computer games games industry security web 2.0

EA DRM redux

(in case you hadn’t been following, this year EA has been putting some particularly nasty DRM on their most-hyped games such as Spore and the Crysis expansion; but unlike previous years, there’s been public outrage)

A couple of things of note here:

EA thinks it can get away with what many consider lieing and cheating – and then having the CEO publically insult the customers

  • Lies: they claim it’s all about piracy (the evidence suggests strongly that it’s about preventing 2nd hand sales while shoring up the artificially high prices that EA’s products retail for)
  • Cheating: EA’s PR people claim you can always get around their dodgy restrictive-use business practice by calling a phone line, that they own and operate (there’s no reason they need to keep that phone line open, and there’s no guarantees that they will honour the customer request)
  • Insulting: the new CEO, who came in on grandiose claims of reforming the company after the scandal of EA-spouse which revealed some very nasty internal practices of the company (apparently institutionalized abuse of its own staff), spoke to one of the largest trade-press websites and told them the people complaining were probably just pirates or stupid (*) (again, this is clearly not the case)

(*) “half of them were pirates, and the other half were people caught up in something that they didn’t understand” – see halfway down the article.

Apparently, little or no lessons were learnt with the public outcry over Spore

…in that the damage seems to be happening all over again with Crysis: Warhead, the same identical problems (c.f. the massive negative and ratings). I would have thought that a publisher the size and power of EA would have managed to prevent “another Spore” – if they had wanted to.

Maybe the fallout isn’t so bad this time? There aren’t quite so many negative reviews this time around, but then Crysis:Warhead wasn’t so big a game as Spore, either in marketing or in predicted sales figures.

Amazon changes it’s mind about its policy on user-reviews more often than a Politician trying to appease the electorate

They’re there! Amazon is full of negative User-Reviews!

They’re gone! They’ve all been deleted!

They’re back again! They’ve been reinstated!

(this happened with Spore. Fair enough. They weren’t sure what to do).

But … reading the comments and off-site commentary apparently it just happened all over again with Crysis: Warhead. Huh? Why? What’s going on over at Amazon HQ?

(I’m getting visions of engineers in a central control room fighting over the keyboard of a machine running an SQL database client, alternately deleting and reinstating the comments, while a prematurely-aged sysadmin huddles in the corner weeping to himself)

The customers are refusing to be tricked into damning themselves; what appear to be EA’s shills are being spotted and beaten at their own game

Witness this fascinating comment on review page for Crysis: Warhead:

C. Chapman says:
[Customers don’t think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway.]
I’m so glad to see Amazon has taken steps to filter out all of the useless nonsense being said by the DRM protestors.

Brian W. says:
Hey dude, Amazon just reposted all of the bad reviews and this game is down to the 1.5 stars it had a few days ago.

J. Schwarz says:
Don’t even bother responding to this troll Chapman, he is obviously a company man who is afraid that EA may go out of business. In fact he truly has something to worry about b/c the only other job he could get was shoveling the bs and for that he had to pass an IQ test which he failed.

WolfPup says:
I’m not sure which is more sad. Is Chapman an actual person, who honestly holds such crazy beliefs? Or is Chapman a corporate troll, who thinks that insulting non-crazy people will somehow make their activation DRM acceptable?

Either possibility is frightening.

Paul Tinsley says:
I think Chapman is employed to post. He does use a classic strategy that involves discrediting the thread by making the discussion descend to a personal level. He also attempts to alienate the protest away from the topic by declaring them to either be criminals or a small sector of the community that isn’t even a targeted customer. It’s textbook “digital” insurgency or deep strike, just choose your analogy and most will fit.

WolfPup says:
Interesting. I guess I just thought someone working for a corporation would be more professional about it or something, but…yeah…I probably didn’t think that through very well. They’re not above using any types of tactics.

I guess he’s still a corporate shill even if he’s not paid, but I’m leaning heavily towards him being paid after reading your post.

Paul Tinsley says:
Think of Chapman as a sort of “troubleshooter”. He’s not the sort to polish the company front line, he’s the clandestine stealth agent, sent forth to discredit the argument, to make people think they we can’t hold a solid debate without being personal and also to convince casual readers that our complaint is irrelevant. If Chapman was just another gamer like you or I, he wouldn’t waste so much time trying to make us all “look like idiots” as he might put it.

WolfPup says:
Yeah, you’re probably right. Unfortunately I have a pretty low opinion of how stupid and/or evil people can be, at this point in my life so I don’t really doubt there could be someone out there that clueless about these (or any other host of) issues :-(

Paul Tinsley says:
Well, I will be called delusional and paranoid for stating my opinion. Neither are true, as anybody who thinks that limited activations is better than no activations isn’t thinking like a consumer, they are working to a different agenda.

It doesn’t so much matter whether the OP was a shill or not, it’s the reaction that interests me.

I remember a time (“in the olden days, when I were a lad”) when the audience who A) cared and B) understood the issues were generally teenagers and a very narrow band (niche within a niche) of hardcore gamers with little experience of expressing themselves or dealing with sly cunning bastards. Those people would easily get sucked into tit-for-tat rants and regularly derailed (and sidelined) in such conversations. It was almost too easy. I was once one of them :).

Nowadays, I believe there are three differences.

Firstly, the audience who cares is much more mass-market (mostly IMHO thanks to the arrival of Playstation in 1995, and Sony’s successful marketing of it to young-professionals instead of just children), skews somewhat older (although still noticeably heavily biased towards young and male for many of the PC games, action PC games in particular), and is generally more experienced with the gamut of humanity and the tactics they employ.

Secondly, and this one surprised me, the subset who grok the issues seems to have massively expanded over the past 10 years. If you read through the negative comments, the arguments against DRM are often cogent, direct, and well-informed. Views that were once only understood and appreciated by readers of TheRegister seem to be (finally!) making their way into the mindsets of the public at large. I am beginning to think that we may yet manage to rescue ourselves and our futures (and those of our children) from the idiots who seek to make Copyright last 100 years, put a 10-year minimum jailterm on anyone who copies a *digital file*, and want to force everyone to carry compulsory, biometric, ID cards.

