Friday, October 28, 2005

Programmer Design: Sinistar graphics put to use

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

Here's his comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sweet. Bring on the space shooters. :-)

take care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

take care

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Book Review: 21st Century Game Design

I recently picked up Chris Bateman and Richard Boon’s new book 21st Century Game Design. Chris is the managing director at the game design consulting group International Hobo (aka ihobo) and has worked on Discworld Noir and Ghost Master. Chris has been kind enough to stop by this website and I’ve always enjoyed his comments.

The major contribution of his book to the dialog on game design is the formulation of a new audience model for game developers and publishers. This is fascinating stuff that certainly got my gears churning.

A more market driven approach
Many of the game design books on the market come are the ruminations of a successful game designer. They are the equivalent of listening to Miles Davis describing in his gravely voice “Sometimes I like to blow the horn like this. And it seems to sound pretty good.” Genius certainly, but such advice is difficult to replicate in any practical fashion.

21st Century Game Design is at its best when it attempts to approach the problem of game design from a perspective that is more familiar to businessman than a creative artist. The fundamental question that the book asks is “how do I make a game design that will sell?”

This is a very different question than “How do I make a good game?” The modern game industry is a Machiavellian place, where naively well-intentioned hard work is not nearly enough to engender success. 21st Century Game Design describes a calculated strategy for getting as many people as possible to play your title. The aim is game designs that are engineered for business success, not ones that succeed through luck alone.

The book provides a thought provoking look at the subject that it tackles. However, it ends up being the start of a much larger discussion. That alone is a worth contribution to the ongoing evolution of the theory and practice of game design.

Whispering sweet cluster analysis nothings in my ear
The backbone of the book is a study intended to provide a better method of categorizing customer wants and needs. A professional statistician would likely take the resulting categories with a grain of salt, but I’m willing to give it all the benefit of the doubt.

The result is a straightforward audience model consisting of four categories that goes beyond the pop concepts of “hardcore” and “casual” that many designers and gamers toss about.

  • Conqueror: The classic goal oriented power gamer, who believes “I win when someone loses”
  • Manager: The more meticulous challenge solver.
  • Wanderer: Someone who treats games like a playground.
  • Participant: Goodness knows, but it involves other people.
Each of these categories is split into a Hardcore and a Casual group. The authors then spend the rest of the book examining the describing how the various groups of game player react to different types of game mechanics and presentations. In essence, the book describes a series of market segments and then discusses how various existing design options serve those segments.
I’ve done a cluster analysis or two in my day and it is worth noting that they are inexact beasts in the best of situations. The Myer-Briggs inventories that underlie much of the books assumptions are based off hundreds of studies using very large populations tracked for many years. The likelihood of the book’s first generation audience model being correct in all its details is approximately nil.
However, that does not limit the value of the attempt. Some of the highlights include:

  • First, it calls out the dark and inbred history of modern game designs. Most of what we consider great games were created by a freakish group of Conqueror miscreants and are poor foundation for serving the needs of the broader population. Publishers, you need to get down on your hands and knees and pay ihobo gobs of money to beat this particular message into your thick, risk averse skulls.
  • Second, by presenting the current audience model, designers are encouraged to think about their target customers and the customer’s needs in a more rigorous fashion that is uncommon in the game industry.
  • Third, a fascinating topic for additional research has been broached. I hope that ihobo and other more academic researchers pursue the topic of audience models vigorously in the coming years.
Is an audience model the right way to go?
As much as I like how an audience model encourages us to think of our target customers, I worry that it only a piece of a much larger puzzle. I’m going to step away from reviewing the book for a moment and look at some of the broader implications.

An audience model is, at its core, an extension of the marketing concepts that drove much of the mass commercialization of music and movies from the 1940’s onward. There are some critical assumptions involved that could be quite dangerous if you are attempting to tap into new opportunities. Some of the implicit assumptions are as follows:
  • There are big broad market segments that are homogeneous and exist (in varying proportions) across territories.
  • These market segments are based on basic human psychology and are therefore quite stable.
  • Game distribution is a one-way push model. If publishers execute in a technically competent fashion, passive gamers will consume it. If a game is sent out and properly promoted, and it meets the generic psychological needs of the target market, then it will do well in the marketplace.
This is a highly defensible perspective on the game industry that fits the classic packaged goods models of entertainment. Within a mature market that requires its participants to play a game of ‘king of the genre’ with highly predictable consumers, the use of such a model is bound to gain a few extra percentage points on the revenue charts.

The book briefly touches upon the economic implications of this model. Each market segment has both an overall revenue and profitability associated with producing product for it. Hardcore gamers might only sell 500,000 copies of a game. This puts limits on the amount of money you should expect from and therefore spend in developing a hardcore title. This is quite reasonable.

Classic problems with an audience model
However, troubles come into play when smart publishers use this model as a technique for maximizing their revenue. They begin to create titles that appeal across multiple market segments. Marginal titles are culled and the portfolio is optimized for maximum profit. Historically, what happens here is as follows:

  • Marketing dictates ‘required’ elements for success. In order to properly cull your portfolio, you need criteria derived from your audience model. A pop record might have a check list that includes: “Pretty young girl + hip-hop inspired beats + epic vocals + sexual lyrics.” The book takes a stab at identifying common genre mechanics that appeal to different audience segments. This is only a short step away from creating a game specific check list. EA is already working towards such a check list with their latest “1 to 2 elements of original game play + 1 major brand + best in class artwork” formulation.

  • Originality is sacrificed because it does not fit into the ‘winning formula’: Games that are outside of the winning formula are instantly dismissed. Often, there will be a list of acceptable game mechanics that are acceptable. When an original game concept does not have an obvious match either the game mechanics or the buckets available in the audience model, the risk adverse action is to toss it and go with something safer.

  • Small market segments are underserved: If a market is not a major ‘acceptable market within the established audience model, it is unlikely to get much attention. There is no room for the long tail in simplistic audience models.
This model is very new to the game industry, but it has been around in a variety of forms for many decades in other media markets. The results are interesting and predictable. Rigorous application ends up with the majority of the publisher dollars funneled into high profit segments of the market. Consolidation trends are accelerated while low profit segments are starved and eventually die off.

In the short term, this firing of undesirable customers by the entire industry results in dramatic industry growth. In the long term, it leads to stagnation. It turns out that all those little low profit markets are the source of the periodic creative renaissances that the larger market requires to grow its revenue base.

Game specific issues with using an audience model
Complicating the picture is the simple fact that games are not traditional media like movies or music. Ernest Adams makes the telling point in his introduction to the book that there are a dozens of unique classes of games. The part that fascinates me is that these games differ radically terms of functionality, not merely content.

Most music is functionally identical. There are differences in taste, but the core psychological benefits that are derived by Jazz listeners are not so different than those derived by listeners of Metal. A game of Animal Crossing, on the other hand serves a radically different purpose than a game of Risk, not merely a different audience.

