Seeds is out!

I made a print-and-play game along with a digital prototype. You can download the files and play the game here. Or you can help me by giving it eyeballs and reviews on BoardGameGeek.

Review: Darkest Dungeon

In many role-playing games (although I much prefer the genre title “dungeon crawlers” due to no actual role-playing happening in most of these games), the player chooses a number of characters to join his or her party. Then he or she goes out and levels these chosen characters up to level awesome and everyone who stayed home remains level noob. Every once in a while a contrived story event or a desire to switch things up will cause the player to dip into the reserves (oh no, you can’t use Aeris anymore), but often you just get the characters you start with, whether that was a good initial choice or not.

What attracted me to Darkest Dungeon was that it eschewed a few of the standard tropes of indie procedural dungeon crawlers. One of the unique mechanics is that characters get stressed out when having to deal with monsters, when injuries to party members happen, even when walking around in darkness. If a character gets too stressed out, he or she develops some sort of mental or personality defect.

After each dungeon trip, instead of zipping to an inn to heal up and repeat, characters need time to process what they’ve been though. Characters do this in different ways: some pray, some self-flagellate, some turn to booze or gambling. But these methods of mental healing take time and so the player must dip into reserves for the next trip. This is a great example of a mechanic supporting a unique dynamic. Many games have had switching out characters or permanent injuries before, but few have made it a part of the core game loop to keep the character choice interesting.

Sometimes these personality effects are mild. I have seen characters that are paranoid and will refuse to be healed by other party members, characters that are kleptomaniacs and will take treasure for themselves instead of the party, and characters that will only go to brothels to heal when going back to town, leaving that option unavailable for other characters. While the characters are randomly generated and every character of a given class looks alike, these quirks and foibles end up being meaningful. I have a healer that I just don’t take out unless he is the only option because his stress levels build too quickly in the environment I’m exploring.

There are other attractive differences. Combat is based on one-dimensional positioning. Your party lines up in single-file 4 deep and enemies can line-up single-file 4 deep. Some attacks only work if you are in positions 1 or 2. Rarer attacks hit the back characters, so that’s a smart place to keep weaker characters. However some attacks affect the order of your characters, pushing your warrior to the back line or your priest to the front. Then you must decide whether it is worth it to spend turns rearranging or make due with what you have.

Since one of the main mechanics is the party’s torchlight levels, most of the game is played in washed-out shadows. The palette of burnt orange and browns gets tiring. The narrator should be annoying when he repeats lines, but the delivery and the awareness of game situation make it less irritating.

The UI is a bit confusing in a number of places. The map window should know to focus in the direction of unexplored rooms, but for some reason you have to use your right mouse button and drag to manually move the map around. There’s no way to navigate to new hallways from existing rooms without using the map widget, despite being able to exit through doors in the hallways. Some menus have two options and the coloring makes it unclear which is the selected and which is the unselected option. The game shows you a lot of data, but doesn’t prepare the player to receive it as information. It’s clearly a game that was developed by a small group who understood it and tested with a small early access group that watched it grow because some of the mechanics are entirely inscrutable without referring to a wiki.

For example, I had played for three hours before knowing that I could heal traits in the sanitarium. Obviously, the text in the UI told me I could. However, when I dragged a character in, I received a list of traits in yellow text. When in the dungeon though, yellow traits are positive and red traits are negative. I did not realize that my negative traits were mixed in and could be selected by clicking on them as they looked like static text referring to positive traits. There are many small usability nightmares haunting this game.

As you earn money, you unlock abilities of the town to heal and upgrade your poor adventurers. This is a straightforward gameplay hook. However, a few hours in, I felt that I had seen everything there was to see. The power of your group scales very slowly. Items earned tend to be balanced such that they all involve tradeoffs, increasing one stat while decreasing another. This is fine in a multiplayer setting, but I do not feel much more powerful at level 4 than I did at level 1.

Dungeons can end up being exercises in long backtracking sequences as there is no way to jump to completed areas, especially in large branching dungeons where the goal is to explore 90% of the dungeon’s rooms.

In retrospect, I seem to be complaining quite a bit, however I quite enjoyed Darkest Dungeon for about six hours of total gameplay. If you really enjoy the dungeon crawling genre, you will likely get a lot more playtime out of it. It takes some big risks in a number of places. In some aspects, it whiffs embarrassingly. In others, it knocks it out of the park. I think the attention to character choice dynamics is particularly admirable. It is a game worth playing.

Market Luck

Another year, another breathless article coming out of a GDC talk about how if you just design right, you will make ten million dollars. This year’s “example” is Crossy Road. But you can walk into GDC every year and find a talk from someone who made a million dollars and whose pass your admission subsidized telling you that all you have to do is work hard and smart like them and then Step 3: Profit.

