Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays 2009!

(Click for a larger image)

First, here is a holiday picture I painted for everyone. The creature to the left is a Hairy Elephantosaurus. His prehensile mustache and beard are well suited to both the winding of fine pocket watches and the adjusting of crystalline monocles.

As the last few moments of 2009 draw to a close, I look back with great delight on what has unfolded so far. I started the year at GDC and was struck by the immense potential of plugins such as Flash, Unity and Silverlight. At the same time, I was saddened by the generally low level of both business and development knowledge that exists in the developer community targeting those platforms. You can give a man a finely crafted fishing rod, but if he uses it like a club to beat fish senseless, he may still starve.

The Flash web market. in particular, is rapidly changing. Here are some thoughts on what comes next.
  • The quality bar will rise: Veteran developers from the vicious battlefields of casual games and social games will begin adopting Flash as their primary platform. They'll bring with them vastly superior art and larger budgets. As a result it becomes harder for the individual indie to make it into the top 0.01% that makes a living.
  • Portals get on the web-based F2P bandwagon: Some major flash portals will make free-to-play games a major portion of their offering. It is a richer source of revenue and increases retention. In the dog-eat-dog world of game portals, adapt to new sources of sustenance or die.
  • The growth of long form Flash: Due to the support of portals, the success of social games, plus the revenue benefits of micro transactions, long form Flash games will start to encroach on the dominance of short form sponsored games. Some of the first generation developers that experimented with tacking transactions onto their existing short form titles will see the light and design retention-based play directly into their upcoming titles.
  • Viral distribution will break out of the social networks: As developers figure out that the game lives in the cloud not on a portal, they'll start treating social networks as one of many marketing channels and stop equating 'social game' with Facebook alone. Viral loops will evolve into game driven marketing, a set of highly scalable, automated, experimentally verified techniques that drive an exponential acquisition of players. You need a server, you need players, you need a method of communication and notification. You do not however need a social network per se. Expect modular marketing systems built into some high end games that target multiple social networks, consoles, email address books, flash portals and any other concentrated source of potential customers. At least this is what I'll be doing. :-)
  • Gameplay will continue to dominate: We are still in the stage of the market where we compete based off innovative gameplay, business models and distribution, not non-game fluff like narrative, licensed IP and massively expensive 3D graphics. Thank God. These priorities will shift as the web games market matures, so let's enjoy it while we can.
So many exciting opportunities. Let's raise a toast to an amazing and prodigious 2010! You are going to do great things.

take care

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Game design as government

(Apologies to Aldous Huxley)

For many years, I've been thinking about game design as a form of governance.
  • Game mechanics, rules and systems are comparable to laws
  • Players are comparable to citizens
  • The code and moderators that enforce game mechanics are comparable to executive activities.
  • The act of game design is the equivalent of drafting new laws, legislative activities.
  • Issue escalation and customer service are comparable to judicial activities.
Each of these topics provides years of future discussion. However, for the sake of brevity, I'll limit this essay to some thoughts on how a game government differs from a traditional government. Game governments have the following unique attributes:
  • Games are voluntary
  • Games allow for rapid iteration
  • Games excel at targeting individuals
Games are voluntary
The current crop of games are voluntary activities. In a traditional government, you are a citizen of the geographic region or nation in which you live. Membership for those who are born there is automatic. Renouncing or acquiring citizenship is a difficult activity with numerous costs. In most games players choose to operate within the magic circle defined by the rules of the game. Playing a game is seen as an explicitly voluntary activity.

There are several prerequisites for the voluntary nature of game to be realized.
  • Freedom to leave: Player should be able to stop playing the game when they wish. At the very least, they can step outside the magic circle and return to the rules of the real world. However, they might also leave one game and switch to another. The voluntary nature of games is threatened when the player can no longer leave. If you are part of a school program in which Wii Fit is a required activity, it rapidly becomes something other than a game.
  • Freedom to participate: Equally important, players should feel that their actions within the game are voluntary. Free will, or at least the illusion of free will, is necessary for there to be meaningful choices, deep experiential learning and mastery. Remove the players ability to explore the space defined by the rules of the game and at best you have rote mechanical work. At worst, you've created a crushing regime that teaches and enforces mindless obedience to a machine made of code.
Neither participating in a game nor leaving a game is without cost. All games create a self contained system of value where players are taught that algorithmic constructs are meaningful to their lives. There is always an opportunity cost involved in forming these values. There is also a cost to leaving the whirling blinking, pinging systems behind. The sword you worked for so hard in WoW has little meaning outside the game.

Games enable rapid iteration
Most modern networked electronic games involve code executing on servers. The code can be updated and pushed out to millions of players in minutes. Unhappy with the current laws? A few keystrokes later and your populace is now bound by a fresh, crisply defined reality. Traditional governments lack this speed. Laws are deliberated for months and years. They are slowly rolled out piecemeal by people and enforced piecemeal by people. People are fallible and each interpets the laws according to their biases. Some laws don't work. Some laws have inexplicable consequences that play out over many years.

There are several consequences
  • Metrics: First, metrics concerning large swatches of player behavior are readily available. In many cases, developers can set up tests that let them know if the rules they've created are generated the behavioral result they desire.
  • Scientific iteration: The player population is easily segmented. We witness this currently with A/B testing or with the rollout of Facebook changes according to geographic regions. It is possible to launch rules in a population subset, measure the results and then either kill the experiment or spread the rules more broadly if they are a success. At one point Valve had a saying that went something like "If this is a design decision that is a matter of opinion, don't waste time arguing about it. Instead play test it." What are the ramifications of using the scientific method on the generation of laws for humans?
  • Democracy of behavior: This leads to a fascinating reinterpretation of the 2500 year old formulation of democracy. You no longer vote by taking time out of your schedule and filling out a piece of paper. Instead, you vote by doing. The player's actions determine the tale the metrics tell. There is always 100% voter turnout because by choosing to play, you automatically participate in the legislative process.
Game excel at targeting individuals
Games are laser focused on the individual's activities. They deal with individual choice and individual rewards. A game knows exactly what a single person has done and adapts accordingly. Traditional governments create broad swathes of rules that affect entities or populations. Their hold on any one individual is powerful, but is very much a blunt instrument. Specifically, traditional governments lack the detailed knowledge of individual behavior, the frequency of feedback and precision of the reward structure. Wherein taxes are a feedback loop that occurs once a year, Pacman adapts to your actions 30 times a second.
  • Game designs are laws targeted at the mundane activities of free will. With Bejeweled we influence how your spend your free time. With Wii Fit, we reward or punish how you exercise. With Nike Plus we reward and punish how you move your feet. With Facebook games, we mediate how you socialize. In time, each of these will improve. In time games will target more and more activities. Travel, sleep, energy usage, medicine, love, sex, eating. If we can measure it, we can make a game out of it.
  • Pervasive law: These quotidian activities are the meat of life. As games spread throughout our everyday moments, we are suddenly in the hitherto unheard of situation where law affects 80% of our lives.
If you designed the rules that governed even a small portion of the lives of millions of people, what sort of world would you create? What are your moral obligations as a game designer? Are we still just talking about money? Are we still only talking about fun?

take care

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three False Constraints

Once again, a call goes out to make games more culturally meaningful. I agree very much with the sentiment, but I've always been frustrated with how designers set themselves up for failure due to the constraints placed on the problem.

In mathematics, computer science, and physics there is a the concept of a 'hard' problem. What does the inside of a black hole look like? How do you identify an NP complete problem? How can we travel faster than the speed of light? All of these are wonderfully interesting, but they are considered ‘hard’ because there may not actually be an answer that is discoverable before the heat death of the known universe.

We’ve turned the creation of culturally meaningful games into a similarly ‘hard’ problem. It doesn’t need to be.