Finally, the audience of hardcore gamers themselves seems to be a lot more skilful at manipulation, especially the “people hacking”/social engineering skills. They are much harder to deceive, and much harder to defeat, compared to the days of Usenet (and here I’m very happy to accept I may just be deceiving myself with my own sentimental memories). If that’s the case, I believe it’s a direct result of the increased prevalence of online communities, especially out-of-game communities, and to a lesser extent in-game communities: these things have made people better at dealing with other people, in ways both good and bad.

computer games Web 0.1

Crysis Warhead: EA Targetted-Advertising FAIL

So, on this Amazon page, which starts with:

then has a sponsored advert from EA further down the page:

Yeah, um, well. I guess that targetted advertising isn’t quite working out the way it was intended.

Of course, it makes an EXCELLENT pun on the fact that I was *going* to mention that EA has “done it again” and done it’s best to screw the consumer out of 2nd-hand sales, just like they did with Spore. In fact, it’s allegedly identical to the final Spore situation (where the number of times you’re allowed to upgrade any hardware in your machine, or re-install, was upped from 3 to 5). There’s several people claiming that there’s an added “shoot-your-argument-in-the-head bonus” that even Steam-based installs have the DRM feature, although my guess is that this is just people misinterpreting the fact that there’s a different flavour of SecuROM with the Steam version (?).


Arrange a meeting in multiple timezones

Lots of people are using Yahoo’s Upcoming more and more these days, going by the invites I get (many have switched from using Facebook to using Upcoming recently). But it completely sucks for arranging anything in a foreign country, or where people will be attending from foreign locations. Common examples:

  • Any meeting, event, or party at an international conference; many attendees will be flying in a day or so beforehand
  • Conference calls with people in more than one timezone; conference calls tend to be with multi-timezone, otherwise you’d just have a face-to-face meeting

I’ve tried lots of things, and although Outlook 2003 and beyond have some moderately handy tools for this (you can view “2 timezones simultaneously”, although IIRC *only* 2, sigh), 99% of the time I need something web-based that anyone/everyone can use. And today I found this piece of awesomeness:

…which produces things like this:

(I would insert an image here, but unfortunately – despite the claims of the Debian maintainer of WordPress – Debian WordPress still can’t do file uploads, and WordPress’s authors haven’t fixed their extremely poor approach to file uploads. Sigh)


Interactive Conference Presentations, pt.1

Thoughts on making an awesome conference, #1: Interactive Presentations

(Part 1: The Problem. ATTN: Darius – you know what I’m doing here :))

The problem with interactive presentation is simply that, in its most obvious fashion, it completely doesn’t work.

I’ve seen presenters stand up, with the best will in the world, and say “what would you like to hear about? I can focus on A, B, or C”, and the response of the audience is:

  • Well, YOU’RE the expert, you tell me what I should be hearing about!
  • You listed A+B+C in the conference brochure, so I want my money’s worth: all of them
  • When you put it like that, without “selling” it to me, they all sound a bit dull, actually

The other major alternative is to split by audience expertise, rather than topic, so instead of A/B/C it’s A-basic/A-intermediate/A-advanced.

This way, the speaker can at least talk about every *topic* they were going to, and the audience has no *decision* they have to make – they merely have to self-identify their level of expertise. Unfortunately, this also means the speaker has to do 3 times the preparation effort, since they have to re-phrase the whole topic for 3 unique perspectives / levels of expertise. Mostly, speakers don’t spend anywhere near enough time crafting their talks as it is – anything that places extra burden on them is almost certain to destroy what quality there might have been in the talk.

To summarize “Interactive Presentation”

  • The audience must NOT be required to DECIDE what they want to hear
  • The presenter must NOT be required to OVER-PREPARE their content

Perhaps it would help – with these issues in mind – to re-visit the Use Case: why did we even want an interactive presentation in the first place?

Why “Interactive”?

Reasons I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Audiences get bored and fall asleep
  • Crowd-sourcing the expertise of the audience
  • Correcting mistakes

Stimulation – audiences get bored if they are forced to be physically dormant (sitting motionless) and are not being provided any mental stimulation; asking them to “interact” excuses some physical movement, and provides opportunities from some CHALLENGING of the audience, requiring them to THINK before responding, and allowing them to actually TALK to the speaker (and to the rest of the audience – don’t forget this; this is not a private dialogue)

Crowd-sourcing – it’s rare that the speaker knows more about the topic than the entire audience combined; in fact, in general, it never happens, not by a long way. Often, the speaker knows less – in some areas – about CORE aspects of the talk than some members of the audience (but much more in other areas). That extra knowledge is locked up in the heads of the audience, and given no forum, no channel, to be shared or distributed among the audience.

Correcting mistakes – speakers, especially mediocre or poor ones, often make mistakes – either factual or opinionated – during the prepartion of their talk, let alone the small slips in delivery. By sharing slides after the talk, the latter problem is already solved. But the former problem – speakers who disseminate misleading or even downright false information – is rife even in many highly-skilled conferences. If the audience can “talk back” (aka heckle), then this can both be fixed in-situ – and the speaker can get a chance to demonstrate that it was a genuine mistake and not ignorance or malice on their part.

Current typical “solutions”

There are some half-hearted attempts to solve this, in order of increasing success:

  • Interviews
  • Panel sessions
  • Roundtables


I advise anyone who goes to a conference where a session is in the format of an “interview” to simply boycott those sessions. Generally speaking, unless the interviewer is extremely good at their job, interviews are a boring waste of time, with LESS of interest coming out them than a simple presentation, simply because the dialogue is NOT under the control of the expert who has the knowledge. And, of course, the interviewee can simply refuse to answer any question they “don’t like”. Ugh.