The slides have a similar cadence even:

  1. “Hi, I’m DEVNAME from DEVSTUDIONAME. We made GAME. It did pretty well, I guess.”
  2. Slide of some gratuitous stat like 100 million active players or ten million in revenue or a screenshot of the game’s icon at the top of the App Store chart.
  3. [This part is optional, usually only included if the presenter has some understanding of the Hero’s Journey] “We failed a lot getting here. Here are some of our learning experiences of games that didn’t do so well.”
  4. “Then, we applied these N MAGICAL PRINCIPLES and we made a gazillion dollars. I’m giving you these GAME DESIGN SECRETS now because I’m still the struggling artist at heart.”
  5. GAME DESIGN SECRETS are obvious or clearly only appropriate for their title and not reproducible. But the presenter adds a lot of graphs or numbers to make it look like science.
  6. “Please fill out the survey and tell them you liked me!”
  7. Presenter is never seen again OR Presenter is seen again after being acquired by a big company.

I’ve been to nearly a dozen of these kinds of talks. I’d like to say that I grew wise to it early and stopped going to them, but I fall into the cult of personality like everyone else. The only example of one of these talks in recent memory that I remember not fitting this mold and being actually full of actionable, useful things was Vijay Thakkar’s Words with Friends postmortem in 2012.

There is a desperation in the industry that leads to the willingness to believe that luck is not a huge factor in success. I understand this desperation better than anyone. If we believe that luck is a huge factor, then all our hard work on design and analytics seems like a waste of time. Nay sayers to luck fall into confirmation bias. They choose to not remember the games they have played that were good but not commercially successful or the games that were commercially successful but not good. Instead, they only remember the games that were good and commercially successful and conflate that they were commercial successful because they were good. Maybe we don’t choose to ignore them. Events like GDC reinforce a selection bias. Besides the niche “Failure Workshop”, no one gets invited to talk about games that didn’t go gangbusters.

A GDC All Access Pass costs $2,000. That is comped if you are a speaker. There’s a reasonable financial impetus to want to speak at GDC. I figure the real impetus however is prestige. And when you submit a talk for GDC, one of the boxes you have to fill out asks what the audience’s takeaway(s) for the talk will be. “Well, shit” the would-be presenter thinks if he or she doesn’t actually have anything useful to discuss, “I better drum up some lessons so I can get this free badge.” A takeaway of “We did some things right and some things wrong, but that wasn’t the determinant of our success” doesn’t sell yourself to the people doing the selection. If there is one thing us game designers know, it is how to sell ourselves.

There were over 11,000 games submitted to the iOS App Store in February 2015 alone. There are hundreds of thousands of games alive and kicking at any given time, just on that platform. If there was a special sauce to success, then the average game would make a sustainable income-not, at the most generous estimate, $4,000. Minimum wage is a better bang for your buck.

That doesn’t mean that making games is a fool’s errand. I teach students every day whose dream is to make games. If I believed that there was no reason to do so, I couldn’t morally do what I do every day.

What I want to resist is the notion that those that are successful did so in a reproducible way. This is why some clones succeed and some fail. Temple Run got lucky in a world of exploding endless runners. Then they built off that fame.  Flappy Bird had singular organic growth. The clones that followed that mirrored it in every way and even improved on it didn’t have the seed of luck. Farmville was a complete clone of Farm Town, but it succeeded. Rovio pretends that Angry Birds was a success in game design and that it isn’t just Crush the Castle.

I’ve made a helpful chart for you to predict your game’s success. If you go to GDC, you will only ever hear about topics that touch the yellow states. Follow it with your game of choice in mind.

Game Revenue Predictor


I have what I consider to be a lot of Steam games. For some of them I’m not entirely sure where they came from. I could have bought a bundle for one game and it tagged along. I could have had it pushed to me from IGF, but since judging is over, I cannot check. Or maybe I bought it and just forgot.

PARTICLE MACE (all caps) is one of those games. I saw it sitting there in my library untouched and due to the penumbra in my heavenly rotation of responsibilities had an hour or two to myself to try something without the taint of preconceived reasoning for why it was in my library in the first place.


PARTICLE MACE uses the simple Geometry Wars artistic styling, which is appropriate, since much of it’s play aesthetics feels cribbed from that title. Yet it cribs from the bits of Geometry Wars that are not themselves cribbed from Robotron 2084. In Particle Mace (no more caps, it tires me), there is no shooting.  Instead, your ship drags around the titular particles, which are your only defense against invading asteroids and creeps. Thus, the game plays much like the Pacifism modes in Geometry Wars at a very base level. Because of how the particles trail around the spaceship, a common dynamic is to try to fly in circles to get the mace to swirl around in a violent circular pattern. This makes the game similar in some way to Michael Brough’s recent game Helix, although since I am playing on PC, it doesn’t suffer from the finger occlusion problem that made Helix a very difficult go for me. Particle Mace is also out on iOS, and I can see it suffering from a similar problem there, but I haven’t played it there so take it as you will.