Three false constraints
When we talk about making games culturally meaningful we often limit the discussion in three important ways. The following constraints are completely arbitrary, yet we stick with them like they are some holy mandates from a greater god.
  • Single player: By ‘games’, game developers typically mean ‘single player games’. Multiplayer is either not considered or is treated as a secondary feature.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through content: We seek to create meaning through the use of content created by developers for consumption by players. Only if we author the right content in the form of graphics, movies, music, writing, active and level design will the game have impact. Content created by the players is discounted.
  • Powerful platforms: Inevitably developers talking about ‘video games’ limit themselves to consoles or perhaps high end PCs. There is an assumption that if only we can get better graphics, better AI, bolder levels and more intense explosions, then at some point we will cross over a line in the sand and all must bow before the amazing new reality we have wrought. Big budgets and big tech are clearly essential. The idea that these bits of crafted fluff are secondary to the value provided by the systems of game play is rarely mentioned.

When you relax these three constraints, creating meaningful games becomes immensely easier. We go from a problem domain where there are almost zero compelling solutions to one where there are thousands of solutions. For the rest of the essay I'll cover three big impossibilities facing games' acceptance as a culturally important activity. Each problem appears 'hard' when approached through the lens of our false constraints.
  • "People in a room talking"
  • "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
  • "Reaching a broad audience"
The impossibility of “People in a room talking”
One of the ‘hard’ problems listed by Chris Hecker was the issue of people sitting around a table chatting. This is the mainstay of books and movies, yet it has eluded game developers. According to the false constraints, in order to solve this problem robustly we need the following:
  • Turing AI: A flexible conversational AI capable of passing a Turing test. It would be ideal if we also conquered the uncanny valley and hooked up our AI to virtual actors that were indistinguishable from real humans.
  • AI that can enforce artistic direction: We also need the ability for the developer to seed and control the AI so that the random interactions of thousands of unique players from unique backgrounds results the conveyance of the developer’s crafted message. The AI must therefore not only seem human, but it must understand the intent of the auteur and act as a super human manipulator of the environment and the player's experience.
I would argue that these are ludicrously hard problems. We can currently fake solutions in certain very limited situations, but we are lacking the most basic research necessary to solve these problems in a general fashion.

Even worse, the constraints conflict. There is an inherent tradeoff between increasing the flexibility of our AI and controlling the players experience. "React to the player! But do exactly what I, as the designer, tell you!" is more of a Zen kōan than a solvable problem.

...until you break the constraints
Yet as soon as you break the constraints, conversation becomes a trivial problem. A simple multiplayer online chat room gives the effect of people sitting around a room talking. So does any traditional board game or role-playing game. Or SMS. Or voice chat. Conversation flows naturally.

To the participants in the conversation, this chatter that results is more entertaining than the best writing or acting performed by the top talent in any medium. The tech is simple. The content comes from the players. And the interaction is multiplayer.

The impossibility of "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
Another challenge posed is the goal of saying something meaningful about the human condition.
  • Spatial/temporal/math puzzles that evoke humanity: The vast majority of single player games have their roots in either timing, mathematics or spatial manipulation puzzles. These systems, though entertaining and relaxing, have great difficulty modeling emotions. Often a single player model that attempts to boil down the essence of humanity comes across as dry and soulless. Asking a single player game to evoke rich emotions is much like asking a polynomial to express love. In very limited situations, in the hands of extraordinarily talented people, (see Gravitation or Passage) a single player game can evoke a glimmer from a core group of players who desperately want to believe. But single player game mechanics may never become a populist technique for saying meaningful things about the human condition. No matter how prettily we cloak the issue with artful snippets of non-interactive media, the inherent Truth at the heart of the our favorite single player game systems does not deal with humanity.
  • More direct control over the player experience: As an author expressing our vision, it would be ideal if our systems were scripted content that all players will experience within narrow behavioral bounds. If only we could deliver tight directed payloads of content like they do in other media. When an actor cries in movie, the audience instantly empathizes and reflects that emotion back. Game designers need to develop the same reliable techniques of authorial control. Wouldn't it be great if a designer could type up an equation and boom!...players break out in tears or laughter. If only our math and code would whip up a tight roller coaster of an experience that worked for all players, all the time. Yet our control levers are at least one degree removed from those found in other media. We can't simply show a visual trigger that smacks a hardwired emotion button on our monkey brain. Instead we craft mere rules. The player controls their interaction with those rules and how their ultimate experience plays out. In good games, the player is making choices that matter and exploring the systems at their own pace in their own ways. In books and movies, the audience jumps when we, as authors, want them to jump. In games, the player jumps whenever the hell they want to.
Again, these are hard problems.

...until you break the constraints
Why both with spending all this time attempting to imbue cold, heartless single player systems with the essence of humanity when humans are readily available in the form of other players? When you put real people together in a game and create social mechanics to facilitate their interaction, you see an explosion of meaningful emotional reactions. People form friendship, make enemies, fall in love, offer compliments, insult one another, tell hilarious jokes, comfort one another, bond in groups and basically exhibit the entire rich range of social emotion and behavior.

As a designer, you give up on controlling the exact experience. Instead of crafting each moment, you look at the broader possibility space that your social rules create and foster. The play space can be shaped by the designer by manipulating systems, not content. However this is not situation of singular authorship. Rules, like the laws created by governments, interact with culture and citizens of our games in unexpected and surprising ways. We are improv musicians playing off other equally creative members of the band. Multiplayer design is an ongoing process of give and take with the community. In fact, there is a well established name for absolute authorial control in a social environment. It is called a dictatorship and only tends to work when the audience is coerced into playing along. In the voluntary communities of multiplayer games, authorship is a fundamentally multiplayer activity.

Again, you don't need a powerful platform or advanced tech to bring forth a flowering of meaning. And the vast majority of the content created certainly hasn't be edited by some god-like author. Yet the emotions are real and they are brought about through a system engineered by a designer. By massaging the specific economic and social tools that feed and facilitate the human conversation, you gain a set of design techniques capable of yielding vast universes worth of meaningful games.

The impossibility of "Reaching a broad audience"
Another point about the cultural significance of game is that despite our revenue numbers, we actually reach a relatively small number of players compared to other media. A 'dominant' gaming platform like an Xbox or PS3 has sold a meager 20-30+ million consoles. Only a handful of titles sell through more than 1 million copies and these sales are generally in a limited demographic of 14-39 year old boys. Compare this minor audience with other types of media that regularly serve 5 or 6 times as many people across a broad demographic. Yes, our revenue is impressive, but the facts are a AAA core console game will touch a tiny percent of the billions of people reached by other forms of media.

Year after year, the core gaming industry attempts to broaden the market. Nintendo succeeds a little, but the rest fail. But not for lack of trying! Now matter how detailed we make our graphics. No matter how deep with make our narratives. No matter how powerful we make our GPUs. It all fails. Moms, grandfathers, people in China still insist on ignoring the latest greatest Bioware RPG or Unreal shooter. We have our best minds on perfecting the potency of our best genres and still the core market exhibits anemic growth. Reaching a broad audience is apparently hard.

...until you break the constraints
Yet when you broaden your perspective ever so slightly to include alternative platforms not specifically targeted at games, reach is the least of our worries.
  • There are multiple Facebook games that serve over 25 million unique users a month and the current top game Farmville is played by 64 million unique users a month. The Facebook platform where these games live is at 300 million worldwide and is still growing like a weed. 77 million users are in the US along and the current growth rate is 70% compounded every 6 months.
  • Games are one of the most popular classes of app on the most popular smartphone. Smart phones form a platform that will reach over a half a billion people in the coming years.
  • An individual developer can release a Flash game today and reach 10's of millions of unique players. It really isn't a big deal any more to have a game played by a million people.
There is a common theme to all these platforms. Consoles try to turn people into gamers. They attempt to suck outsiders into the gaming culture so that they play on gaming specific devices in gaming specific contexts. The new generation of social, mobile, casual and web games integrate seamlessly into a person's existing life. Instead of asking the player to set aside 2 hours in the evening locked into staring at the output of a big clunky box, they offer players a chance to relax during while waiting for the bus. Instead of asking "how do we create dedicated gamers", we ask "How can games enhance your current life."

I look to the near future and see the reach of games growing dramatically. In the next 10 year, expect to see a single game with over 250 million unique users. That is a quarter of a billion people playing in the same space. Admittedly, we may not recognize the service as a game. The topic will likely be something mundanely meaningful, not elves and dragons. The platforms will also be mundane. Some players will use PCs. Most will use phones. As a bone tossed to a wounded beast, there may even be a thin client for the remaining console players.

