Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

50 things I never need to hear at another conference

  1. Korea is the future. They are five years ahead of us and where Korea goes, the rest of the world will follow.  (I have been hearing this for at least five years. )
  2. Free to play with micro transactions is the one true business model.
  3. Client downloads are death.
  4. We must look beyond the core gamer audience and embrace more casual players.
  5. Women are 50% of the audience.
  6. Don’t trust the client, it is in the hands of the enemy.
  7. You game is a service.
  8. MMOs are hard. No, they’re really really hard. Seriously. You can’t possibly imagine how hard they are.
  9. Runescape is the second biggest MMO and is the one you should really watch.
  10. Club Penguin is huge and is the one you should really watch.
  11. Lineage is huge in Asia and is the one you should really watch. (These days it’s actually more likely to be ZT Online or some other game in China.)
  12. Flash is the best platform to build your MMO on.
  13. Web games are cheesy and no core gamer will ever play them.
  14. Rudy’s has the best BBQ in Austin.  No, County Line is better.  Are you kidding me?  It’s obviously The Salt Lick.
  15. The game industry is bigger than Hollywood.
  16. Triple-A MMOs are a dead end. WoW is impossible to compete with.
  17. Game X is going to take the top spot from WoW.
  18. Games cost so much to make now that the industry is about to collapse under its own weight.
  19. MMOs are just like MUDs and you should all learn the lessons MUDs learned X years ago.  (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve actually heard this one in a few years.)
  20. All of these things happened in UO. Why won’t you people learn from UO?
  21. The community around your game is incredibly important and you should take care of them.
  22. Your players have no idea what they want. Don’t believe anything they say.
  23. Forums are very important.
  24. Don’t believe anything you read on forums.
  25. Launch is just the beginning. The real work comes after launch.
  26. Metrics, metrics, metrics.  Record everything!
  27. Don’t record too much with your metrics. Too much data is just as useless as too little data.
  28. Some people spend CRAZY amounts of money via micro-transactions
  29. MMOs on consoles are the Next Big Thing.
  30. Casual games are going to save the PC market
  31. MMOs are going to save the PC market
  32. My background in economics tells me…
  33. WoW is a wonderful thing for the industry because of the way they expanded the market.
  34. WoW has set expectations so high that you can’t make an MMO for less than X million dollars. (Where X>=30)
  35. Person X is a jerk. Let me tell you this funny story about…
  36. Company Y is so clueless that they will never put out a successful game
  37. Fantasy is where it’s at! MMOs just don’t work as well in other genres.
  38. Fantasy has been done. Players want us to move on to other genres.
  39. There’s so much money to be made in Asia! Just make sure you internationalize your game first.
  40. Gamers in Asia demand click to move so they can smoke while they play.
  41. Players are going to trade stuff for real money no matter what you do. You might as well embrace it.
  42. RMT causes huge amounts of fraud.
  43. Gold spam is impossible to stop.
  44. Our startup is the next big thing in MMOs.  Just look at this giant pile of money we raised!
  45. Game development is all about iteration. Waterfall doesn’t work.
  46. There’s this guy named Richard Bartle who proposed dividing players into four types…
  47. You can’t use scripting languages in games. They’re way too slow.
  48. Writing all your code in C++ is stupid.
  49. Launch early, launch often.
  50. You only get to launch once.
This year it was obvious to me that I’ve hit the Austin GDC level cap. Fortunately that means I have moved on to the conference elder game and learn far more interesting things speaking and engaging in deep hallway conversations.
What about you?  What things are you sick of hearing in conference presentations?


I finished Braid this morning. It was a lot of fun… I got through all but one of the puzzles, but had basically no clue on that one so I cheated and used a walkthrough.  Once I heard the solution, it turned out to be something I totally should have figured out.  Ah well. You can get through all the worlds easily enough without solving all the puzzles, so if you’re stuck I’d suggest trying other puzzles and coming back to the ones you’re stuck on.

I have two non-spoiling comments on the ending:

  1. The timed part at the end was really dumb.  Games do this all the time (“Let’s take our careful, thoughtful gameplay and add time pressure so it’s more exciting!“) and it always results in a completely different kind of game that the players have not been trained to play. Maybe that was on purpose as some sort of artistic statement, but that doesn’t make it any less dumb. I ended up finding a video on YouTube that showed me I was about 0.5 seconds behind the required pace and had to back up and do half the level over to get through one section.  The margin of error was way too small and the whole level was extremely frustrating.
  2. I don’t get it.  I don’t know what the story was about, in the end. I had fun anyway, though, so it doesn’t matter.

