Thursday, September 22, 2005

Nintendo Genre Innovation Strategy: Comments and Follow up

Well, that was an exciting moment in the history of this website. In the spirit of my old demo days, greetz go out to all the readers from Penny Arcade, Slashdot, Kotaku, 4ColorRebellion, Joystiq, GameGirlAdvance, Dvorak(?), and more. I apologize for any disruption of service for folks who were visiting the site. Everything should be back to normal, comments are back on, and I'm on a new server with 10x the bandwidth. Post away. :-)

I want to thank everyone for keeping their comments civil and insightful. It is a strange thing, but your intelligent commentary seems to spark more intelligent commentary. Shocking.

There are a couple questions about the previous article that I thought I'd take a brief amount of time to highlight here.

Source of "genre king" and "genre life cycle"
The terms "Genre king" and "genre life cycle" come about from several essays that I've written over the past couple of years. If you are interested in the theoretical background, I recommend you check them out.
  • Evolutionary Design: This was the source of many of the concepts behind my current definition of genre. Unfortunately the same title as a rather popular essay by Chris Crawford that I didn't know about until after this was published.

  • Genre Addiction: This is where 'king of the genre' was used that I subsequently shortened to 'genre king'. Some folks get turned off the use of the word 'addiction', but really I'm talking about basic market segment creation activities.
  • Genre Life Cycle: There are 4 short essays here where I explored the genre life cycle in more detail. Though honestly, I think the topic was so obscure and rambling that very few folks made it through all of them. :-) They also talk about genre death in more detail and clarify some of the wild-assed statements made in the genre addiction article.
Where are the numbers on title costs coming from?
I do need to report my sources a bit more clearly. That tidbit comes from the Japanese Computer Entertainment Suppliers Association. Here's a link to one report on it.

There have been reports that the study was flawed because it only relied on self reported information. However, the numbers are inline with my personal experiences talking to game companies on a daily basis, so I am inclined to believe them. Note of course, that these are averages. There will be Gamecube titles that cost more than certain Xbox titles. The basic concepts still stand.

Nintendo still makes hardcore games
You'll notice Nintendo walking a line in their PR where they say 'games for everyone.' The fact of the matter is that genre king titles remain very profitable for them if a company can get a lock on the genre. And for several genres, Nintendo has that lock.
  • Action RPG: Zelda
  • Multiplayer Casual Racing: Mario Kart
  • Creature trading RPG: Pokemon
  • Party games: Mario Party
The games in these categories are nearly synonymous with the genre and it is unlikely that Nintendo will simply stop making them. So what you'll find is that Nintendo will likely continue to promote hardcore gaming within the genres that they dominate. This is still in keeping with an innovation strategy.

There is also a strong platform component to the console industry that I didn't explore fully in the essay due to already packed space constraints. Each console is what is known as a 'walled garden'. Consumers experience the delightful content rich experience that is available on that console, but unless they make expensive additional investments (like buying a new console) they are locked out from using other company's content. Each console creates micro market segments. For example, Metroid Prime 2 sold less than Halo 2. However, it still managed to be the market leader within the FPS Gamecube market segment.

So you'll also find Nintendo creating genre kings within the protected marketplace created by their ownership of a walled off hardware platform. Again, competition is lower and profits are higher. Typically they'll leverage an existing brand to give their offering even more competitive punch.

What is the rational behind Nintendo leaving some customers behind?
If you like genres where Nintendo does not dominate, then you'll likely have to go to another platform. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to profitably be all things to all people in the business world. Every company makes a strategic choice on what customers they want to serve. Often that means 'firing' fringe customers that do not fit what is best for the company. Banks do it. Stores do it. Enterprise organizations do it. The benefit is employee focus, increased profits, and superior ability to provide value to your target market. It also takes a lot of balls to give up a paying customers.

Typically firing a customer takes a very simple form "Hey, we appreciate you wanting to work with us, but we think it is in your best interest to go to our competitor X." So the worst customer happily trots along to competitor X and starts demanding bigger production values, additional sequels, etc. The competitor sells more, but they lose money doing it. Who is the winner here?

1st party vs 3rd party
This topic is an entire essay on its own. Historically, Nintendo has reaped the vast majority of its profits from first title releases. They make a small amount from each game sold on their platform, but by being a publisher they a much higher percentage of the revenue on a title.

In this viewpoint, it makes sense to promote a large 1st and 2nd party developer network that are published through Nintendo and focus on innovative titles and genre kings in low competition areas. The result is a smaller number of highly profitable titles.

However, this profitable and logical strategy alienates the 3rd party developers. They naturally take their innovations to other publishers. In the worst case scenario, other platforms become the home of new highly profitable genres that lure potential Nintendo customers over to the competing platforms.

There are lots of ways for Nintendo to get out of this situation. They've tried using character licensing, but they risk tiring out their brand. I'd like to see them start up a new Nintendo second party network that supports smaller companies. They would reap the following benefits:
  • A bigger chunk of the revenue by being the publisher instead of merely being the platform owner.
  • A steady stream of new titles that help guarantee leadership in attaching new genres to their platform.
  • A stage gate style development pipeline where they can then convert into successful second party titles into larger scale 1st party genre kings.
Enough rambling. I'll be back to my regularly scheduled essays soon. :-)

take care

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Religion as a game

Religion has been using the psychology behind online social games for centuries. Here’s one example. When you die and go to heaven in particular Buddhist sects in Japan, the priest gives the deceased a new name in an elaborate ceremony. Naturally, the family pays the priest for his time.

Highly respected people get longer names. However, if you haven’t devoted much of your life to being respectable, the family can pay the priest a little money on the side to purchase extra characters on your new name. This all gets me thinking: the afterlife is the original virtual world and avatar-based businesses are older than I first imagined.

