Archive for month: June, 2012

Freemium is the Future!

27 Jun
June 27, 2012

Well, according to one EA COO Peter Moore.

“I think, ultimately, those microtransactions will be in every game, but the game itself or the access to the game will be free,” he said. “I think there’s an inevitability that happens five years from now, 10 years from now, that, let’s call it the client, to use the term, [is free]. It is no different thanโ€ฆit’s free to me to walk into The Gap in my local shopping mall. They don’t charge me to walk in there. I can walk into The Gap, enjoy the music, look at the jeans and what have you, but if I want to buy something I have to pay for it.”

Yeah. Right. Just like “The Gap”. Games are just like retail department stores. Where you browse other products, which are themselves probably not games.

Now, this isn’t just EA executives sharing more of their eerily accurate insights into the business of gaming. No, this line of logic was repeated from another quarter. Epic’s Tim Sweeney thinks Freemium is the inevitable evolution of the market, too.

So are these two gentlemen right? Yes and No.

Yes, they’re right in the sense that I think there will be a lot more focus on the Freemium model in the future. And I think that soon we will see at least a few “breakout hits” in the AAA Freemium (non-MMO) space. Someone is gonna make a lot of money at some point, and there will be a lot of publishers and developers following suit.

But no, because I honestly think there will always be a demand for games which don’t try to intrude on your gameplay experience with a virtual clothing retailer overlay. Maybe not for all game types, but I don’t think the “pay once, enjoy a premium product” model will go anywhere, or cease to be tremendously profitable.

Consider a different industry. The restaurant business. Has the spread of fast food chains destroyed the market for high-end restaurants? Not where I live. Yes, fast food is convenient, and no, not everyone can afford high-end restaurants, and certainly not every day of the week. But there are enough people who want to eat premium quality food, and regularly enough, that there are many good quality restaurants in my city. Many of those situated within walking distance of fast food chains.

Those high-end restaurants survive, and thrive, because there are many people who have large amounts of disposable income, and who will pay a premium for quality. Who are beyond the point where “eating cheaply” is the deciding factor in their eating-out decisions, and who will seek out and support restaurants for a number of qualities, some quite subtle. From quality of food to “service”, “ambiance” and “novelty”. These things have a monetary value, and for many that monetary value outweighs the allure of “cheap”.

That’s why it seems remarkably silly, to me, to predict that the entire market, or even most of the market, will shift to Freemium. It’s rather like confidently predicting that fast food chains will replace all other forms of eating experience. It seems a failure to realize that there are different types and tiers of customers, with different tastes and preferences.

I won’t deny that Freemium games have a place in the ecosystem of gaming, possibly a large place, and that they may make a lot of money for some developers and publishers.

But I predict there will always be a market for a more “premium” gaming product, one that, without add-on gimmickery*, is a complete, highly enjoyable and polished experience. And I believe that those products will also make a lot of money for some developers and publishers, just as they do now.

* I exclude expansion content here, even DLC expansions. To me, an “add-on gimmick” is like the virtual Gap, a store for knick-knacks unrelated to gameplay. If I like a game, I have no problem with them selling me more chunks of content, if I want it. As long as that is extra content, and I don’t feel like it’s been removed for the express purpose of selling to me for extra profits.

Three Decades

23 Jun
June 23, 2012

Well, I’m 30 today. The big three-oh. Three decades of shenanigans behind me.

This comic sums up my feelings on the subject.

Haha….yes.

Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration. On reflection, I think I have learned some things. Gained some wisdom. Though, as my D&D books promised, it has come at the cost of a -1 Constitution. If you’re in your early twenties or below, enjoy going out and partying into the wee hours, while you can. Now, I stay up over 1 AM and I have to pay the price. Just don’t bounce back from stuff like I used to. And my stomach has started rebelling against certain food groups, no longer can I play human trash compactor. Goodbye jalapeno peppers, I will miss you. ๐Ÿ™

It’s certainly been a year of changes. I did the bravest thing I’ve ever done, the thing I’ve dreamed of and planned for, for about a decade. It’s terrifying, and exhilarating, and surreal, and I’m still not sure how it will all turn out.

But I don’t regret doing it. I have never felt quite so alive. ๐Ÿ˜€

Here’s to the next 3 decades. Let’s see where the seas take us.

Frankly, I find it a little scary

20 Jun
June 20, 2012

…that an article extolling the virtues of “consequences” in gameplay was even necessary.

But I guess, when this is the mainstream design philosophy…

Nowadays, games often reward success with positive feedback systems like cutscenes, in-game items or achievements

…it’s understandable that you might have to take some time to explain how fail conditions, penalties, and no guarantee of success can make victory all the more sweeter, if achieved.

