Demo Players Are The Enemy

Hitting the nail on the head:

Want to resell your game? With all the one-time use codes included with new games, resell value has gone down.

DRM? Ubisoft now requires you to have a constant Internet connection to play their PC games. And EA’s recently released Command & Conquer 4 has the same requirement.

The most recent mind-blowing announcement was that EA is planning to release “very long” game demos (3-4 hours, apparently) and charge $10-15 for them, then sell the full game later at full price.

All together now: holy shit.

Can anyone give me an example of one of the big gaming companies providing more value to the consumer in the last year?

Absolutely.

I desperately want to tell the story of why EA’s demos (Skate as exception) are so awful, but I shouldn’t because it is Inside Baseball and I don’t want to name names. Here’s the moral of the story though. Consumers see demos as a “try before you buy” that can help persuade you or dissuade you. Fairly reasonable. Some publishers see demos as another reason to issue a press release. If the demo could just be the Press Start screen, that’s what they would do. Any gameplay someone gets for free that they could be paying for is theft. If the demo provides no value to the consumer, that is irrelevant. If one person tries the demo and decides not to buy the game (FREELOADER) it is not worth it if two potential people who weren’t going to buy the game convinced by a satisfactory demo.

Why? To them, demos are for people who are already going to buy the game. That’s why they are going to charge for them. Some folks at EA see demos as accessories, ways to monetize existing fans. Not everyone in the brass is that shallow, but they get the most press. Some of the smartest people I’ve met at EA are in those echelons, but they don’t get the attention of the Intermob.

Generally, we designers hate that mercenary approach. We want to create art and get it into people’s hands. And if they enjoy it, it is only fair that they pay for the full experience. Anything that treats the audiences we respect as breathing piles of money is generally seen as sketchy, hence the recent backlash against Skinner Box Game developers.

But you know what? It will backfire. Because AAAs have been making culturally empty things for so long thanks to the suits that a second-tier game these days only has a few hours before it wears out its welcome. Many of us will gladly pay the $15 to get a few fun hours out of Generic Shooter X rather than a few fun hours and a lot of slogging with the $60 version.

It will just take a few iterations of the big publisher Prisoner’s Dilemma with one of them releasing a string of big budget flops to really shake things up. Which will happen first? This? Or the bubble bursting on the studios doing Skinner Box games? Or will they happen simultaneously? I for one am thrilled at the prospects of the aftermath.

Button Mashing and Meaning

I have to disagree with this assessment on Matthias Worth’s blog that button-mashing is a form of meaningful gameplay.

I was at the Hudson talk at 2008’s GDC where he presented the evaluation of lockpicking mechanisms, but his summary of traits of minigames fell short for me. You don’t collect data, form a theory that fits that data and call it a day. I’m not meaning to insinuate a lack of intellectual rigor here, because I don’t think that Hudson was trying to create a Grand Unified Theory of Minigames. It was just a 15-minute GDC talk on lockpicking.

But back to button mashing.

If we use the criteria from Hudson’s talk with Worth’s scores, button mashing strength minigames score quite well:

  • Ease of Understanding – High
  • Ease of Use – Medium High
  • Immersion – High
  • Rewarding of Player Skill – Low
  • Meaningful Consequences – High

It shows how subjective this evaluation is. For me, ease of understanding and ease of use (while heavily dependent on each other) are the same, I would say immersion is drastically low. Now, what is your definition of immersion? For me, it is the sense of being “in” the game. I can be “in” a game of Poker just as much as I can be “in” a game of Mass Effect 2 if all I think of is the game. But button mashing takes me out of the game. Whatever is happening on screen is lost. There could be naked ladies bouncing around the periphery of the screen, I wouldn’t notice; I’m forced to focus on the damn icon filling up and willing my fingers to move faster. I have this problem with all QTEs that throw icons on the screen, which is why it is such a surprise that I am loving Heavy Rain.