Anyway, it’s well worth the $15. I suggest you pick up a copy and give it a try.

Pirates Post-partum at ION

At ION I gave a talk on our development process for Pirates. Darius Kazemi has posted a transcript of the talk. It’s also up at the Vault Network. I wonder how much buzz it’s going to get.

I’m giving the same talk at AGDC this year, so if you missed me at ION you can catch it there.

Why aren’t there more console MMOs?

A few weeks ago Dan Rubenfield posted this (as part of a larger rant putting all MMO developers on notice):

If you continue to refuse to acknowledge consoles as the de-facto standard for AAA gaming, you will go out of business.

Quit making PC games. It’s a waste of time and money.

(NPD respectfully disagrees with the waste of money part.)

I for one would love to build a console MMO. It’s not that MMO developers don’t acknowledge consoles as dominant, it’s that there are many barriers to building a console MMO that don’t exist on the PC. I mentioned a couple of those in my comment to the post above, but wanted to expand on them here.

Barrier #1: Platform Holders Demand a Share

Assuming a moderate success MMOs are almost unique in their ability to give game developers a revenue stream. Most studios live from milestone payment to milestone payment and rarely see royalties off the game after it ships. If they’re smart they make a little extra on each milestone and can build a buffer to help them tough it out between projects, but often failing to sign with a publisher for the next project drives the developer out of business. With a few very successful exceptions, just about all studios live on this edge.

Ongoing revenues from subscriptions or micro-transactions change all of that. These revenue streams require constant updates to keep going. That means that the publisher needs the developer to stay in business so they can keep working on the game. Assuming modest success, it also means that eventually the developer is going to pay back their advance and start earning royalties. This seems to have worked out pretty well for Cryptic who are developing Champions Online without a publisher.

When you introduce a platform holder to the mix the economics change. Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo is going to demand their cut of all ongoing revenue, and that cut is rumored to be between 25% and 35%. With one more player getting a piece the revenues shrink for both the publisher and the developer and it becomes harder to turn a profit from a “modest success”.

Barrier #2: Certification

Absolutely everything released on any console goes through an extensive testing phase called certification. This is a slow, expensive process that is imposed by the platform holder to keep a consistent level of quality and a consistent user experience for all titles on their platform. It works too, so certification isn’t likely to go anywhere any time soon.

How does certification interact with the need to put out patches on a regular basis that add new features to the game? It’s bound to slow things down (and make patches more expensive.)

Barrier #3: No Keyboard

Voice chat is great for small groups. It even works pretty well for short messages from one player to another. It really doesn’t work so well for chat groups of 100. All the current consoles can take some kind of keyboard, but requiring one is something your users are going to object to. The game console is in their living room, after all, and they are probably running out of room after the drum set and all those extra Rock Band guitars.

Even if you could guarantee the players have keyboards, text chat is still problematic. People sit pretty far back from their televisions, and even HD displays really aren’t very high-res compared to PC screens.

Barrier #4: Long Development Times

MMOs take four to five years to build. People keep trying to convince themselves that they can do it in three years, but they’re wrong. They are going to schedule everything for three years and then end up slipping by a year or two.

The Xbox launched in November of 2001. The Xbox 360 launched in November of 2005. Playstation 2 launched in November of 2000, and Playstation 3 launched in November of 2006. The last major generation change on the PC was Windows 95, and it’s had a pretty smooth ramp since then. It’s really hard to spend four to five years building one title when your platform is only going to be current for five to six years.

Barrier #5: Consoles Have a Smaller Installed Base

Yes, I said smaller. There are 189 million NVIDIA GPUs installed in PCs, a number which doesn’t count any of the ATI cards out there or any NVIDIA cards older than the 5 series. There are 120 million Playstation 2s, 25 million Xbox 360s, 25 million Wiis, and 20 million Playstation 3s. That’s a total of 190 million consoles. Whatever ATI brings in installed base pushes the PC way over the top.

This entirely discounts the fact that every single game console was purchased to play games and every PC was not. It also discounts all those GeForce 2s and 4s that a PC developer really should use as their min spec.

Barrier #6: Duo Play

Many, many people play MMOs (and other games for that matter) in pairs. I’ve played 6 different MMOs with my wife. Lots of people play with their spouses, siblings, or kids.

As long as you have an appropriate min spec your game is likely to run on the second-tier PCs in the house. But how many people have a second Xbox 360 in their house? Some do, to be sure, but that number is tiny compared to the number of two-computer households.

