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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Steambirds: Why indie games are good for fans

Here's a rough sneak peak video of an indie gem called SteamBirds. As I was playing, I started thinking about questions of authorship and authenticity in the game industry.

The game
Steambirds is a rare treat. The magical design equation = Steampunk + Turn-based strategy + Air combat.

Despite my immense love of turn-based strategy games, I've found two problems with the genre over the years. First, very few people make them any longer. This is simple silliness and is easily rectified. Second, and perhaps more damning, most turn-based games that exist take forever to teach and play. The gaps and chinks that once appeared in my youthful schedule are now jam packed with accumulated tasks, looming responsibilities and the vast pressure of my imminent demise. I'm lucky to squeeze in even a few minutes of playtime at the end of a long day.

With Steambirds, the devs managed to make a deep strategy game where a single match is over in minutes. It fits into my life. The interface is super streamlined so even casual players can learn the basics in 30 seconds. My wife, not exactly a hardcore gamer, has been playing for days now. How cool is that?

I'm a fan. Here's a simple question that should be asked of all games: Who is responsible for making this wonderful experience?

The problem with game development heroes
Here is what I have observed: If a game is built by a large team and published by a mainstream publisher, you cannot know who is responsible for the game.

As an exercise, name a modern developer whose work has changed your life. If you are a mainstream gamer, you'll likely name the talking head behind the latest console smash. Chances are that the individual you think of as the key creative force is:
  • A cog in a much larger machine. Only rarely does an individual contribute more than 1% of the magic that makes a large title sparkle. There are just too many cooks in the large scale game development kitchen for individuals to shine.
  • Not directly responsible for the market success of the title at hand. Much of the success of AAA titles is based off brand and marketing budgets that weigh in at double the development cost. Without the expensive propaganda the drives a finely honed message into our consciousness, many of the 'most popular' titles would be little more than footnotes.
  • Made spokesperson by the direction of marketing. Talking heads, even ones with the title of 'designer' or 'producer' are often selected for their ability to A) deliver a message or B) coast by on their past history. Few tell an authentic story based on their personal contribution to the game. Real contributers are hidden behind the anonymous whitewash of the studio name.
The game media, trained to vacuum up press releases and pre-packaged interviews, never asks the probing question "What did you actually do?" or "Well, if you didn't, who did?" Marketing handlers merely selects a plausible face and media blindly crowns them as worthy creative visionaries.

Idols, even false ones, fill a uniquely human need for worship. Both gamers and journalists are desperate to adore, to celebrate, to follow the brilliant individuals that birthed our favorite games. When presented with the mechanistic, faceless truth of modern game development, we reject reality and seek something, anything that fits our preconceived notions of creative genius. A paper hero constructed of marketing materials fits the fan's need and is gladly assembled for each game launch.

But do we really need to settle? Are artificial heroes necessary? What if there were real gaming celebrities out there who are actually worthy of our veneration?

How a fan should select an authentic gaming hero
Here's an exercise for selecting someone in the game industry to admire.
  1. Is the game worthy?
  2. Are you being lied to?
  3. Are the authors identifiable as a real human being?
  4. Is their contribution meaningful and authentic?
  5. Does their contribution predict future enjoyment?
As we step through each of these, I've got a bold claim that I'll state up front: The only people that we, as fans, can claim with 100% certainty are worthy of our appreciation are small teams of independent developers.

Is the game worthy?
You can think about the worth of game in terms of Reach (the number of people it impacts), Depth (the depth of the experience) and Innovation (the degree to which the game moves the industry forward.)

Reach: An indie title like Steambirds will almost certainly will reach millions. It will be played by more gamers than 99% of all games on any game market. Take your pick...Xbox, Wii, PS3, DS, iPhone. In terms of broad popularity, Steambirds will have a bigger reach than the vast majority of games ever released during the history of gaming. Let that sink in for a moment.

Depth: For a percentage of players, a game made by one or two people can be just as compelling as any bloated AAA monstrosity. The elegant birds flying upward in Adam Saltsman's Canabalt spark deeper feelings within me than any of the overwrought hair porn smeared haphazardly across Bayonetta.

Innovation: A game like Steambirds doesn't play much like the vast number of clones that continually flood the market. From one perspective, it is another turn-based strategy game that has clear roots in existing (albeit obscure) boardgames. Yet compared to the dozens of FPS, physics games, platformers, tower defense titles and match 3 games, a project like Steambirds is delightfully unique. It innovates in terms of UI. It innovates in terms of genre pacing and mechanics. It even takes place in an original setting. (One where the fusion reactor was invented in the 1800s!)

I use Steambirds as an example, but there are dozens of indie titles that fit any sane definition of worthy. When you objectively measure game on worth instead of paid hype, you realize that games built by independent developers are rapidly becoming the defining experiences of a whole new generation of players. Just the other day I was chatting with my doctor, a gray haired lady in her fifties. She started excitedly talking about the great new game she was playing, a title called Osmos. This isn't some mainstream or casual is pure indie gaming. It hit me: our stereotypes are broken. The fact that a game is 'indie' no longer limits it to being a niche product.

Greatness is now independent of development budget. It is no longer defined by team size or marketing campaigns. A great game is a great game, be it a AAA marquee title or a 2D project made by two guys with a dream.

Are you being lied to?
If there is a publisher, there is always spin. It is built into the incentive structure associated with funding and marketing a game portfolio.

With an indie game like Steambirds, there is no vast publisher machine with a financial need to twist and massage the truth. You are connected directly by blogs, forums and interviews with the developer. Many times they are the ones responding to your emails directly. There are no endless lists of people who may or may not have actually ever made something. Unlike most most pro developers, the human beings responsible for every lovingly crafted detail of indie games even have names. You can look them up. They have ugly, honest, human websites, not extravagant confections excreted by nameless outsourced minions.

Honesty and transparency should matter to true fans. It is worth dedicating your passion and energy to something real, not a lie.

Are the authors identifiable as real human beings?
For Steambirds, I helped a bit on the design and graphics, but real creator of the game is Andy Moore, who worked alongside Colin Northway on the phenomena called Fantastic Contraption. The musician is by DannyB, the sizzling dynamo behind games like Canabalt and Super Meat Boy. In some ways, it is a game made by indie superstars.

It matters that Andy Moore is a real person, not a cog playing a role. I've met him last year in Austin and together we drank some fine microbrews. Along with a crew of other indies, we partook in an ill fated 2am adventure through the back alleys of Austin in search of a magical rumored cupcake deli. As we were chatting, he told me how after Fantastic Contraption, he sold off everything that didn't fit in a suitcase. This practice is called 'rightsizing your life' and it shows a dedication to game development that I find both rare and admirable. The fact that his lovely girlfriend puts up with his artistic journey is even more admirable.

Now, he lives to make games. Just last weekend, he was tapped as a mentor for the Global Game Jam and stepped up at the last minute to bail out a failing team. By the end of 48 hours, they had created a giant grotesque caterpillar that barfed rainbows. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

You won't find such stories told at press junkets. In fact, you may not even be able to find out the names of the people who actually worked on the game. Merely having accurate credits is still somewhat of a controversial topic for many large developers.

