Sunday, January 21, 2007

Project Horseshoe Report: Building Innovative Games that Sell

The 2006 Project Horseshoe reports are out! In the place of my irregularly scheduled essay, I'd like to point you toward the collaborative report that I've been working on with our appropriately named "PlayDough." We dug deeply into the issues around funding innovative games and ended up producing 18 pages of revolutionary white paper goodness.

Click here to read the report. Now for a bit of commentary on the topic of innovation and business.

We are bad at designing profitable games

If you've read this site for some time, you'll notice that I keep returning to the themes of measuring success and rapid feedback cycles so that you can make necessary changes early. Unfortunately, it became very clear that most players in the game industry do not apply these lessons to the business of designing games. It isn't purely a publisher issue, nor is it purely a developer issue, but the overall issues are rather clear:
  • We don't know what makes a successful game.
  • We don't measure our games regularly from the customer perspective to see if we are going down a successful path.
  • We don't act on information that our projects will be market failures.

A Solution
You might expect a good deal of venting at one of these designer retreats, but everyone was far more interested in fixing the problem. The game industry isn't the first to run into these issues and the solutions we found used in other industries are surprising palatable. Our group ended up exploring the adaptation of the Stage Gate new product development process to game develpment.

Stage Gate is a well known options-based portfolio management technique that focuses on improving product launch success rates. It is particular appealing to the game industry because it allows companies to try out lots of different ideas ranging from highly innovative project to product line extensions and then guide the most successful ones toward a market launch. Hundreds of companies in other industries use this model and it has been proven time and time again to dramatically improve success rates, reduce design and execution risk and also reduce time to market. These are all good things. :-)

Low hanging fruit
My basic belief is that innovative products are a highly desirable and profitable component of any publisher's portfolio. However, in order to make this obvious to all the egos involved, you need a process that provides hard data and a way to mitigate risk/fear. The Stage Gate process does this with surprising efficiency.

It is also obvious that a competitive market eventually punishes stupidity. Ignoring new markets while releasing products with a poor chance of success only works until someone figures out that there are better ways.
The first party story has some obvious suspects and I know at least one forward thinking 3rd party publisher has already started rolling a version of the stage gate process out across their teams. It will be fascinating to watch the techniques we talk about in the paper inevitably take hold over the next decade.

If you work in any organization that deals with multiple retail game titles, you are likely to save millions of dollars by taking the lessons of this report to heart.
Perhaps that is a big claim, but one that is well justified by the historical results from other industries. The opportunity to become the savior hero in your organization is immense.

Kudos go out to everyone in the PlayDough group. We had the perspectives of independents, studio presidents, and publishers represented. Everyone is looking for solutions and everyone who worked on the report feels quite hopeful about the future. It is a wonderful thing to be able to point to business best practices that hold the promise of dramatically improving the industry as a whole.

take care

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The game design behind the five things blog meme

First, let's start off the exercise with an example. Here are three things about me (because I write too much for five to be worth wading through), as requested by at least two enchanting human beings, Mr. Edery and Mr. Booth. Note the links to their websites and consider the form and intent of the entries below.

1) Doctor Who
Television was uncommon in my household growing up for a variety of reasons. First, it clearly rotted your soul. Second, due to our unique location in the hinterlands of Maine, we received a mere three stations, two of which were pure Canadian syrup and one of which was PBS. Luckily, generations of liberal elite had conclusively proven that any show on PBS builds enormous pulsating (and vaguely British) brain mass. Look at Ira Glass. I’ll bet he watches PBS. My parents were fans.

Every Saturday night, my amazing mother would bake a whole wheat crust pizza and we would climb up the rickety ladder to the perennially unfinished television room at the top of our sprawling hand-built home. There, around an ancient television (the sort whose tube seemed nearly spherical), the entire family would gather and watch the latest glorious episode of Doctor Who. Cybermen, Saurians, the Master, and Chameleons circuit all rock my world.

This was a tradition that continued for at least a decade, through puberty, graduations and death. Every Saturday, whole-wheat pizza and the church of Doctor Who. The core of my being still sparkles when I see long scarves and alien rubber masks. I vividly recall the second episode: time travel, petrified forests, static electricity powered Daleks. The Bible never had a chance.

2) Chocolate
Once a month, we sneak off to a strip mall Starbucks where we greet the waiting cadre of chocoholics. With a flourish, we reveal our latest decadent discoveries. The evening becomes a whirl of luscious single origin dark chocolate, roasted nibs and bon bons. Roll the sound of that word around your mouth. “Bon Bon.” We’ve dabbled in local salt caramels and liquor filled delights purchased with adult credentials, but hell, anything less with than 65% cacao is barely worth the time.

There is a ritual to the evening. First, each owner snaps off small pieces of their sacrificial bar. The sound, hardness and texture noted. The aroma is inhaled. Next, each dark nub is placed upon napkins with its own special number. Then each person simultaneously lets a small fragment melt upon their tongue. “Oh, what a delightful front taste!” someone will exclaim. “I think I taste a fruitiness, perhaps a kiwi-peachish mélange?” queries another. We take careful notes. “No. 1: kiwi-peachish mélange? Right.

We completely make it all up. I don’t even know what kiwi-peach or burnt almonds taste like. There is an unspoken rule that no one criticizes anyone’s commentary, no matter how ludicrous. Chocolate tasting, it turns out, is not the exercise in snobbery I expected. There is no status to be gained or sommelier to impress. It's all a thinly veiled excuse to gorge upon one of God’s most marvelous sins.

(Give the Michel Cluizel Concepcion try. Pure chocolate nectar.)

3) Phones
I’m a reasonable social fellow and enjoy chatting on the phone or receiving phone calls from others. But making phone calls? Not so much. Throughout college I managed to never order pizza. This required intense subterfuge and occasionally Byzantine plotting. Starvation was certainly an option, but eventually someone else would be hungry enough that they could be bribed, manipulated or coerced into making the dread call.

My deeply rooted quirk manifests not as a phobia, but more of a nearly unstoppable subconscious urge to defer, to procrastinate. My productivity shoots through the roof when someone recommends I make a call. I clean, write old friends, start Very Important Essays, paint, etc. I can easily put off calls for months or even years.

This drives my wife crazy. She is the Phone Master. Just today she tracked down a foreign exchange student that my parents knew a decade ago. Phone call, after phone call until she had the girl's name, number and location 17 times zones away. For this I, the broken caller, worship the very ground she floats above in that angel-like Phone Master sort of way.

I won’t nominate other people because the chain must die at some point.

Take care

PS: A short analysis of the “5 things about myself” from a game design perspective
Now that the example is out of the way, let’s get a wee bit meta. What we here is an elegant social game. You play it by writing something about yourself and then nominate several more people to write about themselves. Some call it a meme, but it can be easily described in game design terms. To wit:
  • Tokens: the Writer, the Readers and the Target(s).
  • Basic Verbs: Write, Nominate and Read.
I leave the drawing out of the various atomic rewards as an exercise for the reader. :-) Here are some highlights.
  • Writer reward: The writer is rewarded because they get users to drop on by and see their post. Incremental feedback that suggests one’s reputation is increasing within a community is a strong motivator for many bloggers.
  • Reader reward: Readers are rewarded because they pick up new facts about the writer. This allows them to update their social model of the writer and typically increases their overall trust in the writer. This information allows them to rank the information on the site more appropriately for use in future decisions.
  • Writer action: The writer also gets to target others. This provides them with a very direct and low cost way of updating their mental model on information sources that they use on a regular basis. If they chose someone who continues the game, they also tend to get a back-link that leads more traffic to their website, pumping up their reputation score.
  • Target reward: The targets get immediate rewards through A) being given social attention and B) more concretely through the flow of traffic to their website. However, it gets a bit stickier than just that.
  • Target punishment: There is an opportunity for punishment as well. If the target chooses not to play, the writer will feel that their invitation was spurned and the relationship damaged. Since relationships are powerful social tools, having one damaged is a strong form of punishment that most people will seek to mitigate. In simpler terms, targets feel peer pressure to continue the game.
How you play the game matters. The execution of each action has subtle ramifications.

Uses of the write verb: When writing the five things, there is an urge to appeal to your target audience and build trust in your validity as an information source. If you are boring, readers experience burnout, you hurt your reputation and get double dinged for being the blind follower of a very silly fad. In my example above, each element targeted a very specific audience that I know reads this site.

Uses of the nominate verb: The choosing of Targets is the most interesting part of the game. The obvious strategy is to pick someone with whom you share a pre-existing social bond. Otherwise, the punishment feedback cycle has no hold over them. You also typically select someone with whom you would like to build a deeper long term relationship. The sharing of links is the modern equivalent of breaking bread together.

There are less traditional uses of the Target verb.
  • You can target blogs that are much more popular than you are. If you can score a link back, you can reap substantial traffic. The trick here is to provide a hook that overcomes the lack of peer pressure. Note that there is a little cost if you fail. For example, I could challenge Digg reader to provide 5 things that no one knows about them.
  • You can select blogs that you wish to validate on a personal level. Perhaps they intrigue you, but you’d like more details. I could challenge the good folks at the Escapist if they hadn’t been tagged already.
  • You can end the game.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Some random artwork

I've been doing some rather random drawing lately. None of them are large scale paintings, but they've given me a chance to dabble a lot with vector graphics using Expression Design, the program I've been building for the past year.

Traditionally I've been more of a painterly fellow so it is quite fascinating delving into the much more mechanical world of bezier curves, strokes and fills. The best metaphor I've heard to describe the process is a comment by Aaron Jasinski that drawing with vectors is like "making a picture using cut out pieces of paper." Quite true.

Holiday Couple
This was a quick picture I did for this year's holiday card. I have no idea who these people might be. Obviously however, the lady is incredibly charming and intelligent.

Club Silicon Logo
Here is a logo for a friend that was drawn half in Painter and half in Illustrator. I'm still not sure whether I like the brown or the blue one better.

"Faster than Lite" Space Strategy game graphics
I had a quick idea for a strategy game that used one simple verb: "drag a token to a location." With many strategy games users need to figure out selection, movement, attacking, stacking, managing their stack, etc. Here you move the piece and watch the results. There is actually quite a bit complexity that results. Pieces can attack, build new bases, lay mines, pick up power ups, set up combos, etc and all the user has to learn initially is that simple drag and drop command. This is a design tailored to the "Start playing in under 30 seconds" rule.

The graphics use a simple technique for taking layered 2D vector shapes and squishing them in a group so that they make a faux 3D shape. All you do is:
  • Offset each layer from the previous one on the Y-axis by a short amount
  • Squish each layer in screen space by about 20%
  • Rotate the layers around a common axis of rotation.
Voila, you have a smoothly rotating '3D' object in isometric space. It reminds me a lot of topographical maps. It is a good example of building something interesting with what you have at hand. With a bit of tweaking I suspect this artistic style could be quite evocative. It is also remarkably inexpensive.

(Click image to view at full size.)

Hope the New Year is treating everyone well! My resolution? Release another product this year! It has been over a year since I've had a new version of something I've designed officially go out the door and it feels a bit strange. :-)

Take care