Console MMOs really need to support split-screen play on a single machine, which adds to the development complexity. On the other hand, split-screen duo play would be fantastic for people who live in the same house and is actually a feature that consoles can offer over PCs.

So We’re Doomed Then?

In the short run, yes. None of these are insurmountable obstacles, but they do make a console MMO more difficult than a PC MMO. There is enough money to be made in console games that future MMO releases there are inevitable. It’s just a question of when they arrive.

Several console MMOs have already launched. The most successful of these by far is Final Fantasy XI on the Playstation 2. Everquest Online Adventures and Phantasy Star Universe (and Phantasy Star Online before it) are two more examples. There are probably more that I’m not coming up with. All of these games have seen some modest success, but none of them are either major console hits or major MMO hits.

To add to those, some new console MMOs are in the works. SOE is working on three PC/Playstation 3 titles, with Free Realms being the first one to come out. PS3 is the loser so far this generation, though, so that may not make much difference to most console gamers. There is a rumor that Nintendo was working on an Animal Crossing MMO, but it’s just a rumor at this point. Microsoft obviously doesn’t have the institutional fortitude to build MMOs; they have canceled Marvel twice. NCsoft also announced a partnership with Sony to bring an NCsoft game out on the PS3, though they aren’t saying what game yet.

Eventually MMOs are going to come to consoles. It’s just going to take them a while to get there, and they will probably never emerge in the same numbers as they do on PCs. Buck up, Dan. We’ll get there some day.

Will Facebook bring back PBM games?

Earlier this year Facebook announced their new Facebook Platform that allows developers to add applications that users can add to their profile and share with their friends. All these networks let you embed flash into your page, but in Facebook’s case applications can take advantage of all the features of the network itself: news feeds, friend lists, profile details, etc. And Facebook happily allows you to run advertising or charge the users of your application, so you can monetize your users. Developers have created 7782 applications as of this writing.

Not to be outdone, Google announce a new API last week that is sort of the open-standard equivalent to the Facebook Platform. It’s called Open Social and a bunch of non-Facebook social networks and application providers (including MySpace… remember them?) signed on to support it. Network effects work like crazy on this kind of site, so it remains to be seen if Open Social can boost these other social networks, but to the application providers it doesn’t really matter. As long as both APIs support some of the same basic functionality, a developer might as well port their app to both standards.

Of course games are a common application that people write for the Facebook platform. The application tagging on Facebook is pretty crappy, but “gaming” accounts for 879 of those applications. The most common games are trivia games (which seem to exist for every NFL team), games where you “attack” other players and get a news item with the results, simple arcade games with leaderboards, and turn-based board games. Many games give you benefits in the game for inviting people to play, which helps to spread the games through the network very quickly.

The one thing that all these games have in common is that they’re incredibly shallow. That lets people get into them easily but it also keeps them from being particularly sticky. I haven’t seen any metrics on the subject, but it seems like most people tire of any given game within a few days or weeks and remove it from their profiles. The Vampires/Zombies/Werewolves/Slayers game is incredibly popular with more than 900,000 daily active users total, but even more people have moved on from the game to other things. An October 28 article on Free to Play reported that Food Fight had 36k active daily users. It now has less than 23k.

The way people use Facebook puts some serious restrictions on the type of game that can be integrated with Facebook. While millions of people use Facebook every day they don’t spend a huge amount of time there each day. Games that require all players to be online at the same time have a serious disadvantage over games that work asynchronously. You might see FPS and RTS games on Facebook at some point, but they will never be as popular as “throw stuff at your friends” games simply because they have to be real-time to work.

One type of game seems to be entirely non-existent in the current crop of Facebook games: turn-base strategy games. There has always been a community of people playing these games flying under the radar. Back before the web these were called Play By Mail, and Flying Buffalo sold many of them. These days they are more likely to be web-based daily turn or action-point based games. These games are perfectly suited to a platform like Facebook:

  1. They are asynchronous
  2. You can play them in minutes a day
  3. They are deep enough to retain players for months or years

The big question is whether or not someone can design a Play By Facebook game that is easy enough to get into to succeed. Most of the PBM and turn-based strategy games have been pretty intricate simulations of something or other and are generally not for the feint of heart. To succeed on Facebook a game needs to be something that a total novice can learn to play in minutes, because that’s all the time somebody’s friend is going to give the game before they move on to something else. Very few games can manage that while staying deep enough to keep players engaged long-term. There is an opportunity here for someone that can pull it off, though.