Games made by real people...there is something inherently valuable about the human story behind a game's creation.

Is their contribution meaningful and authentic?
Andy programmed every line of code in Steambirds. He isn't a 1% contributer. He is a majority contributor. My rule of thumb is simple: If you remove a person from the project, does the project still get finished? Does it still reach it's potential? I challenge you to find such a person on most non-indie projects. You typically won't. The cogs are treated as replaceable components (even when they aren't.)

After the project started, I found out that Andy is an amateur pilot. Steambirds was not merely a job. It was an opportunity for him to express his love of airplanes as a game. This intrinsic motivation is the difference between Van Gogh placing his turbulent emotions on canvas and an assembly line mechanically painting signage.

Personal passion and the size an individual's impact matter.

Does their contribution predict future enjoyment?
You haven't played Steambirds. But you may have played Fantastic Contraption. And you may have heard the tunes in Canabalt. There is a direct mapping between the creative skills expressed in Steambirds and your impressions of the author's past efforts. Much like how you might check out the album of your favorite band, you should also be inclined to check out the newest game from your favorite indie developer. Their creative blood courses through their entire body of work.

No such link with the past exists on games made by larger teams. 8 times out of 10, the name of both the publisher and the development company on the box have no coherent connection with the people who made the game. The team logos are, in effect, meaningless badges that exist purely for the sake of marketing. If someone says that they like or dislike an EA game, they obviously have no idea what they are talking about.
  • A publisher's brand is a business shell, not a developer that creates authored experiences.
  • Publishers often switch up teams on a title by title basis. The group that made the game that you enjoyed is unlikely to be the same team that was contracted to make the sequel.
  • Large teams experience massive churn. Some groups lose upwards of 50% of their developers from game to game. The original people who made your beloved game may not even make games any longer.
  • Power shifts within a large developer often alter creative direction in unpredictable ways.
A clear, strong connection between the author and his works helps you, the player make meaningful judgement about whether or not you want to try future games. Without this simple, obvious connection, you are just a sucker caught up in a cynical branding shell game.

True fans know who makes their games
In summary, when you really love a game, be it a small title or a large title, do the following:
  • Find out who actually made the game you love.
  • Look for games where vision and ownership are clearly visible.
  • Reject the marketing machine.
As I look at this list, I am delighted by the indie game movement because for the first time in many years, players can once again associate the efforts of a human being with their great game experience. I want to be celebrate the individuals who makes the games that change my life. I don't want to be a suckered by some expensive snow job. Indie games let me be a fan who is cheering on someone authentic and deserving. That is pretty darned cool.

take care

PS: Steambirds is currently in bidding over on Wish Andy luck!

PPS: mind is blown! Some eagle eyed commenters pointed out a great little space strategy game called Critical Mass by Sean O'Connor that has a very similar control system...and was created in 1995. I love it! It is awesome when two smart team independently stumble on the same solution decades apart. Convergent evolution in action. This also points out the importance of seeking out old masters for great ideas. If we had known about Critical Mass, perhaps we'd have a few dozen less UI prototypes. :-) Credit to an original innovator where credit is due: Go check out Critical Mass.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Flash Love Letter (2009) Part 1

Flash Love Letter (2009) Part 1
Chapter 1: Introduction
Hello Flash game developer,
Over the past couple months, I've spent a bit of time looking at Flash gaming on web portals like Kongregate and Newgrounds.  There are over 14,000 games spread across 30,000 portals with hundreds of new games coming out every month.  The output alone is amazing. 
Let me cut to the chase.  I think that you, Flash game developers, are some of the most talented and inspirational people working today in game development. Your passion for building games burns so incredibly brightly. Your ability to quickly make and distribute games is second to none. You hold immense potential to transform the future of games. 
Let me tally your blessings: 
  • Cheap and effective distribution: Your platform reaches over 350 million players, more than all home consoles combined.  A poor college student can release a half decent game and within a month, a million people will play it.  Such reach is unheard of on almost any other platform. 
  • Robust technology: Graphics, animation, sound, video, physics and networking technology is freely available and works surprisingly well. You are building on one of the most accessible and robust multimedia platforms that has ever existed in the history of the world.  Where other teams waste man months just getting a black triangle showing on the screen, you can have a working game up and running in hours. 
  • World class creative tools: Flash is fed by an art pipeline familiar to millions of artists that has been polished and tested over the past decade.  
  • Thousands of developers making stuff just for you: With a few simple API calls, you have the entire power of the web at your finger tips.  Want to send emails, suck in friend lists from Facebook, access payment systems, or let people buy underpants emblazoned with your logo? It is all there waiting for you to piggyback atop. 
  • Immense creative opportunities: Flash is uniquely positioned to create social games, mobile games, location-based games, games that suck in databases, games that use video, games that use real-time audio, games that connect millions.  The number of radical new game genres is primed to explode like no other time since the 80's. And you have all the tools necessary to  drive the wave of game play innovation forward. 
  • Freedom: You can make whatever you want. Unlike developers of other platforms, there is minimal interference from traditional gate keepers such as big company politics, retailers or publishers.  The Man doesn't own you, at least not yet.  
Such riches! Your platform of choice contains almost everything you need to radically transform gaming as we know it. 

The mystery
So...where are the great world changing Flash games?  They appear to be missing.

What we'll cover
Flash games are currently the ghetto of the game development industry.  Compared to the number of players it serves, the Flash game ecosystem makes little money, launches few careers, and sustains few developer owned businesses.   Despite the vast potential of the ecosystem, Flash games contribute surprisingly little to the advancement of game design as an art or a craft.  
In order to understand why this promising game platform is such a surprising dissapointment, we'll look at Flash games from three perspectives: 
  • Chapter 2 - Making money:  How do Flash developers currently make money.
  • Chapter 3 - Generating value: How Flash developers currently create 'valuable' game for their players?
  • Chapter 4 - Reaching customers: How developers currently reach their players. 
  • Chapter 5 - Premium Flash games as a service:  A mental model for understanding the new world of web gaming. 
For each step, I'll cover alternative techniques that give you, the game developer, make even better games. 

Chapter 2 - Making Money
Money makes the world go round.  It pays salaries and gives developers the time and space to create creative products.  Yet, Flash game developers don't seem to be making much cash. 

Flash gaming's Achilles heel
I took a look at the Flash ecosystem to see if I could spot the fatal flaw. 

The red flows are where people pay out money and the green items are places where people earn money.  Here are the common money sources for the developer: 
  • Direct: The game developer sells ads from a generic ad service on their personal website or portal. 
  • Game specific ad service: An ad service such as Mochi collects Flash ads that are typically placed in front of a game during loading. 
  • Site licenses: A portal pays a developer a fixed fee for a customized site locked version they hope will increase player retention. 
  • Sponsorship: A company pays a developer a fixed fee in order to direct customers from other portal to their portal in the hopes of capture those customer's lifetime ad revenue. 
There is one obvious fact: the entire flash ecosystem is driven by low quality advertising.  Piddling amounts of ad money flows into the developer's pocket through a variety of obfuscated middlemen.

