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Death of a Salesman

19 Feb
February 19, 2015

Well, the big controversy this week in game development was that RPS interview with Peter Molyneux.

RPS: Do you think that you’re a pathological liar?

Yowch. That’s probably the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown by gaming’s enthusiast press. Predictably, reactions were sharply divided.

Some folks said good, it’s about time Molyneux got the screws put to him, what with his history of grandiose claims and unfulfilled promises.

“There was always this sort of joke between everyone—’the bullshit in the press again,'” said Sean Cooper, one of the first employees at Molyneux’s first game company, Bullfrog. “But it wasn’t really bullshit—it was more stretching the truth.”

“I’ve never really understood if Peter is a genius visionary who intends to make his claims come true, is a compulsive liar, just fantastically eager to please or perhaps even a crazy megalomaniac who believes his own hyperbole,” said ex-Bullfrog employee Mike Diskett. “I suspect it’s a little of all of the above.”

And, of course, the cycle of hype and self-flagellation has long since stopped looking like anything other than theater. There’s only so many times you can let a grown man with decades of experience off with an indulgent “oh, that scamp, he just let his enthusiasm get away with him again.”

Others, gamers and devs alike, recoiled, horrified. Molyneux makes wild claims, sure, to the extent that there’s even a famous satirical twitter account dedicated to spoofing his characteristic bombast. But the man’s a game developer, not a war criminal, and one responsible for some of the most beloved titles in all gaming. Did he really deserve that?

Now, personally I’m not sure how much of the magic of those titles was Peter and how much was the team behind him, but it’s a fair point. That interview came across as, well, vicious.

For an industry used to questions like “on a scale of 8-10, how awesome would you say your next generic warshooter is going to be?” questions like “are you a a pathological liar?” are far beyond the pale. Many who have muttered about Molyneux being a con in the past recoiled in disgust at his treatment. Developers, in particular, closed ranks, widely declaring their desire to have nothing more to do with RPS, or how this kind of thing would doom any hope of an open development process.

It wasn’t the kind of article that wins you friends, no.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe someone at RPS felt that the press has been a little too indulgent with some of its “friends” in the game industry, a little bit too willing to look the other way. That it had forgotten its role as consumer watchdog.

It comes back to Kickstarter, you see. Kickstarter is an amazing thing, potentially revolutionary, if it can survive as a busines model in the long term. But it also presents more than enough rope for developers to hang themselves with. For Molyneux, in particular, it may have proven a poison pill.

Over-promising and under-delivering is one thing when it’s publisher money, it’s another thing completely when you’re appealing to your customers directly to fund you. And when rumors start that you’re shrinking the team that has yet to deliver the game you promised to the fans who supported you in order to work on another title instead, well…that’s strike one.

Strike two is all-but admitting you were willing to flat-out lie to meet the Kickstarter target.

“There’s this overwhelming urge to over-promise because it’s such a harsh rule: if you’re one penny short of your target then you don’t get it. And of course in this instance, the behavior is incredibly destructive, which is ‘Christ, we’ve only got 10 days to go and we’ve got to make £100,000, for fuck’s sake, let’s just say anything.’ So I’m not sure I would do that again.”

Hastily assembled stretch goals always run the risk of being poorly thought-out, of course. But “just say anything” suggests a willingness to ignore ethical concerns, to not just overestimate your capabilities but to just plain ignore them entirely.

Perhaps it was simply a poor choice of words on Molyneux’s part. But given the man’s track record, and the dismal state that Godus is currently in, it doesn’t look good in retrospect. Strike two.

And strike three is the casual disregard for the winner of 22Cans’ Curiosity Cube, Bryan Henderson, after the Cube and its winner had served their purpose as a marketing gimmick to build hype for Molyneux’s new game’s Kickstarter campaign.

I don’t think I’d have opened with pathological liar. But I can understand being furious at this apparent betrayal, furious at this man everyone respects and his naked willingness to do anything for PR.

for fuck’s sake, let’s just say anything.

It’s remarkable, if you think about it, for a developer to say something like that, such a bald and damning statement, and still have most of the industry treat him indulgently, like an impish uncle. Instead of being raked over the coals. The real scandal here, according to the zeitgeist, is what John Walker said. Not Molyneux. Not the legendary designer who practically admitted that he was willing to promise the moon to his fans to get their money, and who is now skipping off to his new project, leaving an amateur from the community to take over lead designer duties (and presumably responsibility for future failures) on Godus.

Truly remarkable.