The source of the constraints
All this begs the question: Why do so many of the best developers insist on hanging onto these miserable and damaging constraints? There are cultural and economic factors at work.

Cultural Momentum
I am reminded of a mildly diabolical childhood development experiment performed on kittens. In 1970, psychologists Blakemore and Cooper placed several kittens in dark enclosures that only let through vertical lines of light. Several weeks later, they removed the kittens and tested if they could see any sort of horizontal features. The kittens could not. Upon dissection, it was determined that the portion of the visual cortex involved in seeing horizontal lines was irrevocably stunted. Due to the limited stimuli available during its youth, the kitten was physically incapable of ever seeing the horizon. Shortly afterwards, the kittens were killed in an act of kindness.

Most current game developers experienced a similar form of limited stimuli during their youth. An entire generation of introverted boys was raised on 20+ hours a week of Skinnerian gameplay that emphasized content, technology, and single player puzzles. The crème de la crème became game developers. Is it any surprise that they prefer these constraints? Is it any surprise that they are stubbornly incapable of seeing alternative forms of play? Many single player game developers are like children raised in the dark and unlike a helpless kitten, they will defend and justify the validity of their disability until the day that they die.

Economic Momentum
On top of this is the fact that game developers are paid by companies heavily invested in building products based off false constraints. Their bi-weekly paycheck depends on them being passionately invested in making the games that their bosses want them to make. The innovator's dilemma whispers its seductive logic. Why change what you are doing when what you are doing keeps you warm and well fed? Especially when the upstarts are so tiny compared to your efficient mainline business. Economic momentum can turn quickly, however. Just ask the 1500 core developers laid off by EA when they realized that perhaps social gaming wasn't a tiny market after all.

The False Constraints are here to stay
I have little hope in seeing these false constraints cast off completely. Most auteurs abhor change. They stubbornly stick to their dead end craft, serving a smaller and more rarified audience while the world shifts around them. Single player games stuffed with throw away content that only runs on high end machines...these odes to introversion will never die, but they will dwindle.

It takes a new generation of impudent and crass experimenters to create real artistic change. The kids growing up on Facebook games today will barely know today's poison memes of 'beating the game', or 'the Holodeck'. Instead they'll assume that of course you play games with friends. Of course you play primarily on your phone, netbook and other devices that don't make the distinction between playing games and living your life. And of course you, the player, make the most meaningful content in the game. What games will designers raised without the chains of the past end up designing?

You can waste your life flailing at impossibly hard problems or you can make a real difference in game design right now. We are at a point where there exist vast and amazing opportunities to create meaningful games. Here are some concepts to consider if you head in this direction:
  • Human emotions are simple to evoke with games. Make multiplayer games.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through systems of rules. Create rules that empower players to co-create meaningful content.
  • Reaching larger numbers of players is easy. Integrate games into the player's everyday life.
take care

Notes 12/6/2009
This essay prompted some great comments, but I noticed two issues that I hope to help with this addendum.
  • Fear: Gamers, who love single player games, fear the loss of their hobby. This tends to elicit a passionate defense of single player gaming.
  • Lack of foundation: Some readers get caught up on some of the more basic issues and therefore have difficulty grappling with the meat of the argument. This is not your fault, but mine since this essay presents a point of view without spending the time to lay down the foundation underlying the argument. The following are some notes that should help you understand the assumptions I'm drawing upon.
Re: Can't we continue to explore the meaning in single player games?
Yes, the industry will continue to make single player games. They aren't going away and we will continue to spend billions of dollars every year in an attempt to make them more evocative, narratively rich and perhaps even meaningful. All these commercial efforts, combined with the current burst of single player focused indie game devs are bound to create more expressive and meaningful games.

  • If you like our current progress towards short intense consumable experiences
  • If you like games that focus on crafted content over games that focus on creative systems
  • If you like the trend towards turning games into warped shadow of cinema
Then you have nothing to fear. In 10 years, you'll still have games that serve your particular needs. There is a generation of men just like you and our capitalist society will serve your desires until you are no longer economically viable.

However, I believe the number of new culturally meaningful games will trickle in at a depressingly slow pace. The basic reality of our medium is that the opportunities for creating culturally meaningful games based off the three constraints listed are limited in comparison to those present if you break the constraints.

Instead of worrying about what you are losing, instead focus on what we are gaining. Imagine games that connect people together. Imagine games that improve relationships. Imagine games that solve social problems. Imagine games that create understanding. Are these outcomes really all that frightening?

Re: Emotion in multiplayer games
Many players have had poor experiences with multiplayer games due to griefing. See my recent essay on testosterone in games for some explanation of why games played with strangers are often rife with unpleasantness. On the other hand, they've had delightful experiences with single player games. On the face of personal evidence, many deem it silly to state that multiplayer games offer richer, more culturally meaningful play.

Yet a broader perspective is helpful. Personal experience, or even the experience of the community playing your favorite game is a non-representative sample of the larger trends in the industry.
  • On average multiplayer modes rate more highly in terms of fun.
  • On average multiplayer modes retain users longer and are more likely to cause players to say that they would be willing to play again.
  • During user studies, observers witness a wider range of human emotions in multiplayer games. Instead of only variations on mastery, anticipation, delight and frustration, you see trust/distrust, appreciation/hatred, sympathy/alienation and more. There are entire portions of the human emotional spectrum that are rarely triggered by single player games that become available in multiplayer designs.
  • Of the emotions observed, they tend to be more extreme. People emote more strongly and in some situations, you'll see tears, exuberant celebration and real romantic love.
  • The number of extroverts, people energized by social interaction, is around 60-70% in the general US population. Extroverts make up only around 25% in technical fields such as game development.
I have several sources for these claims

I can easily believe that a decreasing majority of existing play is indeed a solitary activity. However I see this more as a historical and cultural legacy, not a true measurement of the opportunity that lies ahead. Introverts tended to make games that other introverts enjoyed and these initial starting conditions have helped define the gamer identity. However the current game culture is fighting a losing battle against two big trends:
  • There is a competitive advantage in social play: Multiplayer games rate better on the core value proposition of 'fun'. If there are two products on the shelf and one offer a fun level of 3 and the other a fun level of 4, which one will you pick? In a competitive market, the one with the stronger value proposition tends to dominate.
  • The broader audience desires social play: New emerging markets are heavily extroverted. They desire social play. For many, games lack any significance to their lives unless they are social.
I can see the balance changing where 70% of play is social and 30% is focused on individual pursuits. Again, don't worry. Introverts will of course never go away. Even strongly multiplayer genres like MMORPGs still have a single player component.

Re: But it is just a chat room
Game designers create systems that mediate social interaction within their games. The design controls many of the communication channels, availability of certain player skills and resources, as well as access to information. The game design in a multiplayer game is the difference between a ball sitting on a field and two teams playing soccer.

Chat, or more specifically communication of intent, actions and bluffing is an essential aspect of any game involving multiple people. However, the designer still has a huge responsibility to actively shape and influence the experience. To paraphrase Lawrence Lessig, "Game Design is Law" and it has many equivalent moral and social obligations. Millions of people play multiplayer games and our designs strongly influence their behavior. To state that this form of design is 'merely chat' or 'taking the easy route out' means that you are failing to engage meaningfully with the critical concepts behind multiplayer and social game design.

Re: But Facebook games are shallow!
Yes. They are. But then again so was Pong when it first came out. As a commercial industry we have spent decades and billions of dollars on turning Pong into the AAA experiences of today. If you put yourself in the shoes of many an adult at the time that Pong came out, it too was seen as a toy.

Social games on Facebook have been out 2.5 years. That's all. Give them time. And a few billion dollars. And the passion of thousands of creative people. The end result should be quite delightful.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Testosterone and Competitive Play

Lately I've been digging into research on testosterone. Over the past decade, scientists have been placing players in competitive situations and then measuring how their testosterone fluctuations predict future behavior. What you find from looking at the studies is that both winners and losers will leave your game if they are placed in a set of predictable situations involving dominance, luck, and friendship.

There are four points that have experimental support:
  1. How playing with friends affects the testosterone in winning and losing players
  2. How playing with strangers affects the testosterone in winning in losing players
  3. How perception of the role of luck or skill in the outcome affects the testosterone of players.
  4. How players differ by pro-social or pro-dominance inclination.

