Cart and Horse

When I was in college, I was a TA for a professor who was also a fancy-pants consultant. One day, he comes in a few minutes late to class and tosses me his keys. “Couldn’t find a parking spot,” he says and he tells me where he was double parked.

I put on my coat and head outside, a little aflutter because he talked about his damned Jaguar S-Class all the time. I got in. The seat, steering wheel and mirrors adjusted to me instantly. The car then said, “Would you like a massage and a cocktail?” Okay, the last part I made up, but it was pretty luxurious. I may have taken a second lap around campus looking for a spot. Hey, it was crowded and snowing. Tough to find a spot.

Anyway, the next day I hike over to the student lot, jiggle the key to open my problematic 1990 Jeep Cherokee whose door handles don’t particularly work and whose heater/AC blows cold air in the winter and warm air in the summer. Now, coming from my professor’s sweet ride I probably should have been spoiled on driving my beater, but I wasn’t. I loved that car.

It’s about expectations. When you drive a $60,000 car, you have a set of expectations about how it should feel, handle and look. With your hand-me-down thirteen-year old car you have different expectations. Honestly, I’d be stressed out to death driving that Jaguar around in the snow and ice on CMU’s crowded campus on a daily basis. Give me my Jeep any day.

I’m getting to a point about games.

I’ve been having interviews with a lot of companies, both packaged and social game makers, and it’s been challenging my assumptions. One of the companies is a traditional game maker shifting to a social game portfolio. We discussed significantly the differing fundamental processes used in each type of production. My most recent call with another really brought up a core difference in the consumption of the two around the concept of demos.

Both traditional and “social” games (I use the term loosely here for any free-to-play game supported by microtransactions) have free versions. In social, these are the primary interface. In traditional, these are demos. Social advocates would have you think that they are equivalent. And for a while, I believed that social games were their own demos.

I recently picked up Recettear on a Steam holiday sale. It’s a charming little economic sim slash RPG about running an item shop in a JRPG setting. It’s a bit grindy and at times feels like it could be a more hardcore Cafe World without time-lock mechanics. I paid $5.00 for Recettear yet I would never pay $5.00 for Cafe World, even if it was a little richer dynamically. Why?

When I paid $5.00 for Recettear, I knew it was an all-you-can-eat affair. My expectations were set. I could play this as much as I wanted and my success or failure at extracting fun out of it would be entirely independent of the price I paid. When I play a demo, it is showing me a hint of what I can get for my $5.00. When I get into it, I know I will get an old Jeep or a Jaguar when I pay my entry fee. The demo is representative of the experience. Even if there was no demo, I still know that I will get a complete curated experience for $5.00.

If I were to pay $5.00 in Cafe World, I would get the benefit of some boost or mechanic or decoration. But my success or failure at having fun is based not only on the internal mechanics which I see in the “demo” version but whether or not I convert. But even after I convert, I don’t know if I am getting a beater Jeep or a Jaguar because there are always more bits and pieces to buy, any of which may or may not increase the fun I have with the game. It’s like a real world version of Zeno’s Paradox where you keep moving but are never any closer to your goal. This has nothing to do with psychological trickery or underhandedness. It is simply the nature of a free game where the potential of unlimited spend is core to the experience (unlike something like WoW, which is fairly complete on its own despite PDLC and provides value in exchange for a subscription fee). It’s like if you went to the movie theater to watch Star Wars for and got in for free but they purposely made it lame unless you put enough quarters into a slot on your seat to see light sabres ($1.25), X-Wings ($2.00) and Alderaan blow up ($3.25). You would feel ripped off, whereas you wouldn’t if you had paid the $6.50 beforehand.

Note that this is different than buying a traditional game with paid downloadable content. In those cases, either you are ignorant of the true cost or it must be incorporated into the full price of the game. If the former is the case, it is a case of misinformation, not design. But how do you do this for Farmville? How much does it cost to play Farmville?

In my quest to figure out whether I want to actually be a social game designer, my key question is not whether the studio uses A/B tests too much but whether the studio believes that fun is independent of spend and whether it should be. I can get behind a social game maker where the designer’s goal is to make a fun game that has a good chance of making money versus the goal of making money with a good chance of the game being fun. I believe strongly that you can do that in the “social” space, but it is going to require innovative business models and more than lip service to craft. I’ll gladly lend my skills to a place whose goal and processes are dedicated to crafting the best games in the world and who doesn’t define “best” by immediate plurality.

Deciding who fits that bill… that’s the tricky part.

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