I called this piece “Death of a Salesman” because it’s catchy, because I think Molyneux is a consummate salesman, and because there’s been a lot of talk (by him and by others) of whether he’s “finished” in the industry or not.

But honestly, I don’t believe he’s done. It’s not criticism or dislike that kills your PR story, it’s apathy. Disinterest. It doesn’t matter how much they hate Phil Fish, the hatred is itself a form of interest and will generate hits if he does anything the press can pick up on in the future.

And if Molyneux’s self-flagellating act had grown stale, well, no one is questioning the authenticity of his raking over the coals this time. If he comes back in a few years, somber and repentant, saying he’s learned his lesson and hopes to redeem himself with this new game he’s working on, well…who doesn’t like a good redemption story?

Whatever the truth is, amoungst all the controversy, one fact remains – Molyneux’s legacy will live on in his inheritors.

“Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.” – Mike Pondsmith

30 Sep
September 30, 2014

Mind The Straw, Sam

16 Sep
September 16, 2014

straw-bale-on-field

(Let me just apologize up front to the folk who visit this blog for the sporadic updates about game development. You’ll probably find this bewildering and/or irrelevant. Feel free to skip it, by all means. But I had a long-form thought I wanted to get down, twitter isn’t the best medium, and it seemed a bit much to hurl out randomly amoungst my friends and family on Facebook. So I thought to myself “you know, you do have a blog…”)

A couple of people in the skeptical community have been sharing this piece by well-known atheist writer Sam Harris, posted in response to…well, you should read the piece for the proper context, in his own words. I’m just going to critique it. He says some unfortunate things, in my opinion, and then falls prey to a common pitfall when discussing gender. It bugged me to the point where I felt like I needed to get down my thoughts.

(Let me say up front that I mostly like Harris and find him to be fairly clear-headed. Mostly.)

The first problem is that Sam reaches for an easy straw man counterargument in response to the charge of sexism. In fairness, misunderstandings arise, and these kinds of off-the-cuff remarks can be more poorly phrased than something carefully mulled over and written down. But still.

Here is where it starts. Harris relays their conversation to us.

She: Okay, let’s forget what you said about Sarah Palin. What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.

Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.

She: I’m not saying that women and men are the same.

Me: Okay, great. So I think you misunderstood the intent of what I was saying. I was just acknowledging that some differences in the general tendencies of men and women might explain why 84 percent of my followers on Twitter are men. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into this, because there are 200 people standing behind you in line patiently waiting to have their books signed.

She: You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize.

Me: You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.

If it’s not obvious, here, let me summarize the gist of the exchange :

Her: What you said is sexist.

Sam: Are you saying you think there aren’t any differences between men and women? If you think that, this conversation is over before it started!

You see it?

Sam’s response is an attack on a position that the other person didn’t state, a straw man argument. It is not the case that saying a particular generalization is harmful or biased means that you think the 2 genders are completely identical. It’s a huge reach to infer that from that comment, but it IS a great deal easier to knock down, as arguments go.

Sam then continues to build his pile of straw later, on his blog. Inviting us, his readers, to join him in laughing at the idea of someone denying that sex differences play even a small role in skewed gender representation in the management of powerful companies.

However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.

I’ve read the piece multiple times now, and I’m quite at a loss as to when either of the women claimed to hold that position. Again, it’s a straw man that Sam sets up, just to knock down. It’s very easy to seem intellectually superior when you make a show of knocking down exaggerated claims you’ve pinned on your opponent.

Anyway, Harris spends a lot of time talking about how he knows and respects women etc, and even points out that he recognizes the danger of skirting the “some of my best friends are black” style defense against accusations of sexism.

But simply pointing out that you’re aware of the pit looming in front of you isn’t enough. You have to actually change course to avoid it.

Personally, I would have hoped that if Sam had so much respect for and interaction with women, he might have picked up by now how many of them find comments about their “nurturing” natures to be patronizing as all hell, especially when reached for glibly as an explanation of why they are underrepresented in various fields or careers.

You see, and this really gets to the heart of what Harris missed here, these kinds of benevolent-seeming comments are often used to justify the differences created by deeply-entrenched structural sexism. You’ll hear things like women are too delicate for sports, too sensitive to go to war, they don’t like to get dirty, they’re more naturally inclined to soft skills like caring for children, they’re more supportive and less competitive than men, and so on and so forth.

These words, plotted out visually, would form a mental map around the core stereotypes of motherhood and femininity, the idealized archetype of woman (in the eyes of a lot of men). And these ideas have frequently been used to oppress women throughout history.