What other elements of online game design have you seen in your favorite religions?
(and yes, this is an attempt at having at least one short post this month. ;-)

Friday, September 16, 2005

Nintendo's Genre Innovation Strategy: Thoughts on the Revolution's new controller

I’m still jet lagged from my recent trip overseas, but I managed to stay awake for the new Nintendo controller announcement. I must say that I’m feeling like an excited Japanese school boy waiting in line for the latest Dragon Quest.

I’m not going to tackle whether or not this innovative device will be a market success for Nintendo. There will be so much riding on the 1st party titles, the 3rd party support and the actual technical implementation of the controller that any comments at this point are at best opinions and at worst propaganda.

What we can however discuss in some detail are the two central philosophies behind the Revolution controller and their market implications.
  • The increasingly hardcore nature of the game industry is causing a contraction of the industry.
  • New intuitive controller options will result in innovative game play that will bring new gamers into the fold.
Is Iwata-san spouting nonsense or is Nintendo actually onto something?

Genre maturity leads to market consolidation
In past articles I’ve discussed two key concepts. The first is genre addiction and the second is the genre life cycle. These both have major market implications for both individual game developers, but also for the market as a whole.

To briefly recap, genre addiction is the process by which:
  • Players become addicted to a specific set of game mechanics.
  • This group of players has a strong homogenous preference for this genre of games, creating a well defined, easily serviceable market segment.
  • Game developers who release games within a genre with a standardized set of play mechanics are most likely to capture the largest percentage of the pre-existing market.
  • Over time, the game mechanics defining the genre becomes rigidly defined, the tastes of the genre addicts become highly sophisticated and innovation within the genre is generally punished by the market place.
Genre life cycle is the concept that game genres go through distinct stages of market status as they mature:
  • Introduction: A new and addictive set of game mechanics are created.
  • Growth: The game mechanics are experimented with and genre addiction begins to spread.
  • Maturity: The game mechanics are standardized and genre addiction forms a strong market force. Product differentiation occurs primarily through higher layer design elements like plot, license, etc.
  • Decline: The market consolidates around the winners of the king-of-the-genre battles that occurred during the Maturity phase. New games genres begin stealing away the customer base. With less financial reward, less games are released.
  • Niche: A population of hardcore genre addicts provides both the development resources and audience for the continued development of games in the genre. Quality decreases.
What we see here is the consolidation of game designs over the life cycle of the genre. Early examples within a genre tend to have a wildly diverse spectrum of game mechanics that appeal to a broader spectrum of players. As the genre matures, the game mechanics become more standardized and the needs of the genre addicts more homogenized. As the market segment consolidates and standardizes, the majority of the players are well served. They get more polished games that have greater depth. Who could argue that a tightly polished game like Warcraft is a bad thing?

How maturity reduces the number of total game players
Goodbye people on the fringes: The people on the fringes, however, are left out. In the evolution of the RTS genre, there was an interesting offshoot in the form of the Ground Control games. These sported an interesting 3D perspective that was never truly adopted by the mainstream RTS producers. Most players within the identifiable RTS market segment did not enjoy these games and so it was not in the best interest of the game developers to include the innovative features in their designs.

However, some players enjoyed these titles quite a lot. As the mechanics for RTS games become highly standardized, these fringe players were alienated by games in the mature genre. A 2D Warcraft title just didn’t provide the same rewards that this fringe group was looking for.

Some of those gamers left gaming. It may take being alienated from several genres, but eventually a few decided that there were better activities to spend their time on. The market was simply not serving their needs. This shrinks the market.

Goodbye semi-hardcore: The mainstream group, however, fares only a little better. When you recycle the same standardized game mechanics, you put players at severe risk of burnout on a genre. There are only so many FPS many people can play before they don’t want to play them any more. This is less of a problem for the super hardcore players. However, it is a substantial problem for the less hardcore players.

As the less hardcore players burn out on the game mechanics of their favorite genres, they too are at risk of leaving the game market. The result is a steady erosion of the genre’s population.

What is left is a very peculiar group of highly purified hardcore players. They demand rigorous standardization of game mechanics and have highly refined criteria for judging the quality of their titles. With each generation of titles in the genre, they weed out a few more of the weaker players.

This is a completely self-supporting process with strong social forces at work. Players form communities around their hardcore nature. They happily eject those who do not fit the ideal player mold. They defend the validity of their lifestyle with a primitive tribal passion.

There is no internal force within a genre lifecycle that can break this cycle. Only external forces can do the trick. The question is, who would want to break this cycle and who wants to maintain it?

Who genre maturation is good for
Genre maturation is great for the very small minority of AAA developers that can serve the hardcore market. They release titles known as genre kings that are able to address the needs of a large percentage of an existing, well defined segment of genre addicts. Genre kings dominate a particular genre with impressive financial results. The amount of money genre kings such as Halo 2, Half Life, Warcraft, Grand Turismo and other rake in is an inspiration to both developers, gamers and publishers everywhere.

Hardcore genre addicts easily pay for themselves. On average they are willing to spend substantially more on games than the casual or the fringe gamer. When a genre becomes standardized, there is literally an explosion of revenue that comes from successfully tapping into a uniform set of needs. This scalability is a basic attribute of software and is a major mechanic behind hit making in the game industry.

As long as new genres are being created and money gained from better capturing homogenous segments genre addicts is high, the industry as a whole grows with a few fat king of the genre companies taking in the majority of the money.

Who consolidation is bad for
However, when the majority of money and effort is spent on capturing existing markets and not enough is spent on seeding new genres, the natural erosion of less hardcore players begins to decrease the overall market size.

It is easy to ignore this trend. Overall player numbers may decrease in certain genres, but remember that hardcore players spend more and flock to specific games in great numbers. So total revenues keep going up, and the revenues of hit titles keep going up. It seems silly to shout that the sky is falling when there are so many examples of over-the-top success. This is the current state of the American game market.

