Why Does Gamification Tend to Devolve?

January 10th, 2011 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

Lots of people have been jumping onto the anti-gamification bandwagon lately. I’ve been surprised by the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the critiques that I’ve read… particularly those that are short, sweet and to the point. And since so much has been eloquently said about the problems with gamification, I won’t bother to repeat the arguments here. Instead I want to address something that everyone else has ignored up till now: why some of gamification’s proponents have allowed it to devolve into the mindless application of points, achievements and leaderboards.

Is it because the proponents of gamification are generally not game designers and don’t understand how hard it is to make a good game? In some cases, probably so. But there’s a deeper and more pervasive problem that is driving the “dumbing down” of gamification. The problem is: gamification is a very tough sell.

Read more…

Categories: News Tags:

Debating F2P Monetization

August 10th, 2010 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

One of the things holding back the evolution of F2P gaming in the West is the understandable discomfort that many Western designers feel about the “aggressive” monetization strategies employed by Asian game developers. For the purposes of this post, I’m defining “aggressive” as the sale of items that impact gameplay and/or speed up a player’s progress, in addition to other, less controversial premium features like aesthetic items and account personalization.

To many developers, the idea of designing a game to be anything other than “fun” is heretical (they may also fear the possibility of offending sensitive players.) Consequently, they either ignore the F2P business model or attempt to create games with relatively tame revenue-generating systems; for example, focusing on the sale of items with aesthetic benefit only, or roping off a portion of the game and hoping enough players voluntarily pay for access.

The irony of these fears should not be lost on anyone who was designing games thirty years ago. Classic arcade titles were explicitly designed to eat quarters over brief, regular intervals, and people of all ages still put up with it. By comparison, modern F2P games are positively generous to players!

All this is why, up until the social game explosion, we heard of so few financially-successful F2P games in the West. The social gaming companies get a lot of credit for leveraging Facebook and for rediscovering the market potential of asynchronous gameplay, but they deserve equally as much credit for realizing that people in the West are not culturally predisposed to hating any game with an aggressive monetization model. As with everything in life, context matters.

Read more…

Categories: News Tags:

The Magic Test

June 21st, 2010 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

“People are willing to pay for magic.”

That’s what my friend Brian replied when I told him that no one in Microsoft’s target audience would purchase an Xbox plus Kinect for a minimum price of $300 when they either A) own a Wii already, or, B) can purchase a Wii (with MotionPlus, Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort) for just $200. Brian, as I frequently must admit, is a perceptive fellow.

People are indeed very willing to pay for magic. They have lined up around the block to pay $500 minimum for a slice of magical iGoodness from Apple. They lined up to watch Avatar in 3D (multiple times.) And they — that is, we — will continue to line up for the products and services that dazzle us, recession or no.

So, if you want to know who “won” E3, perhaps one way to figure that out is to apply a magic test to the products that were unveiled there.

Read more…

Categories: News Tags:

Portrait of a Facebook Hangover

May 9th, 2010 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

I’ve been casually tracking the daily active user numbers for the top 40 Facebook game developers for the past six weeks. Why the top 40? Because that’s the quantity displayed by Appdata.com on the first of 200 pages. Why daily active users? Because monthly active user numbers are widely considered to be an unreliable statistic for Facebook games, whereas DAU is, if not perfect, at least more directionally accurate.

I was mostly curious to learn how “hit makers” are faring on Facebook. (The 40th developer on the list has just 200k daily active users, so it’s safe to assume that all the heavy hitters are represented in the top 40 list.) Facebook’s total population has supposedly been growing by leaps and bounds over the past several months — it jumped from 350m “active” to 400m in the three months leading up to February 2010) so theoretically daily active users for the top 40 game developers should be growing as well, if for no other reason than there are more potential customers on the platform. However, it turns out the DAU count is down slightly since March.

Read more…

Categories: News Tags:

The Trials and Tribulations of Summer

April 27th, 2010 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been getting calls from friends in the industry bemoaning their lack of inclusion in the upcoming Summer of Arcade promotion on XBLA. The tone of the calls has varied, but they’ve all shared one thing in common — frustration with Microsoft. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to the following conclusion: Summer of Arcade will have to change or, at very least, cease to be Microsoft’s ultimate promotion for the XBLA service.

First, a bit of history. Summer of Arcade was the brilliant brainchild of my good friend, Jeremy Wacksman. It was born of the realization that Microsoft desperately needed something that would draw positive attention to XBLA and make consumers, developers and the press take it seriously (bear in mind, this was during XBLA’s “inevitable misery” phase, when no one had anything good to say about the platform.) SoA served that purpose beautifully; it kicked off XBLA’s “triumphant return” and changed the tone of public conversation from “XBLA is full of crap” to “XBLA is the only place you can find games like Castle Crashers and Braid.” It also established the $15 price point on XBLA — an important and under-appreciated feat.