1. How playing with strangers affects the testosterone in winners and losers
When strangers play a competitive game based off skill, the results fit the common sense understanding of winning and losing.
  • Winner testosterone increases. Dominance and/or aggressive behavior increases. Dominance is defined as behaviors that are intended to "gain or maintain high status" (ref) Physical energy increases (and in some cases men become aroused.) Winning is exciting.
  • Loser testosterone decreases. The losing player attempts to avoid fighting the same opponent, even in situations challenges unrelated.
This is the classic description of winners and losers in a competitive game. The winners get a huge rush from beating the strangers and the losers are sent home with their tail between their legs, humiliated and subdued.

The upside
Beating strangers is a guaranteed source of entertainment. If you want a highly reliable, inexpensive means of making your game fun, toss some strangers together in a game of skill (it barely matters what sort). To boost the emotion even further, place the winners on a high status pedestal. Voila, instant fun, at least for the winners.

Typically designers look for 'fun' in a game and then build the game around what we find. The hard fun or fiero is easily detectable on the faces of the victors and acts as a clarion signal of fun. This overt signal has driven designers to create hundreds of competitive games between strangers. "Hark! Here be fun!" and we flock like moths to the flame. Our fun finding, hill climbing algorithm is predisposed to overemphasize competitive play due to the strength of the delight exhibited by winners.

The downside
Yet there are clear tradeoffs that occur when we go down this design path. Losers leave. First, they know that they cannot gain status by pursuing the game, especially against the winning players. Second, if there is some way for winners to communicate, losers are subjected to degrading displays of status. Losers may react in turn with defensive behaviors if they feel they cannot escape. Especially in games where only a few people can be winners, your player retention will suffer.

The result is an intriguing purification of the community. Only the elite winners stay around. This elite community creates an even more competitive environment that in turn creates and drives out more losers. New players attempting to enter into the community are inevitably of low skill compared to the hardened veterans and are immediately classified as losers. They also leave. Competitive games slowly boil their community down to an elitist core that actively resists and inhibits audience growth.

2. How perception of the role of luck or skill in the outcome affects players
Notice that the above case applied only to games where the loser felt that they were participating in a game of skill. The testosterone response changes when players feel they are playing in a game of luck.
  • Winner testosterone does not increase: Winners feel that their victory was not a true demonstration of superiority.
  • Loser testosterone does not decrease: Losers feel like they still have a chance of winning.
Luck is another name for an unexpected environmental factors outside the control of the player. If humans were to fall into a funk every time they lost due to the weather or an unexpected mishap, we would not have survived very long as a species. Luck turns a loss into a lesson about the environment or game mechanics, not a lesson about which player is superior to another player. As such, our innate social dominance systems fail to kick in and the social penalties from losing are avoided.

The upside
By introducing luck into a game, you can mitigate the ill effects of losing. Losers are often willing to give the game another shot. The fact that humans are notoriously poor at judging their probability of success plays out in the game designer's favor, since even poor players will think they still have a chance of winning.

The downside
Winners fail to feel the rush of victory. Strangers playing against one another in a game of luck will often complain that the game is 'cheap' or 'not a real test of skill'. Many highly competitive players will consciously avoid competitive games involving a high amount of luck since such systems reduce the psychological benefit of winning. What is the point of playing against strangers if you can't beat them into a pulp and demonstrate your dominance?

Pure competitive games of luck between strangers are rare beasts and for good reason. They manage to keep losers around, but the games hardly ever considered fun. Some gambling games may qualify (such as horse betting), yet it is telling that the vast majority of players lose.

An example
Mario Party is an example of a high luck competitive game. The game awards crazy bonuses that appear arbitrary and many games end up with the person in last place winning because they happened to have landed (randomly) on the correct square. Due to the high degree of luck is easy for losers to claim that the victory doesn't matter. The relative status of players barely changes over the course of the game.

3. How playing with friends affects the testosterone in winners and losers
So far, the the previous two studies of competition shouldn't be of much surprise to folks that have designed competitive games. However, the response of players is quite different if they consider one another to be friends. The following is what occurs if friends face off in a competitive game.
  • Winners testosterone decreases. In essence, dominance behavior dips sharply if you win in front of friends. Friends are generally are people you need to get along with in order to live your life. Imagine for a moment, if you were to win a game and then yelled at them to lick your boots (and you meant it). They probably wouldn't be your friends for very long. Our innate social response is to repress our instinctual dominance urge so as not to damage our friendships.
  • Loser's testosterone briefly falls and then recovers: The loser is under threat of being put in a low status position. However, once they receive signals that their trust in their friend is justified, they have no reason to fear a loss of status.
If dominance responses are missing, where is the fun? In general, you see both winners and losers focusing on bonding activities after a competitive game.
  • They discuss the great shared moments in the game. Shared experiences create a common ground between players that they can reference in the future.
  • They compliment one another. Compliments are often reciprocated, creating an opportunity to build mutual respect and indebtedness.
  • The winner claims they got lucky. This defuses the notion that the winner is in some way dominant or higher status. They frame the game as one of luck which makes the loser feel much better.
  • Typically, the winner does everything they can to avoid rubbing their victory in the face of the other player. And the loser does everything they can to not dwell on their loss of status. We even have names for friends that engage in inappropriate dominance behaviors. We call them 'poor winners' or 'poor losers'. Players that behave in a manner conducive to bonding are called 'good winners'. It is rare that you hear the term 'good loser' since the loser is the victim to be consoled.
  • Mutual smack talk is a form of bonding: This can be confusing for the untrained observer, because good friends will often act like they are engaging in dominance behavior by using smack talk. Yet this is just for show. The moment the smack talk actually infringes upon existing expectations of status, the mood of players will change abruptly. You'll often see accusations of one player 'taking it too seriously.' It is a good demonstration of trust to play at dominance, but to actually assert dominance between friends is considered out of bounds.
Bonding requires some form of communication channel. In a game played in a living room such as Mario Kart or a board game like Carcasonne, there are plenty of ambient opportunities. In PC games, text is the common channel. In console games, chat serves this purpose. Game mechanics can also be used as a form of in game communication. Tagging in Counterstrike is a good example of a game mechanic used to demonstrate status or shared affiliation.

The upside
With the increased popularity of couch gaming on the Wii and social gaming between friends on platforms such as Facebook, understanding the dynamics of competition between friends is critical to creating a successful game.

The most important realization is that typical form of 'fun' that we associate with competitive games is either reduced or turned into a negative experience. Competitive game play with friends becomes less about winning and more about shared experiences. This is a very different emotion. The ability to tell player stories, communicate, discuss and joke with one another are all features that enable the core delivery of value to the player. In some sense, the actual competition is secondary to the bonding that occurs around the activity. The 'fun' that comes from playing with friends is completely different than the 'fun' associated when playing with strangers.

The downside
Again, you can't rely on 'hard fun' to deliver the same jolt as you would in a competition between strangers. The simple switch from playing with strangers to playing with friends results in such a shift in player psychology that you now need to rethink your reward and communication mechanisms.

It is easy to be fooled. The mechanics of the game like Unreal Tournament when played with strangers or friends are apparently identical; you shoot and you move. Yet the experience ends up being radically different. It turns out that existing social relationships and ambient communication methods are as much a part of the game as is the level design and the bullet physics. All too often I see designers building a game that they play with their buddies on the dev team. The group knows one another, can yell out in victory and ends up having an immense amount of fun. Then that same game is released online and immediately strangers begin griefing one another and creating an actively offensive elitist environment. The social graph of the playtesters is not the same as that of the actual players. As a result, the playtest sample is massively flawed.

Here's a little chart to keep it all straight:

An example
Let's return to Mario Party. Why would anyone play a luck based competitive game that provides poor rewards for winning? One clue is that Mario Party is always played with people sitting together on a couch. It is a social game about improving your friendship, not about beating the snot out of someone. Due to the game being played in person, there is immense communication between players and almost all communication is focused on bonding over a shared experience. The key gameplay yields is social fun, not hard fun.

It is perhaps not surprising that Nintendo multiplayer franchises have been slow to move into the online world. Most Nintendo games are designed to be played with friends. Due to low concurrency, synchronous play models and a lack of scheduling, most console gaming services are populated by strangers playing with strangers. Changing the dominant type of fun that forms the core of your game changes your value proposition to the player. This is a major brand mismatch that likely needs an entirely new franchise (such as Halo), not a minor design tweak.

4. How players differ by pro-social or pro-dominance inclination
To complicate matters, there are in fact two distinct populations of players in all these studies. The first are pro-dominance players who are predisposed to react to situations in a dominant fashion. They tend to have a higher base level of testosterone in their system and their level rise or fall more strongly in situations where they win or lose.

The second group are pro-social players who are predisposed to react to competitive situations with a focus on relationship building. In general, they have a lower base level of testosterone. Intriguingly, they do not experience the same misery of failure. In some sense, they aren't playing to win so they don't mind losing. In fact, some studies suggest they even experience increased stress and reduced performance on complex cognitive tasks when they are thrust into a high status position. Winning is a punishment.

Age may also be a factor. Testosterone peaks in the late twenties and drop steadily after age 30. By age 40, 19 to 47% of males fall into the low testosterone category, depending on the accepted cut off.

The downside
From a game design perspective, this split in your population has some interesting implications. When you create a game that rewards players by winning alone, there are two groups that you fail to address. The first is of course, the losers. The second however, are pro-social players that are motivated more by forming relationships than by demonstrating status. You can give them opportunities to 'be the winner', but these rewards will fall flat.

These patterns of competition give designers some useful tools.

Note 1: Your design should explicitly differentiate between friends and strangers
You need to differentiate up front between friends and strangers in your design. If you fail to separate these two populations, you'll end up creating system that inevitably alienate multiple segments of your player base. Many of the problems stem from how communication channels are used by each group.

If you create a game for friends:
  • Winning strangers will use the communication channels intended for building reporte to instead act out their dominance and aggression urges. Teabagging is an example of a humiliation behavior that tends to encourage losers to leave.
  • Losing strangers will use the communication channels to denigrate the winners or claim luck or environmental issues were at work. This makes the winners more likely to leave since this is not the 'good job!' pat on the back they were hoping for. Instead of bowing and fame, they are greeted with yells of 'cheaters' and 'lucky'.
If you create a game targeted exclusively at strangers
  • Due to lack of communication channels, winning friends will have no way to reduce the bite of their victory. There is the risk of permanently damaging your relationship with the loser.
By separating friends from strangers, you can offer each population rewards and game mechanics appropriate to their desires. Winning strangers can be complimented in isolation. Losing strangers can be given feedback that emphasizes the luck of the situation and their increased future chance of victory. Friends can be given communication tools that allow them to bond.

Note 2: Games that focus on playing with friends result in stronger retention across a broader audience.
  • Friends encourage other friends to join since they want to share the experience with them in order to increase their bond.
  • Friends tend to encourage existing players to play more since they want to deeper their bond.
  • There is only one class of player that is alienated by bonding oriented play: pro-dominance players that are not able or willing to play amicably with friends. This is arguably a big group (upwards of ~50% of males age 14 to 39) Yet this is distinct minority in comparison to the broader population.
This insight gives some indication why asynchronous social network games grow so rapidly. People typically play with friends and are predisposed to communicate their game experiences and feel social pressure to repeat them. In contrast, competitive activities between strangers tend to result in a steady decline in player populations.

Note 3: Test with strangers and friends separately
As tempting as it is to test your multiplayer game with the readily available team playing within shouting distance, understand that you are fatally polluting your data. Larger scale online tests that allow strangers to interact and figure out how to dominate and insult one another will yield a much more realistic understanding of the culture that will evolve out of many competitive multi player game systems.

Note 4: If you must include communication channels in your online game, create a design that turns strangers into friends.
If you include rich communication channels in a competitive game, strangers will use them to exert their dominance. The way around this is to explicitly create groups where people act as friends. This leads to bubbles of cooperation even within a competitive game.
  • Assign players to a common affiliation. Counterstrike does this by having sides that you join from the start of each mission.
  • Create a common goal: Horde mode in Gears of War does this by giving players the goal of surviving the onslaught together.
  • Create a common experience of suffering or joy: In Eve Online, players partake in vast highly destructive battles. Even after vicious losses, companies still stick together since the suffering gives them a visceral common experience that strengthens their bonds.
  • Offer opportunities for reciprocation: In Left 4 Dead, players can help one another if they are in trouble.
  • Provide channels of communication: In Farmville, players can send messages to one another in game and via Facebook notifications. This helps players negotiate group norms and bond over shared experiences.
  • Allow individual choice: In WoW guilds, players actively choose to participate in a particular group. Players that allowed to choose freely will have a greater affiliation than players that are forced to rely on other players. I find designs were performance is improved with other players works better than ones where players are punished if they do not cooperate.
When we design a game, we are constantly on the lookout for 'fun'. However our ability to identify and augment fun is only as good as our mental model of what fun looks like. Our commonsense models of competition overvalues the delight expressed by winners and undervalues the reactions of other player populations. By adopting a more sophisticated model of how winners and losers react in various situations, a designer has a much better chance of knowing why their design fails and how they might fix it.

The data I've covered is not complete for all populations. For example, there are fewer studies looking at how testosterone changes in women. Though we commonly think of it as a 'male hormone', testosterone is actively produced by both sexes and appears to serve similar purposes in regards to dominance. However, not all behaviors found in men have been reliably produced in studies involving women. Nor have all the studies been validated on older populations, different cultures or children. Scientists have a tendency to use male college students because they are readily available and it is much easier to measure their testosterone. This can skew the results. The solution is to use these guidelines as a starting point and then continually test your hypothesis about competitive play. Put your game designs in front of a diverse group of players and see if they react as you expect. By looking through the lens of a richer mental model, your informed experiments will guide your game in the right direction.

My personal take on these studies is that there is vast potential for new pro-social competitive games. The market took an odd turn for a short while:
  • Early consoles involved 2 to 4 players gathered around the TV. Play was primarily social.
  • We lost the focus on playing with friends with the advent of online play and low concurrency platforms. Since we were playing with strangers, the primary class of fun switched to games of dominance.
  • The advent of social networks again allows us to target online multiplayer games at audiences guaranteed to be friends.
Now we have a fresh opportunity to design friendly competitive games that build relationships instead of breaking them down.

take care


Friday, October 2, 2009

Flash Love Letter: The Music Video?

Nathan Germick is a brilliant fellow. He recently performed at a social games meetup in San Francisco. Apparently, he had been reading the Flash Love Letters. This is the result.

I take away the following:
  • Flash games are incredibly sexy. Don't let your wife see this or you may lose her forever to this floppy maned Flash engineer siren. Or there may be some transferal of sex appeal and the ladies will see your work in a rather exciting new light.
  • You don't need to read my original essays any more: Nathan has captured all the basics of premium Flash games right here. This is the equivalent of Cliffs Notes. So easy!
  • You should spread this video: Instead of forwarding on all those boring links to heavy essays full of text and numbers, just forward this video on to anyone who has the smallest interest in making games. You will infect them and they will be better for it.
Do you wanna buy flowers?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Speaking at GDC Austin

Just a quick note. I'll be speaking at GDC Austin this Wednesday.
I'll be in Austin all week, so if you are in the area and you'd like to chat, drop me a note at danc [at]

Update: Here are a couple of links reporting on the talks
take care

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Flash Love Letter (2009) Part 2

In the previous post, we covered: 
  • Chapter 1 - The Potential of Flash: The great potential of Flash as a platform and the big question: Why are there so few great Flash games?
  • Chapter 2 - Making money:  How do Flash developers currently make money.
In this post I'll cover: 
  • Chapter 3 - Generating value: How Flash developers currently create 'valuable' game for their players?
Chapter 3 - Generating Value
Okay, so you are asking for money for your Flash game.  Do you have something worth selling?  
Let's be blunt: most Flash games on the market are not worth purchasing.  That 2-minute prototype you tossed together in your dorm room with rectangles for graphics is the proverbial "piece of poo." No one in their right mind should spend money on such a slight wisp of entertainment. 
Sales is about an honest exchange of value between two parties. To fulfill your part of the deal, you need to give your players a valuable experience in return for their cash.  You need to make your players fall in love. 
I'll cover the following topics: 

