Category Archives: design

Web 2.0: Games, Creativity, UGC, and Socialising in Spore

Maxis (part of EA) has a great competition up right now – use the public APIs for the Spore creature / user account databases to make “an interesting widget or app”.

I had a quick look at the API’s – they’ve got the right idea technically (use REST, provide PHP versions, etc), although the set of queryable data is pretty mneh (they could easily have done a *lot* more interesting stuff too). I’m impressed that they’ve got that right, and they appear to have done a great job of presenting it nice and clearly. Most importantly, because the selection of data is lame, the challenge is there – in your face – to be very creative with how you’re going to use it. Go for it.

I had a look at some of the demo apps that had already been done, and they show great variety. If you’re trying to break into the games industry as an online designer, you should try your hand at using their content (and this is *legal*) to design something cool. You (probably; I haven’t checked the legals) won’t own exploitation rights – but it could make a great portfolio piece.

So I was rather saddened that it’s taken until now, and a random glance at a newsfeed item, for me to be aware of this. Which isn’t so bad, except … I was one of the first wave of purchasers of Spore, and I played it heavily, and checked out the Sporepedia for the few months after launch.

But they launched with most of the Sporepedia either “broken completely” or “not implemented yet”. Having paid $50+ for a full price game, to discover that even after several months the Sporepedia was “mostly not implemented yet, watch this space”, my reaction was : “I have better things to do with my life than wait for you to pull your finger out and do your job properly and give me what *I’ve already paid for*”.

And because of the mind-numbingly stupid DRM decisions by EA, I’ve point blank refused to install their viruses – without which, the system isn’t going to let me upload any of my own creatures / UGC. Which takes away a lot of the other cause of interest that would have rapidly lured me in.

Finally if it had been a “real” online game (why wasn’t it? No-one really seems to know. My theory is “fear and shame over The Sims Online catastrophe”) of course … my friends relationships in-game would have meant I’d have been pulled-in to this new cool stuff as soon as it went live.

So … it would seem that when it comes to boundary-pushing game design Maxis is managing to go 2 steps forwards and 3 steps back. That’s a real pity, because I suspect a lot of people who would love what Sporepedia was *described* as being (rather than the massive short-sell it actually was) have already given up, gone home, and don’t care any more. Only the people who don’t know about the good games out there (the non-gamers who happened to pick up a copy – of whic there are many many of course, thanks to the Sims juggernaut) are still around to enjoy it.

Am I being too pessimistic here? Certainly, not a single professional I know has shown any remaining awareness or interest in what Spore’s doing for the last 6 months. That’s pretty damning, in my eyes, for a game with such big sales and the Sims driving marketing and sales for it.

(PS: in case it’s not clear – as far as I’m aware, there’s still literally zero socialising in Spore. That’s the irony of the title here. The only socialising is 1995-era “the players are doing it anyway despite the developer+publisher going out of their way to stop them”)

Tabula Rasa: Going down in a burst of glory

http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=22528

“It is probably safe to say that, despite decades of ever more spectacular Hollywood visions of extra-terrestial domination, humanity in its worst nightmares never imagined it would have to contend with spawn-camping aliens.”

(also … If that article is accurate, sad but unsurprising to hear that (apparently) the underpowered server tech for TR yet again managed to make a misery of gameplay, even at the very end. If that article is accurate, then well done to the ops for managing to get some instancing sorted out, but note to self: never let this happen with future twitch-based / FPS MMOs)

Tabula Rasa: A Plot Summary

Ironically enough, from the LotRO forums:

“You know the only analogue I can come up for this is to imagine a WWII FPS where the opening cinematic tells you that the Nazis have destroyed Great Britain with a giant laser and you’re one of the few English to escape via a magic portal to Russia at Stone Henge which was planted by ancient mystics from China. However the rest of the game takes place in relatively normal WWII FPS style while the Nazis throw paltry attacks into the steppes, and yet most of the people you meet are also British and no one seems to care that Jolly Ol’ England is smouldering black glass. Occasionally you stumble across more ancient Stone Henges to learn Mandarin to gain super powers. The Nazi country-destorying laser is never brought up.”

ROFLMAO. And … excellent plot-summary there.