Ads are a really crappy revenue source
For a recent game my friend Andre released, 2 million unique users yields around $650 from MochiAds.  This yields an Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) of only $0.000325 per user. Even when you back in the money that sponsors will pay, I still only get an ARPU of $0.0028 per user. In comparison, a MMO like Puzzle Pirates makes about $0.21 per user that reaches the landing page (and $4.20 per user that registers)    
What this tells me is that other business models involving selling games on the Internet are several orders of magnitude more effective at making money from an equivalent number of customers. When your means of making money is 1/100th as efficient as money making techniques used by other developers, maybe you've found one big reason why developers starve when they make Flash games.  

The effect of 1/100th as much money
Due to the low quality revenue streams, even great games make beer money, not rent money. A good game will make $1000 and a great game might earn $5000-7000.  A rule of thumb is that you need to release 10 good Flash games a year to convince your girlfriend's father you are not a bum. 
    10 games a year may not seems like such a big deal to some, but there is a hidden one-two punch that knocks most developers into bankruptcy 
    • Most Flash game developers have little financial cushion and live paycheck to paycheck. 
    • Flash game revenue is highly bursty due to a reliance on landing sponsorships upon release of their latest game. 
    It is common for a developer to release several games in a row and get sponsorships or licenses for each one. But the inevitable randomness of game development results a month or two delay on your next project.  It only takes missing one or two of those 10 games to force a professional Flash developer into ever waiting arms of endless soul sucking contract jobs.  It is surprisingly hard to change the world when you are stuck re-skinning the latest Mountain Dew advergame. 

    Only cockroaches survive without money. 
    It doesn't matter much raw talent you possess. With the right support, you could be the next Miyamoto.  Sorry, not important.  All that really matters is that you possess what I call the 'cockroach gene'. Can you churn out 'good enough games' and survive if your games repeatedly fail to make money?
    The following are survival strategies employed by successful Flash developers: 
    • Be a full time student:  This is the dominant category of Flash developers. 
    • Live in a socialist country: I'm looking at you, Scandinavians.    
    • Have (rich) family that will support you: I've met folks that do this but it is uncommon. 
    • Starve for your art: The Jason Rohrers of the world are also rather rare. 
    If any of these fit, congratulations.  You are in the small percentage of developers that have the financial support necessary to be a Flash game developer. Everyone else, thousands upon thousands of talented developers, fall in a category called 'churn'.  They can't even survive on ramen and passion.  So they move on to richer markets or leave game development behind forever.  
    Such a loss. Such an incredible waste.  I'd guess we are losing 95% of our best Flash games because the people with the talent to make great games find the Flash market financially untenable.  

    Solution: Players as a revenue source
    Ads are a good secondary source of revenue, but surely there are richer sources of revenue?  There is an obvious one, used for decades by all other game industries...why not ask the players for money?

    Here's the theory behind asking for money for a game. 
    1. Players have access to lots of games.  Most of which are free.  This is the reality of the market. 
    2. However, at a certain point, they start playing your game. 
    3. If you've created a great game, some players will fall in love.  They will be in the thrall of your reward system and your in game value structures.  At this point, they don't care that there are other games.  They don't care that they are playing on a portal. All they care about is your game.  Games create value through play. 
    4. When a player is in love, money is no object. If you ask the player for cash in exchange for more value, they will often agree. It is a good exchange in their eyes: They give you a small bit of change and in return, they get proven, addictive experience that they love. 

    Ask for the money  
    When game developers ask for money, they are usually pleasantly surprised.  Their customers give them money; in some cases, substantial amounts. I witnessed this early in my career making shareware games at Epic in the 90s and I'm seeing the same basic principles are in play with high end Flash games. Fantastic Contraption, for example, pulled in low 6 figures after only a few months on the market. That's about 100x better than a typical flash game and in-line with many shareware or downloadable titles.  
    Here are the four steps you need to follow in order to successfully ask for money from your players: 
    1. Offer: Offer premium content
    2. Tell:  Tell players about what they get if they pay you. 
    3. Repeat: Repeat the first two steps until it clicks with the player. 
    4. Accept payment: Get the money in your bank account.

    Step 1 - Offer
    Offer the player something valuable. Take a careful look at what players find valuable about your game and try dividing it up into two buckets: Introductory content and Premium content.  Give away gameplay in the Introductory bucket, but sell the content in the Premium bucket.  Many Flash developers insist on giving away everything for free.  Stop devaluing your work and start creating a premium offer.  Below are some ways of creating premium buckets. 

    Time gates
    Players can play for some period of time and then they are locked out until until they pay.  For example, players could play for 45 minutes - 1 hour (effective free trial times in the casual space) and then pay to play longer. 
    Content gatePlayers play an initial teaser portion of the game for free and then pay to unlock access to additional content. For example, players could pay to unlock all the levels in a game.  This is how many shareware titles worked. 
    Aesthetic items
    Players purchase non-gameplay additions that increase their identity or status.  For example, players could pay to give their character a cool outfit that they can show off to their friends. 
    Sell unique abilities that let players experience the game in a new way.  For example, players could purchase new jumping boots that let them fly through levels in a way that let's them re-experience the game all over again.  
    Virtual items can be bundled together to create additional value.  For example, if people love buying food for their virtual pet, let them buy a 10 pack of food for a 30% discount. 
    Some abilities can expire after a period of time or after a number of uses.  For example, you could buy a potion that increases your strength, but you can drink from it 3 times.  Also known as "item rentals."
    If certain abilities or bonus are a valuable long term, consider charging a reoccurring fee.   For example, you could offer extra storage for advanced players, but charge a monthly fee. 
    Stackable subscriptions
    If certain abilities are additive(such as an experience or currencies multiplier), let players buy multiples of the same thing. 
    Rare items
     Limit the number of items available so that players feel special when they purchase it. 
    Time limited items
    Offer some items for short periods of time so that players feels that they lucked out finding the product in time. 
    Sale items
    Set a standard pricing system for items and then offer some items for sale.  This works great with time limited offers. Again, players love to get deals. 
    GiftsPlayers seek to maintain social bonds by gifting other players with items or abilities. 
    Accelerators Many games have a 'grind' that artificially lengthens the game. Players with little time are willing to purchase items that let them reduce or eliminate the time consuming activities in the game. 
    Physical goodsT-shirts and other branded items
    Examples of premium content bucketing techniques
    There is no need to limit yourself to any single one revenue stream.  There are lots of different types of players and each player values something differently.  Some players may be willing to buy a t-shirt.  Others may want 5 stackable subscriptions.  Others may just want a pretty new character with a panda head.  When you restrict your game to a single revenue source, you miss out on gaining money from all the different types of customers that would have paid you if you had just given them the right offer.        
    When you design your game, pick three or four revenue streams and build them into your game.  Here are some categories of users that you may want keep covered. 
    • People who don't want to pay:  Advertising is a good option to keep around. A few hundred bucks is still money in the bank. 
    • People who are interested in more of the same: Once you've established the value of your game, some players want more.  Give them more levels, more puzzles, more enemies in exchange for cash. 
    • People who are interested in status or identity improvements:  Some people see games as means of expression and identity.  Give them items that let them express themselves or customize their experience.  
    • People who have limited time: Some people live busy lives and want to consume your game when they desire and how they desire.  Cheat codes, experience multipliers and other systems that bypass the typical progression all help satisfying this customer need.

