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August 2011

Finishing Games Is Not The Issue

the end Every now and then, someone posts a study or an informal article about the incredibly high incompletion rate of videogames – the latest is by Blake Snow on CNN, entitled Why most people don’t finish video games. Some of Snow’s points are correct – the rise of online multiplayer has been a significant change in the economics of the hobbyist and ‘midcore’ market for games. But in this and every other report of this kind I’ve seen, there is a fundamental misunderstanding about finishing games.

Players by and large do not finish games, because a player’s enjoyment of a game has nothing to do with whether or not they finish the game. It is perfectly possible for a player to leave a game unfinished and still feel they have had excellent value for money from it – especially with a playground world like GTA. In our player studies, we found many people who would mess around in Vice City or San Andreas when they got home from work who simply didn’t care about whether they would ever finish the game. The game was entertaining them immensely – finishing it was not a factor.

There are a small group of players (about 10% according to BrainHex) who do care very much about finishing, and fit the archetype of the Achiever – the player who wants to see and learn everything about a game. Also, some Conqueror-style players (a subset of the 28% of Conquerors reported by BrainHex) may dislike a game they don’t finish because they feel it has beaten them. But for the most part, there is a large quantity of players (hard to put a number on it, but at least half and possibly as much as two thirds) out there for whom these issues simply don’t matter – and largely never have.

The important issue isn’t finish rates but retention rates. Around the time we were publishing 21st Century Game Design, International Hobo was realising that a key measure of the commercial success of games was the play window – the duration that the game is being played by its audience, in days, weeks, months or years. This is not to be confused with the play time for a game – the number of hours of actual play that can be racked up before completion. Play windows are about the number of days a game is being played (possibly in parallel with other games), where the game is played on average at least once a week. Naturally, the play window differs according to the type of game, and according to the player in question, but you can gather statistics on it easily enough. It was striking, even back then, that easy to play proto-casual games like Tetris were able to produce play windows measured in months or even years among mass market players, an important fact concealed by a focus on completion percentages.

Computer role-playing games have always had long play windows because they’ve always had long play lengths – typically 40-80 hours. But the kind of content, both in terms of setting (sci-fi or fantasy) and mechanics (strategic advancement, tactical battles) were always off-putting to a wider market. It’s no coincidence that the prevailing trend of the last decade has been the export of RPG mechanics to every kind of game imaginable, as I discussed in The Life and Times of Dungeons and Dragons, and also in my new book, Imaginary Games. Modern Warfare’s astronomical success isn’t really attributable to its online multiplayer mode – we’ve had modes like this for a long time – but to their RPG-like reward schedules tied to that mode. Similarly, FarmVille and so forth inherit from Harvest Moon an RPG-like structure, but exported to a more mass market-friendly context.

What’s happening right now is a shift towards games-as-service and away from games as product. The sign of this shift is the longer play windows – Modern Warfare is showing 200+ hour play times supporting near continuous play windows if the next boxed version is taken as a re-subscription to that particular service. World of Warcraft has play windows for some players measured in years. But a natural consequence of long play windows is a desire to monetize that long interest, and not just take money once. World of Warcraft has its subscription fee, for instance. Social games like FarmVille have micro-transactions. Modern Warfare is about to have its own pay service to help cover this base.

I used to argue that the low completion rates were evidence that games were too hard for the majority of players. As it happens, this claim was correct although the evidence wasn’t the low completion rate but rather the small number of games being purchased by mass market players. However, because sale of games isn’t tracked in a way that enables hobbyists to be separated from the mass market for games, this kind of information has remained largely invisible, even though anyone involved in tracking sales data is well aware that it is a factor.

There is a statistic called the software tie ratio for a console is the number of games purchased on average, but this value is offered as an average across the entire console, and is thus largely meaningless. Does the PlayStations 15.9 to 1 tie ratio mean a typical PSOne owner had 16 games? No, it doesn’t. It means most PSOne owners had fewer than 16 games, and a smaller minority had considerably more than 16, thus skewing the statistic. Software tie ratios need to be broken into at least two segments to get a true picture of sales for a console, something that is rarely actually done, simply because doing so is quite impractical.

For platform holders like Sony and Microsoft who sell their consoles initially at a loss, tie ratio is important as they also make money on each unit of software sold – a high tie ratio means they aren’t losing money in the long term. (Nintendo never sells consoles at a loss, so this is less important for them). But for developers, tie ratio tells you very little about a platform other than being a rough indicator of whether anyone is buying software. A high tie ratio might mean your game will be bought – but given that most software sold is in that narrow band of 5% hit titles, it’s by no means a given.