(remembering that I did actually *like* TR. But the OP has a point)

Does It Lose Money When You Do That? Don’t Do That

(a.k.a. “How to invest in MMO development … profitably”)

The world is full of games companies that blow stupid amounts of money on making online games (typically “massively multiplayer online games” (MMO)). It’s time to put a stop to this madness; honestly, I thought everyone learnt their lesson about 5 years ago when we had the last wave of “everyone’s making an MMO … oh god, these things are TEN TIMES as expensive and ONE HUNDRED TIMES as difficult as we thought … Run away!”. Apparently not.

I think there’s two ways you can learn for yourself how to make a profit from developing online games:
Continue reading

MMO Blogger Round-up

On this site I have a rather subtly-hidden Blog Roll. When I started blogging, the site had less on it, and the roll was easy to find – and short. Now it’s not. And it’s long. And each link on there has been carefully considered. There’s some gems in there (although a lot of them are updated so infrequently few people track them).

So it’s time to call-out some of the interesting things to be found in the blogging world of MMO people.

By the way … you can tell who’s working on uber-secret or personally exciting projects these days because they’ve suspiciously stopped blogging for months at a time. Lazy slackers, the lot of them. The more you do, the more you should blog! :P

There are some that should be on the blogroll but aren’t (yet), and some other bloggers I should mention (but I’m sticking to the blogroll only for this post – I’ll go through others next time). Feel free to add your own recommended reading in the comments.

Blogs to read:
Brinking (Nabeel Hyatt)
* Who? serial entrepreneur, raised funding and sold companies
* What? currently running a funk-tastic social / music / games company with a bunch of Harmonix guys
* Why? big commentator on the games/apps/making money/predictions parts of All Things Facebook

Broken Toys (Scott Jennings / LTM)
* Who? became infamous in the early days of MMOs as a player of Ultima Online who ranted publically, amusingly, and sometimes even insightfully
* What? ex-NCsoft, now doing intriguing web games at John Galt Games
* Why? In his heart Scott’s still a player, and more than anyone else I’ve seen he interprets the world of MMO design, development, and playing through the players’ eyes. Interesting point: he’s mostly concerned with life-after-launch. Funny that. Players kind of find that bit the most interesting. Also keeps a close eye on community-management screw-ups, and WoW generally

Bruce Everiss
* Who? ex-head of marketing for Codemasters
* What? um, I’m not sure what he’s doing these days, apart from becoming a “professional blogger”
* Why? he aims to comment on every single interesting piece of news in the mainstream games industry. That’s a lot of commentary. Always something to read! IMHO he is often completely wrong about anything online-games, and a lot of business and “future of industry” stuff – Bruce is from an older age of the industry. But … he says a lot of interesting things and sparks a lot of interesting debates in the process. Worth reading. Just remember he is extremely (deliberately, I’m sure) provocative, and don’t take it too seriously.

Coke and Code (Kevin Glass)
* Who? A programmer working in mainstream IT
* What? An insanely prolific author of casual games “in his free time, as a hobby”
* Why? Because he’s better at making games than many professionals I’ve met, and he is very very prolific, making new libraries, toolsets, editors, games, game engines – and commenting on it all as he goes, and throwing up new games for you to play all the time

Erik Bethke
* Who? ex-Producer for Interplay
* What? CEO of GoPets, an online casual virtual world that’s especially big in Asia (and based in South Korea)
* Why? A hardcore WoW player who analyses the game-design as he goes, and relates very honestly a stream of both emotional experiences and seminal events in the game that should give you lots of things to be thinking about, especially if you’re a designer, business person, or product manager.

Extenuating Circumstances (Dan Hon)
* Who? ex-MindCandy, current CEO of SixToStart
* What? one of the first Bloggers (on the whole of the internet!) in the UK, and an awe-inspiring assimilator of “everything happening on the internet, with technology, with media, with entertainment and the future of the world” for all of the ten years I’ve known him.
* Why? He’s still an excellent tracker of all those things, and finds memes very quickly. Nowadays he just auto-posts links (lots of them, every day) with a few words of commentary scattered here and there (del.icio.us descriptions) – making his blog a ready-made news filter for you :)

