What Are Little Games Made Of...?

Wooden Game PartsGenuinely surprised and delighted by the response last week’s Are Videogames Made of Rules? produced. I really expected it to sink without a trace. The discussions, which you can follow in the comments, have exceeded my available time – but I am not done talking about this by a long shot! I am planning some follow up pieces to explore some of the issues raised, but they will have to wait until later in the year.

Briefly, however, I’d like to stress that this is one of those pieces where I am arguing against myself – I had previously advanced a view that the fundamental building blocks of games were rules, and this included videogames (the algorithms of which can be understood as rules). Now that people such as Paul Gestwicki, Raph Koster, Chris De Leon, Patrick Davis, Bart Stewart, Petri Lankoski‏, and others have thrown in on the issue, I see there is much further to take this argument – both in terms of clarifying and solidifying its original direction, and in terms of important tangents as well.

A new serial is about to start over at Only a Game, but once that is wrangled I’ll definitely return to this issue and take it further. Many thanks to everyone who has waded in thus far!

Are Videogames Made of Rules?

World OptionsDoes it make sense to say that videogames are made of rules? We might say that about boardgames or playground games, but even in these cases it’s not clear ‘rules’ are enough. Ultimately, is there anything that underpins all kinds of games and gives them something like ‘atoms’, or is the whole notion of a some common element lying beneath all games suspect?

