Directory of All Essays

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lostgarden looking for brilliant programmer in Seattle

a mystery project

Summer project time! I've got an intriguing new design that is best explored by the sort of in-person rapid prototyping that I love. To that end, I'm looking to team up with a talented programmer or two from Seattle/Redmond. It's a bit like getting a band together.

My dream is to meet up every Sunday at a local coffee shop, riff about what we've done that week and come away energized and ready to build some more.
  • Location: Seattle/Puget Sound area is a must. (Otherwise, it is hard to do the coffee shop thing)
  • Skills: Solid Flash, Flex or Silverlight skills. Previous experience with Java, C++, or C# is great as long as you are willing to learn Flex. Back end skills are also helpful. The project is 'technically interesting' and is best tackled by someone who is more of a programmer than a scripter.
  • Time commitment: 10 hours a week for about three months. Anything less I've found doesn't make it worth your time.
I'd contribute art, design and Cheetos (organic or radioactive). If you are interested, drop me a note at Danc [at] Lostgarden [dot] com. Send along a portolio if you've got one and tell me a little bit about yourself.

Take care,
Danc.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

The joy of 2D avatars




I've been looking at 2D avatars lately. It's been a fascinating trip into a wierd little area of game art that I haven't dabbled in before. Like quite a bit of game art, there is a very obvious craft involved in the creation of 2D avatars. It reminds me a lot of the techniques that went into old school pixel art or tile creation. You build your pieces just so according to a very particular set of rules. Align the hand, align the head and voila, the end result look like a unique character.



I ran across a couple classes of 2D avatars that are worth describing. This list is by no means exhaustive and what you ultimately end up using completely depends on the type of game you are making. The different styles can be classified by:
  • Perspective: What view is the avatar seen from?
  • Construction technique: How is the avatar assembled?
  • Animation: How is the avatar animated?

Perspective
Front view: A frontal view of the character. The benefit here is that the character is often symmetrical which reduces the skill needed to draw a character. The downside is that the character is almost always looking straight out at the viewer. May PlanetCute characters are a good example of this perspective.

Partial side view: A partial side view of the character where the character is rotated 45 degrees to the left or right. The example above is such a character. This character can interact with objects in the environment, but with subtle (and cheap!) animation of the eyes, look at the viewer. You can make avatars with this perpective move left, right in a believable fashion by simply flipping the avatar. Climbing ladders is less than compelling. :-)

4 (or 8) directions: For each of the cardinal directions you draw a new version of the avatar. The characters in Diablo are a nice example of this style. Having multiple directions is more realistic and allows you to show the general direction that a character is pointing. However, it is again more expensive. If you have an interchangable item on the character, you need to draw 3 different versions for 4 directions and 5 different versions for 8 directions. This multiplies your art expenses.

Isometric: This is similar the partial side view, but usually seen a bit more from the top. This is almost always done with multiple directions.


Construction

Interchangable parts: Most avatars are made out of interchangeable parts. You can swap out a shirt for another shirt. This allows for a vast range of different characters, but They all tend to be built from the same basic mold. Luckily, so does most of humanity, so this system tends to work well for humans.

One piece: Whirled and most single player games uses characters that do not have interchangable parts. All the animation is built into the character. The upside is that you can have great unique animations that really fit the character. Your dragon can breath fire and your balloon beast can float merrily along. The downside is that you need to make unique animations. This is expensive.


Animation

No animation: This is the simplest and is quite common with web-based games. If you can get away with it do so!

Cell animation: The whole avatar or the pieces of the avatar are animated by flipping through a series of frames. This tends to be a specialized skill and good 2D animators are hard to come by. Cell animation is highly evocative and has been the animation technique of choice for ages. The downside is that if you are using interchangeable parts, each part needs to be animated through all the possible animations. This means that the number of animations that your avatar supports is likely to be small since you don't want to bloat the cost of creating each item.

