Your Watermelon Isn’t Too Big, Your Mouth Is Too Small

This morning, a coworker showed me Your Game Idea Is Too Big, a semi-tongue-in-cheek calculator to show what your game idea will cost. The idea, at least to those in-the-know, is that features can pile up and be multiplicative. @ArchAzrael wrote up a nice critique of it. The essential point the critique makes is that this is telling people cannot make games when they can. I wholeheartedly agree that everyone can make games if they want to. But I have a different perspective.

As an educator, I see students struggle with this every damned day: they have no experience to tell them what a Thing will cost to make, so they just propose that they will make 20 Things because 20 is a respectable number and Call of Battlefield has 20 Things in it and they love that game. They generally do not make the cognitive leap that Infinity Dice has 100 experienced professionals working for ten months where they have one, maybe two folks with no idea what they are doing and a deadline in four weeks. The problem is that there is no a priori way to get a handle on scope. You have to have experience. So 99.99% of students overscope. The deadline sweeps in as it always does. And they fail. Hard.

You want to know what discourages people from being in the games industry? Not people telling them that they cannot do it. But trying, failing and convincing themselves that they cannot do it.

They try to make Call of Duty when they could have made a clever shift on Bust-a-Move. They try to make Skyrim when they could have done a serviceable Jumping Flash platformer. They can have Big Ideas in both of those areas. And those ideas are scope-feasible.  Then, when they understand what goes into making a game more and more… hell yes, shoot higher and higher.

You know what encourages people to continue? Success.

I just signed up for a new gym. There are a shitton of muscleheads in there. Just because I see them bench pressing 300lbs and (suppose) I want to bench press 300lbs, doesn’t mean I should just throw some plates on a bar and go for it. That’s a surefire way to a crushed sternum. Nor should I quit because I cannot bench press 300lbs right this moment. Instead, I should start at whatever I can do. And I can then build confidence, understanding and ability. And work my way up. A little more every month. Then maybe, some day, I’ll reach that goal.

The problem isn’t that features take some thumb-in-the-air Scrooge McDuck vault of money. But neither is it the case that if you can dream it, you can do it right away.

Students ask me all the time about what that extra thing they can do to be noticed or feel like a real designer. I always tell them to stop writing documents and start finishing games. The smaller the better. Go to Game Jams. Join a hacking community. Do something. Then they whine and complain that they are bad programmers (of course you are… you haven’t done a lot of it… you will get better) and need someone’s help to implement their MMO Zombie Apocalypse meets Zelda dream game. And they sit on their Big Idea forever and wring their hands over why they aren’t a big time designer yet.

If you sit on your idea forever because you cannot motivate yourself to make it, then that idea is too big.


Bulk Savings on iOS Game Currencies

I was doing some Monday Night Data Analysis (you know how it is) and I got to thinking about the microtransaction models in mobile games. When deciding on the values of Keys To The City in Fire & Dice, I just kind of stuck my finger in the air and let some math cushion my fall. Here’s what we ended up with:

7 Keys, $1, 14.3c/key,
50 Keys, $5, 10c/key,
250 Keys, $20, 8c/key,
1,000 Keys, $50, 5c/key.

That makes sense according to the Greater McNugget Law of Economics which has something to do with decreasing marginal utility and states that a 20-piece Chicken McNuggets should cost less than buying 5 4-piece Chicken McNuggets separately. Otherwise, McNugget arbitrage would throw commodity futures into chaos. Or something.

So we know that the cost per unit of MTX currency should go down (or stay steady) as the amount spent goes up. If I buy 1,000 Farmville Bux at a clip, it should cost me less than buying 100 Farmville Bux ten times. But how much should it go down per dollar? How much cheaper should it be?

