Last week I attend Quo Vadis in Berlin and gave a talk on the title above. The slides are below.
My main take away was that companies need to set themselves smart constraints within which to be creative.
The four ideas I gave for setting yourself smart constraints were:
1. Know your strengths
Whatever your strengths are, be that an existing audience, particular technical expertise, or genre knowledge, you have to build on that. The market is tough enough without you giving yourself the best chance.
2. Find your pond
Incumbent games have too much market presence and content and too many systems and players to go head to head with. Define your market as a niche that is small enough for you to dominate (though big enough to pay the bills).
3. Manage the Risk
All game production is risk management – no one knows for sure if a game will be a success or not before it launches. Make sure that you manage the risk in production as well as possible. Do a risk assessment as you start out a project to get an objective feel for the number and scale of risks involved, and an idea of when they can be addressed (sooner is better!). This will also help you tackle the biggest risks first wherever possible.
4. Stick to the plan
It’s very easy half way through production, when things aren’t going well, to convince yourself that you just need a couple more months to fix things. Set yourself some fixed targets at the start of the project that trigger a full scale review of the project if they are missed. That way you will waste the least amount of time on projects that are doomed.
Games are content, and so the economics of games are largely the economics of content. Content is what players pay for, and content is what takes time and money to build, with both the quality and amount of content increasing production costs. I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition recently, and having a great time. I’ve already sunk just over 20 hours into it, and if friends and reviews are to be believed, I have at least another 30 to go before I finish the main storyline.
The world you can explore is vast, filled with scripted missions, side quests, wild beasts, roaming bandits and hidden secrets. Romping across the landscape from rocky deserts to dank marshes I am both awe struck at the variety and volume of content in the game, and slightly sickened by it. Sickened, because now I work in the industry I know how much time will have been invested into producing everything I see, and how countless days must have been put into dark corridors, rock formations and other mundane details that give the world authenticity, but will be largely forgotten and ignored by players.
Mobile is some way behind the production values of consoles. Partly the hardware isn’t as good yet, and so cannot support such high end graphics. Partly developers have not needed to deliver such high quality games to win customers. But mobile is rapidly catching up, and whilst the quality of content may not be as high, the amount of content needed is already probably larger. The F2P business model dominates mobile, and success here is highly dependent on retaining your players for months or even years. Having something for players to do a year after they start playing your game is no mean feat. Wooga’s hidden object game Pearl’s Peril has 90 weeks of content – something that few if any console games can match, and as a result of this the retention in the game is phenomenal.
Content is a key competitive angle
It’s clear on both console and mobile that the amount of content you can deliver, and its quality are key factors for success. It’s hard to imagine an RPG without the amount and quality of content that Skyrim or Dragon Age has being a success. For a competitive HOG you need to deliver a similar amount of content as in Pearl’s Peril – something that only one or two developers apart from Wooga can hope to do. One of the reasons that World of Warcraft has become so entrenched is the amount of content that it has built up over the past decade is now almost impossible for other MMOs to replicate.
For many games the number of man-hours that have been put into content determines the production quality and amount, together with the efficiency that this time is converted into content, given the tools utilized. The older a genre is, the higher the production values are – by pushing the content bar ever higher, developers shut out competition and establish themselves in franchises for the long term. With each game developers up the stakes, both because they can due to improving tools and existing assets to start from, and because they must to continue attracting players.
To be successful developers must therefore invest in their tools and production pipeline to match the incumbents in the genre they are going head-to-head with. Failure to do this sort of preparation can only result in failure. Indies and smaller developers that cannot match the content output of bigger companies must innovate on the gameplay mechanics more to succeed. By innovating they can produce a new experience that players will not directly compare with established games. No one compares Realm of the Mad God to World of Warcraft, or Faster than Light to Mass Effect. There are also a number of techniques that can be used to stretch content for as long as possible, and all developers, regardless of their content output are wise to use as many of these as possible.
