cost of building online store: The whole ecommerce backend must also be in place. This is another large infrastructural item that needs to be budgeted for.
  • Metrics System: I’m a huge fan of investing in metrics so that you can measure your success or failure in concrete terms. Adding financial mechanics is a very labor intensive activity. As I build out new systems, tracking key metrics helps me figure out if they are feasible or not. Some decent items worth tracking include the total number of active users, the amount of money that each system generates, and the number of players partaking in each system.
Goodness, what a brain dump…I apologize for the overuse of bulleted lists. :-) By now you should have a good idea of how multiple financial game mechanics interact to provide the money making structure for an online title.

We are dealing with a far more complex transaction system than you find in packaged goods sales, or even simple subscription models. We are moving away from the “one price for one product” model that has been common with current games and are instead moving towards a flexible gaming experience that provides players with multiple opportunities to purchase additional game play value.

The results are good for both the players and the game developers.
  • Lower entry barriers: You don’t have to pay $50 up front to play the game
  • Payment for value: If you like the game a lot, the developer gets a bit more money from you. If you don’t like all that much, they only get a little.
  • Niche titles are financially viable: A relatively small population of users worldwide can support a niche title. This means that instead of lamenting the loss of dead TBS games of eras long past, gamers get a constantly updated thriving game that suits their highly specialized desires. Developers, in turn get a dedicated community that will financially support their efforts for years, not mere weeks like they must deal with in the retail world.
Till next time,

PS: Longer posts, such as this one, take longer to write. Feel free to let me know if these would be more palatable split up into multiple essays and posted more frequently.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Costikyan: Death to the Game Industry (Long Live Games)

I couldn't have said this better myself. Here is the view of Greg Costikyan on the state of the industry. I enjoy it when a game designer curses violently out of passion for his choosen profession. :-)

Much of the work on Lostgarden is there to provide practical tools for accomplishing many of the goals that are outlined in Greg's PowerPoint. "Death to the Game Industry (Long Live Games)" describes a movement made up of dozens of individuals who are active with blogs, talks and more. We need to spread this philosophy beyond the core group such that it infects hundreds of top designers. The ultimate goal is to influence the creation, marketing and distribution of future generations of games.

Some pertinent topics that I've been covering on this site:
  • How do we create alternative business models that increase the power of the game authors and reduce the destructive influences of the distributors, retailers and publishers?
  • What alternative distribution systems need to be created to ensure success?
  • How do we reduce production costs?
  • How do we empower smaller developers?
  • What are market factors (such as genre addiction, genre lifecycles, etc) that affect the success of games? How can we build games that succeed in the market and still maintain creativity?
In this light, Space Crack is more than just a game design. It is intended to be an illustrated example of many of these ideals in action. My intent is not to preach theory, but to demonstrate a series of simple, revolutionary tools in a practical, concrete fashion.

take care

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

How to Design Online Crack

Today I decided to indulge in my evil side and delve into how the business aspects of a game such as Space Crack strongly influence the game design. First, we'll look at the impact of game design on the financial success of a game from the traditional packaged goods viewpoint. Next, we’ll take a look at the impact game design on financial success of onlines games. At its purest, online game design is quite Machiavellian in its devious desire to mold customers into grinning zombie-like addicts who spread their luscious wallets on command. (Ah, game design...such a noble profession.)

The traditional approach: Games as packaged goods
There’s a wonderful quote from someone who interviewed EA executives
Probably the most surprising thing I learned about EA is that its leaders, including its creative leaders, describe it as a packaged goods company like Proctor and Gamble or Nabisco.”
Dr. Randy Pausch, Professor of Computer Science, HCI and Design, Carnegie Mellon
In the current world, games are seen as shrink wrapped, packaged products that are created in a game development factory and then shipped out like pre-fabricated Willy Wonka’s chocolate bars to retail locations around the world. This perspective has a major impact on the role of game design in the sales process.

The sales funnel
Let us first frame this discussion in terms of sales activities and the impact of game design on each one of those activities. At the most basic level, the economic goal of commercial game development is to provide entertainment in exchange for money. You can think of the process of creating and marketing a game as a giant funnel that turns uninterested users into avid purchasers. People go in one end of the funnel, their needs are fulfilled, and money comes out the other end.

There are several stages involved in the typical sales process. I’m simplifying this a bit for brevity:
  • Market identification: Who is our target market
  • Lead Generation: How do we generate leads? Techniques, sources, etc.
  • Lead Conversion: How do we turn those leads into sales?
  • Repeat Sales: What is the process of repeat customers?
In the packaged goods world, there is a single major touch point during which our sales funnel and game design intersect. During the Market Identification stage markets are defined, licenses are purchased and concepts with ‘niche-only appeal’ are culled. The broad setting and game genre is heavily affected by both internal market strategy and external market factors. The most basic game design details are put under the microscope in order to understand if they will result in a salable title.

This collaboration does not last long. Immediately, the sales team and the development team are split into two distinct silos:
  • Product Development: The software engineering team that creates a high quality packaged product whose goal is to satisfy the implied needs of the identified market. The game must fit in a box and is seen as a ‘disposable experience’, one that can be played through, conquered and tossed into the trash heap of history.
  • Marketing and Sales: The marketing team that will take the finished product and push it through a series of lead generation, lead conversion and repeat sales activities.
    From here on out, game design has a very limited role in the selling process. The financial role of game design begins and ends with fulfilling the initial constraints set during the Market identification stage.
In the packaged goods model, a game exists solely to appeal to a target demographic and provide good entertainment value for a standard industry entry fee. The message to game designers is clear cut, “Your job is to make an entertaining game. It is the job of sales and marketing to sell it.” Anything associated with getting new customers or converting customers is a marketing activity and is completely outside the scope of the game design.

As a game designer, I find this division of labor rather frustrating. A game development team often builds an entertaining game and then watches it flop in the marketplace due to poor sales and marketing. As the entire painful process sales fiasco unfolds, the team's hands are tied.

A waste?
I believe that game should be the major customer touch point. Surely some inspired game design could help convince players to plunk down a bit more of their hard earned money? Players could purchase additional power ups or character levels. They could be given codes that result in discounts on upcoming sequels. Game mechanics designed with a strong economic agenda have the distinct potential to improve a company’s bottom line. A successful game that supports itself with a steady revenue stream can be an evergreen product that stays on shelf for years, not weeks.

In the retail model, it turns out that these extra activities are generally not desirable because they break the business habits of three main players in the distribution system:
  • Publishers
  • Retailers
  • Customers:
Let's look at each one in a bit more detail.