Who uses the game, how they use the game, where they use the game and the benefit they derive from the game are unique to the each genre. Of course you can’t play a game of Animal Crossing when you have a group of five friends over. It isn’t a multiplayer game.

I come from a background that deals with the concept of ‘product design’, not media marketing. Product design looks at the specific ecosystem of a class of users and identifies unique gaps or opportunities for creating value in that ecosystem. These opportunities are generally composed of an intricate webs of psychological, economic, relationship based needs.

We need to stop thinking of games as disposable entertainment that, like a faceless porn movie, merely services our generic psychological needs. The reason games are so hard to classify is because they entertainment tools, not merely entertainment experiences. Every tool has a different use within a very specific ecosystem.

Some examples:
  • Pokemon acts as pre-teen social networking devices and lives within the rarified ecosystem of GBA’s portable network.
  • Nintendogs appeals to Japanese consumers and other city dwellers who are unable to own a real dog.
  • Galactic Civilizations serves a niche of passionate players burnt by MOO3, but desperate for the glory of MOO 1 and MOO2. They are older gamers that need an entertainment tool that can be paused both mechanically and psychologically when the wife yells that dinner is ready.
The direct application of audience profiling as a concept formulation technique will never directly result in any of the games above. Such models are too vague, too generic. Where in the spectrum of audience markets would you find ‘dog lover?’

Part of a bigger picture
Games, as entertainment tools, are different products than disposable experiences like movies or music. An audience model is still a useful technique, but it must be applied properly. I see as it a secondary technique the can help refine a game concept that stems from an ethnographic or anthropological study.

In short
  • Identify a unique market opportunity or under served niche within an ecosystem.
  • Use an audience model and other profiling techniques (interviews, observation, etc) to identify critical goals for the final product design.
  • Build your game design around those critical goals.
Designers should avoid using audience models as the only determination of economic feasibility and instead rely on market-sizing techniques specific to their game concept.

Next Steps
Chris and crew have kicked off a wonderful discussion and I’m very excited to see where the book goes in subsequent editions. Some suggestions from the peanut gallery include:
  • Additional studies done with more statistical rigor. I want to trust the model that is put forward as reproducible. Ultimately, I would love to see the research side of this book grow to as compelling as business books like “Good to Great” or “Built to Last” by Jim Collins.
  • Exploration of the applicability of audience models to the game design process. How can it be used to enhance both the creativity and success of a product design process?
  • Exploration of the business implications of an audience model: This model is useful for game designs, but it has serious ramifications for the industry as a whole. What are the positive aspects of its application and what are the pitfalls that should be avoided?
Buy this book. You are doing yourself a serious disfavor as a game designer if you don’t understand the central concepts involved in the proposed audience model. The first few chapters alone are worth the price of admission.

Don’t expect the book to answer all your questions. Instead treat it as one of the first vigorous discussions about designing for the modern business-centric game industry. The basic attitude of measuring and asking real customers about their preferences needs to infect the entire industry.

Equally important is that you question the basic assumptions behind the proposed theory. Is it the right philosophy to inform the industry’s future investment strategy? EA is already following, if not the specifics of this book, the general spirit of an audience model driven strategy. They are quite successful. The simple market-based approach has worked for movies and music and seems to also work for games. Is there a better path for the game industry? Or is this good enough?

Our young industry is at the beginning of a very lucrative discussion of how to make game and why games should be made. When books like 21st Century Game Design promote a seductive message of profitability that sparks the interest of both the money men and the creative visionaries, they can shape the future of the entire industry.

I’ll leave you with this delightful quote from a recent article on the radio industry:
“[Lee] Abrams pioneered systematic audience research and "psychographics," connecting people's lifestyles to their listening habits. He invented a music format called album-oriented rock, or AOR, which in the 1970s shifted the music industry's focus from singles to albums and showed radio execs how to hold listeners and attract advertisers - to make money in the new, boundary-free
world of FM.

But his success had a cost. The rise of AOR was the beginning of the end for the brief, storied era of free-form radio and iconoclastic DJs - "some guy in a basement in Brooklyn, burning incense and playing whatever he pleased," as Abrams describes the late-'60s scene. The format ushered in such airwave dreck as classic rock, teen pop, and … there's no easy way to say this …
smooth jazz.”[1]

The good folks a ihobo are not the first to implement the concept of an audience model in the game industry. That honor belongs to the larger game publishers of the world. However, by writing a book on the subject, they are encouraging all of us to discuss the concept and its ramification in a public manner. Perhaps we can improve on the theories that drive the decisions that occur behind closed doors.

Take care


Thursday, October 20, 2005

Big News: The Newest Gig

As some of you may know, I have three major interests that I have passionately pursued over the years.
  • Games Development
  • Tool Design
  • Illustration
Over the past seven years, I’ve been honored to work with a stunningly talented crew of folks over at Anark. In that time, we’ve released six (!) versions of Anark Studio, a truly classy tool for authoring 3D application. It is my baby.

The latest Anark Gameface keeps gaining major new customers at an impressive rate. We just announced Silicon Knights, makers of Too Human are using it with their new Unreal-based Xbox 360 title and there should be some even bigger announcements coming out shortly. A little bit of me is going to be in dozens of games that hit the shelves next year. That is pretty darn cool.

Change, baby
But time comes for a man to move on in his life. Aya and I have been talking about moving out to the Northwest for some time and I’ve been doing more marketing than product design lately.

Shortly after returning from our trip to Japan, I got an unexpected phone call from a gentleman up in Redmond, Washington. One thing led to another and I now have a shiny new job at Microsoft helping design the recently announced Acrylic graphic design tool.

Designing Art Tools
A little history is perhaps in order. I’ve been designing drawing tools since I was 17 when I first got my hands on Deluxe Paint and was convinced that there was a better way. I’ve been drawing professionally ever since I landed my first game job in college. My notebooks are filled with scribbles on how to improve Painter, Illustrator and Photoshop.

But the chance to do serious product design on a new illustration tool happens about once every dozen years or so in this industry. To have such an opportunity fall into my lap is exciting to say the least.

With Anark, I had a chance to combine both Game Development and Tool Design and it was a great experience. Now I get to combine my passions for Tool Design with Illustration. At the moment Microsoft is not known for their beautiful art tools. That will change. I may end up boiling the ocean, but I’m going there to make an amazingly useful, crazy sexy design tool that inspires lust in artists across the world.

Games, Tool Design and Illustration
I will, however, still be writing essays on game design essays. This site isn’t going anywhere and may even grow in the future. Each passion is like the leg of a stool. I realized long ago that I need all three to be happy.

So…does anyone know any good board gaming groups in the Seattle area?