    Step 2 - Ask
    Tell the player what they are going to receive in return for their money.  If people don't understand the promise of what they are buying, they won't pay.  
    • Ensure the user sees the offer: Screenshots, feature lists, and evocative language should be placed clearly in front of the user.  You want convey to the player the value, both practical and emotional that they will experience if they were to gain access to the premium content. 
    • Tie your offer of premium value to an explicit request for money.  We live in a capitalist society so people understand the concept of buying something.  Don't ask for a donation.  Don't ask players to "give you what they feel like giving."  People will think you are a charity case and in my experience your revenues will drop by 90% or more.  Give the offer a specific price, be it $10 or 200 gold in your favorite virtual currency.  
    • Time the appearance of the offer.  You can ask for money when players are caught up in the emotional moment of play.  Which is more valuable to the player? A Pirates of the Caribbean T-shirt at the mall or a Pirates of the Caribbean T-shirt right after you walk off the Disney ride and are flush with excitement?  Both your odds of buy the shirt and your pleasure in owning the shirt are greater when you buy it after the ride.  Use game design to make players fall in love and in their moment of game playing passion, they will be willing to spend money. 

    Step 3 - Repeat
    Repeat telling and asking several times until the value of your offer sinks in. Players need to see the offer multiple times before they'll commit to making a purchase. One technique that works well is to put the offer in the natural flow of playing the game. 
    • Prominently place the offer in high traffic areas of the game such as entry, save, in game store and exit screens.   
    • Email the user periodically to let them know about specials or sales.  By asking them to read an email, you are costing them time, so make sure that what you offer is valuable and delightful or else you'll end up with angry customers. 
    You can risk annoying the user if you do this too much, but in my experience coaching indie and Flash game developers, they err on the side of being hiding their offers. I've seen offer screen buried in option menus, guaranteeing that less than 1% of users will ever see them.  I've seen offers that appear only if you click a tiny button.  Users see it once and then never see it again.  Don't be embarrassed. As long as your offer is clear, professional and doesn't attempt to trick or overwhelm the user, most players will see your purchase button as just another useful, functional part of the UI. 

    Step 4 - Get the money into your bank account
    Use a payment service to process their order.  The good news is that there are dozens of 3rd party payment systems on the market.  The bad news is that they all have subtle differences that have a huge effect on both your short term and long term revenue. 

    The many layers of payment middlemen, each taking their cut.  
    (Margins are approximate and will vary depending on the service)
    Some things to consider: 
    • Margin: How much does the payment service take?  The payment company is providing you with a service and deserves to be paid.  However, you'll find that some companies take 10% and others take upwards of 75%.  Companies pitch various bundled services such as storage or fraud protection as justification for their increased fees. Some companies will also share some of the margin with portals in return for them carrying the games. Shop around and be honest with the trade off you are making.  Remember you'd need to get 5 times as much traffic to makes the same amount of money if you pick a service with a 50% margin vs a 10% margin. 
    • Processing fees: Most Flash payment systems are simply a repackaging of non-Flash payment services with a pretty UI and a bigger margin tacked on top.  The existing payment services already takes a chunk of the user's money in the form of 'processing fees'  Ask if the advertised payment company margin is inclusive or additional to the existing 'processing fees'.  A 30% margin seems reasonable, until you realize that it is on top of an existing 50% margin for a mobile provider.  I like to ask "If the customer pays $10 on their credit card or phone, how much cash ends up in my bank account?" 
    • White box or branded?: Some services like Super Rewards can be reskinned so that they are transparent to the end user.  Until the player enters into the actual payment portion of the process, they feel like the stores and such are part of the game.  Services like Noboba and MochiCoins are heavily branded with the payment company's logo.  Their goal is to get the customer to invest their trust in them, the payment provider.  The downside is that customers don't invest as much trust in you, the game developer. 
    • Customer registration?: In order to track customers and their purchases, you'll want a secure login system.  Some payment services let you build your own.  Others require you to use theirs so that they can control the primary relationship with the customer.  Often these services will not release customer lists to the developer.  This becomes a problem long term if you release multiple games and want to run cross promotions. 
    • Storage support: Once players purchase an item or feature, they'll want to have access to their stuff when they sign back in.  This means your game will need online storage and a server back end.  Some payment services offer this as part of the package, which is great for the common situation where the developer doesn't know much about back end programming. 
    • Lock-in: Do you have the ability to easily switch to another payment service?  In general, the more comprehensive solutions with customer make it more difficult to switch.  With some comprehensive services, capturing customers is more valuable than your money.  You only provide cash for a single game, but a customer can be sold and resold dozens of times to dozens of games.  Run far, far away from such companies since their best business interests are not aligned with your best interests. 
    We are in the early stages of the Flash payment market.  Often new game developers will unthinkingly jump on the first service that they happen across.  In this low information environment, payment services can charge unreasonably high margins and very few developers will complain. Many will be excited to give away 50% of their money because they weren't earning any money previously. 
    A payment provider should be a reliable commodity service, not a major business partner. Over time, I predict we'll see more transparency and competition which should drive down prices.  The ideal payment service is one with low margins, low switching costs, no branding and APIs that let you cheaply and easily tie into generic, developer controlled login and storage services.  This will come about as a competitive market works its magic, but until then the opportunists are out in full force and Flash developers will pay a premium for their ignorance.  By asking, comparing, and publicly publishing information about margins, developers can encourage payment providers to compete openly and honestly. 
    The good new is that some generic payment systems are cheap to hook up to your Flash game and allow for experimentation.  On one project, we used SuperRewards and reskinned their front end to it fit nicely into our game.  They charge 20% margin on all purchases, but we can now transparently swap in primary payment provider for credit cards, mobile etc.  By mixing and matching we can build a payment front end that makes us more money.  We own our own virtual currency and we own our customer data.  
    This was accomplished with one programmer in 2 weeks of work and can be reused across multiple games.  Such a path isn't for everyone, especially if you lack web programming skills.  However, with a little elbow grease, you can tap existing, proven, generic payment services to roll your own with very little downside. 