Only after the trend has been going on for some time does the erosion become too much to ignore. The substantial decreases in the overall revenue of the Japanese market place over the last five years provided a major warning signal. You could easily argue that similar erosion has occurred in the PC market.

People who are less likely to care:
  • Sony and Microsoft have built strong brands around servicing the hardcore players of existing genres. To say that the sky is falling shows a lack of faith in the hardcore market - that could be very damaging.
  • Major genre king developers like Blizzard, Valve, Epic and Square. Their bread is buttered. They own the mature genres and will milk them for many years to come.
People who are more likely to care
  • Companies that serve a diverse user bases: Oddly enough, both EA and Nintendo are in this group. They are broadly diversified such that major trends in industry directly affect their bottom line. Sony is in a bit of a pickle since they fit this definition as well. (Hence they’ll release the Eye Toy, but keep their main controller for the PS/3 as standard as humanly possible)
  • Companies that value brands over genres: People often look at Nintendo’s releases of a half dozen Mario games a year and assume that they are all clones. In fact, they are typically radically different games across a wide variety of genres. Nintendo gains their value from the Mario brand, not ownership of a specific genre. Brand-based companies rely on the creation of new genres since they can take that brand into the genre for a low risk profit opportunity.
Nintendo needs new genres
That last point about the strategies of brand-based publishers is an important one. Nintendo needs new genres to make money.

Nintendo makes the majority of their money by leveraging their brand recognition during the early to mid-stages of a genre’s life cycle. The power of the Mario character can establish a Nintendo game as an early genre king and help tap into a new market segment for great profit. However, as they get later into the life cycle, the standardization of the genre mechanics and the intense demands of the hardcore population reduces the power of the brand.

A few major games will dominate the mature genre and it is unlikely that Nintendo’s will be one of them. Nintendo’s fixation on new genres and their unwillingness to pander completely and utterly to the existing hardcore audiences has made their name mud with many of the most vocal elite in the game industry.

Product innovation leads to increased profitability
C’est la vie. You can’t have it all. Focusing on product innovation at the expense of commodity markets is a classic business strategy that is used successfully in non-game companies around the world. Companies like 3M are required as part of their strategic plan to have 30% of their revenue come from new products. They are constantly exiting markets when strong competition emerges and constantly competing with themselves by offering new products that outdate their existing products. Nintendo releases new genres where other companies release new products, but the basics are the same.

The non-business person looks at this strategy with horror. Nintendo invented the 3D platformer, yet they have no major product in that niche at the moment. Surely this is the most obvious sort of stupidity. However, consider the following portfolio management issues:
  • The likelihood of getting a genre king early on in a genre life cycle if you invented the genre is quite high. Competition is limited.
  • The cost of creating a genre king early in the genre life cycle is low. You can rely on things like simplified graphics and limited amounts of content. The neo-retro graphics of most Nintendo games has a lower cost of production than the realistic look of many of its competitors.
  • The cost of creating a genre king late in the genre life cycle is high. Customers demand realistic graphics, voiceovers, cut scenes, loads of extra content, etc.
  • The risk of having your game not becoming king of the genre goes up. The competition is simply greatly increased. Mario is a great game, but would it own the entire genre if it were forced to compete against Jax and Daxter, Sly Cooper, Prince of Persia and others?
What you find is that selling innovative products early on can be dramatically more profitable and less risky than selling commodity products. The early market might not be as large, but the money is much better. You see this over and over again. Nintendo sells less but makes more money. Sony and Microsoft sell more, but make less profit.

Consider this tidbit. The Xbox, which focuses on highly mature genres catering to hardcore gamers has production costs of $1.82 million a title. The Gamecube costs half as much at $822,000 a title. The real kicker is that the Nintendo DS only costs $338, 286 a title to develop for, even less than the Gameboy. Some of these costs have to do with the hardware and development kits, but for the most part they are derived from the scope of the projects. Being able to develop successful titles at 1/5th the cost of your competitors is a major boost to your bottom line.

Thus, Nintendo’s profitability and need to innovate go hand in hand. They need those new genres because the old ones quickly become too competitive and too expensive.

New controller features as a source of Innovation
The new controller is best seen in light of this larger corporate strategy.

One of the easiest ways of creating a new genre is to invent a new series of verbs (or risk mechanics as I called them in my Genre Life Cycle articles). One of the easiest ways of inventing new verbs is to create new input opportunities. Nintendo controls their hardware and they leverage this control to suit their particular business model.

And this is exactly what Nintendo has done historically. The original Dpad, the analog stick, the shoulder buttons, the C-stick, the DS touch pad, link capabilities, the tilt controller, the bongo drums…the list goes on and on.

Each time, they also bundle the controller innovation with a series of attempts at creating new dominant genres. Not all attempts are successful, but a few of them are highly successful. The 2D platformer, the 3D platformer, the Pokemon-style RPG, and the virtual pet game all come to mind as successes. By seeding a genre and by owning the key hardware platform that the new genre lives on, Nintendo achieves a position of financial stability and security that is unheard of in the game industry.

As a side note, folks who argue Nintendo should just make games for other platforms are completely missing the point. Nintendo needs to control their hardware platform in order to force innovation to occur in the control mechanisms. Other console manufacturers who rely on the hardcore audiences and standardized genres don’t see this need. They would happily standardize the console platform and make it into a commodity. Microsoft has historically made major comments about having one universal development platform.

The moment Nintendo loses control over their hardware, they lose a major competitive advantage in terms of creating new genres.