Vector animation: Each piece of the avatar is mapped onto a simple 2D vector rectangle that can be smoothly rotated, scaled and squashed. Add a simple skeletal animation system (the foot bone is connected to the leg bone which is connected to the hip bone) and you can do some reasonable effective animation. The characters in Book Worm Adventures are a great example of this style. If done correctly, this method lets you animate just the base skeleton and swap in parts as desired. The upside is that you can have a huge range of animations with the same basic art assets.


Little lessons learned

Optimize for ease of object creation, not richness of animation or immersiveness: If you are going for virtual item sales, your incremental profits can be broken down to # of items sold * price of items - production cost. You want lots of item variety and you want to keep your item cost down.

With this in mind, the format of your avatar begins to matter a lot. Animation is expensive and makes object creation even more expensive. Multiple directions for your avatar are cool, but are they really worth increasing your content costs by 500%?

Most items are made out of at least two pieces, not one
: When you build hair for a character, you have a section of hair that goes behind the avatar's head and a section that goes in front. I've been sketching it all out as a single piece and then chopping it up as needed during the cleanup stage.

Use flat shading or indistinct light sources if you are using vector animation: Since your pieces can be rotated in all sorts of directions, highlights will often look strange when rotated.

The number of slots in your avatar represent sales opportunities:
A character composed of a head and torso presents very little opportunity for players to customize their look and feel. After purchasing a couple of items, they are done. By allowing for tiaras, jewelry, wings, thought bubbles and other items, you win by creating additional sales opportunities. The player wins by having more ways of making their character unique.

Style matters
: I dress like the guy in The Fly. My closets is filled with row upon row of identical pragmatic clothes. I wouldn't know the difference between a cardigan and a camisole if my life depended on it (I actually had to look it up.)

Yet many avatars, especially those in online games, are ultimately about fashion and style. The cut of the fabric is important. The patterns matter. The colors...don't even get me started on the colors. It is no surprise that some online game companies (like StarDolls) build up such an expertise in fashion that they are launching their own real world clothing lines. So I've been reading women's fashion mags. It's a whole different world out there.


Next Steps
I'll continue dabbling with these sketches. My character drawing skills are not the best, so at the very least this will be good practice.

Which style should I use? I'm leaning towards a side-view avatar with interchangeable parts that uses simple vector animation. The cost of production is low and the style seems to be the best fit for some of the game design ideas I've been mulling over. The current template has spots for custom headgear, a head, eyes, mouth, nose, top, bottom, feet and items held in left or right hand.

Here is one last sketch.
Comments and critiques are welcome!


take care
Danc.

References


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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Services Strategy for Casual Games


Gamasutra posted up an article that has been bouncing around in my documents folder for a little while. The original title was "A Services Strategy for Casual Games", but the new one is a bit more punchy.

One response that I've heard quite a bit is that portals will never allow user data to be released back to developers. This is quite true for most established portals that have traditionally focused on selling packaged goods online. However, middlemen adapt and markets flow around stupidity. More sophisticated variations on sites like http://www.mmoportal.com/ are bound to emerge. If a dozen portals don't want your business, find the one that does. Given time and a exclusive supply of successful games, they'll grow into a bigger fish that can help feed your team.

The portals are engaging in a kneejerk reaction to changing business models. In the long run, do they really think they can keep customer data away from developers when the games that players want are online services? Such companies just end up being a roadbump in the way of progress. A portal that gets irritable about giving up customer data guarantees that their cut of the pie is zero. This is their loss, not yours.

take care
Danc.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Translation Game

The Rosetta Stone: I18N's early best friend

Online games have become an international business. In order to compete in the global marketplace, your game needs to appeal to players in countries ranging from America to Japan to China to Poland. None of these cultures speak the same languages, have the same cultural values or even celebrate the same holidays. If you are starting an online game company it is wise to starting contemplating the monumental task of localizing your service as early as possible.

There are two truths about localization for online games. One, it can dramatically multiply the number of customers that you reach. Two, it is more trouble than you might imagine. In this essay I look at how we might use we use techniques from game design to streamline this exciting, yet expensive opportunity.