    Execution matters
    Most Flash game developers are ignoring all of these steps.  A few are doing a couple steps poorly, failing and then running about screaming that you can't make money off charging for premium content.  Instead of jumping to ill formed conclusions, try executing with vigor some of the basic business lessons learned in the past 2000 years of capitalism.  Just going through the motions isn't enough. 
    Here's an example of a good idea poorly executed. Dan Hoelck is the very talented developer behind the polished Flash game Drunken Masters, a game that attempts to charge for premium content.  He created a content gate, displayed his offer to the player and integrated a payment service.  Unfortunately, the resulting sales process is torpedoed by multiple fatal flaws.  As a result his conversion rates are miserable: 0.01% of users purchase his offer.  You'd hope to see numbers closer to 0.1 - 1%. 
    • The call to action isn't clear.  The offer is labled 'cheats' (not a positive connotation) and then crams lots of little detail in a tiny font at the bottom of the screen. I'm looking for a big 'buy now' button and some pretty pictures telling me all the lovely things I'll get. This is nowhere to be seen.  
    • The value of the offer is questionable.  He gives 90+% of the game away for free, and lets you purchase a few miscellaneous features that most people don't need. A good rule of thumb when using a content gate is that your premium content should be seen as twice as valuable as the demo experience.  
    • Making purchasing difficult: In order to purchase, you need to manually type in a URL, find the right link to click on and then purchase. Is this necessary? Every step of the pipeline, you are going to lose large numbers of users. As much of the purchase flow should be within the game as possible. 
    • Charging too little.  Dan charges $1.50 for his game and this is likely too little. Beware your natural tendency to undercharge.  People who love your game are surprisingly price insensitive. For example, in the microtransaction-based MMO Domain of Heroes, prices range from "$0.99 to $349.99 and about 80% of the revenue comes from purchases at the $19.99 pricepoint." With a little price experimentation I suspect Dan could have increased his price to $5 or $10 and increased his overall revenues substancially.
    It is okay to fail.  The basic system Dan made took him ~40 hours to implement and it is obvious he has learned a lot of lessons from the experiment.  Building an effective sales pipeline is just as much a craft as making a great game.  As a game developer you need to approach the task as a new skill to master that you likely aren't going to get right the first time.  Put in the basics, measure your results and apply what you've learned to your next project.  

    But people will hate me if I charge money! 
    Some developers I've talked with worry that they'll alienate others by charging directly for their game.  Here are some common concerns: 
    • Bad reputation: Many Flash game developers are not in it for the money, but to be part of the indie community. The threat of a poor reputation can be frightening. The truth is that modest, self effacing developers that find financial success are worshiped like heroes. Just ask Colin of Fantastic Contraption how he was received at GDC.  If you are worried about your reputation, stop starving yourself into hipness.  Instead create great games and be generous to others. A good reputation follows naturally. 
    • Players complaining: So what if you end up being hated by a few kids that feel entitled to free stuff?  It isn't the end of the world. Usually the money and thanks from delighted customers more than make up for a few sour grapes tossed about on dark and skanky corners of the Internet. 
    • Bad rankings: It is true that players will occasionally mark down paid games out of ignorance and spite. Luckily there is a solution.  If you offer real value to customers in love with your game, your fan's rapturous applause will drown out whiners.  Players, in aggregate, tend to forgive great games, even if they need to pay for them. 
    • Sponsors: Sponsors don't want the game they serve competing directly with their primary source of revenue, ads. If you can promote that your premium game results in better player engagement and repeat plays, most portals will happily take their cuts of the resulting ad revenue and leave you to monetize your customers.  A smaller number will worry that your premium content will pollute their 'free' label.  An even smaller number will be greedy and ask for a cut of your hard earned customer revenue.  In the short term, you can ignore demanding portals.  The market is highly fragmented (30,000 portals!) and no portal owns more than 5% of the players.  At this point in the market, developers have the ability to walk away from the greedy minority.  Suggest reasonable terms where portal keep their existing ad revenue and you keep all in game revenue.  If they balk, leave the bastards to rot. 
    If you make a great game played for hours on end by millions of people, you deserve to be paid.  Stop worrying about how people 'might' react.  Ask a fair price for the value that you provide. 

    Quick monetization check list
    • Are you asking users for money? 
    • Are you telling users what they'll get if they pay you?
    • Have you hooked up a payment system before you launch your game?
    • Are you tapping multiple revenue streams that appeal to different types of users?
    • Are you basing your design decisions on the behavior of people who make you money? 
    • Are you appropriately filtering the feedback of people who do not make you money?
    Take care
    PS: Time for a short break!  I'll follow up with the next few chapters in a couple of days. 


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    Sunday, December 02, 2007

    How to bootstrap your indie art needs

    A goodly number of indie game developers are lured into by the free game graphics. Every few days an email pops into my inbox, "Hey, could you draw the graphics for my cool game design idea?"

    I'm honored more than you can imagine when I get such a letter and they mean a lot to me. Unfortunately, I have my fingers in so many projects at the moment that squeezing in an additional graphics job wouldn't be doing anyone any favors. Still, it bothers me that talented people with amazing dreams can't make their games due to a lack of graphics.

    Here's a run down of several techniques that help you get your game finished without being blocked by the graphics bottleneck.

    Build a game that fits your level of art skills
    The first path that you should go down is to build a game that fits your level of art skills. If you are a programmer and can only make squares, make a game that uses squares as graphics. It worked for Tetris and it can work for you.

    At a functional level, graphics exist to provide feedback to the player, not to wow them with Hollywood-esque delights. Put those dreams of cinematic fantasms to the side and focus on the game mechanics, the interface and the level design. If you can nail all of these and you only have little ASCII art, people will still flock to your game.

    Some successful games that designed the project around the developer's lack of traditional graphics skills include:
    If they can do it, you can certainly finish your game without relying on an artist for graphics.

    Use free graphics
    The next step up is to use free graphics. There are thousands of game graphics out there on the web. Admittedly, they have problems:
    • They may not be the most attractive. "Dude, these free graphics are totally sucky compared to StarCraft."
    • They may not fit your exact mental vision. "No, the Xenli Sorcesses has four silver spikes on her bosom armor, not two. It is completely wrong!"
    • They may not be complete: "I really need a female knight and and they only supplied a male knight! The end is nigh!"
    • Other people might be using them in their games. "Argh, now my RPG looks just like the one done by that guy in Australia. *sigh* Now I will never be l33t."
    My heartfelt recommendation is that you get over it. None of these is really a blocker. If you can build a game with limited art, you can certainly build a game with a few carefully chosen bits of free art. Here are some answers to common complaints.
    • You aren't Blizzard. That's okay. You can still make a fun game.
    • Design is about coming up with great solutions in the face of complex constraints. In order to design a great game, you will need to adapt your vision to reality a thousand times. Practice your problem solving skills by using free game graphics in the best way possible to get as close to your vision as possible.
    • If the set isn't complete, get creative! If you need two knight graphics, colorize one blue and one red. If you need a dragon boss, colorize one of your knights black and change the villain to be the Dark Knight. Even primitive graphics skills can triple the number of usable graphics if you show a little initiative.
    • You browse free game graphics archives, but your customers do not. Out of the thousands of people that play your game, only a small handful will recognize that you are using free graphics. The only ones who care are typically merely would-be game developers snobs. Ignore them. That is easy enough.
    Here's an example of noted game developer Sean Cooper using my free tile graphics for his Flash game Boxhead. Sean has worked on Powermonger, Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet and Syndicate. It is instructive to observe how he uses free graphics to give his game a leg up.

    Pay for competent graphics
    If you absolutely must have quality custom graphics, you are going to need to pay an artist real money to produce them. There seems to be an odd opinion that that artists sit around all day doing nothing and whenever someone asks them for a painting, they scribble for a few moments and then non-nonchalantly hand over a masterpiece. Good art takes time and skill. Drawing a good tile set might take 20 or more hours. Drawing a simple background might take all day. If you aren't willing to pay for their very valuable time and effort, most competent artists will go work for someone who will.