Or, in even more simple terms, you’ve doubled the opportunities for human failure, without adding any benefits other than “hoping” that the interviewer will serve as a check-and-balance on the interviewee.

Note: there is still no increase in audience participation here – you can have a Q&A session at the end, but it’s indirected through the interviewer, so it’s LESS effective than when there’s a single presentation.

I have something else to add about Interviews that should make you VERY suspicious of them, but it’ll come uip again in Panels, so … moving swiftly on…

Panel sessions

I’m going to start with a wake-up call for some conference organizers:

Panel session != roundtable.

At CMP’s Austin GDC, the first year that CMP ran it, I went to the post-conference “feedback session”, and suggested that there should be roundtables the next year. The conference organizer responded that they had roundtables that year; no, they had panel sessions. Big difference.

Panel sessions supposedly do one of two things:

  • Cram more content into one session without over-stretching a single presenter
  • Crowd-source a very, very small crowd, using a “moderator” to control the flow of info

Here’s the problem: in most cases, panel sessions are suggested by the Moderator, who generally doesn’t know what they’re talking about (otherwise they’d have a presentation session instead…), and whose reason for doing this (other than to get a free conference ticket, of course) was “I want to know more about X, so I’m going to probe experts A, B, and C about it”. This is just a slightly more freeform version of the Interview – and yet it happens very often, and suffers worse from the interviewer’s lack of expertise: they not only don’t know what to ask, but often the panellists steamroller them and either dominate the conversation or collectively shut it down.

It is very, very hard to get a panel of people together who are neither “too similar” (you often see people say “ditto” when asked their views in turn on a panel topic), nor “too different” (what person A says is simply meaningless to person B, they don’t exist in the same universe).

Note: there is still no increase in audience participation here – you can have a Q&A session at the end, but it’s indirected through the moderator, so it’s LESS effective than when there’s a single presentation.


Here, there is no “official” speaker, only a moderator. In practice, every person who turns up to the session is a speaker (and when roundtables work well it’s because the majority of the audience DO each speak during the session!). That moderator has no idea who the “speakers” are, and has a relatively low responsibility to be even-handed or steer the conversation – because this is simply too hard to do.

In practice, the people who chose to speak get to dominate the conversation.

In practice, the larger conferences have lots of ignorant, dumb, lazy, selfish, or simply scared audiences who turn up to Roundtables and “expect to be entertained” – they have no intention of speaking or participating, they sit there silently. These people DESTROY roundtables, sitting there like wells of depression and darkness, sucking the life and interest out of the roundtable. Do I hate them? Yes, absolutely – having a minority of the audience like that is fine, but when – as at GDC 2007 – you have a roundtable that turns away 50+ people at the door, and allows in almost 100 people who DO NOT SPEAK A WORD, it’s out of hand.

I’m bringing this up because it points to a real problem: you might provide the perfect audience-participation system, but if the audience don’t want to use it, it could end up as the worst of all worlds (!).


Hmm. This is beginning to look like a communication problem. What’s going on?

Type Presenters Moderators Audience Comm-type Level of control Live feedback
Presentation 1 0 Many Broadcast Complete 0
Interview 1 1 Many Broadcast High, non-expert Slight
Panel Several 1 Many Broadcast Moderate, non-expert Slight
Roundtable Many 1 Many Dialogue Slight (*) Substantial
Freeform Many 0 Many Conversation None Infinite
-IDEAL- Ranked? None? Many? Conversation? Moderate? Substantial?

(*) – since roundtables have no “speaker”, and only give a conference ticket to the “moderator”, it’s much more common to see “moderator IS an expert” than with the other options.

Part 2, to follow soon, will list some ideas on what can be done about this. I’ll edit this to add a link once it’s up.

computer games conferences dev-process security

RSA Conference 2008 (London)

I’m there now, drop me a line (see About page for email) if you’re around.

I’ve just given a quick presentation introducing the ENISA’s (European Network and Information Security Agency) whitepaper on “Security and Privacy in MMO’s and VW’s”. It’s free, and it’s fairly simple (aimed at everyone from consumers to governments), worth a read if you’re interested but relatively new to this stuff. Contributors include people from Sulake (Habbo Hotel), CCP (EVE Online), NCsoft, and people like Richard Bartle and Ren Reynolds.


Thunderbird 3.0: stick with Alpha2

Mozilla just released Alpha3 of Thunderbird version 3; my advice: don’t bother.

dev-process facebook games design games industry web 2.0

Cultural differences: game developers vs web developers

Andrew Chen has just written a post comparing the cultural differences between Web industry people and Games industry people. They’re all very interesting, and on the whole I’d say they’re on the money – definitely worth reading (and see if you can spot yourself in some of the either/or’s ;)). At the start of the post, I stopped reading and paused to list my own observed differences, so that I could then compare them to what Andrew had written. There was no overlap, so I thought I’d write them up here.

Cultural differences: game people vs web people

  • concrete revenues vs “future monetizable” growth
  • team-as-blob vs sliding scale of headcount
  • obsessive search for fun vs time-wasting activities
  • surprise and delight audience with something we liked and think they want vs randomly guess and test on live audience; iterate until done
  • very high minimum quality bar vs dont worry, be crappy
  • high, strict specialization vs almost no specialization
  • money happens elsewhere, far down the chain vs show ME the money

concrete revenues vs “future monetizable” growth

Largely driven by the “money happens elsewhere” part, game people are obsessive about “what’s the actual revenue this will make (what’s my percentage of the revenue this will make)?”.

In particular, if you cannot *prove* the expected revenue (and in many cases not even that: instead you have to prove the *profit*), they won’t even carry on the conversation. This happens everywhere from small startups to massive publishers. I’ve seen meetings on “social networking” get shutdown by a senior executive simply saying “how much profit will this make at minimum, even if it’s not successful? Remember that these resources would instead bring in an extra $5million if we deployed them on [one of our existing MMOs]”, and refusing to carry on the meeting unless someone could prove that the opportunity cost to SN didn’t exceed its income.

surprise and delight audience with something we liked and think they want vs randomly guess and test on live audience; iterate until done

A team of game people sets out to make something fun. They like to get some input from experts on analysing and predicting the market (market researchers, marketing departments, retail executives, industry analysts, etc) – and then use that merely as “inspiration” and “guidelines” to making something awesome and new. They assume that “the customer doesn’t know what they want, but will recognize it when they see it, and fall in love” (which is largely true!), and so they go off and build something beautiful largely in isolation.

