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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Post-it note design docs

I happen to fall into the artist-designer skill set, so I often find myself trying to prototype ideas on teams rich with programmers. As such, I'm always looking for better game development techniques that work well for this particular team mix.

Here is a very lightweight prototyping process using Post-it notes that I quite enjoy.

  1. Initial idea: I sit down with an available programmer (and artist/UI designer depending on the system) and we chat about how to test out a new bit of gameplay. Usually this is an idea that has been bubbling about since the night or week before.
  2. Post-it note design: I jot down a quick bulleted list summarizing our discussion on a single post-it note. We go over it one last time so there everything is clear. The list isn't very detailed. Mostly it serves as something to jog our memories if we forget what we were talking about.
  3. Build it: The programmer and artist go off and build the items on the list. It might take 2 hours or two days. They are encouraged to solve problems creatively and they can always just give me a shout if something doesn't make sense.
  4. Play test: When most of the items on the Post-it note are playable, I get called over and we play test it the experiment together. If the results are comprehensible by mere humans, we pull in some play testers for 3-4 minutes to observe some real players interacting with the mechanic for the first time.
  5. Review: Afterwards, we discuss our observations and write up another Post-it note worth of improvements.
  6. Repeat or Stop?: The process repeats until we run out of time or give up. Sometimes we give ourselves a day per experiment, sometimes two days. In the land of Scrum, we treat the experiment like a time boxed task.
  7. Rate: At the end, the gameplay experiment is rated according the scale below.
  8. Save: The code is saved off, a few choice notes are recorded in a doc containing our 'list of experiments' and we move on. Bits of code, even from failed prototypes, are often reused in future gameplay experiments.
Rating system
The rating system is delightfully crude. The goal is to triage experiments quickly.
  1. "A": These experiments were obviously fun. Players laughed, smiled and generally exhibited the emotions we were looking for. If in doubt, ask "Was this fun? How so?"
  2. "B": These experiments showed a hint of fun if you knew what you were looking for. However, it is going to take more effort to expose the fun in a manner that is visible to the players.
  3. "C": There wasn't any fun. The experiment fails.
A portfolio of fun
One of my favorite aspects of this method is that you end up with a mini-portfolio of game design ideas. Instead of putting all the design risk in a project on one or two unproven mechanic, the team now has a half dozen or more proven bits of fun to build upon. If some don't fit into the game or get abandoned for other reasons, that's alright. You can afford to lose a few and the end product will still be fun. Think of it as designing from a position of plenty.

Contrast this with a prescriptive 'design doc' approach where you are forced to pick, without much evidence, a main mechanics for production. Even for the most experienced designer, 50% to 80% of your 'educated' selections are going to be complete dogs. Every unproven mechanic you polish ends up being a massive drain on your budget and your reputation as a designer. You might hear gentle comments like, "We spent 3 months of dev time on this lump of an idea and it isn't fun?"

It doesn't take very many expensive failures for the project's perceived 'design risk' to blossom to the point where conservative minds seek to kill the project. I think of this as designing from a position of sudden death.

Some basic observations
Here's a quick list of things I've observed when prototyping.
  • Failed experiments happen a lot. Don't be surprised if C-rated experiments occur 50% to 80% of the time. Everyone on the team has to be aware that not every experiment is going to be a success, but the learning process is still worthwhile.
  • Designing on your feet is a critical skill: Each consultation and analysis might last only 10 to 20 minutes and you need to leave folks with that all important sticky note filled with impactful, yet inexpensive changes. It pays to have lots of ideas and a deep understanding of game mechanics so you can quickly pull together a list of incisive comments. If you can't, you likely are not suited to be performing the designer role.
  • Listening matters. The designer doesn't need to come up with all the solutions. Everyone on the team is bright and has great ideas. As a designer, your role is to herd all ideas (yours and others) into something that serves the next step in the prototype.
  • You need programmers: If there aren't programmers dedicated to prototyping, the prototyping isn't going to happen. You can drop down to paper prototyping, but it usually doesn't prove out many types of mechanics (especially ones involving timing and interfaces.)
Advanced observations
These are some notes that are a bit geekier, but can save you large amounts of pain.
  • Meta game mechanics are harder to prototype: The systems that link together the various gameplay experiments are harder to playtest. They operate on longer time spans (hours instead of minutes) and often require that the core gameplay is already fun.
  • Build a meta-game architecture that allows for loose coupling of gameplay experiments: Most successful games have an architecture that allows the team to plug in new bits of fun as they are found. The linear 'level-story-level' pattern used by most FPS is one example. The 'hub with many sub levels" used by Mario 64 is another. Any of these allow you to plug in a new experiment independently of the other gameplay experiments. If you don't have a modular architecture, you run into situations where a fun new system breaks many of the other bits of fun you've already discovered.
  • Integrating tightly coupled gameplay experiments is a pain: If I independently find a fun new type of weapon and an interesting enemy AI, the combination of the two is often a non-trivial issue. The new weapon many work with an old AI, but be completely useless with the new one. Integration yields a whole new set of experiments. Plan for time to rediscover the fun all over again.
There are some interesting benefits to the Post-it note design method:
  • Scales nicely to large prototyping efforts: One designer can serve multiple programmers. This works nicely on teams where there are more programmers than designers and you need to get a lot of prototyping done quickly.
  • Failing quickly is fun and educational. You learn a lot with each failure and can move onto the next experiment with a much better idea of what doesn't work.
  • Provides a quick death for bad pet ideas. It is much harder to resurrect pet ideas when you have concrete, playable proof that it won't work. Finding out early which one of my favorite ideas is idiotic saves me a lot of political pain.
  • Fun prototypes are quite convincing: A fun, playable crazy idea works a lot better for winning over other team members than any amount of hand waving or documentation.
  • An easier team to assemble: Finding a competent game designer and a competent programmer can often be easier than finding a competent programmer-designer. Well developed hybrid skill sets are very valuable, but can be quite rare. A side benefit of having a team is that you end up cross training your designers and programmers. You create designers who can speak to programmers and programmers who can riff on some of the design.
The value of dime-a-dozen designs (A brief aside)
One often hears the negative comment that game designs are a dime-a-dozen. And in a waterfall design process, an incessant stream of ideas is indeed a problem. If you attempt to squeeze all those ideas into a typical waterfall development process, you end up with an immense amount of waste. Each designs need documentation, concepting, implementation, testing and bug fixes. In response, project owners will often ask for just one good idea.

There is another path. A lightweight prototyping method takes your flurry of crazy ideas and converts them at moderate cost into a well sorted portfolio of working designs. All those ideas are not, in fact, worthless or wasteful; they are the essential fuel that feeds a good prototyping process. Each idea either teaches you something or provides you with a success.

The way to make the process work without getting gunked up is to make prototyping incredibly lightweight. Other than our focused conversations, I spend my time on a total of two design docs: The first is the brief list of rated prototypes and the second is a set of discardable, temporary Post-it notes. Design waste in the form of unnecessary artifacts is minimal. Most of the 'programming waste' is better classified as low cost learning.

Those wild flocks of churning, swirling ideas end up not being worthless at all. They simply need to be funneled into the project with the right process for their value to be realized.

The "Post-it note design process" has likely been reinvented in one form or another hundreds of times across the history of game development. It is so basic that it feels odd to even write it up in any sort of formal fashion.

If you have a designer and a programmer, give it a shot. It is certainly a good functional alternative to the popular process of sticking a lone programmer-designer in a room and asking them to 'find the fun'. Both can produce great games. Pick the one that works best for your current team composition.

This process does have an cost since you need to devote at least two people to finding the fun instead of putting all decisions on the head of the designer. However, the end result is well worth it. After all, it is far smarter to spend team time uncovering a portfolio of the right mechanics than it is to 'save your programmers' so they can be off running really fast in the wrong direction.

In the end it really isn't about programmers, designers, design documents or features. It is about the team working together to make the right product. Everything else is just ego and waste. And for some reason, it is quite difficult to invest much ego or waste in a little disposable Post-it note.

take care
Post-it note fanboy

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

"Content is Bad"

I just came across an article by the good folks at Introversion discussing procedural animation and its benefits versus hand crafted content. Some of my favorite games of all time are riddled with procedural content. The universes of Elite, the dungeons of NetHack, the random maps of Age of Wonders...all these are littered with procedural content. And how could I forget Dice Wars. Or Tetris. Or Poker.