The other point of differentiation is “meaningful consequences”. Unless this is a throwaway trait, do not most minigames have consequences on the world at large? The dice gambling minigame in Suikoden is one of the things I remember the most about the game, but its consequences were only on my in-game bank account. If I bet all-in on that, would that not be more meaningful as a God of War QTE where if I lost, the animation simply looped and I got to try again?

When I worked at Tiburon, there were a few folks who loved button mashing. Why? Because they were good at it, I assume. Every time a button mashing mechanic was implemented, they dominated. And it makes sense in a football game from a parallelism perspective: the stronger player should win the tackle battle every time, right? Well, no, but go with me here. Parallelism is a nice side effect, but what matters most is fun. And if the effect is predictable every time, will it be fun for all players? The designers I used to work with thought so, because they were on the winning end so naturally when they played, it seemed fun. But I am sure their opponents didn’t think so, since every time they went head to head there was nothing they could do to affect their chances.

Now, I assume the counterargument would be: “then Chess isn’t a good game because there is nothing the average player could do against a grand master!” But Chess isn’t a subset of a game (unless you do Chess Boxing), it is a whole game. No one would sit down and play Chess against a grandmaster and expect to win. But if Chess was a subset of another game in which the opponent believed he had a fair shot at winning, he would call the Chess part a broken mechanic. Your decisions against a grand master at chess have no meaning because there is nothing you will be able to do to win, insofar as winning is the proper criterion to be evaluating.

I ramble here, but the essential point I have is this: button-mashing has no meaningful decisions so it isn’t a game and instead falls into the categories of other ability-based events. Bench pressing isn’t a game. Running the 40 yard dash isn’t a game (Although running a marathon may well be). So if it isn’t a meaningful game on its own, it is a tough candidate to be a meaningful minigame.

I Wish It Was That Easy

From gamasutra:

If you’re building a game to be a stand-alone, quality game: take all viral stuff out, would people play this game and enjoy it for an entire month? That’s the question you have to ask yourself and I think that most of the games, and most of the developers, hinge so much on the marketing and the virality side that it really takes away from their gameplay. So we make sure that our gameplay stands on its own,” he says. “The dedicated fan base is the buying fan base.”

But the viral stuff is part of the game, no? You can’t look at Parking Wars without its viral nature, can you?

*pop*

Once again, Soren Johnson reads my mind and regurgitates it much more eloquently than I could ever wish to.

I can’t even quote it as it is a collection of quotes, but I do have to comment on:

Zynga’s Mark Skaggs, formerly of EA, praised metrics as the answer to most game design problems. Much has been made about their discovery that pink was the best color for advertising Zynga’s other games, but the telling point was when Skaggs said that “if a player repeats something, it’s fun.”

I hadn’t heard that before. It’s so wrong that it is almost obvious. I ride the subway every day. It isn’t fun. I scanned every item in Metroid Prime in fear I’d miss something. It wasn’t fun. I walked A LOT in Grand Theft Auto. I drove aimlessly a lot in Far Cry 2. I scanned every planet in Mass Effect. These weren’t fun.

You know what? That explains the popup barrage you get in Farmville every time you load. A player clicked to get rid of the popup, therefore popup dismissing must be fun! So let’s give them more popups! Oh, they dismissed those too! MORE POPUPS ALL AROUND! *pop* *pop* *pop*

Won’t Back Down

You know, his heart is in the right place when Brandon Sheffield complains about EA’s Dead Space 2 promotion:

It’s in this climate that EA has chosen to launch its Design a Kill for Dead Space 2 contest, which to me runs second only to Acclaim’s attempt to buy ad space on tombstones in terms of irresponsibility.

But I find it hard to sympathize. There was zero outrage over the first Dead Space game whose main innovative play mechanic was, in fact, dismemberment. Sheffield attempts to draw some sort of moral line between professional creators and fan ideas:

Yes, this is what many of us do every day – there are those of us who design combat and combat scenarios for a living. But asking fans to do it is just too much. First, it’s acknowledging that games can inspire fans to think of ways to kill.