The new controller
The new controller is yet another logical step along a path that Nintendo has been pursuing for many years. We are likely to see some very obvious patterns repeated.
  • It allows for a wide variety of new verbs that are unique to Nintendo’s hardware platform
  • There will be a number of genre-seeding attempts that take advantage of the new verbs that are available. With luck and a lot of skill, one or more of these will become a major new genre. New genres bring in new gamers who are loyal to Nintendo.
  • Nintendo will leverage their powerful brand to encourage early adoption and dominance of this genre. I’ll make a bet that Mario, Pokemon or other major Nintendo brands will be a major element of their new genre attempts.
  • As the years pass and the genre becomes mature, hard core gamers will consolidate within it and begin demanding more polished experiences. Craftsman-oriented companies will wrest control of the genre away from Nintendo.
  • Nintendo will innovate once again in order to maintain higher profit margins.
Some predictions about the games
There are also some obvious predictions that we can make about the game designs based off the standard genre lifecycles.
  • Early titles will be essentially technology demos that showcase a specific core mechanic. There will be one or two major titles such as Mario 64 of yore that are highly evolved, but these will be few and far between due to the cost associated with evolving an entirely new genre over the span of a single game.
  • Most early titles will sell small numbers, but will end up being decently profitable due to their low cost. The example given of Brain Training on the DS, which was created in a mere 4 months comes to mind. Even though it isn’t selling what are typically considered ‘blockbuster’ numbers, it is an unqualified financial success. During this period a large number of new genre attempts will be successfully vetted.
  • Only after a year or so will 2nd generation ‘polished’ games start to emerge. The cream of the core game mechanics tested in the first generation will be layered with all the traditional trappings of a modern video game.
  • One or two ‘major new genres’ will emerge. These will be highly profitable and Nintendo will attempt to turn some of them into exclusive franchises. Mario Kart and Mario Party are good examples of this from previous generations.
So when games come out slowly and only appear to be technology demos, I wouldn’t worry too much. A ‘gimmicky game’ is really just another name for a new core game mechanic that hasn’t been polished. Donkey Kong is considered shallow and gimmicky by children playing it for the first time in this modern age. Yet it sported the same core game mechanics that eventually blossomed into an entire genre of highly polished 2D platformers.

In the past, Nintendo built these new genre attempts internally. They got to own the IP and enjoyed the resulting success that comes from being one of the few to understand the benefits of innovation. The result has been a focus on a small number of 1st party development efforts and a trickle of titles. Unfortunately for them there are other innovative people in the world. New genre successes such as GTA on other consoles provided substantial and painful competition.

I see this changing somewhat with the DS. We are starting to get some wacky ideas from smaller companies and Nintendo seems to be a bit more welcoming of others. Nintendo needs to pursue this path further by allowing new companies to join the experimentation stage.

Nintendo’s strategy of pursuing innovation benefits the entire industry. It brings in new audiences and creates new genres that provide innovative and exciting experiences. The radical new controller is a great example of this strategy in action.

Surprisingly, this also benefits Microsoft and it benefits Sony. As the years pass, the hard core publishers that serve mature genres will adopt previously innovative genres and commoditize them. Their profits will be less, but they’ll keep a lot of genre addicts very happy. Everybody wins when a game company successfully innovates.

I see both of these strategies as a necessary and expected part of a vibrant and growing industry. Industries need balance and Nintendo is a major force of much needed innovation that prevents industry erosion and decline.

On a slightly less analytic note, I for one can’t wait to play the new games on the Nintendo Revolution. With all the new game ideas that will be demonstrated, it is certainly a great time to be a game designer. A couple years down the road, I suspect that this will also be a great time to be a gamer. :-)

Take care

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Back in America

I am once again sitting here at my much beloved desk in the lovely town of Boulder Colorado USA suffering from an excruciating case of jet lag. Some folks have the international travel bit down pat. I am not one of them. I’m seriously considering tooth picks props or perhaps large shots of adrenaline injected directly into my eyelids.

As I recover, I’ve been catching up on emails and a bit of reading. The trip to Japan was wonderful and remarkably busy. My secret plans for spending 40 to 80 hours slaved to an internet terminal were fortunately left unrealized. Luckily, I did get lots of time to write so there will be several articles forthcoming.

Some notes and musings from Japan…

The DS rocks as a portable platform in Japan
I used my DS mercilessly on long train rides and momentary stops during our extensive and epic shopping excursions. I appreciated the solid battery life and the fact that it was built like a tank. Half the time, I just left it in my pocket. The ability to pause the game instantly by closing the screen was a relationship saver. Taking five seconds to save a game is a huge no-no when the purchasing decision between two types of cute socks hangs on the line.

And did I mention the games? There’s a mess of them out in Japan that makes the DS a far more mature platform than it is in the US. Not everyone needs 3 mahjong titles, but I like platforms that have enough room for niches. We picked up Band of Brothers, a mahjong title and Brain Training. I’m having a blast watching Aya and her reaction to the various titles. She rarely games, but it appears that when you can take a game and tie it to a real world interest or goal, there is a much better connection. This bodes well for the serious games movement.

Japan knows consumerism
Shopping has been raised to an all encompassing art form. The wrapping paper, the polite clerks who seems to actually enjoy their jobs, the 5-stories of toy figurines shopping madness…it all brings a deep warmth to my capitalistic heart. And a stabbing pain to my wallet.

The vast majority of Japanese production never makes it outside of Japan (two-way foreign trade in 2003 was only 18% compared to 60% in China). The result is a rich ecosystem of Japanese producers serving Japanese specific needs. Items such as toilets, trains, red bean desserts are raised to almost insane levels of perfection. Combine this with one of the largest middle classes in the world, both highly educated and flush with disposable income. The result is an unending sea of excellent shops all competing based off their highly polished marketing, messaging and customer experience. Bad stores simple don’t survive.