Sometimes your body tells you first whether a game is right for you instead of a rote spreadsheet-like mental calculus. As I played, my tongue slightly poked out of between my lips, my breath coming and going only when gameplay allowed the spare brain space for the luxury. I haven’t felt this sense of flow in an action game since Super Hexagon. Particle Mace shares the <60 second core loop* of Terry Cavanaugh’s game, yet I feel Particle Mace is actually able to be completed by non-cybernetic players.

I have spent most of my time playing the “Mission” game type, and it is a perfect framing for the main game mechanics. Players are given three tasks to do within the game world based on destroying specific units, traveling to specific locations, or avoiding death in certain ways. This would be a standard implementation of a modular achievement system if the goals didn’t conspire with each other to create unique scenarios. For instance, I simultaneously received a task that kept me within a tiny space along with a task to not destroy asteroids. The tiny space quest suggests a dynamic of frantically bouncing around your allotted space, but the task which forbids the destruction of asteroids means that zipping around will likely cause your mace to whack into the desultory asteroids. Since the tasks constantly cycle out upon completion, you are often reexamining your strategy instead of just frantically trying to stay alive. The normal “arcade” mode feels aimless in comparison.


One can certainly ignore two of the tasks at any time and focus on one of the three, but that feels like it eschews the random beauty of pairing the tasks together, almost like a childhood dare: “I bet you can’t eat three pancakes while balancing on one foot.” Either task is simple but together they become silly and fun.

Meeting certain criteria unlock new ships and other bric-a-brac, but I’m not far enough yet for that to be much of an incentive. The credits are a playable level which, had I been involved in the making of this, would have pleased me as there is actually a reason to go into the credits screen.

There are additionally menu listings for a co-op arcade mode and a death match. Both use controllers and require two folks in front of the screen, so I have not been able to try either. I am imagining death match to be a lot like ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS, another quick-cycle game that requires controllers and feels compelled to scream its title at the players. I have no evidence from which to make that judgment.

If you have played and enjoyed any of the games I’ve name-checked above, you will likely have a blast(as I did) with Particle Mace. It’s on Steam,, and Humble. And iOS, but I’ve got unfounded concerns there.

* The expansive stats screen tells me my average life is actually 26 seconds.


I was privileged enough to be allowed to be an Independent Games Festival Judge this year. For those who don’t know, the IGF is one of the premier games competitions in the world and always has new and interesting ideas in the mix. How judging works is that judges are randomly assigned games based on the listed platforms that they own (for instance, a judge would not be assigned an Ouya game if they don’t own an Ouya). Judges then download and play the game and then can choose either to not nominate the game for any awards or nominate a game for one of the awards. After the judging period is over, the totals of nominations go to the juries who then play the nominated games and choose a winner. As for my role, I got to play about 100 new games. Some were broken and/or uninspired and you would wonder why a person would spend the registration fee on submitting. Others were weird quirky ideas that wouldn’t find a home anywhere else. Some were bona fide achievements that compare with any “AAA” game at retail.

The juries got it mostly right! The submissions were an embarrassment of riches, so it was hard not to. Let me tell you about some of the games you might not have heard of or played. I don’t think these are the top 5 or anything nor do these represent what I voted for. I gave thumbs up to lots of things. These are just the ones I want to talk about.

Hand of Fate

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Hand of Fate got totally snubbed. No nominations, no honorable mentions. Nada. Which is a shame because it does so many fun, interesting things. Hand of Fate mixes a deck-builder with a dungeon crawler and a 3rd-person brawler. It’s the sloppy kind of mix that I honestly enjoy. None of the parts really shine on their own, but taken together as a whole they are wonderfully compelling.

The best part of Hand of Fate arguably is your antagonist. He sits across the table from you as you play his game and narrates all the action. Given that the very design of the game necessitates the repetition of encounters, you would think that the game would shy away from particularly interesting or in-depth audio cues as their repetition would be grating and pull the player out of the story. That much is true. So the narrator has multiple lines per encounter that seem to draw on not just what he has said before, but also context within the game and within previous games.

This is the kind of polish that most AAA games eschew as unnecessary and most indie games cannot afford to consider. Kudos to the folks that are responsible for this.

Side note: the antagonist’s hands bother me. They are way too big for him and since he is always pointing to things and moving them around, you always notice. I don’t know if that is supposed to be on purpose, but it uncanny valley’s me out. I know they gave him the face covering so they wouldn’t have to animate the facial features, so clearly they understand the importance of the visual fidelity of the character.

This War of Mine

This War of Mine is the most depressing game of The Sims you will ever play. You control three survivors in an active war zone modeled after Serbia in the Balkans War. By digging around, trading, scavenging, and creative utilization of resources, you need to attempt to keep them from being hungry, sick, wounded, tired, or from an overwhelming weltschmerz.

