Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Autumn of Indie Game Markets

Photo by Rosa Dik

Ah, the fall. A time to reap what has been sown and contemplate the cycles of the seasons.

If you are a smaller game developer, you’ve likely noticed some cyclical shifts in how we make games. Games are looking nicer than ever, don’t they? That quality bar keeps creeping higher. With so much work to do, your team is a bit larger. And with so many mouths to feed, it feels riskier to lose everything experimenting on wacky new game mechanics. Luckily, it is pretty clear which genres will yield the breakout hits you need to keep going. It is too bad that there’s a such an abundance of similar games; it feels like you can’t even give them way.

What changed?

Remember when we had a revolution? One person teams could make original games with minimal content and strike it rich. Doodle Jump was a thing! A hit indie game like Braid cost a minuscule $200k to make. A developer and some lovely art and there was a complete top tier game. Press wrote about it.

But it feels if such games were released today, they’d likely be left to rot in obscurity. A modern hit by a “small” team is a game like Battlerite. 25 developers, lush 3D graphics, external funding. An order of magnitude increase in costs over a period of eight years.

To everything there is a season, and game markets follow predictable patterns of growth, harvest and if you’ve been luckily enough, stockpiling for the coming frost.

Have you been making games for less than 10 years? Are you a newer smaller indie developer who has only ever known the bright fields of opportunity known as Steam, console downloadable or mobile platforms?

Here’s what is coming. Here is what happens when game markets mature.

Memories of spring

Historical context matters.

A new game market opens when a new way of reaching eager players appears. In the early 2000s, digital distribution was a technology that cracked opened an industry previously dominated by retail sales. Apple and Google enabled phones to download games. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo enabled consoles to download games. And Steam created a cohesive and reliable ecosystem for PC players to download games.

If you don’t remember the retail era it is hard to overstate what a radical change digital distribution was to the dominant business models. In retail, about 15% of revenue went to the developer. The rest goes to marketing, publishing and the retail store itself. This creates a power differential that tends to squeeze creativity out of game developers. Forget tales of wide-eyed idealism. Retail game development was a factory job that churned out games tailored to the whims of a giant box shipping machine. This was a mature market with most major game developers owned art and soul by middlemen publishers or platform owners. AAA still follow this model to a large degree. Good people, bad system.

Two things happened when digital distribution hit. For the first time in ages, we saw high demand and low supply.

High demand: Platform owners pushed their new distribution platforms heavily. A platform much preferred a guaranteed 30% cut of digital, especially when compared to a paltry 0-20% cut of retail. Valve bundled Steam with their top selling games. Microsoft gave away prime real estate on their console dashboard. Apple and Google directed users to go through their storefront in order to do pretty much anything. The result is a torrent of customers flooding through these digital stores wanting to buy cool stuff for their cool new toys. Put a pretty picture and a buy button and bam, you’ve got a sale.

Low supply: But there wasn’t anything to buy. A lot of traditional game publishers didn’t want to risk being beholden to some new platform master. Every digital storefront is essentially a monopoly with the potential to exert absolute dictatorial control. So most publishers held back. A few fringe game developers put up games. These were the hippies and hobos whose niche products never broke into the more mature retail markets.

And their games sold like hotcakes. In large part because there was nothing else to buy. For a while it felt you could put almost anything up on a digital market and turn a profit.

Short hot summer

With digital distribution, anyone with a computer could make a game and release it. And because they kept 70% of the revenue, they needed to sell a lot fewer copies to make ends meet. This means lots of little game companies. Call them ‘indies’.

Most were untrained. They didn’t understand how to run a business. Many had never made a professional game before. So they experimented, often wildly. Bizarro mutants popped up. Journey. Day Z. Tower Defense. What can you do with the internet? Or Flash? Or a touch screen. Or a one person team? Who knows; let’s just try something. Will Wright, gushed about the “Cambrian explosion”. New genres were born. That was 2008.

What a time. I look back on it fondly.

End of the growing season

Low barriers to entry
But low market barriers mean new developers just keep flooding in. And the nature of digital distribution means games never truly expire. So the back catalog of great games grows larger and larger. This is no longer a low supply market.

Fixed demand
Nor is it a high demand market. Consoles are stable. Smart phones (aka phones) are no longer setting growth records. PC sales are dropping. All those digital customers are a known quantity, divvied in zero-sum fashion across the various DRM locked platform fiefdoms.

What happens to a market when demand is fixed and supply is high? Competition. Here’s the traditional logic. The following sequence has played out across thousands of games and dozens of markets.
  • Standardization: Players form communities around the most popular game types. This creates a standardized demand.
  • Competition: Developers try to capture the entertainment dollars of these communities by releasing games in the same genre. For example, they might release a MOBA.
  • Winner takes all: Players gather around one or two high quality, well marketed examples within genre. Those games earn the vast majority of all revenue.
  • Escalating costs: In order to win that top spot, Developers invest heavily in art, narrative, marketing events and monetization. Maybe you can beat your competition by simply doing more.
  • Bloat: This results in larger developer team sizes. Larger teams burn more money, leaving less margin for mistakes.
  • Risk avoidance: A culture of risk avoidance dominates. You must make proven games with proven themes resting on proven mechanics for a proven audience. Layers of decision hierarchy grow to eliminate exuberant impulses. ‘Wasteful’ experimentation is deprioritized. All focus is on servicing the nuanced needs of expert (high value) players in an existing genre.
What success looks like
There are three broadly successful long term strategies for independent developers in this newly competitive market.
  • Become a genre king: Have a hit game in a popular genre. Invest those profits in ensure that you have the best developers, community and marketing to own that audience. Set the standard that all others hope to achieve. Be what Blizzard was to MMOs. If you pick the right maturing genre, you can gain 10 to 20 years of stability.
  • Dominate a niche: Find a niche that only appeal to a wealthy but passionate audience. Become hyper efficient at serving that niche. This isn’t so different from being a genre king except no one cares about you. The press barely cover you. The broader population of gamers doesn’t really know you exist. But a small devoted community cares. So you scope your company to the tiny size it needs to be to serve a tiny market. Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator or SpiderWeb’s retro RPG games are good examples.
  • Manage a brand: There are a handful of companies that have a powerful brand they used to secure funding. During hard times, they essentially freeze dry themselves. This minimizes costs until the next deal comes along. Jackbox is the most common game industry example.
False success of having a hit game
There’s a ton of money flowing through a maturing market and occasionally it arcs over to the random indie in the right place at the right time. Zot! A jigawatt of revenue powers them for years(!) without additional income.

But the result is a lesson in exponentials. Ever play one of those new fangled idle games like Cookie Clicker? As markets mature, escalating exponential costs rapidly consume existing savings. For example: A top shelf ‘Triple-I’ indie’s last game cost $200,000. They made back $2,000,000 in sales. But their next game costs $2,500,000. Maybe they make that back also. Maybe they don’t. The money in the bank only gives them 1 or 2 additional swings at bat, not 10.

We now use the term ‘Triple I’ for medium sized teams that had hit games, but we used to call that same spot in the ecosystem ‘midtier developers’. They all died off as markets continued to mature. It becomes increasingly hard to roll a hit every time. In the end, they had no sustainable advantage.