Dealing with rejection

Summer of Arcade still gives consumers and the press something positive to focus on. Unfortunately, SoA seems to be turning into a net negative for the developer/publisher community. Today, many companies will target a summer release in hopes of making it into SoA and may even choose to hold a finished game in their pockets for several months for that purpose. A couple months before SoA is scheduled to begin, ~five lucky development teams find out their games have been blessed; significantly more discover that they’ve been rejected.

Read more…

Categories: News Tags:

What to make of the iPhone?

April 9th, 2010 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

Lots of people are talking about the iPhone announcements today. Most relevant to game developers: Apple is putting viral invites, matchmaking, achievements, and leaderboards into the OS; adding the ability to gift apps; introducing a slick in-app ad network called iAds; and (finally!) limited multi-tasking if you possess a 3GS or better. This is an impressive list of features, and as a consumer, I’m pretty excited about it.

As a developer, it doesn’t change my feelings about the platform much. It has been evolving into an ecosystem in which F2P is the most viable business model (as exemplified by Ngmoco) and it will continue to evolve in that direction. In fact, the introduction of iAds will likely accelerate the trend as developers race to compete with one another for a share of ad revenue. When Steve Jobs says of iAds: “This is us helping our developers make money so they can survive and keep the prices of their apps reasonable,” he really means “this will help maintain downward price pressure in the app store, which I love because cheap apps help sell iPhones!” (Btw, was anyone else struck by Jobs’ use of the word “survive?” I think that’s the closest he’ll ever come to admitting that life for developers is rough in the world o’Apple.) And if you’re still not convinced that F2P is the future of Applesville, let me remind you of now-common revelations that anywhere from 60% to 90% of app downloads are pirated.

Read more…

Categories: News Tags:

Facebook’s Early Glory and Inevitable Misery

January 23rd, 2010 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

When I look at Facebook, I see a games platform that has been thoroughly enjoying the “early glory” phase of maturity. Not too long ago, there was guarded optimism about the potential of Facebook to host profitable games, but few good examples of such games. Less than a blink of an eye later, Facebook has become the apple of our industry’s eye.

While most publishers are laying employees off by the hundreds, Facebook-centric publishers are hiring like mad. Savvy conference organizers are rushing to capitalize on audience demand for business venues to discuss social gaming. The inevitable stories of unbelievable growth have, quite predictably, become common-place. Facebook’s platform managers have finally started embracing our industry and contributing to the hype around their platform. And finally, a remarkable number of developers (and even large publishers) have begun to re-orient themselves towards the development of social games.

Facebook’s “inevitable misery”

All of these are classic signs that Facebook gaming’s “early glory” phase is in full swing. You may therefore conclude, with 99% certainty, that Facebook as a games platform is likely within a single year’s reach of the “inevitable misery” phase of its lifecycle. Probably much less than a year, in fact. As I’ve argued before, this does not necessarily mean that savvy developers should begin to look elsewhere — it simply means that there will soon be a large quantity of blood in Facebook’s waters. The victims of that impending blood-bath are listed here, in no particular order:

Read more…

Categories: News Tags:

A Game Developer’s Catch-22: Market Timing

January 4th, 2010 Comments off

This article was originally published by Gamasutra on 12/22/09, and later on GameSetWatch.

In my experience, one of the problems that most seems to bedevil game developers is the problem of timing; specifically, understanding when is the “right time” to begin developing for a specific platform. To understand why this is such a challenge for developers, you need to understand how a games platform tends to evolve.

Here’s the typical scenario: A platform — for example, XBLA, or the iPhone app store, or Facebook — comes into existence. Most people regard the platform suspiciously, for a variety of reasons. It’s an unproven market, for starters. The platform owner’s commitment to growing the platform may be unclear. The pros and cons of working with the platform owner in this context are unknown. There are lots of other platforms to choose from. Etc. Most developers take all this into account and decide to pass on the platform for the time being.

Read more…

Categories: News Tags:

On EA’s Acquisition of Playfish

November 9th, 2009 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

I wrote the following brief news analysis for a multi-industry expert network that I joined earlier this year. It’s high-level and not as detailed as I’d like, but I figured some of you might appreciate it.

EA has just acquired social-network games maker Playfish for $275 million, plus an additional $25 million in equity retention arrangements and up to $100 million in additional cash contingent upon future performance. Playfish is one of the top three game developers in this space, the others being Zynga and Playdom (both privately held.) Zynga is widely rumored to be targeting an IPO within a year, leaving only Playdom as a wild card.

Why would EA pay such a large sum for a company that was only founded in 2007? In fact, one could argue that Playfish doesn’t even possess particularly distinctive IP and that its games are easily cloned (as Zynga demonstrated when it created “Cafe World” — a close copy of Playfish’s hit game “Restaurant City.” Cafe World now has 28 million monthly active users on Facebook, as compared to 18 million for Restaurant City.)