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On one overnight raid, I broke into a home with two elderly residents. They got angry, but once I realized they posed no threat to me, I pilfered all the food I could carry from that house back to my hideout. In any other game, the designers would guilt you at the scene and leave it at that. This War of Mine not only strains the mental health of the characters when they do something antisocial, but the world itself reacts. In the previous example, my character became distraught at what he had done and had to lay down for a while. Other characters at the house talked about it. I truly felt like an asshole. These people are just trying to survive too. What right did I have taking their food? In a later incident, I chatted with a priest at a church and decided looting his area would not be the best idea. I came back later to find squatters who mention that they had to clear the priest out. This immediately changed my temperament towards otherwise cardboard NPCs.

These kinds of details create not only a rich, believable world but also serve to inform meaningful decisions for the players that go beyond min-maxing and affect the aesthetic. Here is a war game where you don’t control the powerful and you don’t fight for God and Country. It’s bleak, but it is beautiful and was one of the great surprises of the contest.

It got a Grand Prize and Narrative nomination, but not a Design nomination.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

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This game was made by eight people. I find that so hard to believe, even partially understanding photogrametry. It’s a beautiful game and my new PC was built just in time to take advantage of it. It takes place in a rural setting where every tree and rock feels authentically made for just that position. I was less impressed with the game itself, although it is worth playing. If you are going to make a game where you mostly just wander around though, the scenery should have to be as beautiful as this.

It didn’t get nominated for Visual Arts, though. Look at that screenshot!


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Pry is the story of an ex-Iraq War soldier. I don’t even know what else to say about the story because how the interaction with the app plays out is so central to understanding the story.

There is largely one mechanic in the game that is manifested in two ways. First, you can spread your fingers to “pry” your eyes open or expand an element. You can pinch to condense an element or shut something. The game is played with a large amount of well-produced full-motion video. As you begin to understand more and more about the main character and his two comrades, you feel a growing sense of discomfort at the images you see.

I’m torn here because I really want to explain why this is excellent, but doing so would partially ruin the experience for new players. So I won’t. Pry is unfinished currently (it is missing chapters), but I will say that Chapter 6 is a postmodern masterpiece in slow revelation of details. It isn’t a perfect game by any stretch, but it does something new and interesting and has a hard time falling into any genre position. You can get it on the App Store now.

The Talos Principle

One of the problems of puzzle games in the new millennium is that the answer to any puzzle is just a YouTube search away. One of the privileges of getting to play this before its release is that I had no ability to Google the answer to any puzzle. However, that has bitten me as I am just completely stuck on a critical path puzzle.

The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game much in the style of Portal. I don’t want to explain much about the premise of the game as it unfolds in a compelling way, but you play a robot that needs to complete puzzles in order to satisfy a voice in the sky that claims to be your creator. There’s fun Philosophy of Mind stuff going on here, but other games have done that before just as well.

Talos Principle puzzles do not exist in a vacuum. First, there are the puzzles themselves. Complete them and get a little tchotchke that helps you unlock further puzzles. But there are secrets upon secrets that really open up the worlds. There are stars which are unlockable by solving puzzles in alternate ways. There are world-level puzzles that require the player to use materials across different puzzles in each environment. Then there are the weird pseudo-discoveries that are certainly secrets (I won’t spoil any), but are hidden throughout the environments. There’s so much clever content here.

Quantity is one thing. I’ve played hundreds of (mostly mobile) games that brag about their quantity and then just give you some procedurally generated crap where one element is just a permutation of another. The puzzles in The Talos Principle are tight and carefully crafted. I’ve seen forum postings that want this game to be co-op and I want to smack those kids silly. If you want a master class on design, here it is. You start with what you think is the obvious solution to a puzzle only to understand its limitations. Then you test edge cases and find all the edge cases to be wanting. Then you end up twisting your thinking around to get the pieces to do something new in order to solve the puzzle. You end up feeling like a genius, but it was all carefully crafted.

This game has impeccable design, an interesting narrative, a beautiful visual style, and thanks to an 11th hour change of Elohim’s voice actor, a well-rounded audio set. While other games are surely worth mentioning, no game captivated me this year in this contest or in the larger world of games like The Talos Principle.


There are so many more games I would talk about had I the energy that got no nominations: Roundabout (Loved everything about this. It’s silly, novel, and fun). Goat Simulator (Same aesthetic as Katamari Damacy. I watched judges who didn’t get it complain about it, so I guess it is not for everyone but I just keep going back to it. It’s something a normal studio would never try and that’s what makes indie games valuable). Apotheon (The most visually appealing Metroidvania in a crowded market.)

Anyway, I feel blessed and thankful to have had the opportunity. Support indie games!