Take care

PS: ‘Oi’ to all the Anarkists who might be reading this. After so many years of listening to me sing random 80’s tunes, you may actually enjoy our new long distance relationship. ;-)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Game Business Model: Learning from Touring Bands

Most metropolitan areas sport a wide array of bands that eke out a reasonable living by touring about the nearby countryside. At every stop, they get a bit of cash from the till, sell a handful of t-shirts and maybe even an album or two. If they are good, they build up a sizable population of groupies that worships the ground they walk on and follows them from show to show.

Very few people outside of the circle of fans know who these bands are. Yet the moderately successful bands make enough to get by and a few even manage to prosper. These bands do not sell a product like their mass market Brittany Spears brethren. Instead, they survive by providing a service to their devoted fan base.

Over the past several months I’ve been tracking several successful online game developers who operate in a similar fashion. Each operates profitably, employs a small staff and appears to be growing. Their names include Jagex, Iron Realms, Three Rings and Iron Will games. Chances are that you’ve never heard of them.

This essay is about illuminating a successful, alternative, business model that has the following key characteristics:
  • Supports large numbers of independent game titles in a low competition environment.
  • Is amendable to bootstrapping and thus avoids the need for large publishers, money men or other controlling interests.
  • Encourages unique pockets of innovation.
  • Offer an opportunity for sustainable, lower risk profits for a small group of developers.
A business lesson learned from touring bands
A touring band cannot rely on selling millions of copies at $17.95 a pop to anonymous music fans across the nation. Instead, they make their money by selling a wider range of goods and services to a narrow group of fans. There are really only two ways of creating a reasonable revenue stream. You can get a little bit of money from a large number of people. Or you can get a lot of money from a relatively small number of people.

Touring bands aim for the later. They build a brand based off a powerful social experience and establish a strong relationship with their customers. They then leverage this brand to encourage the sale of merchandise, event tickets and more. The result is a strong lasting brand and high per customer revenue.

There is a classic business case taught in most MBA entrepreneur classes that examines the 30-year reign of Grateful Dead. Even though they allowed free taping of their concerts and capped their ticket prices, they remain to this day one of the top grossing bands of all time. They bucked the trend of selling records through the corporate food chain and instead provided music directly to their fans.

There is a simple lesson here. A dedicated fan base combined with a service-based business model can be a great foundation for an owner run business.

Modern games are the equivalent of a Backstreet Boys album
Games have typically relied on the opposite strategy. In order to participate, you first need to get a giant publisher to fund your game development. Then the finished retail game is marketed to a broad audience and if everything aligns, a title can sell the million plus copies necessary to break even.

The result of the standard mass market business model is quite predictable:
  • Emphasis on big mega hits in order to break even.
  • Requires the upfront investment of large amounts of money. If you were a garage band, expect to lose your intellectual property.
  • Products tend towards bland ‘pop’ experiences in order to maximize the market opportunity. More than likely, you are a studio band assembled for the sole purpose of being the next Monkees.
  • High risks of failure due to intense competition in the broader market
What do touring bands have to do with games?
Games are by no means rock bands (despite the existence of lovely men like CliffyB.) However, we can apply the basic business techniques practiced by touring bands to the newly minted field of online games with good success.

Let’s look at what the companies I mentioned earlier are doing.
  • Three Rings produces an online game called Puzzle Pirates that focuses on casual puzzle games in a persistent online community.
  • Iron Realms makes a series of text-based MUDS.
  • Iron Will makes a 2D Ultima Online-style MMO.
  • Jagex makes a web-based 3D MMO.
  • Sofnyx makes a multiplayer Scorch Earth game called Gunbound.
  • There are others, but they all operate far below the radar of the mainstream gaming press.
The similarities are worth noting. Each started with a small community numbering in the thousands. Many customers have been with the games for years. Each operates either a micropayment or a subscription model that doesn't cap the amount of money the customer wishes to spend. Though none of these companies publish their numbers, rumor has it that they are almost all profitable.

Development costs were low and initial investment came from the team members, friends and the occasional angel investor. Publishers or venture capital was almost never involved.

The differences are also important. Core gameplay ranges from puzzling to shooting to turn-based combat. There is a bit of a focus on fantasy worlds, but from what I’ve gathered there is little overlap in the core user bases. Currently this means little competition from similar games and rumor has it that the impact of larger MMO’s is relatively insignificant.

These games are the equivalent of small successful touring bands. They provide a service, not a packaged good. They sell to a dedicated fan base that despite being small provides enough additional revenue per user to make the venture profitable. The result is a self-contained community served by small team of dedicated independent developers.

Village Games (Aka the Small Multiplayer Online Game)
I call these small online multiple games ‘village games.’ They are quirky, isolated communities much like a traditional village or small town. The communities tend to be a bit more friendly and insular then their larger city-sized brethren such as Everquest or World of Warcraft. The game play tends to be a bit more unique and able to take risks.

Here are some defining factors for a village game.
  • Focus on creating a small community numbering typically in the thousands.
  • Either subscription or micro-payment based revenue model. Often there is no cap on the amount that a single player can spend inside the game.
  • A small development team, usually numbering anywhere from 3 to 10 people.
  • The game experience is addictive for a year or longer.
  • The game focuses on a niche experience that is not provided by larger retail titles.
A village games is a distinct service-based offering that is separate from other forms of games. It certainly isn’t a retail title. It isn’t an ‘indie game’ or a ‘casual game’. Those are packaged goods titles that are merely trying to sell the same old shite through a different channel. It isn’t a mainstream MMO because the funding model and number of people served is radically different.

So why in the world would a designer be interested? If it weren’t for a few critical factors, we could write these titles off as a peculiar niche sub-genre.

Business factors
In order to paint a practical picture of how village games operate, I compared the genre to retail titles in eight major categories:
  • Core Business Drivers: How do you make money?
  • Upfront investment: How much does it cost to start the business?
  • Break even and Payback periods: When do I get my money back?
  • Sources of Equity: Who funds my game?
  • Ownership: Who owns the fruits of my labor?
  • Risk of Failure: What are my chances of success?
  • Potential Upside: What do I get if I succeed?
  • Competitive Insulation: Who is going to stop me from winning?

The results are fascinating and suggest that the village game market is a great opportunity for entrepreneurially minded game developers.

Core business drivers
One of the most tricky aspects of understanding village games is the fact that they are driven by completely different business metrics than games sold as packaged goods. Switching your brain over to thinking about quality of customers, not quantity, is the first step.

A retail title gains a developer roughly 70 cents per copy sold. The publisher gains about $18 per copy sold. The price of each copy is fixed and has mere weeks before substantial price erosion takes place. Making money is a matter of selling as many copies as quickly as possible. The viewpoint is always short term and focuses on shipping and placing physical goods.