Selling the farm
So not everyone can stay independent. There are three common outcomes for those forced to give up ownership.
  • Hobbyist: The team becomes a non-commercial endeavour. Either people get a day job and work a few hours at night. Or their family support them. Or they get grants from some institution interested in their work. Or they make games as students and change careers later.
  • Hire yourself out: The team becomes a contractor to someone with money. This can be via a publishing deal. Or via outright purchase. Or you actually sign a contract to perform specialized labor like porting or multiplayer development. Mega studios love hired help.
  • Extinction: The team goes out of business. That whole ‘indie’ thing was neat while it lasted.

First frost

You may be curious what winter looks like. Here’s what is coming up for PC, console and mobile.

Consolidation: When a bigger company eats a smaller company..or a smaller company implodes and a bigger company hires their employees, we are seeing something called consolidation. Lots of little studios turn into a smaller number of bigger studios.

Consolidation is a longer term process that will play out over the next 4 to 8 years. These forces don’t apply equally to every team. Some developers earned enough from a hit game they can ride along for many years without confronting their inability to make another hit game. Others are willing to starve for a few years longer before they make any hard decisions. Be patient.

Distribution scarcity: It has already become increasing difficult to get your game in front of new players. The sheer number of games is part of the issue. Also audience capture and advertising cost (see below) limit the general availability of free customers.

Audience capture: The available audience will actually shrink as high value players are locked into long term service-based games like MMOs or other F2P titles. A player doesn't ‘beat’ a game like Clash of Clans; instead they play one game exclusively for years. F2P companies will attempt to stretch the lifetime of their player to decades. These players are no longer looking for a fresh new games so they are typical unavailable to studios making new games or trying to replace churned players.

Majority of studios priced out of buying ads: The ad market sells its inventory to the highest bidder (across a myriad of categories) And for games, the highest bidder is the game with the strongest Life Time Value (LTV). Do you have a high LTV game in a particular category? Great, you can buy ads that juice your player acquisition. If you have a low LTV game (all premium games, most experimental games, most independent games) effective ad-based distribution is priced out of your reach.

Fewer, bigger hits: As the market consolidates around a handful of high value genre leaders, they will earn enormous amounts of money. The downside is that fewer small developers will capture enough sales to stay independent.

Rise of new publishers: Larger organizations with strong marketing and business development can mitigate some of these trends. They also can build portfolios so that if some games fail, successes still keep the whole afloat. That organization usually is called a publisher. Expect a number of publisher to start snapping up contracts for games from the more capable indie developers. Indie developers get cash to offset the risk of their game failing and and publishers get another chance of owning a hit game.

Rise of first party: Longer term platforms will start taking full ownership of any genre that is a guaranteed money maker. This vertical integration pays off. Platforms can capture all revenue that goes through the game, direct players to their games via promotional spotlights and reduce the riskiness of dealing with a volatile 3rd party developer.

Future Springs

We should celebrate the perennials planted during this amazing cycle. Or at least the tulip bulbs that may one day bloom.

Grassroots game development will continue to thrive
I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the bad old days of early 2000 where ‘breaking into the game industry’ was an actual barrier. Several trends mean the flood of new developers will not cease.
  • Tools: The cost of tools has dropped dramatically. And the tools that exist such as Unreal or Unity are of unprecedented power and polish. Anyone with time and passion can makes games and I suspect it will only get easier.
  • Schools: Students want to make games. Schools can charge those student enormous fees to teach them how to make games. This dynamic will exist independent of whether or not there are paying jobs waiting for those students.
  • Open distribution: There are multiple ways to make your game available to knowledgeable players. Steam, Android and iOS stores have minimal gatekeeping. Sites like itch.io have no real gatekeeping. The vast swath of humanity that doesn’t know about your game will never find out about it from these locations, but at least it isn’t blocked from publication. For the hobbyist developer, even a couple dozen downloads from friends and family can be inspiring enough to encourage further game making.
Expect a situation closer to what we see with writers, painters and musicians. Schools enable the necessary but time intensive acquisition of game making skills. The commercial market for those skills remains difficult to break into without elite level portfolios. However, there’s still a vast community of extremely low income developers making games because their passion is stronger than the need to be wealthy. In my dreams, this group of game making hobbyists regularly gets together for wine and moral support. And maybe even funds the occasional indiegogo when one of them needs a new liver.

There will be new markets
VR is one obvious new market. VR isn’t quite able to stand on its own, but platform owners seem committed to market building. If they collaboratively spend a billion or so to seed VR content, that’s a new billion dollar market for game developers.

And VR is not one new market. A rolling wave of multiple VR and AR markets will appear over the next decade as new technology leapfrogs past efforts. Each will be characterized by tech giants engaging in market building. That's an opportunity. Early PC development was likely the most similar sequence. We can have multiple Cambrian explosions.

The seasons turn

I hail from Downeast Maine where growing seasons are short and harvests valued. The spring is a (muddy) revelation. The summer a miracle. Even fall is greeted with a delighted grin. Yes, the wind blows so hard it is hard to walk straight. Yes, the frost will kill our gorgeous garden. But if we’ve planted well, the root cellars are at least full. And we’ve got hot apple cider.  And if we haven't, we'll do what we need to do to make it through. Even if that doesn't involve owning our own garden.

The key to my admittedly insipid joy is to realize that the world runs in cycles. We can bemoan the loss of summer, but it does little good. Instead, as winter settles in, put wood in the stove, put on some tea and let the infinite snow silence the cacophony of the world. Take some time to think. What did we do wrong during the last big opportunity? Take some time to dream. What would we do right if we had a chance to grow again? A long term view means that there will be many seasons of growth, harvest and frost.

Some form of spring will return eventually.

take care,
Danc.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Minimum Sustainable Success


Let’s dream for a moment about sustainable game development.

Game development is inherently unstable. Technology, markets, profit margins and teams shift regularly. Any of these can quickly destroy a previously comfortable business. Individual game developers end up dealing with unexpected layoffs, last minute moves across the country (or across the world) and a level of uncertainty can damage our relationships and long term happiness.

In order to simply make ends meet, you end up compromising your dreams, for years. Or decades. Game development exemplifies Schumpeter’s creative destruction on an accelerated scale with intensely personal consequences.

So what is required to build an oasis? A place where, at minimum, one might make games at least without having your beloved team or your bank account regularly exploded.

This essay covers some of numbers behind reaching success as a developer of premium games in the current market. I don’t offer solutions, but you may find some of the concepts useful.

The uninteresting case

There are obvious examples of extreme success. If you happen to make a game that personally earns you 10 to 30 million USD after taxes, you can likely devote the rest of your life to game development. You may not have enough to fund larger teams, but given reasonable budgeting, you’ve at least covered your expenses until death. For every additional teammate you need to make games, add another 10 million to your lifetime game making budget. (You may not want to actually spend your own money, but that’s a different discussion)

For those of you who find your gilded selves in that particular pickle, well done. None of the rest of this essay is meaningful to you.

Minimum Sustainability

What are the borderline cases? Imagine a glider that slowly drifts downwards, but manage to catch just enough of an updraft to never quite crash.

The following are some ideas pertinent to surviving long term in a hit driven media industry.
  1. Defining success: Success rates, Size of success, Variability
  2. Tactics for surviving the odds: Budgeting, Prototyping, Hobbies, Revenue streams

1. Defining success

Success rates

In the 90s, Sierra expected 1 out of 4 games to be a success and pay for the other products that failed to turn a profit. Recently, Mike Capps, the previous president of Epic, claimed that he couldn’t promise more than a 10% chance a game would be a success. If you made 10 games, on average, you’d expect only 1 would be considered a success.