The publishers: a business of volume and timing.
A packaged goods industry is about volume and timing. Large amounts of disposable product must be correctly positioned on shelves at the appropriate holiday dates. Companies (such as EA) who see themselves as packaged goods companies create reproducible marketing processes that rely on a uniform product. An action title comes into the pipe, it is processed in a generic fashion and money comes out the other side. A unique treatment of each title is not desirable since it incurs substantial costs that cannot be amortized across multiple titles.

The first nail in the coffin of financially motivated game design is the fact that the marketing machine demands simple, predictable boxes. Any additional game elements intended to help sell more tends to muck up the smoothly running sales machine.

The retailers: In packaged goods, the customer pays before they play
Game creators, be they publishers or marketing people, do not control the retail channel. The true drivers of game delivery standardization are the retailers who demand a uniform high quality boxed product from the publishers.

Retailers reduce the customer relationship to a simple transaction. Customer pay up front, sight unseen for a boxed game. This simplification process puts game developers in a bind. They may be able to rely on secondary touch points such as reviews and advertisements, but they never get to put the game directly in the hands of the consumer. Despite the dozens of man years of hard work that goes into create a game, the most important factors in the final purchase are the box, the brand it expresses and its placement on the shelf.

The result is a game like Grim Fandango. Surely, everyone who played it thought it was wonderful. But, it came across as a bit different and risk averse genre addicts avoided it like the plague. If only consumers could have played the title, perhaps its fate would have been different. But they couldn’t play it, because in the critical moment of purchase, all that ingenious game design had been reduced to a simple box with an unappealing graphic on the cover.

In essence, there is little opportunity for the game design to affect lead generation, conversion and repeat sales in a direct fashion because the retailers control and limit many of these elements at the point of sale. Retailers demand uniform packaged boxes, so that is what we produce.

The customers: “Um, can you get it at Walmart?”
None of this would matter except for the fact that customers insist on doing the majority of their financial transactions through the retailers. Customers have purchased games at retail locations for decades and will continue to purchase games at retails for many decades more. This is a culturally-driven purchasing behavior ingrained by long habit and historically poor distribution alternatives. In order to reach mass market customers, game designers must play by the restrictive rules of the popular retail channel.

A New Approach: Online distribution
However, change is in the air. Companies like Valve and Direct 2 Drive are forging new online distribution channels. Console manufacturers such as Microsoft and Nintendo are building in direct download systems into their consoles. A vast (albeit anemic) casual games movement is picking up steam. None of these distribution systems possess the same fundamental economic constraints of the packaged goods business.

Online distribution changes the financial role of game design
Online distribution changes the impact of game design on the business model quite substantially.
  • Customer plays before they pay: First, in almost all cases, the majority of the money a customer spends on a title is exchanged after the player has had a chance to trial the game. This happens with MMOGs, advertisement funded casual games, and shareware titles. In this situation, the game design (not a box) has a crucial role in convincing the customer to purchase.
  • The purchasing experience can be controlled by the game developer, not the retailer: If the developer controls the online store, they control the packaging of the title, the opportunities for purchasing and the mechanism for incenting the customer to purchase.

For online titles, the game, not the retailer, becomes the primary financial touch point with the customer. This situation offers increased opportunities for the game designer to push financially motivated game play.

A game as a boutique store
If a retail game is a packaged good like a can of Campbell’s soup, the idea online game is a high end ‘boutique’ grocery store like Whole Foods. Here are some characteristics of Whole Foods that are similar to that of a successful online game
  • Entrance is free (or very low cost)
  • Free samples are plentiful
  • You are met with a friendly, welcoming culture
  • The environment provides an enjoyable experience
  • You always walk out having spent more than you expected
Starbucks does the same thing. So do many high end clothing boutiques. They provide a highly designed experience that drives good will, repeat visits and substantial consumption of goods and services. Game designers, with their control over the entire game experience, should strive towards the same potent financial mixture.

Return to the sales funnel
Let’s look at the sales funnel again and call out the areas that online game designers impact.
  • Market identification: The game designer and marketing collaborate on determining the ideal market segment and what types of games will appeal to this group.
  • Lead Generation: The game designer can build in viral marketing campaigns into the game. They can offer in-game incentives that encourage players to encourage their friends to play.
  • Lead Conversion: The game designer can offer a variety of micro-purchase opportunities for players to upgrade their characters. They can build the game with persistent characters that ‘die’ if you do no pay. They can promote addictive behaviors that result in the spending of real money for virtual tokens. The opportunities here are nearly boundless.
  • Repeat Sales: The game designer can collect detailed information on each player and tailor incentives that encourage them to keep playing and keep purchasing. Unlike the packaged goods market where short games are an economic necessity, the ideal online game is one that is played for as long as the customer is still willing to provide incremental revenue.
The game designer in an online game influences every major sales touch point. The result is a title that, much like the high end boutique shopping experience, both entertains and generates revenue.

Still in the early days
We are still in the early days of online game design. Many game designers hold tightly onto the design habits of their packaged goods past. Indie titles insist on modeling themselves after packaged titles by using the same system of pre-packaged game play that is purchased, exhausted and then thrown away. Hybrid titles such as MMOs rely on an initial retail purchase and then morph into an online subscription model.

True online games like Second Life, Gunbound and Kart Racer are still young. They’ve yet to discover a unified distribution channel such as console-based only market place and must survive solely on word of mouth and traditional advertisting channels. We are still waiting for the maestro game design that plays it’s customers like a fiddle so that they weep with joy and empty their pockets for the right to play more.

The MMO players know that their needs can be better served as they willfully circumvent the virtual laws of their land to purchase gold and weapons. Shareware users know that their needs can be better served as they beg game developers for extensions, additions and modifications to their favorite titles years after the initial release. The online game customers of the world are clamoring for game designs that offer them more than pre-packaged retail-style experiences. When will the game designers realize that there are better ways to fulfill their customer’s needs?