The more handcrafted content you build, the more it costs. There are few economies of scale. Want a new level? Add a couple more monkey designers and artists to the team. Want a higher level of detail? Add some more team members. Procedural content has the benefit that despite an initial start up costs, you get immense amounts of content for little to no incremental cost. Procedural content also is inherently more agile friendly than handcrafted content. It can be refactored, unit tested and evolved in an iterative process that lets you try out new ideas quickly.

The problem with hand crafted throwaway content
If we look at content from a rewards perspective, you can classify content in games into two main buckets:
  • Throwaway: This is content that the player sees once or twice and then proceeds to ignore every time they see it again. It has a very high burnout rate since the player immediately sucks any value from it, groks it and then filters it out as noise. In order to keep throwaway content exciting, teams produce large amounts of it and direct a steady stream of empty calories at the player. RPG's, Adventure games and many single player FPS have mastered this technique. Most plot points, level designs, conversations with towns folk, etc fall into the throwaway content category.
  • Reusable: This is content that the player keeps coming back to again and again because it tends to be useful. A new character with abilities, a new weapon that has a unique effect on the environment, a store that lets you trade in resources are all examples of reusable content.
Handcrafted content is expensive in bulk, but it has another issue: it is incredibly difficult modify quickly. If you build a clown and then decide that a rapid zombie dog works later, you are forced to rework the models and animations completely from the ground up. You can lose month when you decide to alter your static content. Great game play comes about through rapid cycles of prototyping and playtesting. Visuals, settings and level design are feedback mechanisms like any other and need to be adjusted and iterated upon just as much as the algorithmic simulation underneath.

The more handcrafted, throwaway content that you have, the less agile your development process will be. This dramatically increases the chance that you will fail to converge upon enjoyable gameplay. It also dramatically increases the chance that you'll fall back on conservative game mechanics because the act of trying something new is too bloody expensive.

If you are on a budget, you should start identifying throwaway content and figuring out ways to remove it from your design. It may seem like a great idea to have a clown appear in a scripted scene where he describes his life story. However the incremental value to the customer is rarely worth the cost of production or the loss of project agility.

Using procedural content to replace throwaway content

There are two faces to procedural content. The first is as a hack for throwaway content. It allows you to cheaply replace large amounts handcrafted seemingly meaningful, but actually useless game content with algorithmically generated seemingly meaningful, but actually useless game content.

Ask yourself:
  • Is this content critical to a working game mechanic? Identify the feedback that it gives the user and think about how it might provide them with utility. Sometimes you can cut content immediately from the game.
  • After the user has seen this once, will they ever care about it again? This helps you understand if you are dealing with throwaway content or something meaningful to the player.
  • If not, is there an inexpensive stylistic tweak that allows me to use a cheaper means of producing the content? If so, there are numerous possibilities here ranging from a less expensive art style, to procedural content, to player generated content. Pick the one that provides the player with the most utility, costs the least and leaves you in a position of greatest agility.
You'll find a lot of procedural content generation techniques that fit the bill. These are rarely up to par with the best hand crafted assets, but they will work in a pinch often at a much lower cost.
  • Sound generation
  • Texture generation
  • Particle systems
  • Procedural character animation
  • Ambient animations
Using procedural content to augment reusable content
The second face of procedural content is where it is integral to a reusable game mechanic. In NetHack, the act of exploring the dungeons and coming across different configurations of monsters and items is crucial to the player's slow but steady unraveling of the immensely complex system underlying the game. Each level was somewhat disposable, but the map generation system was actually an intricately balanced algorithmic method of putting the player in unique initial conditions that helped maximize their learning of new skills.

In a card game, the randomness of shuffling the deck and dealing the players an interesting distribution of cards has a big impact on the gameplay that follows. You simply could not play the game without this element of algorithmic level design. Players would figure out the predictable set of hands and all challenge would be removed.

When dealing with reusable game mechanics, procedural content can replace handcrafted content in the following ways:
  • Setting up interesting initial conditions, especially with configurations of existing game tokens.
  • Introducing risk and uncertainty into game mechanics
Where procedural content fails
Procedural content is by no means a panacea.
  • Procedural content is bad at setting goals: Dynamically generated quests were all the rage at one point. It turns out that people just zip through the text. Players quick discern the pattern and you are left with another high burnout game mechanic lying on the trash heap. Good goals are interesting because they are unique; they promise a brand new opportunity learn, advance or help out. They tend to play upon complex concepts of duty, heroism or desire. If you break down why 'Rescue Princess Peach' is meaningful, you'll have a tome on basic human psychology. These are areas where our algorithms are childishly primitive.
  • Procedural content is bad at most social factors: In fact, you can generalize the concept to say that procedural concept is miserable at replacing most human aspects of content. Conversations, voice acting, descriptions of long lost cultures, plot, all these are difficult to replace. You can either cut them from your game, turn them into easily refactorable modules (like the descriptions in NetHack) or as a very last resort, use traditional, expensive handcrafted production techniques.
  • Density: Developers sometimes react to the ability to generate infinite levels by building games that sport infinite levels. This is a very bad idea. When you are using a random map generator to put the player in interesting situations, the key operative word here is 'interesting'. All the standard rules of pacing, flow and burnout still apply. If your procedural content only amuses players for 15 minutes, make a 15 minute game. Otherwise start increasing the density of interesting interactions. No one wants to wander for hours through an infinite maze that has no purpose.
  • Procedural content requires a programmer-designer or programmer-artist: This shouldn't be surprising, but you really need someone who is both a good programmer and a good game designer to make procedural content work. Someone who only programs or only draws seem to be a dime a dozen, but good programmers with design skills or art skills are rather rare. If you aren't such a magic person, so you need to form a team that has all the skills you need. Sit your designer and programmer next to one another and iterate like mad.
Ze sum uppery
The phrase "Content is Bad" is of course hyperbolic. To rephrase it, too much handcrafted throw away content is expensive and decreases the teams agility. Procedural content is one solution, but if there is anything I'd take away from this essay, it is the broader concept of creating agile, refactorable content.

If you are smart, your design will change dramatically over the course of development. You'll discover a hundred little tweaks that end up making your final game far better than the initial design. Always be on the lookout for content that you can refactor in some way so that you can change it more cheaply.
  • Procedural content, when properly used, can turn the bulk of hand crafted content into code with all the added benefits of flexibility and cost reduction. You'll still have a bit left over in the form of variables and other compact data, but this will be much easier to manage.
  • User created content (which is at least another essay or two) offloads handcrafted content to your users.
  • If all else fails, at least modularize your content into tiny bite sized pieces that can be added or removed without derailing the ability to do frequent, completely playable builds.
Always maintain the ability to make a change to game play and test it with users within the next hour. If content becomes a barrier to this goal, you need to refactor your content-based systems. Be brutal in enforcing this rule, no matter how much you like that cutscene with the clown. It could save your team and your game.

The plague of handcrafted content is only going to get worse in the future. A friend mentioned that a level in his previous game took 2 days to assemble. Now, with the advance in customer expectations, it takes their team two months to build a level. If it costs that much to build a level from scratch, think of the pain involved in propagating a substantial late game design change throughout a series of levels. I can't help but wonder what their production schedule might have looked like if instead they had adopted the philosophy that "Content is bad."

take care


"Procedural technique is another name for tool."
Jason Booth has a wonderful essay that talk about how much of what we call procedural content is really just another name for tools. They leverage a small bit of creative content to create a lot of gameplay, but they still need to be used in a creative fashion. There is no magic 'make me a world button' and the folks that take this attitude tend to give the whole concept a bad name.

A more comprehensive definition

Introversion discusses procedural generation
The originators of the phase "Content. Is. Bad." They should make a t-shirt with that phase on the back and my favorite character design of all time on the front: "@"

One of the grand daddies of procedural content done well.

Desert Bus
A game by Penn and Teller that illustrates the problem of gameplay density quite succinctly.'s_Smoke_and_Mirrors

Thought experiment: Tiles as an early form of procedural content
"But most games that use procedural content suck" I recommend folks look at games like Zelda or Mario Brothers. Tiles were a huge innovation that allowed the developer to convey complex concepts (like walls, doors, tapestries, rocks, etc) without drawing ever single scene by hand. Instead you create a few modular pieces and then arrange the initial conditions of those pieces in an interesting way. You only use a small core of handcrafted seed data to build some truly enormous worlds.

