Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Time to be boring

Recently Tobold made a post about how players claim to want innovation in video games and clamor for it and yet they flock to buy every yearly remake of Madden instead of looking for interesting new games.  He is entirely right that the cost of making modern games has gotten so high that there is a massive barrier to innovation - you can't get the kind of funding you need to make a new game unless you can be pretty damn sure a huge number of people will like it.  It is true that people will often complain that this game or the other is a copy of some previous game but I would dispute that producing all kinds of radically new games is actually helping anything.  In most cases even if a game designer creates something that is entirely new to *them* they will still have a final product that has been done before someplace.  It is possible to do things that are truly visionary and make games the like of which have never been seen before but it is very challenging to do so because the number of games that have been already produced is so incredibly high.  Even if I was trying to build a totally new game it is extremely likely that I would end up with a final product that is the same game as was made somewhere years before but with better graphics and that is exactly what Madden 2011 is doing.

I also don't particularly want innovation from everyone.  I loved Heroes of Might and Magic 3 and when I heard that HoMM 6 was in the pipeline I really just hoped for HoMM 3 with more stuff and better graphics.  I know for a certainty that if the same folks who made HoMM 3 made a random game I stand almost no chance of liking it as much as HoMM 3, so why would I want them to experiment and fail?  I just want more of what I already know is awesome!  One important point to keep in mind is that there are an immense number of great games out there that I have never tried, and even if you restrict that space to the number of games my friends have enthusiastically recommended I still could never find the time to play them all.  Making up a brand new game has little value to me because I know there is no end of wonderful games out there; what I really need is a brand new game that has exactly what I know I want but which is newer and prettier.

I don't think this logic holds true for other formats though.  Video games can really be remade with a nearly identical formula but newer graphics and content but board games, card games and other sorts of games often cannot be done this way.  Sometimes adding on an expansion or two can keep a game spicy but more often than not you just need to do something completely different to get people buying again.  It may seem like just doing a job for the money instead of being wonderful and creative but making the next edition of a popular video game is both the best way to make money and to make people happy.  Give em what they want, I say.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

More on Gamifying Society

I found an interesting commentary on the recent trend towards Gamifying society.  This trend, championed by Jane McGonigal, among others, is dedicated to adding elements of good gameplay to other parts of our lives.  I talked a little about McGonigal's book earlier; in particular how I think a lot of her ideas are neat to talk about but I am highly suspicious of the conclusions she draws.  This slideshow that I linked talks a lot more about that and goes into more depth than I did but I think brings up a lot of similar points.

A couple of the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving utopia through Gamifying our world are the facts that an awful lot of what we do is exceedingly difficult to Gamify properly and even when something is Gamified well it almost always ends up being just a 'get more points' system which just doesn't hold our interest in the long run.  Tobold made a good post about the latter point recently - he points out that eventually everybody gets bored with bigger numbers and moves on to other things.  Even getting to that point can be a huge struggle or impossible though, which is easily demonstrated by looking at commission structures in sales jobs.

Back when I was in sales I saw all kinds of ways to construct commission structures, all intending to direct the salespeople towards making the company more money and being only vaguely successful.  This is a great place to start because it is precisely what Gamifiers are hoping to do to everything; attach numbers, goals and rewards to good behaviour to motivate it.  Companies pay salespeople bonus money to sell particular products so those products get sold more but often they get sold at the expense of other products.  Companies pay specific bonuses to sell items for specific amounts and they end up losing sales or losing money because the salespeople stick precisely to those targetted amounts instead of negotiating freely.  Every time a new commission structure was introduced where I worked it came along with company assurances of better pay and massive upheaval and dissatisfaction on the part of the sales force.  I watched companies introduce new "big bonus for selling Wingnuts" changes and then reeling in abject horror as the sales force responded with "given that, we will never sell Bolts again".  These changes were introduced in an attempt to improve revenues by experts in the field with years of experience and yet their implementation was regularly disastrous.

Even when management didn't screw up the system there were still constant problems.  Salespeople were paid only by sales, not by satisfaction, so often the people making the biggest money and getting all the awards were those who had neverending streams of complaints and problems... because those didn't show up on their pay stub.  This also created all kinds of morale problems among those who actually did a good job and ended up dealing with all the crap created by those who were getting paid well.  Designing a system that actually rewards the full suite of skills and behaviour you want would be so unbelievably complex and time consuming that even if we could get really simple stuff like "You sold X, you get paid Y" down it would be daunting but we can't even do that first step right.

There are lots of things we can do to improve productivity and job satisfaction that are taken from understanding games and how people enjoy themselves but we should be realistic about how much real benefit can be garnered from putting a +1000 points! on somebody's screen while they are doing their job.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Making the monies

I would like for a moment for you to imagine an alternate universe.  In this universe malls have booths at the entrances where you must pay $30 to get into the mall.  Once there you are free to shop of course, but you must pay for everything in cash as the mall does not take credit cards.  Does this universe appeal?  If malls from this universe were planted beside real world malls which would consumers flock to?  The answer is obvious:  Everyone goes to the malls that are free to enter and they buy things with credit cards... and pay very handsomely for the privilege in fees and interest.

Compare this to the various payment models for MMOs and you see some interesting things.  I liken the classic subscription model used by most MMOs up to a scant few years ago and still used by the behemoth WOW to my fantasy malls.  You pay a bunch up front but then you don't get nickel and dimed at each transaction.  The way real world malls work is a lot more like a free to play type financial model - you can wander in for free and they make money from the convenience demanded by customers.  In a F2P mall you see all of the goods marked up by 4% on the expectation of you using a credit card and of course you use that credit card because it is easy and convenient and you get points!  Mmmm, shiny points.

Looking at it like this it is as plain as day that the F2P model is the stronger of the two.  People are willing to shell out enormous sums on a whim for things as long as you make it easy to do so and let them pay only when they are getting something.  As any good negotiator will tell you asking them to pay up front is economic suicide; always get them to make the first offer.  When you tell them they can have it for $30 you lose people who might have bought at $25 and you fail to claim the $100 the next guy was willing to spend.  Companies who have swapped to the F2P model have universally reported drastically higher incomes and greater player numbers than would be expected from their previous performance.  Although they have not all become giants there is a clear trend that any game that is otherwise doing well suddenly gets a lot more profitable and gets more bodies through the door when it goes F2P.

You have to do F2P right for that to work, of course.  If you just sell the most potent and powerful items in the game for cash then you end up losing a huge chunk of your playerbase as there is no shortage of people who hate their accomplishments being dwarfed by newcomers with deep pockets.  Selling convenience is the ticket.  Faster advancement, better return on time, ease of use, these things people are quite willing to tolerate in others because they are invisible and never allow the new guy to suddenly be the best guy.  It is fine to sell some sparkle and shine that looks unique as long as the guy playing the longest and best is the most *powerful*.

You will notice that VISA and Mastercard weren't filing for government protection when the economy went splat.  They quietly sit there taking their 3% of everything, losing some money over people going bankrupt of course, but not nearly enough to break them.  They don't sell goods, but rather just convenience.  They let people make foolish decisions and get away with it and take a cut every time - what more robust business model could there be?  As long as people want things and don't want to wait their product will always be in demand.  F2P is the same thing; let them in the door and then charge them for convenience.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On being edgy in games

I just read a review of Duke Nukem Forever that pretty much demolished the game, criticizing virtually every aspect of it.  One of the biggest complaints was the 'humour' (though the author called it 'humor' since it was written for the crazy Yanks who don't know how to spell things properly...) and how the game was focused around denigrating women and gays in particular.  The reviewer was really put off my the gratuitous sexual content and juvenile humour including the main character picking up feces from toilets to earn achievements.

So here are the facts, folks.  Kids love bathroom humour.  They think it is the height of comedy to deal with poop in any form and can be perfectly content just shouting words for body parts or fluids ad nauseum.  Blizzard has had an excess of quests in WOW that involve searching through poop for various things as if this is original and hilarious - which it *is* to the 6 year olds, and *is not* to the adults.  Another fact is that adults like sexual content.  Porn makes up half the bloody internet for a reason - people want to look at other naked people having sex.  Including that in a game can keep some people interested even if the gameplay is otherwise quite terrible, which is abundantly illustrated by the wealth of sex themed games on the internet that are less compelling that Xs and Os.  People can't agree on which sort of questionable content is good and which is not though, which is where the problems come in.  Fact is that although kids love bathroom humour and there are tons of people out there who love their porn there are also great hordes who hate bathroom humour and have no interest in their games being filled with naked bodies.

Say you make a game and it is bad.  You hope to gain a greater number of purchases by throwing in edgy content like cursing, sex, bathroom humour, etc.  The question is, are you even helping yourself?  I suspect that there is virtually no correlation between adding in edgy content and the success of the product at all - rather that it is mostly a sign that the product would be too obviously garbage when the viewer is not distracted.  Harry Potter isn't exactly filled with questionable content and yet it is hilariously successful, Plants vs. Zombies is full of cute but decidedly lacking in poop and Farmville lets you run a farm without the realistic problem of disposing of all the animal crap.  The best you can hope for in adding in all this stuff is to fill the game up with things to do and look at that aren't fun but are shocking and hope that somehow people don't notice... but unfortunately that doesn't work.

I have no objection whatsoever to porn or feces.  I think that people should be bloody comfortable with nudity and that neither sex nor bodily functions need any kind of repugnance associated with them.  However, that doesn't mean that throwing those things around randomly accomplishes anything useful!  There are plenty of places where sex, nudity and bodily functions can fit in very naturally, like in the Game of Thrones HBO series for example, but trying to add in more just to get attention is a failing strategy.  Even in the case of WOW I think the poop quests were a failure as they were so clearly slathered on top in an attempt to get the kids to giggle rather than being used where they were clearly needed.  If you look at the original Duke Nukem 3D you can find light nudity and bathroom humour too but there it is very much secondary to the action and only appears as a backdrop to the real game.

Edgy content, whether that be swearing, bathroom humour or sex is only going to make things better when it is worked in where it fits easily, and is just a blight when it is shoveled on as if it were a goal all its own.  The game will sell on its gameplay, not on its boobs and poop.  Misogyny and gay bashing, on the other hand, are downright wrong and the fact that they were included in a mainstream game is both disgusting and a sign that those in charge are utterly lost.

Edit:  I meant to type "without" instead of "with" about Farmville.  There is no poop management there.  Sigh.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dragons and Angels

How much does it matter that we try to destroy each other with Dragons rather than Unit #8?  I was pondering this recently as I am at Hobo's house and he is convinced of the necessity of having lore and flavour match the effects of cards.  For example, in my game FMB I have a card called Tunnel.

Spell - Tunnel

Choose a friendly unit.  Move that unit onto any unoccupied Mine you control.

To me this seems entirely fine, finished even.  However, he pointed out that you are allowed by this card to move stunned units that cannot otherwise move.  Given that it isn't much of a Tunnel but more of a 'teleporter to a mine'. It makes me think a lot about how much this sort of thing matters to various groups.  Clearly if you get a group of veteran players who are focused on competitive play they will use any tactic, any card and any strategy to win regardless of the flavour or lack thereof.  I am sure that new players and especially casual players will be attracted to a game in large part based on how well the flavour matches and how cool the things are.  Having unit #8 kill unit #6 is fine and all but when your Dragon gets to breath fire in a line and roast a bunch of Goblins it is much more fun.

So how much of a game's eventual success is based on these things?  Chess is obviously immensely successful and yet it has absolutely zero flavour surrounding its name choices aside from the 'pawns are crap' theme, which isn't really anything at all.  Magic: The Gathering clearly has a huge component of flavour as people love to make theme decks, become enamoured of particular colours and love using cards with fantastic artwork or text regardless of their actual functionality.  Of course there is the trouble that any specific example of flavour is going to be contentious and there are no right answers.  I thought Tunnel was a great name and nobody else has disagreed until Hobo.  I could call it Rapid Reinforcement, say, or find something else but I had a fondness for Tunnel (You are tunneling to a mine, see?  See?) and since a vague, inexplicable fondness is exactly what I am going for I find it hard to change.

I suspect this matters a lot in playtesting and the most at launch if you are making a game.  You need to have people experience that initial excitement, that first glimmering of interest before they really understand the mechanics at all.  You also need casual players to be a base of people so the hardcore players, who care more about balance and mechanics, have people to play with and to introduce them to the game. While I think the flavour in FMB right now is fine I guess I need to turn it up a notch and really make some crazy, interesting mechanics with rock throwing cyclopses, tough giant bears and murderous devils.  I am not changing Tunnel to something else though.  Screw you Hobo.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The possibility of losing

Tobold just made a good post about how video games are strongly tending towards making sure everybody wins.  Back in his day (which is also my day, pretty much) video games came from arcade games and they were actually hard.  How many people played Super Mario Bros and never actually rescued the princess?  A lot!  There were lots of pretty decent game players that I knew that were very familiar with the game but just couldn't beat it as the last few levels were actually quite challenging.  These days though games are much more strongly designed to allow anybody with a pulse to beat the game, though often they need to do so on the easy difficulty setting.

WOW sure followed this trend with its newbie game.  I remember levelling my hunter years ago and I had to be pretty clever to get a lot of things done.  If I wanted to beat a 3 pull I had to set up a trap ahead of time, shoot the mobs, get aggro on two of them, feign death when they got to me, keep one of them trapped permanently and burn them out before both me and my pet died.  It required skill and knowledge of my abilities to fight 3 guys at once and I felt good for being able to do so smoothly.  Contrast that with my most recent experience levelling a new hunter - I attacked 4 guys simultaneously when one of them was an elite and just shot them until they died.  I finished the fight with both myself and my pet at 85% health without even bothering to use all the relevant abilities on my bar.  Losing a fight and dying these days pretty much requires you to deliberately set out to do so or simply leave your keyboard for extended periods and I really felt no rush of triumph when levelling up - it was just a matter of hitting buttons a lot until I was max level.

I only ever beat Super Mario Bros once.  I remember that pulse pounding moment after so many failures

Who's your Daddy Bowser?  Who's your Daddddddyyy! 


That feeling of triumph over a foe that had eluded me for so long was tremendous.  Flow and fiero come from overcoming obstacles that are just at the edge of our capabilities, challenges that force us to be the absolute best we can be.  WOW has that challenge in the endgame of course; no one can deny that the hardest things in the game push anyone in the world to their limits.  What the levelling game of WOW, Farmville, and many other modern games lack is that rush that comes from a knife edge victory over a nearly unbeatable opponent.  People like to win but what they like more than winning is knowing that their win was hard fought and challenging to repeat.