Read in 2014

2014 was a silly year. I was in graduate school, so most of my reading time was spent on papers with titles that stretched into three lines and used words like hermeneutics. Nonetheless, I did just as well this year as I did in my previous grad-school-encumbered year.

2014: 27 titles, 10,248 pages, 28.07 pages/Day
2013: 27 titles, 9,368 pages, 25.66 pages/Day
2012: 45 Titles, 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
2011: 30 Titles,  10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
2010: 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
2009: 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
2008:  31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day

I’ll leave the gritty details to Goodreads. But highlights in fiction for me that I read this year were City of Saints & Madmen, Shriek, The Hydrogen Sonata and Ancillary Justice. Nonfiction was light due to aforementioned reasons.However, this is the year I finally read Rules of Play cover to cover and it is peerless.

Level Design: Hole 83 in Desert Golfing

Hole 83 in Desert Golfing.

Hole 83 in Desert Golfing.

Above is an annotated screengrab of Hole 83 in Desert GolfingDesert Golfing is a minimalist game with a surprising amount of subtlety. I’ve seen a lot of comments about it on Twitter, but little discussion of the level design, so I figured I’d give it a go after I grabbed this screenshot to show a friend a particularly devious hole.

First, a short explanation of Desert Golfing. Desert Golfing has essentially the same interaction as Angry Birds. You drag your finger to create a vector that defines the direction and speed at which you hit your ball. The object is to get the ball to stop in a hole, noted by a flag. If the ball leaves the screen, it is warped back to the original tee location. If you make it into the hole, the hole rises up to become flush with its surroundings, the screen pans to the right, and a new hole is revealed. Unlike most golf courses that offer 18 holes, Desert Golfing appears to be endless. Yet nonetheless, it keeps the player drawn to its simple presentation and physics interactions by varied and often maddening level design.

Hole 83. Hole 83 frustrated me so much that I deleted Desert Golfing. Then I redownloaded it and played the first 82 holes again just to get back to this level.

The first thing most players will try to do on this level is to shoot at about 45 degrees in order to hit the “green” area near the cup. However, in order to reach the green and not the slope before it, the player has to put so much force onto the ball that it will always end up overshooting the green and fall down the slope to the right, resulting in an out-of-bounds.

So what are the players options? I’ve annotated the surfaces above to show dangerous places to place the ball.

If the ball lands in the red-lined area I’ve marked as “Zone 1″, then abandon hope. Due to the vertical right wall of this chasm, there is no way to get this ball out of the chasm to the right. The only hope you have is to hit the ball out into the V-shaped chasm to the left of this area. This will likely cost you a few strokes or an out-of-bounds.

“Zone 2″ above is placed under an overhang of the green. If the ball ends there, again there is no hope. The overhang prevents players from hitting any shot in the direction of the hole from that position. At this point you must hit the ball gently to the right to the yellow area. But don’t hit it with much force or the ball will land in “Zone 3″ which is guaranteed to end in an out-of-bounds.Any shot with too much force is likely to hit Zone 3.

The yellow area of the green and the early part of the slope to the left of the green (between zones 1 and 2) is dangerous territory. Given the correct momentum and angle, the player can hit the slope and roll onto the green. However, most opportunities to do this will either be too slow and steep (leading to falling into the Zone 1 chasm) or too strong and flat, leading to falling off the green to the right and into Zone 3.

My strategy for this hole is to take one stroke to position myself in the chasm left of Zone 1, then hit a light arcing shot that lands on the flat part of the green. If this second shot is too light, it will fall into Zone 1. Chances are that most shots will roll off the green to the right, but a second-best scenario is that it ends in the small part of yellow-lined area off the ledge to the right of the green (right of Zone 2). From there, it is possible to hit a light chip-shot back onto the green, but God help you if you overshoot any of these parts.

The first time I played this hole, I rage-quitted after getting a +45 or so. After calming down and analyzing the hole, I was able to finish it with a +5. The hole made me think about it after dozens of straightforward holes where guessing-and-checking was sufficient strategy.

Worth noting is the amount of tactical decision making needed from very simple components. What are the pieces of Desert Golfing? There are holes, land, tee spots, and out-of-bounds triggers. That’s it. The ball is fired and controlled by implicit, consistent rules of physics. The land is variable in shape, but consistent in friction. The holes are consistent in shape, but variable in location.

There are thousands upon thousands of Desert Golfing holes, which leads me to believe that the holes were designed by algorithm. If this level’s design is due to chance alone, then bless the random number generator that created it as it provides a depth of play that is missing from most mobile games.

ECGC 2014: Design Lessons from Pareto

The following is some notes and slides from my East Coast Games Conference presentation.

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My name is Zack Hiwiller. I’m a game designer from Orlando, Florida. I’ve worked on a bunch of different platforms from the GBA to the iPad, from tiny independent studios to large ones like EA and Gameloft and on traditional retail products and free-to-play apps. Today I want to talk about how players spend and how that can inform your basic design.