Since Minecraft appeared in 2009, game developers have been becoming far more open to the idea of letting players control their own play experience. One of the distinctive features of Mojang’s all-conquering sandbox is the freedom the player has to determine the regime that governs their player experience – just building, exploring without monsters, struggle to survive, pursue adventure, and so forth. While options go back to the early strategy videogames, who inherit the flexibility of their tabletop predecessors, Minecraft's choices go further, changing the fundamental nature of the games being played. This has been a trend far wider than any one game: Bethesda’s Oblivion in 2006 ruffled some players’ feathers by providing a difficulty slider that could be changed whenever the player wanted, even if this voided all challenge as a result. This concept of player-controlled difficulty (which differs from choosing a difficulty at the start of a game that you must then abide by) has become increasingly widespread, for all that certain games, such as Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, build their player experience upon a static – and wickedly high! – degree of challenge.
As an example of these general trends in game design becoming more pervasive, consider 2012’s co-op pirate RPG Windward. At the start of each game, a screen appears (pictured above) from which the player decides upon the set up of the overarching conditions for what is about to be played. They can select whether other players can bring in already powered-up ships from other worlds, whether items scale-down to the level of the current area to keep the game challenging, choose whether the factions are already at war, determine the degree of the restrictions on capturing towns, and set their own difficulty level by tuning the strength of enemy ships and the pacing of combat. These choices are framed as ‘Options’. But clearly these decisions alter the rules of the game about to be played, and do so to a degree that in the 1980s and 90s would have been inconceivable to the videogame community.
Giving players control of fundamental aspects of how a game plays is a relatively new phenomenon, perhaps little more than a century old. Late Victorian boardgames and early twentieth century tabletop games offered variations in the rulebook that are equivalent to the options in a game like Windward or Minecraft. In tabletop games, what became known around the sixties as ‘house rules’ have always existed: players alter certain rules of a game they’ve been taught to satisfy their own player experience, then teach those rules to others. It is this that has created a great many of the established card games, as well as variations of many other games such as mah jong (the British version, for instance, has a concept of ‘special hands’ wildly alien to the traditional Chinese game). As already mentioned, early strategy videogames inherited some of this flexibility, but they kept the core idea of a tactical or strategic battle challenge and never flirted with, for instance, removing combat and letting the player simply explore. It is that kind of radical shift in the players’ choices that Minecraft pioneers.
Jesper Juul and Miguel Sicart asserted in the 2000s and 2010s that one of the unique qualities of videogames is the inflexibility of their rules. I have argued against that: as a relic of 8-but computer gaming, I’m extremely comfortable with changing the rules of games – I peeked and poked a great many games on the Commodore 64, for instance, usually to make it more plausible to complete them in something less than geological time. It is easier to change the rules of most videogames than, say, a professional sport. Also, I’d like to note that personally I'm thrilled when people hack my own games for their satisfaction, even when it breaks the experience I intended (trainers for Ghost Master, for instance): it shows they care about the game I made.
Of course, multiplayer online games – whether World of Warcraft or Pokémon GO – have tighter security. Players of the former, however, can appeal to Blizzard for desired changes to the rules with at least some possibility of being heard, while players of the latter are out of luck: Niantic have their hands full just keeping the 65 million player infrastructure working. Nonetheless, it cannot be considered a conceptual tenet of videogames that their rules are fixed, as Juul and Sicart suggest. Honestly, I don’t think there is anything ontologically unique about videogames... their apparent uniqueness says more about their players’ aesthetic values than the artefacts in question. If you are unconvinced, try comparing Sega’s electro-mechanical arcade games of the sixties with early arcade videogames in the next decade.
Now it makes a certain kind of logical sense to say a boardgame is ‘made of rules’ and that understanding can be extended to videogames. As I have suggested many time before, the game design practices of early videogames descended directly from those of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons or the Avalon Hill strategy games. But there is a cost to this description: the material components of those tabletop games are not made of rules... rules may constrain what appears on a D&D character sheet up to a point, but there is much that goes on in that regard which cannot reasonably be considered ‘rules’ – the description of the character for a start. An attempt to make rules the ‘atoms’ of games will come up against these loose ends, as well as the unavoidable fact that a polyhedral die is not a rule, for all that rules can be related to them.
The same problem extends to videogames. Suppose we try to accept the crude analogy that a game’s code is its ‘rules’. We are already on shaky ground when we think of a polygonal texture (which is part of the game’s code) as a ‘rule’. Moreover, just like dice are not rules, a game controller is not a rule, nor is a video display, an audio speaker, text duplicated in EFIGS languages, or the bits and bytes of a save game. There is much more to a game than the parts that lend themselves to being described in rules, however broadly we construe that term.
The unavoidable conclusion is, unless we take a very narrow view of what counts as a ‘game’ (and many do just this...), we must concede that games are not made of rules. Indeed, perhaps a better way of understanding the relationship between rules and games is not that rules are constitutive of games but that the constraints upon play within games can be readily expressed in a verbal translation we call ‘a rule’. In other words, rules can be understood as a translation of the practices that make up a game, and this includes both player practices (things the players do) and creator practices (such as those that lead to executable code in a videogame).
In tabletop games, this process of translating the play of a game into written rules was precisely how game designers both formalised what happened in the game they were creating, and later communicated that experience to its eventual players. Prototypes, however, rarely required written rules to be played, so these usually came later. Rulebooks were thus both ‘analogue game code’ and a tutorial – usually a very bad one. But the game itself, however that term is understood, consisted of players exercising player practices with the material components of the game (up to and including physical spaces, written descriptions, air modulated into words etc.).
Importantly, the actual player practices of the pre-videogame era differed from group to group, not just because of intentional ‘house rules’ but because the rulebook was already an imprecise translation of the creators’ player practices, and this brought in all the problems of translation. As the Italians say, “all translation is betrayal.” So the ‘game’ of Dungeons & Dragons from this perspective was not equivalent to the rulebook but rather the set of all player practices from all the groups that played it, which is why the same rulebook could inspire such radically different videogame lineages as the rule-play focussed Rogue-likes on the one hand or the role-play focussed The Elder Scrolls series on the other.
When we come to videogames, the most significant change is that one of the players is a computer or, perhaps more convincingly, the creators of the game artefact are surrogate players in every game played with it. I speak of ‘the game artefact’ here to preserve the idea that the games played are those conducted by the players engaging with the game artefact, which constrains that play in certain ways, but which can never entirely be in control of the games that happen when those artefacts are put into the hands of actual players (hence the concept of metagames). The game artefact is what links creators of any game artefact with their eventual players, and in videogames the computer device (console, PC, smartphone etc.) serves as a local proxy for those creators, echoing their intentions in so much as they are not modified by the players, hardware problems, porting coders etc. Because computers are such reliable mediators in this regard, rulebooks (manuals) have fallen by the wayside, along with the very need to express the player practices through translation into verbal rules.
Except, then we come to Minecraft’s regimes of play, Oblivion’s difficulty slider, or Windward’s ‘options’ – and these are rules once more, because there is a necessary translation without which the player could not understand what they were selecting. Go back to the wordings in the screenshot of Windward above: these precisely-termed ‘options’ patiently explain what checking a box will cause to happen. And these ‘options’ are rules, just like those in a tabletop rulebook. What they are not, of course, is atomic to the play of any of these games, since what makes possible any game (however that term is understood) is not so much the rules as it is the kind of being that has the capacity to play in the first place. A kind of being like humans, dogs, and birds that imagines itself in a world.
Games are not made of rules at all: games are made of players and the things they play with. Rules are simply one especially significant manner that players – including those particularly special players, the creator of any given game artefact – use to communicate their player practices to one another. But there is no atomic element at the base of all play and all games, neither rules, nor ‘ludemes’, nor mechanics, nor code... Play is the interrelation of beings who have the capacity to imagine with a world that permits them to exercise that faculty. If games are anything in relation to rules, they are the forms of play that are best suited to having the practices of their players translated into words.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome!

Metagame vs Structure

Metroid MapWhat is a metagame and how is it different from a game’s structure?

The structure of a game is the framework of the design that compels players to keep playing over the long term. There are numerous different game structures, including narrative structures (linear, branching, threaded), geographical (sequential, hub and level, open world), and in terms of character advancement (class and level, advantages/perks etc.). Conversely, the metagame is the social consequence of releasing a game into a community of players, an ever-changing set of tactical and strategic considerations that have to be taken into account if players are going to remain engaged with the games’ community.