Success rate is simply the ratio of ratio games that hit some threshold of financial success vs the total you’ve released. It is never 100% and can range from 1 to 25% based on the particular market you are in.

Over time success has been dropping. 25% is almost never seen in modern game markets. Tools are cheaper, distribution platforms are more open and there’s simply a much larger supply of games today than there have been in the past. The number of game players has increased as well, but far slower than the vast increase in developers. Given a set of equally competent games, only a fraction will become profitable.

I typically think of success rates in the context of experienced developers. These are numbers coming from professional developers that are already using every trick in the book to mitigate risks. They are making sequels, they are leveraging existing relationships, they are selling to their fan bases.

When I talk about probabilities in game development, I’m by no means saying that success is all due to luck. Instead, it is merely acknowledging that even when you do everything you possibly can there are still huge risk factors that are out of your direct control.

You might as well plan for only a small chance of success with an individual game. This isn’t being negative. Smart people make good money off probabilistic systems every day.

Size of success

How big of a success is actually a success? There are many definitions of success out there. For the purposes of this essay, let’s consider making enough money to not go bankrupt the first tier of success. At the very least that means paying for your failures.

The first thing to realize is that not all profitable games provide long term success.

If you make 10 mobile games for $100,000 a pop.
  • Brutal failures: 3 make a total of $153.02. They didn’t get featured by the app stores and were lost in the sea of obscurity. Pretty common, though people tend to be shy about discussing their failures.
  • Moderate failures: 4 make $50,000!
  • Break Even: 2 games break even. Everyone talks about them as if they were a success.
  • Success: Only a single game earns $1 million. It needs to earn 10X its cost to cover your million dollars in total dev costs.
What happens if that profitable game make $600,000? It earned 6X its costs! You made a profit of $500,000, enough to make 5 more games. However, you are still on the long road to bankruptcy, despite an apparent success. There’s only a roughly 40% chance those 5 swings at bat will result in a success. Long term, you’ll find yourself out of money or in debt.

I regularly hear press or indies trumpeting that a team broke even or doubled their money on a project and I cringe. I’m happy that they got a scratch off ticket to play again. But these are the same developers that are quitting the industry or sunk into despair when a game or two later they’ve run out of money.

It is a disservice to other developer to claim that a breakeven project is a financial success. Break even means almost nothing. You are still on the knife’s edge of baseline survival and should operate financially exactly as if you had achieved nothing.

Variance

Even studios that have successes that are 10X their average project cost still end up going under.

Flip a coin 20 times. On every 1 out of 2 times should be heads. But you don’t get a pattern of alternating heads and tails. You get streaks. You may see 10 heads in a row. This is within the bounds of chance. However, if you really needed tails to come up, you are in a lot of trouble.

Random systems have natural variability and game development does as well. The best team in the world can strike out 10 times in a row. It is just as likely for your failures to be front loaded as it is for your success. So not only do you need your success to pay for the average rate of failure. You need it to pay for the worst possible luck.

The more buffer you have, the longer bad luck streaks you can survive. At the very least, add a few expected failures into your success rate calculation. It isn’t a perfect tactic, but it helps you deal with bad luck in addition to mere average luck.

What I personally consider a successful project
At Spry Fox, in the past 5 years we've accumulated the following numbers:
  • 31 projects started as prototypes.
  • 20 smaller prototypes that also didn't pan out. Some took months, others took days.
  • 11 released projects
  • 4 that didn't make money (both brutal and moderate failures).
  • 4 break even projects
  • 3 outright successes.
For us a success means a released project makes back 5 to 10X its production cost. That is what pays for all the prototyping, failed projects and general poor dice rolls.

I was surprised to note that of our prototypes, roughly 1 in 10 end up being a successful project. I assumed we had a lot more horrible prototypes than apparently we do. For released projects, we are closer to 1 in 3 being successful.

That’s better than expected. But it does make me mildly worried that a bad luck streak is on the way. It would be completely fair to suggest that our successes were front loaded and our actual success rate is lower than the current small sample indicates.

However, the most important aspect of these numbers is that we are aware of them. They limit how much we can spend on a project and how much we could keep in reserve.

2. Tactics for surviving the odds

There are a vast number of techniques that help deal with the variability in game development. The following, however, are ones that don’t fundamentally alter the odds. They help you survive the odds, which is a very different goal.

Basic Budgeting for Sustainability
It is very common to spend too much money making your game. At minimum ask the following questions:
  • Target Revenue: How much do you expect to make?
  • Success Rate: What is chance of making that much money?
Your budget is likely Target Revenue * Success Rate. So if there’s a 10% chance of reaching $500,000, you should spend $50,000 on each project. That’s 1 full-time experienced developer for 5 months assume pay of $10,000 a month. Or if you underpay yourself relative to what you might make at comparable jobs and spend 10 months at $5,000 a month.

These numbers should look scary. They suggest that the vast majority of indie developers are ripe for financial ruin and are operating primarily on hope instead of any rational financial strategy. I think that’s accurate.

Low cost prototypes
Notice that the numbers I shared for concept success rate are quite similar to Mike Capp’s 10%. However, our released games have a much higher success rate (30+%). The reason for this is that we prove out the gameplay early using a low cost pipeline of low cost prototypes.

These prototypes cost dramatically less than a released game. Some of those 30 prototypes only took a couple days with a single programmer. By disproving bad ideas early, we put real money into games that have a much higher chance of success.

Releasing on multiple platforms
Each time you release a game on a new platform, you get to roll the dice all over again. And you do it a much lower development cost. Triple Town was only a break even game on the eInk Kindle. It was a true success on Android and iOS. If we had stopped after the first release, I would have considered Triple Town a financial failure.

Using designs and technology that quickly and cheaply transfer to new platforms reduces your porting costs and decreases the size of success you need to remain in business.

Operating as a hobby
One of the trickier aspects of sustainable development is the need to pay for food and housing. What if you can pay for those costs through some other means than games making money?

Some typical paths.
  • Contracting: You can save up money working for someone else and then spend that money on a period of full-time development. The cost here is two fold. Development goes more slowly and long term you average wage is lower.
  • Working at night: You work a full time job doing something else and then spend evenings and weekends making your game. The cost here is that work goes much slower. It is also not likely to be your best work since it is difficult to maintain quality while working more than 40 hours a week. You also bear the opportunity cost of sacrificing your leisure time to making games.
  • Supportive spouse or family: Someone else in your family makes enough money that you have the leisure to work on games full time. The costs to the artist are generally low. The dominant one is a reduction in household family income. A great situation if you can manage it.
We don’t talk about it much, but a large number of successful ‘professional’ artists are in a relationship with someone else that pays their way. They aren’t successful entrepreneurs with a deep understanding of sustainability. Instead they are full-time hobbyists in a fortunate financial situation. They accumulate excess leisure time and spend it on game development.

This sort of blessing is very difficult to admit. But embarrassed silence dupes less fortunate artists into pursuing an unrealistic fantasy of how to thrive. If you are a kept developer and are living off someone else’s money, talk about it. Indie finances could use a little sunlight.

Longer term revenue streams
Premium games tend to have spiky revenue streams focused around launches and special sales. Financial instability is built into the business model.

Here are the most common ways of adding a dash of stability.
  • Franchise: A long term game franchise where sales come from promoting sequels or remakes. This tactic is regularly practiced by conservative large companies, but also works for smaller operations like Spiderweb Software
  • Eternal updating: Continually update a game and making some noise about it. Toss in some sales. For most titles, this tends to drop off after a year or three. A consumable game tends to not be an evergreen business asset.
  • Freemium: Make a game service and build a stream of revenue. This requires that you know how to run a freemium business. It is an uncommon skill set for an indie, but quite valuable.
These give you a base layer of predictable revenue. As long as your burn rate as a company doesn’t go wildly over your income stream, you can keep making games.

These revenue streams have been our goal as a company. We are looking to build long term games that produce a steady stream of revenue from a community of dedicated players. This isn’t an easy target to hit, but at least we are building games with that conscious aim in mind.

Conclusion

The big lesson is that your exposure to luck is something you can manage. Think about releasing a portfolio of games, only some of which will be a success. And you should budget in such a manner that you can afford to make that portfolio. Blowing your existing capital on a single title is almost always a dumb idea. Sometimes it pays off. Most of the time, it doesn’t.

However, it is also worth realizing that playing the premium market straight on is, by many measures, a sucker’s game. The standard bet is to lose money on 5 to 10 games and have one success that lets you do it all over again. For most companies, the house always wins in the long run.

Perhaps the longer term solution is to run your games as a service. Try to create a product that produces reliable cash flows. This likely require a certain level of business thinking. You are making a financial machine that lasts instead of a Hail Mary piece of art that vanishes.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top 5 design debates I ignored in 2014

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when conversation about game design was first bubbling up out of our community of insecure practitioners, a few polarizing topics would arise again and again. You’ll recognize them:
  • The correct definition of ‘game’
  • Narrative vs Mechanics
  • Randomness vs Skill
  • The importance of realism
  • Casual vs Hardcore
Many were (and are) merely the irritated observations of game players picking at specific games. However, with a flip of the rhetorical switch, players become designers expressing a universal design truth. Opinions inevitably differ and thus positions harden in the absence of data. And it snowballs from there.

Thankfully, as a developer community, we've grown older. With time and the accumulation of thousands published games, experienced game makers have a lot more insight into how game design actually works. It turns out there’s plenty of room for nuance.

There’s also the growing maturity to ignore false dichotomies and worn out talking points. Honestly, we don’t have time any more. We should be making great games, not arguing ancient design politics.

In the spirit of becoming a forward looking designer, here are my top 5 design debates that I've ignored in 2014.

#1 The correct definition of 'Game'


I've seen a metric ton of definitions for game over the years and have dabbled in crafting them myself. Not a single one has been useful to me in my daily practice of making great games.

Why this discussion is outdated
Games are vast and varied. A single definition tends have one or more of the following issues:
  • Overly broad: The definition is unable to provide any direction or guidance.
  • Overly narrow: The definition eliminates useful tools and influences from other areas of systems, thought or art.
  • Overly convoluted: The definition is only useful to lawyers who care primarily about edge cases and not about getting things done.
Alternative discussions to have instead
I focus on finding and exploring useful design tools. I don’t need to care about the definition of ‘woodworking’ in order to be damned happy that hammers and nails exist. The same goes for games. I focus on scaffolding. And loot drop tables. And internal economies.

A useful goal is to find general tools that a smart designer can use to radically improve their work. Like any tool, they should to be applied in the proper context. So they are rarely universal or one-size fits all. And like a craft tool, they need to be applied with skill. They aren’t a pattern that you toss at a problem and get a fixed result.

Recommendation: Build your flexible design toolbox. Master those tools. Apply them where appropriate. Ignore pedants obsessed with defining ‘game’.

#2 Narrative vs mechanics


Science was once plagued by the idea that certain behavior derived entirely from genetics (nature) or entirely from environmental effects (nurture). This turned out to be a naive simplification of a vastly most intricate and interrelated system genetic predispositions, environmental triggers and feedback loops.

Narrative and mechanics have proven to be similarly intertwined.

Why this discussion is outdated
In the end, the human brain has neither a pure systemic understanding the world. Nor does it have a purely narrative understanding of the world. Memory, learning, emotional triggers, cause and effect all feed into how our brain adapts to environmental mechanics and then flow out again as a social response.

So the model suggested by the supposed conflict is simply broken. There is no ‘versus’.

There are many explanations for how this argument even arose. My favorite: A cocky tribe from old linear media clashed with an isolated tribe of game makers. They fought a stupid fight about authority and status that had almost nothing to do with making games. Meh.

Alternative discussions to have instead
A modern discussion could include:
  • What existing schemas are activated by my game?
  • How should we implement learning and scaffolding structures?
  • What is the impact of various forms of stimuli within game loops?
  • How should we tighten or loosen our systems of cause and effect?
  • What are systems of pacing?
  • What social role does narrative serve? How can we engineer human systems to encourage it?
Theories like Interaction Loops or Emotion Engineering integrate narrative and mechanics. In the process of banging our heads against building great interactive experiences, we've been forced to break down ‘narrative’ and ‘mechanics’ into atomic chunks and see how they fit in practice. Let’s discuss the rich synthesis of story, world building and mechanical techniques that thrives in interactive systems.

Recommendation: Consider how narrative emerges from existing mechanics. And consider how theme illuminates mechanics by activating existing mental schema. We need holistic, integrated models. Ignore antagonistic dichotomies.

#3 Randomness vs Skill


There’s been a sad resurgence of this 80’s wargamer rant. Randomness is obsessively derided as less masterful or strategic relative to pure skill games.

Why this discussion is outdated
Randomness is just another design tool. Used with skill, it yields some amazing games.
  • Random systems are rife with mastery. ‘Randomness’ can provide strong elements of mastery, in terms of learning distributions, managing options and adapting to new situations.
  • Games involve loops. Random outputs almost never occurs in isolation, but are part of an internal game economy. Randomness is often an essential tool for creating strategic variation and context.
  • There are different, equally valid playstyles. Not everyone is a rigidly intellectual young man who desires only mental-skill games that let them dominate others. Some play to relax, some to socialize, some for physical mastery, some to feel part of a shared purpose. Randomness can be a beneficial tool when designing for these players.
Alternate discussions
  • What games use randomness in interesting ways?
  • How does your game use randomness as skill?
  • How does randomness map onto noise?
  • What are other noise generators? Complexity noise, social noise, feedback noise, etc.
  • How do we make people better through play?
Recommendation: Practice using randomness where appropriate. Explore the space. Make a game with randomness that is about mastery. If you happen to be someone that values intellectual rigor over chance, make a game for someone other than yourself. Stretch your humanity.

#4 Realism


Past futurists sold a vision where games must inevitably become indistinguishable from reality. We marketed the hell out of that vision to the point it became dogma. You bought a new console, a new video card, a new computer to creep ever closer to the dream. You argued for 1080p as a paladin fighting for the glorious Holodeckian cause.