But it seems Sheffield has more of a problem with the promotion of the game than with the game itself, which confounds me. Are we okay with a game about dismemberment but not okay with people knowing it is a game about dismemberment? Would it be better if we continued to deny what is patently obvious? Some games are schadenfreude-filled escapades of murder-porn. The same is true of movies or books in the horror field. Horror is about the shocking and it has been since Poe. To just go “shhhh” and not draw attention to it in the hopes that the enemies of the medium will not notice is wishful thinking.

I think there’s an underlying issue here. Sheffield just isn’t comfortable with schlock in our industry. I think all of us in the ivory tower that is Game Design with capital letters would like to see more “literary” and “meaningful” games, whatever that means today. But entertaining schlock is also valuable. Should Martin Scorsese wince when someone mentions Halloween because they are in the same industry? I don’t think so.

By getting in a tizzy over something over-the-top like Dead Space 2 is to play into the hands of the socially conservative enemies that radicalize our industry. It’s accepting their premise that what we do is to debase society when we shy away from fun ideas because they might offend their razor-thin moral sensibilities. Being on the defensive will block off our creativity. Will Dead Space 2 be a title that moves our industry forward? I’d bet no, but does every title have to be to have worth?

Problems and Solutions

David Sirlin has great GDC notes up. Particularly:

Jaime Griesemer made a point yesterday that when gets feedback, he doesn’t like hearing solutions, just problems. He’s ok with “I don’t like this” and he’s even better with “I don’t like this because [of X]” but he’s not hot on “this should be changed to that.” Often these solutions are not feasible. Sometimes they have technical problems, sometimes they cause other even worse problems in some other area of the game, or whatever. He says don’t discuss solutions with playtesters, do that with other designers.

GOOD GOD YES. Three quarters of time I have responding to feedback is trying to turn “this should be changed to that” into “I don’t like this” and almost always I think the person I’m conversing with is thinking I am just mining for a way to ignore the comment. There are dozens of ways to solve most problems in design. Your solution is probably pretty good, but unless I know the underlying problem you are trying to solve, I can’t find that one that merges so beautifully with that system or dynamic that you just don’t know about yet.

I think people make the assumption internally that if they don’t offer up a solution that they will seem dumb, especially if the solution is clear. Not so. It’s my job to understand how the systems of the game work. If you think there is a problem with one, tell me, but don’t tell me how to fix it as I am likely the one most qualified as I know the systems the best. It’s not an ego thing, but a specialization thing.

I try my best when artists show me things to respond in the same way. I try not to say “make this darker”. Instead I try to say, “that’s hard to read” or “that might obstruct this other thing”. I say “try” because it is so damn easy to fall back on doing the thinking for someone else.

Carrot and Stick

Chris Hecker is my hero and has been for a few years. I worry that someday I’ll meet him and he’ll turn out to be a dick and my vision will be shattered. From GDC:

“You want to make an intrinsically interesting game,” he said of game designers at large. “[When] you add extrinsic motivators to make your game better, if these studies do apply to games, you’re destroying intrinsic motivation to play your game.”

“The game industry used to use no metrics whatsoever,” he continued. “Everything was gut and by the seat of our pants. Then metrics came around, and [now] we’re addicted to metrics. If I change a value of my purple hat, fourteen more people buy it, and we think we’re totally in the zone.”

Sigh.

Hansa Teutonica

I’ve been really digging board games lately as some of my last few posts can attest. Just when I’m getting sick and tired of the same old mechanics day in and day out from digital games, I discover this world with a lot of fresh ideas. It’s a new source of inspiration. One of the greatest games of all time is based on a board game. Add to that the results in digital form from Dungeons and Dragons and the entire genre of wargames and you pretty much have 80% of the video game market, but you haven’t scratched the surface of the board game market.

