Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Super Mario Galaxy: A breakup note

Last week we picked up Super Mario Galaxy. It has always been a private shame of mine that I never truly experienced Mario 64, despite all the accolades that it has garnered. Years ago, I played for the first level, enjoyed running about and marveling at the scenery. But then, as I recall, the game became impossibly difficult. Not for all people. Just for me. Completing precision jumps across lava filled 3D chasms while ominous monstrosities slobber at my heels is my own private form of hell.

The hot hookup
But Super Mario Galaxy has received universally great reviews; it maintains an ample 97.3% on It is also supposedly relatively easy to beat and the controls are dead simple, a stance in line with Nintendo's lovely new casual bent. So, what the heck. Targ├ęt, the local French emporium of stylish goods, had it on sale for 35 smackers. I figured I'd give it a shot.

So I plopped it in the Wii and sat through the drearily long intro movie. First impressions...the camera still sucks, but it is cool that you can tag the little star bits with the wiimote. Ooh, a spherical world. Wow, this camera really does suck! I'm suddenly navigating upside down and my head is cocked at a 90 degree angle. I barely know where my little dude is heading.

So I gamely struggle with the wonky interface up until the first black hole. I immediately drive my drunken Mario tank directly off the ledge into the hole's waiting maw. Boom, back at the beginning of the level I go. And I lose a life. Confusion sets in. Shouldn't there be like a quicksave or something that lets me try this dastardly trap again? Surely, a mistake made in a fraction of a second surely shouldn't be punished by a minute long replay penalty.

The frustration of not finding your soul mate
Oh, but it is. At this point I'm pissed. For me, the first hour of Super Mario Galaxy simply isn't any fun. It is stressful, irritating and it punishes me when I make the slightest mistake. And then it gets worse. I jumped from enjoying WiiSports to playing Super Mario Galaxy. The difference in expected play styles is quite the shock.
  • Time between failure and retry is too long: If you make a mistake, retrying again should only be less than 15 seconds away. Even a minute is too long. The easy levels of Knytt are just about right...3 to 10 seconds between retries. Something like Braid promises to be even better. Replay just as much as you need to.
  • Lack of dynamic difficulty: My wife died five times in a row trying to run around behind a giant tromping plant. How hard is it to reduce the difficulty level of an enemy if they end up blocking a player's progress? Make the monster tromp slower. Require fewer hits to kill. We build games in a one size fits all manner when the obvious reality is that there are lots of different types of players. Try to meet up half away instead of asking the player to do all the work.
  • Blocking linear challenges: Naturally, my wife quit the game after this repeated punishment. Classic burnout. Never block the player with a challenge that presents no option but continued failure. When the player is presented with challenge after challenge in a linear manner, eventually they get to one that they can't pass. Beating your head against such an obstacle is frustrating. Instead, let the player try something else. (Eventually you gain access to multiple galaxies at once, but not soon enough. Also most individual levels remain quite linear)
  • Too much of a focus on learning through failure and repetition: A good 80% of the levels teach the player new skills by killing them if they screw up. A player new to the 3D platformer genre is expected to rack up hundreds of deaths before they reach the end. Many areas require a half dozen or more attempts, each lasting minutes, before success is achieved. And this is fun?
If you fixed these things, it wouldn't be a Mario game
None of these problems are the fault of Super Mario Galaxy.
I'm playing the game incorrectly. My suggestions are like trying to improve a lover that isn't quite the right match. Mario is a game about all those things I want to fix. You see, when I play, my most happy moments are exploring and chatting with the little cute mushroom guys. All this jumping crap just gets in my way. But the point of Mario is the jumping crap.

Super Mario Galaxy is all about mastering physical skills. If you map out the skill atoms, everything relies on movement and timing. This is reptile brain stuff that is learned in one very simple manner: repetition. Remember, Karate Kid? Wax on, wax off. The game design is a slave to this biological requirement. If you want to encourage the player to master navigate a narrow path above a black hole, you need to force them to perform variations on that action a thousand times. Each failure improves our muscle memory a fraction more.