These kinds of things are examples of benevolent sexism, sexist concepts that, on surface examination, sound positive. Women are more caring, women are nicer, women aren’t as dirty. Isn’t that a nice thing to say about someone? How could anyone protest being called “the fairer sex”?!?!

But they straightjacket women and the ways they can express themselves in the world. They send signals to women about how they’re expected to behave and which careers they are expected to go into, and they have been used, over and over and over, to justify the inequality caused by deep-seated misogyny. No, we hear, it’s not sexism that keeps women out of certain careers, certain spaces, it’s because they’re just not inclined toward those kinds of things in the first place! It’s not that we’re keeping women out, it’s that they don’t even want to come in!

Which brings us back to Harris’s contentious comment.

There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

Well, obviously, if women don’t want to participate, the likely explanation is because they’re just not inclined to this kind of thing, this man-thing. This rough-and-tumble back-and-forth intellectual pugilism. Women are more gentle, you see. Softer. Nurturing.

Harris doesn’t want to acknowledge the (likely unintentional) sexism in this comment, but he doesn’t have real evidence that critical thought is more “intrinsically male”, more a part of our natures. And it’s unfortunate that Harris can’t see his quick, off-the-cuff reaching for that particular explanation first as part of a larger, problematic pattern experienced regularly by women in society.

And it’s doubly unfortunate that many of the prominent males in the community are, as we speak, closing ranks and working to discredit the sources and communities where the strongest feminist critique is coming from. It would be nice if they’d try to listen and understand instead of getting defensive. If I hadn’t already unfollowed Dawkins a long time ago, I would have had to, now. People you look up to, intellectually, making cringe-worthy comments is a fairly painful experience.

The ending paragraph slips from what could still be considered to be an honest mistake to an unfortunate bit of vindictiveness. I understand that he’s taking heavy flak and the urge to punch back is probably strong. Hell, I’m an argumentative guy, I get the urge to strike back.

Pretending to want to keep the harmony while taking the opportunity to throw some less-than-subtle kicks at whoever it was he was debating with is a shit move. It’s like firing a few tank shells across the border at a neighboring nation and waiting for a counter-attack, all while loudly proclaiming that you’re trying to keep the peace. That is not what the moral high ground looks like.

Start a fight or don’t, whatever, but just own it, Sam. And clear up all this the bloody straw.

Discarding Discard Mechanics

11 Sep
September 11, 2014

Please excuse the silence of late.

I took a brief, 2 week hiatus from game development while I was up in Joburg for my day job. With the commute and change of daily schedule, it was just too exhausting to really get much work done up there. But I’m back now, and I’m head-down focused on the final push toward release. Besides waiting on some final game art, I’m playtesting the heck out of the campaign and the various deck builds. Hours and hours a day, playtesting duels.

It’s late in the day to be making anything other than minor changes, I know, but what can I say, I’m going with my gut here and changing stuff if it doesn’t feel quite right. Seeing if I can make it better. And so far, so good!

The first major change, that I’ll talk about in this post, is that I’ve mostly done away with the discard and resource destruction cards. And, by “done away with”, I mean “re-purposed the cards to use different mechanics”.

The reason is simple. I read a post a while back from one of the designers of Hearthstone, where he’d said that they’d purposefully chosen not to include discard and resource destruction effects, because they aren’t fun to play against. A good card duel is a back-and-forth, and that’s a lot of the fun. But a well-constructed discard or resource destruction deck centers around denying an opponent any moves, or significantly limiting their moves. Of limiting their ability to actually play, essentially.

And the point resonated with me, in the way things that you subconsciously know to be true do, when you hear them put into words. Sitting there with an empty hand isn’t really a fun experience, and it’s not the most fun way to win, either. Sure, you can revel in your success, but it’s kinda like chucking a weighted net over your opponent and then stabbing them through the net while they’re tangled up. It’s not really much of a combat.

To make it worse, those effects are REALLY hard to balance, I found. The problem is that there is more of a sliding scale of victory/loss with other cards. Your Agent might be slightly weaker than the opposing Agent, but you still get off a shot or two before going down, leaving the enemy weakened.

Discard and resource destruction mechanics straddle a razor’s edge, balance wise. Because they either deny your opponent the ability to play a card or not, they’re very binary. If you can play them early enough, you completely strangle your opponent. Play them too late, and you can’t apply the lock-down you need to control the game. They’re also essentially hard counters to ANY strategy, if done right. Because the easiest card to defeat is one that’s never played.

So it’s an incredibly difficult thing, to balance them properly.