But first: why? Why talk about spends and design in the same breath? Aren’t the monetization metrics something for the producers and suits to worry about and design the land of limitless creativity? Sometimes. It depends. There are infinite ideas out there and you have a limited time on this Earth to make games. If you work for someone, then you need your game to make a profit at the end of the day to keep making games. If you are making games as a hobby, you may want to be able to choose w
hich ideas from that infinite set get people involved enough to want to give you money for it. It’s one method of validation.

Today’s talk is going to cover three areas. First, I’m going to give a quick primer on statistical distributions, just so no one is lost. Next, I’m going to go through some simulations of thousands of theoretic games to see what their inputs, sometimes using real world data, can tell us. Finally, we are going to try and sum up some design lessons that we can glean from what we found.

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Caveat: I’m not a statistician. Someone once said that a little knowledge is much more dangerous than ignorance and it is true. I could be completely off-base. Some elements of this talk come with huge caveats and I try to identify them as I go, but I may forget to mention them. One major one is that I’m using bounded distributions for what in real-life is unbounded. I know this. I’m not trying to come up with “the answer” but instead try to visualize things in a different way to get us closet to “the answer”. I think this is foundation for very useful research that can be done in the future, but I don’t pretend that this has any scientific rigor beyond the: “hey, look at this a bit closer”.


There’s been a lot of talk in the past decade about “fat-tailed” distributions and how they model real life phenomena. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail is one of these, but I credit Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness in bringing the topic to the forefront. Mark Buchanan’s Nexus is also a great pop-sci look at the math and science of networks.

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Let’s say that you had access to a service that would get you a player for three dollars. You look at your revenue and you divide by the number of players and you get $3.25. This is what the industry calls “APRU”, average revenue per user. Since you expect $3.25 for a user and it costs $3.00 per user, you should do it right? That’s $0.25 profit. Well, maybe. It depends on what the underlying distribution looks like. On average, sure you will gain $0.25/user, but it may take a long time to get to that average. If your underlying distribution is what’s called “normal” (on the left above), most of the weight is clustered around the mean and that’s a likely scenario. If you have something like on the right, then that’s much more risky. Most people give you $0. Most $3 acquisitions will result in no revenue return. Now how certain are you to get that n+1th user?

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Here’s the quick recap on distributions. What’s above is an approximation of what’s called the normal distribution. It’s sometimes called a bell curve. If you take a bunch of samples of American men and graphed their heights, it would look like this. Most would be around 5’9″, but some will be very short and some will be very tall. Lots of things are normally distributed so we use this all the time: the lifetime of a lightbulb, an SAT score, the size of snowflakes, and how much cereal is in each box of Cap’n Crunch can all be modeled by the normal distribution. The law of large numbers even makes the means of every independent random variable follow the normal distribution. It’s everywhere.

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But it isn’t the only type of distribution. Above is an approximation of the Pareto distribution, named after 19th century economist Vilfredo Pareto. In a Pareto distribution, most of the weight is near zero, but there is a fat tail that goes out very far. Imagine if heights were distributed in this way. Most everyone would be 5’1″, every once in a while you would get someone 5’3″ or so, but don’t think you will ever get someone NBA sized. Imagine if the cereal in your Cap’n Crunch was Pareto-distributed. You would get two or three bits in most boxes, but somewhere out there would be a box with the mass of a neutron star.

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There are tons of things that are Pareto-disributed. Pareto came up with this when observing that 80% of the wealth in Italy at the time was held by 20% of the population, which is true more or less for most every society throughout history. But there are other things that are Pareto distributed like the number of links to a particular website or the power of Earthquakes. Most Earthquakes are very minor, unnoticeable without sensitive equipment. But every once in a while there is a “Big One” with great power.

There are vast differences between normal (or Gaussian) distributions and power (or Paretian) distributions. Whereas the Gaussian distributions have a steady mean and variance, Paretian distributions do not. Since Paretian distributions are highly sensitive to extreme values (the “big one” earthquakes account for the vast majority of the damages for earthquakes in the United States). However, Gaussian distributions often ignore outliers as anomalous. Think about it this way: if I’m opening a tailor’s shop, I’m not preparing for Yao Ming to walk in. He’s an outlier and I can ignore him.

One of the main differences in these two types of distributions has to do with independence. In Gaussian distributions, we assume that events are independent. In power distributions, we assume that events are interconnected. For instance, if I am already rich I have more opportunities to invest, which means I have the ability to become even richer.

But if a power distribution has no steady mean or variance because a Yao Ming instantly shifts the mean and variance, then what does that say about acting on statistics that use the mean or variance? This means saying things like the average spend of a user if the user spends are Paretian has little meaning! For more on this, see McKelvey (2005).