This is core of Mario:
  • Move accurately.
  • If you fail, you die and try again.
  • If you succeed, a new challenge appears where you must move with even greater accuracy.
There are of course some lovely exploration elements and cute graphics mixed in with the basic activiities. However, if you removed the core elements of timing and jumping, you wouldn't have a Mario platformer any longer.

It's not you, it's me
Sometimes, it is the player, not the design that is at fault. Somewhere along the way, I have diverged from the traditional gamer path. Those simple pleasures of twitching in sequence to bizarre spacial/temporal puzzles are lost on me. Instead of finding them fun, I find them to be obnoxious time wasters.

This goes back to the work of Chris Bateman, Nicole Lazzaro, Nicholas Lee and others exploring different play styles. Not all people enjoy the same sort of games. It's an obvious statement that is still making itself heard throughout the gaming ecosystem.

For example, on Nick Lee's motivation assessment test, I happen to score high on exploration and socializing tendencies, but don't really give a damn about in-game achievement.
  • I'll put up with fighting enemies or solving puzzles into order to see new vistas or get some coin to help outfitting my character. I'm not in it for the joy of the battle.
  • For a person like myself, Street Fighter is the single dumbest game of all time.
  • On the other hand, wandering about in Animal Crossing and planting sweet rows of pretty apple trees is pure crack.
With the advent of casual and indie games as well as the efforts on the DS and the Wii to broaden the market, I'm starting to see more games that I enjoy quite thoroughly. Games are beginning to finally emerge from their geeky, masochist roots and it delights me to no end.

I should have never listened to his advice
The rest of the ecoystem hasn't quite caught up. That 98% score for Super Mario Galaxy on is so horrendously polluted by a self-selection bias that it is laughable. What percentage of the reviewers fit any of the following criteria?
  • Never played a 3D platformer.
  • Mostly enjoy casual games like Bejeweled.
  • Prefer social board games like Pictionary or Scrabble.
That's a random smattering of non-hardcore play styles and skill levels present in the broader population. I suspect you'll find less than 5% of professional game reviewers fit any of those profiles. The quality signals sent by the extraordinarily biased press are completely inappropriate for anyone who hasn't been playing games as their primary hobby for the past five years.

What will it take for the game industry to adapt to the fact that different gamers like different games? I'm not sure that expert game reviewers, describing their personal tale about their unique experience with the game, have a place in telling most people which games they should play. It's like taking dating advice from a Guild Navigator, so loaded to the gills with the spice of genre addiction that they've mutated into an alien being.

For me, the solution is all about trying the game out before I purchase. This is an area where immense improvement is possible.
  • Customers need to learn to seek out demos. They also need to refuse to buy sight unseen the products that fail to offer a free trial. This is a culture change that will likely take years to complete. It is inevitable. People don't like making $40 mistakes.
  • Developers need to learn the fine art of making great demos. A great demo is a viral marketing engine that cuts out the middleman. They improve customer satisfaction and can improve the margin that a developer takes home. There is a huge opportunity here to merge the lessons of free-to-play service models with the mechanics found in current downloadable games. Unfortunately, building a demo that provides instant value, an incentive to purchase and makes users want to pass it on to others is a skill that is rarely found at most game development shops. We are seeing some early attempts on Xbox Live, the PS3 and the DS download stations, though at the moment, the demo is often a separate from the full version. As the concepts of 'free to play' and 'demo' begin to merge, developers will need to address this disconnect.
  • Platforms need to make demos the default method of promoting a game. If a game is released in the store, I should be able to download a demo online. If your platform doesn't encourage this for most games, your customers are being punished. Ideally, customers can purchase the game from within the trial. This is already the case for the casual download market and I expect it to spread quickly into other areas of the game market.
If Super Mario Galaxy had a demo, I would have tried it out and likely given it a pass.

If only I liked you...
In a way, all this makes me sad. There is an entire herd of twitchy game developers, trained for decades to worship fare like Mario Galaxy. They are out there, busting their beautiful balls to make more games that push the same exact psychological buttons as the pedestal lounging AAA titles of their childhood. They are building some great games, but those games aren't for me.

It's like meeting a girl who is cute and smart, but really, really likes the whole dressing up their boyfriend in black duct tape and then whipping them until they bleed from unmentionable orifices. You'll eventually back away, but there is always that slightest tinge of regret.