When my fiancé complained that shopping in America was limited, I brushed it aside as the misplaced reminiscence of an ex-pat. Oh my god. Was I ever wrong. Shopping in America sucks. You were so right and I will never doubt you again in things related to shopping.

The competitive Japanese environment results in a rapid vetting of consumer trends. Certainly there are fads, but there are also deeper trends that can be witnessed. It makes me wonder about gaming in America. Video game sales are declining in Japan ( and if you treat them as a focus group for hyper informed consumers perhaps they are onto something. The reasons given? Increased cell phone usage and the same old genres catering to an increasingly hardcore fan base ( Will Americans wake up in a few years and figure out that the current game genres are boring, repetitious and that there are other uses for their valuable time?

I guess we’ll simply need to wait three years until cell phones in America are as good as those currently in Japan. Then we’ll see if the American video game market is still thriving.

Kawaii rules
I’ve been a closet fan of all things small and cute my entire life. It just sort of happened from an early age and I never really noticed it. The yellow New Beetle, the tiny Sony boom box, my miniature Panasonic A100 phone. It’s all so obvious in retrospect.

Visiting Japan was like being gay, living in Utah all your life and then one day getting a chance to visit San Francisco. Cute cars, cute phones, cute toys all out in the open, being used by common men and women as if it was the most natural activity in the world. Japan is a virtual orgy of unrestricted cuteness. My Puritan forefathers would be appalled. I was in heaven.

If you look at Japan’s future economic plans, they will be moving away from a manufacturing base, increase their technology spending, and begin investing more in their cultural exports such as anime, music, fashion and games. With China sitting next door and rapidly gaining high end production techniques, Japan sees its position as a creative brain trust to be the most defensible long term strategy. If their plans succeed, Japan with its export friendly kawaii-crazed culture becomes a major influencer of our cultural trends.

Manga is finally taking off in the US. Anime is growing in popularity. Video games are here to stay. Of EGM’s 2003 list of top 100 titles, a full 93 were Japanese in origin. Perhaps one day, my unnatural attraction to things that are cute will become normal, even celebrated.

Until then, I have my new Panda-Z toys. Sweet urban hip cuteness has never been so great.

America is sometimes hard to appreciate
In comparison, America seems like some post-USSR monstrosity. The cars-truck abominations are crude and lumbering, the airports attendees are rude and the shopping is like being processed in cattle plant. The politics make me cringe and the rolling suburban plains of Denver seem like some post apocalyptic wasteland.

Ah, the ennui of jetlag. Why is it that I only feel culture shock when I return to the US, not when I leave? :-)

All and all a wonderful vacation. Many thanks go out to Aya’s family who made us feel welcomed beyond all my expectations. I hope to return soon.

Take care

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Small Worlds

Today we accidentally visited the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan. It is a marvelous edifice, a fantastical ivy covered mansion straight from one of Miyazaki’s films that sits unexpectedly on the edge of a local park. We had fed the monster koi in the nearby lake and were wandering quite aimlessly about when we saw the sign. The sign lead to a gate, which in turn was occupied by a young Japanese man with immensely expressive eyebrows. Apparently tickets are nearly impossible to get even for locals, but we happened to arrive at a rare break in the reservation schedule. Entry was procured and we strolled in through the ornate gate expecting no more than a mild afternoon diversion.

The entire experience proved to be the most inspirational of the entire trip. Recommended.

One exhibit stood out for me. There is a scale model of a scene from an old animated television show called Heidi. The whole thing is approximately 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Carefully sculpted characters, the size of action figures, are frozen in time on a verdant mountain side amidst patches of brilliant flowers. Flocks of adorable sheep roam about. Most are white, but one or two are grey and black. A boy is paused in mid stride while a small girl runs towards him. The light, the shadows and the colors paint a 3D world that you can imagine springing to life at any moment.

“This”, I thought to myself, “is why I create games.”

Everyone who creates games has a vision of their dream game. It often isn’t so much a complete game concept, but instead is a taste or emotion drenched feeling of what the ultimate game might be like. This vision exists always just out of reach and striving to make it real is what inspires each of us to great feats of creativity.

Seeing this beautiful model reminded me once again of the visions that made me fall in love with video games. For me, the model of a hillside in an anime museum in Japan sparked ancient memories of playing Populous on my Amiga 1000. I remember idle hours spent dreaming of the little playful gardens that might one day be brought into existence by the simple act of imagination.

We seem to be getting so close. Advances in graphics and technology are beginning to allow those perfect worlds to be visualized in breathtaking clarity. The tools exist. The opportunity is there. All it takes at this point are visionaries of the caliber of those at Studio Ghibli. Where is our “Princess Mononoke” or “My Neighbor Totoro” full of boundless creativity? On days like today, when I am inspired by such examples of greatness, I say that we just need to strive a bit harder. The small worlds that light up my heart will soon be within reach.

Game Design Review: Advance Wars - Dual Strike

Advance Wars is the latest iteration of what I like to think of as the casual console turn-based strategy genre. Writing a design review of a highly evolved genre king like Advance Wars: Dual Strike is a distinctly different task than writing my previous review of a relatively new game design like Nintendogs.

Again, this is a game design game design review, not a game review. A game review typically is written for the consumer and is intended to help them decide if they want to purchase the title. A game design review is written for other game developers and is intended to highlight successes and failures of the various layers of the game design. The hope is that we learn from the successful design practices and apply them in an intelligent fashion to our future titles.

In this design review I’ll cover the following:

  • A brief history: What is the historical context of the Advance Wars design?
  • Game anthropology: What need does Advance Wars serve?
  • Layered game design: What is a major design lesson we can take from Advance Wars?
  • What worked and what didn’t: What design decisions worked and which ones failed?
Brief history
Any meaningful review of the game mechanics of a title such as Advance Wars needs to consider its extensive history. My personal memories of the console specific implementation of this class of games go back to Military Madness (1989) on the TurboGrafx-16. A new sub-genre was created by moving some of the core mechanics of the computer strategy game godfather Empire over to a console. The roots of Empire stretch back even further to board game forefathers such as Risk and Axis and Allies. Ultimately, you can trace the core mechanics to a wide number of chess-like games going back thousands of years.

