Monday, September 15, 2014

Microtransactions and Theft: Here We Go Again

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor proposes some solutions to the issue of virtual good theft in MMOs.

Disclaimer: The following post does not represent the views of the IGDA, IGDA Game Design SIG, or anyone else except Gabby. Just wanted to get that out of the way.
Some of you might remember my other post about microtransactions from way back in February. It was a bit heated, but it spells out how I feel about them pretty well:  I don’t like them. I think they hurt the industry despite bringing in large amounts of money. Most people do not agree with me on this and have brought up pretty valid points. I love it when that happens. Intellectual debate is great; that’s how minds are opened and horizons are expanded. Then something happens to people like Mike Weatherley and all I can do is less-than-professionally laugh.

For those of you who are unaware, good sir Mike Weatherley has the esteemed position of being chief adviser on intellectual property to David Cameron (yes, Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron). In his off-time, he is also a gamer. Recently, he has experienced something nearly all gamers experience: someone stole his sword in World of Warcraft, one he bought with real-world money. His reaction to it? The political version of whining to his parents. I’m not going to get into how this may or may not be the morally right way to leverage his position, but instead focus on the experience itself.

Usually, microtransactions are used as a way to enhance a game experience. For example, extra lives or power-ups can be purchased in order for someone to have more fun playing while they’re waiting for the bus, rather than miserably grinding away until these advantages are natively available. This works wonders for bringing in money for the publishers and developers, so much so that it’s quite often taken a bit further than it needs to be, or even should be. The downside to this is that theft is fairly universal, and few things sour an experience than spending $5USD on a cuirass, for example, and having it be swiped from your account (along with other items that may or may not have been purchased with real world money). This is compounded when it happens in a subscription-based game, as it’s easy to view the situation as having been doubly robbed. At this point, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel upset and some people even ‘rage quit’ over the larger instances. At this point, the game experience is completely ruined. Not because of gameplay, graphics, technical problems, or really anything to do with the game itself, but rather the greed and selfishness of a group of players and the open door to them that is microtransactions.

I believe that game experiences should be enjoyable for everyone and I bet there are many who would agree with me. In order for this to happen, though, we need to fix how things are done. Mike Weatherley is of the opinion that thefts of digital goods ought to be punished in the same way that thefts of real-world good are. I believe that a proactive solution would do gamers and developers alike a bit more good than knowing someone, somewhere received a fine of some sorts (assuming, of course, they were tracked down, which would require a lot more resources than it’s really worth). My initial idea is to just nix the microtransactions altogether, but I understand publishers and developers are businesses and still need/want to make more money than the game itself will get them. With that in mind, let’s come up with a few ideas:
  • The ability to re-obtain stolen items without spending more money. In order to prevent abuse of this system, the game can keep server-side records of what the account bought, for how much, and by what means did it leave the account’s possession. I suppose this is still open to abuse, since most stolen items are stolen by someone cracking the account’s password and trading the item to the cracker’s actual account (or an alternative account).
  • All microtransaction-obtained items are bound to character or account. This would prevent anyone from cracking in and trading it off, but it does not help if someone wants to buy a gift for someone in game (though maybe a redeem code could be purchased for a gift).
  • Microtransactions can only apply to buying in-game currency, and currency is account-bound (but not character/soul bound). This way, there are no items at stake, and the player still has the flexibility to outfit any of their characters as they see fit. It’s possible this might also bring in extra money, since not everyone would necessarily be interested in an item, but everyone wants money. The downside is this opens up a whole world of ‘pay-to-win’ problems.
Mike Weatherley is not alone in his loss of an item purchased with real world money in an MMO. This is a very widespread problem that should be looked at quite hard by the developers, as it’s their years of hard work at stake here. Theft of items that require lots of time or real world currency can ruin the entire experience, so it should be addressed proactively, not retroactively by lawmakers using methods that just drain everyone of more resources. I’ve tried to come up with a few simple ways of solving the problem that make everyone happy, but I’d like to hear what you think. What ideas do you or your studio have? Do you think it’s worth it to get lawmakers involved? Why or why not?

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Wearing Multiple Hats

In this article, indie developer Judy Tyrer discusses the pros and cons of filling multiple roles in game development.

I prefer the term FOUNDER to CEO because founder implies “she who does everything she can’t hire someone else to do.” In the case of 3 Turn Productions, FOUNDER covers CEO, CTO, Creative Director, Lead Programmer and HR. That means I have to make sure we have sufficient funding while simultaneously ensuring we are using the correct technology while designing and coding the entire game and keeping my artist and community manager happy. Yes, I am crazy.