I did this incredibly unscientific study* of looking at the price points of divisible currencies in 13 of the games on my phone. I fired up the spreadsheet machine and standardized the units, then I divided the standardized units by the price point. I expected to get some revelatory curve that would distill the hive brain of Zynga-Playfish-Playdom-EvilCo’s money extraction algorithms. Here’s what I got instead:

A currency that provides no “bulk savings” would be just a flat line across at 1 because at any price point you would always be getting the same unit cost. The higher the curve goes up, the greater the “bulk discount” is for users. If there was an easy secondary MTX currency market, you would see all of these pressed flatter and flatter because arbitrageurs could just buy huge bundles of MTX currency and dole it out at cheaper than the supplier’s $1 level.

Here’s a zoom-in of the 1 to 2 range:

The sample of thirteen games available to me at the time that had easily divisible amounts provided quite a variety of suggestions.

  • First, Danc is a saint because Triple Town‘s $5 currency bundle is either the most wonderful affordable currency bundle out right now or the $1, $2 and $3 bundles are vastly overpriced. The $5 bundle in Triple Town gives 25x the number of coins of the $1 bundle for 5x the cost. No one else does that. Why not? Are we afraid of over-saturating our whales? Give the people that buy the biggest bundle as much as they could possibly ever use. user.giveTokens(MAXINT);
  • Every single game I looked at had a $5 bundle, but not every game had a $1 bundle.
  • Someone at Ludia can’t do basic math because their $40 bundle on Family Feud & Friends provides more bang for buck than their $100 bundle.
  • Who buys $100 bundles? Why aren’t they buying the $50 Fire & Dice bundle? Do we devs just put those out there to see if people will hit the button by accident like the I Am Rich app?
  • Newtoy’s (er, Zynga with Friends’) games have the flattest curves. They really don’t offer much in the way of bulk savings.
  • Ignore the weird curve thing going on with the Zynga Poker line from $3-$5 and the Triple Town line from $2 to $3. Google Doc’s curve smoothing wasn’t up to the task.
  • While there seems to be similarity in the <$5 range (if you average the curves, you get about what we did for Fire & Dice!), once we crack $20 we get into crazy bux funtown. The curves diverge quite a bit. I think everyone can agree on 10%-50% bumps in the $1-$5 range, but the parabola gets so stupid when you get into $100 games that I guess you just pick a large number and throw it at the user.
Make your own conclusions, though. It could all just be noise.

*And lazy. I didn’t even out the space between x-axis points.

Degrees of Separation

One of my first get-out-of-the-cubicle-and-see-the-Industry events was E3 2006. I was sitting in the hotel lobby (the expensive hotel of which EA shareholders were gloriously paying for me to inhabit) and I was waiting for a friend to come down to walk to the show. This was a kinder, simpler time when people didn’t fill every spare second looking at their iPhones and ignoring their surroundings. I was absent-mindedly perusing the free E3 newsletter thing that was dropped off at every hotel room when Will Wright sat down on the chair across from me, clearly waiting for someone too. I glanced up long enough to make visual recognition and then focused intently on my paper. I didn’t want to be that guy that was all like OhmygoditsWillWrightSimAntfreakingchangedmeasapersonandmademewanttobeadesignerheycanigetapictureandanautographandahairsample? So I just played it cool and a few seconds later, his colleague appeared and they walked off.

Now that I actually know people in the industry and am a bit less green, my Facebook “People You May Know” keeps suggesting all these legends that are two degrees away from me. It’s a bit surreal, and I doubt that I would ever Add As Friend unless I knew them.

It’s one of the neat side effects of the socially-connected decade we are in. In 2006, I felt that Will Wright was this inaccessible celebrity. In 2011, I’m invited to contact him. How strange.

E3 Coverage

Now here is something interesting: Kmart Games’ Corp-blog is bringing three citizen bloggers to E3. That in itself isn’t very interesting; places run contests all the time. What IS interesting is that 1) the winners will be writing for both their own blogs and KmartGamer and 2) winners will pretty much have autonomy to comment on whatever they want.