A village game, on the other hand, is instead about keeping and maintaining customer loyalty. A typical customer will spend an average of $60 a year and stays on for an average of 18 months, with some players staying for years. The developer generally keeps all $60 in revenue. Making money is a matter of maintaining your current customer base and incrementally increasing that base over time. The viewpoint is almost always long term and focuses on maintaining and extending customer relationships.

To put these numbers in perspective a village game customer is roughly 130 times as profitable as a retail customer for the game developer. This means that a game developer can sell less and make more profit.

Upfront investment
However, a highly profitable venture is of no use to your typical game developer if the cost of starting up the venture is too high. Upfront investment is the amount of money that you need to put into a project until it begins to pay for itself. It is here that village games truly shine.

A typical retail game will run anywhere from $2 to $10 million over an 18-month development period these days. In my model I choose a mid-level next generation title that costs about $3 million to develop, plus another million in marketing. Someone needs to sink $4 million in cold, hard cash into a project before they see even the glimmer of profitability. A next generation mid-level retail title must sell roughly 800,000 to 1 million copies to reach profitability.

A village game requires total investment of roughly $250,000 over an 18-month period. In essence, you are paying for the salary of the development team plus miscellaneous marketing and server expenses. At 18 months, your game starts making enough money to pay for your monthly expenses without having to go begging. A village game with 3 to 4 employees needs to maintain a customer base of roughly 6000 to 9000 users.

At this point, you've reached what is known as 'Break Even'. That is when your monthly expense are equal to your monthly revenues. You'll notice that in my model both the retail game and the village game reach break even at the same time. The nice thing is that the village game consumer 12 times less cash in the process.

If you were an investor, there's another metric you'd be interested in called Payback. After you've sunk so much money into a project, at a certain point you'd like to get it back. If you took out a loan, you'll have to pay it back. If you remorgaged your house, you'd like to unmorgage it as some point. Payback is the point in time at which the vast profits from your venture accumulate to the point where you can payback your initial investment.

For a retail game, the sales come in a giant spike upon release. Payback occur almost immediately, typically 18 to 20 months after the start of development.

Here village games show their first sign of weakness. Payback occurs after about 30 months. If your goal is making large amounts of profit (or 'greedy pig profits' as a profession in economics termed it years ago) village games are a long haul.

From a developer's perspective, this means two things. If you are in the business for making games, the path to profitability is roughly the same for retail and village games. If you want to simply make a big profit, retail games will get you there more quickly. However, you need to take into account both risk and your ultimate goals.

For the moment, I'm assuming that you are in it for the love of making great games and that the slow road is just as good. In that case, you need to consider how to fund your village game.

Sources of equity
Funding is the boogie man of game development. We have nothing like the 'producer' structure that exists in movie industry where rich folks toss good money at creative entrepreneurs. Instead, we have the publisher system, aka 'selling your soul'.

When you are dealing with millions of dollars in start up costs, the requirements of an advanced distribution channel, and low success rates, a portfolio model of funding retail games is inevitable. Publishers rule the roost for good reason. They are the only ones who have the critical industry knowledge to fund and maintain a quality portfolio of retail game titles. In general, a company must fund 20 to 50 titles a year in order to maintain a positive return on their investment. Your game can not simply be ‘good’. It has to be the correct puzzle piece that fits in the middle of a highly nuanced portfolio mix. Due to all these factors, getting funding for a retail title is nearly impossible.

A village game operates in a completely different world. Due to the relatively low burn rates, it can be funded with ‘sweat equity’, the main developers working for a pittance. It is also amendable to both friends and family investment as well as angel investment. As a village game grows its customer base, the revenue and profitability numbers became much more exciting to smaller VC companies. You'll need to find folks who are comfortable with the longer payback period associated with village games, but that is not an insurmountable hurdle.

The upside of all this is that unlike a retail title, a village game has readily available sources of start up funds and means of supporting growth at later stages if desired. This ready access to seed money is perhaps the strongest benefit of all that village games have going for them. There is no excuse to not make a village game.

A major side effect of the funding model is that retail games and village games have radically different ownership models.

Retail games give over ownership to the publishers. They typically own the rights to original license and have full managerial control over the development and execution of the title. All of the risk and all of the potential upside is owned by the publisher. The game developers are studio musicians that do their job for a meal and a place to sleep. The result is often craftsmanship, not entrepreneurial breakthroughs.

A village game tends to be owned by the developers themselves. They take on all the risk, but they also get a bit of the upside if they succeed. Personally, I’m a huge believer in the entrepreneurial spirit. Overall, a company with an ownership culture will be more agile, more profitable and more innovative than one that treats their workers like hired guns.

Village games lend themselves well to lifestyle businesses. They are exhausting initially due to their reliance on sweat equity. However, as a steady subscriber base is built up, that company has more freedom to combine work and play.

Risk of failure
There is a more pratic reason to consider starting up a village game. Most games fail and there is nothing more crushing than working on a title for multiple years and seeing it crash and burn. Village games offer smart teams the opportunity to steer their way out of danger.

Retail games have an impressively high risk of failure. Only 116 games out of roughly 5000 released in the US since 1995 have broken 1 million in total unit sales. A mid-level title needs to sell almost a million copies to break even. For next generation console titles, a 5 to 10% break even rate will be impressive.

Releasing a retail title is like firing a solid gold cannonball at a moving target while wearing a blind fold. Retail games get one shot at success during a short 4 to 8 week release window. If all factors are not perfect, the title’s sales will suffer. This risk of failure is also almost entirely due to market factors that are outside the control of the development team. Items like the funding of other teams, the marketing spend, the release schedules of other major titles and the whims of the player all are big factors.

Village games, on the other hand, typically experience a soft launch. An initial version of the title is released into the wild and it attracts a few customers. The developer has the opportunity to adjust their title in order to fix the most egregious errors. Often a title will evolve over a period of years, until it matches the demands of the target audience nearly perfectly.

Village games succeed or fail based on the skill of the developer and their ability to successfully target a niche market with compelling game design. If you are an experienced game developer, you have a much greater chance of creating a successful village game, than creating a financially successful retail title.

At this point, some of you may be intrigued by the thought of making a village game. There will be some of you that are wondering how much money such a enterprise could gain you. It turns out that regardless of your business model, you still need to make games for love, not money.

Retail games can make over a billion dollars with a single title. That is rather exciting. However, as a developer, you are going to see approximately none of it. Royalties, for all intents, are a myth propagated by those good folks who wish to hire fresh labor at inexpensive rates. If you are a developer on a retail game, the upside of successful title is that you get to keep your job until the title is released. If you do a really good job, your team is signed on for a new title and you have job security until it is released or canceled.

A successful village game will produce a steady profit, but the money never becomes astronomical. Instead, you'll be able to provide above average salaries and many years of job security. This is far better than most games can promise.

Competitive Insulation
The long life of a village game occurs because it is highly insulated from direct competition.