This may seem like 'not true procedural generation', but compare it to the other popular alternative of the day: Drawing out every screen by hand. The genre that relied upon this technique, graphic adventures, was pushed into niche status. It simply could not compete economically with the richly interactive environments and economic efficiency of procedural techniques like tile-based environments. Food for thought.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Future proofing game graphics

A source of great sadness for me is the loss of so much great game artwork due to the constant erosion of obsolescence. Thousands of pieces of artwork are produced by highly talented teams, crammed into the latest title, launched into the marketplace and then, forgotten. The game eventually stops selling. The artwork was encoded in an obscure custom format that no one understands any more. Other than the occasional archived screenshot and some fuzzy memories, all those years worth of work are gone.

Permanence is difficult to achieve. Still, many artists hope that their work remains useful, pertinent, and perhaps even profitable for at least their lifetime. With games, we are lucky to get shelf life of 12 months. There is obvious room for improvement.

So here is today’s navel gazing challenge: What would graphics that last for the next 10 years look like?

Fine art tiles
I don’t really have a final answer, but here is a brainstorm about a theoretical set of graphics that might hang on for a decade. It is by no means the only answer to the longevity challenge, but it has some useful characteristics to help game graphics age more gracefully.

Imagine a set of graphics with the following characteristics:
  • 2D background tiles
  • Standard format (PNG)
  • Print resolution (300 dpi)
  • Professional quality
  • Painterly, non-photorealistic style.
  • Brand potential
The general strategy
The general survival strategy is to create graphics that can be used in as many titles as possible for as long as possible. The longer lived the titles the better. The more re-releases and sequels they spawn, the better (so long as they use the same set of graphics!)

Games are currently ephemeral. Anything highly algorithmic in nature (that requires more than the human brain to process) tends to be quite fragile. If there is a change it the technological ecosystem that supports its operation, a game has little ability to adapt. When the next console shift happens, many of the games are swept away. When the next version of the OS appears, or you install new video drivers, your games begin to die off. A single game, by itself, is not a reliable canvas for long lived art.

By giving developers a high quality, low cost option for filling a critical yet difficult part of their development process, the our graphics become an obvious choice for prototypes and smaller scale commercial projects. A hundred games released over the next decade should keep the graphics in the public eye for much longer than graphics released for a single title. Developers get cheap graphics. The graphics get a slightly longer time in the spot light.

2D vs. 3D: The importance of standards
One immediate question that popped to mind is whether 2D or 3D was a better format for longevity. 3D has some obviously attractive features. It is flexible enough to be used for a wide variety of games. Most games are going 3D now and going with 2D seems like it would cut off 95% of all future games from using the artwork.

Unfortunately, 3D models are still in a bit of a flux at the moment. There is no agreed upon file format and pixel shaders are wreaking havoc on the concept of ‘standardized’ texture mapping. A 3D model created today is highly likely to be outdated in five years. It is often easier to just remodel it from scratch to suite the newest technology.

2D has the benefits of being a mature format with strong standards. It is highly likely that bitmapped 32-bit graphics will be around in the next decade. The medium has seen little change in the last five years and there are few competitive threats on the horizon. PNG is a solid standard that is on the upswing of gaining broader support. I’d bet there is a 99% chance you’ll still be able view and read PNG files using commonly available software a decade from now.

Resolution: The importance of medium maturity
The bugaboo that plagues most technical artwork is that the bar keeps being raised. 4-bit graphics gave way to 8-bit graphics, which in turn were supplanted by 24-bit graphics. Resolution also increased over time and looks to keep increasing in the future.

For 2D graphics, there are limits. Beyond 200 to 300 DPI, there really isn’t much point in having more resolution. For softer, illustration-style graphics, the human eye tends to start blurring all those pixels together. You also don’t really need much beyond 24-bit color unless you are doing some crazy photo manipulation. Graphics created at such levels will remain useful for the foreseeable future. Provided that you are a competent artist, your graphics will look just as sexy in a decade as they do today, technology be damned.

Photorealism is an ever moving target and there will always be someone who does it better. Cartoons go in and out of style rather quickly. If the style is too unique, it is unlikely that it will be attractive to a large number of developers.

High quality illustration can hold its own for multiple decades and is generic enough to appeal to a multitude of developers. I’m making the bet that 2D tiled graphics is a style that will have pertinence in the future alongside the inevitable new styles. Ideally, designers will choose to use 2D graphics not only because they are limited by current technology or budget, but because it is the best fit for their game.

2D static graphics are relatively inexpensive to create and use.

Expenses increase as you add dimensions: The rough rule of thumb is that for every dimension that you add, the cost of production skyrockets and the number of skilled producers decreases by 10.

If you move from 2D to 3D, expect costs to rise and talent to become scarce. If you move from static 2D to animated 2D, the same thing happens. Animated 3D graphics are guaranteed to bloat your budget and leave you grasping for skilled artists.

In keeping with graphics for the masses strategy, it makes sense to aim low. That ensures that there are always hungry new teams emerging from the quantum indie vacuum, popping into existence with no money and no resources. Our inexpensive, highly cost effective graphics will be waiting.

2D tools are inexpensive and experts are easy to find. The fact that you can batch recolorize a set of graphics and have a whole new level is hard to beat. By reducing the cost of adaptation, we encourage reuse.

Brand potential
Over time, these future proofed graphics will go one of two ways. If their quality is low and the players have poor experiences with them, subsequent titles will likely be seen as shoddy. Reviewers will mark down the projects for taking the cheap route and not investing in original art resources. How often have you heard the refrain “They just reused the same graphics from before! Score Deduction!”

On the other hand, if the quality of the graphics is high and players have great experiences with titles that use them, then the graphics have the possibility of creating a brand of their own. This has happened in the past with the Wilhelm scream and Space invader graphics.

Creating graphics with brand potential is a tricky feat to pull off. A history of positive player experience with the graphics is the critical ingredient. An interesting story about the graphics that appeals to educated gamers is also helpful. All of these naturally occurring factors can be augmented by a steady and effective awareness campaign.

Adaptability to new technology
Naturally, there are some fundamental technology advances that prevent our graphics from being suited for every project. We can still stack the deck in our favor, however.
  • Interactivity
  • 3D

Interactivity: The interactive elements in games are evolving at a rapid pace and their art resources bear the burden of also being interactive. A fighting game, for example, would be nothing without graphics specifically tailored to demonstrate the interactive aspects of hitting, moving and blocking. In fact there are wide swaths of the graphics spectrum that must be custom tailored to fit the interactive system of the game title.

This is why our graphics don’t really deal with characters, special effects or other areas that demand high interactivity. Instead, they focus more on background props and landscape tiles. These more static elements are less likely to demand custom created graphics that are highly tailored towards a game’s specific interactive requirements.

The rise of 3D: Over time 3D will only become more attractive. Standards will start to emerge which will make 3D assets easier to repurpose and many productions will demand that you use 3D to cut the cost of character animation. We can’t stop this trend, but we can make graphics that can still be useful within a 3D engine.

To this end, I’m focusing on faux 3D environment tiles. You can use them along side 3D characters, particle effects and such without too many difficulties. If someone insists on using a 3D engine and their title doesn’t need to move the camera, our proposed graphics remain at least a viable option for inexpensive backgrounds.

Broadening the scope of the discussion
So you’ve just read through an elaborate thought experiment. It sounds quite silly on the surface…“Making game graphics that last a decade.” Pshaw!

But ultimately, I’m asking some simple questions:
  • How can we create game artwork that remains valuable to people for a long period of time?
  • And looking at the larger picture, how do we avoid creating disposable content?
I began exploring future proofing art because it is an area where I have experience and can affect change. We can extend the question to other aspects of game development. What would a future proofed sound track look like? What would future proofed level design look like? What would an entire future proofed game look like?