Why this discussion is outdated
Realism in graphics or simulations no longer is a dominant goal for most game developers. In practice, it turned out it wasn't really an essential feature for a successful games. In our far future era, you can snub realism and still make a billion dollars with a game like Minecraft or Puzzle & Dragons.
  • Realism has niche appeal. It is an aesthetic choice that tends to appeal to a singular sub-culture that we've trained with our decades of marketing. Cartoons, text and other stylized forms of representation are also appealing.
  • Realism can be an unnecessary expense. We sometimes wholesale replicate reality when we don’t know what specific stimuli actually appeals to players. It is sort of a shotgun approach that wastes vast amount of effort to hopefully make something interesting. A substantial portion of the exponential escalating cost of game development can be attributed directly to the pursuit of realism.
  • Simulation adds design risk: Many simulations are complex and difficult to manipulate. They also are not inherently emotionally satisfying. Insisting on mechanical realism while simultaneously trying to make a fun game tends to yield failed game designs.
  • Games are also endogenous systems of value. They are like little self contained baubles of math that set up interesting internal relationships. A game like Tetris has immensely value independent of references to the real world.
  • When players ask for realism, they often aren't asking for realism. The desire for realism is often best understood in terms of how players learn and apply existing mental schema to new system. A request for realism could be: A new player asking for a metaphor that helps them understand an abstract system. Or it could be an advanced player pointing out unnecessary edge cases. Both these have solutions outside belabored realism.
Alternative discussions to have instead
  • What is the right art style for your audience?
  • What are the trade offs between art style, production concerns and budget?
  • What sort of math or systems are interesting independent of their appearance in the real world?
  • How do we make game-like, cartoon-like, info rich, surreal virtual reality games?
Recommendation: Ask what utilitarian feedback your game truly needs. Invest your art resources making those elements amazing. Ask what level of modeling a system needs to create rich gameplay. Invest your design resources to create a tiny rule set with deep emergence. Be smart. Be frugal. When someone demands realism, try to figure out what they really want.

#5 Casual vs Hardcore


There’s a set of cultural stereotypes that casual players act one way while hardcore players act another. A surprising number of design decisions are made based off these stereotypes.

Why this discussion is outdated
The casual and hardcore stereotypes suffer from the problems typical of stereotypes. They are gross simplifications that yield the incorrect design decisions.
  • Many of the stereotypes are simply wrong: The longest average playtimes? Not console or PC. Handheld games, particularly those ‘kiddy’ Nintendo titles dominate session length. Regular daily play happens more often on smartphones and tablets than it does on consoles. When I look at data, there are very few ‘casual’ or ‘hardcore’ stereotypes that hold true. And when they do there are massive exceptions. 
  • The variation within a specific game is huge: You've got a half dozen or more distinct playstyles within almost any game of reasonable complexity. Each game is a vast city with many different people living within it. Mere averages tell you very little about how to improve the state of your game.
  • The market is shifting: Service-based games are driving for improved retention by doubling down on play. Women are playing more. Console owners are aging and slowing down. A lot of the old lessons about demographics and play styles have shifted. And they’ll continue to change in the future.
I see ‘casual’ or ‘hardcore’ as poisoned tribal labels like ‘gamer’ or ‘skinner box’. Mostly they are just weaponized stereotypes, deployed to enforce perceived group boundaries. They have little productive place in a modern design (or marketing) discussion.

Alternative discussions to have instead
  • How do you break out of thinking in cheap stereotypes in order to gain an advantage over the dinosaurs that don't see the market has it truly exists?
  • How do different groups unique to your game behave? (Hint: We can get the data!)
  • What motivates the groups unique to your game?
  • How do you include diverse hooks to appeal to multiple passionate audiences?
  • How do you make a targeted niche game using iteration with a live community?
I personally tend to make games that look 'casual', but consistently melt the brains of self identified 'hardcore' players trained on endless tutorials, cut scenes and QTEs. Some of the best players are smart 30-40-year old women that have the intense mental stamina for activities like logic, planning and creative thinking. They thrive on hard games. My market doesn't even exist if you see the world through a 'casual / hardcore' lens. Yet there it is, merrily enjoying games amidst the vast diversity of this planet's billion odd players. 

Recommendation
No one really makes 'hardcore' or 'casual' games. At best, we use existing markets, tribes and distribution channels to get a tentative foothold in a player’s psyche. But then it gets complicated. Embrace the complexity of your players. Learn who they actually are. Create elegant solutions that serve your many types of players.

Thoughts for 2015

If you happen to find yourself facing these 5 topics: Turn away. Our creative lives are limited. Pour your time into something productive.
  • Teachers that spread these memes: Consider teaching modern game design tools. Cull disproved dogma. 
  • Academics that expound on these ideas: Stop naive theory crafting and start referencing nuanced data from working designers.
  • Students that gnaw at these bones: Arguing ancient talking points in comment sections gets you nowhere in life. Make games instead. Base your design conversations around your hands-on experiments. You'll learn more, faster. 
Goodness knows that conversations on dead design ideas will not end. Players and their innumerable derivatives (fan press, forum warriors, cultural critics, etc) continue talking about these topics. Some talk for entertainment. Some for status. Some for business. Some talk about their game experiences in order to process them mentally and emotionally. For many of these purposes, simplistic polarizing hooks are more enticing than deep comprehension.

So these inane design views become practically tradition, or at least common hazing rituals. Like yelling at televised football games. Or laughing at trucknuts. Sure, players aren't having a productive craft conversation, but they shouldn't be judged by the same rubric. Consider their chatter a cultural performance.

As for designers, you have a different role to fill. Recognize when you are accidentally acting like a uninformed player or student. Instead of getting caught up in the babble of ill-informed internet backwash, try talking directly with other working designers. Build tools and knowledge together.

Here's to a more productive 2015,
Danc.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Loot Drop Tables

Many games have loot. Usually this drops randomly. Loot drops are a pretty mundane topic, but one that almost every designer runs into at some point. Here are some best practices I've encountered over the years. Many thanks to everyone who contributed to these tips and tricks.

Your basic loot table

The goal is to drop some set of items at a given probability. Let’s say when you defeat an enemy, you have a chance of getting shield, a rare sword or nothing at all.

Example
lootTable
  item:
    name: sword
    weight: 10
  item:
    name: shield
    weight: 40
  item:
    name: null
    weight: 50

Setup
  • Item: An item is something you want give the player.
  • Loot Table: A set of items is put into a loot table. This is just a bucket of items. For example a loot table might include: Sword, Shield, Null.
  • Weight: An item has a drop weight: 1 to 10,000. For example a sword might have a drop rate of 10.
  • Null items: One of the items in the loot bucket is 'null' which means if that is rolled, no loot is given
Rolling for loot
  • Total probability: First, sum all the weights in the bucket. In the example above, that's 10+40+50 = 100. They don't need to add up to 100 since these aren't percentages.
  • Next assign each item a range. Sword = 1-10, Shield = 11 to 50, Null = 51 to 100
  • Generate a random number from 1 to 100.
  • Compare that number to the ranges. That's the item that drops.
  • Reroll: Generate multiple random numbers to simulate multiple rolls.
So what does this look like to the player? We've got a 10% chance of dropping a sword, a 40% chance of dropping a shield and a 50% chance of getting nothing.

As the designer, I could go in and change Null's weight to 100 and now I've got a 6.6% (10/150) chance of dropping a sword, a 26% (40/150) chance off dropping a shield and a 66% (100/150) chance of dropping nothing.

Mapping onto other common random systems

This system is a simple restating of many other familiar methods of randomness. It is a fun superpower to train your designer brain to be able to switch between understanding any randomness issue in terms of loot tables, cards or dice.

Cards
Imagine deck of cards that you can shuffle and draw from.
  • Each type of card in the deck is an item.
  • The number of cards of a given type is that item’s weight
  • Shuffling the deck is equivalent to assigning each item to a range and generating a random number.
  • Drawing a card is the equivalent of selecting the item that drops.
Now a normal deck of cards has 52 cards, but with loot tables, you don’t need to operate with that constraint. Your decks could have 1000's of cards and a vast array of types. Or they could have tiny decks that are the equivalent of a typical poker hand.