Anyway, I tried it out on a test branch, removing the handful of cards that applied discard or resource destruction effects to your opponent, repurposing them with other mechanics. And so far, I like it. Not only does it remove a problematic mechanic, it gives me a few more cards to flesh out other strategies with.

But I didn’t completely remove discard. Like in Hearthstone, some cards have an extra cost to play them, forcing you to discard a card at random from your hand, or lose some other resource. That, I’m ok with. Because that’s not about strangling your opponent’s ability to perform actions during their turn, that’s just adding a kind of gambling mechanic to your deck building, where you play a card and hope it doesn’t cost you too much to do so. High risk for potentially high reward.

I’ve mostly added the effect to the Yakuza cards, where it makes sense with the theme. It’s always dangerous to have dealings with the Yakuza, after all.

Yakuza Soldier, for example, has better than average stats for his cost, but he comes at a price.

YakSoldier

I’ll discuss the rest of the repurposed cards in later blog posts. For now, have fun guessing what they’ve become! 😉 And they’re not the only cards that have been rebalanced and rejigged. I’m constantly tweaking. So I think my beta testers will have fun with the next round of testing, seeing what’s changed, trying out new strategies!

Stay tuned!

The Word’s The Thing

26 Aug
August 26, 2014

Over 22,000.

That’s how many words System Crash’s storyline clocks in at, between narrative and dialogue. Enough to count as a novella.

Which is a bit nuts. I love a good story in a game, and I have the ambition to write both story-driven games and novels in the future. But man, it was tough going. Especially since, after almost 3 years working on System Crash, I’m more than a little burned out. Taking on the challenge of building a commercial quality video game is hard enough, adding the challenge of that volume of writing on top of it was more than a little crazy.

I am nothing if not a victim of my own ambitions. 😛

Now, I’ve written some snippets here and there in the past that people seemed to like, enough to believe that I’m not totally inept on the writing front. But writing a scene or two, or a single conversation, is nothing like the task of crafting a complete, interesting long-form story structure.

Especially given the limitations a game imposes on said structure. Too wordy, and the gameplay gets bogged down, or the players skip it. Too long a sequence without the player getting to actually play, and the best writing doesn’t matter.

The storyline also has to constantly create context for the gameplay loop, which constrains where your story can go. I have had to wrack my brain for every which way to justify and describe breaking into an office complex to steal some computer files, and how to fit the primary narrative beats into that kind of context.

I have way more sympathy for how games often devolve into violence or fetching mcguffins, now. Those are concepts that are easy to model mechanically, and which are fairly simple to fashion a solid narrative arc around.

There’s also the problem of what gameplay “verbs” are available to the player. Which parts of the story does the player directly participate in, and which parts, if any, do they merely have conveyed to them passively. Some people turn their noses up at the very notion of non-interactive story elements in games, but man, it’s hard to build a story without at least some of that, even if just to provide a starting point to springboard off of.

Anyway, it’s written now. I don’t know if I nailed it, honestly. But I tried my best, had some fun, and learned a lot in the process. Knowledge that I can apply to future games.

We’ll just have to see what you guys think of it. Onward and upward, to release! 🙂

On Anxiety And Measuring Success

03 Jul
July 3, 2014

Anxiety is paralyzing.

Or, at least, it is for me. I can only talk about my own experiences here. Other people might thrive under stress, I don’t know.

Tell me if you’ve ever experienced this. A giant deadline looms. Every time you think about it, your stomach clenches slightly. But, instead of doing the rational thing, instead of buckling down and focusing on making the best use of your time, you find yourself procrastinating. Flittering away your time on the most trivial distractions.

Which makes the anxiety even worse. Whenever you stop procrastinating, the anxiety rushes back, made all the more worse by the knowledge that you have even less time left, and compounded by the guilt you feel at having squandered time on procrastination.

Which, of course, makes the urge to go back to procrastinating, to distract yourself from your anxiety, even stronger. The proverbial vicious cycle. And even if you’re aware of it, it can be extremely hard to escape the cycle.

For myself, I’ve experienced this more and more frequently the closer I get to releasing System Crash. I’ve invested so much time, money and effort into the project that thinking about the outcome creates a churning mix of hope, fear and stress. And, unfortunately, I’m one of those people who hopes for the best but anticipates/plans for the worst. I would love for System Crash to do well, but mentally I’m braced for it to be a flop. Which is just realistic, very few people hit it out of the park on their first swing, and certainly I’ve made a range of mistakes that I cringe thinking about (though hopefully I’ll avoid them with the next project).