Needed: A few good renaissance men (and women)
The reality is that game designers are mostly rigidly trained craftsmen who adapt poorly to changes in both genre mechanics and business models. To successfully navigate the next generation of online game design, the world needs game designers that are trained in sales, marketing and business. These skills are historically the antithesis of game development culture. We’ve all heard the rants:
  • “Game developers are artists.”
  • “Game developers make games for the love of the game, not for money.”
  • “Pure and Good engineers make cool shit and Evil marketing people do the biz thing in order to sell it”

In the packaged goods era, where the game developers were the sharecropping slaves of the powerful retail distribution machine, this proud display of business ignorance was understandable. In the online era, the cultural divide between development and sales will be shattered by wily game designers who understand that game design is merely another tool for making money. We need a new set of rants:

  • “Game developers are business men (and women)”
  • “The best game developer has an MBA and knows how to use it.”
  • “Both Engineers and Marketing people are part of the game development team and together we make cool shit.”
The Space Crack Financial Manifesto
Space Crack is an online game that will experiment with many of the ideas I’ve described in this essay. It will not be the first to do so, nor will it be the most successful. But at least its twisted little heart is in the right place.

The purpose of Space Crack is clear. It is exists to make money in the most efficient, customer friendly manner possible. All my skills as a designer are bent towards that singular task.

The design of Space Crack is built to capture a massive number of players and then immerse them in a psychologically addictive environment. I’ll liberally use in-game rewards and other tricks of the game design trade to drive real world results. This means making customers give me money for virtual bits stored on a server someplace. This also means coercing customers to willfully sign up their best friends so that they too can be addicted to my money making drug.

Ultimately, customers of Space Crack will pay the development team hundreds of dollars each for the pleasure of playing our delightful game. Naturally, the first hit will be free.

take care

Here is a great article that talks about what the attitudes are like inside a packaged goods focused company like EA:

Thursday, July 14, 2005

News Flash: Game Designer gets the Hot Girl

I just wanted to leave everyone tonight with a message of hope. I am a class-A geeky fellow. Skinny neck. Polar white skin. Black T-shirts that say "In Odd We Trust". I spend my spare time collecting mint condition yo-yos and writing about the more obscure points of game design. The only person less able to communicate in a cocktail party setting is a theoretical physicist, and I've dabbled in that a bit as well.

And yet, despite all of this (or perhaps because of it?) one of the most beautiful women that I have ever laid eyes upon has agreed to marry me. She is smart, charming and plays a mean game of Mario Party. If she wanted to have a hot Latino waiter as a Latin lover, he would be hers. No questions asked.

Perhaps I wooed her with my long dissertations on the subtleties of the scientific method. Maybe it was an mutual appreciation of gelato. The real world is not a predetermined grind of stereotypes and cliches. Instead it is a marvelous collisions between improbable people, cultures and places.

Life: An amazing adventure where even game design geeks can be blessed with the love of a wonderful woman. Aw, I'm blushing.

take care

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Massively Multiplayer Casual Games

Kart Rider and Gunbound show the way to impressive profitability

Pete just sent me a link to Dave Taylor's article on Kart Rider. It is an interesting read on a casual multiplayer game quite similar to Mario Kart whose parent company is racking in $110 million in 2003 with a projected growth of over 127%.

There's another rather popular called Gunbound that uses the same basic business model. This time the game is based on Scorched Earth. Gunbound has an English site and is well worth checking out.

Admittedly these are both Korean companies and there may be some cultural aspect that do not translate well to the US. However the highly successful business model of these two titles is worth studying in great and lavish detail. Western designers are constantly talking about how to create massively multiplayer causal games. The results are hardcore titles like Guildwars that sell quite a bit to the Diablo fanatics of the world but by no means would be considered 'casual'. With Kart Rider and Gunbound we have clear cut successful examples of a multiplayer game sporting millions of users that is appealing to a casual demographic. Talk about being provided with a golden opportunity on a silver platter.

What feature mix should we steal?
Let's say I'm a capitalistic game designer who wants to borrow key features and replicate this success in my own game title. What are the common elements in our two examples that are likely to be the defining factors of this new genre?

  • High production values using a neo-retro art style
  • Quick and friendly game play
  • Multiplayer
  • Highly polished ranking system
  • The ability to buy avatars and powerups at a small cost.

This seems to be a rather reasonable project to begin production on. There is a bit of investment in the server-side back end, but much less than is necessary for a game like WoW. The art costs go down since you are dealing with stylized assets. The game design is amendable to rapid prototyping since you are tuning a 5 to 15 minute experience instead of worrying about a 300 hour mega quest.

The challenge
The biggest challenge is picking core game mechanics that appeal to a broad audience. What 5 minute experience would appeal to Western players? Pac Man, Street Fighter or perhaps Puzzle Pirates with purchasable powerups? This is the million dollar question that I'm sure some enterprising developer will crack in the next year or three. At that point, move over WoW. There's a new game genre in town and unlike the hardcore niche market of current MMOGs, multiplayer casual games have all the makings of a mass market cultural powerhouse.

take care

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Space Crack: The Space Opera

How I stopped worrying about ludology and learned to love game plots

This is part 12 of an ongoing game design document written as a blog. Be sure to catch up on previous posts. In the last installment, we talked about creating a component bible for all our art assets. Ah, game design 101 is over! This time we'll have a bit of fun looking at the concept of story and how it really fits into a game from a mechanics perspective.
Drama matters
Combat is the resolution system that determines what happens when a ship moves onto a planet. This is the most exciting element of the game for the player. The attacker is the protagonist and the defender is the antagonist. A long history of building, scrapping together resources and journeying across a dangerous landscape give each character depth and meaning. Two ships enter, one leaves.

In terms of pure mechanics, the combat code will calculate a resolution based off the properties of the two ships. The statistical engine does its thing and an answer pops out. Everything else is merely drama.

But drama matters and here’s why.

Plot: A theoretical underpinning
I’ve participated in the debate about whether story or game play is more important to a game. Inevitably there is the Final Fantasy addict mumbling to themselves in the corner, “It’s not a real game unless it has a story. Like FFVII”.

Being a bit bored by the whole discussion, I got my hands dirty and broke apart a bunch of popular games to see how plot was used to enhance the psychological effect of the game. Pretty much every successful title had the same pattern:
  • Perform an action.
  • Give the player a dose of story.
  • Player is emotionally stimulated and wants to find out more.
Now this maps very nicely onto the risk / reward sequences I’ve been using to document various actions within the game. The actions are our verbs and the doses of story are our rewards.