Mass market players are much more selective about what they buy, and they consequently tend to experience longer play windows out of games. I don’t know many hobbyists who got more than a week or a month out of Wii Sports, whereas many mass market players cleared a year with this game. Relatedly, mass market individual tie ratios tend to be very low indeed – 2 or 3, compared to hobbyists who could be anywhere in the range 10-100. Box products still make some sense for developers targeting the hobbyists because of the sheer volume of games they buy during the lifespan of a given platform – but as the hit games (e.g. Modern Warfare) increasingly switch to functioning as games-as-service, it seems likely that tie ratios will fall as fewer and fewer games absorb more and more attention over longer and longer play windows.. The rising cost of development hardly helps matters.

The question of how many players finish there games has very little to teach us about the way people play videogames, and certainly can’t be used as a proxy for customer satisfaction – plenty of players enjoyed games they never finished, either because it became too hard or because they just weren’t that involved in the expected path through the game. And even those that stop playing a game because it gets too hard wouldn’t necessarily be happier with an easier game – Conqueror and Mastermind style players (almost 50% of the audience according to BrainHex) may stop a game that gets too hard, but a great many would stop a game that was too easy even sooner.

As we move deeper into games-as-service, questions about how many players finish individual games are going to become increasingly arbitrary, as finite game content is going to become ever more marginal in the marketplace. It’s already the case that the only reason a top-of-the-range FPS even needs a single-player game is that its review scores suffer hugely without it. The question of play window used to be about the length of play time and the potential replay value, and the latter was always a questionable matter because players who finish generally stop playing. Now, play window is about how long the game can leave the player believing they will continue to have fun, or equivalently, thinking of things they want to achieve in the near future. Looking forward, players still won’t be finishing their games – but they will probably be enjoying those they do play for even longer than ever before.

Modern Board Games and Why Game Studios Should Care (DiGRA Panel)

Think Design PlayI’m honoured to announce that I’m on a panel with Reiner Knizia and many other wonderful people at the Think Design Play DiGRA conference in Utrecht on Thursday 15th September 2011. There’s a little more information over at the website for the conference. Many thanks to Ben Kirman and Jose Zagal for inviting me onto this panel!

Earlier in the day, at either 2 pm or 3:20 pm, I’ll also be in a Match session with someone else (I don’t know who!) where I’m supposed to be presenting some of the old DGD2 research, but will in fact be explaining why that research isn’t very clever, and neither is much of what is published as game studies.

Anyone at Think Design Play, I’m only there for the one day so catch me while you can!

Ninja Fishing vs. Ridiculous Fishing

radicalfishing When someone copies your game idea, what should you do? Rage against the unfair system? Swear vengeance? Lead a boycott? Or perhaps, enjoy all the attention you’re getting for being a real game designer whose work inspired others so much, they wanted to duplicate you.

As many of you will know, the geeks of the internet are up in arms about Gamenaut’s iOS game Ninja Fishing, which combines the basic core mechanics of Vlambeer’s extremely obscure Flash title Radical Fishin’ with the nearly ubiquitous touchscreen mechanics of a title such as Fruit Ninja. There’s no doubt that Ninja Fishing is a case of game duplication, as I talked about the other week, and as such is business as usual for the videogames industry. Part of the intensity of the reaction in this case is because Ninja Fishing has made it to the app store before Vlambeer’s own Ridiculous Fishing, which builds on their own design. I want to explore the dimensions of this issue a little more carefully.

Chris Donlan over at Edge savages Gamenauts for their duplication, concluding his rant with the following conclusion:

When you have no originality in your games, you can have no history, and you can have no personal quirks. You’ll end up with customers, perhaps, but not genuine fans – and games built around the concept of customers alone are often pretty miserable.

Aeiowu, who are working on Ridiculous Fishing (pictured above) with Vlambeer, were seriously irate:

…my point is about common decency and the little guy getting ****ed over by a studio that is both creatively and morally bankrupt.… this is all about capitalizing (monetarily) on Vlambeer’s creativity and prowess as top-shelf game designers. Nothing more. It’s complete bullshit and nobody with this knowledge should stand for it. … Complacency and etc. contributes to the fact that this means it’s a HELL of a lot harder to make it as an indie game designer on this path of freeware->iOS that could work so well for so many talented, aspiring game developers.

Rami Ismail of Vlambeer tongue-lashed me on Twitter when I expressed my general nonplussed response to this incident, concluding a series of tweets to me with the statement:

Clones do not iterate. They do not bring progress or new insights. They're not made to do so; a cynical way to earn money.

Firstly, let me say that I’m not unsympathetic to Vlambeer et al – it is never fun to be beaten to market in any context. It can make you feel betrayed, or it can literally sink a project you’ve spent a lot of time working on. I’ve had to pull the plug on a couple of titles over the years because a competitor beat my client to market with a similar product. In all of these cases, however, it was boxed product which was being developed for a console – and this marketplace is very different for the market for mobile or social games.

In this case I think it’s a mistake for Vlambeer et al to believe that they are having money stolen from them by Gamenauts. There’s a tendency to think of the diversions market as a series of pigeonholes with money in them, and if you get into the pigeonhole first you get all the money. A lot of business is like this, so it’s not a total fantasy. But when you’re dealing with the mass market for games, this hasn’t been the pattern. When an original game concept has legs, the first mover does have a significant advantage, but usually for diversion-type games the new markets have supported large audiences whereby the volume of titles has driven growth in that marketplace for all participants. The hidden object genre has been a great example of this – everyone who got in quickly did very well from the space, at least until it was saturated.

I suspect the same is true for this style of game. I’m not going to pretend that Radical Fishin’ was entirely original – seriously, no videogame appears from thin air – but at the same time the coupling of the two game mechanics (hook sinking and shooting) in this way has a chance to found a new genre, and that’s a great achievement for anyone! It’s something no-one can take away from you. What’s more, even though Gamenauts are the first to market on iOS, Vlambeer et al are still first movers in this market space, since Radical Fishin’ established them in this role. Don’t underestimate the long-term payoff for being the innovator, here. This probably isn’t a case like poor Ernő Rubik, who reputedly made very little money out of his hit invention.

Ultimately, I think Vlambeer et al are being short-sighted about Gamenaut’s duplication of their design. While it’s not quite true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, all the publicity this furore has generated has rocketed Ridiculous Fishing into the spotlight to a degree that indie developers this small are supremely lucky to get. If my original indie projects like Play with Fire had benefited from this kind of attention, I might not have lost so much money on them! Certainly, I’m convinced that the cost in terms of lost revenue is not commensurate to the gains in terms of publicity in this instance. Vlambeer may feel like they’ve been kicked in the balls, but my suspicion is that they’re going to benefit from this once the aching wears off.

Some middle-ground perspectives may help here. Eli Hodapp of Toucharcade suggests:

I'm looking forward to both Ridiculous Fishing as well as Ninja Fishing, and sincerely hope that there's enough to differentiate the two to make two crazy fishing games worth keeping around on my iPhone.

A.T. Faust III of App Advice offers support for the original designers:

If my past assertions about App Store clones hold true, Vlambeer has nothing to worry about. Either way, I know which title I’m buying!

Russ Frushtick of MTV Multiplayer is even stronger:

Moral of the story: If you want to support creative, independent developers, avoid "Ninja Fishing" and wait for "Ridiculous Fishing." The only way to discourage this sort of action is to hurt copycats in the wallet, so make your voice heard.

The bottom line here is that Vlambeer are being game designers and Gamenauts are being game duplicators – you may hate the duplicators, but they’re just trying to make a living like everyone else, and they probably haven’t significantly hurt Vlambeer et al in this case, no matter how it may feel at this point. Aeiowu say that “it’s extremely insulting” to be credited for inspiration but trust me, it’s much worse to not be credited for inspiration! The Japanese game designers responsible for paving the way for just about everything on Facebook have no consolation.

I’m going to let Tuaw have the next-to-final word here:

…the developers of Ridiculous Fishing seem to be taking it in stride anyway – they're still working hard on their iOS title, and they say it'll have lots of cool new ideas and "an amazing visual style" as well.

The bottom line here is that anyone that looks into this will see that Ridiculous Fishing is a classy piece of design work, and that many more people will support this title thanks to Gamenauts. I for one would never have heard of it without Ninja Fishing, yet now the developers might even make a sale out of me – and I buy very, very few iPhone titles. I suspect there’s a lot of angry indie fanboys out there who are going to promote the hell out of the new extreme fishing title when it arrives, and that’s great news for the original game designers whichever way you look at it.

Sure, Vlambeer can be angry at Gamenauts for ripping them off instead of being flattered that they thought their little obscure Flash title was fantastic enough that it was worth taking as the foundation for a duplicate game, but they are now almost certainly headed for a hit iOS game on the back of all this free publicity. Hundreds of indie developers die because they never get noticed, but this isn’t going to be them. Perhaps they should try to enjoy their coming success instead of pouring hatred on a competitor who may, perversely, have done them a favour by liking their work so much they wanted to copy it.

Ridiculous Fishing is due for release later this year in iTunes.

Do You Use Games-as-Service?

SocioPay Do you play any games that are services, like Facebook games, or free-to-play MMOs? Or, which is another way of thinking about this question, are all the games we are now playing effectively games-as-services, just some are more responsive to their players than others?

At Casual Connect this year, one of the concepts that really struck me as having found its place is games-as-services. Dan Cook of Lost Garden never shuts up about it these days, and with good reason! His new company Spry Fox are racking in the cash as an independent service provider of play. I admit to being more than a little jealous! Working on smaller, lighter games that go straight to a keen audience of players who then help participate in the development of both the community and the game – that’s an appealing situation for any game designer not hooked on the illusionary power trip that a game designer has absolute control over their games.

The social games revolution, in which free-to-play games are offered with additional functionality or benefits available for a fee, has radically transformed the digital economy, away from the lumbering dinosaur model of retail disks. Games on platforms other than the consoles are now 60% of the market for entertainment software (as Dan mentioned in the comments the other week), and investment in the social games space has gone insane. Zynga have now raised a billion dollars on the back of their success – never mind Series A ($10 million for Zynga) or Series B ($29 million for Zynga) venture capital, they’ve gone on to have Series C ($180 million for Zynga), D ($300 million) and E ($485 million!). I’ve never seen anything like it in the history of the games industry. Games-as-service are big money.

However, don’t think for a second that the consoles are out of the running – the number of successful titles may be falling, but revenues continue to rise. Besides, even the blockbuster games are effectively games-as-service now – you many not think of yourself as a subscriber, but if you are buying each Modern Warfare game you are paying $5 a month to Activision-Blizzard, just as every World of Warcraft addict is paying $10-15 a month to them. It’s telling that EA are scrabbling to convert their lucrative sports licenses into a games-as-service model. I can’t say I blame them – who wants to make less money when you can make more?

I heard a lot of “death of Consoles” stories at the IGDA Summit and Casual Connect – Dave Perry, he of Earthworm Jim fame, was particularly adamant that the next console cycle would be the last. I’m not convinced. Sony and Microsoft are competing for technical competence and no matter what the techheads say the PC market is a pure niche next to the power consoles with their promise of zero set-up and zero maintenance. As long as the gamer hobbyists want more powerful games engines, engine inertia will keep the console space alive. However, expect to see more and more of an effort to move towards games-as-service in this space, as Call of Duty’s premium content gambit reflects.

Trouble is, the consoles need retail to make their product work. You don’t get queues of people lining up around the block for the next online release because there’s no physical space for it to happen in, and without this you don’t make the news. News services want pictures to show, and there’s nothing to show when such-and-such a company’s server is overloaded by demand. The mass media, bricks-and-mortar retail, and console publishers form a tightly integrated market channel – one that doesn’t work if you remove retail from the equation. The challenge for consoles is how to continue to make all that hype work and still get in on the lucratice games-as-service gravy train. Expect a lot of failed experiments over the next two years.

There’s a downside to all the buzz about games-as-services – when players join into these kinds of communities, they trade in more diverse gaming habits for more intense play of fewer numbers of games. Ask World of Warcraft players how many different digital games they play… only as many as they can fit into the parts of their lives when they are cut off from their real habit. Although there are still players who are snacking at the gaming buffet, we are gradually drawing more and more players into more stable dining arrangements. There’s a lot of players to share, thankfully, but it’s never an infinite supply.

Right now, it’s a growth market as the industry finally accepts what I’ve been prophesying since I set up International Hobo: if we make our games more accessible, easier to learn, easier to play, more rewarding to stick with, we can reach a massive untapped market for games. That market is finally here. But how long before the growth is complete and we’re back to competing for attention… how many companies can survive in a games-as-service industry where individual games keep players for months, even years, at a time? We’re going to find out soon enough.

Do you play any games-as-services? Share your thoughts on this new gaming trend in the comments!

When Did Tabletop Become Analogue Game Design?

tabletop_analog_game_design I’m thrilled to report a new book edited by Drew Davidson and Greg Costikyan entitled Tabletop: Analog Game Design. It’s a collection of essays by both pen-and-paper and digital game designers about tabletop game design. (I’m a little disappointed Greg didn’t mention it to me when we met up in Seattle, actually! He knows I like my board games…) Amazon has it as an ebook and the publisher, ETC,  is offering it as a paperback from Lulu.

But I have to ask: when did ‘tabletop game design’ become ‘analogue game design’? This may sound odd – obviously boardgames are not digital, so shouldn’t they be labelled analogue? Well remember that analogue is an adjective that was originally used to describe electrical or mechanical devices in which the variable elements had continuous rather than discrete values. There didn’t used to be a sense in which everything that wasn’t digital could be labelled analogue – now it seems a book can be called an analogue ebook, perhaps even an organic tree can be called an analogue tree, as opposed to those digital trees in the fictional world of your games.

While I can’t support this shift in the language, it is extremely indicative of the extent to which computer technology has permeated every aspect of our lives. I'll be exploring this point in a little more detail on Only a Game at the end of this month.

Game Duplicators and Derivative Game Design

Bubble Island Squirming in my seat in some of the talks at Casual Connect last week, I was struck by the extent to which the job of "game designer" for the diversions marketplace has very little to do with the traditional perspective of game design as idea creation and development. Almost all the successful projects in this space are designed by someone whose role could be better described as a game duplicator.

Wooga's presentation was most shocking in this regard: their title Bubble Island (pictured above) was little more than a reskin of Puzzle Bobble (also known as Bust a Move): Taito did all the work on the conceptual design of their product in this case, and in fact as far as I could tell every one of their games was wholly derivative upon an original Japanese game design from the last twenty years. They were by no means the only company working in the social games space for whom this is true.

Now I want to be clear that a game duplicator is still a game designer – the core role of the designer is to coordinate the development of the design components of a game, and even if you are simply cloning someone else's design you still require genuine game design skills to achieve this. There can, in fact, be considerable challenges, especially when adapting from an arcade-style format to a social games platform. Also, I want to be clear that even most AAA console game developers are essentially game duplicators: the FPS game (or gun game) is perhaps the most stable format around, and innovation in the design of these games is neither needed nor in much evidence in new titles.

However, in so much as game design is thought of as a creative profession, there can be little doubt that there is a vast gap between (say) Shigeru Miyamoto and (say) a game duplicator at Wooga. I do not want to suggest that game duplication is not a legitimate and valuable profession, but I do want to suggest that a game duplicator should be considered a production role and not a creative role. Production is very important in games as an industry, but if we don't distinguish production from creativity we risk becoming confused about what the medium of games is really about. Right now, it's about making money, and game duplicators are in more demand than game designers. I suspect this may always be the case from now on.

So should we esteem game designers more than game duplicators? I think it's clear that we already do. No-one gets plaudits for copying someone else's design. But commitment to innovation is a big risk in the commercial space, and there is a sense, therefore, in which game duplicators are more reliable and trustworthy than game designers (in fact, this value judgement may be embedded in the distinction between production and creative roles I made earlier). Game designers can be – and frequently are – prima donnas who let their own pride and ego get in the way of their obligations to their employers and co-workers. If your commitment to originality causes your company to go bankrupt and puts your co-workers into the unemployment line then you might well be a creative genius, but you are also a narcissistic loser with no respect for your colleagues.

To create an original game is an achievement – to create as many as Miyamoto-San is incredible. But originality is a luxury that cannot always be afforded. Sometimes a good professional must curtail their desire to create in order to meet the practical requirements of their employment. If you only want to innovate, you may need to set up your own shop or (more likely) play at being the ‘starving artist’. If you aren't being paid to innovate, don't betray your co-workers by gambling with their jobs in order to feed your desire to feel creative.

Game duplicators are central to the diversions market because this audience is mainly seeking familiar fun, not inventive novelty. The companies that employ this kind of game designer are grateful for their restraint in not trying to wildly invent all the time. They all owe, however, a tremendous creative debt to game designers who paved the way. The very least they could do is offer their thanks to the talent behind the concepts they have raided and copied. The duplicator behind Bubble Island should thank Seiichi Nakakuki for their work on Puzzle Bobble, work that Wooga's design undeniably incorporates. The duplicator behind Farmville should thank Yasuhiro Wada for Harvest Moon, the progenitor of all farming games. This list of debts is endless, the expression of gratitude scant. Admitting influence is not admitting commercial liability – game design ideas are not subject to intellectual property law. Denying influence is not only arrogant, it is rude, or at the very least ignorant.

Sandy Peterson, the creator of Call of Cthulhu, was the first game designer I ever heard offer thanks to the people whose ideas his design borrowed. He noted that tabletop war games almost always included a section on the origins of the various rules and conventions, but role-playing game designers upheld the myth that their games "spring full grown from their designers' heads, like Athena from Zeus". I have tried to follow his example. All game designers are, at some level, game duplicators, and to pretend otherwise is pure egotism. Admit your influences, and recognise that the production role of the game designer is generally more important than the creative role, even if all the glory seems to reside in originality. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. Have the grace to thank them for their assistance.