    Prices vary dramatically depending on the type of art, the quality of the art and the reputation of the artist. Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $60 per hour. The best bet is to ask the artist what their standard rates might be. You can always negotiate, but remember if you squeeze the artist too much, you increase the chances that they will put your game on the back burner when a more appealing opportunity comes along. Negotiating for royalties is another option, but since 90% of the reason that games don't get finished is because the programmer flakes out, I would hope that most artists would be rather wary of this path.

    There are numerous ways to bootstrap your art budget if you have your heart set on custom artwork.
    • Create art-free games to fund games with more polish. Release a version using free art. If it sells, reinvest the profits in creating the same exact game with better graphics.
    • Set aside a certain amount each month to pay for graphics. One fellow I know is setting aside 300 bucks a month to pay for game art. That will buy him about 2 days worth of a cheaper artist's output a month, but if he plans well enough and limits the amount of extravagant graphics in the game, this could be enough.
    If you are looking for artist, you can find a reasonable collection of game artists for hire at these links. Just keep in mind that they all expect to be paid.

    The one technique that doesn't work
    The most common strategy I see used by would-be developers is the only one that doesn't work. They pray that they can find an amazing artist who will work for free on their game. If only they hang out on enough forums and email enough artists and beg loudly enough...a godly artist will drop from the sky and gift them with amazing artwork.

    It generally doesn't happen this way. Good artists can generally find work that pays in cash. Most likely what will happen is that you'll make a deal with a starving student who immediately leaves you in a lurch as soon as something that lets them eat comes along. They aren't being mean. They are just hungry.

    So the would-be game developer mopes about the message boards, complaining about artists leaving their projects and how artists constantly ask for real money. Yet despite the substancial energy that goes into these activities, I've yet to see prayer or complaining ship software.

    The big lesson
    Out of all this discussion about graphics, never lose sight of the big picture. The single most important thing is for you to finish your game. Iterating towards completion is the root of all practical knowledge about game development. Putting a complete game in the hands of player is how you'll learn to make your future games shake the world to its core.

    If you are telling yourself "Oh, I can't complete my game because I don't have an artist," be honest with yourself. You are making excuses. Graphics are not an impediment to making a great game. Do what ever it takes to finish your game.
    • Design a game that doesn't need professional graphics.
    • Use free graphics when possible.
    • Set up a rational budget to purchase custom graphics from a professional artist if needed.
    Best wishes,

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    Friday, March 09, 2007


    As I sit here, listening to the Flame Trick Sub's rendition of 'Plastic Jesus', I am brought back to their rocking performance at the Gathering of Developer's Holy Lot back in 2000. "Sing loud. Sing strong. Sing like the beer in your hand was brought to you by the Lord."

    G.O.D. created a trailer park of sin and gratifyingly poor taste in a parking lot next to the edifice of E3. The free beer required an ID, but anyone could be entertained by the midget pole dancers, befatted 'Satan's Cheerleaders' and the bevy of Catholic school girls cum floor talent. As a business, the Gathering burned and sank into the Texas swamp. A few Easters later, the team was resurrected as the high class publisher Gamecock. They now insist on mimes outfitted with Kiss makeup when they throw a party. Ah, such is the mellowness that comes with age.

    I can't say anything about the games they released or their business plan. The thing that delights me is that they actually appear to possess a personality. You know, one of those crackling zestful outbursts so chock full of rainbow sparkles that the gray morasses of humanity momentarily pauses and perhaps stare.

    The existence of a vibrant personality hints at an abnormality of thought that I happily associate with the destruction of the status quo. Admittedly, such human ElectroPlanktons are not necessarily revolutions in and of themselves. They are however, day glow markers that let us know that the broader community supports and rewards a spectrum of behavior generally not considered predictable or rational by the wise majority. If the freaks can survive here, it must be quite fine to get a little freaky.

    Personalities of Christmas Past
    When I was an impressionable young scrapper, there were people visibly and crazily in love with games. Molyneux was so hip I named my female cat after him. Minter had his llama fixation, George Sanger, aka The Fat Man wore his Suits of Infinite Coolness. Richard Garriot built a goddamn castle. On a more personal level, dozens of my compatriots made shareware games, not for the money but because they were mad with passion (and more than a little angst.) Katanas, furry conventions, giant stuffed animals and whigger posturing were par for the course. From big to small, these were electric personalities casting sparkling arcs of inspiration throughout the industry. You could be guaranteed that at the very least, your gaming coworkers would be colorful.

    Upon graduation from college, the options were obvious. A bright lad like myself could work my way up in an established business. Intern, copy boy, illicit affair, promotion, paycheck. Maybe I could even become a 'high level middle manager' one day. One day. In contrast, the kaleidoscopic roosters in the game industry yodeled from atop their precarious unicycles, proclaiming there was still a job where you could be creative, alive and yourself. Once, I heard the call and I do not regret a second of the ride.

    When the music stops, turn out the lights
    Years passed. The industry matured. For a while, I thought personality might have died. The same old names were trotted out when the believers asked "Whither the creativity?" Franchises and brands were established. Did anyone stop to nurture and grow the industry's creative spirit? Process is great, but it needs to be the sort of process that still allows for the construction of a life sized sofa out of pastel mini marshmallows and spritzer. You know, one with matching felt pillows.

    A New Hope
    A little while ago I got a chance to meet Daniel James of Three Rings. I hear he wears a pirate hat. I know for a fact that he also happens to carry about a long scarf in case the opportunity arises to dress up as Doctor Who. I wanted to hug the man. That might have been awkward.

    The spark of revolution still glows.

    I recently stopped by Derek Yu's site TIGSource forums. My god, what a wonderfully bitchy bunch of ill informed hackers and dilettantes. These are the sort of people that make games about Columbine. Oh, and several of them just won the Indy Game of the Year award at GDC. They'll produce a lot of crap, but they'll also be willing to push buttons and boundaries. We all benefit when our perspectives on what is possible are reset.

    Indie communities driven by strong personalities that match the old glory days of PC shareware are rising again. Smaller MMOs, village games, are growing like communal fungus on the dark underbellies of the internet. L33t Flash developers with amazing hair are rediscovering the demo scene 20 years after the fact. They are using their new found skillz to

    To quote Scripture, "For those about to rock, we salute you." Yes, we do.

    It makes sense that folks with personality are emerging at this time in history. The big consoles throwing money at the problem of innovation in order to differentiate themselves from the pack. The PC world with platforms like Torque, RPG Maker, Flash and XNA has put massively powerful technology in the hands of the small teams on the fringe. Digital distribution is coming of age. All of this means a wider range of people making games and more unedited press for those who rarely are coached in proper 'rod-up-the-rump' PR etiquette. I watched this year's IGF awards and was intensely proud of all the stuttering and yammering.

    Creative Canaries
    Personality matters. We need our anarchists, yiffers, cross dressers and virtuous assholes. They are the canaries in the coal mine. Where they exist, they indicate that our industrial culture venerates the rule breaking that these larger-than-life personalities embody. Where they do not exist or are not tolerated, beware. Creative expression requires a conducive cultural environment. If you lack that environment, even simple innovations are often an act of banging your skull against a thick granite wall.