But that kind of “realistic pessimism” mindset means that, in my mind, the chance of failure far outweighs the probability of success. So the anxiety loop feeds on that. I think about the outcome, my mind imagines failure/disappointment, and I feel…well, I suspect it’s anxiety, but I’m not so consciously aware of that part. What I am aware of is a sort of draining away of my motivation and enthusiasm. I develop a creeping apathy toward my own project, and a strong desire to focus on something else.

So I’ll go off and paint, for example, even though I know it isn’t a priority, that I really should be getting my SC work done in my scant free time. But the painting is simple, relaxing and creative. And painting still feels like I’m achieving something, unlike goofing off playing video games for hours. The fact that it feels productive means that I don’t feel the guilt that I do when simply playing around, but it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, so there’s none of the anxiety either. My future, my self-identity, that isn’t caught up in whether I paint this fantasy monster well or not.

Another one is getting into pointless internet debates. I have strong opinions on things at the best of times. But I think that when I’m stressed, I give in to the temptation to argue far more. Again, I suspect it’s my mind distracting itself from one emotion with another. “But it’s important that this is said!” I think. But it isn’t important. The long-term work is what is important, my mind is just focusing on distractions to push away the stress, to alleviate the sense of looming identity-threat.

So that’s fairly sucky. I dunno, I hope I haven’t come off sounding neurotic here. I don’t want to exaggerate the problem. But it certainly is something I’ve noticed. Especially now, toward the end. The closer to the end I get, the stronger the resistance is. But what can you do about it?

Enough talking about the problem, what’s the solution?

Well, discipline helps. Being able to force yourself to soldier through, whatever you’re feeling. But I don’t find discipline alone does it. At least not for me, not long term. Maybe I’m just not disciplined enough, I don’t know. But it’s really hard to stand as stern taskmaster over your own mind when it’s that same mind experiencing the stress and wanting to escape it. I find that if you try to simply pit your will against your emotions, eventually your will crumbles. Willpower is a castle built on the rock of your emotions, your drive and desire. When the foundations start to crumble, the structure cannot stand for long.

So discipline alone hasn’t proven to be a great solution, for me. I can power through, but only for a while. A more permanent solution is required.

What else? Well, what’s really needed here is to address the source of the problem, that anxiety. The mind can’t carry that kind of burden for long, it will seek to put the burden down one way or the other. If you can’t find a more intelligent way to give your mind relief, the animal subconscious will do it for you, it will play its tricks with procrastination and so on.

So What I’ve found works best, for me, is to reframe the way you think about it. The anxiety comes from the sense of identity-threat and impending disappointment. From this line of thinking – “I’ve tried so hard, put in so much, what if it’s a failure?!? What if it’s a public failure?!?! Oh no!!! :(”

But what is it specifically? What is the “failure” I’m afraid of? Well, here, failure is the game being a financial flop. Not making enough money to cover its costs. Being disappointing, to me and others.

But surely that isn’t the only measure of success? Making money? I know it’s going to sound like hippy bullshit, but the only way I’ve found to truly relieve that anxiety long term, to achieve a measure of mental zen, is to redefine how I am choosing to measure success. Let the money be a nice, but not necessary condition for considering the project “successful.”

Instead, choose to measure success by :

– Whether you’re proud of what you’ve created. You’ll probably never be perfectly happy with anything you create, but you can be proud of it, nevertheless.

– The sense of pride and accomplishment you feel for actually having done it. You’ve done what you set out to do. You’ve taken the step most people can’t or won’t. You haven’t just talked the talk, you’ve walked the walk. You haven’t just dreamed about it, you’ve picked up your tools and turned it into a reality. That’s a powerful thing. Keep doing that and your life WILL change.

– What you’ve learned in the process. Education ain’t cheap, as a friend told me when I mentioned that I was stressed about the fact that I’d sunk so much of my savings into this project and I might see little in return. And that’s the plain truth. Education is expensive, but it’s the best investment you can make, investing in yourself .

– Whether the game finds an audience who enjoys it, no matter how small. Even if it’s just 3 people and one of them’s your mum. If it finds an audience who it resonates with, who enjoy playing it and are enthusiastic, you’ve built something that adds value to other people’s lives. That’s a great, rare thing. Treasure it.

– Fun. Plain old fun. Did you enjoy creating it? Do you still enjoy playing it? Look, it’s not going to be fun all the time. There will be long periods of hard or boring work. Lots of grinding. But in amoungst that, there should be plenty of moments where you felt that joy at creating something that excites you. Remember those moments, clutch them to your breast, let them feed your soul.