Fishpool (Osma Ahvenlampi)
* Who? CTO of Sulake (makers of Habbo Hotel)
* What? a very technical commentator, often in great detail, on the issues of running a 100-million user virtual world, with observations about Habbo’s community, business, and culture thrown in
* Why? He posts very rarely, but when he does, they’re usually full of yummy detail

Futuristic Play (Andrew Chen)
* Who? ex-VC (Mohr-Davidow Ventures)
* What? entrepreneur with a web-background who’s come into the games industry and bringing lots of useful stuff with him
* Why? blogs a LOT on advertising (and how to make money out of it in games and web and casual), and on metrics, and how you can use them to run you games or web business better. Also has a long fascination with what are the best parts of the games industry, and the best of the web industry, and how we can each put those best bits together to be even better

Off the Record – Scott Hartsman
* Who? ex-Everquest, ex-Simutronics
* What? Senior Producer for MMOs – but previously an MMO lead developer, and once (apparently) a Game Designer.
* Why? he’s funny, he knows his stuff, and he’s worked on some of the most important MMO projects outside Asia, so he’s got an interesting perspective going there.

Orbus Gameworks (Darius Kazemi)
* Who? ex-Turbine, now CEO of Orbus (a games-metrics middleware company)
* What? Likes the colour orange *a lot*, infamous for networking his ass off at games conferences (*everyone* knows Darius), very friendly, generous – and mildly obssessed with the use of metrics and stats to improve the creativity and success of game design (in a good way)
* Why? If you liked the Halo heatmaps when they came out, you’ll love some of the stuff they post on the Orbus company blog. A year ago they were posting heatmaps-on-steroids. If you thought “metrics” equalled “spreadsheets of data” then prepare to have your view changed pretty thoroughly.

Prospect Magazine/First Drafts (Tom Chatfield)
* Who? section-editor of the highly respected socio-political print magaine Prospect
* What? a highly-accomplished English Literature post-grad (bear with me here) … who also happens to have been a lifelong hardcore game player, I think the only person I know who got a hardcore character to level 99 on Diablo2, and now plays WoW a lot.
* Why? although Prospect only very rarely (like, only a few times ever) covers games, it’s very interesting to see what the rest of the world – especially the highly educated and highly intelligent but non-technical, older generations – thinks of us. And a bit of culture in your blog reading is probably good for you, too.

Psychochild (Brian Green)
* Who? ex-3DO/M-59, now the owner and designer of the revamped, relaunched, more modern Meridian-59
* What? an MMO game designer who disingenuously describes himself as an indie MMO designer but like most of the others has probably spent too long doing this and knows too much (compared to many of the modern “mainstream” MMO designers) for that to be true any more
* Why? lots and lots of great design ideas and commentary here for anyone wanting to do MMO design

Scott Bilas
* Who? programmer on Duneon Siege
* What? …in particular, responsible for the Entity System (one of my main areas of interest)
* Why? Scott’s phased in and out of blogging, but when he does blog he tends to do good meaty programming posts that contain lots of source code and some useful lesson or algorithm.

Sulka’s Game (Sulka Haro)
* Who? lead designer for Sulake (Habbo Hotel)
* What? more of a Creative Director than game designer, more of a web background than games, but above all a community/product/creative person who knows his stuff. Also a big player of MMORPGs
* Why? are you cloning Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel and want some pointers about revenue models, community management, and how to be successful with virtual-item sales? You might want to read his posts ;)

The Creation Engine No.2 (Jim Purbrick)
* Who? ex-Codemasters, ex-Climax (both times working on MMO projects)
* What? originally a network / MMO academic researcher, then a network coder, and now the person who runs Linden Lab (Second Life) in the UK. Very big proponent of all things open-source, always doing interesting and innovative things with technology
* Why? Keep an eye on the more innovative technology things that are done with Second Life (stuff you don’t tend to read about in the news but – to a tech or games person – is a heck of a lot more interesting by a long long way), and get some insight into the life of serious open-source programmers who succeed in living and breathing this stuff inside commercial environments

The Forge (Matt Mihaly)
* Who? developer of one of the earliest commercially successful text MUDs, now CEO of Sparkplay Media
* What? spent many years running Achaea, a text-only MUD that made a healthy profit from pioneering the use of itemsales (virtual goods) – and the things weren’t even graphical – and has now finally (finally!) moved into graphical games with the MMO he’s developing
* Why? one of the few MMO professionals who talks a lot about his experiences playing on consoles (especially Xbox), which makes for a refreshing alternate view – especially from the perspective of an MMO person talking about social and community issues in those games. Just like Brian Green, claims to be an indie MMO designer, but probably knows far far too much for that to be even vaguely justifiable