Dice
Dice also map onto loot tables.
  • Each individual die is a loot table.
  • The sides (1-N) are items (labeled 1 through N)
  • Each side gets a weight of ‘1’. (Unless you are using weighted dice!)
  • Multiple dice can be represented as rolling the same loot table multiple times. So 2D6 is the equivalent of sampling a 6 item loot table twice.

Variations

Now that we’ve defined a basic loot table, what else can we do with it?

Variation: Items sets
You can also drops sets of loot. An item doesn’t need to be a single thing. For example, I could extend it so that the players gets a shield and a health potion if that option is selected.

Example
lootTable
  item:
    name: sword
    weight: 10
  item:
    name: shield
    name: healthPotion number: 2
    weight: 40
  item:
    name: null
    weight: 50

Variation: Always drop
A common need is to flag an item so it always drops. One convention is that items with weight '-1' always drop.

Variation: Repeatable randomness
Sometimes you want to be able to repeat a random roll. For example, when a player saves a game and then is able to reload to avoid a bad loot drop, it can lead to very grindy player behavior. If there is an exploit that ruins the game for them, most will happily go for it.

Most contemporary pseudo random number generators use a seed value. As long as you can save that seed value, you can run the random number generator again and get the same result.

Variation: Rolling without replacement
The problem with the system above is that players may, through chance alone, always roll 'null'. This is a common complaint by players. “I played that encounter 3000 times and never got the MegaGoldenLootGun!” This can happen.

In statistics, there are two fundamental types of sampling:
  • Sampling with replacement: You pull the numbers out of the bucket and then after you've recorded what you got, you put them back in. So you have the same chance of getting the same thing again in the next draw.
  • Sampling without replacement: You pull the item out of the bucket and once you’ve recorded it, you set it aside. You have a lower chance of getting that item again and thus a higher chance of getting the remaining items.
Tetris uses sampling without replacement. Each set of Tetris pieces is in a loot table. Every time you get a specific piece, it is removed from the bucket. That way they guarantee that you’ll always get a long piece if you wait long enough.

Here’s how you implement rolling without replacement in a loot table.
  • When you roll an item, reduce its weight by 1. This shorten its range by 1 and shortens the max range by 1 as well.
  • Keep the player's modified loot table around for the next time you roll.
Variation: Guaranteeing specific drops
Sometimes even rolling without replacement isn’t fast enough and you want to guarantee a loot drop. Blizzard does this for certain rare drops so that players don’t grind for very long times.

You could just increase the weight, but a low chance of getting something with a guarantee can feel very different over multiple plays than a slowly increasing chance of getting an item.

Here’s how you implement guaranteed loot drops.
  • When you roll any non-guaranteed item, reduce all non-guaranteed items weight by X%
  • X = 100 / Max number of rolls you before the guaranteed items drop.
  • Keep the player's modified loot table around for the next time you roll.
Example
  • Suppose you want the sword to always drop after 5 turns even though it it only has a 10% chance of dropping.
  • So X = 100 / 5 or 20%.
  • So every time you don’t roll the Sword, the weight for the Shield drops 8 (40*0.2) and the weight for null drops 10 (50*0.2)
  • After 5 turns, the weight for all the other items will be 0 and the sword will have a 100% chance of dropping.
Variation: Hierarchical loot tables
Loot tables are generally source for new resources. However, you can easily run into situations where you are dropping too much or too little of a particular resource. Some sort of constraints would be helpful.

One solution is to use hierarchical loot tables without replacement. When a particular resource runs out, the player doesn’t get any more. We’ve used this for our daily coin awards. We want to give out 100 coins a day, but no more. But we want to do it as part of the loot system.
  • Create two tables: Rewards and DailyCoins.
  • Have the main loot table reference the Daily Coins bucket.
  • When Daily Coins get picked, roll that table and see how many coins you get.
Example
lootTable: Rewards
  item:
    name: sword
    weight: 10
  item:
    name: dailyCoins
    weight: 40
  item:
    name: null
    weight: 50

lootTable: dailyCoins
  type: noReplacement
  refreshRate: Daily
  item:
    name: coin, number: 1
    weight: 10
  item:
    name: coin, number 10
    weight: 4
  item:
    name: coin, number: 50
    weight: 1

In the example above, a player has a 40% chance of getting coins. Then we roll the dailyCoins table and see that they can win a maximum of 100 coins a day with 10 awards of 1 coins, 4 awards of 10 coins and 1 award of 50 coins.

When the dailyCoins loot table is emptied, they’ll get nothing until it refreshes after a day.

Variation: Conditional drops
Sometimes you want to test if you should drop the items base off some external variable. In Realm of the Mad God, we wanted to avoid free riders getting loot for a boss kill without doing at least some damage. So in the loot table, we added a check. If a valuable item in the loot table was rolled, then we'd check to see if the player had done more than X% of damage to the enemy.

You could also build in switches for which loot it valid based off player level or even enemy level. I tend to instead use multiple smaller loot tables, but the system is flexible enough that you can easily architect your data with a few large tables and use of conditionals.

Variation: Modifiers
You can also modify the quantity or weight of a drop based off some external logic. For example, a player with a skill in harvesting could yield 2x as many of a particular item drop compared to a player without that skill. Or you could modify the weight. A high level character might have a -50% weight for all items marked lower than their level. (Thanks to a Reddit commenter for this idea)

Other uses

Drop tables are commonly used for dropping loot. But I also find them useful in other areas.
  • Procedural generation: Use a table to build weapons or characters from components
  • AI: Use a table to select behaviors such as attacks or moves.
This may seem a little silly..surely there are better ways to model AI! However, one way to think about randomness is that it is a very rough first order model of any system. How does the human brain model a system? We make an observation about a system. We note the frequencies and tendencies for those observations to reoccur. It is only much, much later that we start to understand ‘why’ something happens or the causal relationship between parts.

In physics, we often joke that in order to model a cow, a complex biological organism, the first step is to ‘imagine a spherical cow’. By creating a simplistic, easy to work with model, we can often generate useful insights at a very low cost.

Many times, a drop table is a ‘good enough’ human-centric approximation of a complex system. For many systems, most players will never move beyond a basic probabilistic understanding so modeling more complexity is a waste of time. Efficient game design is an exercise in modeling elements only to the minimum level necessary to create the desired experience.

Consider: D&D modeled entire universes with what were essentially loot drop tables. That was a deliberate focus on minimizing systems that were in many ways just secondary flavoring to the core roleplaying.

A loot drop table isn’t the only tool you need, but in many scenarios, it is good enough.

Procedural generation thought experiment

Here’s a simple procedural generation system using drop tables. There are lots of other ways to do this, but this is more to get your brain thinking.