The good and the bad The majority of players populating online games like Legend of Sherwood, Travian or World of Warcraft are from outside the United States. We have a solid 300 million potential customers, but the rest of the world has billions. After the core game is complete, localization can help you double or quadrupal your install base for a cost far lower than developing the game afresh. This is highly attractive to those folks with dollar signs for eyeballs.

Yet localization and globalization ends up being far more than a onetime cost for translating a few text strings. Popular games pump out an ongoing stream of new content that must be rolled out across multiple languages. The original team likely doesn’t even speak the language of the targeted countries so quality control is a huge issue. Even worse, most teams have little experience with the culture of the new country they are targeting. An expansion pack that celebrates Christmas as a family event may not translate well to your Japanese users who traditionally see Christmas as a holiday for lovers.

Larger companies end up creating comprehensive localization and globalization groups that can act as a giant drag on the software development process. Localization often ends up in its own silo with radically different organization and values than the main development team.

Help (for hire)
Whenever there is a difficult problem that falls outside the core competency of a game development team, outside companies will emerge to help them solve the problem. For a fee, of course.

At the most basic end of the spectrum are translation services. These take your table of text strings and translate them into a variety of languages. Quality varies dramatically and there is typically the need to re-edit the text afterwards. Many companies start by just translating their strings and then realize that bringing their games to other countries is far more complex than a simple data manipulation problem.

At the other end of the spectrum is the full service operator. An operator is a company that takes an existing game, typically from a traditionally inward looking market like Korea or China, and runs a localized version of that game in another country such as Japan or the United States. Depending on the company, the operator will handle everything from localization, to handling foreign currency, to running foreign language support. Many will run the local servers for your game. OutSpark is a good example of an operator.

Rolling your own?
Every time you deal with middlemen, even ones as innocuous as a translation service, you need to ask the question: What is the opportunity cost of rolling my own?
  • On one end of the equation are the operators that will take a percentage of your revenue for the lifetime of the game in return for expanding your market substantially. Woot, “free” money.
  • On the other end of the equation is a custom solution. If you can reduce costs, you might come out ahead. But what if it dilutes your focus as a company? What if you end up missing out on the economies of scale and experience that come from being a company focused solely on localization?
This decision is particularly tricky since middlemen make it their business to provide you with a very clear value proposition when you are examining their services. There is rarely anyone who can put hard figures on the benefits of rolling your own. The easy solution often becomes the outsourced solution promoted by the smiling salesman.

So this got me thinking: What would it take to roll your own localization service for an online game?

Constraints
There are some constraints to this little thought experiment:
  • Inexpensive: The solution needs to cheaper than going with an outsourced group.
  • Leverages game development skills: Ideally we can leverage our core skills as a game development company. This means using game design to solve our problems, not hiring a mass of translators.
  • Doesn’t rely on building up services that other people could do better: We need to be wary about spreading the company too thin by turning into an operator in our own right. Though there may be some benefits from vertical integration, internally replicating systems that are already run efficiently by third parties is something to be approached with great care and a skeptical eye.
Research clues
At GDC, I ran across two clues that point to a solution.
  • Leverage the community: I caught some offhand comments from the fine folks over at Three Rings about alternative ways of leveraging the community in order to avoid entering into partnerships with operators. What they’ll end up doing, I have no idea. Still the seed was planted in my little monkey brain.
  • Wikipedia as a game: Elonka Dunin gave a lovely talk on how Wikipedia can be viewed like a giant MMO. The mechanics happen to focus on user generated articles instead of killing monsters, but the fundamental rewards for writing articles is fundamentally game-like. The pertinent detail here is that Wikipedia users also translate articles on a regular basis. Wikipedia is one of the most comprehensively localized websites in the entire world and all of it is due to the user’s efforts.
User generated translation driven by game mechanics
Let’s build a game that rewards multi-lingual players for localizing the text in our product. We’ve got all the necessary ingredients in your typical game:
  • Passionate players who speak a variety of different languages
  • In game reward systems that have already proven attractive to the player.
  • A mediated environment that allows us to pose tasks and record the results.
Instead of hiring expensive middlemen, we harness the volunteer efforts of our passionate players. Instead of managing the process manually, we create an automated system of empowering tools and reward systems that encourage players to do the right thing. Above all, we make the process repeatable so that we can run it over and over again at almost zero incremental cost. We are building an engine whose mechanical structure is derived from the physics of human psychology and whose brightly burning fuel is a steady stream of fun seeking players.