Why we should use plot as a reward mechanism
Stories have some rather unique characteristics as a reward mechanism.
  • Plot is great emotional reward: Plot is one of the few rewards available to game designers that can tweak a wide range of player emotions. Surely it is nice picking up a coin and seeing a pretty sparkle. But this provides a limited emotional response compared to a plot reward like “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
  • Individual elements of a story have a high burn out rate: For example the plot element, “He fell in love with her” can be quite powerful in the appropriate context. But having the next plot reward say the same exact thing is simply annoying, good evidence of burnout. “He fell in love with her.” See…annoying.
  • Hand crafting stories is expensive: Writing an extensive plot is rather expensive if your game contains hundred of reward moments. It is often not cost effective to use unique elements of plot as a reward for a frequently occurring risk / reward sequence. This expense is why many older games reserve plot only for end of the level rewards. Games that attempt to use plot more frequently (KOTOR and Half Life come to mind) suffer from larger budgets.
  • Archetypal stories have a lower burnout rate: How many times can you watch an archetypal “Hero’s Journey” before getting burned out? Hundreds, perhaps thousands of times?
Algorithmically Generated Micro Stories
I can’t afford to write or animate a unique bit of plot each time someone takes over a planet, but it would be nice to leverage a bit of the emotional zing.

However, instead of writing a static story, we are going to create a system for algorithmically generating micro story. A micro story has all the elements of a static plot and packs a surprising emotion wallop. However, in terms of work, it is a very thin contextual layer on top of our heavy investment in game mechanics.

The techniques are straightforward:
  • Leverage the existing game systems
  • Add contextual elements that provide the narrative slant to player actions
  • Add meta-game mechanics that reinforce the emotional rewards and penalties of the micro story.
One of the best examples of a micro story that I’ve seen is in Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. The designer, Rich Carlson writes “The main idea at the time was to make a very quick-playing game that still felt sort of like watching a couple of seasons of your favorite space adventure series (except that you'd actually fight the space battles)”

Great idea. Let's borrow it for Space Crack. :-)

The Space Opera
Space Crack is a miniature space opera.

Imagine a massive character driven drama set against the backdrop of intergalactic war. Young pilots emerge from their home worlds, ready to defend the mother world from imminent alien invasion. One heroic captain, Captain Jack “Planet Killer” McDaddy works his ways up through the ranks. His skills (and his kick ass vessel of massive destruction) are all that stand against complete alien domination of the universe.

This is a Horatio Alger story of a rag tag band of saviors and the turmultuous trials and tribulations that define their epic tale. We've got war, lust, love, deceit, betrayal and sun-shattering explosions. Complete with extra cheese.

The elements of the micro story
To pull this off I have to complete the following items:
  • Define the characters: Who are this characters and what is their history? Is there a protagonist? An antagonist?
  • Define the conflict: What is the source of character conflict? Are there alliances? What actions stoke the combat?
  • Illustrate the conflict climax and resolution: How do the character’s meet and resolve their conflict?
As a side note, I’m going to borrow liberally from the concept of a Hero’s Journey (

Characters: Space Captains!
Ships make poor central characters. But a space frigate piloted by the Captain Jack “Master Blaster” McDaddy perks up my ears. We add a simple system for classifying stacks by giving each stack of ships a name.
  • Rank: Ships start out as Peons and slowly grow to become God Admirals
  • First Name: Randomly selected from a list. Both male and female. This is a space opera after all.
  • Nickname: Ships that complete certain tasks get nicknames. Special power ups are associated with each nickname.
  • Last name: Randomly selected from a list (perhaps players can add their own)
These names are built up over a period of time. You are the grand strategic ruler of your world and don’t have time to worry about the peons in your army. You might learn the last name of a character after his second or third battle. He might get a first name when his ship reaches a certain size. Finally, he’ll prove himself in some dust up and be given a nick name. If stacks are merged, the stronger captain name is always kept.

The idea here is a well equipped stack is more than just a potent game token. It is portrayed as a character. The fact that the player has invested time and thought into keeping this particular ship alive gives each mature Space Captain character emotional significance.

The other player is doing the same with his top ships. This leads to natural protagonist and antagonist relationships. For each player, his Captains are obviously Luke and the enemy who keeps eating your planets is obviously Darth Vader.

This is a fun design idea. Don’t spend time creating a character that strives to be interesting. Watch what the player does and decorate as characters those tokens that matter to them.

Conflict: It's a fricking war out there
Conflict is easy since we are building a war game. Your captains are the good guys and the other captains are the bad guys. Rather straight forward, really. We can add a bit more emotional impact to this situation with some meta-mechanics.

Meta Mechanics: Enemies and Lovers
In essence, we can add emotional variety to the story line with small bonus quests. If a particular ship completes a task, they get a bonus. Some example quests include
  • Rivalry: Your top Captain must defeat the top enemy Captain for a bonus.
  • Save my family: Keep a planet under your control or else the powerful captain from that planet gets a penalty when his family is turned enslaved in the enemy Thorium mines.
  • Rescue: If a captain’s family world has been captured, he can get a bonus if he personally regains the planet.
  • Lovers: A captain that emerges from the same planet as an existing captain may be classified as a lover. Both captains get a bonus. If one captain in the pair dies, the other captain gets a large penalty. If the ships are merged, the bonus goes away. There can be different degrees of love, ranging from childhood friend to brotherhood to full on romantic love. These relationship bonuses stack.
  • Lover’s Vendetta: If a bereaved captain defeats their lover’s killer they get a bonus.
  • Secret mission: A planet deep within enemy territory has a secret technology. The ship that conquers the planet gets a bonus.
Quest locations can be easily shown as blinking on screen icons whenever a ship is selected. The player really doesn’t have to pay much attention to keeping track of everything since they can easily mouse over items to get an update.

Quests acts as additional risk reward sequences that operate on a slightly longer time scale than our core game mechanic.
  • Action: Complete the quest goal
  • Reward: Gain the quest reward. More importantly, gain an emotional reward for helping your character play out his very human desires.
  • Failure: Lose the quest reward. More importantly, be emotionally punished for killing a character or denying them their personal dreams.
This all may seem melodramatic (and it is), but the truth of the matter is that players will end up identifying with their ships if you build the correct contextual structures. You don’t need a lot of structure to make people really care for those valiant little Captains who are going out and saving the universe.

Final resolution
Ultimately, your game must end. Either your ships are vanquished or you are triumphant. The structure of the game is that there is always one final battle in which the last major captain is defeated. The rivalry mechanics will tie into some interesting end of game "conflict accelerators" that I'll be unveiling to make this a literally earth shattering event. The game is over and the credits roll.

In the end, every player ends up with a list of their heroes. These are the brave leaders who fought and will go down in history. Their names are recorded in a data-base and if the player plays again, perhaps some of their favorite heroes will emerge anew.

To summarize, I’m finally starting the process of adding context to my game tokens. No longer do we have generic ships and planet. Now if someone asks me what Space Crack is all about, I can say with a completely straight face. "It is an epic space opera set in the midst of intergalactic war. It stars Captain Jack "Alien Duster" McDaddy. He is one hot sexy hero. With a big ship."