So I’ve been going to these New York City Boardgame Meetups to get my game on and learn about some new stuff. You’ll see more reports from me as time goes on based on these events.

Last night, I got to play two games:

The first was Hansa Teutonica. I don’t know why the Germans have a love affair with feudal daily minutiae but so many of their games seem to be based on merchants or trading or land disputes. This game is based on the former. After a long, complex rules briefing, we were into the game which (one you get over the heavy load of info up front) is really quite digestible.

Actually, this brings me to my first aside. On the player skills board is a summary of the five things a player can do on his turn:

BGG Image

See them there on the bottom? Tell me what they mean. You can’t. I can barely interpret the icons and I’ve played the game. If the purpose of the icons was to teach me what I can do, they clearly failed. If the icons serve to remind me what I can do, they have also failed.

They could have had a player card that said:

On your turn you can use an action to:
– Move cubes from your storage to your usable supply. (See bag for amount)
– Place a piece on a road.
– Displace an opponent’s piece from a road.
– Move pieces. (See book for amount.)
– Establish an office or use a special ability from a full road.

There you go. Now the game is about filling up roads to either increase the skills on your skill list (above image) or claim offices that gain you points. There are some fiddly rules about office ownership and scoring but that is pretty much it. There are five cities on the board with special abilities where instead of claiming an office, you can upgrade the skill on your skill list. These grant things like additional actions per turn, additional cities where one can set offices, the ability to move more pieces per trun, &c., These are useful and integral, which leads me to an issue.

The cities that have the special abilities are so important that the rest of the game seems less so. What is ostensibly a game about building a trade network quickly becomes a game to control the roads nearest these cities, especially the city that provides additional actions per turn. This isn’t an amazingly huge problem in our first game, but since there is next to no randomness in the game (there are randomly dealt special effect tiles, but that is it), it seems like every game is going to play out similarly as all the players battle for the special abilities cities.

The game board itself is ugly. If you don’t want your eyes to melt, don’t look at the image below. For some reason the artist decided that serif-y white text on a grey background was essentially readable. The board is unnecessarily busy and it distracts from the game and makes it seem harder than it is. Maybe that was the point.

BGG again

If I was redesigning the game, it would be re-themed and the board would be cleaner and clearer. I’d likely simplify the scoring system and make it so that the locations of the special cities moved and/or that there was some mechanic that stopped the game from focusing solely on those cities. Even though it is anathema to the hardest of the hardcore board game nerds, I would add some card mechanic or something more easily parsed than the current tile bonus system. That card mechanic could tie into the moving cities idea. The game needs the pruning shears badly. Mechanics need to be simplified, consolidated or let go.

On the plus side, it was easy to see your opponent’s tactical ideas. Play certainly didn’t seem to be randomly evolving. Since I could tell what they were going to do, I could plan for it. This is the strategic meat of the game and it is excellent. Because of this, the game moves quickly unless someone’s plans are foiled. And if that’s the case, something interesting probably happened so the interruption in game flow is not unwelcome (to use a double negative).

Overall, I had a great time. I had thought I won only to be eclipsed by three points in the final tally because I didn’t fully understand the eight-part scoring system. Again, either needlessly complex or simply presented poorly. I’ll play this again if folks bring it back as I am interested in how repeated plays hold up, but I probably wouldn’t buy it.

I tried so hard to get people to play Agricola with me so that I could play a cube pushing game that I knew, but I got railroaded into a game of Acquire. Never again. The less said the better, but Acquire is a lot of sitting around waiting for someone else to move and then a lot of counting the board and cross-referencing a card. I found it chaotic. It was tough to plan any kind of strategy at all with the board changing. The first player to be acquired seems to have a huge advantage if he plays it well since he will have more resources than anyone else for the longest time. I came in last because I just wanted the game to be over and the winner wasn’t really paying attention the whole game. Since it is an older game, I’m sure there is a lot of nostalgia around it. I still play Monopoly, but by today’s standards, it has similar issues.