So do we just throw our hands up and say we cannot say anything about Paretian distributions? No. We have to find a way to work with what we have. If our models can incorporate the chance of these outliers then it can at least point us in the direction of the truth. By definition, we cannot account for Taleb’s Black Swans, but we can model the universe around them.


Back to games since that’s why we are here. Let’s do the simplest possible simulation that can be useful to us. Let’s say there are two types of customers. Morlocks are the jerks who download and play your game but never pay you. Eloi are the enlightened few who give you money for your work.

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In Experiment 1, we say that we have a game where 1 in a thousand of your users are Eloi, but these Eloi spend bank: $1,000 each. This $1,000 figure is called the ARPPU or Average Revenue per Paying User since we are only averaging the people who actually give us money. When we run a simulation of 1,000 independent games (independent in the statistical sense, not “indie”) each with 1,000 monthly players, we would expect, on average, to get $1,000 per game. But the results show a lot more variability: 38.6% of games never capture an Eloi at all and get nothing. 1.9% capture 4x or more Eloi as expected and make a great deal of money. Even with this simple model, we see that there is a lot of variability.

But we don’t have to use made up fake numbers. Swrve, the mobile metrics company, puts out great reports showing what games that use their analytics software are reporting. In the January report, 1.5% of total players made a purchase and the average that they spend was $15.27. If we change our Experiment 1 numbers to this and add the 30% fee that Apple, Google, et al., require, we have Experiment 2:

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This shows the distribution for 1,000 games. Most games make near the expected value of $0.23 per user. But knowing your revenue is only one side of the story. What about costs? At EA, when we were doing back-of-the-napkin calculations for profit and loss statements we used the heuristic of $10,000 per developer per month. But that’s EA. They have big offices with big time executives that take home big time paychecks. Let’s say that your team is super efficient and can get the same job done for less than $6,000 per person per month. Let’s say your team of four for your mobile game costs $23,000/month. We will use that odd number because it is a reasonable cost and makes the math easy when your ARPU is $0.23.

We run another version of Experiment 2 that adds costs into the equation. So using Swrve’s numbers and a break-even of $23,000/month, how often do you break even? Naturally, that will depend on how many users you have. Before, we were doing our calculations on a per-kilo-user basis. We can’t do that here so we need to come up with a number. I’m using 100,000 users/month. That sounds like a lot and it is. I worked on an independent game called Fire and Dice which was critically successful and was featured on Kotaku during prime game-buying hours. We had around 24,000 downloads total give or take. To give you a sense of scale though, Distimo says you need to get 23,000 users per day to be seen on the Top 50 chart. So 100,000 per month is somewhere in-between wild success and middling success.

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What we see in this experiment is not a single run of a thousand exceeded the break-even. One problem is the 30% portal tax. When we remove it, we get much better odds: a 43% chance of breaking even. The real problem though is cost. If you were to decrease the cost to $14,500/month, then you could be nearly certain of breaking even.

This is a very simplified model of the world. If we could increase the fidelity of the models, we could get results that better approximate the real world. One assumption that was overly simple is that players are neatly classified as either Eloi or Morlock. But that’s not even close to reality.

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There are as many types of players as there are players. If we could model the Eloi with a bit more accuracy, maybe we would come closer to what is the case in reality. In Swrve’s data, they break down the spending habits of players who do actually spend money into ten deciles. Each decile has a listed frequency of purchases and an average price per purchase. This allows us to make ten “castes” of Eloi and break up our model.

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Using Swrve’s 11 castes (10 Eloi + Morlock), we can get a little closer to something modeling reality. We run 1,000 simulated games at 1,000 simulated users/month each using the above mentioned spending frequency. If we count the $30 portal tax, you need to make $328.57/1000 users to actually make $0.23/user. If that is your break-even, then how often do you succeed? This is Experiment 3.

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In only 45.5% of runs, the game makes $230/1000 users. This is the amount you need to make to get $0.23/user without the portal tax. With the portal tax, the figure of successes drops to less than 15%. Interestingly, some of the runs collected less than $25 per 1,000 users while others collected over $600 per 1,000 users. If you had two games at your studio that performed like that, it would be tempting to say that one had an inspired design and successful monetization strategy where the other was crud. Don’t be fooled.

Design Lessons

So running numbers is fun and it looks like information, but what can it really tell us? I have six lessons that I think are pertinent:

Lesson 1: The more fat-tailed the distribution, the more you live and die by the Eloi (or, ugh, “whales”)

Experiment 1 had a vastly wide tail. A tiny percent of the users paid a huge percentage (all, actually) of the money. And those runs that didn’t capture one of those users were hung out to dry. If your choice is between having a lot of players pay a little bit of money versus a few super-users paying the lion’s share of the money, go for the former. It’s easier to acquire the non-super users.

One of the best designs that I think captures this principle is Jetpack Joyride. The game offers the normal “buy coins” monetization where the coins allow for in-game items. But one of the purchasable items is different. Called the “Counterfeit Machine” it doubles any coins you collect in the game. This means it has greater lifetime value when you buy it earlier. Priced at the store minimum of $0.99, it’s easy to reason that many players look at this as the cheapest way to get a lot of coins. Thus, it is one of their most popular in-app purchases.

Casinos may cater to high-rollers, but they don’t do it at the expense of the penny slots.

We used to have a great way for all of our users to pay us. It was called retail. It’s not dead. You don’t have to be free-to-play no matter what someone shilling analytics software or pushing their own wildly successful F2P game tells you. They might have just lucked into the right side of the distribution.

Lesson 2: The more users you have, the narrower your standard deviation and the less likely you are to win or miss big.

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Lesson 2 is similar to Lesson 1. Having more users reduces the variability and shortens the tails. This is an obvious lesson. Of course you want more users. You don’t get paid by what your average user pays, you get paid by what the sum of all users pays. But don’t let your statistics fool you. Your ARPU could easily go down while your revenue is going up, but decision-makers are still obsessed with ARPU as the magical value-per-user that it cannot be on a person-by-person basis.

Lesson 3: Reduce costs.

ECGC 2014.033Back in Experiment 2B, we saw how sensitive the break-even was to costs. Above is a chart that shows the likelihood of success based on different break-even values. If you design for the smallest valuable feature set, you can attempt to control one parameter that determines your costs. I think this is why that commercial games that are developed from game jam ideas turn out so well. See: 868-HACK, Don’t Starve, Surgeon Simulator, Super Time Force and numerous others. They did the hard part for free. It’s better to release something quickly and see how it does. It may be the best thing since sliced bread, but the market isn’t there for it. It’s better to lose a little than go all-in and lose a lot.

Lesson 4

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I was curious in creating this talk about my own usage patterns of F2P games. I looked through my emails to get an idea of how long it took me to spend money in Hearthstone and League of Legends. In both, it took me between 3-4 weeks between first log on and first spend. I understand that the Swrve stuff is measuring mobile F2P spends and I am choosing PC F2P games, so there’s a bit of apples and oranges here. But it follows a reasonable theoretic model: the player explores the free portion of the game, exhausts the content, and then pays to get more of it. That makes sense.

But that actually isn’t what happens. According to Swrve, the majority of players pay in their first week. Not only do they pay in their first week, they largely give up in their first week. Only a third of players stay after the first day. Only a sixth stay after the first week.

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A quarter of users pay on the first day. A third of users leave on the first day. What does that tell you about designing your on-boarding and your monetization items? This leads to Lesson 4:

Lesson 4: Your Users Have Options

Here is the embodiment of the mobile games market:

Between 1985 and 1994, there were 822 games released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This is considered by many in my generation a golden age of gaming. There were 822 games released playable on mobile phones last week. There are 400,000 apps on the Google App Store. Players have these, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon Prime, Skype, Twitter, and this thing I’ve heard good things about called “outside”. What do you provide that these do not? That you provide a functional okay experience isn’t enough.

Lesson 5

Below is a list of results from the 2013 NFL season (give or take 1 game):

ECGC 2014.041NFL teams spend millions and millions of dollars to get additional wins. And we create great narratives based on these figures. For instance, the Kansas City Chiefs started off an amazing 9-0, but then struggled after some injuries to key pass rushers and finished out the season 2-5. In the same list you have the 0.750 New England Patriots with their future hall-of-fame coach Bill Belichick and their future hall-of-fame quarterback Tom Brady and you also have the hapless 0.250 Cleveland Browns who rotate staff so fast that they have a temp agency on speed dial.

There’s only one problem with this list. It isn’t real:

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The results are actually the results of an Excel simulation I ran on my computer where seventeen teams each played each other once in a coin flipping contest where each had a 50% chance of winning. Team A (the Patriots) didn’t have a base rate any higher than Team E (the Browns). We would feel silly applying those same narratives from above to my coin flipping simulation.

Lesson 5: Be Lucky.

There is variance in the world. And sometimes it makes things that are random look like they have order. But that order is decided post-facto. This makes it dangerous to try to copy the successes of others and expect that it will lead to your own success. Sometimes people are just really good at flipping heads. All you can do is keep playing and hope that it is you next time.

I didn’t want to end on something so fatalistic, so I have one more:

Lesson 6: Sometimes we live in Pareto’s world, not Gauss’.

It’s tempting to use Gaussian analysis on everything because it applies quite often, it’s what we’ve learned in school, and the math is so easy. But it is vastly inappropriate for many things, especially things that don’t exhibit independence. By understanding how this works, we can craft our designs in a direction that gives us a better chance of being sustainable and successful.

© 2015 Zack Hiwiller

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