This is so much better than coughing and whispering "I'm making a turn-based space strategy game that will involve a 'Go'-like token capturing system." And just in case anyone asks I am indeed painting a 50's style space pin-up girl as a Space Crack promotional poster. Barbarella has nothing on my moon booted femme fatale. (Ray will blush.)

Notice what I’m not doing:
  • I’m not adding new graphics, elaborate cut scenes or animation.
  • I’m not writing extensive static plotlines.
  • I’m not designing static characters with extensive histories.
Instead I’m focusing on the game mechanics, meta-game mechanics, and shallowly contextualized tokens.
  • I’m focusing on new meta-game mechanics like the quests.
  • Where I add extra content like the naming system, it has an informational element to it that gives the player feedback.
  • I use contextual clues to turn abstract rewards into emotional rewards.
Again, the reason I do this is because of the constraints of the design. Micro-story mechanics offer lots of replay at low marginal costs. This design makes the conscious effort to build a reusable system instead of investing piecemeal in low cost, high burnout rewards like plot.

Future directions
Adding a setting and the start of a plot does wonders for fleshing out a relatively simple game system. The archetypal setting ensures that we'll have an endless stream of ideas for upgrades, random events, and captain quests. Already my brain is buzzing with ideas for long lost civilizations, alien saucers, evil Admirals, captured nova princesses, grudges from the Space Academy, alien trysts and more.

Til next time,

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Space Crack: Component Bible

This is part 11 of an ongoing game design document written as a blog. Be sure to catch up on previous posts. In the last installment, we talked about getting the game ready to prototype. This time I'll create a bloody long list of all the assets we'll be needing. This is more exciting than it sounds.

Breaking the rules of prototyping
As many of you may have noticed as you peruse my website, I’m more of an artist than a programmer. One of my goals is to create as much of the artwork for the game up front such that the programming has no bottle necks when full on production begins.

In the ideal world, this is the exact opposite of how you ‘should’ do it. When prototyping the game, it is best to rely on cubes and other primitive graphics so that you can focus on polishing the core game mechanics first.

But I do not have a dedicated programmer at this point in the design process. Sometimes you just have to push on through to the other side, regardless of what resources you may or may not have at your immediate disposal. Persistence is a marvelous quality during the very early stages of a game design. This applies to both big games and small games.

The component bible: A theoretical underpinning
I need a way of organizing all the various art resources necessary for Space Crack. A common technique is to have a master list of all assets in the game called the Art Bible. Typically this includes a list of all the art resources required for the game.

Since I’m using Anark Studio, I can extend my art bible to include state information in addition to standard items such as models and textures. I want to introduce some basic nomenclature for defining objects, states and sub-states:

  • Component: A component is a self-contained object that includes a variety of states. For example, the end of game screen might be a component that has states ‘Off’, ‘Intro Animation’, ‘Body’ and ‘Exist Animation’. I’ll denote Components with a ‘*’ character
  • State: A state is a unique mode of the component. A component can only be in one state at any time. A state can have unique properties, objects, etc compared to an alternate state. I’ll denote States with a ‘-‘ character.
  • Components can contain other components: For example, our end of game screen might have another component called the ‘Exit Button’ that only displays when the ‘Body’ state is showing.
  • Each sub-component can contain its own states. This is how sub-states are created. For example, our Exit button might have it’s own states of ‘Normal’, ‘Mouse Over’ and ‘Down.’

With this system, I can define most objects in most games. There’s still a lot of programming left to set up, but with a fully finished set of components, it should be much easier to hook up the final game.

Asset Management
A huge undertaking for most commercial companies is asset management. When you have thousands of assets, keeping track of them is a miserable activity. I have less than 50 assets in the game at this point in the design. For small teams a “Naïve Asset Management” system in the form of a simple order list can be remarkably useful. Keep this on a Wiki and you can solve a rather major problem quite simply.

Some “Naïve asset management” Rules:

  • Components that are finished will be moved in to a separated Finished Section of the Bible
  • Components are prioritized by importance so that they can be tackled in an iterative manner.
In total, I have around 21 components that I’ll need to create for this game. This will grow dramatically in future passes on the game design, but for now it represents a manageable work load.

Take care

Components left to create


- Launching
- Firing
- Exploding in devastating ball of flame. (aka The Boom State)
- Landing: Conquest
- Landing: Merging
* Planet

- Neutral
- Captured
- Perimeter World
* Player Flag
-- Remote Source Flag
* Territory Connector

- Off
- Connect Animation
- Connected
- Detach Animation
* Missile

- Launch
- Fly
- Explode

* Upgrade Platform

- Normal
- Over
- Open Menu

* Upgrade Choice 1
-- Normal
-- Over
-- Select

* Upgrade Choice 2
-- Normal
-- Over
-- Select

* Upgrade Choice 3
-- Normal
-- Over
-- Select

* Upgrade Choice 4
-- Normal
-- Over
-- Select

- Upgrade Selected

* Crack Counter

- Empty
- Full
* Command Counter

- Command Points Empty
- Command Points Remaining
- Turn Ended

* End of Game Screen

- Off
- Intro Animation
- Body

*Submit Button
-- Normal
-- Over
-- Down

- Exit Animation

* Welcome Screen

- Off
- Intro Animation
- Body

* Exit Button
- Normal
- Over
- Down
- Exit Animation

* Flare Object
- Black Flash
- White Flash
- Red Flash Slow
- Invert
* Sun
- Normal
- Flare
- Pre-Nova
- Super Nova

Finished Components
Ultimately, this section will contain links to the finished files.

*Planet Selection Gizmo
- Deselected
- Selected
*Planet Destination Gizmo
- Deselected
- Selected

*Ship Platform

- Empty
- Over
- Building Animation
- Built

Saturday, July 9, 2005

Oasis: How to create an ineffective game demo

I just played through the demos of Oasis, Clash N Slash, and Future Pool. I'm admittedly a demo whore. I'll play them, form an opinion about the mechanics and move on. It takes a truly rare game for me to plunk down my hard earned money.

Of the three, Oasis had the most innovative gameplay. Others have compared it to Civilization meets Mine sweeper and I'd agree with the characterization. It plays with the well-honed mechanics of a veteran German board game: tight rules, well paced risk/reward schedules and an appealing setting.

I was quite impressed by the Tutorial mode, which took me about 50 minutes to complete. It manages to introduce a wide variety of concepts in an incremental fashion so that the player is never overwhelmed. All board games should have this feature built in. :-) Goodness knows, I'd be able to convince more people to play Settlers of Catan and Adel Verpflichtet if I didn't have to give them a complete brain dump of all the rules all at once.

Aren't you trying to sell me something?
I didn't purchase Oasis, even though it is exactly the type of game I enjoy. I played the game, finished the demo and was satisifed to leave the experience at that.

The Tutorial demonstrates a meta-game associated with collecting the Glyphs of Power. It is a rather classic mechanic. Every game that you play may gain you a Glyph of Power. Gather all the Glyphs of Power and you win the meta-game. Striving for a complete set of Glyphs kept me playing the main game over and over again.

However, as soon as I completed the meta-game of gathering all the Glyphs, I felt a lovely sense of completion. At this point my trial time had mostly run out. The game made a feeble attempt to ask me for money, but I was riding high. I had conquered was beaten. Why should I pay more?

Oasis was a very enjoyable class A game, but the structure of the demo provided no hook, no reason to play further.

A demo is a selling tool!
Back in the shareware days of Epic, we would always leave a big hook at the end of the game. The rule of thumb was:

  • Show 1/3rd of your game in the demo
  • Promise 2/3rds more content if they buy the final game
Now there is a hook! We'd promise new units, new maps, new weapons and prominently display them to the player. We promoted it as a transaction. The message was simple:

"If you give us money, we will not only let you keep playing, but we will also give you lots of very cool stuff. This will make your experience even more enjoyable than it is now."
The Oasis demo is an unfortunate example of a game demo that doesn't realize that its sole purpose in life is to addict people and convert them into sales. It currently sends the message:
"Now that you've seen everything under our skirt and had a jolly bit of fun, won't you pay us out of a sense of respect and appreciation?"
This is an honorable and naive attitude that relies too much on the inherent value of design. The idealist in me respects this attitude, but the pragmatist in me worries that the talented folks at Mind Control are not making the bank that they should on this delightful title.

Alternative techniques
Here are some alternative techniques that could help with the sales of the Oasis trial:
  • Give each player an hour and a half trial: Let them get half way into a new game before you end the trial. Promise that you'll let them continue their current game if only they pay you. I like to call this 'holding the player's game hostage.'
  • Create a 'buy now' button in the game: Give the player every opportunity to purchase the game.
  • Promote the hook: Create a screen or three that describes the great content available if you buy. Pimp this at when they download, at the beginning of your game and every time they close the application.
  • Track your conversion rate. Ping a server with a unique ID when the install is complete and ping it again when the purchase is complete. Use the conversion ratio to judge the success of your trial. Put out several trial variations and then promote the one that does the best.

If you can increase your conversion rate from 4% to 5%, that's a 25% increase in revenue. This is generally well worth the small development cost associated with creating a data driven trial system and posting several variation of the trial. If you have a well-publicized game like Oasis, it is silly not to perform this type of analysis.

Lessons learned about creating a good game demo
This is capitalism, baby. Make me a pitch. Tell me about the benefits I get from buying your game. Make it bold, make it exciting. Entice me into purchasing the game. By collecting simple data, you can ensure that the changes you make have a positive impact on your bottom line. Do not rely on mere hope that I will appreciate your efforts.

take care

PS: So that I won't feel horribly guilty about critiquing this demo, I did ultimately purchase a copy of the game. After all, I had a jolly bit of fun and enjoy supporting indie game developers. I am happy to say that the purchase wrapper that was used is quite elegant and the buying process painless.

The brave new world of Indie console games

I had a dream about next generation consoles revolutionizing indie game development.
In this dream, the indie game development community was fragmented and suffering. A gleaming savior with tens of millions of eager customers appeared on the horizon. He spoke in a booming voice "Bring me your games, both small and weary. I will distribute them and you will finally be able to feed your family. You will rise and rule the world!"

He ends with a bizarre and disturbing cry:"Developers, developers, developers!" It was Steve Ballmer from Microsoft! My eyes darted furtively from side to side. What was this madness? I'm independent. I don't do deals with the Man!

But my belly was growling from the hunger pains. Too many late nights and not enough pocket change to buy sustaining Cool Ranch Doritos had taken their toll. My precious game in hand, I approached the world's largest software company and became an official Xbox Live developer.

The state of the Indie scene drove me to do it
The current indie gaming scene is doing better than I expected but is still a piss poor way of making a living. The reasons are plentiful and have less to do with games and more to do with distribution and marketing. Specifically:
  • Customers don't know about the existence of many indie efforts.
  • When they do hear rumors, there is no easy way of getting the title.
The Web as a Stealth Market
Now, I can see some folks saying "Wait! We have the Internet. It is our mother, our savior! With the miracle of Google you can find anything. With the marvel of HTTP, you can download files directly from the developer to your hard drive. Woot!"

This is a naive vision of how a consumer market works. The Web is a highly fragmented market that requires users to forage through a forest of nearly invisible information sources. I continually discover wonderfully informative websites that had been lurking just below my radar for years. Most information on the web exists in stealth mode. If you aren't looking carefully, you'll never even know it exists.

This naturally poses a problem for the indie game developer. Sure, they can put up a website, but it won't get much traffic. There are few spots of indie press, but their traffic isn't so hot either.

Fuzzy consumer behavior
Another fun problem is that the way consumers gain knowledge about new products is often not well suited actually finding those products on the Web . If I type a specific product name into Google, I can get some great results. For example, type in Gas Powered Games "Supreme Commander" and that title immediately appears 4 out of the top 5 hits.

Unfortunately, very few people learn about games this way. Suppose a friend in a bar mentions to you that Supreme Commander, the sequel to Total Annihilation is out. This is what you remember:"There's this game that is the sequel to a RTS I played a few years ago where you mined metal"

Google becomes nearly useless. I'd give the persistent searcher a 5% chance of finding the title if this was the only information they had. A game store on the other hand is perfect. You can ask and you can browse the existing titles. There's a 95% chance you'll find what you are looking for.
On top of this, many gamers go into a game store simply looking to see what is new. The little fragment of information about Supreme Commander is often enough to pique their interest. When they see the box, they buy it in the spur of the moment. The concept of a game store as an established, communal gathering point does not exist for independent game titles.

These factors slow the adoption of indie games dramatically. Indie games are lost in a dark sea with no market beacon bright enough to draw in the customers they so richly deserve.