This beautiful thing then surprises and delights the consumer when it finally comes to market.

Web people do the first thing that comes to mind, care not whether it’s objectively good or bad, and test it in the market. Then they try again. And again. And again. And look for patterns in what is popular or not.

As a result, game people tend to think of web people as “skill-less” (partly true) and “puppets of the market” (largely true). Meanwhile, web people tend to think of game people as “perfectionist” (largely true) and “monolithic / unagile” (largely true) and “non market-lead” (partly true).

obsessive search for fun vs time-wasting activities

Game people don’t make stuff unless it’s fun. If it’s not fun, it’s a failure, and only a stereotypically bad EA Producer (or a second-rate clone) would OK the ongoing funding and/or production of a project that wasn’t fun any more.

Web people generally couldn’t care less. They generally think they want stuff to be fun, in a “well, it’s better if it’s fun, isn’t it?” kind of way – but they usually only really care that there is some activity going on, and that the users come back to do more of it. They are less judgemental about the type and motivation of activity going on. They will slave away to try to understand this activity, to extrapolate better ways of motivation people to do more of it, and to monetize people for doing it, but the activity could be selling used cars or real estate and they would not be greatly affected.

This one even shows up subtly in Andrew’s own writeup – he casually uses the word fun. To game developers, the word is Fun, and they would never write:

Now, I think that the productivity-inclined have their claim to the world, as does the fun/entertainment games people. But the intersection of this, in web media, is where the fun happens.

…because you don’t use the word “fun” casually like that where someone might hear it as “Fun”. You are sensitized to all uses of the F word :). Fun would never come from an intersection like that; that intersection could give rise to a number of side-effects and new content areas, and those content areas – with appropriate rulesets imposed – could merge, and react with some of the side-effects, to give rise, finally, to something “Fun”. Fun is not a simple concept.

very high minimum quality bar vs dont worry, be crappy

Game companies have QA departments that are larger in headcount than the entire development team, often by a substantial margin. They don’t ship stuff that is half-arsed, partially complete, partially working, etc. Hence, when they do, there is huge press and consumer attention around it. This is one of the thigns that the games industry has been doing more and more web like over the past 10 years – ever since they realised they could drop some launch-quality and end up with the same level of quality as standard by shipping a “patch” 1-3 months after launch (and probably getting an uptick in sales as a result, re-box the patched version as an “improved” version).

But, on the whole, games companies still consider quality the one unassailable pillar of the development triangle (“quality, short development time, cheap development cost – you can only have two at most”).

In fact, most game people turn “Quality” into 3 separate sub-pillars: core fun, longevity, and polish. And consider all three inalienable, but occasionally flirt with sacrificing one of those three instead of sacrificing either of the two other full pillars.

If it strikes you that the games industry is thereby trying to cheat and get “2 and 2/3 pillars out of 3” then … you’d be right. Understanding this can help explain a lot both about individual games and the industry in general over the past 15 years.

high, strict specialization vs almost no specialization

A game team is (typically) made up of distinct people doing:

  • Art
  • Code
  • Design
  • Production (project management)

You need at least one person devoted to each. For teams of size less than 5, it’s acceptable to have some people do two of those roles rather than just one, but it’s often considered “hard”
(by default – although in practice many teams flourish with people moonlighting/two-hatting these roles).

It is an onrunning joke that various non-design people in games companies have the unofficial job title of “Frustrated Designer” (most usually Producers and Programmers get labelled with this). i.e. someone who secretly wants to be a designer, but lacks the skill and experience – despite potentially many many years working in their person discipline, developing and launching games. Nowadays you also see people labelled as Frustrated Artist, and occasionally even Frustrated Programmer (although anyone brave enough to do that in the face of the programmers, who tend to be quite bullish about welcoming such people to try their hand at fixing a code bug (snigger, snigger, watch-him-fail) generally is quickly disabused of their frustration).

There’s good reason for this, too – the expected level of skill from anyone non-junior in a game team is sufficiently high that it can be very difficult for people to cross skills. It’s easy if they’re willing to drop to “junior” status (the level of incoming recent-graduate – very low-paid, and with very little creative or project input/control), but few are willing to take the massive drop in status and (usually) pay to do that.

money happens elsewhere, far down the chain vs show ME the money

Interestingly, perversely, this means that game people obssess about the money, despite never seeing it themselves, and worry about how their actions will affect the ability of later people in the value chain to make money, and how much the total pot will be.

Whereas the web people generally are much more blase about the money side, because they know it’s going to come almost directly to them, and they have a much more direct relationship with it (understand the ups and downs).

Game people’s approach to money is generally characterized by Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt – plagued by rumour. Web people all know for themselves how much money can be made, and how, and don’t peddle in rumours.

Comments on Andrew’s observations

Andrew’s observations were all good, except for one thing which I think he misunderstood: “By withholding levels, powerups, weapons, trophies, etc., it creates motivation from the user to keep on playing. They say, “just… one… more… game…!!””.

…and then he makes a conclusion that makes sense given what he and wikipedia have said, but which is almost the precise opposite of the truth.

As a result of this treadmill, there is a constant pressure for players to stay engaged and retained as customers. But the flipside of this is that it’s not enough to build one product – instead you build 70 product variations, and call each one a level!

The truth is that content-gating was introduced and/or stuck around as a technique because the cost of creating content is exponentially higher than the cost of consuming it without gating. If you have decided to operate a content-centric game, you are doomed to be unable to run a service product based on it – no matter how many years you spend developing content before launch, your playerbase will soon catch up to your level designers etc and overtake them. Content-gating, levelling especially, forceably slow players down in their content consumption rates, even forcing them to re-play set pieces of content many many times (if you can get them to replay it enough, you can lower their rate of consumption to the point that a sufficiently large team of content-creators can keep ahead of them. Just).

Various other experiments have been tried over the years – most notably, User-Generated Content, but none have achieved the same level of efficiency (or yet been as well understood) as level-based content-gating.

computer games design games design games industry

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 |”. 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…

education startup advice

Syllabus for an Entrepreneurship Degree

a.k.a. “An MBA that would actually be worth my time doing”


When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University, a new society was founded – Cambridge University Entrepreneurs – which started an annual business-plan competition for members of the university and local community, giving away £30,000 (about $50,000) to the winners, and modelled on the pre-existing MIT 30k ($30,000).

I felt greatly let down by this competition and society in the first year, so the founder and president co-opted me over the summer holidays to change it for the next year. I ended up being involved directly with running the society / competitions (we branched out to multiple competitions) either as a committee chairman (there was more than one committee) or ex-officio for more than two years. Unofficially, one of the core reasons for founding the society was that Cambridge University at the time did not have any dept devoted to Entrepreneurship; the closest it had was a few classes on entrepreneurship within the Engineering Faculty (Engineering at Cambridge being an exceptional course of international reknown, and hence very large in terms of undergrads and well-funded in terms of diverse courses and extra lecturers; it also had a history of graduates going and founding successful startups). In the belief that the university would take many years or decades yet to found a new faculty for entrepreneurship, this society was created instead. Teaching entrepreneurship was a major mandate and one we took very seriously, running our own entire lecture course (!) each year, for which we co-wrote the syllabus with our sponsors (law firms, accountancy firms, management consultancies, venture capital firms, marketing consultancies, etc) who were also providing 2 or more speakers for the “course”.

The whole exprience was fascinating, and I learnt a lot both from working with the various people involved (sponsors, angels, investors, organizers, contestants) and from entering the competition myself one year (making it to the finals but not winning the cash prize) – but perhaps most of all from seeing what happened to the competition alumni AFTER the competition was over (we maintained strong links with them). I even worked for one of the alumni companies as a summer intern (with the title “Lead Developer” IIRC).

But we never did do very well at the “teaching entrepreneurship” part; our lessons were great, high quality with lots of juicy information, and generally very well recieved – but with hindsight they never seemed to have taught much of what was really needed by the entrepreneurs. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the back of my mind in the intervening years.

Here’s a new idea: get rid of the lectures, get rid of the tests, get rid of the business plans, get rid of the competition based on “40 page plan + 10 minutes pitch to a panel of real investors”, instead…

It’s all about the pitch, baby

  • Given the facts, can you pick out the bits that will make the company succeed?
  • Given the facts, can you pick out the bits that will make the company fail?
  • Can you convince someone you’re right when they’re trying to find a reason to condemn you?

The whole course would be built around Pitching. Everyone on the course would spend half their time pitching, and … half their time reviewing other people’s pitches.

The key abilities participants should be developing are:

  • Ability to sell, given some info
  • Persuading a cynical and suspicious interrogator who’s allowed to dig further into anything you said
  • Keeping a time-limited meeting on-topic despite the above
  • Seeing through the BS in someone else’s pitch (useful both in self-analysing your own pitches, and also in evaluating business partners and vendors)
  • Understanding what needs to be said about a company and what – given a time limit – is unnecessary to be said, even if it’s critical to the company
  • Understanding what can be said, and sounds good, but in reality means little, because it doesn’t actually differentiate sufficiently from the failures

When I say “reviewing”, I mean something specific that is NOT what you normally see. I have a trap…

The pitching game

Each pitch-session, you have 3 teams pitching, and 3 teams reviewing.

One of the pitching teams is told that their company is fake, a lie – they have to try and trick the reviewing teams into giving them the money. They are allowed to say ANYTHING in their pitch, and present it all as fact. The other two teams are given the facts of real companies to pitch (names removed), and MUST stick to the facts (this to be assessed by person running the course; some leeway is allowed, but its assumed there will be a due-diligence session further down the line, and veering too far from the facts will count as failure).

Here’s how it works to achieve the learning goals above:

The real teams have to learn, by trial and error, what “facts” about a company are the ones that will A) convince investors, and B) make them stand out from the liars.

This forces them to think about what makes a company suceeed – and, possibly more importantly – what makes a company *appear* to succeed. Competing against liars, they’re going to have to succeed at both.

The liars just have to master the art of the sell. Which is crucially important both to building and running a business and to raising funding and keeping investors happy enough to raise follow-on funding.

There is more to it than that, and there were some better ideas I had half-formed for the game part of this, but I’m out of time for today. The essential idea should be clear though: use “the pitch” as the recurring fundamental element of all the teaching.

Web 0.1

Web 0.1: Flickr sets

EDIT: LOL, actually, you can Add to Set, I was completely wrong. Thanks to Sulka, and some emailed screenshots, I finally was able to find this feature. It’s there, buried next to “Blog this”, and “view different resolutions of this photo”. I couldn’t find it, because it’s the opposite side of screen from all the other editing/tagging/describing tools, and in the middle of nine other options, in grey-on-white text. Awesome usability (not). Thanks, Sulka!

I am *absolutely stunned* that flickr has no way to let you add a photo to a set.

You can tag a photo, describe it, and change it’s title. You can flag it, replace it, or add it to a pointless “world map”.

But you cannot add it to a set.

No, to do that, you have to close all your photo windows, go to a crappy set editor, and scroll though tiny tiny tiny photo thumbnails that are too small to see which photo is which when they are similar, and drag-and-drop photos on.

I won’t even mention the stupidity of having “sets” and “collections” with dire warnings that “collections can contain sets or collections, but not both [so you better decide carefully now, sucker!]” … and yet no link to “what is a set? what is a collection? what’s the difference? which should I use?”.

