February 28, 2009

Games compete against everything

Lately I've heard a lot of people discussing different pricing models for games. Whether it be frequent sales, microtransactions, free to play, or just very low prices, everybody wants to figure out the sweet spot to attract the most customers.

Let's stop for a second though, and imagine a world where every game is completely free. Better yet, let's say every company pays you 5 dollars an hour to play their game. How do you decide which games to play when money is no object?

Time isn't equal to money - it's more valuable

Gamers always talk about how many great games are out that they want to play, but won't have time to. Everybody has to make choices about how to spend their precious free time, and once life gets busy enough, even really wanting to do something isn't enough.

I used to work at EA when John Riccitiello was first hired back as CEO. One thing he said really stuck with me: games are competing with everything for people's leisure time. Your competition is other games, but it's also Facebook, getting a massage, a night out dancing, sleeping in on Saturday, trash tv, and the new Monet exhibit.

Marketeers work hard to try and convince people that their games are great, but for a busy player with only 3 hours between work and bed, there may be 20 games they think are great, but only time to play one or two. Having a good game isn't enough to get people to play it.

It's ironic that game industry people don't understand this situation better, since we're a prime example of it. For example, I'm spending the few hours between work and bed writing, instead of installing the game I intended to try.

Short play sessions should be satisfying

I have a friend who only plays casual games, but doesn't actually prefer them. I referred to him as a casual gamer one day, and was surprised when he told me he only plays those games because he doesn't have time for a game that requires more commitment.

Casual games allow busy people to have a little bit of fun and satisfaction in a very small amount of time. Whether the game has very short rounds, a limited number of actions per day, or just an infinite pause button, people who like gaming but have other priorities can enjoy these games on their own terms.

There are lots of bigger games that let people have fun in a half hour to an hour, but not many that feel satisfying for fifteen minutes or less. A very fast Counterstrike round may take 15 minutes, and it's about 15 minutes between save points in Sands of Time, or learning and winning a race in Burnout. I used to leave Spiderman 2 in my console, so I could aimlessly swing around the city whenever I had a spare moment.

There aren't many MMOs that let players feel like they can do something useful in a short period of time. EVE lets players log in and select some new skills to begin learning, and The Agency is going to let players receive text messages from in-game henchmen and assign them jobs. Some people enjoy logging into WoW to quickly check their auctions. All in all, though, games seem to be much more interested in advertising hundreds of hours of gameplay, which are more likely to discourage a busy player than to entice them.

No player likes feeling indimidated

You don't have to assume that people will only ever play your game in very small chunks, but a busy person has to think of your game and consider it a viable option for a short play session, even if they decide to stick around longer after that. People watch tv for 6 hours straight all the time, but not on purpose. They intend to sit down for a half hour, but the time just flies by.

Imagine a tv show that had episodes that were 6 hours long instead of half an hour. Even people who regularly watch 6 hours of tv wouldn't watch it, because it'd sound too intimidating. Because half hour episodes let people opt out much more easily, they ironically let their guard down and stop worrying about how much time they're spending.

Wikipedia, Youtube, and Hulu are also great examples of this effect. All of those sites have smallish chunks of content that can be consumed very quickly, and yet any time people visit one of those sites, they seem to get sucked in for much longer than they intended. Or at least I do.

I'm trying to learn this lesson a little better as well. These posts are still probably too long, but I'm trying to get away from the terrifying walls of text I started out with.

February 22, 2009

Let players change their minds

As Tesh pointed out in the comments yesterday, an important complement to letting players make informed decisions is making more decisions reversible.

Some current games are designed in such a way that basic class and faction choices are intended to be permanent, although that doesn't necessarily have to be true. Respeccing and even changing classes can be good things in games that have planned for them in advance, and almost every game's design should allow for easy respeccing of powers and specializations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 3 games that served as my examples of letting players make informed decisions also exhibit some nice features for letting players change their minds.

Provide frequent opportunities for respecs

Guild Wars allows its players to respec almost everything simply by walking into a town:

Allow constant, gradual respeccing

Planetside allows any player to unlearn a skill instantly at certain skill terminals. The full number of points that skill was worth are instantly refunded and can be spent immediately.

However, this process is only allowed to happen once per 24 hours of real time. As a result of this, a player can respec almost completely, but it will take them a significant amount of time to do so.