Some lessons from future proofing graphics are likely applicable to games:
  • Broad usage: If a game concept is used across a broad number of titles across a wide population of users, it is likely to last. Think of this as a portfolio management matter. Where a single high risk project might easily go under, the chance of all projects going under is much slimmer.
  • Standardization: Standards in a mature medium help ensure the persistence of a game concept by facilitating reuse. A standard is simply a method of crystallizing value in a broadly accepted and reusable format.
  • Reduced Cost of Adaptation: As costs of updating and adapting a game decrease there is a greater chance the content will be brought forward as the technology ecosystem evolves. When people are looking for entertainment, they have lots of choices. If you can provide equivalent utility for less money, people have an economic incentive to reuse your work.
  • Adaptability to upcoming technologies: We can look down the road a few years and make a guess about what is coming next. By focusing on more stable areas and having upgrade paths in mind, our content can help make the transition when technological shifts occur.
  • Brand potential: A game concept with a great brand remains meainingful in the face of advancing technology and player burnout. Long lived art forms a deeper emotional connection with the audience that keeps them coming back long after the utilitarian value has faded. Brand turns a throw away experience into an evergreen experience.
There are many classic examples of games that have withstood the test of time admirably. Chess, Solitaire, Tetris are the easy examples. Many Nintendo titles successfully reinvent themselves for new audiences, generation after generation. Lastly, successful game designs such as Dune 2, or Doom manage to live on by founding entirely new genres of game play. Each of these has some or all of the elements mentioned above.

Future proofing art is not an exercise in preservation. Future proofing is an exercise in building in easily accessible value that can be reused and repurposed.

We think of a painting as a static smear of paint on a physical canvas. But if you look at its use and value throughout time, you'll find that it evolves quite radically. A great painting goes from being on a canvas, to gracing a living room, to being a work of art in a museum. At each stage the value of the painting to its owner is distinctly different. The painter sees it as a creative act that will bring money. The original buyer sees it as something to brighten up the living room. The museum sees it as a work of cultural expression that will enlighten the masses that view it. At each stage in its lifecycle, the original form is reused, reinterpreted and reapplied to a new environment that can be value to others.

Creating long term works of game art is thus about creating content that lends itself to this constant process of adaptation.
  • First, we must acknowledge that many aspects of modern game development are fragile. A delicate ecosystem of art and technology is the only thing that allows us to share our works of creativity. This momentary eddy in the cultural current slips away when time inevitably flows forward.
  • Next, we must consider how our art or design can take on new life beyond this moment and this release. What choices can we make that facilitate future audiences assuming control of our content and adapting it to their unique needs and environment? .
Wouldn’t it be neat if the game art you made today could be enjoyed by your children or grandchildren? As a creative fellow, this is a rather delightful dream.

Take care

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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Managing game design risk: Part II - Data Driven Development

Read part Managing game design risk: Part I here. It provides an overview of different classes of production processes and their relationship to various forms of risk. The next two essays will talk about common techniques for reducing risk.

The first technique, data driven development, involves lowering execution risk by investing in lower risk product features and processes. This low execution risk strategy is the predominant technique used by game developers to reduce risk and is currently considered state of the art by most development houses. Compared to naïve product development there are considerable advantages. However, there are also some unexpected side effects worth taking into account.

If we think about data driven development in terms of our process complexity spectrum, we want to drive processes out of the complex and chaotic zones down into the simple zone. Simpler development processes are easy to manage, easier to scale to larger teams, and far less likely to fail catastrophically.

Conceptually, data driven development relies on two techniques
  • Investing in existing low risk activities
  • Converting moderate risk activities into low risk activities.

Investing in existing low risk activities
The first step is to identify low execution risk items and invest in them. If we were to rank some common game elements according to risk, they would look something like this:
  1. New core game mechanics: High risk
  2. New to the world technologies such as better AI: Moderate-high risk.
  3. New Setting / IP / Brands: Moderate risk
  4. Level design: Moderate risk
  5. More of the same technologies such as improved rendering: Moderate-low risk
  6. Graphics / Cut scenes: Low risk
If you look at the resources spent on modern games, you’ll find that game funding priorities are roughly the inverse of their execution risk. Core game mechanics have the fewest number of people working on it during the length of the project, graphics of various types have the most, level design tends to sit someplace in between and so forth. It is a rough rule of thumb, but it works reasonably well.

Converting moderate risk activities into low risk activities
The next step is to simplify complex or complicated tasks in the hope of turning them into simple production processes. Game development in the past was saddled with some truly unpleasant risks.
  • Crazy custom code written under tight deadlines for hardware platforms that are still in flux.
  • Artist fumbling their way around new technology often introduced unacceptable schedule risk.
  • Assembling the game elements at the end of the production cycle often meant that level design and minute-by-minute game play wasn’t testable until very late in the development cycle.
Wouldn’t it be nice to simplify these areas dramatically?

Historically, the simplification of complex processes has occurred during the early stages of any new mass media life cycle. Let’s consider animation as an example of the typical evolution. Once upon a time, each artist drew in a unique style. If you wanted a Norman Rockwell illustration, you pretty much had to go to Norman Rockwell. In the case of early animation, you typically required one animator to create most of the frames of the animation. Animations were short, labor intensive affairs

Walt Disney (and others) came along with production techniques for the highly repetitive task of animation. They reduced the risk of producing a series images with the same visual characteristics. Suddenly, instead of having one artist working in a particular style, you could have hundreds, all laboriously following style sheet, all drawing Mickey Mouse. By defining specialized roles and standardizing the production process, early animation houses reduced risk and enabled the task to scale in a linear fashion.

The same process of risk reduction is occurring in game development.
  • Artist fumbling? This issue is solved by using standardized tools like Maya and Max and Photoshop. When they are tightly integrated in a unified tool chain, they increase the speed of creating complex graphics while reducing schedule risk.
  • Crazy custom code? Replaced by 3rd party rendering technologies like Unreal or Renderware which reduce the risk of rolling your own technologies.
  • Assembling game elements at the end of the production cycle? I sat through a lovely talk on God of War in which 7 programmers created a highly tuned tool chain that allowed designers to act as highly reproducible, lower skill production cogs. The entire issue of game mechanics was reduced to a ‘push button and play animation’ sort of affair. You could also play test levels early and often.
Data driven development
The result of these process simplification efforts is a production model known broadly as ‘data driven’ development. By focusing on low risk development elements, tasks like creating graphics, models and other static content becomes the primary cost center for the title. The following practices are common.
  • The company invests in a centralized engine maintained by a relatively small number of programmers. Tool development takes on a hitherto unprecedented role.
  • Game mechanics are usually borrowed from an existing genre.
  • The team streamlines the flow of data into the game engine using a well defined content pipeline. This allows people without programming skills to build much of the using artist friendly tools. The data is rapidly translated into the game engine where it can be viewed running in the actual game.
  • The team then ramps up the number of artist / designers to fill the game with content.
  • The focus of the title is on providing the most exciting, highly polished static content to wrap the core game mechanics.
Data driven development optimizes many but not all aspects of game development. Some gameplay elements such as new game mechanics have not yet been reduced to simple production processes. These remain stubbornly in the land of complex or even chaotic process. Companies try to reduce these risks as much as possible by selecting well explored game mechanics.

God of War is a great example of this development process. They gained impressive production efficiencies by building a strong content pipeline around the proven gameplay. The core game play differed only mildly from beat ‘em ups from ages past. However, they make the experience feel fresh by skinning the mechanics with flashy content. Every time you pressed a button to open a door, you saw a new animation. Every time you killed a monster, you saw another new animation. It looks great and it doesn’t play all that badly either.

Benefits of data driven development
Data driven development is clearly superior to naïve game development processes of the past. It results in dramatic reductions in all forms of execution risk:
  • Technical risk: Because most of the game rewards come from content instead of complex systems, the need for taking on technically risk work decreases. There is no need to put in a complex physics engine when an animator can produce the same results with less risk to the overall project. The overall code size is much smaller and you need fewer programmers. The God of War executable was only 1.5 MB in size and this was produced by a mere 7 programmers.
  • Quality risk: By create a tight content pipeline that is regularly exercised early in the development process, errors are found early and fixed early. Because you are dealing with data instead of code, code errors decrease dramatically.
  • Schedule risk: Because game content is produced in a manner that scales linearly at low risk, you can easily throw more people at the problem or cut back scope if there is a threat of schedule risk.
  • People risk: By having content readily playable and instituting style guides, Disney-style directorial control can be imposed on areas like level design. This lets companies use relatively low skill designers as ‘production cogs’. They are replaceable, easily trained, and scalable to large work teams.
This is an impressive feat. If you’ve ever lived through a poorly run game development process, the God of War presentation at GDC sounded like heaven. We all want to create a high quality game that lets us spend the last day of development on the beach. If you don’t understand the techniques and processes involved, your skills are behind the curve and your games will suffer.