Randomness: Games with randomness are far more playable than those without some element of randomness. In Candy Crush Saga, levels are different each time they are played due to the random way that gems drop into the board. Players replay levels effectively waiting for the right combination of gems to drop. Imagine the game without this randomness and each level has a solution that can be found by trial and error relatively quickly, and the levels become boring.
Alternative choices: Allowing players to customize their play experience in different ways allows them to go back and replay the same content to explore how their decisions influenced the game. Whilst this requires some additional content that not all players may see, it allows die hard fans to play through most of the same content several times with minor variations. A good example here is how Telltale games allow you to replay episodes making different decisions each time. These decisions allow you see how the other characters react and the story pans out. In Dishonored the skills you upgrade give you different ways to complete each level, and the amount of violence that you employ throughout the game affects the way the story pans out to give replayability significant appeal.
Events: Most successful mobile games run timed events of some form. Often the mechanics of the event are very similar, but the appearance of exclusive content that is only available for a limited period engages players extremely well. For the chance of getting a new unit, building or item players will happily grind through a lot of content that they have already seen before, and the most active players will often only be playing for the events schedule, having already exhausted the other content in the game.
Difficulty levels: In games where the difficulty of levels can be increased, then replaying the same content is fun because it requires players to master a higher skill threshold than before to complete. Changes in difficulty can often be made with config changes that are cheap to implement, and the players will still enjoy the content. Guitar Hero or Rock Band use this mechanic to allow you to replay the same tracks again and again at a level that is always challenging.
User Generated Content: In Clash of Clans, players spend most of their time attacking the bases of other players. As the layout of each base is set by the defending player then an incredible amount of variation is generated by the players. All Supercell needed to do was to give players the tools reason to vary their base layout and the players take care of the rest. Different bases require different tactics to attack and so even though additional buildings and units are released only very slowly, players stay engaged in the game.
In any genre, games compete on the amount of content offered and its quality, both of which drive up the cost of production. It is important to recognize the demands of producing this content before starting production and only choose genres where you can compete. Having chosen a genre it is vital that developers build the tools and pipeline to deliver the required content, as well stretch the playtime from their content however possible.
Starting a new game is a daunting task. You operate in a design vacuum. The possibilities are nearly endless. The chance of failure incredibly high. Logic and reason of what games make it to the top is alchemy, and mostly just biased observations. Coming up with what the next hit game will be is a bit like throwing darts while blind.
From years of starting projects from square one, I’ve found a process that works for me. A process that helps me get off the ground quickly and moving on an idea that can work in the market. The process is mostly adapted from “The new business model canvas” as well as many Lean and Agile Product Vision processes.
Creating a new game is about firstly identifying a potential market, then building empathy for that target audience, using the empathy to design a concrete definition of your product, and then testing this vision as quickly as possible with real end customers. This vision will drive the development of your game.
To even begin, you have to start from some inspiration.
Step 1: Find your Blue Ocean
My strategy is to find a blue ocean. Find a market, a niche, a genre, a player type that is currently under-serviced by the top grossing games.
Natural Motion has spoken multiple times about this approach to their games. My Horse, CSR Racing and Clumsy Ninja are all masterful games that were targeted at blue oceans. When My Horse was released, many of the games that were targeted towards horse fans on mobile were unpolished, 2D, and a terrible experience. Natural Motion came out with a product that really hit what this market wanted: realistic 3D horses. Players can pet them and watch the horse react realistically. They could care for them, and even pick up their shit. Exactly what fans of horses wanted!
When working out of XMG Studio in Toronto we were a very small, indie developer. We knew that we couldn’t fight for market share against the larger developers in crowded genres. Instead, we chose to focus on niches that we felt we could hold on to : Car fanatics and Fashion. We created Drag Racer which held the mobile racing market very well from 2009 – 2012 as well as Fashion Star Boutique which remains one of XMG’s top grossing hits. They were hits because we operated in spaces that many of the bigger developers wouldn’t. We could sit on these games and carve a large market share for the small niche with ease. Aiming for these blue oceans is a viable strategy, especially for indie developers.
Blue Oceans can be found everywhere. Even in this crowded mobile space, looking down at the Top Grossing try to identify genres, themes and playing styles that are currently not serviced by these games. Can you create a mobile game that services this genre?
