Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Business Models - How Many Do We Have?

The game industry is in a weird spot right now when it comes to business models, weird in that there are four of them (at least) and they are all working.

  1. Free-to-Play games supported by micro transactions (both browser and mobile)
  2. App Store Purchases
  3. Console games in the retail market
  4. PC games are doing well on Steam

There is some crossover - numerous mobile games support post-purchase micro transactions and even Steam is looking to add more micro transaction capabilities (such as Portal 2 and the robot store).

Where does this leave console games though? As the current console near the end of their life cycle one has to wonder what the next generation of consoles will offer. The next logical step for consoles is to embrace the app store/micro transaction model.

I can envision a future where console games are no longer shipped to stores, only purchase cards.

Imagine the following scenario: Pick up the latest Modern Warfare card for $60 at Walmart (or get the $80 collectors edition card for $30 worth of bonus features). Scan the card with your phone right there in the store, this signals your XBox 720 to begin downloading the game. Once home your game is ready to play...after first checking out the Modern Warfare Online store and perhaps making a few small purchases: A themed wallpaper, a vanity skin and a special font for your player name.

The obvious question with the above is why involve Walmart or any physical store at all? The answer: parents and grandparents. Lots of lots of parents and grandparents buy kids and grand kids video games. If video games vanish from the Walmarts of the world many of those sales also vanish. At Walmart the games are highly visible and always there. Need a game? Go to Walmart, in the back, where all the TVs are. You will know it when you see the big Diablo IV display.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sirlin Beat Me To It

David Sirlin has an excellent blog. I read it as often as I can, which isn't as often as I would like to.

I was going to make a lengthy post about the Diablo 3 skills and abilities system. How well-designed it all is, how easy to use and customize it is, how easy to understand it is...basically how elegant it is. It really should win some sort of award, if any such award exists.

However Sirlin beat me to it by quite a bit. He says it better than I ever could. Go read his blog. You will thank me later.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ride your bike across America!

A good friend of mine, Gary, is doing a cross-country biking tour and stopped by when he passed through Austin.

His progress is tracked here.

It is an amazing odyssey he is on. I love biking myself, and while a cross-country trek is a bit beyond me, I can imagine doing a cross-state trip one day.

Tomorrow, a Diablo 3 post. I have been playing it, kinda a lot (just don't tell my wife!)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

38 Studios R.I.P.

As most readers of this blog likely already know, 38 Studios closed up shop just before the holiday weekend. This follows news that the studio missed a loan payment deadline...and then missed paying the employees.

(I hear some, perhaps many employees, were willing to work without pay until the company got things situated. I'm not sure I would have been in that camp. As a co-worker once said, "If I am getting zero dollars a week you can expect me to work zero hours a week.")

Sad news for all involved.

I suspect the majority of the laid-off employees will be able to find work soon. 38 Studios had a lot of good talent and there appears to be a lot of jobs in Boston and nearby areas.

All that isn't the point of my post however. This is: what the heck were they thinking, making yet another fantasy MMO?!?

A fantasy MMO is perhaps the riskiest venture a fledgling game company can take right now, consider:

  1. The market is dominated by the largest gorilla the game industry has ever seen: WoW
  2. The market is crowded
  3. The market expectations are very, very high (see #1)
  4. The market is in transition between subscription and freemium pay model

Using my amazing powers of hindsight, I believe 38 Studios should have made a sci-fi MMO, a Red Dead-type MMO, a Gamma World sort of game, a Skate or Die MMO or a or invent something new.

Of all the things 38 Studios could have done, the one thing they should NOT have done was to venture into the shark-infested ocean that is the world of  fantasy MMOs.

This is exactly what they did.

I see no shortage of safe harbors for new genres in the MMO landscape to be developed. Where a new game can be nurtured and grown away from the WoW and WoW-clone sharks. Develop an IP, establish a brand, gain the trust of gamers, then venture out into the deeper ocean (perhaps I am taking this metaphor too far) and take your shot at the WoW sharks.

All in all I can't blame them for shooting high. If I had access to a $100 million I can't say I would take the safe route either. What game designer wouldn't want to make his or her own version of WoW?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bioware Layoffs


Another round of layoffs for the beleaguered Austin game industry. Doesn't state how many, but I am sure the number is significant.

