If game design is a craft, what becomes of it when game development is driven solely by financial metrics? Does any of the craft remain? Or are games reduced to mere commercial pit traps, luring in and monetising their unwitting victims?
A little over a decade ago, when my friend and colleague Richard Boon and I were writing 21st Century Game Design, I had predicted that this century in games was going to be characterised by a new focus upon understanding players, and that this would be attained by various models of player behaviour. I suggest (with the benefit of hindsight) that this general claim was correct, and that we have gone from an era where game design was dominated by dogmatic assumptions and self-satisfying design practices (although neither of these have gone away…) to one where understanding how players relate to games is an inescapable part of the videogame industry.
But we made one crucial error in that book. My assumption had been that modelling player behaviour entailed understanding how to satisfy play needs, which is to say, having a positive, inclusive, moral and practical relationship with players. But the dominant forms of player modelling right now have absolutely no need to understand how to satisfy players in any form, because the principal form of model we are using right now is analytic metrics – and these metrics are blind to any aspect of the mental states of the player whatsoever. If our image of game design in the 21st century was that the industry was going to be making money by creating games that deeply satisfied their players, what we are actually facing now is an industry that makes the majority of its money by simply analysing where the leaks are in their cashflow, and acting as digital predators to suck spare change out of players’ digital wallets.
It may be helpful to look at the key metrics at use today to verify what I’m claiming. Firstly, there are the measures of activity – Daily Active Users (DAUs), Sessions, Stickiness (DAU/MAU), Retention and its inverse, Churn. Then, the measures of monetisation – Conversion Rate (percentage of players making purchases), ARPDAU and ARPPU (Average Revenue Per Daily Active User, or Per Paying User). Also, game economy measures for Sources, Sinks, and the Flow Rate of in-game currencies, all geared towards engineering sufficient sparseness that players will be encouraged to pay money for advantages. And that’s what it’s all about: squeezing money out of players' impulses – although in analytics, there are no players, only users, just like the narcotics industry. As the company Game Analytics observe with the admirable unvarnished honesty that belongs to these thoroughly pragmatic commercial practices:
Successful free-to-play games create long-term relationships with users. Users that enjoy the experience enough are willing to pay to for a competitive advantage. A game needs to have strong retention to have time to build this relationship. (Emphasis added.)
One of the most coherent supporters of the free-to-play business model where such metrics dominate is Nicholas Lovell, author of The Curve and regular on the same speaking circuit as me. We first met at Develop Liverpool, many years back, and our paths still occasionally cross. He views the challenges of that side of the market as not so much about monetisation (he rankles at being called a ‘monetisation consultant’) as about retention, in accordance with the quote above. But I read very little from him about the craft of game design, and his recent talks have tended to be framed in terms of the keywords ‘Acquire, Retain, Monetise’, which sounds like a scaled down version of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. Nicholas continually insists our industry can self regulate itself away from abusive practices – but I still don’t see any sign of this, nor indeed do I detect much interest in doing so.
The focus on metrics over game design has brought the videogame industry closer to its less reputable but more profitable cousin ‘gaming’ – what's commonly known as gambling – and with it, we have a host of ethical questions about what we are doing, none of which can be merely presupposed. We urgently need a debate on monetisation practices to establish what ethical metrics consist of, but the industry does not want to have this talk. I offered a dynamite panel to GDC this year on this topic, but it was knocked out of contention instantly. The industry is afraid to have the conversation, but until we are ready to address questions about what metrics mean for game design as a craft, we have a serious unaddressed problem that affects the integrity of the games industry. Of course, in purely capitalistic terms there is no integrity, there is only money. But money is just another of our imaginary games – it just happens to be one that we all take very, very seriously, since we have lost our ability to feed ourselves without it.
One game designer who has taken a stand on the ethics of monetisation is former Free Realms creative lead Laralyn McWilliams, who quit a job out of disgust over the issues I’m highlighting here. In an interview back in 2014 entitled “The problem with ‘best practices’ in free-to-play”, Laralyn reports how designing for ‘friction’, which is to say, monetising player frustration, finally became something she couldn’t endorse:
…a designer came to me and said there was a spot where it got really rough; there weren't enough quests, and the grind was really terrible. He wanted to add five or ten quests to make it feel better…. But when I looked at our numbers that was the spot where we had our best monetisation. The awful feeling of that grind was getting people to spend money, so I had to say no to something that would make players happy because it would cut our revenue. At that point I said, ‘Nope,’ and I got out of social games.
Against the ruthless focus on the bottom line is the possibility, if nothing else, that game design can fulfil its calling as a craft, and that informed practitioners of that craft can satisfy the play needs of many different kinds of players. This does happen, even in the battleground of metrics, and developers that are willing to commit to doing so can build a loyal fanbase that supports them, and helps other players to find them. It’s a harder path, to be sure, because it means making commercial artworks that are worthwhile instead of just cranking the sausage machine of rehashed ideas. Nothing good comes without effort. But if we want to walk this path, it entails more than simply resisting the purely metrics-driven concept of commercial games.
Sadly, indie developers who have avoided going down the predatory monetisation path have tended to simply default to making what they like to play and then gambling upon finding an audience for it, which I view as a hugely risky way to pursue a career in game design. I’ve seen dozens (perhaps now hundreds) of developers fail doing this... it’s simply not a good enough plan to trust that – by chance – your play needs will align with enough players to magically make ends meet. As Rami Ismail of Vlambeer suggested to me when I accused him of giving this exact advice:
...I've told developers to make what they want to make - [but] never in that vacuum. My entire existence as a public figure exists because I was one of the very few prolific 2010-generation indies that was yelling about taking business seriously, engaging with publishers and marketing, and doing the work to make your game visible.
21st Century Game Design will be going out-of-print soon; its multinational publisher has withdrawn from publishing books about making games entirely, which in itself says something. Our first book’s core vision – that there are methods for game design, but there is no single, perfect method for game design – remains as true today as it ever did. Our deployment of that vision through a fusion of horizons between psychology of play and the history of videogames remains, I believe, an extremely fruitful way of understanding the craft of game design. Alas, the games industry didn’t choose this path. It choose instead an unholy schism between dogmatic indie design on the one hand, and pragmatic monetisation design on the other. Personally, I feel that the artworks we call games deserve more than this, but I appear to be in the minority. In a games industry divided between a stubborn individuality unable to reliably feed itself, and investment-glutted money farms, there seems little room left for cultivating the craft of satisfying players.
Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your comments! Have a blog? Any and all replies at other blogs will be promoted here to keep the conversation going – just let me know the link in the comments or on Twitter.