You'll find someone
This tale has a happy ending. My wife picked up the controller after I set it down in frustration. The last platformer that she played was Super Mario Bros on the original Famicom, but she figured, what the heck. She came back from being crushed by the first boss, read the walk through sites for tips and finally defeated him. From that point onward, she's been clocking in six to eight hours a day and just picked up her 60th star. She dies over and over again. The addiction and delight on her face when she ends a level is palpable. For her, the game clicks.

Perhaps after she's done, I'll pop into the levels she's already conquered and cherry pick the handful of experiences that fit my style of play. There is a beach level with a cannon and a lagoon. There isn't much there, but it is rather relaxing to hang out with the one scaredy crab (I kill off the hurtful ones) and taking the occasional lazy swim through the pristine waters.

Even universal acclaim is not enough to justify a purchase. Each player has their own distinct playing style and many of these preferences are rarely captured by the hardcore journalists who review most games. Instead of complaining about the game post-purchase, it is far better to grab a demo and experience it directly. This goes for even such gems as Super Mario Galaxy.

Happy New Year,

Updated 10:01AM, January 2nd: Clarified some of the minor bits and added a conclusion so that the main point isn't completely lost in the red haze that comes from hearing a heathen's encounter with the Holy One. :-)


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Naked Business

An essay on how to treat customers and employees like owners and reap the benefits.

In any meeting, a negotiator can adopt a variety of strategies. Typically, they horde information, pick apart their opponent's every move in hope of understanding hidden meaning, and ultimately attempt to gain the upper hand through manipulation. Sometimes you outsmart your opponent and win. Many times, you are so busy protecting yourself that a deal never happens.

There is a less common negotiation strategy that relies on going completely naked. Instead of hoarding information, you give it freely. You openly explain both your needs and what you have to offer. If the other person reciprocates with open arms, you can work together to capture amazing opportunities.

It occurs to me that many private companies play the game of business as a negotiation situation where their customers and employees are opponents that must be outsmarted. Many deals are left on the table. What would happen if they instead used the naked negotiation strategy? Imagine a company that says to their customers with conviction and honesty, "Here is what I have, and here is what I need. Let us work together to create mutual value."

The rules of an Open Kimono business
The following are simple rules of thumb that guide the behavior of a Naked company.
  • Rule #1 - We are all in this together: By purchasing a company's product, a customer becomes invested in company's continued success. By working at a company, an employee also becomes invested in company's continued success. In all areas, both the customer and the employee contribute to the business and deserve to share in its success as owners.

  • Rule #2 - We share information freely: Where possible, aggregate information that is shared freely within a company should be shared freely with the customers of a company. More is gained from sharing than from hoarding. We seek to build trust, empower both customers and employees, and solve problems together with the best tools possible.

  • Rule #3 - We win through the creation of superior value: In competitive situations, by erring on the side of openness and honesty, we discover mutually beneficial solutions. As a result the company succeeds by being able to offer superior value compared to those companies that attempt to get ahead through trickery or manipulation of perception.
All this is lovely sentiment, but what does it mean? The following practices might vary depending on the exact company, but here is a good start.
  • All major financial data is posted in an easy-to-comprehend fashion on the company web site
  • All major company metrics, goals and progress towards those goals are publicly posted and constantly updated.
  • Periodic customer research is performed and the results are also made available to all customers and employees.
  • 5% of profits are redistributed back to existing customers. Another 5% is given to the employees. If desired, the money can be donated to a charity or reinvested in company stock.
  • When problem areas are identified, customers are encouraged to contribute suggestion, time or resources to the solving of the problem.
Roots of the Naked business
The roots of the Naked business are quite traditional. Successful companies have been using these techniques for years.
  • Public companies: Public companies are required by law to divulge certain internal information to their stock holders. The result is that dishonest behavior is not allowed to fester for long without being exposed to the light of reality. It is debatable however, if public company's slavish devotion to quarterly stockholder gain is a positive long term strategy. A Naked company that has the transparency of a public company, but is measured on pertinent long term business metrics instead of only short term financial data.
  • Open Book Management: By sharing pertinent company information with employees, companies run by open book management empower everyone in the company to innovate towards a common goal. A Naked company uses the same technique to leverage not only the distributed power of their employees, but also the distributed networking power of their customers.
  • Market Orientation: Companies with market orientation listen to both the needs of their customers and the trends in the market when making strategic and tactical decisions. A Naked company's close two-way communication with its customers allows it to respond effectively to the latest market information.
  • Market as a community: Markets are often looked at as system in which buyers and sellers exchange value, where value is defined in financial and material terms. Yet strong emotional bonds form between buyers and sellers that can bring substantial social value to both parties. People will always seek to find meaning in their actions, yet companies often ignore this fundamental need. A Naked company provides both customers and employees with a self-contained community that encourages, nurtures, and thrives upon the creation of social value.
The case against the Naked business
When I bring this concept up to people, the inevitable reaction is "What an idealistic notion. Unfortunately, the world does not work like that." It is utterly self evident that close management of information is essential to any financially successful venture. In no particular order, the following are considered to be fatal flaws in the Naked philosophy.
  • Severe competitive disadvantage: The moment a company provides open information to the public, competitors will use that information to gain an advantage. Copycat tactics, preemptive product releases and attack ads that further publicize embarrassing information are all likely.
  • Expensive: By spending time providing reams of information, small companies are using scarce resources ineffectively. Seeking more sales or creating a improved product will yield better results.
  • Customers lack of business skills:No benefit is gained because customers lack the skills to interpret company information in any meaningful fashion.
  • Public relations nightmare: Honest publication of information means that the company will be displaying warts and all to the public. There is little opportunity to spin bad news or manage your financial data.
  • Customer relations nightmare: If you give customers a sense of empowerment, they will complain endlessly and publicly. This in turn leads to bad press and a loss of sales.
  • No one is doing this: Few profitable companies operate in this fashion. They must have already failed.
The case for a Naked business
The following are benefits of an OK company.
  • Passion: Companies with a strong vision tend to outperform those that focus solely on financial results. By building a culture around a philosophy that people can wholeheartedly believe in, employees and customers will give the extra effort necessary to ensure success.
  • Strong word of mouth presence: A company with a unique and appealing ideology stands out in the crowd. The fact that customers benefit from this ideology yields a powerful source of word of mouth advertising.
  • The customer's network is the company's network: A customer that truly believes that they are invested in a company feels comfortable sharing their contacts and resources. At the extreme end, the customer is a believer that happily volunteers for the company. A thousand customers have a larger and potentially more powerful network than a hundred employees.
  • Faster response to market change: Customers that complain or offer advice provide a highly responsive early warning system to changing needs or competitive threats.
  • Many eyes catch stupid mistakes: Strategic blunders are easier to catch when you have multiple people offering unbiased commentary.
  • Increased customer trust and loyalty: This in turn leads to retention and improved profits. Why go elsewhere when a company concretely demonstrates that it is deeply interested in listening to your needs?
  • Increased employee trust and loyalty: This also leads to retention and improved profits. Employees are the core asset of a knowledge-based company. By keeping them, you build an experience based sustainable competitive advantage.
  • One reality: The cost, both financial and psychological, of keeping multiple books, one for the public, one for the employees, and one for the investors is greatly reduced. The benefit is that customers and employees can talk the same language and use the same data to create mutually beneficial outcomes.
Key implementation areas
Let's suppose for a moment that benefits of an Open Kimono philosophy outweigh the detriments. What are the success factors that must be focused on to gain those benefits?. The follow are key implementation areas that must be addressed in order to achieve success.

  • Dedicated Leadership: Any culturally driven sustainable advantage needs to have buy-in and support at the leadership level. Words alone are meaningless. Consistent public actions by respected leaders help the cultural change permeate through the entire organization.
  • Customer and Employee Education: Data is useless unless the intended audience is capable of understanding it. Putting company information in format that is comprehensible to the customers and employees is a partial solution. Actively educating both customers and employees on the meaning and use of the data is equally important. If there is not an obvious connection between the data and the benefits received by the person digesting the data, then the system has failed.
  • Filtering through the noise: When everyone yells their opinion, it can be hard to capture any useful information. Rigorous data collection and analysis techniques can turn the outpouring of information into actionable solutions.
A strongly customer and employee oriented company is more likely to prosper than a profits oriented company. Profits are still important, but it is wise to remember that they are one metric amongst many. By focusing on satisfying a broad range of benefits instead of merely materialistic and financial benefits, a Naked company attracts and retains both superior quantities of customers and superior quality employees.