Next generation consoles are the Indie Savior
What we need is a well known media outlet that promotes a wide selection of new titles. The infrastructure necessary is being built right now by some of the largest game companies on the face of the planet.
  • Microsoft Live: The Marketplace feature will have a built in e-commerce system that can take micropayments. You'll be able to download data and perhaps whole games onto your hard drive
  • Nintendo: There will exist a system for purchasing smaller game titles and downloading them to memory cards. Initially this will be older Nintendo titles, but the possibility is there for 3rd party titles.
  • Sony: Sony is the least well defined of any online effort. We know that they will have internet enabled console, but there is no evidence of any effort to build a marketplace.
This is great!
These have all the hallmark features that indie game developers have been screaming about for years. The coming generation of consoles finally creates a viable, mainstream, digital game distribution channel. Look at all the goodies it contains:
  • Easy access to the customer. A console gamer flicks on their machine and they can start buying your titles. No searching, no fragmented information sources. All the games are right there, at your finger tips.
  • Efficient distribution system. An Internet-based delivery mean no incremental cost for each unit sold. Inventory cost is meaningless and profit margins are 8 to 10x higher than on games sold through traditional channels.
  • Promotional opportunities: Pay enough money to Microsoft and you could be the featured download of the day.
  • Long shelf life: The terror of retail stocking fees need not apply. Your game can be available to gamers for years. The newest buzz word, The Long Tail, makes it's presence felt.
But it still sucks.
Face it. Console publishers will screw this opportunity up royally. When you have gotten used to running a walled garden, it is a major cultural change to open your borders and let a bunch of lunatic developers have a go at your customer base. Let's look at standard console business practices that will lock independent developers out of this new and potentially vibrant distribution channel.
  • Expensive Development Kits: If you want to develop, it will cost you 10 to 15k. Some will cost you 30k. For many developers this will be a hard pill to swallow.
  • Long QA: The QA processes for console titles are expensive and time consuming compared to that of PC development. You can't just build and release. You need to build, test for 2 months and then release. This kills traditional rapid iterative design, episodic content, and other fast moving development strategies.
  • Tight authorization filter: This is probably the biggest barrier. Every game that appears on the console is approved by the publisher. If there are too many FPS in the current lineup, the console manufacturer can reject your title simply because it is a FPS. If smaller games are authorized using the same metrics, creativity will be squelched. Many good titles will be squashed early in development by the well entrenched control freaks. Remember, it is always safer to say no than it is to take a risk on a questionable title.
  • Lack of tools: Console development is technically quite difficult. There are few established next generation engines and they tend to cost a good amount of change (350k + 3% of your revenue is a hard price to pay if you are a smaller shop). Simply gaining the technical expertise to develop a game for the console becomes a major barrier.
  • Lack of Marketing: Historically, the console manufacturers have little to do with the marketing of 3rd party titles. That is the job of publishers. But when you own the point of purchase, you control the major means of reaching the customer. If console manufacturers do not build promotional options into their console stores, customers still won't know what to look for.
Each of these are natural and long standing realities of console game development. They exist for good reasons and the inclination of an established console developer is to shrug and say "Deal with it."

Why console manufacturers should care
I'm going to argue that independent developers are valuable additions to a console's arsenal of marketing tools. They may not be the primary drivers of success, but the games they bring can dramatically accelerate the adoption of a console. The indie game development community is worth actively pursuing.
  • The quantity argument: New systems have only a few games and the console with the most titles is often seen as the safe choice by the consumer. I've talked to many Playstation owners who claim that the reason they purchased is because they knew they would have a good choice of titles. By rapidly building a library of smaller games at launch, a console can claim variety and quantity.
  • The non-traditional gamer argument: Smaller games have historically been appealing to non-traditional gamers who have time constraints that are much more limited than the hardcore gamer. Smaller developers, who are ideally suited to the creation of casual games, can unlock this vast and potentially valuable market.
  • The innovation argument: A thousand hungry developers who are targeting niche audiences are more likely to create the seed of a successful new genre. The current system of large, risk adverse teams won't cut it. It is worth fostering the development of the next GTA for your console.
What console manufacturers can do to kick start the Indie Console Market
Console manufacturers need to recognize the opportunity represented by independent developers and take concrete action to secure their support. The steps are straight forward, but they cost money and require a rethinking of how console games are created.
  • Reduce the cost of development kits
    Reduce the cost of console development kits to the $5000 range. It is still expensive, but in the realm of a serious developer. If you need to subsidize these kits in order to get the price down, do so.
  • Invest in tools that create safe sandboxes
    Pay Macromedia to port Flash to your console. Even better, port a 3D tool like Anark Studio to your console. The benefits are massive.

    By having an artist friendly robust tool, you no longer need advanced engine programmers to get the job done. This means teams focused on creativity and content, not technical wizardry.

    By having a mature tool with a well defined asset pipeline, you increase productivity. Your quick prototype can be evolved into a polished game in a low risk fashion.

    By having a standard playback engine, you build a sandbox for small game to live within. This dramatically reduces QA requirements. Ultimately, a tool like Anark Studio could reduce the cost of independent game development on a console by a factor of 10 and knock the QA costs in half.
  • Build a beta test area into your marketplace
    Let the customers volunteer to be guinea pigs for new games that are not yet completed. The console manufacturer gains quality control over the final releases since they can see how beta users respond. The developer gains an open area for new experimental titles.
  • Build a comprehensive marketing system for new titles
    Create a method of advertising new titles to customers. This can be an online editorial magazine, a catalog with user ratings, a series of console-based websites, or something as crass as banner ads. You can potentially have paid ads, but be sure to reserve a portion of the marketing bandwidth for breakout titles that may not have the marketing budget to compete with the big boys.

    When I turn on my next generation console, I want to be informed about the next Nintendogs indie-developed genre-buster. Then I want to click a button and buy the damn thing.

If this dream comes to pass, it will still not be a perfect world. The console manufacturers will still have substantial control over smaller developers. Big publishers will still get the best deals and AAA titles will still garner the vast majority of the revenue and publicity.

But that is okay. We would have a vibrant and growing market place for independent games that is far more viable than anything that exists today. Indie developers would be able to compete based on the quality of their games, not the depth of their wallets. With lower distribution and development risks, innovation would blossom.