So, congratulations to a trailblazer of web 2.0, flickr, for managing to have a core feature in 2008 that is still Web 0.1

games industry

Riccitiello FAIL; EA fuxxored

It’s been a while since I remember seeing a CEO lie quite so brazenly, and so naively try to spin everything his way in the bizarre belief that no-one has access to the internet, and hence cannot effortlessly discover the rather impressively different truth.

Since JR took over, talking a great talk about seizing the bull by the horns and starting a reform, I’d hoped that maybe this was going to be like when Lou Gerstner turned around IBM, taking a huge pain pill of the largest annual loss in history (more than the GDP of most countries in the world!) to get it kick-started, but coming through in the end having fixed the company.

The fact that the rate of loss of key people from EA seemed anecdotally to have INcreased after he took over rather than decreased was a really really bad sign, but I see this as the final confirmation. JR has no inention of fixing the company. He probably just intends to talk up the share price and cash out with a big fat pile of money; it’s a lot less effort, you know…

design dev-process games design massively multiplayer

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.

games design mmo signup processes Web 0.1

Web 0.1: and “identity”

This is getting ridiculous. I just tried to post a comment on someone’s blog, and I was forced to use either my gmail account or an OpenID account to post. When I tried to NOT use my gmail account, it force-logged-me-out of gmail in the other window! This is pretty incompetent.

Note to web companies: the days when normal people only had one online identity died ten years ago. We all have multiple identities today. Leave us alone, let us get on with our lives, and stop interfering with who we are and who we express ourselves as being.

conferences games industry web 2.0

Virtual Goods Summit 2008 – post-mortem

I’ve written up my notes for the first three sessions of the VGS last Friday, and they’re in the queue over at waiting to be approved by Adrian; hopefully they should go live soon.

It was a good conference, some good stuff said, lots of basic sharing of info about things to do / things to avoid in the business and design of virtual-goods-driven businesses. The info was good, and although it often came close to being too basic for anyone who’s bothered to look at the history of online games, it usually managed to give interesting information to both the newcomers and those who’ve been around a bit.

There were lots of VC’s in attendance (surprisingly many), and lots of new vendor companies that were mostly payment-providers specializing in “taking payments from Social Network users” (I was surprised how many of them I didn’t know already; clearly, there’s been a boom in this area while I wasn’t looking).

A few highlights of my summaries (you’ll have to read the full writeups at for the rest):

The vendors on one panel – Twofish, Live Gamer, and Playspan – seem to be sitting in areas of potentially huge value-add, but … they also seem to be targetting their offerings at solving the problems that their customers don’t necessarily need solving, and would be better off solving themselves.

It seems the big players / winners in the Virtual Goods area so far are still taking a very “experimental, unplanned” approach to the fundamental worrying parts that keep newcomers awake at night: what goods should I be selling? what pricing should I offer them at? etc

Shervin (CEO, Social Gaming Network) and slightly less so Andrew (EVP Business Development, Zynga) continued to be as cagey at this conference as they have been at all the other conferences (e.g. GDC) over the past year or so. In the light of their secrecy – even when appearing on a public panel (hey, guys – if you’re asked to appear on a panel at a conference, what do you expect? Of *course* people are going to want to ask you interesting and probing questions! If you don’t intend to answer them, howabout you just decline to speak on the panel?) – we can only guess at their motivations.

…if you were there, what do you think? What were your impressions of the conference?

EDIT: interesting post from Eric Ries of IMVU starting with his thoughts on the conference, and inspiring three categorising questions about virtual goods and virtual worlds.

games design games industry massively multiplayer mmo signup processes security web 2.0

Online Services Problems: Credit Cards

This week, I was at the Virtual Goods Summit in San Francisco (my session writeups should appear on over the coming days). A couple of things struck me during the conference, including the large number of “payment providers” (companies that specialized in extracting cash out of your users via credit card, paypal, pre-pay cards, etc and crediting direct to you) and the large number of white-label “virtual goods system providers” (companies that were providing a turnkey (or near-turnkey) solution to “adding virtual goods to your existing facebook app” etc).

Which brings be to a recurring problem I’ve seen for a long time with the online games and MMO industry, which I suspect is going to cause a lot of damage to a lot of social games and virtual worlds companies in the coming years: online service providers are – in general – shockingly bad (lazy or plain stupid, usually) at handling their customers’ money.

And the result? Ultimately, it could drive increasing numbers of consumers back to preferring to purchase their games and other online content via retail, where the companies and transactions are more trustworthy. OH, THE IRONY!

amusing computer games games design

How much ISK is that?

…was my first thought on hearing that the Iceland economy was running out of money:

If you conveniently ignore that the figures are about 100 times too big, it’s a nice thought to imagine CCP might step in to bail out the banks, or at least offer to prop them up using ISK. It’s legal tender over much of the known universe, after all.

And it would give the world’s press something to REALLY say about “virtual worlds, virtual countries, and vritual economies” :).


Ugh. VWFE post (show us the money) now fixed

A missing ” killed it. I *do* have the “correct missing tags in XML” box checked in wordpress, but apparently it doesnt go as far as to check one of the most common typos. Sigh. Would all be OK if they had a working text editor that allowed you to put source code in your posts, but they don’t, so everything has to be hand-edited in HTML. Anyway, fixed now! Sorry!

computer games games design games industry massively multiplayer web 2.0

Kongregate’s secret features: Microtransactions and Leagues

(this is part 2 of “Flashback to 2006: How Kongregate Started”, and looks at the features Kong was supposed to have but hasn’t brought to market yet, and makes some wild guesses at why not)


What were these going to be? Are they still coming?

In his explanation above, Jim said:

“We’re also opening up the microtransaction API so developers can charge for premium content in their own games (extra levels, gameplay modes, etc) — we’ll take a much smaller cut of that revenue.”