  • The problem with short form games
  • A new definition of value
  • The game mechanics of retention
The problem with short form games
If you track the average play time that a Flash game provides to its customers, you'll see most games average less than 8 minutes of play. Such a short average play time is not enough time to establish value in the eyes of the customer.  Players witness a flicker of value and then the game is done. 
Aggregators dominate short form media
In other industries that deal with short form content, the typical strategy is to aggregate content together to create an hour or two of spectacle or a long term service.   Musicians create concerts and albums.  Improv groups package their skits into longer shows.  Short story writers release anthologies or piggyback onto magazines which in turn are bundled into subscriptions. 
Flash games have historically followed the same strategy.  The little snippets of game play are bundled into portals.  One game may not be all that compelling on it's own, but a portfolio of a few dozen highlighted games is enough to keep the player coming back again and again.  Only in aggregate are Flash games valuable.  
There are several downsides to this model for the developer: 

  • Players fall in love with the portal:  Players start thinking of Addicting Games or Newgrounds as a go to source of entertainment, not NinjaKiwi or Sean Cooper. 
  • Little long term love for the game: Games are treated as disposable moments in the broader experience of wasting an evening surfing a game portal.  Some may provide brief burst of joy, but this just reinforces the appeal of the portal.   
  • Dominant aggregators exercise editorial control. The terminology is 'portfolio management' or 'selecting titles that match our audience'.  The effect is the same.  Dominant aggregators often apply effective pressure to developers to make what the aggregators desire and in turn disconnect developers from the real needs of the customers.  Though well intentioned, editorial efforts typically results in a reduction of consumer choice, an elimination of innovative outliers and a suppression of disruptive business models.  Currently Flash portals are quite open, but these behaviors are beginning to creep into practices of some like Addicting Games and MiniClip. 
  • Lack of trust in the game developer:  When the developer asks directly for money, the customers runs away.  It is like the clown at the circus asking you to pay after you already paid an entrance fee.  The customer doesn't know the clown is starving.  They naturally assume that they are just part of the show.  Clowns asking for money = creepy; Flash game developers asking for money = creepy. 
Note on payment services and trust
The concept of paying for Flash games is still new to players. Payment services like HeyZap or MochiCoins see this as one of the major issues to creating microtransaction games. They attempt to solve the problem of developer trust by creating heavily branded and marketed payment services. The implicit message is "You don't trust the starving clowns, but you can trust us!" 
Time will tell if any of these services gains a large enough network of 'converted' customers necessary to make their branding heavy strategy pays off. Either way, the presence of these services is quite positive to the developer community. In order to thrive, they must spend considerable amounts of time and marketing dollars to convince both developers and players to adopt microtransactions. The end result is a large population of educated players who are willing to pay and large group of game that let them pay. This is the high order bit. Once you have such a culture of buyers, developers can more easily present themselves as a trusted vendor without worrying about the clown factor. 
The ability to take control lies in the hands of the developers
The root of this situation stems solely from the actions of current developers. Flash games, made with little overt influence by any publisher, boss or dictator, suffer from short experiences, poor branding and poor engagement with their players.  As long as Flash developers insist on making short form content that players see as disposable entertainment, portals will continue to be the primary value providers in the ecosystem.  Portal influence will grow, dominant companies will emerge and the margin for developers will fall even further.  This has been the history of aggregator dominated media throughout history and there is little evidence that short form Flash games will escape this fate. 
The only way this balance of power will shift is if developers actively strive to assume a role as the primary provider of value to the customer.  
The cultural root of the short form games habit
In order to do that, you need to look at why you are making short-form games.  Is it a lack of time and resources?  I don't think so since I see casual and indie titles pour years into their games. It is common for members of the rogue-like development community to work on a single game for more than a decade. Cockroaches don't need to release to survive so they can keep plodding away on a game until it is ready. 
Short form games are ultimately self propagated part of the Flash development culture. There exists an entire community tied to a highly effective positive feedback system that encourages the creation of short unbranded games.  This same system fails to reward developers who create longer branded games.
Game developers currently judge the success of their games on several poor metrics:
  • Game ratings on portals: Players on a particular portal rate the game usually on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. Highly rated games are given more traffic by the portals. With this particular rating system, games with overly long introductions that deliver value late in the play session are at risk of being bailed on by easily bored players. Inevitably these players rate games with a 0. This creates a natural incentive to deliver as much easy value as possible in as short a time as possible. It ends up being cheaper to produce a 3-minute 'complete' experience that earns a 5-rating than it is to create a 60-minutes experience that earns the same rating. 
  • Number of 'plays': The other metric developers care about is how many they serve. This metric over emphasizes the importance trial players who click the link, but don't play the game. The metric spikes up when your game spread throughout the various portals and drops off rapidly there after. Again, there is no incentive to make games with depth. Instead you want a new title with a catchy intro that gets people watching that ad. Putting effort into anything longer doesn't improve your numbers. 
  • Weekly and Daily Top 10 lists: Portals put up list that highlight the best new content for the week or day. These acts as a means of letting games bask in the public gaze and are highly coveted both for their traffic and their implied status. However, games quickly fall off these lists and the only way to get back on is by releasing a new game. This encourages developers to release often in order to get as many shots at the spotlight as possible.
These are horrible feedback systems.  They provide an incomplete and inaccurate views of player behavior. They have little to to do with whether or not players love your game.  They have little to do with you creating a long term engaging experience. A mildly humorous 30-second animation about ninja bunnies is just as likely to garner a coveted high rating on Newgrounds as the next Fantastic Contraption.  The first is disposable content.  The second is a viable indie business.  The current Flash ecosystem does not differentiate. 
I initially couldn't imagine that developers were optimizing their games based of such anemic and poisonous feedback. It is the equivalent of going on a diet because the fun house mirror makes you look fat. And yet...
One of my more shameful habits is to lurk on forums and watch how developers react to one another's game statistics.  I'm not proud of my voyeurism, but I find the display of implicit cultural values fascinating.  Developers who have a large number of plays (over 10 million) are lionized.  Other developers are constantly fixated on if their game will score a 4 or higher on the portal ratings.  Any Flash development forum you visit has the same conversations happening again and again.  Even worse, smaller portals robotically copy the top ten lists of larger portals, putting poor filtered products on pedestals throughout the distribution system. The result is that new developers find that there are both benefits to their reputation in the community as well as (meager) financial benefits to focusing on short form games. 
If you put a man in a dark room and place a candle at the other end of the room, he will walk towards the candle.  It matters not if there are bags of gold off to the side or poisonous snakes lying in his path.  If developers could have a brighter source of information, they could see how many opportunities they are missing in their blind pursuit of short form games.  
Note on short form vs short play sessions
Many Flash gamers like web games because they can pop in for a short play session, have a bit of fun and then leave. It is tempted to assume that short play sessions demand short form games that can be completed in a few minutes. This is not the case.
Facebook games also rely on short play sessions, yet they often run for months or even years. You can design long form games playable in bite sized chunks.
A new definition of value
In order to build value into games, we need to toss out a lot of the existing metrics and create a new definition of what it means to make a valuable Flash game. Instead of worrying about our ratings, rankings or ad impressions, what would it mean to 'deliver value to the player'?
For me, this boils down to three simple questions