This feature allows full flexibility but the time limit still puts some weight into the player's initial decisions. This limitation seems reasonable in a game where there are no classes and where character progression is based almost entirely on what certifications the character has purchased.

Let players branch their characters

Tabula Rasa has a cloning system which allows a player to save off an exact copy of their current character and then develop each of those clones in a different direction. A player could then later choose to branch either or both of those characters into another 2 characters, and so on.

By default, characters receive a clone token right before each time they have to select a new sub-class, but they can also perform certain quests in the world to earn more of them.

There are plenty of games that offer full respecs of a more standard sort, but these 3 methods are different from the norm in a way that's well-suited to their respective games, which is why I find them interesting.

February 19, 2009

Let players make informed decisions

You may have noticed that EVE Online is my hip-pocket example of a game that is constantly receiving major improvements. I mentioned the other day how EVE's new player experience seems to be its only significant weak point when it comes to player retention, but they've just announced some big new new changes:

...We eliminated choices that had no effect on you whatsoever and moved these choices to a more appropriate time where you could make an informed decision. You are in charge of your destiny...

...Many times, people would choose blindly, leading them to feel let down or disappointed later on...

...We have moved the allocation of the 5 free attribute points. A new player has no idea what the attributes means...

...Skills received from character creation have been re-visited and removed, many of which were irrelevant to new players...

...These choices, all important, are better made once you have a true understanding of how things work in EVE. Once you know what you want to do, what you want to fly and so on, that is when you should decide on your career and skills. And it is better that you understand what the attributes do, before you start fiddling with them.

This is something I've been meaning to post about for awhile. It's amazing how many games force players to make choices without understanding what they mean. RPG games in particular are notorious for this. I think games should try to avoid driving players to leave the game and look things up online, and this is especially true before they've even started the game!

Let players try before they buy

I remember being impressed with both Guild Wars and Planetside when it came to letting players try things out before committing to them.

Guild Wars does make players choose their initial profession at the beginning of the game without much information, but after leveling for awhile, the player has to declare a secondary profession. This is handled in a very elegant way though. There is a series of several quests that allow you to try out abilities from the other classes on a temporary basis.

I remember going to see the Necromancer trainer, and he sent me down into a crypt with 4 temporary powers which I could use to try out necromancy and complete some tasks for him. Each of the professions had a trainer that would allow you to get the sense of a class on a trial basis, before finally committing to your choice.

Planetside has special VR training areas where all training restrictions are lifted, and any player in the game can spend some time playing with all the different weapon types, special powers, and vehicles. This is a great way to never feel like you've wasted your hard-earned certification points.

Turn one big choice into several small ones

Tabula Rasa took the idea presented by Guild Wars' secondary professions and took that to an extreme, with 4-tiered class system: In TR, every player in the game starts out as the Recruit class. At level 5, they have the option to specialize further, then again at levels 15 and 30.

The game doesn't allow the player to try out abilities and classes before declaring them, but it does provide a fairly detailed UI highlighting some of the abilities and gameplay style of each class.

This is useful because it allows the player to not worry about advanced gameplay concepts too early in the game, but I imagine it also saved a lot of implementation time when it came to creating gear and missions: There's no need for any specific class-based drops at very low levels, because those classes don't exist yet.

Expanding on these concepts

The ideal game, in terms of allowing players to make informed decisions, would push all important decisions as late as possible. Every player would start the game without a class, and as a neutral faction. After learning the basics of the game, and some amount of fiction, players would be able to begin trying out some powers and eventually settle on an archetype.

Only once the player understood the game and their class would it become necessary to make players choose a faction and begin thinking about PvP. Players would weigh out their options, see what factions their friends were going to choose, and make an educated decision they would be much less likely to regret.

It wouldn't be difficult to come up with fiction and narrative that supported the idea of one group fracturing into two factions. Huxley would be a good candidate for this sort of treatment, with its two factions of humans and mutated humans.

A Star Wars game would also be an ideal candidate for this sort of thing: discovering Force sensitivity and declaring allegiance to the Light or Dark side is a big part of that fiction.

February 16, 2009

Players don't just give you money

In the past week I've made a couple of posts that talk that talk about player numbers and retention. These topics bring to mind direct revenue from subscriptions or microtransactions, but good developers keep their playerbase happy and growing whether that comes with extra fees or not.

This can take the form of free content, frequent improvements, or even just maintaining an open dialog with your players.

Though it's in the context of microtransactions and DRM, I really like this quote from Daniel James:

Money can't buy you love, but love can bring you money. In software the only sustainable way to earn money is by first creating love, and then hoping that some folks want to demonstrate that love with their dollars.

The cheddary 'Free to Play' is not just a cheesy marketing slogan, but a shift in assumptions; it costs approaching nothing to give away some bits, or let people play Puzzle Pirates for free. Every player, free or paid, adds value to the community and excitement for other players. Free players are the content, context and society that encourages a small fraction of the audience to willingly pay more than enough to subsidize the rest.

Players want to help make the game fun

I think the number one reason to provide support and content to your players is the fact that they spend so much time generating (or serving as) free content for you.

Players provide the kind of hilarious and challenging and devious behavior you'd never think to design into your game, or get away with if you tried.

Even in games that don't have significant online multiplayer, your playerbase can serve to supplement and provide context to each other's experiences.

If you give your players enough flexibility, they may use your game for things you never intended. They're not playing it wrong. Give these players tools and co-opt them into your community.

Treating players well is the best marketing

As much as companies would like to think that large marketing campaigns are all you need to sell a game, they're basically only useful until the day your game ships. After that, word of mouth is much more powerful.

Your players know who exactly among their friends are people who will like your game, which makes a happy player the best way to get more happy players. On the other hand, one gamer with a lot of friends and a sour experience will make sure nobody they know buys your game.

Valve sees a bump in sales every time they give away free content, which is partially due to the large amount of positive press this generates.

Players teach you to be a better designer

You can ship a game, immediately forget about it, and start making a sequel with all the same problems, or you can learn some painful lessons then proactively fix those problems in your next game.

February 14, 2009

Players hate change

I wish I could dig up some of the angry rants from 2004 when Blizzard first announced their hearthstones and rested xp during their beta. A lot of players were inexplicably infuriated at the idea.

Search engines eventually dug me up a juicy bit or two, but the fact that this uproar is almost completely forgotten now is why it's my favorite example of how players hate change. This feature is completely and absolutely accepted by every person who plays WoW now. If you tried to remove it, there'd be an even bigger uproar than the one that its implementation caused. And yet, when the feature was announced, many vocal players were completely indignant.

Timing is everything

I feel like I'm beating a dead horse every time I bring it up, but SWG's New Game Enhancements is the other huge example of how players don't like change. Unlike the previous example, it didn't blow over, and basically is blamed for killing that game.

The really sad thing here is that the NGE probably did make the game much more true to the Star Wars IP. My impression of the original SWG is that it was much more of a Raph Koster game than it was a Star Wars game. Star Wars is shallow pulpy adventure, and I think that's what the NGE was trying to move toward.

If SWG had been designed as the post-NGE game from the very beginning, it probably would have been much more successful. But letting a loyal playerbase get used to one type of gameplay and then pulling the rug out from under them was rightly seen as a betrayal and an attempt to sell out and be more like WoW. You've got to dance with the ones what brung ya.

Case in point: WoW's LFG tool

Blizzard doesn't often have failures of design, especially unredeemable ones. Identifying and correcting missteps is one of the key things that makes them a great developer. That said, WoW's Looking For Group tool has been an abject failure.

This feature has been designed and redesigned, first as local chat channels, then a global chat channel, then the UI with no chat channel, then with the global chat channel added, but only for people who were using the UI tool.

By the time they settled on the UI, the first expansion was coming out, and people had been using chat channels for 2 years or more already. All those players never adopted the UI tool, and because of that, new players quickly found that the LFG tool didn't ever find them a group, and quickly gave up on it.

These new players don't even realize why the tool isn't used, they just feel the peer pressure not to, and just start using the trade channel like everyone else does. Blizzard used to try and actually police those global chat channels and gag people who were using them improperly, but now they're past caring and well past the manpower to worry about such small violations.

A friend of mine, a great game designer who spent some time in the military, told me a story which sums up this phenomenon: WoW players are illustrating the wet monkey effect.