The answer is complicated. On one hand, big video game publishers have a history of overpaying for top development studios. But on the other hand, while social-network games may seem like simple things, they are in fact dramatically different from the video games that publishers like EA have built their businesses around. EA is, in part, acquiring expertise.

The traditional big video game publishers rose to prominence in part because they were capable of funding the development of robust, complex, multi-million dollar video games and in part because of their retail marketing and distribution prowess. In short: they are very good at getting people below the age of 35 to pay $30 to $60 for a boxed game that can be enjoyed alone on the couch or at the desk or with friends online. But social-networking games, by contrast, require a completely different product development and product marketing skill set. These games are free to play and generate revenue via optional microtransactions — they must be designed explicitly for the purpose of driving such transactions, as opposed to traditional games which can simply “be fun to play.” Furthermore, the core gameplay mechanic of any good social-network game must encourage players to invite their friends into the game — again, it cannot simply be “fun.” And of course, there’s no retail shelf to position a social-network game on; instead, developers must rely on non-traditional advertising, on the viral mechanics of their games, and on cross-promotion between online games to drive traffic.

This latter point is critical. The top social-network game developers have become very effective at driving players from their existing games to their new games. This means that they are essentially capable of helping any new title reach a critical mass of players almost immediately, and for “free.” From that point forward, if the game is designed well enough (i.e. if it is highly viral and good at engaging and retaining players), it will succeed.

So why did EA purchase Playfish? Because EA’s game designers are not accustomed to building games that focus mainly on viral design or on monetization via microtransactions. Because EA’s marketing people are not intimately familiar with the techniques necessary to market these non-traditional games to these non-traditional audiences. And because Playfish offers an established network of players that future games can be cross-promoted to. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Playfish is rumored to already be generating $50 million a year in revenue. Lastly, Playfish was likely the “cheapest” of the three established game developers in this space.

One could certainly argue that it would have been cheaper for EA to spin up one, two, or even three independent studios and charter them with experimenting in the social-network game space (especially if they’d had the foresight to do so two years ago.) Eventually, one studio would have hit on a successful formula, just as Playfish did. And perhaps other major publishers, such as Activision, should be considering such a strategy. But EA’s acquisition of Playfish certainly makes sense… it simply remains to be seen whether they overpaid or not.

Categories: News Tags:

The Death of Lead Gen?

November 2nd, 2009 Comments off

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

It’s been a while since any given news story caused five different people to spontaneously email me. The latest story to do so is the Techcrunch exposé of scam artists who are working through the popular lead generation services (such as Offerpal) that are used by most major social gaming companies.

The story has already inspired quite a few responses, such as these thoughtful articles by Andrew Chen and Justin Smith, and this entirely predictable response by Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga.

My quick two cents: have the lead generation services (and therefore the social gaming companies, and therefore Facebook itself) benefited from the behavior of scam artists? Yes, absolutely. Should the lead generation services immediately do something to address the problem (and if not them, then the social gaming companies or Facebook itself?) Yes, absolutely. Does Facebook “deserve to be sued”, as one of my good friends suggested to me? No, it does not. Does this whole thing prove that social games are a house of cards? I highly doubt it.

Facebook is a popular open ecosystem, and like any other popular open ecosystem, it will be exploited from time to time by unethical people. There is always the argument that Facebook “could be doing more” to police the ecosystem (and in fact, it had already announced a plan to do precisely that as part of larger changes to the platform) but at the end of the day you simply cannot compare Facebook to the Playstation, to Wal-mart, or to any other closed ecosystem. Facebook has an essentially unlimited number of “content partners,” and while it should keep a close eye on the biggest of those partners, it is inevitable that some shadiness will eventually slip past the Facebook Police.

Sony and Wal-mart, on the other hand, have the advantage (and the great burden!) of controlling everything that enters their virtual and/or physical shelves… and they have much smaller shelves. So while I hope that Facebook will indeed do a better job of catching scams in the future, I don’t blame it, and in fact I hope it chooses to emphasize crowdsourcing techniques (i.e. better enabling users to flag and stifle abusive 3rd parties) as much as expanded police squads.

The social gaming companies turned a blind eye to their part in this problem, and now they are catching flack as they deserve. But this will blow over, and lead generation will likely continue to represent a significant percentage of their ongoing revenue. Why? Because at the end of the day, there are legitimate advertisers, content providers, and 3rd party networks with a vested interest in the success of this model. These aren’t all late-night, 1-800-type con-men; these are advertisers like Netflix, FTD, and GAP and product/service providers like Apple, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. The only “house of cards” here is the house that Tattoo Media built.

Categories: News Tags: