Posts Tagged ‘ game ’

Zynga’s new CEO

Don MattrickTo quote GamesIndustry:

Don Mattrick’s jump from Xbox chief to Zynga CEO left many observers stunned this week.

Why would he make this move? And what exactly does this mean for Zynga’s future?

For one, I’m not stunned in the slightest. After Andrew Mason “left” Groupon, it was only a matter of time (one quarter) for Mark Pincus to move on.

I’m always surprised when observers are stunned when someone goes from a division that has experienced its zenith to a company that is in its nadir. Makes no sense to a salary man but it’s great for a person with a career.

Daniel Kahneman explained this lazy thinking process that assumes unlimited growth (or unfathomable depths) in Thinking, Fast and Slow. There’s a much simpler “truth”: you sell the highs, you buy the lows.

Zynga is at its lowest, Don is interested in buying. Xbox has seen its dominance shaken with E3 fiasco, he’s selling it as quickly as possible.

Sometimes, it is that simple.

The real question is… how do you mix oil and water.

You had Mark Pincus confess he cut every corner and broke every business rule to ensure revenue, i.e. he focused on the short term with total disregard to long-term consequences. Now these consequences are upon Zynga.

Don had his success with Xbox precisely because Microsoft’s deep pockets allowed him the luxury of long-term decision-making. He built strong game franchises exclusive to Xbox and he also priced the Xbox aggressively and always cut the price before the competition had the chance to do so.

I’m not sure you can mix the two approaches but one thing is certain, Zynga can’t go any lower. So it must go up.

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Kickstarter, gold, paper money

Tobold has a few posts on the subject of game funding via crowdsourcing, in other words, Kickstarter projects.

His main argument is that waiting for a game to be sold on Steam for 50% off offers a lot better value than supporting a project on Kickstarter. It’s true that you can get Endless Space for just 10 euro on Steam. You can usually get an AAA games for as little as 30 or 20 euro (recently released and with 80+ on Metacritic).

With Kickstarter you might succumb to the temptation to get some of the exclusive packages, say $5000 for a star system named after you. What’s worse is that you never know if the game will come out, and if it’s going to be any good.

My counter point is simple: crowdsourcing allows for a better alignment of the interests of a game development company and its future customers.

Right now, a corporate executive needs to greenlight a game project in order for it to get funding. What projects get greenlighted? Usually, the safest bets – the latest installment of a franchise, be it Assassin’s Creed 3 or FIFA 2013. Taking huge risks as professional manager is usually not the optimal path for career advancement.

Kickstarter allows game developers to appeal directly to their customers, bypassing corporate decision-making. Is it better? Well, it’s an alternative, and having alternatives is important.

Which leads us to the analogy with paper money. Even as recently as 60 years ago, paper money was a kind of “promisory note”. The bank that issued them promised to give you a certain amount of precious metal in exchange for your paper money. You had to trust the bank that issued them and banks were hard at work to persuade us their vaults are filled with precious metals.

Buying a game from Steam is like taking your gold nugget to the market and exchanging it for a horse. It’s one piece of value for another, ideally, identical piece.

Supporting Kickstarter games is more like taking a promisory note for your gold. You are hoping the game company has gold in its vault and often, they do! It also allows you to carry a lot more value as mentioned above – you get $5000 worth of game, instead of the universal $50.

So what could be done to address the main objection when it comes to Kickstarter projects, i.e. accountability?

Using the analogy, the result would be to have an exchange rate. But we could do better! Why not start a secondary market.

I’m selling my right to name a star system for $3000, even though I bought it for 5000 a week ago. Why? Maybe I don’t believe in the company or maybe my wife saw my credit card statement. Either way, my loss is your gain. It’s also a way to see which projects are going well and which projects are hopeless.

I know I’d be shopping for a deal on those Bones miniatures that sold out before I could get one of the bigger packages!

Always Hardcore

Experimenting with game apps at Apple’s appstore, I’m even more convinced that indie developers are left with an “interesting” conundrum: with the low price point of the appstore you need a pretty big market to recoup your costs; at the same time, the casual game market is so saturated that you are forced to differentiate your product by addressing a genre audience.

So the question for indie developers is: Do I go after casual players (like Rovio) or do I focus on hardcore players?

In the appstore, Rovio is equivalent to the sound of the jackpot being hit that is heard all over the casino. It reinforces a compulsive behavior that benefits the casino. Apple are getting tons of apps for no development cost at all. If you make a Flash game for Kongregate or Miniclip in the good old days you could expect at least $5,000 plus a profit-sharing agreement. With Apple, you pay to get access to the appstore (was $99, now at $29) and you only get a few pennies from each purchase.

So the answer for indies could be found in the video below (or in the title above). Go hardcore and stay out of the appstore (unless you have a free app with a marketing angle). Finding a hardcore audience on a platform that you can support long term – be it the web or mobile – is the only answer for building a game company that survives it’s first release.

With Riftforge, we have targeted hardcore fans of fantasy RPG tactics. It’s developed with HTML5, so it’s compatible with all Apple devices (you should check it out on the new, retina-quality iPad!) but you don’t need to go through the appstore. Just fire up Safari.

Diablo 3 game design blunders

This isn’t going to be a rant – that would be too easy. The point is that there’s plenty to learn from game designer mistakes… that are persistent in the sense that they exacerbate the situation with every patch. You know, the famous: “this isn’t how it is supposed to be played” line.

Exhibit A – Attack speed nerf

The new patch promises to nerf attack speed as it led to “not supposed to be played”. That could be the case (I play as a Demon hunter and have stacked as much IAS as possible). However, two minutes spent on closer examining the issue will reveal that this is a direct consequence of INFERNO difficulty design decision to make every mob one shot you, regardless of equipment.

Prior to inferno, I always bought/kept items with dexterity and vitality and I had a health pool of about 35,000 HP. Come INFERNO, it doesn’t matter if I have 35K or 70K, I simply cannot get hit and survive. So I ditched all my vitality and protection gear and bought the only alternative – attack speed. I’d be extremely happy to go around with no attack speed but being able to withstand a hit. Dying from something offscreen is extremely frustrating and game designers should address this and not the fact we stack attack speed.

Exhibit B – Repair costs 5x increase

This is a different exhibit but with the same cause – INFERNO difficulty one-shots you. Of course, people will chain rez, it is the only way to defeat a boss when everything that touches you, kills you. Blizzard’s solution? Increase repair costs five times (!), so that people will care about dying. We care, trust me. Now make it possible for us to gear so that we can survive a hit.

Exhibit C – Game creation limit

Blizzard have just announced they’ve introduced a limit to the amount of games you can create in a certain time interval. No worry, it shouldn’t affect anyone but the botters, right? Wrong! After getting this insightful error message: “Input limit reached. Please wait to perform more actions”, many players found it unable to play. So Blizzard reverted the measure temporarily until the technical issue is solved.

However, the implication here is that a big PART of the excessive game creation is game designer’s fault. For example, constructing the Staff of Hoarding that gives you access to the Pony level (a.k.a. cow level), requires ingridients that are extremely easy to collect but spawn in 10% of games or less. At level 60, I had to create no less than 30 games in Normal difficulty just to get the merchant in the oasis to spawn. Is this the challenge now? Beating the random number generator?

People who are just starting to build their staffs will find it very difficult to find that merchant. In an extreme case, it could take a day or a week (assuming you also want to play).

Instead of putting a frustrating limit, simply increase the spawn rate to 50%. It is how it is supposed to be played, if any of Blizzard’s game designers actually played the game, instead of filling in Excel spreadsheets with spawn rates.

Fantasy Art Styles

Jon Schindehette has an interesting post over at the WotC site about art style, specifically when it comes to armor. He ends with the following conclusion:

Armor should look appropriate to the culture, environment, materials available, and technology, first and foremost. If the armor doesn’t pass that test, then it doesn’t matter whether it is being worn by a man or a woman.

I agree with his sentiments, but more importantly, I like his visual guide to the three general art styles when it comes to fantasy characters and their armor:

Once you have this guide, it’s really a piece of cake to figure out that Blizzard are fond of fantastic realism. Even Diablo 3, which previously sported a dark, gothic style, has now been transformed into another WoW when it comes to over-the-top fantastic realism with cartoony colors.

For Riftforge, we have chosen the third style. It requires a lot more effort on the part of the artist but when done right looks so true that Renaissance painters turn green with envy.

Exploiting cognitive biases

Zynga has been long know for being run by spreadsheet people and not game people (see video “Monetizing like Zynga“).

It seems now that in addition to spreadsheets, they are masters of cognitive biases. A new paper by Juho Hamari details who social games have taken Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow and implemented game mechanics that take advantage of people’s cognitive biases (their System 1, as Daniel puts it).

A few highlights:

Exploiting endowment effect: game mechanics that emphasize LOSING something you already own, as opposed to gaining something you don’t own yet.

Sunk-cost fallacy: game mechanics that focus on the amount of effort you have already invested in the game, forcing you to consider sunk-costs when a “rational” person would discard the sunk costs and focus on the present (and future) costs.

Status quo effect: Select a default option that is significantly higher than the average value – when it comes to purchase of virtual currency. Most people would think that spending $20 on Farmville cash is OK for a game, only to find out it doesn’t even buy them a tractor.

Quota anchoring: creating a number of DAILY quests. Failing to do all daily quests results in a strong desire by the player to return to the game and complete all daily quests.

Blizzard is mainstream

Looking at the coverage from Blizzcon 2011, I had a sudden realization: Blizzard cannot survive on cult games any more, they need blockbusters!

With the wild success of World of Warcraft, Blizzard has turned from a company specializing in cult games for hardcore gamers to a generic game company producing for the average Joe.

It’s just like a Porsche that’s been made into a sedan and fitted with a 1.6 liter engine. Average Joe is more than happy by the fact he’s driving a Porsche but to anyone who has driven a Porsche from 10 years back, this looks like an abomination.

It’s not like Blizzard has a choice in the matter now. Ever since they married Activision, it was all about mainstream success and blockbuster titles. They simply cannot go back.

Listen to a list of random updates from Blizzcon:

  • New WoW expansion called Mists of Pandaria!
  • – Is it possible to make WoW more cartoony and animaly than already is? Looking at the trailer, the answer is an emphatic YES.

  • Mists of Pandaria will allow pets to fight pets
  • – the only question is when POKEMON is going to sue them.

  • Diablo 3 will allow skill swapping only in town
  • – noobs have a problem switching between skills, so everyone will now spam just two skills the whole game?

  • Diablo 3 PVP will have endless re-spawning
  • – qq much?

  • Diablo 3 light radius removed
  • – is darkness too scary for new players?

  • Diablo 3 beta keys rewarded for Facebook likes
  • – also for email collection on a massive scale (over 1,400,000 likes compared to 400,000 a month ago)

  • Marketing gimmicks
  • – buy 12 months of WoW and get Diablo 3. Or buy Diablo 3 and get the next WoW expansion free. Welcome to our cross-promotions!

Does that mean we won’t enjoy the new 1.6 liter Porsche… I mean Diablo 3? Well, I certainly hope it is as good as a Porsche 911 (Diablo 2) but I doubt it will have the cult appeal of the classic. It is not so much about the game itself but about the people who will play it… teenagers who failed Angry Birds on their iPhone and are looking for something prettier and easier.

Reprinted from Diablo 3 news