The Upside

I like talking to myself and now I have an excuse. In fact, I can even argue with myself and sometimes do. The most recent argument with myself was when the CEO got upset with the Creative Director over feature cuts. One of the features the Creative Director wanted to cut was revenue generating. They had a long argument over every other feature that could possibly go besides one that was revenue generating. The Creative Director won. She had the support of the programmer who explained that the front end could get in on schedule, it was only hooking up the backend with the payment system that we’d be postponing. And since that is work that doesn’t excite the programmer in the least, well they ganged up on the poor CEO.

But the biggest upside is the frequency with which I do not have communication issues with myself. The time saved by having all the roles thoroughly familiar with all the other roles is huge. We don’t need formal documentation. We don’t need formal process. We can just get the work done. I would estimate this is a 40% productivity gain, especially in the areas where the systems are highly complex.

I imagine that artist/designers must make very different kinds of games than programmer/designers so I can’t speak for them. But as a programmer/designer, the gameplay and the code design are tightly coupled. I believe this allows me to build systems for my game others wouldn’t think of because those systems are half gameplay and half architecture. I have the advantage of seeing the action from when the user pushes a button all the way into where the data is saved in the database and retrieved. It’s a bigger picture view that I think lends itself to riskier innovations.

The Downside

It is not possible to do five jobs well at the same time. Something is going to suffer and the challenge is choosing what that is going to be.

Had I been CEO full time, the business plan would be complete and I’d have had at least a dozen meetings with investors by now. But had I done that, the game wouldn’t have progressed as far as it has. Then again, if I’d gotten the funding I could have hired someone to do the programming, maybe even two people, and the game would have progressed even further. Of course, that assumes I would have succeeded in getting investors with all those meetings. If I hadn’t gotten the investors after all that work then we’d have no game.

Wearing too many hats means that something is always getting insufficient attention. Priority setting has taken on a much more crucial role than ever before. Wasted time going down wrong paths is infinitely more painful than when there isn’t the constant pressure of 3 jobs not being done well. The rather interesting side effect of this is that I do more experimentation of other approaches to solving problems than I have in the past, primarily because I don’t have the time to go down a rat hole so I want to make sure I’m picking the optimum choice to start.

The other challenge with wearing too many hats is getting a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day from a job well done. Instead of a job well done, it’s 3 jobs half done and 2 undone. I find that the only solution is to take off all but one hat for certain periods. This is usually 2 weeks before we release, but this time it was a full month (it was a lot of code). Just accepting that I’m not going to make progress in an area of the business this week is difficult, but I have found it essential.

So I am CEO, CTO, Creative Director, Lead Programmer, and HR Director of my company. But mostly, I’m the Lead Programmer.

Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.

Friday, September 5, 2014

September 2014: Motivation

Hi all!

For September, I'd like people to think about the psychology of games.  As game designers, we need to understand these motivational triggers in order to design better levels, better virtual goods, and a better overall gameplay experience.  Motivation is of particular interest to the topics of Game-Based Learning and Social Impact Games because these games go beyond mere entertainment and usually have a specific learning or social objective.

Questions for Thought:
  •  As designers, what tools can we employ to keep players motivated and on track with our gameplay objectives? 
  •  How does player motivation fit into the design of your levels? Or your games?
  •  What motivates players to buy virtual currency or goods?  Are there specific tricks or tips to this?
Feel free to add more questions to the end of this post.

As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome! 

Friday, August 29, 2014

IGDA Webinar: Monetization

In this video, game designer Chris Crowell reviews different monetization strategies and illuminates further the concept of free-to-play and play-to-win.

Remember to sign up for the next IGDA Game Design Webinar on Wednesday, September 17 featuring Ian Schreiber on game balance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Game Art Explained

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor explains the role game art plays in a game's overall design.

Graphics are usually the center of the console versus PC argument (next to overall cost). We argue about how noticeable pixels should be, acceptable frame rates, and sometimes even perspective. And nearly everyone comes up with one reason or another why they’re right, but so few people seem to actually understand what role game art plays.

Our eyes play a huge role in how we explore the world around us, but it’s how the world is perceived that gives this visual information its potency. This psychological phenomenon is what game art plays on. It’s what causes you to beeline for the one lit area in an otherwise blacked out room. It’s what makes you feel confused or alarmed when things are blurred and red, and what makes the scene with a faintly violet glow seem enchanting. Horror games also use this to clash against our idea of what should be, thus making it creepy. There are a thousand different ways game art assists the design, for those who know how it works.