Let’s say you want to build a procedurally generated enemy
  • Start by making a list of unique enemy parts. Maybe your enemy is made up of a type of movement, a type of attack, a defensive buff and a type of treasure.
  • Make loot tables for each one of those parts.
  • For each item in the loot table, give it a power value based off how powerful you think it might be. for example, a knife attack might be weak so it only has a power of 5. But a large hammer attack might have a power of 15.
  • Create another loot table of buffs. These are modifiers to various attributes. For example, ‘Strong’ boost a value on an attack by 20%. You can have debuffs as well ‘Weak’ might diminish a value by -50%. These have reduce the power value of a part.
Now let’s generate an enemy
  • Set a target: Set a target power for your generated enemy. Say you want an enemy of power 40
  • Roll: Roll each of the parts once and add them into a list.
  • Score: Add up all the power values to get a score.
  • Adjust: If the sum of the parts is over the target, add a debuff or roll for a lower power part. If it is under, add a buff or roll for a higher power part.
  • Repeat: Repeat this process until you hit a desired error threshold (distance from power 40) or you've exhausted the number of iterations you are willing to spend.
You now have a procedurally generated enemy. There are tons of tweaks you can do to this basic system, but it works most of the time. As an exercise, think about:
  • Exclusion lists: If two parts are picked that are on the list, throw the enemy away and reroll.
  • Multiple constraints: Parts are scored on multiple criteria. Note, the more constraints you add, the less likely you are to converge on a viable result.

Conclusion

Any time there’s a discussion of randomness, there’s a huge number of secondary issues that come into play. I recommend the following for further reading:
Resist being dogmatic about randomness. Be a broadly educated designer whose aesthetic choices are based on hands on experimentation. A good rule of thumb is that you can't intelligently critique a design tool until you've made a couple games that use it successfully.

Anyway, this is just how I've done loot tables; a mundane part of any working designer's life. I'm curious if other folks have other ways of managing loot (and randomness) that they love and live by.

(And before I forget – I've recently freed up some time to do some games consulting. Ping me if you need help with your games!)

take care,
Danc.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

How game forms are shaped by their environment




We often consider artistic works from a creative or cultural perspective, but I find it just as enlightening to examine them from an economic or evolutionary lens. How does the economic environment within which a developer finds themselves shape the form that art takes?

As a case study of this in practice, I’ve been fascinated by a class of content-focused game that’s recently found a stable niche in the maturing mobile, PC and console markets. In mobile, we see examples like Sword & Sworcery, Device 6 or Monument Valley. In PC, you've got Kentucky Route Zero, Proteus and Gone Home. On console the trend is less pronounced, though Journey and Flower share some aspects.

These games generally have the following characteristics
  • Strong focus on evocative content: Most of the game is composed of arcs that deliver heavily authored payloads. The player’s cognitive load is consumed by interpretation of stimuli not the planning or execution of actions.
  • Light use of systems: Mechanically, the games tend to have limited interactive loops. There is little room for play within a mechanical space. The systems used are often highly traditional with a long history within other genres.
  • Short playtime: Often 1-3 hours.
This form thrives not due to some sudden explosion of artistic appreciation within the human race, nor due to universally-applicable intrinsic attributes of Truth and Beauty. No, instead these games thrive because they competently execute a development strategy that matches well with the current socioeconomic environment.

Form shaped by environment risk

Form is an accepted and standardized structure for a work of art. A painting stretched on canvas painted in oils that fits roughly on a living room wall is a common form of painting. A haiku is a form of writing.

Unlike many media, the forms that a game might take are still quite fluid. Where authors of literature might feel locked into to well-established structures such as poem, short story, essay or novel, game forms are both broader and have less sharp boundaries. They vary radically in mechanics, scope, topic, number of participants, and hardware. The difference between a game of Tetris and a game of Charades can seem far vaster than that of a Shakespearean play and an encyclopedia entry. And as a designer, you often get to chose the unique form of your game.

How risks shape game forms

However, different forms of game have different levels of risk and trade offs. There’s internal risk such as design risk, technical risk, production risk. And then there's external risk such as distribution risk, market fit and many others. If any one of these aspect of the project fails, the development investment is lost. Any game design can be judged by the costs associated with building the game, the benefits of success and the downsides to failure.

Fig 1. Valid terrain based off existing environmental risks

These are not abstract decisions. Most developers (even large ones) operate a paycheck or two away from bankruptcy. Paying the rent and putting food on the table are very real concerns. Many smart teams therefore choose projects of a form that minimize overall risk in order to dramatically increase their chances of future survival.

Thus game developers have a great incentive to evolve game forms to fit whatever environmental pressures are present. If something changes in the environment that increases a type of risk, then you’ll see developers selecting, from this vast palette of potential forms, the options that mitigate that risk. Picture a thousand little Brownian developers blindly adapting their game forms to half felt market forces and thus converging on useful strategies.

Using survivors to determine dominant strategies

The process of evolving games forms can feel invisible. The vast majority of projects that don’t balance their risks correctly, fail and sink out of the cultural consciousness. Most creators are barely conscious of their influences and constraints. All we really know are the the survivors.

When you see a new species of game thriving in the marketplace, you can start to ask some interesting questions. What are the culling mechanisms that let those games survive? What strategy was used that gave them an advantage over other possible designs? The things that make it through the filter give you some insight into the shape of the filter.

Some forces at play

What are some meaningful forces acting upon the modern indie developer attempt to sell a game for a fixed upfront price?
  • Digital distribution and cheap tools: At the heart of the emergence is ability for small teams to build and release games at low cost. However, those markets are now maturing.
  • A large audience trained on content consumption: The past decade of AAA titles perfected a variety of secondary content delivery standards via cutscenes, level design, voiceovers, etc. Gamers know and understand these methods. Over the decades, we've built up the equivalent of a trained audience that knows how to read.
  • Average revenue for a product is dropping. In fact they are close to zero in mobile markets. The exponential distribution of revenue looks more L-shaped, with small number of titles making the majority of the money and no middle market to speak of. You have hits or failures with little in-between.
  • Price per unit for games with an upfront cost is less than $0.99. As Steam opens up further, bundles proliferate and consoles introduce more free games, expect further price erosion for premium titles. You need to reach more people to make less money.
  • Discoverability is weak. Discovery mechanisms are weak and heavily gated. Channels are also flooded with games of difficult to determine quality. A game benefits from being able signal quality 1 to 30 seconds of exposure since that is likely all the time it will get.
  • Cost of production is increasing: Cheap tools bring the capital cost down, but labor costs remain stable. The need to hit ever increasing levels of quality results in an escalating cost curve. Five years ago, a hit premium game on mobile might cost $50,000 to build (including sweat equity). Now, for less revenue, you’ll see costs range from $200k - 1M (or higher). This expense is almost entirely due to content and feature competition: more art, more animation, increased use of 3D, more ‘required’ features.
So it is hard to stand out, hard to make money and very easy to spend more than you make.

A content-focused strategy

Given such a landscape, what is a species of game that might survive? We are looking for solutions to the problems listed, but also ways of tackling multiple problems with the same resources. Efficient solutions survive.

Fig 2. A strategy that mitigates technical and design risk.
While taking on some distribution risk.

Note that the following is by no means the only strategy. If you look around at other thriving developers, there are many alternatives. Nor is it a preferred one. This strategy has no inherent value beyond its functional benefits. Nor for that matter is it likely that the half-blind creators explicitly planned out their strategy. Like the flying fish and the (sadly extinct) flying shark, common strategies converge unwittingly from disparate perspectives as if shaped by an invisible hand.  Environments have local maxima whether or not we are smart enough to perceive them ahead of time.

With those disclaimers duly dispensed, consider a content-focused development strategy for small teams...