Understanding the distinction between these two concepts is crucial to effective game design (although it isn’t strictly necessary to understand these concepts by these specific names, of course). In this piece, I hope to disentangle some confusions about the relationship between game structure and metagame, to emphasise the benefits to thinking carefully about both, and raise some concerns about the ‘monetisation metagame’. Any game designer worth their salt is already thinking about both structure and metagame, and it can be helpful to see where these terms come from, and how they relate to your own mental model for understanding games.

Game Structures

The first games with significant structures may well have been the strategy games that influenced Dungeons & Dragons (1974), from which the concept of ‘campaign’ was inherited and spread to the wider community through TSR’s underground hit. D&D’s use of ‘campaign’ as a narrative structure that linked individual scenarios into a dynamic story-telling medium was innovative, and extremely influential on videogames. But it was the invention of character advancement that was the real structural innovation of the first tabletop role-playing game, generating long-term play by asking players to acquire experience points (XP) in order to gain levels, and thus increase in both power and narrative potential. This structure provides a powerful and compelling player experience in part because it combines the strengths of narrative progression with the compulsion of ‘prizes’ to be won, all linked together in a reward schedule far more sophisticated that anything B.F. Skinner considered.

Around the same time, videogames were experimenting with very simplistic structures necessitated by their technological limitations. Early arcade games were built upon lives or a timer system: players played the game until they were out of lives, or until the timer ran out. This drove the microtransaction economy of the arcade: coin drops. When you ran out of lives, you put in another coin to start again and, after Atari’s Gauntlet (1985), to continue. On home computers and consoles, which were purchases at a fixed price, there was no need for such a frantic style, and the compact structure of the arcades quickly gave way to new fictional geographies that supported longer play times.

Games like the Stamper brother’s Atic Atac (1983) and Matthew Smith’s Jet Set Willy (1984) changed the way structure worked by opening up the geography of the game world for exploration. Later, with the addition of a primitive save function, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda and Metroid (both 1986) took this further by mediating how players progressed: special items could be collected that allowed the players to reach new areas, driving curiosity and supporting more compelling exploration play. Today, a significant proportion of AAA videogames have settled upon an open world structure descended from Grand Theft Auto (1997) and its key influence, Elite (1984), a format which from the earliest days combined the advancement systems of D&D with the fictional geographies of early home videogames. It is a powerful – but expensive to develop – combination.

As game designers, decisions about structure provide ways to get maximum value from minimum development expense. A good character advancement system can wring a lot of player hours out of the same core content, and an expansive geography can also provide similar benefits, either through reuse of tiled content or via procedural generation (or a combination of the two). Structural design decisions determine how long players will play a game before they feel it has been ‘completed’, and as such this crosses over into narrative design for most games. As a result, structure is the core of the game design process for a great many styles of game.


Whereas structural design is foundational to game design in general, metagame design is always player experience design at the level of the community. It is perhaps most commonly encountered in the sense of the distribution of tactics and strategies in a particular player community, but the term originally had an even wider sense when first used by Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, in a presentation at GDC in 2000:

Definition of Metagame: My definition of metagame is broad. It is how a game interfaces with life. A particular game, played with the exact same rules will mean different things to different people, and those differences are the metagame. The rules of poker may not change between a casino game, a neighborhood nickel-dime-quarter game, and a game played for matchsticks, but the player experience in these games will certainly change. The experience of roleplaying with a group of story oriented players and playing with some goal oriented power gamers is entirely different, even though the underlying rules being played with may be the same.

It is immediately apparent how the metagame is distinct from structure, since the structure is part of the internal design task of the development team, while the metagame is how the game interacts with its player community. It is a strictly an internal-external split that positions these two terms against one another. That Garfield coined the term is fitting since Magic: The Gathering is a superlative example of a metagame in action: the balance of cards used in player-constructed decks is constantly in flux as a result of the changes in the pool of available cards. One of the chief factors affecting a new card being considered for release by Wizards of the Coast are the effects on the metagame: is it going to shake things up and keep it interesting? Is it going to annoy too many players? Is it fatal to a particular style of play?

The name ‘metagame’ is well chosen: ‘meta’ from the Greek μετά meaning ‘after’ or ‘beyond’. The metagame happens both after a game is released, and is beyond its core design. There were, of course, metagames before Magic: The Gathering… Steve Jackson Games’s Car Wars (1980) supported a fascinating metagame via the Uncle Albert’s Auto Shop and Gunnery Stop faux advertisements in Autoduel Quarterly magazine. The designers of the game faced very similar issues to those Wizards of the Coast would encounter in terms of what the newly-created weapons and defensive options would do to the player tactics in their tabletop battle game. Today, we see significant metagames in MOBAs in the context of character choices and team balance, in choices of gym defenders in Niantic’s Pokémon Go AR game, and more or less anywhere that the player community bears an influence upon the further development of a game – which thanks to analytics, means almost everywhere.

For some reason (probably a blend of ignorance and an innocent coining of a ‘new’ term), Bungie called the campaign scoring in Halo 3 (2007) ‘the meta-game’. This should not be confused with metagames in Garfield’s sense, since Bungie’s ‘meta-game’ is in actuality structural in nature. It is not that this term is ‘wrong’ so much as it is not helpful. From Bungie’s perspective, it probably seemed as if the individual FPS battles were ‘the game’ and so any game layer above this could be called ‘the meta-game’. This does makes sense in terms of the original Greek term… it’s just not helpful because it is clearly just a matter of game structure. To insist on calling solely the real-time action ‘the game’ is to claim that Bungie doesn’t sell games at all, but rather software that happens to have games embedded inside. That’s strictly correct. But it’s not in any way helpful.

Designing for the metagame is a serious challenge, because you don’t know what you have until it’s out in the world. Even closed betas aren’t really a test for how this will pan out (although having this data is always an asset!) since what a subset of players do is radically distinct from what a wider community of players will end up doing. As game designers, we plan for the metagame – we want it if it's possible – and then we have to work hard to keep the meta from stagnating. Maintenance of the metagame is where the craft of game design and the art of community management collide, and successful companies are those that can make these different practices work together.

Monetisation as Metagame

A new set of circumstances for game design were created by the rise and flourishing of the free-to-play, microtransaction driven business model (circumstances quite unlike those fostered by the ‘free version, paid version’ freemium model it directly descends from). The monetisation strategies that developers pursue for acquiring revenue from microtransactions constitute a metagame, one that risks pitting the player and the developer against each other. It could be argued this was already the case for, say, Magic: The Gathering, which generated absurd revenue from its booster pack business model (a form of material microtransaction, you might say!).

What is apparent whichever way the lines are drawn is that games that published periodic expansions, sequels, or DLC like Car Wars or Super Smash Brothers used their metagames to maintain community interest in the brand, and thus support the fanbase. The fans bought the new games or expansions because they were enjoying playing the game, and the metagame maintenance was a service to the fanbase the developer provided in order to maintain a positive relationship and keep its core business strong. The developers best interests were served by this – but so too were the players’ best interests. It was a cybervirtuous relationship.

In monetisation by microtransaction (‘free to play’, but also more than this, since console games have recently discovered the ‘pay-and-pay-more’ business model), the metagame will cease to be a community service the moment the developer is making decisions based purely upon how best to extract value from the player community. For instance, while Niantic’s gym overhaul was healthy for Pokémon GO’s metagame, some players have alleged that the developer has choked the supply of healing items while simultaneously adding these to the (monetised) shop. This risks being perceived by players as a move against them in the monetisation metagame. After all, it can hardly be argued that Niantic were losing money on the 65 million player behemoth. (It is not clear whether this particular allegation is well-founded, but such is the perception of some players at the very least.)

Compare the arrangement of the new Raid battles in Pokémon GO, and the ticket system (Raid Passes) that drives it. A new feature was added to the game, expanding its play and giving players something new to do. To recoup the cost of developing and testing the system, Niantic sell Premium Passes in the game shop, which can effectively be purchased with real money. To ensure everyone gets to take part, they give one Raid Pass away for free every day. This system strikes an effective balance between providing value to the players, and ensuring Niantic’s work is financially compensated. There is no equivalent claim to be made about monetising healing items, which does not obviously add value to the player experience, although the accusation in this particular case hinges on whether Niantic intentionally reduced the supply of these items from free sources (otherwise, this is merely the provision of another purchase option in the shop).

Game development is expensive, and the companies that undertake it deserve to be compensated for the work they do. However, when the metagame strays into value extraction and away from community satisfaction, something has gone wrong. It is worth noting that this can be extremely damaging for a game – the addition of microtransactions to Overkill’s Payday 2 as a result of pressure from publisher 505 Games very nearly sank the franchise, until Starbreeze (who own Overkill) bought back the rights in a $30 million deal the likes of which the games industry had never seen before. Behind this unprecedented legal agreement was the intention to keep the player community happy with the game they were playing. There is always more money to made when you have a thriving community of contented players.

Metagames are important to the success of a game, both commercially and creatively. As such, the monetisation metagame is something that developers ought to be careful about playing. The most honourable question to ask about every proposed change should always be: “what extra value is the player getting for their money?” Whenever a change is introduced that is founded upon the question “what extra value are we extracting from the players?”, the monetisation metagame has turned toxic.

Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome!

Going to Gamescom

gamescomInternational Hobo Ltd will be at Europe’s biggest games industry event, Gamescom. We’re available for meetings on Wednesday 23rd and the morning of Thursday 24th of August.

We’re particular interested in meeting with:

  • Publishers looking for pre-dev game design support or audit
  • Publishers or Developers needing narrative or dialogue services
  • Anyone we already know, or who would like to meet us!

Get in touch through the usual channels (contact link in the sidebar here, if all else fails).

Look forward to seeing you in Cologne!

Pokémon GO Update: The Highs, the Lows

Highs and LowsA little over a week since Niantic put the new Gyms system and Raids live in Pokémon GO, and the backlash is gradually being drowned out by the support for the way the year-old game has been reawakened by a cleverly imagined, although clunkily implemented, revision to a major part of the core game. The state of the player community is aptly summarised by these two pictures. On the left, five strangers (GPS spoofer not pictured…) took down a Tyranitar in a city in the US… on the right, someone turned up for a big Raid and found nobody there. Indeed, there’s far more of the experience on the right at the moment than the one on the left, but when it works, players are ecstatic about the Raids – and the fact that all three rival Teams can battle together makes it far more open than anything else in the game.

I mentioned before that there were too many Raids triggering for it to fulfil the needs of event gameplay, which is something any AR game wants to create if it can. Pokémon GO has had the most success with this by virtue of the power of the Pokémon brand. However, while I stand by the assessment that the sheer ubiquity of Raids makes no-shows far too likely, the one aspect of this set-up that could work out is that a group of players that set out to attempt a Raid together will have a good chance of finding one that would suit them, and big wins will generate a lot more social media buzz than the no-shows, which will be largely invisible in the secondary media. I have suspicions that part of the problem with Raids is that the app can only hold a relatively small geographic chunk of data in memory at any one time, and thus Niantic are not set up to flag Raids city- or county-wide… if they were, there are much better ways of designing the Raid allocations than those we’re currently seeing.

Meanwhile, and quite fortunately for Niantic, the furore over coins is starting to die down as players gradually adjust to the new arrangement. It becomes clearer and clearer than the most outraged players are the ousted nobility of an economy that was akin to a pyramid scheme in rewarding the players who had been at it for longest while excluding everyone else. Not long after the update, Niantic brought the cap on the Gym Defender Bonus down to 50 PokéCoins per day, but raised the rewards to 1 coin per 10 minutes (immediately after the update, it was 1 coin per hour up to a maximum of 100 per day), which didn’t go down well. But what’s becoming clear is that instead of 1-2% of players getting 100 coins a day and 5% of players getting 10-20 coins per day, now anyone who wants to can get 50 coins a day, at least if they’re not too close to the centre of a city nor too far away from any major settlement. (As someone who grew up on an island only 30 miles across, I can feel the pain of the rural players right now…)

The real switch in people’s heads is in understanding how everyone now gets ‘paid’. It used to be a salary system, where the pay was proportional to the number of Gyms occupied (up to 10). This encouraged squatting in Gyms with 3,000 CP overlords that the majority of players – especially those coming late to the game – could never match. The new pay is a mediated lottery system, because it’s not hard to get a pokémon to hold a Gym for 8 hours and get the full 50 coins (if you’re up late at night, it’s even easier!), but you need to ensure that you get at least one monster returned to you each day, and this isn’t something you can guarantee. Rather, the more defenders you put into Gyms, the better chance you have of getting your expected earnings.

The new Defender rewards is far a subtler system than the one it replaces.. you are going to get lots of creatures coming home in bandages at the weekend, when there’s a lot of player activity, so it can feel like those coins are ‘wasted’ when players still think in terms of salary. But the dominant strategy for the the new coin system revolves around ensuring that at least one 8-hour Pokémon comes back each day. I predict it won’t be long before players complain less about getting multiple monsters back at once (which at the moment feels like having ‘lost’ money, because of the comparison with the old salary system) than about living in an area where nobody comes and battles at their Gyms ever. These complains already exist, but those voices will get louder and more bitter the longer the situation persists, always assuming the players just don’t drop out entirely.

Urban players will quickly adjust to the idea that they’re going to be getting a steady 50 coins a day now (50 cents USD/40p GBP) – and I estimate 10-20 times as many players getting that full pay-out from Niantic than were getting it before, which is obviously a win for the game in terms of engagement and player satisfaction. At the same time, rural players are going to find their Pokémon stuck in Gyms and getting no coins at all. They’re asking for a button to recall the Pokémon – but this would break the Gym system. Niantic ought to be thinking about what they can do to balance the city and the countryside, although as a strict commercial decision it does make sense to favour the densely populated areas over the sparser regions. Still, they would earn a lot of brownie points for being responsive to this issue.

There’s one last issue: Stardust. It is used in the game economy to power up pokémon, and under the old system it was the scarcest and most valuable resource because it could not be purchased directly by IAP, unlike PokéCoins. Players who were earning 100 coins a day used it to purchase Egg Incubators because these pay-out the most Stardust, but they also got 500 stardust for each Pokémon in a Gym (up to 5,000 maximum per day), which was enough to power up a high level monster once, or a low level monster twice. Under the old ‘Overlord’ Gym system, Stardust was essential because you had to be competitive on Combat Points (CP) to stay in a Gym. But under the new system this simply doesn’t matter because visiting Gyms frequently is much more important than having played the game for longer than everyone around you. Players who became used to having a lot of Stardust (the toppled nobility) are feeling the loss… but for most players, the new arrangement is simply better for them than the grind-heavy old regime, even if the 10 Stardust per berry fed at a Gym is peanuts next to what used to be paid out.