Game art can be broken down into two basic building blocks: color and design. Each area in a game is carefully crafted using these two principles in order to achieve the feeling the game design needs to successfully immerse the player in the gameplay and story. Think back to Batman: Arkham Asylum. If the place were brighter, or painted in pastel colors, do you think it would have felt the same? No, of course not. It sounds simple, and it is in theory, but applying them effectively requires lots of practice and expertise. Let’s clear the air of all the nonsense arguments, and briefly examine what each game artist has to know.

Colors typically have a meaning attached to them, that can vary by culture. In the United States, for example, white stands for innocence and purity. They can also have physical effects on us, like increased heart rate when we see the color red. Colors affect everything from our appetites, to how heavy something appears, to what emotion we feel when we look at it. The use of color is further broken down into values, hues, and contrast. Hues are the colors themselves, whereas the value is how light or dark that color is. For example, pink is a lighter value of red, and navy is a darker value of blue. A scene with all light values is called high key, and a scene with all dark values is, you guessed it, low key. Colors complement and contrast one another, creating different effects. Using yellow and red, for instance, creates a much different scene than using green and blue, or purple and brown, or even shades of grey.

Design is more about how the scene and the colors in it are arranged. This is not to be confused with overall game design, though; this is artistic design of a scene or area. When designing the scene, you’re focusing on lines and objects to which the colors are applied. You can think of design as the skeleton on which color is the fleshy bits. Going back to the Batman: Arkham Asylum reference, the whole game would have a different feel to it if Calender Man didn’t cover the walls of his cell with calendar pages, or if Poison Ivy didn’t have plants everywhere, or if the whole place looks like it had been meticulously cleaned.

These two elements come together to create game art, which is necessary for the game design to convey the intended message and emotions. That’s all it is. There is no art style that’s superior, or acceptable frame rate ceiling. It’s the emotions, the perception, that’s important to the game’s success at allowing the player to delve into the world set before them.

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Writers, Stop Obsessing Over Three-Act Structure in Games

In this article, game writer Sande Chen muses about the Three-Act Structure and whether it ought to be the dominant structure in video game writing.

If you're a writer, you probably know about the Three-Act Structure.  It's a popular yet arbitrary format for Hollywood screenplays.  It's a great framework to learn, especially if you want to know more about screenwriting, but it's not a One-Size-Fits-All solution.  Video games are not always going to be like Hollywood screenplays.  That's like trying to hammer a square peg into a triangle.  If game designers don't use the same design pattern for each and every game, why should every video game be written like a Hollywood movie?

The latest console blockbuster shooter isn't going to be designed like a free-to-play Mahjong Solitaire social game.  There are different target audiences, different genres, different technologies, different play patterns, and of importance, different business models.  Many times, the business model does inform the aims of the game designer.  Coin-operated arcade designers back in the day knew that the goal was to get customers to plunk in quarters.  Episodic game designers naturally want players to keep on buying episodes and free-to-play game designers would like to maximize sales on virtual power-ups and goods.

This situation is not unique to the game industry.  Writers, too, understand the whims of the market. TV writers use cliffhangers to entice viewers to return after commercial breaks.  Charles Dickens often wrote his novels in monthly or weekly installments and would even modify plot and character development based on reader feedback.

My point here is not to slam the Three-Act Structure, but to get people to realize that the needs of a game writing project may not be the Three-Act Structure.  There are plays with 5 Acts and screenplays with 4 Acts.  Evaluate each game writing project carefully and understand how the writing fits into the overall scheme.  The Three-Act Structure is useful, but there's no need to apply it to everything.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, August 1, 2014

August 2014: Agency

August 2014's topic was submitted by game designer Pascal Bélanger.

He writes: 
Agency, as defined by Janet Murray in the great industry reference "Hamlet on the Holodeck," is the fundamental feeling of having an impact on a virtual world. It is somewhat the basis of immersion and many game designer consider that their main quest is to pursue a better feeling of agency.

On the other hand, we have games like World of Warcraft that use mechanics that go against this feeling (e.g. Resetting mission states to permit players that have already completed a mission to redo them with their friends and/or clan mates). This acts as a Distanciation Brechtienne" (after Bertolt Brecht) -  a French theater concept whereby an element constantly reminds the spectator that what's in front of him is not real agency because it always reminds the player that he is in a virtual world and that in the end he does not have any real impact on it.
Even though many have gone long ways to argue about its systems, one cannot deny the success of World Of Warcraft. And all this without pursuing that particular feeling which is supposed to elevate the medium to another state.
  • How does the pursuit of agency impact you as a designer and as a player?
  • Do you think it is a requirement for immersion? 
  • Do you think it is a requirement for games in general?
Clint Hocking on Agency:
 As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome!