Monday, February 22, 2010

Thoughts from DICE 2010 (Dice-10-post1)

I got back from DICE Friday, and my head is still swimming a bit with all the information I soaked up.

Overall, the sentiment seemed cautiously upbeat, certainly more so than GDC. Studio closures are still happening, but there was a feel that a good deal of the blood-letting happened when publishers canned many of their 'B' titles last year.

Like with GDC, there was a good deal of noise about console downloadable, iPhone, Facebook, etc. Unlike GDC though, this conference is heavily slanted toward 'big game' pubs and devs. Many in the audience are clearly biased when it comes to all other platforms and business models. They may be keeping an open mind, but messages like that given in John Schappert's talk ("don't give up on shiny discs just yet") are both a voice of reason, and an indication of the skepticism about these new models. There's validity on both sides. The world is changing, but maybe not as fast as some would have us believe.

G4 has vids up of all the sessions. Some thoughts on a few of those I managed to attend:

Disney keynote. I wrote on facebook while it was happening: "The Disney keynote is an amazing concatenation of stereotypes, platitudes, and stock photo pablum. Several of us in the back are playing 'predict the next slide'. I'll take "old folks playing wii sports in a retirement home" for a thousand, Alex. We have a winner!" ' nuff said.

Designing Outside the Box. Best session of the conference. Lengthier post here. Best quote from it [while poo-pooing convergence] "The iphone is hte Pocket Exception: It's the Swiss army knife. Like a swiss army knife, it does everything (not necesarily perfectly) but fits in your pocket. However, if someone gave you a 24-inch swiss army knife that had a butcher clever, a spatula, knife, fork, spoon, etc, and said here is the ideal device for your kitchen, you would say bullshit. And THIS is why everyone hates the iPad."

EEDAR's Forces at Play. Another one of my favorites. Lots of analysis here. A couple interesting observations though:
  • The "focus on quality" the point to as resulting in higher meta-critic scores I read as just "publishers cancelled a bunch of their B titles" - it's a focus on quality, but in a different way.
  • The shift away from Q4-for-focused release calendar toward more distributed looked like it was actually cyclical - meaning that early in console life-cycle publishers focus more on Q4 releases - makes sense as the consoles will be big Xmas pushes
The one down-side of the above talk (and one would infer EEDAR's data as a whole) is that while they made a small reference to the fact that they have no data on PC downloadable, iphone, MMO subs, etc, they then didn't note that these things could have been part of what was impacting those trends noted in the presentation.

Randy Pitchford's talk. The talk was OK, strayed from the point in the middle a bit, but came together a bit. I love his historical example to back the main point of the talk, and the way his talk came full circle. Bravo.

The hot topics sessions were pretty good. I posted some thoughts on one of them here.

Lots of others worth checking out, a few of them, not so much. Still, they are posted and free so make a point of viewing them over the next week or two.

It's worth noting that this is a great move on the part of the organizers, putting their money where their mouth is, and showing that the real value in attending the conference is in the networking, so the session vids are just a sales tool. [GDC folk take note!]

Bonus: Best comment from the show, IMHO: At one point when Richard Garriott was speaking, a woman sitting next to me turned and said "Is that the same Richard Garriott that went into space?!".

I replied "Yes it is. However I'll bet that 9 out of 10 people in this room are remarking 'wow! that's the same Richard Garriott that created Ultima' and really aren't impressed with the whole getting shot into space thing!"

Design Outside the Box: Jesse Schell (DICE-10-Post2)

My favorite talk from Dice 2010. Getting lots of press around the blogosphere. It was really bold, and the Mitch-Headberg-esque delivery didn't hurt either.

Some of it was a bit out there, but the overall message was to have an open mind to how far we have to go, just how broad gaming is going to get, and to think outside the (console) box.