Right now, Niantic are doubling down on bug fixes, since launching two new systems at once has understandably broken the game in dozens of different ways. The real testament to the success of the Raid system is that players who form a group and beat a strong Raid Boss enjoy the experience so much it completely blows away their irritations over fatal crashes, bar display fluctuations, and other such problems that in a less popular game would be fatal. With a week of Raids now over, I’m going to call the update a qualified success for Niantic – and it’s going to be interesting to see what it means for their revenue when that data is released. For the time being, though, there’s never been a better time to be part of the 65 million strong player community for Pokémon GO.

Pokémon GO Raids: First Weekend


Has Niantic hurt its player community with the new update, or has it succeeded in raising engagement and monetisation? This question is not yet fully resolved, but after the first weekend of Raids and Gym battles under the new system, we have a sense of how things are going for the 65 million-player augmented reality game.

As both a player and as a videogame consultant, I’ve been keeping a very close eye on how the new Pokémon GO update affected the player community over the weekend. It was a significant event in the game’s history, because multiplayer co-operative Raids are now live for all players, having previously been through an interesting Beta-by-level countdown (such that, for instance Level 35 players had first access, then Level 30 and so on). The Raids are an important part of Niantic’s monetisation strategy going forwards, so they need to work well enough for that to pay off for them.

The good news, for both players and Niantic, is that the Raids have been very well received, offering a new kind of battle to the players that are exciting and engaging. But there is a problem. The Raids are clearly intended to be event gameplay – the idea is that groups of players get together to fight a powerful Raid boss together. But this hasn’t happened. So far, in all my skimming around Raid sites, the most I have found at any one is two players, and a single player or none at all is more typical.

The problem is, there are currently far too many Raids triggering at once. The Raids only work as events if players all descend upon one Raid together – which is clearly intended, because the monetisation of Premium Raid Tickets (IAP $1 USD or 79p GBP) is the big win that Niantic is aiming for in the new system. With one free ticket a day, and dozens of Raids to choose from between 9 am and 9 pm, players are not congregating for the Raids at all. Perhaps Niantic is expecting players to self-organise for this. If so, they are being optimistic.

Eevee GymOn the plus side, the new Gym update has brought the player community out of hiding. Outside of Raids, I have encountered more Pokémon GO players in the last three days than in my entire time with the game thus far. That’s a win for Niantic – the revision of the Gym system has worked as intended, and it has ended the domination of 3,000 CP overlords. Now, more players than ever before are able to get pokémon into gyms, and more different kinds of beasties are appearing in gyms as players realise that the old rules don’t apply. This has also generated a lot of free publicity in social media, with images like the one above circulating rather well online.

But while players who had previously been marginalised are now coming out of the woodwork, the existing PokéNobility are still seriously offended by the changes to the coin rewards, as I discussed before the update went live. This is an ongoing mini-scandal, and how offended players are about it depends on how well they were doing out of the old system. There’s a certain degree of the aristocracy-after-the-revolution about this sour grapes, especially since it was the vast minority of players (I reckon between 1 and 5% of the player base) that were benefiting from the old regime.

Don’t think, however, that this means that the new PokéCoin system was clever design work on Niantic’s part: one of the serious problems with the way the new system works is that players have lost control of how their rewards are received. Previously, players chose when to take their PokéCoins, and this setup allowed even marginal players to get some coins every now and then. Now, players have absolutely no control over when they get rewards. You don’t get coins until your pokémon are ejected from gyms, and this happens when another team decides to attack. Players feel understandably set adrift by this, which is bad for player satisfaction, and (perhaps worse) it is an additional incentive for players to start secondary accounts – which Niantic are publicly opposed to.

Overall, this new update has been a good news, bad news kind of affair. My impression of the response from the player community is that the benefits have outweighed the costs for the majority of the players, but that a minority of well-established players are displeased by the toppling of an empire that benefited them greatly. That said, no-one is happy about a reward system that quashes player agency and creates huge ambiguity about how to earn rewards by playing the game. On this front, Niantic have some crucial fire-fighting ahead of them.

Wave Goodbye to the 3,000 CP Overlords

First Gym DataThe gyms went live last night at 9:00 pm GMT, and as predicted it was the biggest land grab in videogame history… Within two hours, every gym within ten miles of me was claimed. As a Team Mystic family, I was lucky to get any pokémon into slots as there are so many more blue players than anything else – but I did meet other players for the first time in the UK, who were clustered around my local gyms, working to secure them and fill them up. As someone who missed the launch of the game, it was a nice feeling to see the community in the flesh.