Summing up

  1. Players don't like change, even if it's for the better. Once that initial grouchiness blows over, they'll usually warm up to a good idea and forget things ever were any other way.
  2. Some changes are just too big to make once you have players. Maybe in a closed alpha you could get away with the NGE. Look at Valve - They redesigned TF2 3 times over ten years and that came out fine, because they did it before they'd let the general public play it.
  3. It's really hard to break players out of old habits with new features, especially if the old habits work better because of peer pressure. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some features just have to be in at launch.

February 13, 2009

Peer pressure as a game mechanic

I finally got around to reading The Tipping Point, which has been on my list for a long time. One of the stories that caught my interest was about a study that showed how surprisingly little effect parents have on how their kids turn out, such as whether or not they smoke. I knew peer pressure mattered a lot, but I was surprised how much it mattered more than anything else.

In retrospect I suppose it's pretty obvious, but it got me thinking about game mechanics and how game designers attempt to use them to influence players. If the information provided by your game mechanics is resisted by your playerbase, that peer pressure will override almost any efforts on your part to encourage certain gameplay.

For example, no matter how much effort you've put into making your classes and builds all useful and balanced, your players may decide that a given build is "wrong." There are lots of stories in WoW and other online games of people having to roll new characters or respec so that they could get into a good guild, or of being snubbed for having a certain kind of "useless" character.

I think the most extreme example I've seen is the prevalence of knife only servers for various games, like Counterstrike and BF2142. The players there are very strict about ignoring all weapons in the game save one, and quickly ban any player who plays the game the normal way.

Peer pressure can be harnessed

Peer pressure among players is a problem that I don't think any developers have notably removed, but there are definitely some who have managed to use its momentum in a positive way.

Achaea, a dauntingly complex MUD, has guilds for each of the game's classes, all of which are run by players. Those players get to decide the requirements and initiations for those classes, who gets to select that class, and when. Everyone has a mentor, and tasks to complete, and knows every other person on the server who was part of their class. It's a lot like in-game fraternities or dojos.

By spending any amount of time with one of those groups, players very quickly start to get carried away roleplaying a noble paladin or a devious assassin. Distrust for the enemy groups is also built into that structure, and I remember being completely terrified and excited to start some pvp. It was definitely one of the most interesting social experiences I've seen in a game.

I haven't played it, but I hear that A Tale in the Desert is another game that uses peer pressure to great effect. The players actually pass laws and work together on huge cooperative projects to build pyramids and other large structures. At the end of each "telling" of the game, the players are heavily involved in designing the next version's rules.

It's not always a positive force, and not always a negative force, but player peer pressure in multiplayer games should really be taken into account in the design. It's a sort of wildcard game mechanic that designers have little direct control over once it starts gathering steam, so it needs attention as early as possible.

February 12, 2009

Data mining will save us all

Most people these days could tell you that making a videogame involves writing a design document and then making the game. What most people don't think about is that almost no game is identical to its original design doc by the time you play it. Designers think or hope players will respond in a certain way to a given set of mechanics, which is not always the case. This results in problems that need to be solved.

The better a designer you become, the more "correct" your designs will be on the first try, which means you can spend more time making cool stuff and less time remaking uncool stuff. But even the best designers will have some problems to address. Only bad designers ever think their game has no problems. Successfully identifying which problems to address, and how, are traits of good designers.

The scientific method

I've said before that it's important to seriously consider every reported problem, but most reports, especially those submitted by players, are so conflicting and subjective that they're impossible to easily verify. This is why a scientific approach to problem solving is very useful.

As you may remember, one common version of the scientific method involves 4 major steps:
  1. Gather data ( observations about something that is unknown, unexplained, or new )
  2. Hypothesize an explanation for those observations.
  3. Deduce a consequence of that explanation (a prediction). Formulate an experiment to see if the predicted consequence is observed.
  4. Wait for corroboration. If there is corroboration, go to step 3. If not, the hypothesis is falsified. Go to step 2.

Steps 1 and 4 of this process are very difficult to achieve manually, without devolving into subjective arguments.

Most games with large playerbases and complex systems are impossible for any one brain to completely comprehend. There are trends and patterns that are too subtle to notice based on anecdotal evidence. Without some sort of overview, it's impossible to prove that a problem is real, or that a problem has been successfully solved.

This where data mining comes in

All companies worth their salt recognize the need for objective evaluation of how well their game's design is working, and many implement some sort of large scale data mining to provide them with raw data to analyze. Some companies even make this data public:

CCP's economic analyses of EVE:

Valve's game demographic data, win/loss ratios and kill maps for TF2:

Players even have their own versions of data mining. Thottbot shows mob locations, drop rates resources, and lots of other data just by tracking where players are who have installed a special tool and what they see:

Which data should you be mining?