Here are some terse notes in case you prefer that to the video version or would like to read my commentary [in braces]

I want to look at Facebook and how that's only the start of how things are going to go broader than we can imagine, but first some basic facebook math [he really means some humorous facts but they get the point across]

"FV>T" - there are more Farmville players than total Twitter accounts - Facebook is BIG

"LG>DP" - Lead gen (credit card offers, netflix sub signups, etc) are bigger than direct payment. [Note there was no mention of the controversy around these] -Facebook is STRANGE

"EA - 1500 FTE + PF - 300M = WTF!?" - EA minus 1500 full time employees plus playfish acquisition for $300M all in the same day = WHAT THE HELL!? - Facebook is TERRIFYING

Facebook is Big, Strange, Terrifying. But Terrifying really means unexpected.

Lets step back and look what else was unexpected.

Mafia wars - Imagine hearing the proposal "I'm going to do a text-based Mafia game and make $100M"?!
Club Penguin - Kids subscription MMO?!
Wii - Majority of the room did not predict their MSS leadership
Wii Fit - A billion dollars alone!!!
Guitar hero - $70 ASP and a plastic guitar - Entire new genre
Webkinz - Stuffed animal subbed Virtual World
Xbox acheivements - metagame & social network (outside the game, bigger than any one game)

Lots of psychological tricks in the above:

Club Penguin: free to play - eventually kid asks parent for $6. Virtual currency accumulates but can be used so they 'stretch' the amount the kid nags parent for the $6 until in. I call this the 'elastic velvet rope'

WebKinz: Every stuffed animal has always -to a child- contained an imaginary "magical" version of that animal that talks and moves and does stuff. WK lets kids actually SEE that animal. [There's some validity to this assertion, but I think it's far simpler than that: Kids like VW's, and the stuffed animal moved the subscription into a physical format the parent understands (buy a stuffed animal at retail)]

Mafia wars: Text based mafia game - phsycology is that it uses your real friends. I am better than U and I'll spend money to prove it.

We all do game design, but how many people are Brainstorming and researching new psychological locks and keys like the ones above.

What else do all these have in common: THEY ARE ALL IN SOME WAY BUSTING THROUGH TO REALITY!!!! [This is a really good observation]

Taps into a bigger trend [references "Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want" - I'll have to read it]

TV has gone to 'reality TV', people value 'authentic' products (made with 'real' juice. organic food, etc). [While I think the organic food parallel was a stretch, he's onto something here. One could view the indie game trend through this lense and say "people like Braid partly because it came from Jon Blow's heart, not from Vivendi's management committee and focus group data]

We live in a bubble of fake bullshit. We are rebelling against that.

People are not looking at tech as the enemy here, but as a to how we can use to cut back into reality.

What about tech convergence?

Tech convergence is total bullshit. Every device everywhere will have games of all different kinds. Tech DIVERGENCE!

[I love this part]

BUT! I have an iphone. That breaks your divergence point! Bah! I claim it is the Pocket Exception Law

Pocket Exception: Swiss army knife.

Like a swiss army knife, it does everything (not necesarily perfectly) but fits in your pocket.

If someone gave you a 24" swiss army knife that had a butcher clever, a spatula, knife, fork, spoon, etc, and said here is the ideal device for your kitchen, you would say bullshit.

And THIS is why everyone hates the iPad.

[Fuck ya! Awesome]

Lots of examples of games pervading the real world:

fantasy football
geo caching
simpsons scavenger hunt on TV [clues embeded across different shows. TV Network metagame!]
darpa red balloon hunt
weight watchers
[HOLY BALLS! -->] Ford Hybrid dashboard display has a green leafy plant on it. The better you drive to conserve gas, teh more the plant grows. There's a f***ing tamagochi built into my Ford Hybrid!!!

Professor Lee Sheldon has built an RPG for his students where instead of giving out grades, he gives out XP and they level up through homework assignments, good test scores, etc.