Reduce costs
  • Target a smaller scope: Content is expensive, but what if you make a game that is 1 to 3 hours, not 20 or 30? This simple change means you can cost 1/10th what a bigger title might. This is the defining economic attribute of this game form.
  • Remove systems and features: Trim as many standard elements as possible and focus the game focus on one or two key features. Dear Esther, you walk around. In Gone Home, you walk around and click on objects. NPCs? Cut. Combat? Cut. Branching narratives? Cut.
  • Keep your team small. Since labor is your largest cost, a small team means lower investment. Team members should being able to execute multiple aspects of development so you don’t need part time specialists.
  • Keep your development cycle short(er): Spend 9-12 months on a title, not 18-24 months.
  • Excel at what you attempt: It helps to have at least one or more people who are world class. Then build your game around their signature style. This makes up for some of the inevitable weaknesses that arise from small teams sizes, wearing too many hats and short schedules.

Reduce distribution risk
  • Make high impact video and images. Since you have limited contact with potential players, you want the briefest glimpse of a game to excite them. Gorgeous visuals, evocative narrative hooks that can be grasped in a couple seconds work well. All many buyers need to see of Monument Valley is a single screenshot.
  • Form relationships to amplify your signal for free: With a small team and a low marketing budget, free distribution is ideal. By forming relationships with journalists, streamers, taste makers and platform curators, you may get a mention or a feature. Of course, what you provide in return is a sellable story or validation of their long simmering world view. ‘Games as art’ is currently easy topic to bond over and all games with this form make the most of it. 

Reduce design and production risk
  • Rely heavily on static content: Art and video rarely fails on a functional level. There’s a risk in discovering an artist initially, but once on board, a competent artist tends to continue to produce competent art. Especially over short production schedules. You already need to make high impact visuals in order to get distribution, so there’s synergy here.
  • Use existing mechanics: New mechanics take time to discover and often don’t work out. Invention is hard. By using well proven traditional mechanics, it is unlikely that the systems will delay your game. Turning a page or clicking a hyper-link is quite reliable.
  • Reduce systemic emergence: Unplanned surprises hurt the schedule and cost you money.

Reduce technical risk
  • Use existing technology: Well proven, simplistic technology. Again, you can get away something that simply puts quality content on the screen
  • Avoid complex technologies: Technology that require strong expertise such as multiplayer servers or advanced 3D rendering is likely to blow up. So don’t do that.

Reduce audience risk
  • Make the game easy to finish: You want people to play the game, finish it and then talk to their friends while still in midst of the afterglow. This is a fast virus, not a slow one. Challenge is a useful tactic in other contexts (Dark Souls, Spelunky), but it is a poor fit when you want to deliver your beautiful load of content as smoothly as possible.
  • Keep content highly interpretable: To offset the risk of the game being too short, you can implement content that either vague or open to many interpretations. This means that quality of your content can be lower without anyone being able to concretely describe it as such. A certain air of mysterious brilliance can act as a prophylactic against common criticisms; seed the doubt that a player may simply be unschooled in Imperial fashion.
  • Engage the community: Ideally, you kick off a secondary wave of community engagement as players and critics invent their own detailed explanations for what may in fact be random (yet highly evocative) noise.
Notice how all these pieces fit together into a coherent strategy. A small team with a strong artist and / or writer makes a short, attractive game that sells a light narrative. This also happens to be small enough a scope that they can finish and release it. Such a game is pretty enough to be featured and can be easily talked about. There’s also little risk for the player...they get this nice watchable nugget of content that’s super cheap and feels like a reasonable value relative to other comparable consumables like books or movies.

A deeply conservative take on games

This strategy formula isn't new in the grand scheme. Cheap, consumable content differentiated on gatekeeper-approved quality variables is at the heart of most media markets.

In grand spectrum of possible games, the crop of boutique content games is one of the most conservative possible development strategies. Rosy cheeked media critics who might imagine the real history of games started in 2007 are likely excited by such titles. However, when compared to the rich systemic and narrative experimentation of the last 30 years, these forms are ultimately a retreat; survivalist risk mitigation marketed as hip cultural advancement. Such games tacitly give up on the idea that games could be a different type of thing than traditional media and adopt whole hog similar methods and limitations. At the crudest level, you flip pages, you see content.

One should tread lightly in labeling this as a ‘bad’ change. Evolution does not judge. This strategy works. Good, passionate people are making money and surviving to build another game. That’s all you can really hope for as a game developer in a staunchly capitalist world.

The future

Since we are dealing with a conservative product strategy, comparable markets suggest where these might evolve over the next 5 years.

Fig 3. Increasing costs put new pressure on the content heavy form.
Player desire for the new form increases the overall market opportunity.


  • Rapid market saturation: Since costs of entry in terms of skills and technology are quite low and first movers have almost zero competitive moats, new entrants should flood the market. This reduces the average success rate; most will not be profitable.
  • Costs increase: As more entries appear, quality becomes more important. Those with cash spend more to keep or capture profitable audiences. Form-specific blockbusters emerge that spend the maximum amount to get the maximum audience. (I've called these genre kings in the past).
  • Shorter length: Increased costs put pressure on decreasing the length even further. At some point players may decide that even an amazing 20 minutes is not worth 99 cents.
  • Use of portfolios: Anthologies, bundles or subscriptions to content streams (aka magazines) are common methods of paying a population of authors in a hit driven ecosystem. If this shift in market structure occurs, middlemen begin dictating tastes even more strongly.
  • Attempted differentiation based off thematic genre: Essentially the market fragments. As customers become trained in this new form, they’ll start to prefer specific types of content, much like we we see romance or mystery novels. First movers in thematic areas could tap a new sub-niche.
  • Fragile specialist firms: Developers will need to specialize in this specific form to produce the best of breed content. However, this makes them inflexible when the need arises to adapt to new forms. We've seen this situation play out in the past with adventure games.

It may seem silly to predict a future of saturation and collapse when there are so few of these games around. Yet markets are never eternal. Due to the lack of competitive moats, this one will mature rapidly and any golden period is likely to be short.

Fig 5. Fragmentation into sub-forms due the changing landscape


In some sense, these short content focused games have made a deal with the devil. They've reduced their inventive mechanical scope and deliver all their value through highly polished content. However, one constant of the game industry is that content costs are always rising on a given platform. The cost curve is the monster that eats our industry. It is great to trim 1/10th of the content in a game to get your costs down, but what happens when the cost of making content then jumps by 10X? That brief advantage disappears.

Lessons

Though I don't personally make short content-driven games, I find this lens immensely useful in understanding how and why my work impacts the world. All art is shaped by the economics of a specific time and place. All standardized forms of art are but niches within a socioeconomic ecosystem. They are not eternal, they shift over time. Knowing that common forms are not some absolute truth empowers the clever and observant developer.

It pays to ask: Who is making money? How do the developers, journalists, museums, critics or other middlemen benefit from promoting the works that they promote? Any creative work that depends on money-making institutions (big or small) is a commercial artifact, shaped by commercial constraints. None of us are truly independent creative entities. That’s at best a pleasant illusion, a lie. We all create within systems that cull our impassioned work with pragmatic brutality. We also, like it or not, preempt this culling through self-censorship.

The flip side of this analysis is to look at the failures.  Ask who is doing something different and failing? What structural and environmental factors explain why they are not making enough to eat? Once you've identified the problem areas, is it possible to spot gaps and come up with a new strategy that lets you thrive?

When you see a new form of game emerging, ask why. Seek to understand the confluence of forces. Then use this rich understanding to invent your own unique form of game. Do your part to ensure that the evolution of games never stagnates.

take care,
Danc.