So that’s what works for me. Changing my own definition of what it means to be successful. When I do that, the anxiety melts away. I’m already successful. And I look forward to the future, I look forward to releasing System Crash and sharing what I’ve made with all of you. And then doing it again.

The doing must be an end in itself, not a means to an end. That’s the secret that I’ve found. The process is the reward. And when I keep that in mind, I can get back to creating from a place of joy and excitement. Instead of a cloud of fear.

Yoda had it right. Fear really is the path to the Dark Side.

On Indie Bubbles

26 May
May 26, 2014

So Jeff Vogel’s latest, rather pessimistic post, in which he predicts the collapse of the so-called “indie bubble”, is doing the rounds at the moment. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it here for context.

Now, it’s worth noting that what Jeff is talking about isn’t really a bubble, in the economic sense. An economic bubble is when the market valuation of goods is higher than it really should be, usually driven by speculators, people who buy up that good because they anticipate its market value increasing in the future and hope to sell for a profit. When the market realizes the good is over-valued, the speculators panic, they attempt to sell their stock of the good before the price they can get for it drops, which of course causes the price to plummet, losing most of them a good deal of money. The dot com and housing bubbles being prime examples.

Now, that’s not what’s happening here, clearly. But it’s not worth getting too pedantic about the exact terminology, as that would be failing to address the real spirit of Jeff’s argument.

For myself, I don’t know whether Jeff is entirely right, but he isn’t entirely wrong. I know from speaking to other devs that being on the front page of the New Releases category on Steam can mean many times the number of sales as being off it. And the flood of recent releases means that each new game is getting less and less time on that front page. Even worse, the default page that Steam loads has recently changed, it isn’t New Releases anymore, it’s “Top Sellers.”

Which really just results in a feedback loop, where being successful makes you more successful, and the boost to “discoverability” afforded by the front page for hopeful up-and-comers, weakens.

It’s certainly a real factor, but that, to me, doesn’t speak to a limited pool of gamer dollars being split amoungst an ever-growing pool of developers. To me that signals the fracturing of Steam’s ability to direct the attention of gamers, Eye of Sauron-like. Since it’s trying to direct your attention to more and more games, and the number of hours in a week hasn’t magically increased, it’s naturally able to give each new game a smaller slice of time. Less time = fewer sales.

eye-of-sauron_0

If Vogel were right, if it were about a limited pool of gamer money being divided up more and more, then you’d expect the top sellers to be feeling the pinch almost as much as anyone. After all, even for a Braid or a Transistor, if this were the core problem, the maths would be inescapable. Sharing the pie with 1000 other developers would be worse than sharing the pie with 10 other developers.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve seen nothing to say that the top sellers, even amoungst the so-called “AAA indies”, are having their profits eaten into by the growing flood of greenlit games. Now sure, I don’t actually have stats that they aren’t feeling a pinch, that data is guarded fairly closely, but I think I’d have heard some rumblings. If anything, there seem to be more of the “superstar” indies than there used to be, all doing fairly well. Which, if you think about it, is also a counter to the “limited gamer money being divided more” argument. Since each new AAA-indie released on the service would be gobbling up more of the supposedly-limited cash pie that the existing developers on Steam used to share than any 10 other minor-league indies.

So to me the issue is that we’re seeing the end of a time when, if you got in the door, you were almost guaranteed to be bathed in the attention of steam’s huge customer base for a week or so. Which is enough time to get you some really good sales figures, and potentially grow your customer base to the point where the word-of-mouth becomes self-sustaining. Being greenlit was kinda like winning a free, powerful advertising campaign, courtesy of Valve. Now it’s like winning a much smaller marketing campaign, courtesy of Valve.

So we’re getting back to the point where devs have to work much harder for marketing, perhaps harder than ever before. Which sucks a bit, I had my own dream of Steam fame and fortune, after all. But this is what many indies asked for. Many resented the fact that Steam could act as kingmakers, especially when steam access started to hurt their ability to sell directly to customers on their own sites (many have reported that some of their customers won’t buy games if they’re not on Steam).

Now, I’m not saying that competition isn’t a factor. It is. But competition doesn’t quite work out as simply as Jeff describes, when it comes to art. You see, art and entertainment products aren’t widgets. They’re not directly interchangeable.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, and you see the next Harry Potter book for sale for $20, you’re not likely to be strongly moved by the fact that there might be a sale for Tom Clancy novels, 3 for $10. Not unless you’re also a Clancy fan, in which case you may have a dilemma. If you’re a Metallica fan, I can’t move you with an offer of a Red Hot Chilli Peppers CD instead.