Step 2: Build Empathy
After you’ve selected a genre, It’s about getting into the mindset of the customer. Understand why certain games in the genre failed, and why others succeeded. Play a ton of games. Write everything down. Plot points of reference on a graph and truly understand what defines this genre. Define what base feature set customers need in order for the game to be successful. Research how some games have exceeded player expectation and some games that failed to meet it.
Most likely, this genre isn’t your personal first choice. Some independent or successful game designers can design games that are essentially for themselves. They use their own experience and knowledge of the genre to design the game. This isn’t possible for all developers. When the target audience is not yourself, you need to do effective market research to truly know how to design for them.
In the early days of Zynga, it was customary that new hires would work in the customer care area of the company. For their first weeks, they would be answering phone calls from disgruntled customers. Whether intentional or not, this gave many designers a stronger backbone in designing games for this audience. Listening and hearing the wants and desires of their players allowed them to build empathy and step into the mindset of the players they would be designing for.
That is why it is important to have a conversations with your target players. Understand why they play the way they play. Understand what they enjoy about the genre, but more importantly — discover why they don’t play. Why do they churn from games. What would it take for these players to leave the top grossing games? Even the most popular ones — whats the reasons why players leave this game? Identifying the chinks the armour — the areas which players hate about that game is your first order.
In the beginnings of Style Studio and Fashion Star Boutique, two games in the Fashion Design genre, it was important that we went out and talk to actual players/fans. In the case of Fashion Star Boutique, we even hired a full time Fashion Designer to help with designing the gameplay, designing the UI, and picking out all the items that players could customize. In the end the product really showed its authenticity.
Step 3: Define Your Pillars
After many, many conversations with players of your game you’ll start to notice patterns. Players of the genre will be demanding certain things about their next game. They will have annoyances, certain aspects that they don’t like, or just general fatigue in the way things have always been done.
To start creating pillars, take some of this feedback and focus on a few points you feel the audience would really be excited about. What if Clash of Clans had more depth in the battle? What if Candy Crush had alternate methods so you could get past those levels when you were stuck?
For example, after interviewing a ton of fans of the Endless Runner genre (Temple Run, Subway Surfers), we started to see patterns about why many players dropped out. Many players complained because the beginning of the round always felt slow and the same. Advanced players would have to wait until the game got fast enough before they were challenged. Other players complained of seeing the same level over and over again. Players that left the genre complained that the game was too punishing: hitting one obstacle and getting knocked out was exciting, but felt like they got knocked out before they could understand the game.
Taking these 3 points of feedback, and playing a lot of OutRun 2, we decided that maybe we could take a different approach to the Endless Runner market. We transformed the game into an endless racer instead of a endless platformer. We focused on speed, not on avoidance. The game became about optimizing your speed to get to the next checkpoint (like OutRun 2) instead of just staying alive for as long as you can. We added mechanics like a close call system, which gave advanced users reasons to push their luck throughout the whole round. The beginnings were no longer boring, players no longer felt as punished, and we cycled new backgrounds in as the player upgraded to show progress and ensure players felt like the game was always new.
These innovations were created as pillars right from the beginning. We developed the game specifically to hit this points of feedback. This drove us through production and kept everyone on the same alignment.
Hearthstone is the great example of excellent pillar creation. In this GDC Vault talk by Eric Dodds, he articulates the importance of Pillars in Hearthstone’s creation. Specifically, he mentions certain pillars that you can really see came across in the design :
“Immediate fun for the new player”
“Allow non-competitive players to thrive”
“Simple Cards, Complex Interactions”
Hearthstone serviced a need of Trading Card Game (TCG) fans. They focused on “fringe” card game players that love playing TCG, but could never handle the complexity of Magic. With this focus, they managed to captivate a crowd that has always been turned away by games like Magic. These pillars defined what exactly the final game must feel like in order to be successful. They succeeded, and according to Eric, it had a lot to do with sticking with these guiding pillars throughout production.
Step 4: Fake it ’til you make it
When you have pillars, you have a strong vision for the game. Now you need to create a working prototype as quickly as possible.
You can start on developing a prototype, but this takes too long. Instead, focus on creating simple sketch mockups of key screens in your game as quickly as possible. Do whatever you can to articulate the exact vision you have for hitting those pillars.
How will the game look on device?
Can you articulate the unique aspects of the game in just a few screens?
Are the changes you are making exciting enough to your target audience?
If People aren’t excited when they’ve seen your sketches and discussed the product, they never will be. So iterate on the sketches, brainstorm about more innovations and get more feedback. Many times this will take weeks before an idea really fleshes out, and more often then not, your first idea sucks. That’s fine!
The key to building a hit game is very similar to building an app or a business. It comes down to identifying a market need and servicing that need with a new game design. Even in games players have needs (or maybe wants) about what a new game they would be willing to play would be. Identifying large or small blue oceans is the first step. Making sure that there’s a market gap wide enough that by the time you get the game finished — the competition won’t be already swallowing up all of the market share. From here its about truly empathizing with this audience — recognizing what needs this audience currently does not have serviced. I
s it that the current genre options are polished or aesthetically pleasing like CSR or My Horse’s path to success?
Is it that the game design is just too complex for mobile gamers to get into like Hearthstone’s path?
Or maybe its as simple as the current offering just doesn’t have systems that draw players in for the long run, like Endless Runners.
Recognizing these needs, then solidifying them into pillars is the best way to start a new project.
Facebook has had a big impact on games. Before Facebook, video games were seen as an antisocial activity for spotty boys hiding in their bedrooms. Together with the ubiquitous usage of smart phones and Nintendo’s family marketing of the Wii, the perception of both the gender bias and social nature of video games is gradually shifting.
In fact, arcade games originally followed the distribution of pinball machines in bars where adults would socialize, before spreading to family friendly venues such as cinemas and malls. Reacting to a dire recession in the early 80s Nintendo decided to focus its marketing of consoles as toys for boys, rather than entertainment for all, and in doing so set the popular view of video games for the next 30 years.
Now, finally, the industry is beginning to come full circle, and it’s the social aspect that I want to focus on here. It was on Facebook that the term “social games” was coined. Of course, games were social before, whether you were playing Mario Kart with your friends or raiding with your guild in World of Warcraft. But now, even as Facebook is steadily replaced by mobile as the new platform for gaming, everyone is still talking about social.
It’s not hard to understand why. Kongregate spoke convincingly at GDC 2013 on the importance of social features, and particularly guilds. Their talk highlighted the dramatic ways that guilds can improve retention, engagement and monetization. A few facts summarized from their presentation:
Every one of their top 10 games has some form of guild structure
Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60
But guilds are only one part of “social”, just as Facebook and your real life friends are. Humans are social beings, but their social interaction can take many different forms depending on the context. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to social in games, and each game must work out what is appropriate for its own audience and mechanics (and the same is true if you are building an app). I believe that the nature of social interactions depends on whether your game is really about your Friends, the Mechanics, or the Content.
When you play a game with your real life or Facebook friends, things work best when the experience is about your friends, and not about the game. Playing with people is a great way of strengthening your relationships with them. Games are appropriate for the majority of family gatherings, whether it’s Risk or Charades.
For the experience to work out well for everyone, then the game needs to be right. The game should facilitate building relationships, and act as a backdrop to this, rather than be the main event. Games of low skill typically work best as they allow participants of all ages and abilities.
This is why games like Draw Something and QuizUp work so well, and more complicated simulation games have quickly fallen out of favour on Facebook. In the former, the experience is more about your friends, and in the latter it is more about the game. Real life friends and family are not the way to drive distribution or underpin retention unless your game is about the people you are interacting with. As we all know from the complaints about people’s newsfeeds being spammed, it isn’t that common for our friends to share our taste in games.
In this category I would put everything from people who like playing otherwise family games to a competitive level, to immersive experiences such as World of Warcraft or Clash of Clans. If you are REALLY into bridge then you don’t invite your real friends over and grind them into the floor. You are going to have an unsatisfying time both in terms of the quality of gameplay, and social experience. Instead you either play a friendly match where everyone can enjoy the social aspect, or you join a bridge club and enjoy the gameplay.
This latter case is still a social experience of course, but it’s unlikely to be one with your immediate friends and family. It’s more appropriate to share it with other people that share your love of bridge. This is exactly what Netflix and Spotify have realized as they’ve shifted their recommendations engines from showing you what your friends like, to what other people like you like. Generally we do not really care what our friends have been watching. But if we enjoyed The Godfather and The Departed, then we are interested in what other people who also liked those films would recommend.
For games that rely on their mechanics, adding in a social layer can have some powerful effects. Initially, players can even be taught how the game works by more experienced players and this knowledge flow continues as players exchange thoughts on more advanced strategies. A social aspect can enrich the gameplay by requiring the coordination of several different players such as in raids in World of Warcraft or Destiny. Finally, as these interactions build new relationships between players, they develop a sense of duty to each other, which leads them to keep coming back even if they tire of the gameplay itself.
For the social layer to add value to players, and by extension developers, it doesn’t need to involve people who are real life friends. It’s much better to group people together by the intensity that they play the game, so that they can engage at the same level as the others in their group. This is exactly what happens in Clash of Clans and many other clan based games, where the top clans demand a certain level of engagement as a requirement for membership. Not that the developers need to worry about this, as given the right tools the players organize themselves.
There is however a third, much rarer way of organizing people. In games where there is a strong narrative and the experience is largely single player and driven by consuming content in a linear manner, it makes more sense to group players by their progress through this content.
This is what happens when people live-tweet TV shows. Using Twitter, viewers can feel part of a larger experience and share in the unfolding drama, regardless of whether they are actually sitting with other people watching the same show. I believe there is an innate human desire to calibrate your social responses, and this fills the same role. It helps people comprehend their own reactions, see if they are appropriate and ensure they understand the situation in full.
This is the equivalent of catching a stranger’s eye and enjoying a moment of shared understanding – we know it in a diverse set of situations from sharing the frustration of waiting in line to sharing the elation of hearing the opening beats of a favorite song at a gig. The same sort of social experience could enhance games like BioShock and Mass Effect, maximizing the impact of the most dramatic moments. However, most games that would fall into this category do not have any form of social layer, because of two problems.
Firstly, how do we bring together people who are all experiencing the content at different rates and different times? The solution here might lie in something akin to the comments sections on newspaper and magazine articles. Here the comments don’t need to be by people you know, or written whilst you read the article. But they are still relevant to you, because the person commented after they experienced the same content as you just did, and they enrich your experience of the article by providing additional information and opinions.
Secondly, how do we allow people to be social without breaking the immersion of deeply engaging games? The last thing people want after deciding who lives and who dies in The Walking Dead is for the drama of the moment to be shattered by being prompted to see what everyone else did. Luckily TellTale have the good sense to wait until the end of the episode, a natural break point before allowing you to review what everyone else did and connect you to the forums. In free to play games this might in fact be even easier, as the breaks between sessions and timers are natural point to allow people to engage with each other, both savoring recently enjoyed drama and anticipating exciting things to come.
A few games do manage to solve these problems and pull people together in this way, however. Dark Souls 2 allows other players to leave messages as you work your way through the world and narrative. These can either be helpful tips or troll postings luring you to an untimely death. You can also summon other players into your world to help out with particularly hard bosses. These interactions with other players enrich the single player experience by adding a new, social layer to it. In both cases the associations with players work because they fit into the context of your game, not because of the relationship that you have with the other players. Other players appear as phantoms and in doing so stay consistent with the Dark Souls narrative, and do not break immersion.
Social rightly continues to be a buzzword in the games industry. However, there is not a single solution for what social should look like. Different types of social interactions are suited to different game experiences. When designing a game there is almost certainly some way that it can be enhanced with a social aspect, but this needs to be designed according to the type of experience that you are building for your players, rather than the design fads of the day.