Vex Appeal (Guy Parsons)
* Who? ex-MindCandy
* What? Guy is an extremely creative … guy … who had a small job title but a big part in inventing and rolling out a lot of the viral marketing stuff we did for Perplex City (online game / ARG from a couple of years ago)
* Why? Awesome place to go for ideas and info on the cutting edge of doing games stuff with social networks. Usually. Also … just makes for a fun blog to read

We Can Fix That with Data (Sara Jensen Schubert)
* Who? ex-Spacetime, currently SOE
* What? MMO designer, but like Lum / Scott Jennings, comes from a long background as player and commentator, and shorter background as actually in the industry. Like Darius Kazemi, spent a lot of time in doing metrics / data-mining for MMOs
* Why? Take Darius’s insight into metrics for MMOs, and Scott’s knowledge of what players like, don’t like, and ARE like, and you get a whole bunch of interesting posts wandering around the world of metrics-supported-game-design-and-community-management. Good stuff.

Zen of Design (Damion Schubert)
* Who? ex-EA (Ultima Online), currently at Bioware (MMO)
* What? MMO designer who’s been around for a long time (c.f. UO)
* Why? Damion writes long detailed posts about MMO design, what works, what doesn’t, practicalities of geting MMO development teams to work together, how the playerbase will react to things, etc. He also rather likes raiding in MMORPGs – which is fascinating to see (given his heavy background as a pro MMO *designer*)

[NC] Anson (Matthew Wiegel)
* Who? ex-NCsoft
* What? Dungeon Runners team
* Why? was doing lots of interesting and exciting things with data-mining/metrics in the free-to-play low-budget NCsoft casual MMO. Watch this space…

People with nothing to do with games, but you might want to watch just because they’re interesting:
Bard’s World (Joshua Slack)
* ex-NCsoft
* Josh is one of the key people behind Java’s free, hardware-accelearted, game engine (JME)
Janus Anderson
* Who? ex-NCsoft
* What? um, he’s been taking a lot of photos recently
* Why? watch this space
Mark Grant
* Who? non-Games industry
* What? an entrepreneur, web-developer, and Cambridge Engineer
* Why? very smart guy, and interesting posts on web development (no games tie-in)

Is the 30th anniversary of the first MUD important?

(because that was yesterday, you know)

Richard Bartle concludes that, in the great scheme of things (and much as it might nice to think otherwise), it’s not actually that important.

So standing back and looking at it, the answer as to why there is not a lot of fuss over this 30th anniversary is that in the great scheme of things, it isn’t actually important. The mainstream isn’t interested because virtual worlds haven’t had much impact; developers aren’t interested because the paradigm is obvious; players aren’t interested because knowing doesn’t add anything to their play experience; academics might be interested in the historical facts, but anniversaries don’t figure in their analyses.

I disagree :). And not just because it’s a chance to celebrate some UK-based breakthrough in computer games (what else do we have – GTA? When you google for “history of uk games industry” the first hit you get is “Japanese games industry | Technology | guardian.co.uk”. Sigh; thanks, Guardian). I think it doesn’t get much fuss simply because it doesn’t have a community that is enmeshed in modern culture in the ways that would get a fuss caused; its community isn’t highly sought-after by advertisers and journalists, for example. Its community isn’t a major user of the web-games-newssites. Etc.

On the flip side, I think it should have some fuss, certainly in the games press. It’s particularly important to understand how many years of history exists here, just as a number. Because that implies certain things about how much prior art probably exists, and the level of detail you should expect to have been researched and/or tried out and improved upon – all of which is very helpful when designing, building, or operating new games.