It’s not like saying this bar of soap is cheaper than that bar of soap, or this running shoe is cheaper than that running shoe. Games, and art/entertainment in general, are not very homogeneous.

A flood of casual match-3 games isn’t likely to be strong competition for the dollars of the hardcore RPG fan base, which is where Vogel operates. Vogel is much more likely to face competition from the recent wave of Kickstarted RPGs, or the Eschalon series, or possibly hard-core strategy sims.

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t competition, or that it isn’t growing. There is, and it is. But it’s not as simple a story as “publisher dumps a hundred casual game ports on Steam, competition increases 10 fold” or some such. If anything, I think many good niches are still under served, for indies, game backlogs from bundles not-withstanding. I know that, for myself, I buy far fewer RPG or strategy or simulation games per month than I could afford to. And an intriguing new gameplay mechanic or game world is still a draw. Half the kickstarter projects I’ve backed have been in the hope of reseeding some of my favourite genres which have dryed up in recent years. I, for one, am still very much an under served customer. Despite my 50-deep unplayed game backlog on Steam (I’ll get to that in a moment).

So building games for an untapped niche or coming up with an original design can still leave you relatively free of competition, even in a heavily-crowded marketplace. That’s one of the wonderful things about creativity in design, it can leave you with a sort of pseudo-monopoly, at least for a while. Your unique mechanic, style, storytelling, world or thematic flavour can be something that no one else can easily or quickly copy. It’s a lesson Minecraft should have burned indelibly into our minds.

One last point, on bundles and backlogs. Sure, I’ve picked up many a bundle myself, usually in the hope of finding a hidden gem. And many of them languish unplayed. But, in my mind, that’s more like spending money on discoverability than anything else. I used to plonk down similar levels of cash for game magazines each month, mostly for the demo cds. Sales and bundles are mostly filling the role of demo cds these days, for me, acting as a way of paying a small amount to try something you’re not willing to buy blind at a higher price. If I like it, I’ll look for sequels or DLC or other games by that developer to buy full price.

cd

You could that the comparison is wrong because they’re full games, not demos, and won’t lead to full sales later. But they still seem to fit into that role and ecosystem, to me. As a gamer I spend a negligible amount of money to sample a wide range of titles that I otherwise wouldn’t, and it doesn’t bother me a whole lot if some of those go unplayed. And, for the developers, a small amount of cash from a large number of bundle buyers willing to try your game at that low price is comparable to 1 in 100 trying your game demo and deciding to buy it full price. Maybe even better.

All those unplayed bundle games, just like the games I hadn’t played on demo cds, don’t seem to stop me eagerly buying titles I’m truly sold on, when they come out, at full price. They don’t seem to be directly competing. There seem to be two categories of games in my head.

Category A – games I’m really excited about, which I want to play as soon as I can. That category feels like it’s empty most of the time, I go months between satisfying that drive. When a game does enter that queue, I consume it as soon as possible, making time in my evenings for it, playing it until I’ve finished it, savouring the experience. Then, sadly, I go back to reading the news and watching trailers of upcoming titles , waiting the months and years for the next anticipated game to finally release. Months of waiting, a few weeks playing. Far more demand than there is supply.

Then there’s Category B. This is the category for casual browsing. This part seems to exist to find new games to add to Category A. It picks up games when they’re cheap to try and doesn’t feel much urgency to consume the games already in the queue. They’re there for “whenever”. Since so little has been invested, there’s no remorse if I play a title for only half an hour before deciding I don’t care to keep playing. In fact, many titles I forget I own, I’ve bought some Category B games repeatedly, forgetting that I’d picked this or that title up in a previous sale. Games in Category B will always be bumped aside for Category A releases. They don’t seem to strongly compete for my attention. Unless a game graduates from Category A to B.

That’s me. What about you guys? Do you find something similar? Or do you think my comparison way off?

Free to Play Revenue and Player Spending

09 Apr
April 9, 2014

Seen a bit of a buzz around this Gamasutra article about F2P Revenue on my feeds lately.

The gist of the article is that the revenue from F2P games comes from a very small fraction of players (~2.2%). And a small fraction(10%) of those who do pay, make up about half of all revenue made.

Which is interesting, if unsurprising. Now, much of the commentary involves some version of saying “look, see here, here’s evidence of how unhealthy and exploitative F2P is!”

Well…

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not the biggest fan of the F2P in the world. My views have softened a bit since I saw it implemented well (I thought), in Dungeons and Dragons Online, and further since I got my Android and started downloading apps, some of which do F2P reasonably, some of which don’t. But I still overall prefer the buy-once, unlock-everything experience.