Such a thing is unheard of in the retail market. Since a successful game must capture such a substantial portion of the market in order to achieve profitability, games are almost always in direct competition with one another. The result is a massive arms race that is quite difficult to win.

Village games exist in a far less competitive environment.

  • First, they are able to target themselves at a niche game mechanics. The hardcore Scorched Earth-style gameplay of Gunbound is unlikely to be replicated by World of Warcraft anytime soon.
  • Second, they build strong communities that resist the siren call of external delights. Sure, World of Warcraft has some great content, but is it enough to make you leave your friends behind?
  • Third, they are very low profile. Since these games are often built through low levels of marketing and word of mouth, it is uncommon for their players to even realize that alternatives exist. For a retail game this would be fatal. Since a village game can survive on such a small number of subscribers, it is actually a competitive advantage. In that same population of 3 million WoW subscribers, you could have 300 completely viable village games.

All of this has a surprising impact on innovation. When you only have to worry about satisfying your little niche, it becomes more worth your while to explore local maxima in your game design. Irons Realms sports some of the most intricate political systems ever found in a commercial game. Puzzle Pirates has created a PvP combat system that appeals to 30 to 40 year old women. With innovation comes additional competitive insulation. Go ahead, EA. Just try to clone Gunbound. I would pay good money to see the results.

Wrapping it up
By this point, you should have a good overview of some of the business dynamics behind successful village games. In short, here is a unique business model that provide low entry barriers, low competition, easy access to seed capital and copious amounts of creative freedom. The money is good, but not great. However, the chance to build your very own profitable game company is nearly priceless. That is a dream that was crushed out of most developers long ago. The basic business drivers of small numbers of highly profitable customers make it all possible.

I’ve been looking at game business models for some time. Very few offer an entrepreneur any reasonable chance of success. I understand the retail business and keep my hand in it, but it is often too volatile for anyone except the bright-eyed youngsters and the sharks that feed upon their efforts.

As I slowly grow older and more conservative, I’ve started looking for a way to mixing game development with a stable family life. There are two paths. The first is to become a manager in the upper echelon of the current industry. If you can get to the portfolio management level of the retail industry, a lot of the turbulence lessens. But you lose the daily interaction with the development teams, and for a lot of us, that is what this is all about.

The second path is to go outside the industry and find a new niche for game development where the profit margins are still fat and the role of being an owner / developer is still a viable option. I’ve talked a bit about Serious Games as one option on this path, but to be honest I can’t stomach the steady diet of military and government projects it typically entails. Village games, on the other hand, excite me.

Here is a market niche where a passionate team with a bit of money put aside can carve out a viable, vibrant community that is insulated from outside competition. They can perfect a game over years of face-to-face interaction with their biggest fans. Most importantly, they can own their own destiny, be it success or failure. And to be honest, the odds aren’t bad.

Have band, will travel
Hundreds of bands have tried to make a living touring their local cities, playing gigs and selling t-shirts. Most fail, but a few succeed because it is a real business model that provides a solid service to fans of live music. It is a hard life, but you are your own person and you get to do something that you love. These scrappy little groups are hidden from the mainstream media until one miraculously breaks out to the surface. Maybe they are a Nirvana, or a Beatles, or a Grateful Dead. But when one emerges, the industry is changed forever. And the people in the suits who diddle with the numbers on their portfolio spreadsheets ask, “Where the heck did they come from?”

Village game developers are the true touring bands of the game industry. They are at a sweet spot with low competition, moderate returns and the chance to own your own game development company. You’ll need a game designer with a bit of a business head. He’s the songwriter. You’ll need a programmer who isn’t an asshole. He’s the lead singer. You’ll need an artist. He’s wailing on the lead guitar. You’ll need the web / infrastructure guy. He’s in the back laying down the drum line.

Given enough passion, enough skill, and enough years tuning your sound out on the road, and maybe, just maybe, you will give birth to the next great game that shakes the foundations of the entire industry. The simple truth is that the tour is an end all by itself.

So what are you waiting for?

Take care


Escapist article on Boutique MMORPGs
This was a nice trackback on my article that describes quite a few more games that fit the criteria and also gives some solid numbers.

Grateful Dead
Retail: Royalty break downs PS: Edited this at 11:36pm, Oct 19th to improve the flow. Edited on Dec 29th to add additional links.

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Space Crack: Monkeying with 2D art

I've been playing around with a variety of styles for Space Crack. Everything from giant robots to completely abstract shapes to Sanrio-inspired space monkeys.

Assuming for a moment that you have a decent game design, one of the most difficult decisions facing a game is the setting and theme. It is a topic so important that many gamers often mistake the theme of the game with the actual design of the game. You'll hear "I have a great game design. Imagine chickens with chainsaws."

This speaks to the heart of the importance of a game's theme. When you think of your ultimate game, you'll almost always gravitate towards a description of the game's theme. A visceral vision of the game will pop into your head, a fantasy involving concrete characters often complete with movie like action. If I wanted to sell you on a game, all I have to do is describe your fantasy game and you'll be slavering for my title in a heartbeat.

A good theme is what causes the player to pick up the game in the first place. It is a hooks that ties into their existing fantasies. If you create a theme for a game that does not resonate with the fantasies of your target audience, they'll never try your title and regardless of the quality of your game design, your title will sit on the shelf.

I remember a wonderful little title called Moon Base Commander. It had delightful game mechanics saddled with a boring as dirt theme. Generic groups battling on a generic lunar landscape. Do you fantasize about being a Moon Base Commander? I don't. There were no doubt other reasons for the title's commercial failure, but the theme was a complete killer.

Searching for a theme
Often, a game designer will find themselves in a situation where they have an interesting game mechanic but they then have to come up with a good theme. The original Nintendogs training mechanic was used in a parrot training prototype. It was interesting, but didn't have a theme that would connect with a large population of gamers. Now, tie that parrot training game with a new skin that has you training puppies instead and voila, you have a commercially viable title.

SpaceCrack intentionally started out with a somewhat generic space theme. Sometimes as you are prototyping, interesting game mechanics will pop up and it can be useful to adjust the story to fit the reality of your game. I wanted to bake the game mechanics a bit more before I assigned them a theme.

So now I'm at the point where I need a theme. And I'm stumped. Since I'm an artist, I started doodling, just to see what would happen. After a while, the monkeys started to speak to me.

My thought process for the current Space Crack theme is rather simple. I wish there was more depth behind it, but there isn't.
  • Monkeys are a popular pop culture icon
  • If I make monkeys a major theme of my game, everyone who likes monkeys would be tempted to try the title. "It's got monkeys. Sweet! I'll give it a shot."
  • I personally enjoy monkeys. When your are slaving away on game art at 2AM in the morning, it is good to work on something that you love.