  1. Fun: Are players having fun? Do they love your game?
  2. Retention: Are players sticking around and coming back for more?
  3. Money: Are players willing to pay you for your game?
If you build a game where you can objectively answer "Hell, yes!" to all those questions, you've got a game that will pay the bills and delight your players.     
You reap what you measure
Perhaps not surprisingly two of the three questions above are not addressed by the current metrics used throughout the Flash community. Let's use our natural desire for feedback and metrics to drive games toward creating real value.  
  • Build metrics into your game that measure Fun, Retention, and Money. 
  • Gather accurate data from statistically valid samples of actual players. 
  • Use the information you gather to inform the design of new features. 
  • Use the information you gather to determine if your new features were successful. 
Player Fun
It is incredibly valuable to know how players rate the fun of your game. Instead of using portal surveys, create an in-game 'Fun' survey that has the following attributes: 
  1. The player is randomly served the survey during 2 minute intervals. So one player may get the survey at 2 minutes in. Another might get it at 4 minutes. And so forth. Each player gets the survey once. 
  2. Record the player's answer to the question "How much fun was this game (1 = Not fun, 5 = Very Fun)" This takes only a few seconds and can usually be easily worked into the context of the game. 
  3. An optional step at this point is to ask an open ended question "What don't you like about this game so far?". 
  4. Average the ratings for each point in time and the graph the results as a line graph. By using a running average of a few days or a week, you'll avoid having your results being swamped by old data from old versions of the game. 
  5. By looking at the graph, you'll easily identify the points in time when players find the game to be enjoyable. It tells you if you need to improve the intro, the body of the game, etc. 
  6. If you are extra smart, you can show the comments for the point in time where your fun rating dips. This gives you qualitative data to help you diagnose why your scores are dropping at that point in time. 
Target: Aim for an average fun score of over 4. You can also track is the percentage of people that rate the game a 5. These are people who passionately love your game and will likely pay for it.  For a good example of how to implement player fun using Google Analytics see this post:
Repeat players are incredibly valuable. They are people who love you game so much that they will leave it for a day or two and then come back to it because their addiction burns so brightly. 
  1. Persist your customer identity. 
  2. Record the percentage of users that return at various intervals (5 minutes, 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 8 weeks.)
Target: Aim for a weekly retention % over 20%. A good rule of thumb is that player need to play for two weeks before they make a purchase. 
An alternative way of measuring retention is to track the number of times an individual plays your game. Aim for >1% of your players to return to the game more than 20 times.
We want to record ARPU, average revenue per user. 
  • Just take the amount of money you've gotten so far and divide it by the number of unique users who have come into the system. 
Target: An ARPU above $0.01 is better than anything you will earn through sponsorships or ad revenue alone. For comparison MochiCoins' rumored ARPU is $0.06. With the proper game, there is no reason why you can't reach an ARPU of $1.00.
Creating the metrics page
Put together a basic HTML metrics page for your game and measure your game religiously.  A basic dashboard can be assembled with a few days effort.  You can also track events using Google Analytics.  
Again, this requires a bit of web programming skills. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of Flash friendly metrics services that handle this type of reporting.  If anyone has seen one, let me know.  This is a grand opportunity for a company seeking to add value to their Flash game developer services. 
Using metrics 
Metrics are most useful when they are used to improve a game.  Otherwise they are just pretty numbers. I've seen many teams that make collect dozens of metrics and then wallow in a flood of useless data.  Don't let this be you.  Have a plan of action. 
Here are the basic outline of how to use metrics to create customer value. 

  1. Release your game to users on a portal.  It doesn't need to be a big portal, but it should be capable of delivering a few hundred to a thousand views a day.  Feel free to site lock the game if you worry about eventually selling a sponsorship for your game.  If your game isn't capable of driving even a few hundred views a day, go back to the drawing board and make a better game.  For Bunni, we repeatedly put the game up on and took it down again. 
  2. Measure the basic metrics mentioned above.  This is your baseline. 
  3. Make a change to your game that is targeted at improving one or more of the metrics. 
  4. Measure again.  Is the game better or worse? Ask why. 
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until the metrics of game are in a range that meets your target goals.  
  6. Expand your test or kill the game: At this point, you can choose to release the game more broadly by launching it on more portals.  Alternatively, a game with poor metrics that isn't improving can be killed early in the process, freeing you up to climb more fertile creative hills. 
Once you start practicing this process, you'll notice a shift in how you design and build games.  You've gone from designing in the dark to steering your game towards delivering value using the light of up-to-date, reliable information.  
An example of metrics in action. 
When Bunni: How We First Met was released on New Grounds for a test with live users, it scored a soul crushing 2.5 out of 5 on the portal ratings.  If we had only external information, we would have had a hard discussion about either scrapping the game or reworking the core mechanic dramatically.  In essence, the Newgrounds user ratings told us that we had completely failed to make a game that users loved. 
Yet, we had just hooked up our internal fun metrics as described above.  Instead of trusting Newgrounds, we were able to us ask directly users how much fun they were having as they played the game.  The hope was that we'd get better quality data due to the following factors: 

  • Random sampling:  We tried to avoid using self selected ratings which often are biased towards either those with very strong opinions or a niche portion of the population that enjoys rating things. 
  • Better defined question: We asked a standardized question that has been used on hundreds of games over the years. This let us compare the score to known baselines.  Often portals offer a bar with a number that user can set.  Who knows what criteria portal raters think they are offering an opinion on?
  • Tie ratings to gameplay: We included time stamp information so we could tie ratings to particular moments in the game. Often there are specific points in time where players experience difficulty. Portal ratings tell none of this information. 
The results were fascinating. 200 people had rated the game on Newgrounds.  Yet only 40 people had actually played the game.  Of the people who played, our average score was 4.22, a rather good number for any game.  Interestingly, the player rating actually increased the longer people played the game suggesting our core gameplay was not merely initially fun, but fun for the long haul.  Our players were falling in love. 
Using this information, we realized: 

  1. The core gameplay works quite well and doesn't need to be changed. 
  2. Something about the initial experience was turning off large numbers of users before they even played the game.
Of the hundreds of design option initially available to us, there was now one obvious feature that needed improvement. We focused on streamlining the sign-in experience so that we weren't asking for as much personal information upfront. Mere hours later, we initially tested at 3.7 (and stabilized at 4.15) on Kongregate and eventually went on to score a 4.38 on Newgrounds.  
In this situation, having the right metrics was the difference between killing the game or making a minor targeted change that led directly to success.  Not all decisions are as dramatic, but the basic process of smart design illuminated by accurate data remains. 
Note on portal ratings
Bunni's portal ratings sound good, but they are still heavily biased. Our internal surveys settled in at 4.06 (out of 5) after 45 minutes of play. Our first 15 minutes only scores a mediocre 3.6. There is still plenty of room to improve the game that is not readily revealed by existing public feedback systems.
Developer cared about biased portal ratings since they have a direct impact on whether or not the game is picked up by lower tier portals or if the game makes the front page. The good news is that portal ratings lag internal ratings in a predictable manner. Due to the biases involved in portal ratings, if your internal scores are good, portal rating will generally be higher. If you internal scores a bad, portals ratings will generally be lower. As a result, you can simply focus on getting good internal ratings and ignore portal ratings unless there is a major discrepancy.
Metrics are not a magic bullet that solves all design issues, but they are a powerful tool if used appropriately. There are several pitfalls you'll run into: 

  • Over analyzing: Some designers worry that all the numbers remove the creativity from the game development process. Use common sense.  If you are analyzing the correct color of blue, maybe you've gone too far. 
  • Lack of practice: It takes a bit of practice to learn how to use specific metrics.    You need to recognize what is noise and what is a meaningful signal.  You need to learn what a 'good' rating looks like.  This takes time, setting baselines and experimenting. 
  • Out of date: You have to keep metrics up to date as the design changes.  Stagnant or out of date metrics will not be used. 
  • Inability to dig deeper: Often developers will implement high level metrics and then not have enough flexibility to find out more once an issue is highlighted. At the very least have the ability to segment your stats based off time so you can see how your latest update affected your results.
  • Treated as low priority: Developers put off integrating metrics since they don't seem to contribute directly to the game play.  This is dumb.  You still turn your lights on before you go driving at night even though it takes you an addition 5 seconds to flip the switch.
  • Good to great: If you have made a good game, metrics can help you polish it into a great game.  
  • Finding the important design levers: Rich feedback lets you quickly focus on changes that make a real difference. You can think of the various variables in your game as levers.  Turn the right levers and your game will improve.  However, time is limited and some levers have a much greater impact than others. Without metrics, developers turn levels willy-nilly, often making the game worse without knowing.  The right metric help you identify the levers that really matter.  They often aren't what you think they are. 
  • Knowing when to kill a project: If you have a horrible game, metrics won't turn it into a great game, but they will let you know that maybe you are polishing a turd.  
Don't fear the metrics. You still need to be just as creative and passionate as before, but now you've got this wonderful information rich environment that gives you immediate feedback.  I think of it as painting in a well lit room versus painting in the dark. 
My favorite part is that when you release your game to real people and measure the results, you know for a fact if you are delivering value to your customers.  That certainty you are adding something valuable to the world feels great.  Try it.  You'll like it. 
What metrics tell you about monetizing your game
Here are a couple of stages of engagement that you'll witness when you look at the metrics for enough games.  How you much money you make and the methods you use to make money are directly tied to where your metrics settle. 
I often use the metaphor of 'falling in love' when talking about these stages since even though we are using cold hard metrics, we should always remembers that we are attempting to create a highly emotional and human experience. 