    Cultivate your canaries. Cultivate the unique spirit of large-than-life personalities. Encourage people to shatter a few boundaries. Reward them, even. Especially if they make games that reflect these values.

    This is the time (once again) to get freaky.

    take care

    Chandelier made from gummy bears

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    Friday, July 28, 2006

    Bursty Indie Sales Cycles

    I had a delightful lunch today with Amanda F. and her handsome, watch loving friend. She is the driving force behind the new indie RPG Aveyond and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what she does next. Most of my contacts with the game industry go back to the old PC shareware glory days, so it is quite enjoyable to connect with one of the rising stars of the new generation of entrepreneurial game developers.

    Out of the many topics we meandered through, one jewel was the bursty nature of shareware game traffic. She’s been noticing a trend. Whenever her game hits a new portal, there is a rise in traffic across all portals that the game is featured, even her website. Portals where her game has long fallen off the chart suddenly start featuring her title again.

    There are two potential reasons here:
    • Repeat impressions are needed before customers take action.
    • The downloadable market is highly fragmented.

    Repeat impressions matter
    People don’t look at a game and think “hey, I’ll try it out.” The first time, they become aware of the title, they might be about to wash their laundry or perhaps they are at work. Maybe they aren't in the mood to check out games. (Shocking!) The moment passes and the title that has consumed a year or more of your life passes out of their heads without a second thought.

    Getting people to download your game is a lot like playing one of those maddening quarter games at the arcade. The machines taunt you with dozens of quarter balancing precariously on the edge of a small ledge. All you have to do is place in a single quarter and you’ll push an avalanche of coins over the edge.

    But imagine that you start with an empty machine and each quarter is actually a mention of your game. You need to build up quite a few impressions of your game within a potential buyer’s head before the cascade of impressions overflows into action.

    When a title hits a new portal, there is a buzz of word of mouth around it. This leads to lots of people getting fresh impressions of your title. Only a few are saturated with enough of your message “Hey, this is a cool game” to actually take the extraordinary effort to search the internet and download it. This leads to more word of mouth and more downloads. Thus the single media event leads to a burst of sales across multiple distribution sources.

    Market fragmentation
    The fact that the downloadable and casual games market is fragmented isn’t really news, but it too informs your sales patterns. Think of the new shareware market being composed of dozens (if not hundreds) of population pockets. Each group might be built around a single portal or a special interest group.

    They don’t talk to one another much, nor do they read common news sources. Many don’t consider themselves mainstream gamers. I like to think of them as the oil shale of the gaming market: A bit difficult to reach in larger numbers, but still highly valuable customers if you can figure out the techniques.

    The result is that long term promotion will often have incremental payoff even with products that a no longer ‘hot’. There will almost always exists large populations of players that will have never heard of your game. Don’t be surprised if you end up getting letters years after your initial launch that exclaim “I had no idea that this [insert superlative] game existed!”

    Often someone who just heard about your game may introduce it to new markets. Within a short period of time, the number of people who become aware of your game can increase dramatically. This also contributes to and magnifies the bursty nature of sales.

    You must pop little markets one at a time over a long period of time before the total number of customers that might buy your game is tapped out. Indie games are in many ways closer to evergreen products than your typical launch and dispose commercial titles. Think about it. Bejeweled is still selling to this day and it is doubtful that the majority of those customers are repeat buyers.

    Marketing is a long term effort
    There is the dark side to all this as well. If your game doesn’t trigger a big enough burst of word of mouth, you may see a small spike that fades away rapidly. Quite likely your awareness raising event isn’t large enough to ignite a chain reaction across all the sparsely connected social nodes. Alternatively your game isn’t good enough to inspire strong word of mouth. Or maybe you are popping smaller markets and not reaching the bigger ones.

    I think of the system as the following (completely unscientific) equation:
    • [# of promotional events]
    • * [Average reach of promotional events]
    • * [Word-of-mouth worthiness of your title]
    • * [Average number of existing impressions]
    • * [Number of new markets that you breach]
    • * [Average size of each mini-market]
    • - Percentage of market already reached.
    • - Percentage of people who just don't give a damn.
    • = Magnitude of each PR burst.
    You’ll likely have to promote your game for longer than expected. Don’t give up on an older title just because it is no longer the latest thing. Re-releases, targeting radically different audiences with an existing products, as well as shameless and consistent broad-based self promotion are all valid and useful techniques for getting your games out in the public eye.

    Here is to a long and bursty sales cycle,

    Links and such

    A description of that darned quarter game

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    Wednesday, March 01, 2006

    Notes from FlashForward 2006

    Matt and Mike Chapman, the artistes that draw Home Star Runner (and Strong Bad!) are Nintendo DS fans. They had put on a talk at FlashForward in Seattle and the first thing they did was announce that they had started a Pictochat session. While one guy talked, the other guy would doodle away and read messages from folks responding in real-time to their talk. They also showed an early version of their cartoon that they claimed was created in MarioPaint. I have no idea if it is true, but these guys rock. Hero worship should be encouraged in such situations.

    Strong Bad

    I have mixed feelings about the Flash community at the moment. At FlashForward, all the cool people get together and show off the crazy things and cool techniques they can do in Flash. The game industry has jaded my inner technophile. Pixel operations such as morphing of two images are nifty, but wasn’t that done in the mid 90’s on the desktop and even earlier in the research labs? One fellow showed off some crazy particle effects. They are certainly artistic, but the same basic stuff was being done on the Amiga and C64 in ages past. The demo scene for god sake…how can you forget the demo scene? It’s like someone playing Black and then claiming Criterion invented the FPS…because they never played that last decade worth of games.

    Why the Web is cool
    But complaining about the fact that Flash people think ancient technology is cool misses the whole point of Flash and web technologies in general. These platforms succeed based on two key points that the game industry might want to take to heart:

    • Reduced barriers to entry for the customer
    • Putting creative power in the hands of non-technical people.
    Why make a web application? From the user’s perspective the benefits are huge.

    • You don’t have to worry about a CD that you’ll inevitably lose.
    • You don’t have to worry about putting something on your machine that will screw it up.
    • You don’t have to worry about losing that silly application icon that gets lost in the crazy hierarchy of the Start Menu.
    • You can type an easily remembered URL into your web browser and get to your stuff instantly.
    These are all minor items to the technologist, but they are some of the thousand little paper cuts that make many users despise their computer.

    From the author’s perspective, the benefits are equally cool.

    • You do not need to be a technical expert. With a simple piece of software and bit of scrounging around the internet, anyone can just start making something. The 99% of the population who can’t code their way out of a paper bag can still make a blog. The 99% of artists who can code can still draw in flash and maybe even hook up a button or two. More passionate people working in a medium = better content. It is a simple thing.
    • For many simple projects, configuration management, updating users about versions, etc, etc are a thing the past. Upload to a central location and your users get the newest stuff. The cost of maintaining content goes way down.
    A case in point are the Home Star Runner guys. Earlier in the day, you had the Adobe pitches gushing about the latest wild improvements to Flash 8 and beyond. Matt and Mike have what many attendees consider a dream Flash job. They are self employed, profitable, have their own office and produce kick ass creative content. Guess what they use? Ancient Flash 5, baby.