The short answer is, as much as you possibly can without noticeably slowing down your game. Here are some examples for an MMO:
  • Where players are killed, their class, their level, which enemy killed them, and which power killed them.
  • Where players are killing things, which enemies are killed (farmed) the most, by class and level.
  • XP gain rates per hour, by level, location, and class.
  • Item drops by mob, level and location.
  • Quests accomplished, by class and level
  • Abandoned quests, by class and level
  • All stats of all characters, per level and class
  • All chosen abilities of all characters, per level and class
  • Gear choices for all characters, per level and clafwhss
  • Group compositions by class, per level
  • Class distribution per faction and level
  • All the above data, as it pertains to PvP
  • All wealth for all characters, and deltas per hour
  • All player income and expenditures per level, by zone and level
You'll need a nice tool that can send out automatic reports of this data in various visualizations, and the ability to create charts based on any combination of data. Then this information can begin to tell you things that will help you make you game better:
If you're generating automated daily reports on all this data, and you have an alert system set up to catch and report any wildly out-of-whack numbers immediately, you'll be able to fix any terrible bugs before they become well-known or cause permanent damage to your game or playerbase.

A good model for a successful datamining/notification system should feel a bit like what your credit card company does. You can log in at any time to make sure things are going ok, and they'll periodically send you reports. When there's some suspect activity on your card, their fraud-prevention bells go off and they call you on the phone immediately to make sure the purchases are legitimate.

For more on data mining, check out Sara Jensen Schubert's blog; she has lots of interesting posts on it.

Plan, don't organize

[Note: The large list of unspecified tags this post refers to was eventually replaced by the 20 behaviors you see now.]

A small scale data problem

The post tags on this blog weren't planned well at all. I didn't think it was important to imagine what kind of posts I might be writing in advance, because I wanted to let things develop more organically. This worked pretty well in most ways, because I'd never written a blog before and needed to feel around a bit for what I liked writing about.

There's a downside to letting things develop organically though. I've invented new tags for posts as I felt I needed them, and as a result I've accrued a long list of fairly obscure post tags that only have one or two posts. At some point the list will get cumbersome enough that I'll have to go back and re-tag every post, and try to organize all that other stuff into larger categories in some way that makes sense. Every time I write a new post, I'm accumulating more bad data and making that task harder for my future self.

A disorganized blog with 50 posts isn't really that hard to fix, and probably only bothers a certain kind of peron in the first place. In game development, though, this same problem can easily develop on a much larger scale, costing teams huge amounts of time and quality.

Large scale data problems

Game design at any level usually involves managing lots and lots and lots of files. If you're designing missions, it's thousands of mission files and questgivers and their text. If you're designing enemies, it's thousands of enemy definitions with their powers and character models. If you're designing items, it's thousands of item definitions with their text, tuning, and geometry files.

Sooner or later, you're going to want to have all of these files neatly categorized into 4 or 5 or 22 types. This will happen. Maybe you'll need to evaluate if ranged and melee characters have an equal number of challenging enemies, or if there are enough quests of a certain type in a zone, or you'll decide to add a certain AI flag to all of a certain type of NPC. Maybe you'll need to convey what kind of powers each enemy has to your players, or have to track whether a given type of gear or resource is overabundant in the world, or track damage types across all enemies in the game.

When this happens, you'll find yourself in one of two situations:
  • All your data will already have clear categories, which you can then manipulate or track. This means you've planned.
  • Nothing will really fit together very clearly, and you'll have to try and impose order on chaos. This means you now have to organize.
In the former case, you've saved time on both ends, because the data following a preplanned structure was easier to generate; you've got templates and guidelines and maybe even a hierarchy of data. Making changes to a large number of files at once is easy, because you can grab all of them in one chunk. You'll be able to generate twice as much data because of the large amount of time you'll save on implementation and revisions.

In the latter case, you've already spent a ton of extra time building everything by hand, and then you'll have to spend even more time standardizing things after the fact. But first, you'll have to spend more time figuring out what categories even make sense for the big pile of files you've generated. After that, you'll have to spend still more time making the outliers fit into one of the categories by redesigning them.