The reviewer pattern
Here’s a basic structure of our translation game.
  1. Identify: Identify players with base level skills are capable of performing a desired task.
  2. Action: The players perform actions using in-game tools in the hope of receiving a reward.
  3. Review: The game independently verifies the actions using other players for tasks that require human computation.
  4. Reward: The game rewards the person performing the original action based off the verification process.
  5. Repeat: High scoring people get more tasks of that type and greater rewards. Low scoring people get fewer tasks of that type.
This reviewer pattern is quite flexible and can be used for wide variety of tasks that are much broader than mere translation. It is particularly useful when you need to judge the quality of your player’s efforts and “quality” is determined by strong aesthetic or cultural factors. Language is an obvious example of this, but art, fashion, moral judgment and other classic human endeavors fall under this umbrella as well.

Let’s apply the pattern to the process of translating text.

1. Identifying players with the right skills
Our imaginary game has persistent characters with extensive profiles. People can declare their real world skills including which languages they seek. Let’s say for a moment that we want to translate between English and Japanese. We would search the profiles of our thousands of users and find ones where players claimed proficiency in both languages. These users are tagged as potential translators.

2. Performing the task
The next time the player approaches a quest giver, the game substitutes a translation quest for their typical “Kill 5 rats” quest. There are numerous framing stories one could use ranging from the scholar seeking to translate a mysterious scroll to a warlord needing an intercepted spy message translated so they can prevent an attack.

Promise of a reward: The player is told that if they complete the task they’ll get a certain amount of gold. If they complete the task well, they’ll be inducted into the secret Guild of Translators.

Task specific tools: If the player accepts the task they are presented with a screen that shows them the original text and a space where they can translate it into Japanese. They type in a translation, hit submit and get the basic translation rate. They are informed that qualified reviewers will be looking at their translation and we’ll let them know if they make it into the secret Guild.

On the backend, every text string of every object can be pulled from a set of string tables that have slots for all supported languages. You need a system that supports multi-byte characters, various text orientations, IME input and all the rest of the glorious minutia that goes into localizing simple strings.

To generate the quest, we look at popular items that aren’t translated into languages for which we have translators available. A few strings, such as the name or the description are bundled up and given to the player as the source material they need to translate.

3. Review the results
The vast majority of translations will be of poor quality. This is the reality of free labor done as an idle hobby. We want to separate the truly talented reviewers from the masses so that we can ultimately put them on a pedestal as an example for everyone to strive towards. In the process of tagging our translators, we also tagged people who spoke Japanese.

Again, we give these tagged users quests. This time they need to read the text and rate it quality on a 7 point scale. There is also a small text field where they can type in comments. They are also told that they’ll get a bit of money for doing the task, but they’ll get even more money if they do it well.

Unbeknownst to the individual reviewer, we also give the same text to 10 others to review. We collect all the scores, lop off any outliers and calculate the average score. This is the rating for the translated text.

Translations that get ratings above a certain threshold (such a 6 out of 7), are automatically published to the world at large.

4. Reward the translators and reviewers
Translator rewards: Once the final score for the translation is determined, the original translator receives a message that contains a quality reward. If they scored 6’s and 7’s, they get huge rewards and are inducted into the Guild of Translators. They get a special cloak, and are promised future awards if they continue to do such a wonderful job translating. If they score lower, they get lesser rewards and may not be invested into the Guild. They are given a second chance as well as access to the comments that were left by the reviewers.

Reviewer rewards: We also reward reviewers based off the quality of their reviews. Those players scoring closest to the average score get mega points and an increase in their reviewer level. Those players that scored furthest from the average get no points and their reviewer level can even drop. Over time, competent reviewers whose opinions reflect the majority should rise to the top. When we calculate average scores for a particular bit of text, we can use weighted averages that take into account the level of the reviewers involved.

5. Repeat the process
Whenever text is added to the system, the translation system jumps to action. Translation quests are generated, translators translate them and reviewers review the results. Over time the text of the game is slowly but surely translated into other languages, driven by the demand and passion of the users.

The system is built to constantly improve the results. The highly rated translators and reviewers are showered with in game gifts and rewards. They gain levels, get new outfits and are given kudos by NPCs. We feed them stats on how many people use their translations and look for ways to promote their efforts to the larger community. Each of these rewards is automated and repeatable. In return for these social glories, the system gives highly rated translators more translation tasks. We want the best of the best handling most of the translation.
As time passes, many users will try translation and find that it isn’t for them. That’s alright as long as there is a core group of people that latch onto the job and make it into a fundamental part of their online identity. The system is built to support this natural winnowing process in order to build up an elite core. A dozen or so passionate users can translate hundreds, even thousands of pieces of text in relatively short order.

Popular pieces of text with lower scores are resubmitted to elite translators for another pass. As time goes on, the quality of the translations throughout the game continues to improve.

Benefits
This is a complex system, but it comes with some intriguing benefits.
  • Focus on core competency of game design: It is a reasonable amount of work building this localization system, but it leaves your company with a very solid reward system that can be leveraged for other areas of the game. You are investing in game design and player entertainment, both of which are core competencies for any game company.
  • Serve smaller cultures at low cost: There exist numerous cultures in the world that speak languages other than English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese or Japanese. Dozens of nations like Poland or Brazil can contribute hundreds of thousands of users to your game. By allowing players to translate the game into their own language, you can reach these niche cultures at a very low cost.
  • Adapt your text to each culture: Many concepts don’t translate well between cultures. By having the users perform the translation, they will often smooth over rough edges. If a particular joke or phrase doesn’t work, users will reword it to something that fits their culture. Often, users will take liberties and incorporate references to their own mythology or culture into the translations. It is an interesting trade off. You give up a small amount of authorial control in return for a translation that seems as if it was written by native speakers.
  • Highly scalable: Once a community of translators is in place you can release content in one language and watch it quickly and cost effectively be translated into other languages. The cost of localizing an additional piece of content goes to almost zero.
Limitations
This system is not without some pretty serious limitations.
  • Requires a large number of people: To get to those few dozen people who are interested in translating your game, you’ll need a population of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Only a very small number of people will be interested in playing your translation game.
  • High startup cost: You need to develop and balance this system. That is expensive and will likely require dozens of iterations on the design.
  • Questionable translation quality: There is a very good chance that the majority of your early translations are incorrect, confusing or insulting. You won’t be able to tell since you don’t speak the target language. This means that when the system isn’t balanced just right, your users may have bad experiences. Also, as mentioned above, you are giving up a certain amount of authorial control. Your epic bodice ripper about the Monks of Ra may turn into a joke gag about Swedish meatballs. C’est la vie.
  • The process moves at the pace of the players: If the players don’t find translation quests interesting or there aren’t many multi-lingual people on your service, translation will lag.
Other pieces
As stated earlier translating text strings is only a piece of the puzzle. To solve the whole puzzle, we can repurpose some of the systems that we created for the tranlation game.