  • Flirting: Your game ranks high on fun for the first few minutes.  However, weekly retention is close to 0%.  Most portal Flash games fall into this category.  Ads work well here, but you'll give the vast majority of your revenue to the aggregators and middlemen. 
  • Dating; Your game ranks high on fun for the first hour or two.  Weekly retention is still low, falling into the 1% range. However, a large percentage of people rate your game a 5.  These players are willing to pay you directly.  Monetize them by using a content or time gate to get them to pay a one time fee.  Most downloadable casual games fall into this category.  There are a small handful of Portal Flash games that reach the dating stage.  Dating level games also give up the majority of their revenue to aggregators in middlemen. 
  • Married: Weekly retention is higher with over 20% returning each week.  5% return after after a month.  Players have integrated the game into their lives and are willing to spend money on it like any other favored hobby.  You'll find individual players willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your game.  A long form game that has a larger number of married players is a business that can make good money for years.  MMOs and Facebook games fit into this category.  There are only a half dozen or so casual and Flash titles that are worth marrying.  Games that you can marry are one of the few types of games that lead to long term developer independence and that limit the inexorable dominance of aggregators.
The relationship between fun and retention
Theses categories of engagement point to the incredible importance of retention, a metric that has been historically ignored by Flash game developers.  The good news is that if you are already focusing on fun, you are half way there to making a valuable game. 
Fun needs to come first.  You cannot have a high retention game that players do not find fun. Otherwise, they'll stop playing. So aim for creating a game that ranks above a 4 out of 5 on the fun metric.   Once you have a fun core game, you need to extend that fun for as long as possible. 
A huge shift for Flash developers who seek to make highly monetizable premium Flash games is that they need to start thinking in terms of weeks worth of play, not minutes. 
Game mechanics of retention
Focusing on retention and player engagement changes the type of game that you make. There is an entire world of game mechanics that deal with retention. They are impossible to cover in detail here, but there are some patterns.  In general, as an independent developer, you want to make the most game play with the least amount of effort.  I live by this particular graph: 

The cost of hand crafted content scales linearly while procedural and social content decreases in marginal cost over time. With this as a guiding principle, you can examine various types of content and see if it fits your game.
  • Narrative, story, and cut scenes exhibit "rapid burnout".  In other words, player see them one or twice and then are bored when they see them again.  Games that rely on such content have generally low retention metrics.  You can mitigate this by releasing new narrative content on a regular basic to keep the product 'fresh', but this has a high cumulative cost. 
  • Linear levels or solvable puzzles also exhibit rapid burnout.  Game systems that can be completed or conquered are usually one shot activities.  You can layer additional challenges within each level, but often only expert players will be motivated to come back for a second play through.             
  • Some handcrafted content like text or static images can be refreshed cheaply:  The type of handcrafted content you include makes a huge difference on the slope of your increasing costs.  New text-based questions in a trivia game are relatively cheap compared to creating new God of War levels.  An hour of text-based content is likely several orders of magnitude cheaper to build.  
  • Social content is low burnout: People will keep interacting with their friends for years.  Mechanics that can tap into this often have very high retention rates.  Anything that allows players to chat, share and form social identities in a community is pure gold.  
  • Grinding results in burnout, but it slows the process. Techniques like leveling or purchasing upgrades can dramatically increase the length of the game for very little development and design costs.  Think of grinding as method of stretching, but not adding to your content.  Grinding techniques only delay the inevitable.  They can result in lower fun scores as people feel obligated to play, but aren't enjoying the process of playing.  Since you want people to fall in love, such a reaction can be counter productive to your goals. 
  • User generated content systems are low burnout: User generated content is ultimately a social system that encourages users to create consumable puzzles.  The puzzles themselves may be short lived, but the community of creators can thrive for decades. This solves the problem of the linearly increasing cost of more handcrafted content by apply large numbers of people working for free. 
  • Algorithmic content has low burnout, but is hard to create and balance: Evergreen mechanics like Bejeweled or random map generation in Nethack keep people playing for hours.  However, they are tricky to invent and balance.
An example of a high retention game is one like Puzzle Pirates that has social (avatar, chat, guilds), grinding (levels) and evergreen algorithmic content (puzzles).  There is some light narrative in the form of periodic events and very little in the form of conquerable level design.  Most games have a mix of all these various types of content and successful services almost always put a portion of their reoccurring revenue towards a steady trickle of low marginal cost handcrafted content.  However, a high retention game designs tend to emphasize content with less burnout. 
Within these new constraints on your game design lies an opportunity. In my humble opinion, algorithmic and social content lies at the heart of what makes games such an amazing media.  If the goal of creating a game that players fall in love with requires that developers are constrained to exploring these two thrilling topics more deeply, so be it. 
I personally find it exciting that there are strong financial justifications for encouraging game developers to invest in areas of expression that are wholly unique to games. Games that rely primarily on plot, graphics and disposable levels are bad business in a world where games thrive as high retention services. Now you have justification to say, "Sorry, that cut scene you wanted is a high burnout feature. We'll make more money by improving our game mechanics and investing in additional community features."
Being the primary provider of value is hard work
The goal throughout all this is for developers to assume a role as the primary provider of value to the customer. Unfortunately,this isn't easy.  First, it is simply determined, professional labor. You can't simply slap a price tag on any old Flash game and start raking in the dough.  You need to invest substantial effort building a rich game that players see as a hobby, not just a five minute fling. This means measuring player engagement and methodically moving beyond the cheap momentary thrills that dominate the current Flash portfolio. These are entirely new skills for most Flash developers and they will not be learned cheaply or quickly. 
Secondly, creating engaging long form games is a major cultural shift. It means ignoring and uprooting many of the accepted measurements of status and success worshipped in the Flash community.  It is one thing to tell you to "Stop making throw away experiences."  It is quite a more difficult task for a new developer to push aside the accepted norms of the tribal community that provides such an easy benchmark for their tentative efforts.  Down one path, you can crap out of a short sketch of a game and get kudos (and small amounts of cash!) from people and portals you respect.  Down the other it is just you, your users and your metrics slogging towards greatness.  Portals will shun you or offer pennies for your hours of labor.  Ad networks won't pay you any more than a doodling game that a 12 year old created in a weekend.  Only your players will love you.  And will you be able to deal with that?  Many Flash developers that stumble upon a great gaming service run screaming from success.  In their minds, they made Flash games as a quick creative burst.  Flash devs do not expect to spend months, even years of their life supporting a turbulent and demanding community of fans. 
Luckily there are a lot of Flash developers that are hungry and willing to innovate.  That is why I love this market. There are also a lot of Facebook and Casual developers who will happily transfer their business savvy development skills to a blossoming new market.  It only takes a handful of successful long form Flash games to plant a flag that say "Here be money!"  And the flocking shall begin. 
Quick value checklist
  • Are you ignoring bad metrics like portal ratings?
  • Are you measuring the holy triumvirate of value: fun, retention, money?
  • Are you collecting real customer data?
  • Does your game score 4 out of 5 on the fun scale?
  • Do players return after a week?
  • Is your game design amendable to high retention play?
  • Are you iterating on your game and improving your game as measured by internal metrics?  Have you figured out the big levers that affect player experience?
  • Do you know when you are done? Do you know when you've reached the point where your game has proven value to your players? 
  • Are you willing to bail on the game if it doesn't show signs of improvement?
  • Are you striving to be the primary provider of value to your customers?
Take care
PS: The next chapter will likely follow in a couple of weeks.  I find that when I post these, I get all sorts of interesting information from people...which leads to revisions. :-)  Next time I'll cover distribution.