All the games in this particular genre have the same basic mechanics. You move different units around on a board and attempt to destroy all the enemy forces or capture some set of locations. They use an “I go, you go” turn structure similar to classic board games and much of the strategy comes from strategic timing of attacks and positioning of units. Game play tends to be quite quick, with most battles taking an hour or two. Realism and simulation accuracy is sacrificed in order to maintain an enjoyable pacing of the action.

There have been dozens of titles leading up to Advance Wars, each adding small tweaks to the core game play. For the console specific sub-genre, there are at least 15 years of intense genre evolution at work. There have to be at least one or two game design lessons buried there.

Game Anthropology
Every game must serve a market need. Advance Wars: Dual Strike is what I like to call a genre king. It is the premier turn based strategy game on the console. It serves a built-in audience of players who have been addicted in the past to similar games.

The problem that it solves is simple. Very few games in this niche genre are being released any longer, yet the craving still exists. Release a game and make some money. Not a bad marketing strategy.

Turn-based console strategy games are in the niche stage of the genre life-cycle. I put together a list of niche stage game attributes a while ago and it is amusing to see how well they match up with the major selling factors of Advance Wars.

  • Copy the most popular game possible: Advance Wars doesn’t stray very far from the original rules set ages ago by Military Madness.
  • Try to pick up a license for cheap: Advance Wars is a great license that is proven to sell well to the GBA crowd. Using it for Dual Strike is a simple product line extension that no doubt increased the sales considerably.
  • Pay lip service to higher layers game mechanics: Dual Strike pays lip service to things like plot, character development, etc. Why spend money on flashy graphics when your core audience will pay for the experience regardless?
Dual Strike also provides an example of an interesting market launch tactic of being one of the first titles in the genre to be released on the DS. By being first to market on the DS, you decrease the competition and increase your chances of being a genre king. When you are a dealing with consumables like retail games, the release window becomes an important market factor.

First Layer: Core Mechanics
The design of Advance Wars can best be understood in an evolutionary context. You can almost think of it as an archeological dig with each layer of game design building up on what has come before. You start with the core mechanic and then layer on additional meta-mechanics until the final game emerges.

In Advance Wars, the core game mechanics is the direct combat system, which is composed of two risk / reward sequences. The first is the move / attack verb and the second is the end turn verb.

The move / attack verb is quite basic:

  • Action: Move a unit on a square board a set number of spaces. If the unit is next to the other unit, it may attack. Units that attack first tend to destroy the other unit. Units cannot move past other units.
  • Reward: You destroy an enemy unit or gain a strategic position. This opens up new movement possibilities and increases the chance of winning.
  • Risk: You put yourself in a position where the enemy can easily destroy or block your units, gaining an advantage.
The end turn verb is also rather simple

  • Action: At any point in moving their units, a player can declare that their turn is over. At this point, the opposing player can begin moving and attacking with their unit.
  • Reward: By ending your turn when the board is an optimal position, you are ready to withstand the enemy’s attack. Ideally, you’ll thrive during the player’s turn and end up in a position of great opportunity when your next turn arrives.
  • Risk: If you choose a bad board position to end the turn, you can easily be destroyed by your opponent’s reaction.
In this basic mechanic, you have the guts of a nearly infinitely replayable system. The position of the tokens on the board forms a robust player-created environment that constantly provides the player with a new puzzle to solve. The two verbs form a complimentary short term / medium term reward rhythm. Moving a single unit takes a few seconds and results in an interesting reward or punishment. Ending the turn after 4 or 5 minutes presents a bigger risk, but also a greater potential reward.

These games were the first to clue me into the concept of ‘reward momentum.’ The act of consuming rewards gives the player the psychological incentive to keep trying to gain more rewards. Turn-based strategy gamers know this as ‘one more turn’, but the concept is applicable to a wide range of games if you understand it in terms of the rhythm of risk / reward schedules.

Here’s a quick example of the psychology:

  • The candy: At the beginning of each turn, a new series of tiny rewards are immediately present. These low hanging fruit come in the form of obvious moves, an enemy tank you’re your artillery can destroy or a partially captured city.
  • The tease: However, by the time the player is done collecting the smallest rewards, the end of the next major reward is in sight. It seems a shame to end the game when the next big event requires only an incremental effort. So the player moves the last few units and finishes the turn.
  • The cycle repeats: The game immediately presents the player with another set of smaller low hanging fruit. It is nearly impossible for a player to resist repeating the cycle.
Second Layer: Create new tokens by tweaking variables
Now that we have our core mechanics in place, we can extend them by layering on additional meta-mechanics. Advance Wars uses this design technique extensively.

The next layer is created by expanding the token set. Players quickly become bored when all pieces do the same thing. First you identify all the variables that you have to play with. Then you create new tactically interesting tokens by assigning each one a unique batch of variables.

Identifying your variables is often the critical step. Here are some rules of thumb that can be useful:

  • Identify existing variables: Movement is an obvious one. Board size is another. Creating tokens based on variations of movement alone, early game designers came up with Chess, one of the most popular games in the history of the world.
  • Identify binary states and then create variables to represent those states: In Advance Wars, units are not dead or alive like in Chess. Instead they have health points. When a unit is attacked, it loses health.
  • Map out all the other variables in the risk / reward chain: If something decreases in health, then there must be another factor that causes the damage. Ah, another variable to add to your list. Does attack affect all units equally? Add a defense variable to your list.
  • Tie variables into other variables: Now that you have you list of variables, you can look at interesting equations that tie the variables together. In Advance Wars, damage is a factor of health. The lower the health of a unit, the lower the damage.
Now we can create a whole bunch of interesting units. You have fast tanks that move quickly but do very little damage. You have slow tanks that pack a big punch. This is really just the start of this technique, but it is one that we’ll see used over and over again. The creation of new and modified tokens by adjust variables is one of the basic drivers of genre evolution and is a standard tool of game designers during nearly every step of a game’s production.

Third Layer: Classes
Many designers don’t think about it, but a map is really just another series of tokens. You can ask the question, what variables can these tokens affect? Advance Wars uses two obvious modifications

  • If a unit is on a specific terrain token, its damage is modified
  • If a unit is on a specific terrain token, its movement is modified
From here we generate a whole new series of tokens. Roads, plains, water, shore lines, forest, mountains, and pipe tokens all come into play. We also get ships that can only move on water, infantry that can move through all terrain at the same pace, aircraft that can move over any space.

At this point, Advance Wars introduces a class system to keep track of everything. Class systems are useful when the complexity becomes too large for a player to hold everything in their head. My rule of thumb is that whenever you get more than 4 or 5 of variations, group similar ones together in a single class of objects.

In Advance Wars introduces the classes of vehicles, infantry, ships, subs, copters and planes. It also creates a matrix of damage and movement rules around these types. So if you have a tank, it will do more damage against infantry than it will against a Neotank.

These matrices of possible combinations become large and would easily cover a page or two if they were printed out. Having a computer to manage this complexity becomes important since it allows the interface to all this data to be given in heuristics. A tank doesn’t do 5.6 points of damage to infantry. It is ‘very effective against infantry troops’.

Numbers are scary and many players prefer to think in terms of heuristics, or simple rules of thumb. By taking the massive complexity that we’ve introduced with our token explosion and reducing it to easy to understand relationships, we help manage complexity in the mind of the player.

Other Layers
There are numerous other systems that are layered on top of these basic systems, but you should start to see how the layering of game mechanics works to create additional complexity.

Some other notable meta mechanics include:

  • Indirect fire: The ability to attack from a distance, but not during the turn your unit moves.
  • Fuel and ammo consumption: Move to far without refueling and your unit dies. Weak, non-combat supply vehicles bridge the gap between the front and your cities.
  • Unit production and money generation: You can buy units.
  • Fog of War: Units can only see a certain radius.
  • City capturing: Only infantry can capture cities.
  • Unit repairing: Special units and cities can repair damaged units.
  • CO powers: There a meta-powers that alter the balance of units.
  • Tag Powers: You can take two turns at once and use both of the super powers.
  • Weather effects: There are meta-powers in place that affect various variables such as fuel consumption and visibility.
Very few of these are unique to Advance Wars, but they all add additional risk / reward sequences to the game.

The point of layered complexity: Preventing burnout
I’ve mentioned briefly that the point of this complexity is to prevent the player from ‘getting bored.’ That is true. However, it naturally goes a bit deeper.

A game can be described a series of challenges, some small, some large. Some are based on timing, others on spatial comprehension. The player is presented with a set of possible actions and alerted to potential risks and rewards. They are required to predict the results of their actions and choose an optimal path towards reaching the rewards.
All these challenges can be described in terms of risk reward sequences and are composed of verbs, tokens and rules. We’ve covered much of this in other essays.

However, rewards that are too easily achieved lose their impact. Why this occurs is up for debate. I’ve heard several theories:

  • Repetition and subsequent burn out: When a reward is easily achieved, the player consumes too much of the reward too rapidly and tires of it.
  • There exist types of players that seek out challenges and their conquest. If there is no challenge, then there is no point to playing.
  • The brain is tuned to spend effort mastering patterns. Once a problem is mastered, there is no longer any joy to be had in performing the activity.
The layering of complexity increases the number of options for the player to consider. Achieving simple goals becomes a balancing act for the player. Should they move into the forest square? This puts them in range of the enemy next turn, but in the line of fire of the battleship sitting off the coast. Fuel is decreasing, units are repairing, money is flowing in and the enemy is building more ships. Due to the use of highly layered game mechanics, the number of options that the Advanced Wars player has to balance is mind boggling.

Mastering Advance Wars is quite difficult. And that is the point. All the systems exist to create a system that you can always get better at, but you’ll never be able to dismiss as ‘easy’. Burn out is unlikely and even the most skilled player will constantly be discovering new tactics and subtle ways of optimizing their performance. The result is a game that stays highly addictive for longer periods of time.

Benefits of layering as a design strategy
Advance Wars relies on layering for some practical production reasons as well.

  • Reduced risk: When you layer proven game systems on top of one another, it is much easier to build a stable game design. Risk reduction comes from having your core game mechanics as a foundation and anything else you add is bonus. If the sub unit hadn’t worked out, that’s okay. You can lose it without any real risk to the game’s production schedule.
  • Easily achieved complexity: If you need more challenge, you add new elements. You don’t have to worry about pruning old functionality. Just add tokens and you are done. Contrast this to a game like chess or go. Adding new tokens requires a rebalancing of the entire rule set.
  • Obvious learning path: You can gradually introduce the complexity of the title to the player by teaching them one layer at a time. The initial maps of Advance Wars start out by teaching the core mechanics and then gradually introduce new mechanics one at a time. By the end of the first 10 lessons, the player has a huge palette of verbs available.
Problems with layering
Layering is used by almost every leading game design in every established genre I can think of. However, it is not without its own problems.