Hope you enjoy the graphics. :-) (When I draw all day long, there tend to not be as many essays.)

take care

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Space Crack: A gift prototype

What a pleasant surprise. Michael Bayne of Puzzle Pirates fame dropped me a note that mentioned he had created a prototype of Space Crack in his spare time. You can find the Java applet here. He used his game creation system Game Garden, demonstrating once again the benefits of using established middleware in the rapid creation of a prototype.

You'll need a Game Garden user name and a friend to try out the game. The whole thing is in a gloriously raw form so feel free to apply your most creative game critiquing skills. At this stage the designer is doing almost as much designing on the fly as they are polishing. What would it take to improve this prototype and make it enjoyable to play?

Some areas of interest when doing early prototyping

  • User Interface: UI may seem like a polish level detail, but it can have a major impact on the way that the game is played. In essence your UI is concrete implementation of the verbs and feedback loop for your core game mechanic. This is important to get right, especially in games where the 'feel' of the action forms a critical aspect of the core mechanics reward.

  • Rhythm of the game: Is there an established rhythm of actions and rewards to the game?

  • Player choice: Are the core mechanics generating interesting strategies and situations that cause the player to make important choices?

  • Balance: Are the various variables that affect the game adjusted correctly to allow the other major factors a chance to be judged effectively?
The Brain Storm
At this early in the prototyping phase, I will often use a simple brainstorming technique as a means of jump starting the accelerated evolutionary design process.

  • Step 1: Jot down a list of 20 or so problems as I play. Often a simple notebook with a phrase or two per issue is enough to capture the problem areas.

  • Step 2: Go back and think up simple solutions to each one. Often new game mechanics will emerge that solve multiple problems in one go.

  • Step 3: Prioritize the list into ‘Big problems’ that represent fundamental game play issues and ‘Problems’ that are annoying details that need to be fixed.

  • Step 4: Magically implement all the things you’ve jotted down. If you don’t completely rewrite the game from scratch you are either very lucky or you’ve not been nearly critical enough with your first prototype.

Here is the list that I came up with for the Space Crack prototype. I apologize ahead of time if this is stunningly boring. Game design, like it or not, is a process of a thousand details and decisions.

UI issues
Big Problem: In the UI, you can either select the space ship or the planet. This leads to some confusing situations where you think you are clicking on the planet, but you are instead clicking on the ship.

  • Option A: Move the ship icon so that it is adjacent to the planet. This makes it far less likely that you will click on the wrong token.

  • Option B: Clicking on a planet with a ship automatically highlights the adjacent planets that it can travel to. Clicking on a highlighted world makes the ship travel to that world. Click anywhere on the map to deselect the current planet.

  • Option C: Drag a ship onto an adjacent planet. This gives you a more tactile interface and also avoids confusion.

Problem 1: Players don't know when they run out of command points

  • Make command points a much larger counter that sits at the upper middle of the screen.

Problem 2: You don’t realize that you are spending command point.

  • Create an info bar at the bottom of the screen that tells on roll over how much a particular action is going to cost. For example “Attack enemy: 1 command point.” With a little smart graphic design this could be incorporated into an on screen area that also includes the list of resources.

  • You can also have a report that says “You cannot afford this action. You are out of command points” This can be spiffed up with more interesting text at a later point.

Problem 3: You don’t know how much a ship costs

  • The info bar is again useful here. When you roll over a planet that does not have an attack stack display “Click here to build a level X ship for Y crack”

Rhythm Issues
Big Problem: The game really feels like an RTS game. I felt like I needed to move very quickly in order to get my moves in. This rushed feeling is not the joy of a turn-based strategy game. There are a couple issues here that I’ll split out in sub-problems.

Problem 1: Turns begin without you knowing. The result is that the game feels like one long drawn out RTS.

  • Put a dialog box up when a new turn begins. Tell the player specifically who is ahead, how much new cracks you have accumulated and how many command points you have left to spend. The player must click 'okay' in order to go.

Problem 2: It is difficult to tell when your turn has ended. Currently the turn ends automatically when you run out of command points. In theory this is good, but in practice you never know when your turn is over.

  • When you run out of command points, a button appears on the screen “End Turn”

  • Clicking the button ends the turn and causes an update phase to occur. We should use this opportunity to include another risk / reward cycle.

  • When the turn ends, the map highlights all the goodies that you are going to get on the next turn. Numbers appear above all the planets showing your how much crack you’ve gotten. (+3!, +1, etc) Your ships are produced.

  • In the future, this phase could be quite the extravaganza. The camera could pan from spot to spot with twinkling bonuses appearing one after another. All that potential loot just waiting to be exploited when the next turn starts!

Problem 3: Building ships is easy and not very rewarding. I was quickly clicking to build ships and then not really thinking about where I was building them.

  • Some of this is due to the pacing problem of the turns. However, the lack of anticipation in getting a new ship is most unfortunate.

  • Add a new state to ships that is the ‘building’ state. Ships are not built until your turn is ended. When you hit the end turn button, the ship is built in a lovely little sparkle. Or not (since this is a prototype.)

Problem 4: Combat is no fun. You click on an enemy and he dies. There is no anticipation and no retreat if you misjudge.

  • Combat takes multiple rounds. You can click on an enemy and attack and you both do a certain amount of damage based off the size of your ships. This provides stronger feedback to the player that their actions are having an effect.

  • The damage done to your ship is shown a little floating numbers.

  • You can spend additional command points to attack again.

Balance Issues
Problem 1: There are too many command points. The player does not value them as the precious resource that they are.

  • Reduce the number of command points

  • Create an info bar at the bottom of the screen that tells on roll over how much a particular action is going to cost. For example “Attack enemy: 1 command point.” With a little smart graphic design this could be incorporated into an on screen area that also includes the list of resources.

Problem 2: There are a large number of collisions between players trying to attack similar places at the same time. A lot of this has to do with players being able to do a huge amount in a single turn.

  • Most of this should be solved by reducing the number of command points.

Problem 3: Players accumulate too much crack. This makes ship buying trivial

  • Reduce the amount of crack that you get per turn from each ship.

Player Choice Issues
Big Problem: The map lacks structure. There are no major points of strategic interest to attack or defend. All paths between planets are open at any one time.

  • Let’s start experimenting with limiting the path ways between planets. Each planet is randomly connected to 1 to 6 other planets. All planets are connected to the whole. This should give planets a little structure.

  • Only some planets can build ships. Any planet above a class 6 planet has a different color outline and can build ships. This adds strategic points of interest.

Problem 1: It would be nice to present the player with the decision of whether to explore or defend. Currently a player can take a single ship and travel the entire galaxy.

  • Let’s take a rule from the Risk handbook. A stack must always leave behind a single defending ship. This reduces the power of the stack by one if the planet has no ships on it.

  • We end up with two types of stacks. There is an Attack stack, which is any stack with a power of 2 or higher. There is also a defense stack, which is a ship with a power of 1.