And I won’t defend the games that are basically gambling, or aimed at exploiting children.

That being said, I’m not sure that those stats are really very much worse than the pay-once market. Everything I’ve read pegs piracy rates, indie or mainstream, at 95-99%. Which means that effectively, only a small core of the people playing your game are paying you, regardless of your monetization strategy.

So is F2P really that much worse (excluding the ones that are a thin layer of paint over a gambling engine) than pay-once?

Of course, we can talk about the other number, how certain paying players are the “whales”, the ones who contribute a disproportionate amount of the income. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though.

Take, for example, Kickstarter. Clearly, some people are jumping on Kickstarter projects at the top tiers, which amounts to investing more than any ten other backers. Sure, part of that is the urge to support, but some of it is surely that some people want more of the reward knick-knacks. The extras. The collector’s stuff.

Which is fine. In fact, I think it’s a great idea, offering extra value for people who are more into an artistic product or output. It’s like a band selling t-shirts, cds, signed posters, personal performances. It’s really, really hard to make a living creating art, so I really think artists should exploit these potentially untapped sources of income as much as possible. And I don’t mean exploit in the mustache-twirling villain way, I mean in the sense that “we need to power our cities, and oh look there’s all this wind blowing about, why not build some wind turbines to exploit that?”

So why do we feel that it’s not exploitative with Kickstarter, where people are investing before ever seeing a product, but it is exploitative in F2P, where at least people are playing the game and making a decision on how much to invest based on tangible experience?

It’s likely down to the fear that F2P games are using psychological tricks to extract that extra money. Which, no doubt, is a valid fear, one based on first-hand experience with some of the tricks F2P games often pull.

But I’d argue that, even without playing mind-games, you’re going to see exponential drop-off in engagement (and willingness to spend) with any product or fan-group. In other words, the really deeply obsessed fans will be a tiny fraction of the whole, but will spend a disproportionate (relative to their numbers) amount of money on their obsession. The number of people for whom Elvis’ sweaty used jumpsuit is a piece of collectable memorabilia worth months of salary to own are always going to be much fewer than the number of people who would plonk down cash for an Elvis CD.

It would be extremely unusual, I think, if mapping the number-of-fans to the degree-of-fandom-and-corresponding-willingness-to-spend on a graph didn’t result in an exponential curve.

So, really, to conclude, while I think the fear of F2P mechanical-exploitation is valid, the fact that only 1 in a hundred or so F2P players pay for the games doesn’t seem unusual overall, and the fact that the largest share of revenue comes from a minority isn’t, in itself, that concerning.

Framed

06 Feb
February 6, 2014

That is just an extremely cool idea for a game mechanic! Love it!

2014, let’s do this!

15 Jan
January 15, 2014

2014, I’m feeling you, baby. You and I, we’re gonna have a thing. We’re going to make some beautiful music. There’s gonna be fireworks! Explosions! Fireworks and explosions!

(Wait, fireworks ARE explosions)

Anyway, it’s gonna be spectacular, trust me on this!

And blog readers, you’re in for a treat too! Stick around for exciting posts of the highest quality! Also, me referring to the abstract concept of a period of time as “baby”!

A new year is like a new woman, see. You have to seduce them! Turn on the charm, show them a little romance! I am completely babbling right now!

(Alright Gareth, let’s turn the excitement down just a notch.)

But seriously you guys, I’ve had a rest, a bit of fun in the sun, and I’m rearing to get back into the swing of things. I’ve got big plans for this year. Big Plans.

First and foremost, there’s System Crash to finish and release. And I’d like to get an expansion out by the end of the year, too. Maybe even two!

I’d also like start preproduction (a fancy word for planning, really) on two new games. Another CCG using the engine I built for SC (but a new ruleset and theme), and an entirely new game!

I want to do some world-building on my own original game settings, for fun and for the practice. Maybe to be used in games in the future, maybe not. But I want to play around a bit, just create. I’ll be posting what I come up with on the blog, so that should be fun, I think.

And I want to lose some weight. I know, I know, it’s a cliche. Start the new year, resolve to lead a healthier lifestyle, exercise, blah blah. But I do! I’ve gained 10 kgs since I left Derivco, most of it in the last year(stress led to bad habits), and I’d like to send the flab back where it came from.

And I want to practice my art! Maybe write some short stories! And, and, and…

So yeah. There’s a lot I want to do this year. I don’t know if 2014 is big enough for all of it. But one thing’s for sure, it’s gonna be a fun ride! Stay tuned!