  • Painful learning curve: By constantly adding new systems you increase the learning curve. This acts as an entry barrier to new users. I’ve shown many people Advance Wars and they see the screen as a mass of hieroglyphics. Only after you gain a substantial appreciation of how all the systems work in concert are you able to appreciate the game for its genius. Contrast this to Nintendogs, which though a simpler game, was immediately appealing to users unfamiliar with the genre. A title like Advance Wars rarely expands the overall game market.
  • Impossible to balance the difficulty: You end up with two very different audiences. The first are the hardcore players who have played previous games in the series and expect more of the same, only harder. The second are the new players who will struggle with what you have already. Already I’ve seen reviews by seasoned gamers complaining that Advance Wars is too easy.

    I’m on the other side of the fence. I’m taking a break from playing because the campaign reached an almost puzzle-like status where one false move dooms my entire mission. To an admittedly incompetent fellow like myself, the game is moving a bit too far away from the casual light hearted combat the originally caught my attention. It's a tricky balance because even though this is a niche title, you want to capture as much of the niche as possible.
  • The risk of accidental simplicity leads to incremental design: No new game system can be too extreme or you begin changing the existing mechanics of the title. A classic example of this are the CO powers. In a game like Cosmic Encounters, these meta game mechanics radically alter the rules of the game. You get crazy mechanics like “attack power and defense power are swapped” that force you to rethink all of your strategies.

    The CO powers in Advance Wars are tame by comparision. As the game design becomes heavily layered, there are simply too many systems to balance. You run the risk of creating ‘accidental simplicity’, a hole in the design where the player can bypass your complex game systems with a simple, highly effective tactic. For example, early RTS games allowed you to win by building only tanks. They had lots of other units, but no one ever used them.

    If you fail to isolate your design mechanics interactions from one another these strange loop holes will emerge and your game loses its challenge. As a result, designers become more tentative and subtle in their modifications. The final game is often a comfortable, mature title that will never be wildly innovative.
What worked
Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, here are some of my favorite moments

  • Casual strategy: Highly differentiated units, fast paced combat and a refreshing lack of statistics. This is a classic beer and pretzels war game of a sort that I thought stopped being made ages ago. I’m happy I picked up a DS and was able to discover such a delightful example of one of my all time favorite genres.

  • Indirect combat: I loved how indirect combat forced you to make a choice between moving or firing. Indirect combat can win the game for you and I make use of it probably more than I should. This mechanics makes you very aware of the rhythm of turns and how turns affect your tactics.

  • The limited plot: You have a couple of tiny heads and a few lines of text per mission. The plot is the thinnest excuse possible in order to introduce interesting maps, units and COs. Yet it works quite well and was quite likely a relatively small portion of the overall budget. I love it when a game cuts substantial corners and no one really gives damn. You don’t have to turn all dials to eleven to build a successful game.

What didn’t work

  • Critical information revealed halfway through the mission: So far I’ve run into terrain effects that turn on half way through the mission. I’ve also seen massively dangerous CO powers that require building your deployment strategy around them. These are all things that are impossible to respond to until you’ve started the mission once and been smacked in the face. The result is that you need to restart and try again.

    Lesson: Give players critical information up front or at least give them enough info to succeed without restarting. If players are restarting multiple times, you’ve failed to cater to the casual gamer. One of those times they are not going to restart and your game will be shelfware.
  • CO powers and weather: CO powers seems to be the big innovation for this title, yet the impact of these meta mechanics didn’t blow me away. The minor modifications subtly affect your play style, but to my inexperienced eyes, one CO seemed only slightly better than another.

    Lesson: Be wary of overbalancing new mechanics to the point of pointlessness. Sometimes, it pays to be a bit more bold.
  • Linear mission structure: The campaign only allows you to play one mission at a time. If you are stuck on a single mission, there is no chance to improve your skills on an additional mission. You are at a dead end.

    Lesson: Never force the player into a dead end challenge. Always give them alternative paths.
  • Puzzle Maps: Some maps were open ended and allowed for creative solutions. Others required very specific movements in order to succeed. This is a player preference and I’m sure there are people who get insanely excited about puzzle maps. I’m more of an explorer type fellow so any hint of ‘one false move and you’ve lost the mission’ game design is a huge turn off. Luckily almost all the maps open up a bit after the first 4 or 5 turns and you can escape the demented planning that all level designers are guilty of inflicting on innocent players.

    Lesson: Kill all existing level designers and burn any records of their scripting tools before you hire a new batch. Seriously though, the use of heavily scripted scenarios is a design crutch that hints at a shallow player environment. If you are confident in the depth of your game, instead build maps that let players experiment. Always avoid ‘instant death’ scenarios.

I’ve enjoyed my time so far with Advance Wars: Dual Strike. It fits the portable format nicely and is a professional, well balanced example of one of my favorite genres.

There are several design concepts that I’ve discussed in this review:

  • Layered game mechanics: By layering meta-mechanics on top of one another we can extend a proven core game mechanic and reduce long term player burn out.
  • Reward momentum: By stringing rewards of various sizes after one another in a visible, predictable sequence, you can encourage the player to keep playing.
  • Creation of new tokens by tweaking variables: We can quickly increase the complexity of a title by introducing new tokens that are simple variations on implicit design variables.
  • Use of classes to simplify the learning curve: We can manage the inherent complexity of a highly layered design by chunking similar objects into classes and explaining relationships with simple heuristics
I highly recommend looking for other examples of game design layering in other titles. It is a very common technique that should be in every designer’s tool box. However, as we’ve discussed above, it should be used with care.

There are numerous other lessons to be gained from reviewing the design of a game like Advance Wars: Dual Strike and to be honest, I’ve only scratched the surface. With a title with this much history and depth, you could easily write a book that just goes into the implications of each mechanic and the theory behind it. I’ll see if I can schedule another bit of vacation. :-)

Take care

PS: Fixed a couple of typos that folks have caught so far. Apologies for any jet lag induced wackiness in this post.