An aside:

In 2006, I was slaving away on what would become Superman Returns for the DS. The console team was crunched like no other and in fact, couldn’t spare any designers to go to E3 and give people their first hands-on look at the game. EA threw together as many knowledgeable roustabouts as they could. Being an extremely junior game designer who actually knew quite a bit about the design process on the console game but without any of the scheduling ties, I was picked as one of the folks who would represent EA.

We were “media trained” which really meant techniques to avoid making you and your company look like big assholes when you are avoiding questions. I was, honestly, pretty good at it. I could be a politician if I was a sadist. But being on the other side of the coverage after nearly two decades of being a consumer of E3 websites/magazines/stone tablets (in reverse chronological order) was honestly a bit off-putting. All day you repeated yourself over and over again until your brain shut down, you had an out of body experience and could float above the din. You would wander to the edge of your booth hoping for a gaze of something new and interesting that would be respite from your routine.

After sixteen hours on my feet answering the same questions over and over and over again, I just wanted to wear a sandwich board with the release date, characters, platforms and major features so I wouldn’t have to scream myself hoarse over the noise since this was all anyone ever asked. Honestly, I was a bit shocked at how easy it was. Tiring, but mentally trivial.

Out of literally a hundred interviewers and writers I had talked to throughout that weekend, only one ever asked me interesting questions. We talked about the history of Superman and the difficulties of designing around such an iconic figure with few weaknesses. I took his card. I think I still have it with my other E3 things. He was a freelancer. A blogger. An interlocutor. I don’t think I ever saw his article.

But what stood out for me was the routine of it all. The presenters and the interviewers go through the motions, expecting little out of the others and getting it. The E3 previews often look like press releases. Ho hum.

Yet if you filtered out the marketing goons, there were literally hundreds of interesting game designers and writers there, dying to talk about something interesting – their hopes, their influences, things off the official marketing talking points. Yet unless you were the “face” of a company – the CliffyBs or the Will Wrights – no one cared to ask anything but the obvious.

This is why I’m particularly excited about KMart’s contest. With luck, they won’t just pick the most passionate three bloggers they read. My hope is that they pick people who will ask the questions that provide insight that no one else will ask. Because what do they have to lose? They are just bloggers. They won’t have to only gloss the surface due to deadlines and quotas. They can have fun. They will have the autonomy to beat the professionals at their own game and provide some memorable content.

Actually, during the writing of this post, I decided I’d enter the contest. Why not? I have experience both in writing and in giving interviews. I’m a designer with insights into how the process works: what is flourish and what is truth. And being an educator, I’m no longer tied to the success or failure of any particular company’s products. KMart has come out of nowhere in the past year, from an afterthought in the games retail space to a top choice for both price and communication with customers.

I think the key there is authenticity. The KMartGamer blog feels decidedly un-corporate. There’s a real human behind it, not a group-written PR statement. And us gamers respond to that authenticity with praise and respect. Easily, this contest could have had a big asterisk saying: *KMart reserves the right to your likeness, words, soul, etc. You must talk about this and this and this because our partners are looking for particular coverage.

No. It’s just going to be three bloggers telling others what’s up at the biggest public-facing industry event of the year.

I dig that.

Grade Inflation

Excel is a fun tool. First, I took the data that Darius Kazemi (google him, you cur) scraped from GameRankings in the range of 1997-2010 and posted. And now I present (from that data) a way to map the skewed 75%-is-average critic rating to a 0%-100% scale. Certainly someone has done this before, but it took me ten minutes so what-the-hay.

First, the full range. Take a critic score on the x-axis, follow it up to the line and the y-coordinate will be the converted rating. The second image below is a zoom in on the “sweet spot” from a critic rating of 70% to 100%. Look at how vertical it gets in the 80% range! This means the reviews bunch up in this range. A perfectly flatly distributed group would be a simple diagonal line from 0%, 0% to 100%, 100%.