Problem 2: The game is limited to two players

  • Let’s get it working with 2 players first and then we’ll go from there.
Many thanks go out to Michael for the great prototype and the opportunity to tear it apart in public. If you haven’t checked out Puzzle Pirates or Game Gardens, I highly recommend that you do so. Here is a fellow who not only is profitably building independent, highly innovative MMOs, but also is opening up his source code to the world so that other developers can get a leg up on the whole situation. Where is that honorary town key when I need one?

Avast, me mateys! Haul yer landlubber arses over to the Space Crack prototype before I make ye my peg boy! Or something of the sort.

Take care,

PS: Link to the prototype:

Game Design Review: DS Training for Adults

While we were in Japan earlier this month, Aya’s brother gave her “DS Training for Adults: Work your Brain” (Kahashima Ryuuta Kyouju no Nou wo Kitaeru Otona no DS Training). Oni-san, this article is dedicated to you!

DS Training for Adults is yet another a truly fascinating game title that straddles the edge between pure entertainment and practical software. The direct translation of the Japanese title is a good description of what to expect: ‘Whip your brain into shape under the supervision of Professor Ryuta Kawashima of Tohoku University's Advanced Science and Technology Joint Research Center”

At first glance, DS Training for Adults is a very simple quiz game that was built in under 4-months. It also happens to be a runaway commercial success in Japan, selling over 500,000 copies and show no signs of slowing down. What is happening here?

Game Anthropology
DS Training for Adults is one of the most clear cut cases of a game serving a market need that I have ever seen.

  • Problem: As people age, their brain slows down and the risk of dementia increases.

  • Solution: World renowned researchers have proven that it is possible to reverse this decay through the daily exercises that increase blood flow to the brain. By creating a software product that automates the training regimen, we can bring this revolutionary health care technique to the masses.
We have a market that skews towards older non-gamers. The problem we are solving is very important to them. Most are horrified at the thought of losing their mental capacity and would pay exorbitant amounts of money if there was a proven alternative.

And did I mention that no one else is serving this market?

Fascinating sales statistics
The sales of DS Training for Adults exhibit a sales cycle that is far longer lived than most games. To understand why it is so unique, we need to understand the sales cycle of a typical game and the market forces at work.

A typical game title sales peak in the first week and then rapidly diminish to a mere trickle. The second week is often only 20% of the original sales. A title is lucky to spend 8 weeks on the retail shelves before being moved into the bargain bins.

There are several market forces at work here.

  • Highly informed target market: Traditional gamers are a rather homogenous group that knows when a title is released and whether or not the concept is appealing. The highly efficient media system tends to carry the same stories and many gamers read at least one or more gaming websites or magazines on a regular basis. The result of all this is that within a very short period after its release, the majority of the ultimate audience owns the game.

  • Competing titles: Most games fall into specific genres that are highly competitive. As soon as a title is released, the reviews hit and the title’s rank in the pecking order of the genre is established. If you don’t make it into the rarified ranks of first or second place, your title quickly drops off the radar of the hardcore recommenders. Only the genre kings seem to extend their sales cycle through word-of-mouth.

  • Disposable experience: Most retail games are a disposable single-shot experience. You play them and you forget them. Contrast this with evergreen forms of entertainment such as chess or Monopoly. Every family has at least one copy of Monopoly hanging about the house. When the pieces are lost or it gets misplaced in a move, you buy another copy. The result is a steady, predictable number of sales.

    Games do not have this evergreen quality. Once you’ve experienced a title, it is rare for most players to repeat the experience. Most don’t even finish the game the first time. Technology is always advancing and the next genre king is always just around the corner. It is easier to buy the newest experience than it is to try to maintain the old experience. Very few games are evergreen products so the retailers move them off the shelf quickly to make room for the next big thing.
DS Training for Adults had a rather different sales curve. It started out slow and has stabilized at a steady rate of sales. Even though it was released in May 2005, it still managed to hold 8th place on the September 12th, 2005 Japanese sales list. Targeting the older non-gamers seems to be paying off.

Let’s look at some of the market factors involved

  • Fragmented target market: The core demographic that purchases the title rarely read gaming magazines. They are learning about the title slowly through friends and non-traditional media outlets. The result is a longer, slower sales ramp.

  • King of the genre: The core mechanics of DS Training for Adults fits a definite market need, but there are no few competitors available. If have a friend that is interested preventing dementia, there is only one title to recommend. This shows the benefit of an innovation strategy. You end up being the market leader by default.

  • Evergreen product: DS Brain Training is a title that is used every day for years on end. You don’t throw it away for the next best thing. It is inherently useful regardless of what comes out two weeks from now.
Successfully target an underserved niche with a meaningful product and profit. It is business 101, but most game developers were unfortunately never trained as traditional product designers.

Servicing the market need
Identifying a market opportunity is merely the first step. A game also has to provide a working solution. The market for DS Training for Adults presents several interesting design problems:

  • How can game mechanics be used to successfully deliver the basic brain training exercises?

  • What type of interface do you use for a market of non-gamers?
Game Mechanics
The designers of DS Training for Adults had some experience with the problem of productizing their research. The main author released several very popular books describing the research and various brain exercises. He also licensed his system to Sega in 2004 to create a portable quiz system that looked a lot like a small electronic dictionary. When it finally made it to the DS, there were several game specific mechanics that were added to make it more effective.

At its core, there is a simple risk / reward schedule driving the product.

  • Action: You answer a series of questions in the form of 3 quizzes.
  • Reward: At the end of the quiz, you receive a score that represents the mental age of your brain. If you did well, you lowered the age of your brain.
  • Risk: If you did poorly, your brain age is scored as older. You feel the icy albatross of dementia around your neck, slowly eating away at the very center of your identity.
The risk of our brains decaying is something that most of us live with every day. However, games have the ability to identify a risk and call it out in a very clear and effective manner. Simply by showing the player what is happening inside their brain, a primitive quiz game gains both a large carrot and a large stick for use in modifying the player’s behavior.

There is a lesson here about the strength of real world risks and rewards. You can certainly motivate people with abstract rewards. Our brains still react to getting a star or a few extra points on our final score. However, if you tie your risk / reward sequences into a meaningful real world goal, your low power psychological incentives become super charged. You see this with gambling games, with many sports that reward with real world social rank and with DS Adult training. A little bit of reality goes a long way towards improving the addictive qualities of your game.

Interface as a learned language
DS Training for Adults has a wonderful interface for its target audience. These are folks who rarely use computers and most likely never have played computer games. A traditional game interface is a giant barrier that could easily stunt the sales of the product.

I’m a great believer in the school of thought that user interfaces are a learned language. There is rarely anything inherently intuitive about an interface. Instead the best interfaces try to leverage existing knowledge about how a group of people prefer to interact with the world.