Most importantly, there would be a few more developers on the streets who could splurge on a well deserved meal of Doritos and Dew. In the end, it is all about the lips smacking taste of indie success.

take care

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Space Crack: Starting the game and ending the game

This is part 10 of an ongoing game design document written as a blog. Be sure to catch up on previous posts. In the last installment, we talked about the use of stub mechanics and how they can be used to create a simple combat system. This time we'll apply some additional stub mechanics and learn an important lesson about iterative game design.
Starting the game and ending the game
We are almost done with the basic of the game. I've been designing the game from the middle out by dealing with all the standard midgame elements such as combat, production, etc. There are two elements on the outer edges of the experience left:
  • Starting the game
  • Ending the game
A note on process
Once these two systems are finished, we'll have described all the initial systems needed to play a simple game of Space Crack. This is when the real fun begins. Everything so far has been game design 101. The result is a passable, but by no means memorable strategy game. Once we have a prototype up and running, I can start adding some lovely meta-game mechanics to our plain-jane core. It is at this point that Space Crack will rapidly evolve into more than just your typical war game.

My goal at in this post is to define quick and dirty stub mechanics for both the start and the end game. The sooner we can get to a prototype, the better.

Starting the game: A stub mechanic
The start of the game demands a large amount of design. This is the first experience the player has with the game and poor design can ruin the entire experience before they even start to play. For now, IÂ’m going to create a simple stub mechanic, but be assured that we will revisit this topic in the future.

All games start at a webpage on The player is presented with a friendly screen that asks them to invite their friends to a quick game of Space Crack. There are three UI elements
  • Emails: A list box where the game initiator can type in email addresses
  • Play Time: A time and date gadget for selecting the time at which they will play.
  • Submit: A submit button that sends the start game request to the central server.
Once the game request is submitted, all players get an email telling them the time to play and the rules of the game. The email contains a unique URL to their particular game.
  • If the link is clicked before the start time, a clock appears showing the time counting down until the match begins. When the time reaches zero, the game begins.
  • If the link is clicked after the game is started, the player is added to the middle of the game and their map displays the current status of the game world.
All email addresses and game sessions are also captured in a database for future reference.

Starting the game: What is missing
We are naturally missing a lot of elements. I'll record these in a quick list for future notice. One of the distinct 'dangers' of a stub mechanic is that you forget it is just a temporary fix. When we are play testing later, this list can help jog our memory.
  • Instant start for players with no friends
  • Help screens
  • Favorites list of frequent players.
  • A strict privacy policy
  • Ability for players to name their character or have a persistent log-in
  • Email verification system to ensure a clean database
  • Game type options
Finishing the game: A stub mechanic
Finishing the game also deserves its own section. The end of a multi-player game is where most of the player's decisive impressions of the game are formed. A big goal of the design is to have people play again. If the end game is boring or the reward system at the end punishes players too strongly, the result is often the dreaded phrase,"Well, that was great, but let's play Counter Strike next time."

Our stub mechanic for "winning the game" is rather straight forward. The first player to capture all the planets wins. It is one of the worst winning conditions available, but will work for early prototyping.

When the winning condition is met a message is sent to all players:
"Player X has conquered the galaxy. Well fought! Do you wish to challenge the same group of players to a rematch?"

Clicking yes, sends you to the start game screen with all current emails filled in. You are only allowed to start one game with the same group of people in a 24 hour period. This prevents everyone clicking "yes!" at once.

Finishing the game: What is missing
We are naturally missing a lot of elements. A quick list includes
  • Mechanics that ensure an exciting end-game.
  • Reward mechanisms that incent players to play again.
  • User feedback mechanisms, full game instrumentation and logging.
The Ultimate Game Design: A deadly game design sin
At this point, some of you are likely asking "Who is this lazy game designer?" On the surface, I've intentionally designed a game that has gaping flaws. In reality, I've rushed towards a design that can be prototyped. And with good reason.

As game designers, the foundational game mechanics can be the least exciting part of a game. The real fun begins when you start imagining what you can do with all these basic systems. My notebook is filled with feverish schemes that add layer upon layer to the original concept, buildinmonstrosityl monstronsity called The Ultimate Game Design. Stellar mechanics, physics, fusion weapons, special encounters, crazy plot twists! Just thinking about it gives me shivers of pure intellectual pleasure. Or something like that.

The natural problem with the Ultimate Game is that it requires infinite resources to create version 1.0. When I hear stories about a game that took 5 years to be released, I cringe. This was a team with poor project management and a fundamental lack of understanding of iterative game development. It happens far too often.

I would argue that death of most indie games is the mismatch between existing resources and ambition. This isn't captured in post-mortems because of the inherent survival bias in such reporting techniques; post mortems only describe the games that got out the door. There are vast quantities of unfinished games lying on hard drives. The start of the ultimate RPG. The laborious FMV intro to the next great shooter. A design document describing the best MMOG (ever). So much work and so few results. There is a better way.

The trick is to use stub mechanics and create a simple, complete set of game mechanics that can be easily prototyped. This development strategy, though not as intellectually stimulating as the Ultimate Game Design, has some solid benefits:
  • Easier early project approval: If you are relying on others for task such as programming or art, they are much more likely to approve a small time investment than a large one.
  • Increased chance of completion: By keeping the scope small, you decrease the chance that external factors will disrupt your development.
  • Shorter feedback cycles: Long design periods result results in complex systems that are difficult to maintain and adapt. A quick prototype will often let you fix your most egregious design errors early on. This dramatically reduces the risk of creating a crappy game that simply isn't fun to play.
  • Improved marketability of the ultimate design: A design document is the single worst method of selling a game ever devised. A playable game is the single best method of selling a game. By creating a prototype, you are creating a powerful marketing tool that can be used to gain resources for future expansion.
We are at a major point in the design where all the design elements are in place to create our first prototype. In the future, my posts are going to split into two categories:
  • Prototyping existing design mechanics
  • Discussing the larger vision of the game.
Both of these topics should be a lot of fun. The first should give us some down and dirty insights into how the various rules I've put forth survive impact with real world players. The larger vision of the game builds on the core game mechanic and turns a rather simple design exercise into a highly polished and addictive game that will eat up years of our player's lives.

Here's a taste of some of the vision elements I'll be covering in future posts:
  • Using story as a meta-mechanics: Adding emotional impact to a game that is currently far too generic to have mass appeal.
  • The upgrade system: Expanding combat such that it is more interesting for long term players.
  • Starting the game: A discussion of the game front end from a game mechanics perspective. The front end is the game.
  • The end game: Adding game systems that make the end game more exciting so that people want to play more often.
On the prototyping front, my goal is to create all the game elements as nicely modeled and animated state machines. This comes down to existing resources. My skills lay primarily on the artist side of things. I'll need to illustrate the various game systems as clearly as possible so that I can give a programmer this design on a silver platter.

Lots of things to work on. :-) Til next time...

take care