Sensors are happening - DSi, Natal

We are on road toward disposable technology

[lengthy example of a fictional future where divergence leads to all devices connected to metagame...]

teeth brushing - +10
cornflakes +10
+45 take the bus to work
REM implant
+200 got to work on time
implant tattoo - tattoville adsense
lunch dr pepper - +500 for five in a week
shopping +100 for buying organic
did you practice your piano +50 points
kindle 3.0 - eye tracking
achievement unlocked for finishing 500 novels

However, when I realize my 500th novel was some piece of drivel... and that my grand-kids and their grand-kids will be able to look up what my 500th novel was... well, maybe I should change my behavior and read something more ambitious, something more worthy...

So while the examples I've run through thus far seem like escape into a game, may be possible that it will inspire us to be better people.


Kim Defines "Independent" (Dice-10 Post3)

There was an interesting 'hot topics' session at DICE in which Chris Taylor (Gas Powered Games) and Michael Capps (Epic Games - standing in for Tim Schaeffer) debated "Independent" development and "Indie" development.

Chris at one point made the assertion that there are different tiers. For example, there might be "2 guys in a garage" independent", Gas Powered Games-esque "$5M title bankrolled ourselves" independent, and there's Epic/Valve "We're sitting on a fair pile o'cash" independent.

There were some bar conversations (the best kind at DICE, of course) about this and about the difference between "independent" and "indie". There was some degree of concensus that the former has to do with influence and decision making. Dependence on someone for putting food on the table, etc. The latter seemed to mean different things to different people. The type of game design to some, the aesthetic to others, the 'spirit' in which the game is created.

Anyhow, here are my definitions of the two based on the epiphany I had in Chris's/Michael's talk and on the subsequent conversations (and libations):

Independent Developer: One having funds at their disposal to cover payroll through the next one to two cycles of development. (This definition works if you are sleeping on your friends couch while working on your Flash game, or whether you are covering 150 heads through a 2 year dev cycle).

Indie Game: One who's development and/or design tells a story that goes against the convention of the time. (This definition works for a game design or aesthetic that is different or goes against the grain - it also works for someone that does a run-of-the-mill schmup but does it on their own terms and funds it through kickstartr)

Please iterate and refine (or refute) in the comments .

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Margaret Wallace on Virtual Goods Economies

This presentation from Margaret Wallace is a good 'lay of the land' on virtual goods in core & casual games.

Plus ca change

“America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence,” he moaned. “The frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.”
- W.J. Stillman (Journalist)

The above quote is typical of the panic we hear today on the subject of how the Internet threatens to destroy journalism (first off by way of destroying the newspaper business, but more fundamentally by destroying our attention spans and focus).

If you haven't heard of Stillman before you can be forgiven as he uttered the above quote in 1891. The doomsday technology at that time was not the Internet, but the telegraph. News was turning from something that traveled over days and weeks by ship, mail and carrier pigeon to something that traveled by wire in minutes and hours. People's focus was diluted as suddenly they had all the world's news headlines, not just local.

This piece in The Economist is a nice bit of history and a reminder that the basic need is still there, despite turmoil as the industry struggles to find new footing. More importantly, it's a reminder that these arguments are seldom new.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Heavy Rain looks pretty bold

At CES, I got a chance to briefly play Heavy Rain, the much-anticipated PS3 title I've blogged about before (as far back as 4 years ago!).

The section I played reminded me of some of the 'detective' portions of Batman: Arkham Asylum, mixed with a Shenmue style big-world RPG. From what I gather, the clues assembled during these portions are sorted through in a 'Minority Report' style environment for the character, making a modernized version of the Impossible Mission solver (you youngsters may need to look that one up). The game looked very polished but in the section I played, not very remarkable beyond it's prettiness.

Today though, I got pointed this clip: Heavy Rain Video Game, Japanese Special Presentation Doc on GameTrailers and wow. I have to say I'm impressed even after four years of waiting.

I don't know if it's going to succeed where games like Shenmue fell short, but thank goodness someone's trying. Go Quantic Dream!

Book Review: Makers

I finished Cory Doctorow's Makers a few days back but haven't had time to post a review until just now, which has given me some time to mull it over a bit before doing so.

On the surface, Makers is Doctorow revisiting familiar territory: Distopian steampunk sci-fi, this time around the premise of the collision between personal fabrication and incumbent industry (something he already visited in short form in After the Siege).

The book has more to it than just this.

It's partly a parable of Lessig's Free Culture argument [Creativity and innovation always build on the past; The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it; Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past; Ours is less and less a free society].

It's also a story about Creative Destruction, and about how our legal and governmental systems impede it.

Mix in notes of Doctorow' attachment (and I'm guessing love-hate feelings) for Disney (which he also visited in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom), an opinion on working at large corporations (the passage on page 403 rang so true it was painful to read), a commentary about shanty towns and peoples ability to govern themselves, some thoughts on obesity, consumerism, and other facets of the decline of American society, and you have the makings of a fun and thought provoking novel.

[One note: As some of the Amazon reviews note, there's a couple of pretty graphic sex scenes in the book. Not a big deal for adults, but for those that might have read Little Brother and might think this suitable to give to kids for reading, well, buyer beware. Personally, I think it's fine for a writer to stretch his wings a little as I think he's done here. I was surprised by the vitriole in some of those Amazon reviews. On another related note: It's kind of weird reading really graphic stuff like that written by a guy I've had dinner with a couple times :-/. ]

Monday, February 1, 2010

Playfish's Smart Move in the Facebook Gold Rush

This is a good piece on why Playfish sold itself to EA.

New markets (for game makers or anyone else), the successful ones anyway, tend to turn into gold rushes. Someone takes a chance, stakes a claim, hits gold, and then in come the hordes of followers that heard about the guy that got rich with only a mule, a pan, and the clothes on his back.

In recent years we saw a casual games gold rush, a console downloadable (lead by XBLA) gold rush, an iPhone gold rush, and now it's "Wagons, Ho!" for the Facebook gold rush.

With each of them, the market achieves an equilibrium over time as competition increases faster than consumer spending does, and eventually you get to the same place as the rest of the games industry: A hit driven business in which a minority are profitable, a very small minority are extremely profitable, and the majority go bust trying to get to the top end of the curve.

What *differs* though, in how these markets evolve, is the tactics taken as the marketplace crowds. The strategies available are the same across all of these, but which is the right one, tactically, varies by platform.

They are:
  1. Lowball on price: The PC casual download biz eventually went this way, and many are trying this tactic on the iPhone, but I believe it's a fools game, and some of the others below will turn out to be the real winners for that platform.
  2. Out-Innovate: This one is easy. Go invent an awesome game mechanic/biz model/etc, that no one else has thought of, and that everyone loves and finds addictive. Oh, and make it hard to imitate. Easier said than done. The problem with this one is that there's no clear path.
  3. Spend your way out of the clouds: Spend on development, spend on marketing, etc. Build a better looking title, get pretty screenshots, and then go pound the pavement to get more ink/photons than the other guy. (We saw many XBLA titles go this way as budgets went from $100k to $1M)
  4. Out-Brand: This is another flavor of spending your way out of the clouds. Specifically, license IP/Brands, from games or elsewhere, can help your title stand out in a crowded space. This works especially well with a less scrutinous audience (doesn't necessarily mean hardcore, could mean just more price or time sensitive).
The interesting thing about the Playfish acquisition is that they pretty clearly are claiming that #4 is going to be the strategy of choice for Facebook, and I have to believe they are right.

Dropping price doesn't work because the FB games are mostly free/freemium. Innovation is risky everywhere (better to be 'fast follower'), and increasing the game budget... well that will happen, but it's not clear where it ends, or if FB games are ready for Unreal engine license.
So that leaves out-branding, and as the article points out, the EA acquisition gives Playfish the financial resources with which they can go do this, plus a great set of connections at EA with their own IP and licenses from other EA partners.

[note, of course you'll see ALL the above strategies employed in each of these markets, but there will be majority gravitation toward one or two at any given time]