Presentation Trumping Mechanics

There’s an interview with the Game of Life (Hasbro) creator on about.com of all places. The game is pretty dull by most of my personal measures, but I had a copy in my youth and I’m sure most of you did too. (As an aside, I had changed the rules when I played to something more interesting and removed some of the crummy rules – I was a game designer back then too!) Anyway, it’s hard to argue with success. I think Cranium is cringingly awful too but it sells by the truckload so obviously I am missing something.

It’s something obvious to me that Life was his first game design:

However, James Shea, Sr., president of Milton Bradley asked me if I would develop a game in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Milton Bradley Company. I immediately accepted this challenge.

But I think he is getting a little… aged when he says:

Klamer believes that The Game of Life has remained so popular for so long because it features “tremendous interaction between the players” and because players are faced with several important decisions as the game progresses.

It has nothing to do with Hasbro nee Milton Bradley’s long retailing arms combined with an attractive and colorful combination of packaging and components? I wouldn’t credit the game mechanics with its longevity, it is the theme and presentation combined with the business.

Would Life have been as popular if its presentation was as ugly and generic as Trivial Pursuit‘s?


Image courtesy BoardGameGeek

It makes me think about what digital games are successful more based on their presentation and distribution than mechanics. Do we escape this in digital because the arc of evermore engaging graphics possibilities tarnishes titles quickly and thus nothing can reach the kind of “simple hollow classic” status like Life has been?

Crowded and Lonely

Contrast this:

Pincus has acknowledged not being vigilant enough with the automated ads that appeared on Zynga games during the company’s early days.

With this:

So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I dont know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it. *laughs* We did anything possible just to just get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business.

Zynga’s done the right thing since then and I’m having issue more with CNN’s reporting than anything. I have to give them their kudos for their huge success.

I just hate, hate, that they and everyone else uses the term “social gaming” for what is essentially a solitaire experience. WoW is a social game. Parking Wars is a social game. Actually, I’d call Parking Wars the definition of a social game. It can’t be played without your friends and the mechanics are based on the actions of those friends.

From the first link:

[Pincus]: “A great social game should be like a great cocktail party. If you want it to appeal to absolutely everyone you invite, it has to be broad in its content so that everyone gets it.”

If his cocktail parties are everyone sitting by themselves while occasionally getting their friends a drink or a snack, I probably don’t want to go to his cocktail parties.

Facebook games don’t all need to have Parking Wars levels of social engineering, but “social gaming” is awful (and almost ironic) nomenclature for the genre.

Villagers Sleep

Article in Wired about the best party game of all time, Mafia (or Werewolf):

If you want to play Werewolf well, you have to draw on a wide skill-set. First comes memory. It’s not always easy — particularly at 2am — to remember who accused whom and how everyone voted, but this is crucial for spotting patterns. And you need meticulous observational skills; note someone drumming their fingers or fiddling with their collar, and you have the “evidence” to back up whatever theory you’re selling. Then there are concrete observational cues — who’s making eye contact with whom? Has somebody slipped up by saying a werewolf has been lynched, when only a fellow werewolf could know that?

Personal Economics of Digital

Since moving to New York City, I’ve been reading a hell of a lot: waiting for my elevator, waiting for a subway train, on the train, waiting to meet people, etc. I’m pretty surprised at how much I’m getting through. And since I’m a big huge tech nerd, when I see people with e-book readers on the subway, I am drawn to rudely look over their shoulders. Those are precious little devices. And normally, I’d want one. But e-books have this problem that I can’t currently reconsile and it’s the same dynamic that makes buying a game at Best Buy better than buying a full-priced digital download on Steam.

My cost to play a game is not simply the price tag at retail. Physical copies come with a call option. I can always sell the game on half.com or eBay or, god forbid, a Gamestop.

Let’s take a recent example. I bought Brutal Legend back in October at a Toys R Us sale. With tax, the game ended costing $42.80. I played through the game and beat it fairly quickly. At that point, I could sell it or keep it. I ended up selling it on half.com for $39.99. When you add the shipping surcharge and take out the site fees and packaging fees, I received $35.38.

The cost to me of the experience of playing Brutal Legend was therefore, $7.42. This, of course, ignores the time value of listing something on eBay or Half, but I find that to be easy and quite negligible. I had the option where I could have kept the title in my collection, but then the price of the experience would have gone back up to the original $42.80 I paid. I passed.

These economies kill digital sales and its why publishers seek to kill it in any way they can. See EA’s recent shift to adding DLC to every game to force secondhand folks to pay in.

So when you compare the $7.42 to the $49.99 the game would be on Steam or some-such site (if they made a PC version, of course), you can see how the scale is weighted towards those that would take a few minutes to sell games they are completely done with to other gamers.

Some games, like sports titles go down in value on the secondhand market fairly quickly. This makes the total experience usually more expensive and the option to keep cheaper. Some games end up being rare and keep their value very well. This makes the total experience quite cheap, but the option to keep expensive. I bought the limited edition of Bioshock when it first came out and ended up selling it for a profit secondhand. Playing Bioshock made me money.

To simplify, the cost of the game isn’t the retail price, but the total price you pay minus the money you can get back from selling it after fees times some probability that you won’t sell it back.

COST = RETAIL + TAX – SELLPROB*SELLINGREV

So back to the topic at hand, e-books. While I love the cutting-edge tech, it would vastly increase the cost of books for me. I bought Hespira on Amazon recently for $17.93 including tax and shipping. I could turn around today and likely sell it on half.com for $16.74. After fees, it’s $14.23, assuming that the shipping surcharge equalled your shipping costs. My total cost of experiencing Hespira would be $3.70 if I chose to resell it. This is versus the $10 + tax for the Kindle and Nook stores or $13 for the iBookstore in addition to an amortized cost of the reader itself. This ignores the other issue – that Hespira isn’t even available yet for Kindle or Nook. I expect that to change if these devices get popular.

Now, if you plan to keep all of your books and games, if no matter what the title is your SELLPROB is close to zero, then it doesn’t matter. Pick the cheaper retail price (probably the digital option if you buy a lot of titles) and rock out. But if you are willing to put in a minimal amount of work, gaming and reading is much cheaper with the real physical objects.

Publishers hate that fact, understandably, but it is great if you want to consume a lot of media.