Here, we zoom in on the meat of the data: the 70%-100% critic range:

And for those who like tables:

Critic Converted Critic Converted Critic Converted Critic Converted
37% 0.0% 53% 4.3% 69% 27.7% 85% 83.0%
38% 0.1% 54% 5.0% 70% 30.4% 86% 86.3%
39% 0.2% 55% 5.9% 71% 33.5% 87% 89.0%
40% 0.3% 56% 6.7% 72% 36.0% 88% 91.1%
41% 0.4% 57% 7.8% 73% 39.3% 89% 93.2%
42% 0.5% 58% 8.9% 74% 42.8% 90% 95.1%
43% 0.6% 59% 9.6% 75% 45.8% 91% 96.4%
44% 0.8% 60% 11.1% 76% 49.7% 92% 97.5%
45% 1.0% 61% 12.3% 77% 53.9% 93% 98.5%
46% 1.2% 62% 13.9% 78% 57.5% 94% 99.2%
47% 1.4% 63% 15.3% 79% 61.1% 95% 99.6%
48% 1.7% 64% 17.3% 80% 65.0% 96% 99.8%
49% 2.0% 65% 19.2% 81% 68.9% 97% 99.9%
50% 2.6% 66% 21.4% 82% 73.1% 98% 100.0%
51% 3.1% 67% 23.3% 83% 77.0% 99% 100.0%
52% 3.6% 68% 25.2% 84% 80.2% 100% 100.0%

Since Darius only pulls games with 20 reviews or more, he misses my critical failure Superman Returns which currently would fall below 0%.

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.

Horseshoe and the Declaration of Designer Independence

I had a transformative experience this past week. I attended the fifth annual Project Horseshoe at the Canyon of the Eagles. Horseshoe is a conference/retreat where game designers from all walks (packaged games, casual games, social games, ARGs, artists, teachers, simulation) get together and talk about the issues facing the field. Unlike sifting through the throngs at GDC, there are no wannabes at Horseshoe. I had the honor of meeting over thirty of the smartest, most inspiring doers in the industry.

I’ve “met” people at GDC. You talk for a few minutes: “what are you working on? Oh yeah? Here’s my card” before scurrying off to another session that someone is only presenting because it got them a free badge. Horseshoe was wonderfully different. I got to really know some fantastic people and get some work done. I highly recommend making the trip if you have experience and want to be with other folks who want to change the world. I’ll explain more in future posts, but I have something I want to address here.

Our group was concerned about the treatment of design as a skill in this age where design is not only seen as unnecessary by many companies but as an evil that needs to be contained by formal testing procedures. The majority of us in the group have been in the position where best practices in design were thrown aside by higher-ups and our output was worsened for it. So our goal over the weekend was to answer two questions: 1) How do we convince decision makers that design is something that contributes to the bottom line? 2) How do we unite designers together to support them in personal growth and help them to avoid situations where they are crushed by authority?

Ambitious, yes.

What we were able to do over a two day period was come to an agreement on a set of principles that are a starting point for something like a clan of designers. Again, this is all very work in progress, but what we have was received very enthusiastically by the larger group and signed by two dozen. This is the starting point for a formal report that we are preparing that will live on the Project Horseshoe site. As a forewarning, this is only the position of the drafters and the cosigners of the document, not all attendees or the group behind Project Horseshoe.

Declaration of Designer Independence
Drafted by Daniel Cook, Dustin Clingman, Patricia Pizer, Devin Knudson and Zack Hiwiller.

  1. Without game design, there is nothing.
  2. Designers must own the vision of the game.
  3. We dedicate ourselves to the lifelong craft of design.
  4. We strive to be renaissance designers.
    • We speak the language of creative.
    • We speak the language of production.
    • We speak the language of business.
    • We speak the language of development.
  5. We will not be silenced. We tirelessly promote our vision both internally and to the public.
  6. We fearlessly embrace new markets and trends. We then reinvent them to be better.
  7. We demand the freedom to fail.
  8. We have a choice between creating with our own voices or whoring ourselves out to the exploiters.

Let me explain further.