Pieces to own: These are items that you should try to maintain control over.
  • Culture specific events: Combining the review system with tools that let users create their own events is one way to go. This moves you down the path of user generated content, which is a giant can of worms, but again has substantial benefits if you can pull it off. This would likely follow the same review pattern we saw with translation, except instead of translating text, you are asked to build something grand.
  • Culture specific support: Griefing, bugs, currency issues are all best dealt with by a support team that speaks the player’s native language. There has already been some solid work done with volunteer judges and moderators and it makes a lot of sense to invest in this further in the future. Giving player judges the ability to review past grievances, render judgment and then have their judgment reviewed by a jury of randomly selected peers is an obvious profession worth creating. It would likely appeal to a substantial minority of the player population since it involves direct power over others. Again, problem tickets are handled as quests and we slowly give people more power based on the quality of their previous efforts.
Pieces to outsource: Some things like payment systems and local servers, you’ll likely have to outsource to middlemen. Yet out of all the middlemen activities offered by operators, I’m most willing to let them take on these two. Why? Because they both becoming more commoditized by the year. Costs of running servers all around the world are going down, while reliability is going up. As cloud computing and virtualization become more dominant, the last place you want to be investing your valuable cash is in replicating the core business of the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Sun and a half dozen other future cloud computing behemoths.

There’s a rule of thumb here. Let the middlemen handle the commoditized plumbing, but don’t let them near your customer relationships. Your community and your addicting game design is your unique competitive advantage.

Conclusion
Ultimately, building something like a translation game for your service is a business decision. I believe that you should treat the decision to create a utilitarian social game system in a similar fashion to how you would treat the decision to make a capital investment in your company. It resembles a classic business problem: choose the proper mix of the following:
  1. High variable costs with low capital investment: You rely heavily on manual labor to make each widget. You don’t have much in the way of equipment so it costs you an arm and a leg to build each widget.
  2. Lower variable cost with high capital investment: Alternatively, you can invest in capital expenditures like beefy factory equipment. Capital investments cost a lot of money upfront. However, longer term, they can dramatically reduce your variable costs.
Building systems such as our translation game are remarkably similar to capital investments from the ancient age of manufacturing. They are expensive to develop and balance. They have a significant maintenance cost. Yet, they dramatically reduce the costs of servicing another customer in a foreign country. Instead of paying 30 to 60% of a customer’s revenue to a middleman, you instead end up paying a few pennies for bandwidth.

In the case of a game development company, the building of the equipment that reduces your costs also happens to be your core competency. You are good at manipulating players to volunteer their time and energy to complete obscure tasks. You are good at building enjoyable software and task oriented tools that facilitate the creation of these tasks. It is time to put these assets to work.

So what happens when you use game design to improve the way your run your business? The future online game is a complex digital factory filled with powerful social engines that chug and churn throughout the night. The workers funnel in one end, and out the other comes the high quality fruits of their carefully guided labor. This is no dystopia. The workers are volunteers and the factory is a playground. If they become bored, the players leave. But most do not, for the machine knows too well to their subtle human weaknesses. And, you, the builder of the great machines that measure and prod and coddle humanity in endless loop upon loop, sleep soundly as the money rolls on in.

Take care,
Danc.

References



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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pick your game community: Virtual or Real?

I was just over at 4 color rebellion and a comment about Nintendo’s Wi Fi network as ‘discouraging community’ struck me as intriguing. The question must be asked “Which community?”

The basics
We play online to be with other people. They are more challenging, interesting and fun to be around than any AI currently available. Online play is ultimately about forging relationships.

Two philosophies
Are you forging new relationships or strengthening old ones? Xbox Live lets you meet new people and build a new community. Nintendo’s Wi Fi network works primarily off friend codes and assumes that you are playing with people that you already know. I’m simplifying things because there is certainly overlap here, but philosophically these are two different ways of building an online community.

Nintendo is saying “Hey, you already have friends. Play with them.” Implicit in this assumption is that there exists a world outside the virtualized game community. In order to have friends outside gaming, you must have a life outside of gaming.

In the ideal world you would have both options available. Unfortunately, we live in a fear drenched McCarthyistic Americana. Too many cling dearly to a sickening fascination with Fox’s latest “Baby killed by Psychotic Immigrant’ propaganda. Communicating with strangers is obviously one step away from ruined lives.

So pick one. Do you want live on society’s edge and build your own community? Or do you want to game mostly with your existing friends?


Do you have a social network?
I must admit that I fall into the later category when it comes to gaming. I like talking to people in person or on a special interest forum such as this site. I have a network of friends and am not at the point in my life where I’m starting from scratch or starting over. For me, gaming is a wonderful activity that is part of a much broader and highly fulfilling life. I welcome Nintendo’s tact because it lets me build tighter bonds with the people who are most important to me.

Would I personally miss not being able to talk to strangers? Not really. It is a nice-to-have option, but not a deal breaker.

On the other hand, if I didn’t have those social connections outside of gaming, would I miss being able to talk to strangers? Absolutely. I’m not sure if having a stranger yell at me in Halo will result in any long lasting friendships, but it is certainly better than being alone.

I suspect that the ultimate success of the systems will depend on which of these two groups is more prevalent. We can ask which the stronger draw is:
  • Strong, safe relationships with existing friends
  • Weak, ‘risky’ relationships with new people
But in order to answer this question in any meaningful fashion, you first need to answer a more personal question.

“Are you lonely?”

Take care
Danc.

References
http://www.4colorrebellion.com/archives/2006/02/04/egm-interviews-reggie/#comments

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Friday, December 23, 2005

What is the critical mass necessary to create a major world culture in an online game?

So World of Warcraft has reached five million accounts. Good for them. You have a population that is substantially larger than the size of the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. Now there was a culture that gave us some great fruit paintings. (And wonderful droppe!)

Will online games one day give us a meaningful world culture?

This got me musing about how major cultures of the world formed and what it would mean for an online world to act as a seed for a new major world culture. It is a very idle thought exercise.


Thought #1: Creating a great culture just requires the right recipe
Culture is not magical or divinely created. Put enough people in an isolated environment for a long enough period of time and strong, highly unique social norms will develop. It is a natural human dynamic evident in any group of any size. Give me an island, a bumper crop of people and enough time and we can grow you a unique culture that has a more outrageous accent than either France or Alabama.

Thought #2: Critical mass matters
Any size group can create a culture. It happens in companies, in families, you name it. But to create a culture that sustains itself over generations and influences others without itself being corrupted requires a certain amount of mass. Population is one measure of mass. Money is another.

If you look back through the years, most major cultures seem to really hit their stride with with populations ranging from five to thirty million. These are numbers that are arrived at in a very rough manner. I looked up the population of countries with strong cultures in the 1700’s and assumed that at the very least, this is what you needed to sustain a major culture that generates its own unique language, rituals, identity and history. Games are starting to reach substantial population levels. Five million is a good start.

With their ties into gold farming and other real world economic activities, online games are beginning to build a strong economic foundation that can anchor deeper social behaviors. We are seeing thousands of people dedicating their lives to performing the rituals in the game for economic reasons. At the very least this creates a classic split between population classes.

How do you greet a gold farmer? What words do you use? What is their social class? Do you look down upon them? Do you hate them? Are you justified? Such rich human biases driven by economic realities are fertile soil for the creation of lasting cultural flavors.

Thought #3: Cultures diverge from their source
All cultures borrow liberally from the cultures that found them. It is only through economic, social, or geographical isolation will cultures begin to diverge into their own unique cultural identify.

Online games will initially be highly derivative places. Early America colonial culture was highly derivative of European culture. Early online games ape the social mores of Western geek fantasy culture or Eastern pop heroic culture.

Game worlds are isolated electronically, but their users can always log off and go home. Is there enough isolation of users in an online world to create a strong divergence from the original source culture? I wonder.

Thought #4: Time is critical
Put a few million European criminals on an island and come back twenty years later and you’ll still have a few million European criminals. Come back in a generation or two and you have a unique culture that is influenced by its past, but is defined by the cultural environment of its present. There seems to be a strong generational element to the renewal of cultural memory.

Online games are short lived commercial entities. It is difficult to imagine any sort of generational maturation process occurring within the population of modern online worlds. Online games at this point in our history blip in and out of existence just long enough for excited child-like cultures to be born and then snuffed out.

But what happens when several generations grow up playing online games? What happens when a single world with a critical population lasts not just years, but decades?

Thought #5: When is a gaming culture meaningful?
When a large group of online users is willing to die in order to maintain their world and way of life, then the online world will be meaningful.

This is perhaps harsh, but is a critical point.

Culture exists because the community declares its existence. They gather up all the quirky little habits and behaviors that surround them, label them, and set them high upon pillars of unassailable values and ideals. “This is my culture and I value it” the members of the community declare to the foreigners at their gates. “I am willing to defend it.”

It isn’t about a few unstable individuals who do something violent. It is about normal, rational men and women who choose a path despite the consequences because they deeply believe in its inherent value.

Until then these worlds we builds are just a hobby. Idle play by idle children. There may be rants, raves and passion, but until an online world becomes a preferred way of life, they have no more meaning than a cheap Sunday play attended by crowds of crowing foppish dilettantes.

Closing thoughts
If I were to create a score card of the key categories that are necessary to create a great culture and then rank modern online gaming, we still have such a long ways to go.
  • Population - B+: The population numbers are looking good.
  • Economic leverage - C+: There’s promise, but it isn’t there yet. I expect this to catch up quickly in the next couple of decades.
  • Divergence Time – D: This is a big problem. Online worlds still don’t last very long. This leads to a series of ephemeral toy cultures. Perhaps the days of the Roman Empire are long lost and our Golden Ages can be measures in seasons instead of centuries.
  • Core values – E: The basic human values of friendship and companionship are in place, but no online world has managed to give players something bigger than themselves to believe in. Until this evolution occurs, online game worlds will remain a pleasant adornment that rests lightly on the real world we all must inhabit.
Did I mention that these were very idle thoughts? :-)

Take care
Danc.

Completely meaningless references


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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Massively Multiplayer Casual Games

Kart Rider and Gunbound show the way to impressive profitability

Pete just sent me a link to Dave Taylor's article on Kart Rider. It is an interesting read on a casual multiplayer game quite similar to Mario Kart whose parent company is racking in $110 million in 2003 with a projected growth of over 127%.

There's another rather popular called Gunbound that uses the same basic business model. This time the game is based on Scorched Earth. Gunbound has an English site and is well worth checking out.

Admittedly these are both Korean companies and there may be some cultural aspect that do not translate well to the US. However the highly successful business model of these two titles is worth studying in great and lavish detail. Western designers are constantly talking about how to create massively multiplayer causal games. The results are hardcore titles like Guildwars that sell quite a bit to the Diablo fanatics of the world but by no means would be considered 'casual'. With Kart Rider and Gunbound we have clear cut successful examples of a multiplayer game sporting millions of users that is appealing to a casual demographic. Talk about being provided with a golden opportunity on a silver platter.

What feature mix should we steal?
Let's say I'm a capitalistic game designer who wants to borrow key features and replicate this success in my own game title. What are the common elements in our two examples that are likely to be the defining factors of this new genre?

  • High production values using a neo-retro art style
  • Quick and friendly game play
  • Multiplayer
  • Highly polished ranking system
  • The ability to buy avatars and powerups at a small cost.

This seems to be a rather reasonable project to begin production on. There is a bit of investment in the server-side back end, but much less than is necessary for a game like WoW. The art costs go down since you are dealing with stylized assets. The game design is amendable to rapid prototyping since you are tuning a 5 to 15 minute experience instead of worrying about a 300 hour mega quest.

The challenge
The biggest challenge is picking core game mechanics that appeal to a broad audience. What 5 minute experience would appeal to Western players? Pac Man, Street Fighter or perhaps Puzzle Pirates with purchasable powerups? This is the million dollar question that I'm sure some enterprising developer will crack in the next year or three. At that point, move over WoW. There's a new game genre in town and unlike the hardcore niche market of current MMOGs, multiplayer casual games have all the makings of a mass market cultural powerhouse.

take care
Danc.


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