The API has long been rumoured to be a bit flakey, which is no surprise for a startup (and the people in the community saying this mostly weren’t professional developers, so their expectations need to be taken with a pinch of salt). I’ve not tried it myself (I joined during closed beta, fully intending to get back into Flash and make some stuff for it, but never quite got around to it. Having to re-purchase all my now-out-of-date Flash dev tools for stupid amounts of money from Macromedia/Adobe just proved one barrier too many), but a couple of friends have, and they’ve all said good things about it’s simplicity and how it “just works”.

(for another view on this, a while back I spotted this great article by someone who decided to take a flash game made in a single weekend and see how easily + well they could make money from it by putting it on various portals including Kongregate. It’s an interesting read, and goes into detail on the time it took to get the API stuff working, and what it was like to work with from cold)

But on the whole, the API has been up and running and working fine for over a year now (from my experience as a player on the site). So, I’d expect that adding new features to the API is well within Kong’s abilities as a company / dev team.

In the list of features, it reads as though Kong intended to make this thing work themselves, but Jim’s expansion suggests instead that they wanted it to be driven by developers. I think they expected game makers to be frustrated at the low per-game monetization possible from ad revenue, and to push Kong to support micropayments for more content. It hasn’t quite happened that way, I think – Flash + Kong makes it so easy to knock up a game and publish it that I think few developers on the site really think about putting in the kind of time and effort needed to chop and slice their content. Combine that with the large revenues that Desktop Tower Defence was widely quoted as making from Kong alone, and you can see that many are probably happy with just releasing “extra games” rather than “extra content for a single game”.

This is despite the fact that with Kong’s current revenue-sharing model *that* is a sub-optimal setup for developers. The way Kong’s rev-sharing works, you get ad-rev-share, but also the top-rated games each week/month get cash lump-sums from Kong. But there’s a big drop-off in amount between “1st”, “2nd”, etc – so if you, as a developer, have three awesome games, you’re much better off having them win 1st place three months in sequence, rather than launch them all at once and only get 1st + 2nd + 3rd. So, yes, you really would be better off making one game stay top of the pile every month (and I’m sure this was very deliberately done this way to try and encourage game quality and discourage game quantity; I just don’t think it’s working all that well yet).

Here’s a wild guess as to why: even the more advanced and experienced of developers on Kong are still in the mindsets that the crappy portals over the years have forced upon them, e.g. “for better revenue, embed an advert from a portal and get a better rate; for REALLY good revenue, embed an extra-long advert and the portal will give you a single cash lump-sum”. This is unsurprising when you consider that making a living out of independent, single-person casual games development still requires you to put your product out on as many portals as possible.

Until that changes, most developers will probably continue to use whichever lowest-common-denominator approaches they can deploy across ALL the portals. In that sense, Kong has a hard struggle ahead of it if it wants to change attitudes. But that’s part of why Kong is great for developers – if it DOES change those attitudes, it makes the world a better place for developers, and for players. Unless, of course, Kong gives up and fades into being “just like all the other portals”. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen.


I used to like them, I used to sing their praises, but I can’t continue to deceive myself (or anyone else) any longer:

Kong’s features for communication between players suck horrendously.

They promised so much, and then delivered so little. They started off doing some really awesome stuff, inspired things like the AJAX-powered mini-forums for each game, that allowed you to post to the forum WHILE PLAYING without your web browser navigating away from the page (which, because of the nature of Flash, would lose all your progress in most games).

But those mini-forums, which worked “OK” for when the site was smaller, say a year ago, and had only 5-10 pages per forum, or 40 for a popular game, quickly became chaotic (mildly popular games now regularly have 50+ pages of comments, and top games have many HUNDREDS of pages … all with NO NAVIGATIONAL STRUCTURE AT ALL. Ugh).

And what about chat? Right from the early beta launches (probably from alpha too, although I never saw that, so I don’t know), people talked about Kong as “game + chat”, glued together “without the game developer doing anything” (Kong provides the chat system and it automatically attaches itself to the side of the game on the page). So … where’s the contextual chat? How come, when you’re in chat, there’s NOTHING that relates the chat you’re in, or the people you’re talking to, to the game you’re in?

(this is a particularly interesting question given IIRC – Jim Greer’s previous job before he founded Kongregate – made a big thing of showing profile information about other people in the chat window. IIRC you could choose a handful of your Pogo badges that would be displayed with your avatar whenever you chatted (in fact, IIRC it was Jim who originally explained all this to me years ago when I cheekily applied for a job with the Pogo team and he gave me a phone interview*)).

How does this have anything to do with Leagues?

Well, leagues for casual games are a classic example of how three things in gaming crossover and make something much bigger than the sum of their parts. It is a bit of a poster-child for “Game 2.0” (a stupid concept IMHO, but nevermind), and it IS a good idea, but most people miss the point:

  • Competitiveness (…in front of an audience)
  • Community (…around a shared experience)
  • Communication (…of shared struggle)

The beautiful thing about leagues as opposed to other Web 2.0 + Game / Social Games features is that they are technologically VERY easy to implement. That’s also the ugly thing: it means most people who implement them don’t actually know why they’re doing it, and screw them up.

I could believe that the only reason leagues haven’t been implemented yet is that Jim and the Kong team *do* understand them, and know that they “could” throw them up almost at a moment’s notice – but that getting a complete process and system that fulfils all three of the core elements is a much much bigger design challenge, and needs them to fix a whole bunch of things at once.

i.e. you’ll see Leagues appear on Kongregate ONLY at the same time as they “fix” the chat and the mini-forums, and start providing proper Profile pages instead of the quickly-hacked-together ones they’ve got now that look like a beautified output of an SQL command:


…because without doing those other things too (which we know they’re working on, according to previous commenters on this blog) the Leagues would fall far short of their potential.