For the same reason, I think it’s particularly important for people to know the game design of MUD1 in detail, either to read a detailed review, or to have played it for themselves. Because that tells you what the starting point was for those 30 years of prior art. It gives you even more info on what you can expect. For instance, looking at MUD1 and looking at a typical modern MMORPG, you can see certain things haven’t changed that much, which suggests there is a lot of (old) documentation on side-effects of those aspects. Likewise, certain things have changed a heck of a lot, which suggests strongly that there’s a lot of (old and new) documentation on what else has been tried in those areas and why it didn’t work. In particular, it suggests that there’s possibly as much as THIRTY YEARS of “weird shit” that people tried in those areas – and your new wacky idea has probably been tried before. So you can go look up what happened; can use someone else’s (possibly “failed”) game as a prototype for your “new” ideas without even having to wait for your team to build the prototype.

If you don’t know that MUD1 is 30 years old, if you think perhaps that it’s 15 years old, or that it looked more like tunnels-n-trolls, then those things all lack the same implicit value to you – and you might not bother to go look them up. So, yes, IMHO it does matter how old it is.

Which reminds me; when was the last time someone did a major review of MUD2 (how modern was it?), seeing as so many people rely on reviews these days to understand games they don’t have time to play themselves…

MMO do’s and don’ts: Launching an MMO

Thord Hedengren (TDH) posted for GigaOM a list of things you should and shouldn’t do immediately after launching an MMO. They are mostly specious – I’m afraid I have no idea who Thord is or what he’s done, but from reading the article I get the impression he doesn’t know much about MMOs. Now, I’m sure TDH is a nice person, probably very smart, but these dos/donts are naive and ill-thought-out to anyone who’s been working in the MMO field for long. Some of TDH’s advice will probably cause you more harm than good if you follow it as-written.

What’s wrong with TDH’s list:

“Make sure the game is stable” – the games that launch “prematurely” (TDH’s description) ARE stable. Perhaps he meant something about “works on the majority of machines of your target market” or “has no economy-breaking bugs” or “all the quests work out of the box”, or … or … or etc. Depending on what he meant, my response would go in different ways.

If I were him, I’d have said “make sure the game is READY”, but whilst I know what that means, and most people in NCsoft seemingly had mostly congruent opinions, that’s not something I’m sure I can quantify off the top of my head. Hey, it’s part of what good publishers do as their value add, it’s not supposed to be obvious! More on this later, maybe.

Include significant content for all levels – you cannot possibly afford to do this, and it’s NOT ENOUGH even if you could. Rather, you need to provide masses of highly polished content for two particular levels: level 1, and level 20. Levels 10 through 19 need increasingly polished levels of content. Here I’m assuming that level 10 is the end of the newbie experience, and level 20 is the highest level 95% of the playerbase will reach within 1 month of starting play EVEN USING THOTTBOT et al to cheat their way through content faster.

Why? Because you lose subscribers at two points:
1. When they start playing.
2. when their first month subscription comes up for renewal.

All players should have completed the newbie experience (level 10) before their first subscrption renewal. From the moment they complete that, you want them to be more and more surprised, in a positive way, by how much “better” the game gets the longer they play. You also want to offset the decreased sense of wonder they have as individuals as they get to know the game and the world, so that they perceive a linear, constant, level of content quality (when in fact the content quality + volume is increasing, but their expectations are also increasing).

“Add new content on a regular basis” – like the outcome of a negotiated sales price (which can never go further in the vendors favour on future re-negotiations), whatever rate of content release you provide, you can NEVER reduce that rate in future, your players won’t let you. So DEFINITELY do not go around adding the “frequent” chunks at first that TDH recommends. That may well be suicidal.

“Make it easy for players to network, form guilds” – don’t bother. They will do it anyway. No MMO in existence has bothered to make this easy, and so the players have become adept at doing it themelves. This feature is therefore a complete waste of money – UNLESS you decide to make it a major competitive feature/advantage which becomes part of your sales strategy. Given how few MMOs do it even at a mediocre level or above, you could easily get great sales out of doing it well.

“Let players move characters between servers” – except that this destroys server-level community – something that all the big MMOs make heavy use of today. IMHO, the benefits to character-transfer outweigh the losses, ASSUMING you know what you’re doing and make use of those benefits, but TDH’s explanation (by omitting these) is probably going to lead many into weakening their game instead of strengthening it.

“Keep an open dialogue with the players” – Yes! This I agree with. Good recommendation.

So, just one of TDH’s points actually works without large amounts of hedging. Hmm. What about the “don’ts”?