In the end, running a Naked company is as much a personal choice as it is a business decision. Openness, honesty, community and mutual respect are concepts I can believe in. All else being equal, what type of business would you want to devote your life to?

take care

PS: With some minor changes, this was an essay I wrote many years ago. In the subsequent years, transparency has come en vogue and it now seems everyone is spouting its praises. Which is a great thing. This message needs to be broadcast as loudly as possible lest it be lost in the morass of sub-optimizers twisting the truth in the name of profits.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Random links and musings

Here are some random notes of interest:
  • Ballistic Wars: The good folks over at Easy Only! Games put together a delightful little tactics game using concepts similar to those found in SpaceCute. My hope is to see an entire genre based off this mechanic popping up. As we saw from the prototyping challenge, there are a huge number of different variants that are possible.

  • Call for Participation for the Experimental Gameplay Sessions 2008: Johnathan Blow is out shaking the bushes to round up a few experimental games. I suspect there are likely a few folks that read this blog working on something intriguing in their spare time. Shine on, you crazy diamond.

  • March of commodification: Raph chats about how R&D on chat turns into commodity off the shelf software over a period of only a decade. What once needed to be built from scratch is now a simple option that can be toggled on if desired. It made me think that perhaps technology is not a company's long term competitive advantage. Instead, it is the unique (and fragile!) community that a service fosters.

  • What we are missing: Another Raph presentation. Worth reading if you have somehow missed the joyous discussion about where online games are going.

  • Asynchronous games: The ever delightful Ian Bogost has a detailed discussion about the history of asynchronous multiplayer games. I love his use of personalized scores in Asteroids as an example for turning a single player experience into a highly social multiplayer experience. If you are a casual game developer who isn't thinking about asynchronous multiplayer experiences, you are missing out on some amazing opportunities.

  • Flash developers?: Do you know anyone with mad Flash/Flex skills who is interested in innovative casual games and social networking? I've got a good friend who is looking into prototyping some concepts in hopes of creating a startup. It would be ideal if they were in the Seattle/Puget Sound area. Drop me a note at danc [at] lostgarden [dot] com and I'll forward on the info.
take care

Sunday, December 2, 2007

How to bootstrap your indie art needs

A goodly number of indie game developers are lured into by the free game graphics. Every few days an email pops into my inbox, "Hey, could you draw the graphics for my cool game design idea?"

I'm honored more than you can imagine when I get such a letter and they mean a lot to me. Unfortunately, I have my fingers in so many projects at the moment that squeezing in an additional graphics job wouldn't be doing anyone any favors. Still, it bothers me that talented people with amazing dreams can't make their games due to a lack of graphics.

Here's a run down of several techniques that help you get your game finished without being blocked by the graphics bottleneck.

Build a game that fits your level of art skills
The first path that you should go down is to build a game that fits your level of art skills. If you are a programmer and can only make squares, make a game that uses squares as graphics. It worked for Tetris and it can work for you.

At a functional level, graphics exist to provide feedback to the player, not to wow them with Hollywood-esque delights. Put those dreams of cinematic fantasms to the side and focus on the game mechanics, the interface and the level design. If you can nail all of these and you only have little ASCII art, people will still flock to your game.

Some successful games that designed the project around the developer's lack of traditional graphics skills include:
If they can do it, you can certainly finish your game without relying on an artist for graphics.