He’s certainly saying the right things, at least about XCOM. But, personally, I still have a problem with this :

Solomon said he’s all for story-based games that push players to victory with generous checkpoints, but to him, those titles aren’t about achieving success; they’re about experiencing a narrative.

Now fair enough, there are games whose primary focus is the story they tell. But still, I feel uneasy saying that “experiencing the narrative” is what a game is primarily about.

According to wikipedia, the key components of games are “goals”, “rules”, “challenge”, and “interaction”.

If the game isn’t “about” success, then it’s likely that the goals, rules and challenge will be fairly trivial or marginalized. After all, success is defined as achieving your goal or goals, and to do that you must manipulate rules. The challenge is what you get when the achievement of those goals via that manipulation is taxing in some way, a non-trivial exercise.

If success is “not what the game is about”, then it seems to me that you’re de-emphasizing 3 of the 4 things that make a game, a game. You’re left with “interaction”. And you are dangerously close to something that is more like “interactive fiction” than a game.

Which I think is a trend we’re seeing in games, to move in that direction. And why so many modern games seem so unsatisfying. “Interaction” is being focused on and added, while many times the other aspects are not given equal consideration. This is epitomized by those Quick Time Events that pop up in the middle of dramatic cutscenes. They’re a form of interaction, yes, but in terms of goals, rules and challenges they’re fairly basic. Lowest common denominator gameplay, “monkey push button when light flashes to get banana” stuff. And yet we see more and more games adding more and more of that type of interaction.

Because it allows you to “experience the narrative” of the cutscene, with a trivial interactive mechanic and a basic goal to achieve that allow cutscenes to technically qualify as gameplay. Just barely.

It seems like that kind of design that has led us to this situation, where video game designers feel they need to take the time to explain to us why more meaningful consequences in gameplay are a good thing. Where needing to explain that would be…odd…in a different gaming context. Imagine having to defend to chess players why losing their pieces makes for fun gameplay, or to soccer fans why there needs to be penalty kick rules.

Maybe I’m over-reading it. Maybe the article was simply a marketing move, a fairly trivial topic that most people will agree on, posted to get some attention on the game. But if we are, actually, at the point where designers have to defend “consequences” in gameplay…well, I find that a little worrying.

Open mouth, insert foot

18 Jun
June 18, 2012

It’s good to know that EA execs haven’t lost that insight and vision they’re renowned for, as leaders in the gaming industry.

“We’re not doing those massive, Steam-like 75% off sales on Origin,” says EA exec, shortly before Origin launches a massive, Steam-like sale on Origin

The older you get, the more frighteningly apparent it becomes that the primary skillset of many professionals involves conveying the appearance that they possess more competency than they do, in fact, possess.

The world does begin to make more sense when you realize that, though.

Valve’s guide to DOTA 2 Character Art creation

17 Jun
June 17, 2012

…is all sorts of Awesome, and worth a read whether you’re a character artist (2D or 3D), concept artist, or just an artist in general. Hell, if you have any interest in the craft of game design, it’s always fascinating to get this kind of insight into the thoughts and processes of the masters of their craft.

Check it out here.

The Tomb Raider Debacle

15 Jun
June 15, 2012

Because fools rush in where angels fear to tread, I made a video discussing the recent controversy surrounding the revelation that Lara Croft would suffer a near-rape in the next Tomb Raider game.

The Free Rider Issue

13 Jun
June 13, 2012

Cardinal Quest sees 90% piracy rate on Android, according to reports.

I’m not going to spend time with this post saying piracy is bad blah blah. Instead, what I find interesting is that number, 90%.

In just about every sales postmortem that I’ve read that gave detailed stats, that has been about the number you see, 90%. It seems to be standard. Doesn’t matter if you’re EA or indie, or what the price level is. That 90% piracy rate stays pretty constant. It can’t be attributed to poor college students who don’t have the money to pay for games yadda yadda, you’re talking about people with Android phones ripping off a $2 game here. Though much of the piracy seems to come from Eastern Europe, and price disparity in poorer countries is a problem, I doubt $2 is out of most people’s reach.

And equally interesting is that the sales figures on the heavily pirated version, Android, are about equivalent to the iOS devices. That too is very interesting. It’s easy to conclude from that fact that “see, piracy doesn’t affect sales”, but that would be making conclusions from incomplete information. It would only be true if it had equal amounts of exposure on both platforms, and we don’t know that. It’s hard to know without more information, but it does suggest it.