Opportunities for deploying data driven development
There are two classes of game that benefit strongly from implementing a data driven development process
  • Genre king brands competing in mature genres
  • ‘Story games’ that rely primarily on quality static content
The obvious win are products that are at the end of the genre life cycle. Such teams are serving a well-defined market populated primarily by late and laggard adopters. Since the hardcore ‘genre addict’ customers they server are highly risk adverse, it is okay for the product to sport low risk features. Does anyone who buys Halo 2 really want a radical shift in game mechanics like you find in Animal Crossing? Not likely.

There are also very specific genres of game that benefit greatly from data driven development. Japanese RPG titles, graphic adventure games, and other games whose primary value comes from giving the player a strong linear narrative can use a robust content pipeline to cut their execution risk.

These ‘story games’ compete head-to-head with the tales in other linear narrative formats such as movies or books. The gap between the experience of a movie like Advent Children and a ‘game’ like FFXII diminishes with each new sequel. Such titles have forsaken interactivity as the primary method of providing players with value. The more high quality static content, the better.

Problems with data driven development
Data driven development is the future for a large portion of the industry. It is simply so much more effective at managing risk than older methods. However, there are issues that the smart development team should take into account.

  • Market issues: Low product differentiation
  • Cost issues: High production costs
  • Game play issues: High player burnout
Market issues
How do new games compete? This is a big question. I humbly submit that the unique value propositions in games typically are centered on innovation in interactivity, not the static fluff wrapping the interactivity. For example, in Nintendogs, the value comes from interacting with a dog, not from the resolution of the wallpaper in the room. Even in God of War, the core value comes from the combat, not the pretty animations.

The low risk activities that data driven development relies upon also happen to be low value activities. You can easily add considerable graphics, level design and animation to a product and only add incremental value to the customer. When companies compete using fluff elements such as graphics and level design, you end up with a slew of undifferentiated products.

In the early days of middleware, Epic started licensing their Unreal engine. Licensees replaced the graphic and the levels, but failed to innovate in terms of new game mechanics. The licensees believed they were offering new and exciting content. Players on the other hand, saw this flood of titles as inferior FPS with tire game mechanics. They ran smack into markets dominated by genre kings Quake and Unreal. These titles failed. Ah, the irony. Differentiated content is not enough to compete.

Cost issues
The other issue is that the strategy of risk reduction is not a cost reduction technique. By ensuring that production activities scale in a linear fashion at low risk, all that happens is that development teams are encouraged to do more of the same in order to compete. Most companies blindly invest in the most obvious and lowest risk competitive option.

This is creates a vicious cycle:
  • The competition releases a title with ‘The best graphics ever’
  • Your team chooses to compete by putting money into the lowest risk production element. By simply spending more money, they can keep their risk of execution failure low and still mount a competitive product.
  • When another competitor comes out with ‘Even better graphics’, then your producer doesn’t mind at all hiring a baker’s dozen of new art cogs to up the ante. It won’t delay the product and could give the game an edge. This is an easy management decision.
  • The product releases and sells a very reasonable amount. Unfortunately, due to the extra production costs, it posts a loss.
  • Even though your title is a financial failure, it provokes other competing companies to spend more on the quality of their titles.
The cycle slowly drives profitability out of the marketplace. The results are low profitability games that launch in intensely competitive markets. A small percentage remain profitable by capturing the genre king crown, but most lose money.

Gameplay issues
If we look at data driven games from our action / reward game play model, we can also predict some key characteristics of data driven games.

Data driven games encourage player addiction by relying on two classic game design elements:
  • Visceral rewards: Visceral rewards are ones that attempt to trick the brain into reacting as if it were put into a real world, high intensity situation. You see a strong focus on emotional content and realism. Final Fantasy does this quite well by providing highly emotional drama in almost every cut scene.
  • Unique rewards: Unique rewards are rewards that are different each time the player successfully completes an action. The classic quote from David Jaffe is his desire for "Lots and lots of special cases. I don't want any two doors to open the same way” You are still pressing the same button, but the results appear unique.

Visceral rewards create very intense rewards. This can be very delightful to jaded players. Unique rewards, in the form of new animations, ensure that the rewards give the player a solid buzz each time they are encountered.

Visceral rewards have a high burnout rate, especially if they are reused. When you kill the Minotaur for the first time, it is quite exciting. After dealing with several of the beasties, the thrill of the kill wanes.

Unique rewards might seem like a good game idea, but they too have a dark side. With repetition, players will eventually grok the deeper patterns behind the ‘unique’ rewards. Ultimately, they see the impressively tumbling statue in God of War as yet another animation that opens a door. When the gameplay patterns become visible, players can prematurely burn on the title far sooner than the designer predicted.

This can lead to situations like Quake IV. Here the franchise was damaged because players focused on how the mechanics are ‘more of the same.’ They dismissed the new expensive graphics engine and the plethora of content that was intended to differentiate the product in the market place.

From a game design perspective, data driven games are a quick jolt of brain candy to be consumed and forgotten. They are low touch, consumable entertainment product that fails to build a deep and loyal customer relationship. When your ability to connect with your customer at a meaningful level is threatened, you have surprisingly high franchise churn. Crash Bandicoot? Sonic the Hedghog? Lara Croft? These titles’ relationship with the customer was much less secure than they imagined.

Contrast this to Mario, a franchise that relies much more heavily on constantly updated game mechanics. By offering players a series of unique high value game play experiences, Nintendo creates a strong customer bond with the character that primes the channel for future titles. Nintendo generally avoids player burnout and accidental damage to their highly valuable franchise by focusing on gameplay, not merely lobbing undifferentiated content at their customers.

Closing thoughts on Data Driven game development
Data driven development represents one vision of the current state of the art in game development. It eases a large number of issues that have plagued game development for many years.

If you care at all about why you do the things you do, you need to understand the practice and repercussions of data driven development. It is the current future of the console industry and its driving philosophies will shape the work environment of most professional game developers. Many of us have been doing flavors of data driven development for years, but expect extremely polished pipelines like the ones found in God of War to become the default for the upcoming generation.

It is a potent technique if used correctly. Pure data driven development is a solid strategy for titles in mature genres that have a brand capable of capturing the first or second place in the market. Such genre king titles are the bread and butter of any publisher and reducing execution risk is of paramount importance. However, companies should be careful of producing more than two or three titles that use the same game mechanics or they risk devaluing the franchise.

For all others, data driven game development tends to be a very expensive way fail in the marketplace. The execution risk may be low, but design risk and financial risk are actually higher than if you did naïve game development. If you can’t capture the genre crown, exciting static content is rarely enough to carve out your own niche within the marketplace. You’ve invested a lot up front and you won’t get the sales on the backend.

Even a title like God of War is a huge risk for Sony. They’ve supported it with a large marketing budget and a decent sized development budget. It certainly has gotten them rave reviews, but sales have been disappointing for AAA title. First month US sales are reported at only 200k for the month of April and by June of 2005, they had reached 500k world wide. The mythical typical AAA title needs to sell anywhere from 900k to 1.2 million depending on how the books are kept.

With continued promotion, I’m hoping they’ll at least break even or turn a small profit. Admittedly, Sony is attempting to create a new next generation IP. They are willing to take a moderate loss on the first title. It is a simple strategy. Create an expensive splash, get the new brand in the public consciousness and then scoop up the preorders for GOW2.

I have to wonder though. If we’ve already gotten to the point where one of the world’s top five publisher has to release a very expensive title as a loss leader in order turn a future profit, where does this leave the smaller companies? Screwed and tattooed. At the very least, it suggests that launching original content-based IP that relies on older game mechanics is an expensive and risky strategy.

Data driven game development is one risk reduction strategy. If everyone invests in this ‘safe path’, then there will be some remarkable market failures. This is just another tool and should be used with care and wisdom.

What’s next?
In the last part of this series, I’ll talk about another take on the risk reduction game, a little technique called prototype driven development. This focuses on reducing design risk, instead of execution risk. It should provide a fun counterpoint to many of the issues found in data driven development.

Take care

God of war sales figures “disappointing”

The spin on God of War sales figures: “Grand Turismo + God of War sell over 2.5 million.” Right…now how many did just God of War sell?

Ub Iwerks leaves Disney in the dust

GDC: God of War: How the Left and Right Brain Learned to Love One Another

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Managing game design risk: Part I

GDC was wonderful. Unfortunately, I’m the sort of person who is absolutely miserable at copying notes in any literal way. As soon as I started writing, I became distracted by a thread connecting several intriguing talks on prototyping, tools and production risk. The result was a very long essay. This is the first part.

Managing Risk
Much of game production is about managing risk. We partake in a highly complex process that juggles people, technology, new forms of interactivity and rapidly changing market dynamics. Developing a single game is a high stakes effort in which the likelihood of failure is dramatically greater than that of success. One false move and the development team can face financial ruin or heavy restructuring at the request of their publisher.

It is a fascinating optimization problem that drives many of the practices in modern game development. Here are some rough notes describing different forms of risk as well as my initial thoughts on techniques for mitigating certain types of risk.

  • Financial Risk
  • Requirements Risk
  • Execution Risk

Financial Risk: The big daddy
All product development consists of the act of producing and delivering something of value to customers. In return, the customers give you money. If this process produces profit, then you can develop more products. If it produces a loss, you are heavily encouraged to stop making such products and do something more profitable with your limited resources. Economics abhors waste.

The likelihood that you will lose money is financial risk. It is the invisible hand that makes all other forms of risk meaningful. However, simply looking at ‘making money’ does not tell us enough to optimize our processes. We also need to look at what we make and how we make it.

Requirements Risk: What the heck are we making?
Requirements Risk is all about making the right product for our customer. It is split into three interrelated categories. Naturally, any one of these risks can increase the project’s overall financial risk.

  • Design risk: Risk of not including the right features that create a potent value proposition for your target audience.
  • Scope risk: Risk of not doing enough or doing too much. If you don’t do enough, you increase Design Risk. If you do too much, you increase execution and financial risks.
  • Market Risk: Risk that there will be changes in the market place that invalidate your value proposition. Market risk is external to your project.
Of these three, design risk is the most fundamental with the other two acting as constraints. In order to mitigate requirements risk, you must choose the minimal right features for your product. This correct set of features changes over time as external events influence your target market.

Execution Risks: How do we make this?
Once you understand ‘what’ you need to do, you need to execute on your plan. At this point, four additional risks raise their ugly heads.

  • People Risk: Risk that you do not have the right people with the right motivation and methods of work to execute. A subset of this is creative risk, in which you fail to create a product that you, as a creator, takes pride in. Often creative risk can be in conflict with the constraints of financial risk.
  • Technical Risk: Risk that major technology that you rely upon will fail. The obvious aspects of technical risk are things like rendering engines, path finding, etc. In games, technical risk also fluctuates wildly with the addition of new game mechanics. Since we are dealing with psychological interactions with real customers, minor game mechanic changes have surprising results. Even the act of adusting a character's jumping distance may not ‘work’ since it can destroy the fun factor for the rest of the game.
  • Schedule Risk: Risk of delaying the product and missing a competitive window in the market place. Games are products with a shelf life and strong market cycles. When you miss your dates, you dramatically increase Market Risk for certain types of established genres.
  • Quality risk: Risk of errors. A product that solves all other factors, but includes bugs and other malfunctions.

Mitigating risk: A difficult problem to solve
You end up with a web of constraints with no easy solutions. There is a wonderful section of Douglas Adams book “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” in which the lead character manages to get his sofa stuck in the stairway going up to his flat. He creates a 3D computer model of the situation to figure out how to get it unstuck, but can’t manage it. Dirk Gently, the world’s lateral thinking poster boy, solves the problem in seconds. All he has to do is remove one of the walls. Unfortunately, the solution to moving the couch would destroy the entire house. Woops.

Modern game development often finds itself in a similar situation. Let’s take the fundamental problem of choosing the right features for our product. An obvious engineering path is to add more features. Bridge builders might call this over engineering, a time tested technique. That way, you’ll ensure that you make a product that solves everyone’s needs since it contain more than enough features.

In game development, the secondary effects kick in. By increasing your scope, you increase the need for people, technology, time and quality. None of these scale linearly.

  • When you add more people to a team the communication processes within a team change dramatically. A 2 person team can sit in a room together and talk through problems. A 20 person team needs defined managers and process. A 200 person team often spends the majority of each individual’s time simply maintaining group cohesion and intergroup communication. Each stage is distinct and requires major cultural shifts to succeed.
  • As features increase in number and diversity, the need for new technology development increases. As game mechanics are added, the very nature of the system and its effect on the customer fluctuates radically. Each new feature has a very real chance of destroying the value of the entire product.
  • More features require more planning time and uncertainties can result in large schedule fluctuations. These are compounded by technology and people risks.
When you optimize for a single risk factor, you’ll often have unpleasant secondary risks that bring down the whole system.

The spectrum of process complexity
These high risk, heavily interconnected systems finally are getting their due. Building games is not like engineering bridges. In fact, folks have started to notice that many traditional project management are counter productive. When someone attempts to scale the project by turning one of the dials, the non-linear risk increases in unpredictable ways and the product fails.

The first step is to realize that there are different types of production processes and each one requires radically different management techniques. Here’s a diagram from the Scrum methodology that describes how uncertainty in both requirements and execution creates multiple classes of processes.

  • Simple Processes: When both requirements and execution are quite certain, then the projects can be managed with relatively simple processes. Often a simple checklist does the trick. The repetative steps that a single worker performs on an assembly line is a good example of a simple task.
  • Complicated: When the requirements and execution get out of hand slightly, you end up with a project that can still be completed with your typical check list. However, you need to increase the number of rule and steps necessary to accomplish the task. Bridge building is a good example of a complicated task.
  • Complex: Many projects fall into the dangerous middle ground where requirements and execution is somewhat defined, but rife with multiple layers of uncertainty. In these situations, high feedback, agile processes let team steer their way towards ago despite high risk and uncertainty. Software development is a good example of a complex task.
  • Chaotic Processes: When both requirements and execution uncertainty is very high, projects tend to devolve into unmanageable chaos. Success arises as often from luck as it does from any real process.
Game development is intriguing because it contains elements spread across all areas of the process complexity spectrum.
  • Simple: Creating 2D art
  • Complicated: Creating 3D character models:
  • Complex: Writing Code
  • Chaotic: Creating new game mechanics
If you end up focusing on a shoehorning all elements of gameplay into a single process, you are bound to leave gaps in your competitive strategy. With that thought in mind, I’ll be posting a couple more essays shortly that use this conceptual framework to examine two common risk mitigation strategies.
  • Data driven development: Reducing risk by simplifying the process of game development. This technique focuses on reducing overall execution risk.
  • Prototype driven development: Reducing risk by embracing change and finding the fun earlier. This technique focuses on reducing overall design risk.

Take care

PS: Part 2: Data driven development is posted. Read it now.

Descriptions of Scrum

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Never innovate halfway

Double Fine’s Psychonauts was an original game that by all indications did poorly in the marketplace. This has led to the odd comments from fence sitters (and misinformed publishers) that innovation is a failed strategy. Bad monkeys! Bad!

We often talk about “innovation” in product development as if it were a miraculous substance that always benefits a game. I also imagine a scene in an idyllic game development kitchen with a game designer wearing a chef hat. “This title needs a dash more innovation!” he cries and the sous chef scurries off to the back room to see if they have any left.

If only it were this simple. First, realize that there are different types of innovation and not all types are equally beneficial. There are many places we can start on this topic, but we should first start with the classics. Back in 1991, researchers Cooper and Kienschmidt wrote a paper that discusses classes of innovation and their impact on market adoption. The studies looked at the market success of three category of products
  • Low innovativeness products: Modifications to existing product lines
  • Moderately innovative products: Product line extensions
  • Highly innovative products: New to the world products.
Each category was measured on three factors:
  • Success rate: What percentage of new products broke even?
  • ROI: What was the average profitability of the products that broke even?
  • Market Share: What percentage of customer in the markets adopted the product?
By looking at the patterns that occur across many industries, we can gain insight into how to build successful innovative games in our industry.

Interpreting this data in the game world
Let's map this general product model onto the specifics of the current game market.
  • Low innovativeness products: Sequels or expansion packs
  • Moderately innovative products: Games that attempt to blend genres or establish new brands in established genres.
  • Highly innovative products: Games that attempt to create new genres
The results
The results of the study are fascinating. Common wisdom would suggest that as the product became more innovative, the success rate would drop off. After all innovation is directly correlated with risk, right?

Instead, the data shows a U-shaped curve instead of a downward slope. Highly innovative products are actually mildly more successful than their low innovation counterparts. Moderately innovative products on the other hand do the worst out of any of the categories. This pattern repeats itself in the other areas.

Less surprisingly, ROI is strongest for low innovativeness products and quite reasonable for highly innovative products. It is again miserable for moderate innovation products. Market share is also low for moderate innovation products.

The immediate lesson is that both low innovation and high innovation products can do quite well. If you end up in the middle, however you are in big trouble. Let's dig into the strange U-shaped curve in more detail.

Explaining the U-shape
There are lots of reasons why sequels and direct expansions are successful. Several include
  • Lower R&D risks. The game mechanics in a sequel are well-defined and can be reused. Generally, game sequels add more content and mild technological innovation. These are both well understood production areas that can be budgeted for and scoped appropriately.

  • Built-in audience. With an established brand, sequels sell to both old players and players who did not pick up the previous title. This results in higher customer sales per marketing dollar spent.
An alternate set of reasons explains why highly innovative games such as the Sims or Animal Crossing are successful despite not having the advantages of low innovation products.
  • Tapping pent up market demand: Highly innovative products tend to get a burst of adoption as word of mouth from excited users spreads the news that someone has finally released a game that meets their needs. This happened with Nintendogs, where many women became avid promoters of the game to their friends.

  • Less need for polish: Because demand is pent up, people tend to ignore many damning issues. For example, Brain Training’s limited set of mini-games quickly become repetitive. Yet people are willing to put up a flaw that would have destroyed a less innovative title. The title offers a unique, high value experience that cannot be replicated with substitute products.

  • Lack of competition: When you are first to the market with a high value product, you can often just breeze in and acquire customers with no worries about competition. The Sims managed such a feat with gamers who preferred to create and explore relationships. The game industry had been blatantly ignoring this massive audience and the Sims reaped the benefits of being the only one who saw the opportunity.
Finally, we get to the moderately innovative games. These titles are cursed with the worst of all worlds.
  • Higher R&D risks: When you try out new game mechanics it is much more likely that you need to spend copious amounts of time balancing the title. If you do not have this time, there is a good chance the game will be released with poorly polished game mechanics.
  • No built-in audience: A mildly innovative game satisfies no one. It doesn’t tap into a new market of underserved users. It doesn’t appease existing fans of particular title or brand.
  • Strong competition: Often moderately innovative products are classified as part of an existing genre. The genre addicts have their favorite title already so why purchase a new one?
Where would Psychonauts fit into this mix? It is a competently executed, traditional platform game wrapped in a wonderfully quirky exterior. This rings some warning bells. It is more of the same, but different enough to be scary. It falls into the no-mans land of not familiar enough and not innovative enough to make a mark on the industry.

One step further
Psychonauts also points us in the direction of identifying the factors that matter less than we might expect when creating an innovative game. Psychonauts poured incredible amounts of blood and sweat into creating a delightful story, filled with new and interesting characters and sparkling with humor. All these elements were highly original and yet the title overall was not innovative.

These are not primary differentiators in the marketplace. In general, the game mechanics of a title and the ties into real world interests determine the value of a title. Well executed plot and characters merely support and augment the underlying game mechanics. In a novel, the story is the value. In a game, the activity that the player engages in determines the value of the experience. These are two very different value propositions that you confuse at your own risk.

If your core game mechanics are recycled from another genre, slathering a layer of original (and very expensive) content on your title will do nothing to push it into the realm of high innovation. It unfortunately, might be enough to push you out of the safe zone of comfy sequels.

If you are going to make a sequel, realize that more of the same is actually a good thing. You are in the gaming equivalent of the shampoo business, producing the same old bottle of Finesse over and over again. Sure, you can mix it up with a little sticker that says “Now with stronger cleaning power”, but don’t get too many ideas about changing the world. That isn’t what your audience wants. Give them more of the same: more levels, deeper stories and prettier graphics.

If you are going to be original, make a title with original game mechanics that taps into an underserved audience. Knock your title out into left field. Don’t look at other games, they aren’t your competition. Instead look at other activities outside of gaming. Don’t worry too much about plot, graphics or the polish of your title. Instead focus on generating deep value with people who don’t even think of themselves as gamers.

Never go half way. Don’t say “It is a shooter, but you fire ducks instead of bullets.” This is generating a half-assed value proposition by addition or exception. It is the sort of innovation that kills a game in the marketplace. You confuse the customers and suffer from comparison to existing products.

Developing a game title will often consume years of your life. Making a game that is only ‘moderately innovative’ simply is not worth the effort. Each project must choose its focus.
  • Are you a craftsman who lovingly polishes an established genre?
  • Or are you an innovator who creates new genres?
If you fail to chose, you risk being stranded in the no man's land that lurks between the two strategies.

Take care

Comparison of first month sales for several titles: Pyschonauts: 12,000 units. God of War 200,000. Halo 2: 3.3 million. As a side note, 200,000 units for God of War are not great numbers considering the budget. They’ll cash in on this newly launched brand only if they do a sequel.

More tales of Psychonauts
“According to the most recent NPD figures, Psychonauts has moved nearly 51,000 copies on the Xbox, not quite 23,000 on the PlayStation 2, and a little more than 12,000 on the PC.

Developed by Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine Studios, Psychonauts is something of an industry-standard cautionary tale about innovation. Psychonauts is about the story of a young child stowaway at a summer camp for psychics who must enter into the minds of his fellow campers and the camp counselors, and it was originally planned as a high-profile Xbox exclusive with Microsoft itself as publisher. However, Microsoft dropped the project in March of 2004 with no reason given.

Schafer shopped Psychonauts around for months before finding a new publishing partner in Majesco. The game was released on the Xbox, PC, and PS2 earlier this year, and met with critical praise and consumer apathy. Majesco (and a number of analysts, Pachter included) had great expectations of the game's retail performance. When the sales didn't materialize and another high-profile Majesco title flopped in Advent Rising, the company lowered its projected revenues for the year by a third, the CEO Carl Yankowski resigned, and a number of shareholders sued as the stock plummeted.”

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The root of shock game advertising

I was flipping through my copy of EGM with my fiancé just the other day. It was a rather embarrassing tour through the current gaming culture. In the first few pages, we perused the standard mixture of guns and ultra violence. “Look,” I pointed, “there’s Lara’s bum festooned with some charming grenade accessories. And check out those flying WW2 chaps on page 10. They certainly do bounce about when consumed in a massive fireball.”

Finally, we happened about a vivid image of a violated female corpse with a bloody bullet hole gaping in her forehead. Ah, the delightfully rank odor of publicly condoned misogyny. Apparently this is a great way to sell games. It is rare that you see such crude advertising images in movie, books or even comics, a market that supports far more extreme depictions of ultra violence. Yet they are commonplace in game advertising. It has always perplexed me.

The immediate response is to blame the marketing departments. Obviously, they are bastards. Yet, in the broader scheme of business, marketing is mostly a mercenary that attempts to convey a product’s value proposition to a potential customer. At its core, game advertising merely reflects and promotes the value that is exchanged between product developers and their customers.

So let’s turn this question of shock advertising around. What value proposition are mainstream games promising to customers that inspire our advertising to look like this drek?

Visceral Feedback
To find the answer we need to go back to the basics. Games at their heart are about feedback cycles in which the player performs an action and the game provides either a reward or a punishment. The potency of your feedback system has a major impact on the addictiveness of your game play. Thus feedback systems are one of the most heavily developed areas in the majority of game titles.

Early in the history of games, developers realized that the emotional impact of the game’s feedback can be easily magnified by using visually rich and shocking imagery. The introduction of faked ‘dangerous’ stimuli makes your reptile brain react in a physical manner is not so different than the thrills of a rollercoaster ride. You are never in any danger, but critical portions of your brain react as if you are. The brain evolved to deal with real threats, not 3D video cards pumping out super realistic explosions complete with force feedback. The flow of blood in your brain changes, your heartbeat increases and the excitement builds. The game play goes from interesting to thrilling. I call this ‘visceral feedback.’