Use free graphics
The next step up is to use free graphics. There are thousands of game graphics out there on the web. Admittedly, they have problems:
  • They may not be the most attractive. "Dude, these free graphics are totally sucky compared to StarCraft."
  • They may not fit your exact mental vision. "No, the Xenli Sorcesses has four silver spikes on her bosom armor, not two. It is completely wrong!"
  • They may not be complete: "I really need a female knight and and they only supplied a male knight! The end is nigh!"
  • Other people might be using them in their games. "Argh, now my RPG looks just like the one done by that guy in Australia. *sigh* Now I will never be l33t."
My heartfelt recommendation is that you get over it. None of these is really a blocker. If you can build a game with limited art, you can certainly build a game with a few carefully chosen bits of free art. Here are some answers to common complaints.
  • You aren't Blizzard. That's okay. You can still make a fun game.
  • Design is about coming up with great solutions in the face of complex constraints. In order to design a great game, you will need to adapt your vision to reality a thousand times. Practice your problem solving skills by using free game graphics in the best way possible to get as close to your vision as possible.
  • If the set isn't complete, get creative! If you need two knight graphics, colorize one blue and one red. If you need a dragon boss, colorize one of your knights black and change the villain to be the Dark Knight. Even primitive graphics skills can triple the number of usable graphics if you show a little initiative.
  • You browse free game graphics archives, but your customers do not. Out of the thousands of people that play your game, only a small handful will recognize that you are using free graphics. The only ones who care are typically merely would-be game developers snobs. Ignore them. That is easy enough.
Here's an example of noted game developer Sean Cooper using my free tile graphics for his Flash game Boxhead. Sean has worked on Powermonger, Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet and Syndicate. It is instructive to observe how he uses free graphics to give his game a leg up.

Pay for competent graphics
If you absolutely must have quality custom graphics, you are going to need to pay an artist real money to produce them. There seems to be an odd opinion that that artists sit around all day doing nothing and whenever someone asks them for a painting, they scribble for a few moments and then non-nonchalantly hand over a masterpiece. Good art takes time and skill. Drawing a good tile set might take 20 or more hours. Drawing a simple background might take all day. If you aren't willing to pay for their very valuable time and effort, most competent artists will go work for someone who will.

Prices vary dramatically depending on the type of art, the quality of the art and the reputation of the artist. Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $60 per hour. The best bet is to ask the artist what their standard rates might be. You can always negotiate, but remember if you squeeze the artist too much, you increase the chances that they will put your game on the back burner when a more appealing opportunity comes along. Negotiating for royalties is another option, but since 90% of the reason that games don't get finished is because the programmer flakes out, I would hope that most artists would be rather wary of this path.

There are numerous ways to bootstrap your art budget if you have your heart set on custom artwork.
  • Create art-free games to fund games with more polish. Release a version using free art. If it sells, reinvest the profits in creating the same exact game with better graphics.
  • Set aside a certain amount each month to pay for graphics. One fellow I know is setting aside 300 bucks a month to pay for game art. That will buy him about 2 days worth of a cheaper artist's output a month, but if he plans well enough and limits the amount of extravagant graphics in the game, this could be enough.
If you are looking for artist, you can find a reasonable collection of game artists for hire at these links. Just keep in mind that they all expect to be paid.

The one technique that doesn't work
The most common strategy I see used by would-be developers is the only one that doesn't work. They pray that they can find an amazing artist who will work for free on their game. If only they hang out on enough forums and email enough artists and beg loudly enough...a godly artist will drop from the sky and gift them with amazing artwork.

It generally doesn't happen this way. Good artists can generally find work that pays in cash. Most likely what will happen is that you'll make a deal with a starving student who immediately leaves you in a lurch as soon as something that lets them eat comes along. They aren't being mean. They are just hungry.

So the would-be game developer mopes about the message boards, complaining about artists leaving their projects and how artists constantly ask for real money. Yet despite the substancial energy that goes into these activities, I've yet to see prayer or complaining ship software.

The big lesson
Out of all this discussion about graphics, never lose sight of the big picture. The single most important thing is for you to finish your game. Iterating towards completion is the root of all practical knowledge about game development. Putting a complete game in the hands of player is how you'll learn to make your future games shake the world to its core.

If you are telling yourself "Oh, I can't complete my game because I don't have an artist," be honest with yourself. You are making excuses. Graphics are not an impediment to making a great game. Do what ever it takes to finish your game.
  • Design a game that doesn't need professional graphics.
  • Use free graphics when possible.
  • Set up a rational budget to purchase custom graphics from a professional artist if needed.
Best wishes,