With the first night over here in the UK, the effects of the Motivation system are readily apparent: eight hours later, those who put 3,000 CP+ defenders into gyms will find their pokémon bored to death this morning, with zero motivation. Now it’s a face between allied players giving them berries to perk them up and rival teams to claim the gym – which will be easier the more behemoths were fielded. This is an extremely encouraging development! It really does end the pokémonopoly, even though (sadly) Blissey will remain ubiquitous on account of her unbelievable tanking stats.

I chose to field an unusual pokémon because it seemed in the spirit of the new meta-game to do so, putting in a 1,799 Typhlosion my kids had evolved at the end of the Solstice event. I have much higher CP defenders to choose from, but I was curious as to whether the new setup really would shake things up. This morning, the 3,293 CP Dragonite and a similar-strength Gyrados were seriously flagging, and down to roughly 1,200 CP. But my Typhlosion is only down to 1,631, and the Espeon of one of the trainer I met last night is down from 1,714 CP to 1,552 CP (odd that Blissey went from 1,918 to 1,935 CP, but it may have already lost Motivation in the first case, and have been recently fed in the second). This means, as predicted, the question of what is a good gym defender is back in play – and really will be different according to the local conditions. Great news for players who are in it for the fun of battling for control.

However, it has also become apparent that the new PokéCoin mechanic utterly destroys any hope of players in cities from making much in-game currency, since a pokémon must defend for an hour to get 1 coin now. Previously, as soon as you took a gym you could claim 10 coins immediately, and it was easy to take 30-40 coins a day from occupying gyms only briefly, and perfectly viable to claim the maximum 100 coins (worth about a dollar, or 79p here in the UK). Now, rural players will be able to take advantage of the slow turnover of their gyms, which is nice compensation for their isolation, while spoofers (who use fake GPS data to cheat at the game) will at least have to work harder to work out which gyms are worth holding. 

This strangling of reward may well have the desired effect of raising real money transactions – we'll find out the next time Niantic post profits. However, I for one will dig my heels in and be much less likely to buy PokéCoins knowing that the developer is intentionally starving supply. Of course, paid Premium Raid passes might be Niantic’s endgame here – and many will be tempted to buy these to get a chance at capturing unique pokémon. But it means in the monetisation meta-game, Niantic is going to have turned a lot of its friends into enemies.

Why Niantic's Gym Gamble Could Pay Off

PG updateWhat does Niantic hope to achieve with its substantial update of the gym system in Pokémon GO, already in progress? Is this about bringing in more players, maintaining the existing community, or improving monetisation?

Almost all news services this week have reported on the major update to Pokémon GO that is rolling out globally right now (the Android update is already available, and the iOS update is not far behind). The hugely successful Augmented Reality (AR) game still pulls in some 65 million monthly active users (MAU), which while not in the same league of the behemoth Candy Crush Saga at 405 million still makes it one of the world’s most popular games. For context, the entirety of Activision’s product line (including Call of Duty and Destiny) makes up 40 million MAU and all Blizzard’s monthly active users (including World of Warcraft and Overwatch) amounts to 41 million. Whichever way you look at it, Pokémon GO is a serious player in the market for games.

The changes coming in the new update primarily involve the gym system – but not the battles themselves, which remain unchanged. Rather, Niantic are redefining the way pokémon are stationed in gyms, providing new ways for players to engage with their local gyms and (in a further update coming a month later) adding Raids that are modelled on the endgame concepts popularised by World of Warcraft. You can read the most complete description of the changes from Niantic’s support article about the update.

Most sources have correctly reported that the new system limits only one pokémon of each type to a gym, transforming the meta-game and ending the days of gyms containing a depressing multitude of pokémon’s tedious ubertank, Blissey. Most mention the arrival of the new Motivation system and the consequent retiring of the old Prestige system, which asked players to train at friendly gyms to increase the number of pokémon that could be stationed there. However, few have commented on the significance of these changes, and very few mention the most crucial aspect of this overhaul, which means players with less time spent in the game have a chance of participating in the gym battle system.

This, indeed, appears to be the primary motivation for Niantic’s overhaul. The current gym system suffers from major king-of-the-castle problems: players who have been playing from the beginning are now at approximately level 30-36, and can field pokémon with more than 3,000 Combat Points (CP), the measure of the little beasties’ strength in battle. Crucially, these high CP monsters lock up friendly gyms and make it very difficult for new players to have any involvement whatsoever in what’s going on in their local battlegrounds. New players are frequently unable to do much at gyms until they clear about level 20, and even then, there is an inescapable feeling that they are outclassed by the ‘big guns’ who have been playing for longer. This is never a healthy state for a player community: newcomers are all too easily discouraged.

The update not only limits the number of big guns in each gym by only allowing one pokémon of each species, the new Motivation system radically changes the nature of gym defence. Motivation is a morale system – as the gym defenders are defeated in battle (or whenever they lie idle and don’t get to fight at all), they lose Motivation, which reduces their effective CP value. This makes them easier to defeat, which lowers their Motivation further until eventually they give up and go home. Taking a gym is now about the pokémon chosen to defend, not about Prestige, which in the old system could be reduced by battling just a few of the gym’s defenders.

Crucial to the success of this new system is this line from Niantic’s notes:

To help balance different Pokémon strengths and abilities, stronger Pokémon generally lose motivation more quickly than those that are not as strong.

Now the actual game implications of this design element will not become clear until the update has fully rolled out and Niantic turn the gyms on, but it is clear how this is intended to function: putting in ultra-strong 3,000 CP pokémon is no longer the only viable strategy for gym defence. These pokémon lose morale faster, and thus will presumably get kicked out of gyms faster. The new dominant strategy for gym defence, therefore, depends on finding a sweet spot in the strength of the monsters deployed to gyms – too strong, and they will suffer a crisis of morale too easily; too weak, and they’ll roll over in battle without putting up any serious resistance. The fact that there is a sweet spot to discover – and that it could be different in each local area – revitalises the gym system in a way that is highly likely to reinvigorate the interest of its existing players, as well as potentially bring back some that left it over its first year.

There’s an important ambiguity, however. Although it is something most Pokémon GO players are unaware of, the Prestige system for gyms (which is being retired) created a role for weaker pokémon as ‘prestigers’ who trained at friendly gyms to raise the Prestige and increase the number of available slots. The second-string monsters were relevant since bigger Prestige bonuses were awarded for using weaker pokémon to train, creating interest in a whole raft of relatively weak pokémon that would otherwise be useless. (I have been maintaining an army of Furrets for this very reason.) With Prestige going, there is a big question about whether the only useful gym attackers will now be the high CP pokémon – effectively undoing a great many of the benefits of the new system. However, if defenders lose more Motivation for being beaten by weaker pokémon (which would be sensible, but that doesn’t mean Niantic have done it…) there could be seriously interesting questions about which team to take into each and every gym battle.

The community is showing overwhelming support for the new changes, although there are some concerns about alterations to the rewards for defending gyms. Previously, you could collect PokéCoins (which are the in-game currency that can be purchased with real money transactions) once every 21 hours, amounting to 10 coins per pokémon defending gyms, up to a ceiling of 100 per day. The 100 per day cap still stands, but now you only get coins when your pokémon loses its morale and returns from the gym. This creates substantial uncertainties that some players are already getting anxious about. It’s not clear this will end the strategy of ‘gym squatting’ or not: players still have a motive to deploy many pokémon into gyms, and it’s not up to them when they return, which creates worries about yet further advantages to ‘gym shavers’ who (against Niantic’s terms and conditions) have multiple accounts belonging to different teams so they can manipulate the gym situation to their personal advantage.

What is very clear about Niantic’s plans with this gym update is that it is all about strengthening the community around local gyms. Players of all levels can give berries to defenders of their team to help them stay on – allowing players to effectively ‘vote with their berries’ as to which gym defenders they want to keep. Furthermore, players earn status with gyms to level up gym badges to give them advantages. These changes help make a player’s relationship with their local gym stronger, which could have beneficial results for player experience. Add to this the Raids (which will start in July) that will create community events at local gyms, and this could give a serious boost to the sense of player community that Pokémon GO engenders.

Making a radical change to core game mechanics is always a risk, but Niantic seem to have thought this one through quite carefully, and it certainly has the potential to invigorate the existing player community and bring back a few players who left out of either boredom or frustration. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, particularly in terms of whether the motivation system truly breaks the pokémonopoly of Blissey, Dragonite, Snorlax, Rhydon, Gyrados, and Vaporeon, which dominate every gym I have visited anywhere in the world. But even the possibility of thoroughly shaking up the meta-game is one that players of Pokémon GO are excited about. Let the battle for the pokémon gyms begin – again!

Are you a Pokémon GO player sad to lose the Prestige system, or excited about having to only fight one Blissey per gym? Leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you!

Cyberamicable Game Design

FriendsIs it possible to design videogames to encourage friendships? This is a question about whether cyberamicable games are a possibility, and it’s one that

Earlier this year, Dan Cook published a long report from his November 2016 Project Horseshoe visit, entitled Game Design Patterns for Building Friendships. This is precisely a discussion about what I have been calling cybervirtue, in the context of games, and I want to suggest that games that are designed to encourage friendship would be cyberamicable, since we call ‘amicable’ a person who gets on well with others, or who forms friendships easily.

Here’s an extract from Dan’s piece:

Games that lack the tools for disclosing personal info between two people will never facilitate deep relationships. They may never even facilitate shallow relationships since players see that there will never be a long term future for any relationship they form in the game. However, disclosure is a highly risky action and teams will often try to cut it from their designs. Sharing information before a relationship is strong enough can result in broken or antagonistic relationships.

There’s a ton of useful and thought-provoking ideas here, and it’s well worth a look for anyone working in the space of multiplayer games. Check it out!