For example, in art programs, artists know that holding down the space bar changes your cursor into a hand icon that lets you drag the canvas about. This action has become so ingrained that it is purely muscle memory for most artists. If an art program comes out that lacks this feature, its UI is immediately lambasted as un-intuitive. It would be like knowing a common verb such as ‘drag’ but when you try to communicate, the other person just stares at you blankly. Heaven forbid, the program suggests an alternative verb such as “scroll bars.” No one wants to learn a new language.

In DS Training for Adults, the designers based the interface on a language they assumed their audience would know. Instead of pressing buttons, you jot down numbers much like you would in school notebook. For certain mini-games, you also can yell out answers and the game will use speak recognition to record your answers. The users of DS Training for Adult may not speak ‘Video Game-ese” but they are very likely to understand “Elementary School Quiz-ese”

There are a variety of additional tricks that are used to enforce the interface metaphor.

  • The professor is a bobbing head that encourages you much like a real world teacher would.
  • The DS is held sideways, much like a traditional notebook.
  • All the ‘random buttons’ on the DS are ignored and the whole game is played through the touch screen and the microphone.
  • There are a number of risk / reward schedules that are skinned to fit the metaphor. Training each day gets you a ‘good job’ stamp. If you do a good job, you are rewarded with additional lessons and exercises much like you would if you were taking a class.

The result is amusingly enough, a game that is very intuitive to its target audience, but feels distinctly non-standard to the typical gamer. When you target new market segments, there is a natural splintering of the interface language that many designers have come to rely upon. Where the groups interact, expect to see misunderstanding and perhaps a culture war or two. I would pay money to videotape a typical DS Training for Adults purchaser as they read through a copy of EGM looking for additional brain training games.

From the flip perspective, I’ve seen DS Training for Adults described by the mainstream gaming press as “Not worth full price, since there are only nine different games to play here, but definitely a fun time-waster.” A review of a title intended for non-gamers by gamers will likely miss the point. It would be like a non-metrosexual male such as myself trying to write a cute shoe review. :-)

Big Picture: When is a game a useful consumer product and when is it merely entertainment?
DS Training for Adults is what many people these days are calling a Serious Game. It takes the techniques of classic game design and applies them to a real world problem. Most Serious Games focus on teaching a particular real world skill to the player. DS Training for Adults is unique in that it claims that act of playing the game has direct health benefits. The basic concept is the same. Games are useful software products.

Serious Games are a new (or at least rediscovered) class of software that raises big questions about commonly held definitions of games. Many people, both game designers and game critics, have argued that games are inherently pointless. Our urge to play games is a remnant of our childhood, a pleasurable leftover behavior that is at best a luxury activity in our adult world. This attitude is pervasive and influences both the consumption and the designs of modern games.

Under this shallow philosophy, games become a series of disposable baubles that contribute nothing to society. As long as it is ‘fun’, a game is devoured by the sedated masses who demand only meaningless pleasure. If, by definition, there is nothing more to games, why try to create anything beyond mere candy?

I see titles such as DS Training for Adults and I must disagree with the concept that games are mere entertainment. There exists an entire universe of applications for quality game design that reach far beyond the current status quo. We need a new philosophy. Imagine instead that a game is ultimately a consumer product that services an identifiable need in the marketplace.

If we see a game as a software product, game design becomes a practical tool for solving real world problems. DS Training for Adults uses risk / reward schedules to turn the process of reducing dementia into an enjoyable and addictive experience. In my game design Space Crack, I use the same fundamental tools to create a product that helps long lost friends connect with one another. The possibilities are limitless.

When you start treating games as consumer products that serve real needs, you look at the process of designing games in a radically different light. It is not longer about one upping a current genre king with craftsman-style clone-and-polish techniques. It is about solving problems and making the world a better place. Not only is this idealistic and heartwarming, it also happens to be a great way to make money.

The good stuff
I would have a hard time writing a traditional game review for DS Brain Training for Adults. It seems a bit odd to attempt an objective review when there are really no other comparable titles on the market. Imagine you are tasked with reviewing an immortality serum. It is the only one that works, but it smells a bit funny. Do you knock off a star because of the smell? At best you can review it based off its effectiveness. Everything else is merely noise.

Luckily this is a design review. Here is a very brief run-down of some of the design elements I enjoyed in DS Training for Adults:

  • The risk / reward schedules are simple, pure and highly effective. I’ve spent very little time describing them because they are game design 101. They follow the standard pattern of having a core mechanic and then building layer of meta-game mechanics and ladders atop the foundation.

  • The little avatar of the professor works amazingly well. When you miss a day, you feel guilty. He comes across as slightly creepy to Western sensibilities, but I’m assured that he is quite charming from a Japanese perspective.

  • The brain age charts are remarkably effective. When Aya managed to get her mental age down to 20, there was a celebration in our household that lasted most of the day. I’ve rarely seen such an effective incentive in a video game.
The bad stuff
  • The handwriting recognition still isn’t perfect. As you go along, you get better at it. Still this could be improved. Ah, the downfalls of using advanced technology in an attempt to simplify a task. However, the flaws are not fatal and overall the interface was an inspired design decision.

  • I’m curious about the long term burn out. The exercises themselves are rather solid, but there is likely to be a limited number of tips and tricks that can be dispensed. At a certain point, people will get bored of the longer term meta-game mechanics. Ideally, however, playing this game should be like taking your daily vitamins. If the game can make the transition from addiction to habit then it can avoid long term burn out.
DS Training for Adults is a very different title than most of games on the market and it brings out some extremely fascinating lessons about game design. We covered the following concepts in this essay:

  • Targeting an underserved market can extend your selling period: By servicing a real market need you can create an evergreen product that faces little immediate competition. The result is long shelf time and improved sales. The downside is a slower sales ramp and the need for non-traditional marketing campaigns.

  • Real world risk / rewards schedules can supercharge the addictiveness of your game: By focusing on a real-world concern or interest you can turn a simple game into a highly meaningful activity. The result is slower burn out and more potent risk / reward systems.

  • Interface is a learned language: Good interface design is not a universal concept. Instead, ask “what are the skills inherent in your target population and how can you leverage them to create an interface that best matches with their unspoken expectations?”

  • Game can be more than mere entertainment: Approach game design from the perspective of a product designer. Look for unmet needs and use game design techniques to create effective solutions. Adopt as your central motivating philosophy that all games serve a purpose. By clearly identifying that purpose, you’ll make vastly superior games.
I hope to see many more titles like DS Training for Adults. Designers who pursue the goal of creating useful product will build entirely new fields of game design that expand well beyond the current pool of stagnant genres. I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating. This is an exciting time to be a game designer. :-)

Take care


There is one additional brain training game available in Japan. It is doing quite well but is still in second place. The established, pre-existing brand of DS Training for Adults seems to have been a critical factor in its capturing of the genre title crown.