    They use some simple drawing tools and the ability to navigate around. But that’s about it. No fancy pixel manipulation. No crazy XML integration. Just some basic tools and a lot of creative spark.

    A pencil is a stick of graphite (but no body cares)
    The best creative works are not only about technology. All artists have this pounded into their heads from an early age. A pencil is just a stick of graphite. It is cheap, readily available and easy to publish the results. It may not have the latest Gel Ink 5.0 technobabbloid writing engine. But that’s okay. Art is always about using what you have in a manner that inspires and entertains. The user doesn’t see a thousand flecks of graphite on a pressed sheet of paper fibers. They see a beautiful sketch by Leonardo.

    The same goes for the web. The end user doesn’t care that Matt and Mike use Flash 5.0 instead of Flash 8.0. They could care less that the graphics technology behind Flicker or Google is 10 to 20 years old. These experiences are fun, hassle free. They showcase unique creative voices that may never have had a chance to blossom in other forms of media.

    Imagine a day when two guys in an apartment working part time can make a world class game that garners more success than most big publisher properties. It has certainly happened in the past. The trends are such that it will happen again.

    • As the middleware industry matures and morphs into artistically friendly tool
    • As the deployment platforms become more standardized,
    • As the language of game design becomes more accessible and broadly taught
    • Production costs will fall and entry barriers to talented creative whackos will decrease.
    The exciting part is that the web, as a platform, is in some ways much further along this path than our vaunted consoles or desktop PC games. Pretty cool. The fact that Flash-based casual games are one of the fasted growing segments of the game market is not an accident. Of course, now I wonder where all those AJAX web 2.0 games are lurking and why they aren’t more popular. :-)

    Take care

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    Thursday, July 28, 2005

    Costikyan: Death to the Game Industry (Long Live Games)

    I couldn't have said this better myself. Here is the view of Greg Costikyan on the state of the industry. I enjoy it when a game designer curses violently out of passion for his choosen profession. :-)

    Much of the work on Lostgarden is there to provide practical tools for accomplishing many of the goals that are outlined in Greg's PowerPoint. "Death to the Game Industry (Long Live Games)" describes a movement made up of dozens of individuals who are active with blogs, talks and more. We need to spread this philosophy beyond the core group such that it infects hundreds of top designers. The ultimate goal is to influence the creation, marketing and distribution of future generations of games.

    Some pertinent topics that I've been covering on this site:
    • How do we create alternative business models that increase the power of the game authors and reduce the destructive influences of the distributors, retailers and publishers?
    • What alternative distribution systems need to be created to ensure success?
    • How do we reduce production costs?
    • How do we empower smaller developers?
    • What are market factors (such as genre addiction, genre lifecycles, etc) that affect the success of games? How can we build games that succeed in the market and still maintain creativity?
    In this light, Space Crack is more than just a game design. It is intended to be an illustrated example of many of these ideals in action. My intent is not to preach theory, but to demonstrate a series of simple, revolutionary tools in a practical, concrete fashion.

    take care

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    Saturday, July 09, 2005

    Oasis: How to create an ineffective game demo

    I just played through the demos of Oasis, Clash N Slash, and Future Pool. I'm admittedly a demo whore. I'll play them, form an opinion about the mechanics and move on. It takes a truly rare game for me to plunk down my hard earned money.

    Of the three, Oasis had the most innovative gameplay. Others have compared it to Civilization meets Mine sweeper and I'd agree with the characterization. It plays with the well-honed mechanics of a veteran German board game: tight rules, well paced risk/reward schedules and an appealing setting.

    I was quite impressed by the Tutorial mode, which took me about 50 minutes to complete. It manages to introduce a wide variety of concepts in an incremental fashion so that the player is never overwhelmed. All board games should have this feature built in. :-) Goodness knows, I'd be able to convince more people to play Settlers of Catan and Adel Verpflichtet if I didn't have to give them a complete brain dump of all the rules all at once.

    Aren't you trying to sell me something?
    I didn't purchase Oasis, even though it is exactly the type of game I enjoy. I played the game, finished the demo and was satisifed to leave the experience at that.

    The Tutorial demonstrates a meta-game associated with collecting the Glyphs of Power. It is a rather classic mechanic. Every game that you play may gain you a Glyph of Power. Gather all the Glyphs of Power and you win the meta-game. Striving for a complete set of Glyphs kept me playing the main game over and over again.

    However, as soon as I completed the meta-game of gathering all the Glyphs, I felt a lovely sense of completion. At this point my trial time had mostly run out. The game made a feeble attempt to ask me for money, but I was riding high. I had conquered was beaten. Why should I pay more?

    Oasis was a very enjoyable class A game, but the structure of the demo provided no hook, no reason to play further.

    A demo is a selling tool!
    Back in the shareware days of Epic, we would always leave a big hook at the end of the game. The rule of thumb was:

    • Show 1/3rd of your game in the demo
    • Promise 2/3rds more content if they buy the final game
    Now there is a hook! We'd promise new units, new maps, new weapons and prominently display them to the player. We promoted it as a transaction. The message was simple:

    "If you give us money, we will not only let you keep playing, but we will also give you lots of very cool stuff. This will make your experience even more enjoyable than it is now."
    The Oasis demo is an unfortunate example of a game demo that doesn't realize that its sole purpose in life is to addict people and convert them into sales. It currently sends the message:
    "Now that you've seen everything under our skirt and had a jolly bit of fun, won't you pay us out of a sense of respect and appreciation?"
    This is an honorable and naive attitude that relies too much on the inherent value of design. The idealist in me respects this attitude, but the pragmatist in me worries that the talented folks at Mind Control are not making the bank that they should on this delightful title.

    Alternative techniques
    Here are some alternative techniques that could help with the sales of the Oasis trial:
    • Give each player an hour and a half trial: Let them get half way into a new game before you end the trial. Promise that you'll let them continue their current game if only they pay you. I like to call this 'holding the player's game hostage.'
    • Create a 'buy now' button in the game: Give the player every opportunity to purchase the game.
    • Promote the hook: Create a screen or three that describes the great content available if you buy. Pimp this at when they download, at the beginning of your game and every time they close the application.
    • Track your conversion rate. Ping a server with a unique ID when the install is complete and ping it again when the purchase is complete. Use the conversion ratio to judge the success of your trial. Put out several trial variations and then promote the one that does the best.

    If you can increase your conversion rate from 4% to 5%, that's a 25% increase in revenue. This is generally well worth the small development cost associated with creating a data driven trial system and posting several variation of the trial. If you have a well-publicized game like Oasis, it is silly not to perform this type of analysis.

    Lessons learned about creating a good game demo
    This is capitalism, baby. Make me a pitch. Tell me about the benefits I get from buying your game. Make it bold, make it exciting. Entice me into purchasing the game. By collecting simple data, you can ensure that the changes you make have a positive impact on your bottom line. Do not rely on mere hope that I will appreciate your efforts.

    take care

    PS: So that I won't feel horribly guilty about critiquing this demo, I did ultimately purchase a copy of the game. After all, I had a jolly bit of fun and enjoy supporting indie game developers. I am happy to say that the purchase wrapper that was used is quite elegant and the buying process painless.

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