Then, unless you're really lucky, you'll realize that one or two of your emergent categories has far too many or too few items in it, and have to redesign or add or remove a significant number of files. Making large scale changes in a system like this is effectively impossible because you can't even find the ones you want, much less easily modify them.

Organizing data is one of the many situations in which skipping a few hours of planning can cost you many weeks of wasted time down the road. I learned this lesson the hard way on my first game. Don't fall for it!

February 6, 2009

Player acquisition vs player retention

This post is a closer look at the subscriber numbers for Warhammer Online and EVE Online, two MMOs have gotten me thinking a lot about player retention recently.

Very high acquisition, very low retention

Warhammer initially sold 1.2 Million copies in 12 days, ending September 30, 2008 (plus an undisclosed amount they've sold in the 3 months since then).

It was just announced that as of December 31, 2008, WAR had "over 300k subscriptions."

The possible reasons for this drop in numbers have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, so I won't belabor them here. Suffice it to say they fell short of their high hopes by quite a bit.

Very low aquisition, very high retention

I think CCP is the perfect example of a company that focuses on player retention. This might be a bit surprising to some people, because EVE is considered a very unfriendly, frustrating game by its detractors. I've spoken to several people who tried it and were overwhelmed by the complexity.

However, EVE has been out since 2003, and according to CCP, its population has increased by "0.9% per week since launch," or "80 percent per year," depending on which statistic you read.

Slow, steady growth has allowed this game to be one of the few western MMOs to boast a consistently increasing playerbase, especially for so many years in a row. Even Everquest leveled off and started losing players by the 5 year mark:

(EVE is the orange line. Courtesy of MMOGChart.com)

All that, and CCP didn't have a significant marketing budget until 2007. When a company is gaining new customers in such a gradual and organic way, player retention is the only way to stay in business.

There are lots of ways to keep players happy. I've mentioned EVE's constant renovations and improvements before. I also think the dangerous and complex nature of their game also drives people to form much tighter communities to educate and protect each other. EVE also releases frequent expansions, for free.

A significant portion of players who try the game seem to give up during the tutorial (which CCP is continually reworking), but those who do seem to stick around for quite some time.

As of June 2, 2008, EVE had 236k subscriptions.

The tortoise and the hare

WAR officially had "Over 300k subscriptions" on December 31, 2008. Since 350k is a nice round number that they would have reported, the number must have been less than 350, and presumably subscriptions have continued falling in the month since then. So for the sake of argument, I'll guess that WAR has 325k players today, and falling.

Eve officially had 236k players on June 2, 2008. At the stated average growth of .9 percent per week, and 35 weeks since then, that'd put them at around 323k players today, and rising.

Effectively, EVE Online is passive Warhammer Online in subscription numbers. It may have happened last month, or maybe it will happen next month, but there is good reason to believe we're right about there. When people realize this, this is going to be a big deal.

EVE is old and gruff and complex, and a little bit crazy. WAR is young, loud, and very well marketed. It'd be the game industry equivalent of Tom Waits outselling 30 Seconds to Mars.

Consequences of these differences

EVE has been making a solid paycheck for the past 5 years, but had many fewer players at first, and no revenues from box sales. Then again their budget and team are likely a lot smaller than WAR's, and they've spent very little on marketing. WAR has likely spent obscene amounts of money developing and marketing the game, but made quite a bit more on their 1-2 million box sales.

I can't really speak to the differences between the two companies' financial situation. Maybe both paths have made approximately the same amount of money.

There are certainly many other benefits to the slow growth method though:

1 - Of the several million players who aren't playing EVE, most of them have never tried it. Many of the several million players who aren't playing WAR have already tried and disliked it. MMO players aren't known for giving games a second chance, even when there have been drastic improvements.

2 - Since EVE's players are generally so satisfied, they're more likely to recommend the game to their friends. The game is offputting to some, but I think their players understand this and are more likely to only recommend the game to friends who they know will like it. This results in an even higher percentage of satisfied players.

3 - EVE had a very small playerbase at launch to witness its mistakes. It actually had a fairly troubled launch. It reviewed much more poorly (with a 69 Metacritic) than WAR did (with its 86 Metacritic). But nobody remembers that, because nobody was playing it. EVE corrected many of its problems while it still had a very small userbase of devoted players, before trying to reach out to a larger market. WAR probably made fewer mistakes with its launch, but it made them in front of many many more people.

4 - It makes me wonder what I'm missing. Although this probably sounds like a gushing fanboy post, I've never played the game. Every time I hear about some new developments, or their constantly increasing playerbase or sets a new concurrency record, I'm more tempted to plunk down some money, out of sheer curiousity and professional respect.

5 - In the process of revising their game so much over so long, CCP has begun to systematically rewrite large chunks of the game whenever they start to get clunky. This gives their game engine a very high capacity for longevity. Members of the team talk about how the game might play in ten years, as though 15 years weren't an amazingly long time for an MMO to survive.

If their playerbase continues to grow at .9 percent per week, that would put them at... 34 million players?

February 4, 2009

Fix retention before it becomes a problem

There have been a lot of broken hearts in this industry recently.

MMO companies spend so much time thinking about how to get more people playing their great new game, that most of them tend to forget how important it is to stop people from quitting.

Whether you've worked on a game for months or years, launch day is an an amazing feeling. That first month, it's so exciting and such a relief to see those sales numbers climbing and read happy posts and reviews about how much people love your game.

Having a successful launch is something to be proud of, but it's only the beginning of the really hard work. It's easy in all the excitement to overlook the fact that within one day of launch, maybe even an hour, you've started losing customers. While droves of people are eagerly waiting in line for your game, someone somewhere is already quitting in frustration.

A bird in the hand

Every game has problems when it launches. That's ok. World of Warcraft did not get off to a smooth start, even though nobody remembers that now.

Post-launch, whether your game will succeed or fail depends on how quickly you identify the reasons players are leaving, how seriously you take them, and how quickly you fix them.

Who's to say that problem you're seeing a few reports of won't turn out to be the reason thousands of players end up leaving your game? Never dismiss a potential problem.

It's easy to take lost customers seriously once new players have stopped coming in, your company is hemorrhaging money, and everyone is losing their jobs.

It's a lot harder to notice or care in those first few weeks, when only 1% of your playerbase has decided not to stick around. However, that's exactly when it's still early enough to do something about it.

February 1, 2009

Glossary: Narrative

Defining terms is an important step in the design process. There are some concepts for which I find it useful to create new or more specific definitions when discussing game design. See a collection of all glossary posts, here.

Narrative (is not fiction)

Narrative is a tricky thing to define, as it's usually so tied up with a game's fiction, but the difference is important.
Narrative: A game's plot or story. This includes the conflict, specific characters and their arcs, the backstory of the world, and the happy ending.
Fiction is constant and universal, while narrative is evolving and specific: The fiction of a game may be obvious in a screenshot, but a narrative is a story and must be absorbed and experienced over time.

Examples of fiction versus narrative

The fiction of Indiana Jones is always the same (pulp fiction, smartass adventurer battling mystical evil), but the narrative of each of the movies is different (new plot, usually including a new relic, new villain, and new love interest).

A game like KOTOR may have a branching narrative, but the fiction of the game remains the same for every player and over time, even through expansion packs or sequels that may change the narrative.

Games like tag or chess have a fiction (cops and robbers, warring armies), but don't have a narrative at all. Players may be able to tell a story about what happened to them while playing a game, but for my purposes that's covered under gameplay.

Things can get a little murky. Official IP names such as light sabers and the Force technically have histories in the Star Wars narrative, but the concept of laser swords and magic are really just fiction that someone doesn't need to have seen Star Wars to understand. You could slap any scifi IP on it and the fiction would still ring true.

The fiction of Bioshock is that it's a steampunkish shooter with mutants and magic in it. The narrative is much more complex. Ken Levine's thoughts on successful narrative are well worth reading.

Why the difference matters

For the most part, it's ok to let narrative and fiction blend together a bit in your mind. In fact, all the best-designed games have mechanics, gameplay, fiction, and narrative that all seem to work together in perfect harmony.

The time when it's absolutely important to make the distinction is when you're entering production on your game. The game can start production while its narrative isn't quite fleshed out yet, and it's not the end of the world.

Trying to make a game when its fiction isn't yet nailed down, though, is a disaster waiting to happen. Because fiction often influences which game mechanics are chosen, trying to start the game while the fiction is wavering means you'll either end up throwing away a ton of work or just end up with a really inconsistent game.