Declaration one is a recognition that great games have existed for thousands of years before there were 3d tools, before there were high-level languages, before there were teams putting games together. Look at Mancala, Go, or Chess. All of these are great designs. There has never been a great game without a great design. This is the importance of design.

The first objection I hear is that this is some sort of egoist document, meant to pat designers on the head and tell them they are special little flowers. Or perhaps that it is needlessly territorial, that it ignores the importance of programmers, artists, animators, businessmen, producers and so forth. This is not the case. A sail cannot function as designed without a boat. Boats can exist without sails, but move slower and cannot achieve greater purpose. Forgive the terrible comparison, but we certainly recognize and appreciate the crucial roles that must be filled to put a game out there.

Declaration two is a statement of responsibility for game projects. There are many stakeholders in a project. On modern game projects you have producers, engineers, artists, composers, marketers, public relations, designers, testers and customers. There is the view that each of these parts are cogs that all have to turn in unison to make a project work. We reject that view. Because design is the crucial element, designers have to be the ones who drive the direction of the game. Again, this is not a statement of arrogance that designers are the only group that matters. In fact, we acknowledge that these other groups are so important that designers must understand the needs of each of the groups in order to go forward.

Our language is limited in that we must call this “ownership” as if it were owning a home. “Stewardship” is likewise too weak. Hopefully we were clear enough.

Many arguments have been had already that this means only a Game Director has power and responsibility. I disagree. Designers can be of entire projects (and usually are at the indie level) or of particular silos at the AAA level (features, levels, etc.) Together, junior designers and senior designers must share the ownership while still maintaining a unique and unified vision. It is certainly tougher at the AAA level, but there is more at stake.

Declaration three is another attack at designers as arrogant controllers. We understand that design is a craft that can be honed. Horseshoe had hundreds of collected man-years of experience present, yet none of us there considered ourselves masters of the craft or else we wouldn’t be attending and trying to hone that craft.

Declaration four is a follow-up on declaration two. Because we must drive the vision, we must understand all of the components of the project. To ignore business because of design concerns would be just as bad as the status quo where design is ignored because of business concerns.

Declaration five sounds revolutionary but truly isn’t. Since we are the project’s champions, we must act the part internally and externally. In order to bring design forward in the public consciousness, we must represent it by being honest and proud of our accomplishments. Companies that attempt to silence their talent are working against their best interests.

Declaration six is a direct response to the social games revolution of the past few years. Many designers were taken aback by this new genre and its ramifications. But successful designers have nothing to fear by shifting ground because they learn and adapt. Social games have not made designers obsolete, it has only made designers who stick their heads in the sand and let themselves get replaced by A/B tests obsolete.

Declaration seven is, to me, the most important. When we read this at the Horseshoe presentations, we received a round of applause. Design is not a formula where you can plug in some variables and receive a solution. It is an iterative process where one can get better with practice and re-implementation. Business-oriented folks do not like this because they cannot plan as specifically. But whether you care about it or not, it is a fact that the waterfall method does not work for game design. Hundreds of GDC talks and papers, postmortems and barside discussions support this. In order to be respected as a craft, we have to stand up for the methods that will allow us to succeed and simply providing the resources to allow for failure is the most critical method we can advocate.

Declaration eight is purposefully argumentative. There are employers who exploit designers as if they could be milked for design monads as if they were assembling widgets. Designers all over the world are being treated as commodities. Design is not a commodity. This will continue to be vogue until talented designers stand up. The prevailing attitude is “My way or the highway.” But the economy is poor and we tend to be conservative and scared. We have to be willing to pick “the highway” if conditions do not improve. Look at all the designers living their dreams as indies. Why can’t they be successful in corporate environments? There is nothing stopping them but a change in culture. We intend to change that culture one designer at a time.

All of us encourage discussion on these points. This is only a starting document. There is much work to do and we hope that you will share these and discuss them with others. Where are we horribly mistaken? What do we have right? Only with your help can we start to change a culture. Please comment here and other places and let’s bring these issues to the forefront.

I’ll comment about next steps in subsequent posts.