(*) – about that interview (although I’m sure Jim’s forgotten completely), it’s an interesting illustration of how my attitudes to software development have undergone a sea-change, so I’m going to bore you with a description here ;)…

A recruiter put me forwards for it, but I had very little expectation of getting the job, or of taking it if it was offered. But I *did* want to know more about what EA’s “casual gaming” group looked like internally, and how they worked. I dismally (no, really: dismally) failed the programming test, I think – they wanted me to write a java game, as an applet, from scratch in under an hour. At the time, I’d just come from writing big server-side systems – also in java – and was still wedded to using rigorous software engineering approaches. They needed someone who would just churn out crap, see what was good, throw away the rest, and iterate on it. Which was right of them. But with a timed test and no run-up practices I couldn’t overcome the habits I’d been using as recently as the week before.

(I say this now as someone who is firmly in that camp too, who strongly advocates Guy Kawasaki’s “don’t worry; be crappy!” mantra – but back then, I understood the concepts, but was in the wrong frame of mind to put them into practice. Certainly I wasn’t mentally prepared at the drop of a hat to unlearn everything I knew and re-educate myself, AND write a game, in under an hour).


Virtual Worlds Forum Europe 2008: “Show Us the Money”

(Monetization options for Virtual Worlds)

VWFE 2008 (Virtual Worlds Forum Europe) got cancelled because the venue was taken away by the Police, so the organizers arranged an emergency Unconference for today instead. I decided – with only five minutes of prep (this is an Unconference…) – to do a session on “ways to monetize virtual worlds”.

I ran this session, so I took very few notes, sorry.

So … if you weren’t at the session, you probably missed most of the good bits :P.

community computer games massively multiplayer web 2.0

Flashback to 2006: How Kongregate Started

A little over 2 years ago, a new startup went into private alpha. Here’s one (of many) announcements about it:

On 9/18/06, Jim Greer wrote:
> Hi all –
> I want to announce my soon-to-launch Flash game startup to this list – I’m
> looking for game developers and players. The site takes games uploaded by
> indie developers and puts them into a rich community framework with
> persistent rewards, metagames, collectible items, chat, etc. Game
> developers
> make up to 50% of the revenue we get from rich media ads and
> microtransactions.
> Basically we’re building a community around web games. When I say
> “community”, I don’t just mean chat and profiles. It’s more like turning
> individual web games into something that have some of the addictive
> qualities of an MMO. For those of you who play World of Warcraft – what
> keeps you playing after you get a little bored with the quest that you’re
> working on? I think it’s things like this:
> – you are about to level up
> – you are about to earn some rare item
> – your friend is coming online in a minute and you said you’d quest with
> them
> Basically it boils down to: you’ve got goals that go beyond a single play
> session, and you’re online so everyone you play with can see/admire your
> progress. We have analogues for all of those rewards.
> So what we’re creating is a game portal with:
> – chat
> – profiles
> – challenges and collectible items
> – microtransactions for premium features
> – leagues
> – loyalty points for rating games, suggesting features, etc
> – rich media ads
> As I said, we’re making money off rich media ads and splitting that. We’re
> also opening up the microtransaction API so developers can charge for
> premium content in their own games (extra levels, gameplay modes, etc) —
> we’ll take a much smaller cut of that revenue.
> We’re launching a private alpha version in a couple of weeks – if you’re
> interested in participating you can email me. Preference will be given to
> those who have games to upload! Initially, our usage will be low so the
> revenue share won’t be significant – to make up for that we’ll be having
> cash prizes for Game of the Week and Game of the Month.
> Also, we’re hiring developers to help us make our own games, as well as
> extend the API feature set. The first game we’re making is a collectible
> card game, played online – you win the cards by completing challenges in
> user-uploaded games.
> Jim Greer
> jim
> Company:
> Blog:

Kong has delivered on all of this … except “microtransactions” and “leagues”. Although … that blog didn’t quite work out: it’s now a blank WordPress blog, installed March 2008 by the looks of things.

Missing features

Kong at the moment is monetized purely through advertising, which is interesting both because they have relatively low user figures to be an ad-driven site, and because most people seem more interested in the other (non-advertising) forms of F2P revenue: item-sales, fremium/premium subscriptions, etc.

On the userbase front, I’ve been wondering about it for a while: their PCU/ ACU (peak concurrent online / average concurrent online) figures are, I would have thought, “fatally” low for an advertising-driven site. The highest I’ve ever seen was around 20,000 users online at once, and a thread on the forums asking people the highest they’d ever seen topped out – so far – at 22,827.

Balancing that out, clearly there’s a very high percentage of return visitors, and high frequency per visitor. I know that other games, such as Runescape, managed to be hugely profitable on similar numbers of users, but that was a long time ago. With the increased competition for advertising these days among web companies, I’d have thought that was much harder. Even if advertising is easier and richer these days (financial crises aside), we’re only talking about $1million a year revenues. Kong has taken on almost $10 million of angel / VC funding to date, which is a *lot* of money when you look at the kinds of return on investment those people expect to receive.

Going back to the choice of revenue stream, let’s revist the original features Jim mentioned, and see how they stack up:

> – chat
> – rich media ads

These are derivative and trivial to add to any Flash-games portal. Who cares.

> – profiles
> – challenges and collectible items
> – microtransactions for premium features
> – leagues
> – loyalty points for rating games, suggesting features, etc

… whereas these are all high-engagement items. None of them work without getting the individual users to create an account on the site, and to keep logging in each time they come back. Most game portals are specifically targetted at being ultra-low engagement: no barrier to entry, no signup, no “hoops”; just play. For other portals to add these services would be tricky from the marketing / conceptual product viewpoint.

Several of them – particularly “challenges”, “microtransactions”, and “profiles” – are also technically challenging, requiring a lot of infrastructure (either server back-ends, or user-interface front-ends).

So, although Kong hasn’t yet added two of those high-engagement items, it’s got most of them. That strongly suggests it would be a great candidate for adding a more active form of monetization, as opposed to the current, purely passive, one (advertising).

And that would be a good potential justification for how they got so much external invesment (although personally I believe it also has a lot to do with a clever disruptive play to put the big games portals like Miniclip completely out of business within 3-5 years).