What’s wrong with TDH’s list part 2: “Donts”

A general observation here: these have almost nothing to do with the realities of launching or post-launching an MMO; rather, they read like TDH’s personal bugbears of what he wishes that his MMO of choice did differently. I would humbly suggest that GigaOM is not the place to be airing a random selection of your personal criticisms of minor elements of someone else’s game-design (my personal blog, on the other hand, is an AWESOME place for me to be ranting about the quality of articles on other people’s sites. HA!). I’m only going to go through them for the sake of completeness, but mostly I’m not going to bother analysing them, they’re too trivial.

“Don’t promise features that are months away” – what TDH should have said was “in the management of online communities, Expectation Management is one of your core activities. This is also try of all mainstream AAA game development, just do what you would normally (not) do with a mainstream game”.

“Avoid having portals to future places” – this is just the same as the previous point. Nevermind.

“Don’t rebalance the game too much, too fast” – Hmm. Apart from directly contravening one of TDH’s “Do” points (“frequent updates and changes”) – what does TDH think updates are? Every update rebalances the game, de facto – “breaking [players] characters” is probably a good thing rather than a bad thing, as it extends the content for them (rebalancings can be the impetus for players to create an alt (second character) for the first time ever, and thereby increase attachment / stickiness for mass-market (non hardcore) players). Just don’t do an SWG NWE (if you don’t know what that is, google it – it was an extinction-level event in the Star Wars MMO that has masses and masses of commentary and post mortems all over the web).

“Publicly acknowledging problems” – Yes! Again, TDH’s final point actually has merit. Do it. It helps. But then again, this is nothing surprising – this is, in fact, part of that basic community management I referenced above.

Fine. “So, Adam”, I hear you ask, “if you’re so damn clever, what ARE the do’s and don’ts of launching an MMO, especially with respect to the post-launch period?”

Since I am currently technically unemployed – doing a Super Sekrit Stealthy Startup – I should really just put a PayPal donation link >HERE< and/or my cell number and an offer to answer your question (and any others you may have) at a discounted $100 an hour.

Launch Period: What Really Counts

For a subscription-based MMO (the target that GigaOM chose), two things count above all else:

  1. Absolute number of registered active accounts
  2. Conversion rate of registered accounts to subscribers who make one monthly payment IN ARREARS (i.e. one payment at end of month, or two payments at starts of months)

There’s some extra things that matter, because you NEVER launch an MMO in isolation – there has always been months or years of development leading up to this, and at least an alpha, if not two or even three betas, before launch:

  1. Retention of final beta (usually “free”) accounts that convert to paid subscriptions

I’ll come back to all three of these in a later post – I’ve been meaning to write something up about this stuff for ages now, but I don’t have the time this instant to do it justice.

As a parting shot, though…

Big Background Question Number 1

Ask yourself (and your team) this:

Do you even know what an MMO launch is? A pre-launch? A post-launch? A live team?

…and think about it; a lot of people these days don’t stop to think about the knock-on effects of that question, and there’s really no excuse now – there’s so much evidence staring you in the face, in the form of many many MMO launches that have happened. If you can’t answer those questions – and understand the menaning behind them – go do some research ASAP before you get even close to launching.

It’s easy to gloss over the launch, think it’s a one-off special event you plan for, just like alpha, or beta. It’s easy to forget some of the complexity that is peculiar to launch. We had people at NCsoft (both external developers and internal staff) who failed to include the live team as part of the budget for their games. Live team is going to be anywhere from 50% to 150% of the size of the develoment team. Since dev team staff are the majority of the project cost, failing to budget for live team is a MASSIVE hole in your budget. There are games that have launched with live teams as low as 30% (I think there’s some that were even like 10% but I can’t remember any off the top of my head) of the dev team; they failed.

Damion Schubert came up with the term “AO Purgatory” (AO = Anarchy Online) to describe live teams with just enough income to pay for upkeep, bug fixing, etc, and a few bits of content upgrade – but not quite enough to add enough content, fix enough bugs, to cause the overall subscriber base to grow significantly month-on-month. Rule of thumb: I would never launch a game without a live team that was the same size as the dev team if I could avoid it. If I had someone else’s cash to burn, I’d budget for live being 125% size of dev.