Visceral stimulus enhances existing reward systems in games. For example, it is easily arguable that the fatalities of Mortal Combat improved the actual game experience. The thrill of finally ripping out your opponent’s spine kick starts your adrenaline and wakes up your brain. For another example of visceral feedback, check out this simple yet effective Flash game at The use of sound is particularly nicely done.

The core value proposition of games?
Visceral feedback is a very popular technique with both customers and game developers.

With customers, several very public blockbuster success stories such as GTA, Doom and Quake suggest that “Visceral feedback means better games”. The link is questionable, but still the theory has become accepted as The Way of Things. Experienced gamers, indoctrinated into the gaming culture accept and promote the benefit of visceral rewards. They historically have put their money into better graphics and more extreme settings whenever the opportunity arises. Better visceral feedback has become a key indication of game quality, despite the general lack of real world correlation.

The business side of game development also appears to support the use of visceral feedback. This makes the most sense in light of modern game design’s attempt to constantly reduce and mitigate short term risk.
  • Generally visceral feedback relies on the production of new assets, not the creation of new game play systems. Asset production is a well studied and highly reliable activity that is unlikely to introduce schedule slippage.
  • The advances in hardware mean that taking advantage of new hardware allows designers to easily pump out a new title with the same mechanics and updated graphics. They merely increase the impact of the risk / reward systems and hope that this will give them a competitive advantage in the market place. By targeting R&D only at technology and not in the areas of game mechanics or business models, companies also reduce short term risk. Why bother creating a unique competitive advantage when you can recycle one?
Naturally, these two sides of the coin feed upon one another. Over many years, these patterns have led many in the industry to make the implicit assumption that the ultimate value proposition of games is to “provide players with visceral experiences.”

Marketing’s response
If you boil a game’s core value proposition down to “providing visceral experiences” then the job of marketing is to promise increasingly powerful visceral experiences. Marketing people aren’t being obnoxious. They are simply doing their job based off the assumed benefits of gaming and assumed desires of the gaming population.

Unfortunately, game marketers are also encouraged to over promise a game’s visceral rewards due to the bizarre structure of our retail channel. We live in a “Buy and then Try” environment. The promise of an intense experience is often more cost effective at creating sales than actually developing a real experience. A photorealistic box illustration costs much less than a photorealistic game environment. Yet arguably the box and perhaps a few screenshots are more effective at driving sales. This is not a recent trend. The advertising of 2600 titles such as Combat are direct forefathers of the visuals used to promote modern games.

Shock advertising comes into play when someone always increases the viciousness of their ads in an attempt to compete in a market where the emotional rawness of your product is a major selling factor. Customers have two reactions. They can either leave gaming behind in disgust or they can learn to ignore the shock ads. Over time, the shock ads have increased in potency in order to reach an increasingly jaded, distrustful and hardcore audience.

Of course, non-gamers see gaming ads as well. They assume that the highly prevalent shock ads display the true nature of gaming. There are massive generation issues at work here, but gaming ads are structured in a way that deliberately and intentionally provokes an intense negative response from outsiders. A gamer would retort, “They are meant to be shocking, duh.”

The problems with visceral feedback
The response of marketing reveals a deeper issue. Basing a game on visceral feedback is a remarkably shallow value proposition for your customers. Visceral rewards might seem exciting for the customer and easy to create for the developer, but they have some longer term issues.
  • The burn out rate on visceral rewards is very high. Sure, each fatality in Mortal Combat was rather cool the first few times you saw it, but after a while you begin thinking of them more strategically. A fatality rapidly turns into an abstract demonstration of skill and finesse. This deeper appreciation of the game mechanics can often be serviced using reward mechanisms that are much less expensive to produce. Players quickly stop experiencing the visceral nature of the reward.
  • Since value diminishes quickly, customers get little value for their money. Where a game like chess might last a lifetime, most games that rely on visceral rewards last mere hours. The gamer value per dollar is perceived as quite low. The more desperate gamers with money to spare burn through multiple games. This artificially buoys the industry. The less desperate (or less well heeled) will often give up on gaming completely due to the lack of value that it provides.
From a business perspective, visceral rewards are also one of the least effective.
  • Rapidly diminishing return on investment: Past a certain level of quality, customers have difficulty telling the difference between ‘good visuals’ and ‘great visuals’. Developers can quickly find themselves spending substantial amounts of money with no obvious return on their investment.
  • Poor competitive insulation: Great graphics and other visceral rewards are one of the easiest elements to add to a title and the most difficult to maintain leadership in over time. Any publisher can hire a bevy of talented artists and pump out gloriously sexy movies. Because the cost of entry is so low, it is easy for others to do the same. Competition drives down profit. Ironically, short term risk mitigation development strategies result in long term market instability.
To summarize, games that rely primarily on visceral rewards end up causing several issues:
  • They provide poor value to customers. Long term this lack of value often alienates customers.
  • They are a poor business practice that seriously increases the competitive risks for your company and the industry.
  • As a side effect, they encourage increasingly demented ads that strive to promote a shallow value proposition. This helps alienate both marginal customers and the world at large.
You are responsible for shock advertising
If you develop a game that is ‘the same, but more intense’, you are directly responsible for the miserable and degrading ads that it spawns. You set forth a shallow value proposition in your product that the marketoids promote to the best of their ability.

You are also responsible in part for the vitriol flung at the game industry by an offended moral majority. I’m all for freedom of speech, but when the vast majority of content in a medium is radically out of step with other popular forms of media, there is something questionable going on. It would be the rough equivalent of the entire movie industry only producing porn. When you produce a shallow product that feeds on the subconscious base instincts of your customers, you should expect to get a bit of well deserved flak tossed your way.

Alternative approaches
There are alternatives and they start with adjusting the core value proposition of your game. It turns out that visceral rewards are only one technique for increasing the emotional impact of feedback systems in games. Here are several alternative feedback techniques which are highly effective, lower cost and have much lower burnout rates. For example:
  • Real world rewards: Rewards that tie into real world goals of the customer. Examples include money in gambling games or the promise of better mental capabilities in the DS Brain Training titles.
  • Social rewards: Reward that leverage or help build social networks. Examples include prestige-based feedback in a title like Counterstrike’s leader board or Guild housing in an MMO.
  • Nested rewards: The nesting of carefully balanced feedback systems that augment and encourage the continual learning of new strategies. An example includes the turn structure in Civilization in which various building schedules encourage the player to continue for ‘one more turn.”
Possible paths towards better advertising
In order to have more positive advertising messages, you need to create games that have a positive benefit for your customers.
  • Stop relying on visceral rewards as your game’s primary selling point. Use visceral rewards sparingly in your designs. You may lose a few hormonal teenage ‘hard core’ gamers who have bought into an empty gaming culture, but that is okay. There are better things you can do with your mad skillz than virtually stimulating their tender amygdala with sensory overload.
  • Focus on alternative feedback systems such as real world rewards or social rewards. You’ll actually be providing substantial, positive benefits to your customers and the smart marketing people will build their campaigns around this concept.
  • Encourage ‘Try before you buy’ distribution methods. The current retail channel encourages and promotes the status quo of both game design and advertising. The best marketing is to provide authentic, high value experiences to your customer and then leverage of word of mouth and other viral or grassroots techniques. When you encourage user trial of your product, you are no longer hiding behind the veil of questionable box shots, previews and magazine ads. Instead, you are establishing an honest, experience-based connection with your customer. The rapidly growing markets of casual gaming and MMO games follow this sales model very successfully.
Many in our close knit industry are always willing to defend the excesses of visceral feedback as art. But I wonder if the situation isn’t the exact opposite. Art to me is the act of creating great and wondrous things that communicate the breadth of the human condition.

When I look at many games and the sorry advertisements that reflect back their pitiful value, I see people mechanically spewing out “more for the sake of more.” A game that only offers perfectly modeled bullet paths or the ability to murder beautiful women is a waste of talent and a blight upon our industry. I say this not because I’m morally opposed to such content, but because it doesn’t accomplish anything worthy for the customer, the industry or our industry’s wonderful developers.

Make something worthwhile. The game ads, though never perfect, will improve in direct response to the value of what you create. Perhaps, many years from now, I’ll be able to flip through EGM with my fiancé and not feel like such a dolt. :-)

Take care



Ms Pacman


Other old box shots

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