For myself, I long ago accepted that any game I make, if it becomes successful enough to attract attention, will have a 90% piracy rate. Or, perhaps a better way to phrase it because it doesn’t directly imply that every pirate copy is “consuming” what would otherwise be legitimate sales, I have accepted that for every 1 legitimate customer I gain, I will in turn gain 9 free-riders.

In other words, if you imagine hosting a music festival in the park, gated off to limit access to people who’ve bought tickets, I know that for every 1 person that pays to get through the gate, 9 people will just camp outside the cordoned off area, near enough to listen to the music without paying. I use this example because I live near a park that regularly holds such musical events, and you see that every single time.

Now, when I think of it like this, my immediate question is not how to “fight” piracy, because those people are not folks who’ve illegally jumped the fence and I have to get security to chase them to make sure they’ve paid for tickets. Instead, I begin to wonder how I can take advantage of those free riders. How can I make money off them, or tempt them to buy tickets to get access to the paid area. Or, better yet, both.

You see, although Kickstarter may be in danger of becoming a bit too much of a circus show with developers trying to out compete each other with amusing videos and in offering exciting new reward tiers for pledges, one of the things I think it gets right (and this is the same reason I think decent DLC is a good idea) is that it allows people with differing levels of interest to invest in a game to differing degrees. Having one price point for a game is appealing to an “average” consumer. No such thing exists in real life, every individual has different degrees of enthusiasm for a thing. There are forums out there of people who’ve dedicated years of their lives to talking about Fallout, or following the products of a certain group of developers whose ideas and ideals they strongly identify with.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing that and attempting to offer more to the more committed fans. In many ways, the games industry is far behind the other big media industries, who have for a long time offered a more sophisticated, multi-tiered approach to selling to customers, allowing them to make money from all levels of commitment.

Consider the music industry, and a specific song. At the bottom rung are people who are very casual listeners, I wouldn’t even call them fans. They can enjoy the song for free on the radio or TV. They are not directly paying for it, but radio and TV makes money by selling advertising. Their customers are actually the advertisers, and the product they sell them is your attention. That’s why they pay for song and tv show licenses, to give you a reason to pay attention to their channels and give them the numbers they need to sell advertising slots to advertisers.

So, in this way, the casual listener is “monetized”. Monetization is a bit of a dirty word amoungst most gamers, mainly because we’re aware of how often companies are simply looking for ways to exploit us when they use these kinds of buzzwords. But in this post, I’m just meaning it as “making money from people who partake of your product”. I think we can all agree that it is fair for developers to try to make money from their product in that way, and that in this sense it’s not unethical, evil or what have you.

Then you have the next tier up. People who actively like the song. They’re fans, but at this point they’re only fans of this song. They may go on iTunes or a physical store looking to buy that track. But this results in more “value” than simply the money you make off the sale of the song. Because this customer will probably see links to other songs that the artist has produced, they’ll learn about the artist, browse through the other tracks on a physical CD etc. So in that way :

Value gained = (profit from sale of track) + (advertising/exposure)

This person may also tell their friends about the track, leading to further advertising via the word-of-mouth effect.

The next tier is proper fans. They don’t just buy one track because they heard it one time and liked it. They’ve started following that artist actively. They want to know what that artist is going to produce next. They track the artist’s upcoming releases, and recommend the artist, not just the song, to their friends. The word-of-mouth effect is stronger, and you don’t have to spend as much advertising money/effort to reach these fans to tell them about new products. They’re doing the work for you. And they’ll probably come to your concerts, and help advertise them in the same way.

The next tier is only a small step further than the previous tier. These are fans, but they’re fans who’re also willing to go beyond the music/live shows and buy extra merchandise. They buy band t-shirts and memorabilia. They place particular value on personalized gear, stuff signed by the band in person, or a drumstick thrown into the audience by the drummer of the band. Things that authentically connect them to the band. Personal interaction is treasured.

The final tier is the die-hard fan. These people they identify with your brand on a very fundamental level. It’s part of their personal identity in some way, and they value it to an even larger degree than the previous tier. These are not just fans of Elvis, these are Elvis impersonators. These are the people who will travel across country to see their favourite bands. Who know all the trivia, who buy the books about the formation of the band and its history. They want to do anything they can to get closer to the band and the music. This may or may not veer slightly into crazy groupie territory, but hey. ๐Ÿ˜‰

So returning to games, the lesson here is that it’s a good idea to treat consumers as having differing levels of investment and enthusiasm, and to create a set of tiered products to try to monetize each tier. Back to the problem of game piracy, the free-loaders are that bottom-most tier. They’re the people who’ll listen, but not pay. At least, not immediately. Now how do you monetize them?

It’s a question I can’t say I have an answer for, exactly. One of the ways is to include mechanisms for spreading word-of-mouth, things like posting to facebook and twitter. I’m not a huge fan of games which do that by default, it’s a bit spammy, but perhaps if you show a once-off screen asking players to share on facebook if they like the game, the pirates may feel like it’s a harmless way to pay you back. Or perhaps if you tie it to bragging, record some feat they pull off in-game and offer them the chance to post it online…these are ideas I’ve been mulling over. How to turn free-loaders into free advertising.

(Before anyone suggests “put in adverts!” you generally have to have high player numbers for advertisers to sign on, and it doesn’t have a great return from what I’ve read unless you get really high numbers. Not to mention that actual adverts in a game are pretty icky, and easily hacked out.)

Returning to the music in the park metaphor, in terms of tempting them to buy tickets to the show, the obvious answer is making the gated-off area more desirable in a significant way. You can see that the games industry has cottoned onto that concept, at least, with special DLC and access passes. But I’m not sure they’re doing it right, as often their efforts seem to move in the direction of removing content that feels like it belongs in the base product instead of offering more value to premium customers. A better example is in things like pre-order campaigns and Kickstarter, where “getting in on it early” will give you early access to game builds or member-only forums for direct contact with the devs so you can influence how the game turns out. That feels much more like a legitimate “VIP benefit”.

I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts about this in the comments. Perhaps you’ve got an idea, perhaps you’ve seen a great example of using free-riders to the dev’s advantage. Thinking about how to work this for an RPG, my favourite genre, is especially tricky, I find.

Comparing Kickstarter and D20

12 Jun
June 12, 2012

I’ve already talked about how I think that Kickstarter won’t be all rainbows and kittens, in the long run.

And before anyone posts an angry comment, to repeat – I’m not saying that Kickstarter isn’t a good thing, overall. Not at all. More options, more avenues for creative people to bring their ideas to market is always better. But I think it’s naive to paint the industry, any industry, in broad simplistic strokes, with the Black Hat Villains on one side and the White Hat Heroes on the other.

We all know that publishers are full of shit, a lot of the time. But I’m wary of that narrative that gamers love, the one that paints publishers as the source of all the game industries failings. And how everything would be better if the publishers would just hand over the money and then get out of the way of the auteur developers as they create their magnum opuses. It’s…too convenient, too simplistic a narrative.

And no, reporting directly to the fans isn’t the same thing. Gamers aren’t the same as hard-nosed businessmen with an eye on the bottom line. It’s naive to think that gamers following the process via videos and forum posts is the same thing as real managerial oversight. There’s no contractual agreement between Kickstarter patrons and devs about meeting milestones. It’d be trivial to hide the fact that the project has become a trainwreck, right up till the end.

My intention here is not to get too negative about this, as I said, I think Kickstarter is a good thing, overall, for everyone. But I was reading r/luddology and I found this comparison between Kickstarter and the D20 open license. Rather interesting, and I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Have a read.

Paper Sorcerer

11 Jun
June 11, 2012

Kickstarter is the big thing right now, so I don’t think it’s worth blogging about every new project that comes up, other sites more than have it covered.

But this project looks interesting, I dig the art style and concept, and it’s perhaps small enough to get overlooked by the big media sites.

Paper Sorcerer

How to Market your Indie Game

10 Jun
June 10, 2012

It’s video time again! In this one, I go into the mystical art of “Marketing your Game”.

Excitement guaranteed, or your money back!

To go along with the video, here are some examples of what I was talking about, images that I think do a good job of immediately capturing the essence of “the fantasy” on offer. Not an exhaustive list, of course, and I’m not saying that this image translates into quality gameplay.

Sometimes, it’s pretty low-hanging fruit. You slap “Batman” or “Mafia” on a box, you immediately understand the fantasy. As I said, some things are shortcuts. Established brands are one. Genres are another. Even companies or individual names can serve that purpose. Bethesda Softworks, Bioware, Will Wright, Sid Meier. Invoke these names and you generate an expectation of a certain type of experience.

Hell, you can apply this principle to more than just individual games. Consider Origin Systems. Their motto was “We Create Worlds”. Evocative, no? The fantasy they were offering was written into their companies guiding principle.

And finally, let me end with an example of how NOT to do it. This one is a complete failure.

The only thing that saves it from being incomprehensible is the fact that the box art clings so tightly to well-worn genre imagery. ‘Cause you sure can’t figure it out from the name “Two Worlds Two”.