I wonder how many more we will see as Star Wars continues to lose subscribers. (Yes I am saying the game will continue to lose players.)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hardcore vs. Casual

I was asked the following question recently during an interview:

(Paraphrasing) "How would your design a system differently if it was for a hardcore audience as opposed to a casual audience?"

I gave what I thought was a good answer, but it didn't seem to be what the interviewer was reaching for. My answer was basically:

"A game system made for a hardcore audience should include high transparency, be number heavy, with numerous buttons and levers for the player to interact with. A system for a more casual audience, on the other hand, would have less transparency and less opportunity for the player to interact."

As thoughts sometimes do, this has been banging around in my head ever since the interview and I need to get it out, thus this post.

Fantasy Combat: Casual

Imagine a fantasy combat simulator where player A has an army of mixed Elvish troops and player B has an army of Troll infantry.

  • Each player has two options: attack and defend. 
  • Each player is provided with only the following information: Player A sees the Troll army as red (meaning they will probably win in a fight), while Player B sees the Elvish army as green (he would likely win in a fight).
This is at the end of the casual spectrum. Players have limited ability to interact, limited information and no transparency into the underlying system. No mention is made of morale, leadership or troop composition. Numbers are there under the hood certainly, but are not made visible to the player. Such a system and presentation is fine if combat is not the focus of the game.

Fantasy Combat: Hardcore

On the hardcore end of the spectrum the same scenario might play out as follows:

  • Each player has numerous attack and defend options, such as probing attack, flanking, frontal assault, organized withdrawal, counter-attack and hold-at-all-costs.
  • Each player is provided with detailed troop data including troop composition (archers, cavalry, etc), leaders, troops veteran status, terrain modification, morale and attrition.
  • Troop data is distilled into a single troop value numeric, however the value of the opposing army is not revealed, though reconnaissance could be performed to glean some data. 
This is rather hardcore: lots of values and variables to consider and lots of opportunities for the player to make decisions.


Has does difficulty play into this? Is the casual system truly easier? Is a hardcore system automatically harder?

(This was the interviewer's next question - I answered no.)

Is the casual example above easier simply because the player has less to consider? Well maybe, but not necessarily. Combat is easy yes: attack if you have a clear advantage, defend if you don't. But one system is not the entire game. How did Player B assemble his army of rampaging Trolls? In even a casual system it might take time and care to balance the resources needed to raise and support such an army.

I suppose my answer should have been, "It depends."

Friday, May 18, 2012

Legend of Grimrock semi-Review

Legend of Grimrock (LoG) is a dungeon crawl adventure game that hearkens back to old school games such as Wizardry and Might and Magic. Unlike most modern games, most of which concentrate on either deep story or open world freedom (or perhaps some of both), this little gem concentrates on puzzles, exploration and RPGing. 

This is not a review. Well, mostly not a review. I wanted to touch upon some of the game design decisions they made, specifically:
  • Minimalism
  • The 80/20 Rule
  • No Hand-Holding
  • Hoplessness as a Theme
Oh yeah, no Elves. Yay!

Minimal is the Word of the Day

UI, combat, environment, plot - it is all minimal. Even movement is restricted to the four cardinal directions! It is as if the designers approached each from the viewpoint of adding just enough to meet the requirements and nothing more.

Reading the above one might believe the game is rather shallow. It is anything but. LoG has an abundance of depth in its dungeons. (I am sure there is a pun here with depth and dungeon but I can't find it.)

The story is light (lite?) The party is a group of prisoners who are generously pardoned for their unspeakable (and thus undefined) crimes. One small catch - upon receiving this pardon they are tossed into the dungeon at the top of Mount Grimrock. Now they (well, you) must fight their (your) way out.

That is about it for plot. 

The 80/20 Rule

Character and party creation is a snap. It is mostly familiar, with a bit of newness. As a matter of fact the bulk of the game design follows what I call the 80/20 rule - 80% known design with 20% new.

Looking at it the game through the 80/20 goggles:

  • 80 - Uses the tried and true fighter/mage/rogue triangle
  • 20 - Your characters have a hunger bar; the hungrier they are the slower health and energy will regenerate. On top of this, some races (Minotaur) require more food than others (Insectoid).
  • 80 - Characters have an assortment of traits and skills. Traits are passive and skills are based around combat (weapons, armor and spells).
  • 20 - Two traits are race-specific. OK this isn't 100% new, but the twist here is they resisted the standard "each race has one or more racial traits".  A racial trait also isn't free, it occupies one of the two trait slots a character may have. The removes the impetus to pick a particular race because of a strong racial trait (the Forsaken in WoW being a good example of this).
  • 80 - The mage class has access to various schools of magic such as ice, fire and earth.
  • 20 - A spell is case by tapping out a series of runes on a 3x3 grid. The idea is a good one but the execution is lacking. Combat is real time so the longer your attention is spent tapping out the correct rune combination the longer your other characters are not attacking. A better design would be to allow players to set up the rune combination ahead of time and simply select the combo from a list (the list could have a limited number of slots to force players to choose ahead of time which spells to have at the ready). This keeps the rune-theme while allowing mages to have access to single click combat. As is, I don't see the game being playable long term with more than a single mage in the party (perhaps this was part of the intent?)

No Guide No Problem (mostly)

The game doesn't hold your hand like modern games. It doesn't give you quests or an on-screen indicator of where to go next. It does have a map, but you can turn that off and break out the grid paper, for those seeking the true old school experience.

Information is stingy and perhaps a bit too much so. It was not immediately obvious how to add notes to the map and even combat had me stumped at first (click on the weapon - makes sense once you do it).

There is no safety net for the player; right from the start death is real and imminent. Players can easily find themselves in a nearly un-winnable scenario of their own doing. Somehow this makes for more drama than most scripted supposedly dramatic moments in modern games. It wasn't a plot that created the scenario, it was the player's actions and when the player drags half-dead (literally!), starving party back from the brink it was also because of the player's actions.

At the end of the day, the story is the one the player creates through playing, and isn't that what RPGs are supposed to be about?

Hopeless is Awesome

LoG takes hopeless to new heights. Indeed, one could say "hopeless" is the theme of the game. I guess I am saying that.

The party begins with no weapons, no spells to cast and only a few rags for "armor". Finding an actual weapon is a "Yes!" moment. "Weapon" here means an old, rusty sword, not a blue-quality magic sword to replace your green-quality magic sword. Weapons and armor are mostly CRAP, which reinforces the hopeless theme.

The dungeon is dark, dank and occasionally crumbling. The corridors are claustrophobic. Sounds of creepy crawlies ooze through the walls. Fights quickly become challenging and don't really get any easier. The difficulty curve is more of a steep slope, steadily challenging players.

Grimrock is well-named and is simply not a nice place.

Yet all this hopelessness makes each victory that much more satisfying. Clearing a room full of phobia-inducing spiders somehow is not the same chore it is in other games. Here it is a true challenge and thus a true victory. 

(BTW stockpile anti-venom potions)

Hold on There

The game isn't perfect of course:
  • The number of unique monster models is rather small and the tile set for the environment is very small. 
  • The quick save function is very convenient, so much so I find myself abusing it and saving before each significant encounter.
  • There is no means to reallocate spent skill points. I got around this by further abusing the friendly save game feature - I made a special save game upon each level-up.
  • The puzzles are legion and mostly are pretty good, though some will test even a saint's patience (if one should happen to play). Some players will appreciate the harder puzzles, some will simply look up the solution online and some will simply give up.
  • The game truly is hard at times, becoming something of an on-going attrition war.
  • The monster AI is vulnerable to kiting. Really vulnerable.

Wrapping It Up

The game design gives the players just enough to play. Just enough UI, just enough RPG elements and just enough of the new mixed with the mostly familiar. Players are not invited to peer into the under-the-hood systems and this helps keep the immersion level high. The various systems can be min/maxed of course, such is the nature of these type of systems, but this is expected - some players always will. But the point is, players don't NEED to min/max or even think about the numbers. It is enough just to play, just enough.