Tuesday, June 29, 2010

July 2010: In Search of Old School Fun

July 2010's topic, In Search of Old School Fun, was submitted by game designer Michael Lubker.

He writes:

We all love games from old-school names like Maxis, Sierra, Mecc, LucasArts (SCUMM days), Apogee, Impressions, MicroProse, Ensemble, etc. This topic discusses what's changed in the days since then and how difficulty levels, graphical complexity, popularity of genres and business models all change the perception of "fun" both from a business and gameplay perspective.

  • What makes these games good? Is it just nostalgia or is there something missing since games went 3D/ultra-realistic?
  • Why do we not see this realism trend in Asian games (besides Square Enix)?
  • What could bring the adventure genre back (more than just remaking old games or getting licenses (i.e. Nancy Drew, Back to the Future) ?
  • Why is graphical complexity important? Look at all the great games on Kongregate that aren't graphically complex.
  • Are the hardcore as hardcore as they used to be? A lot of old games seem punishing now.
  • Why are we seeing a return of arcade-style business models and why now?
  • Are there ways to make the old school games appeal to the mainstream?
Why game designers are/should be interested:

The industry is in flux and designers are conflicted in choices of
audience appeal and making a "fun" and challenging game... but for

Michael Lubker is an executive producer and designer at Axelo Inc, currently finishing up his first 2 games in a production/design position. He has also worked in QA on The Sims Castaway Stories,
Supreme Commander, and 1701AD Gold. He also was a founding advisor for the Independent Game Conference, is co-coordinator of the IGDA Indie SIG, and is a coordinator for the Global Game Jam in Austin, TX, where he helped produce a working XNA/Xbox 360 title in 48 hours.

Monday, June 21, 2010

July 2010 Poll

Please vote for the July 2010 topic!

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:
  • Sequels
  • Cheats
  • In Search of Old School Fun
Please vote by June 28. Thank you!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Faking an Economy (Part II)

In Part I, MMO developer Brian Green points out that a realistic economic simulation in a MMO may not actually be possible or even fun for the players.  In Part II, he explains how to create a game economy that maximizes fun.

To discuss economic adjustments, we need to have a design for the economy. The traditional and perhaps simplest design for a game economy is called "faucets and drains". In this design, you have sources of income (the faucets) and ways that income can be spent to the game (the drains). Typical faucets include rewards from quests or missions and items of value acquired from defeated enemies. Drains include consumables that must be used in the game, customization options, and taxes such as auction house fees, equipment repairs, etc. Note that faucets only include the situations where the game creates money, and drains only include the situations where the system takes money out of the system.

In the theoretically ideal economy, the faucets and drains should be equal. A player should be spending money as fast as they make it to prevent inflation. However, this isn't terribly fun as we mentioned before. Players want to make a bit more money than they spend, so that they can have a feeling of mastery over or helpfulness in the game. So, ideally, you should deal with a bit of inflation but should avoid hyperinflation, or the rapid increase in money leading to the value of each unit of currency decreasing significantly.

How can a designer balance the economy to maximize fun? It's important to include the proper tools to observe and adjust the economy. Metrics to show the velocity of goods and currency in your game are good to have. Even simply knowing how much money the top earners in your game have in order to track changes from day to day can help give a feel for how the economy is working on a practical level. Your game should then have tools to adjust the economic factors based on your measurements. Being able to increase or decrease randomized rewards, such as the valuable items and currency obtained from defeating an enemy, is important. Adjusting the prices that NPC charge for basic commodities is also useful, especially if you need to give newer players the ability to catch up to more established players. Another tactic is to introduce special deals in the game world for a short period of time; having a special auction of rare items for in-game currency can help reduce some of the excess money in the world. Finally, use your metrics to help notice potential bugs, such as the ability to duplicate money or abuse an NPC's faulty buying or selling routines to earn easy cash. A sudden increase in money supply can indicate the presence of such bugs.

What about the economy that happens between players such as posting goods on the auction hall, crafting, and the like? It's important to remember that a player buying an item at auction isn't really spending the money in terms of the economy, the money is just being transferred from one player to another. Except for taxes such as a fee for posting and/or selling goods, buying an item from an auction isn't a drain in terms of the game economy. However, the game economy and the level of inflation can affect the player to player economy. Players with more money, such as experienced players creating alternate characters ("alts"), will be able to offer more money for similar items compared to a player with less money.

A major component of the player to player economy is usually crafting, or the creation of usable goods from raw materials gathered by the player. This encourages some economic activity as players collect the raw materials and sell those to other players, then as the crafters create the finished product and sell that to others. In general, a game designer won't have to worry too much about this system since players will tend to find an equilibrium point for prices based on the state of the economy. The biggest game design challenge is to limit the creation of raw materials if limits on the number of craftable items; this is similar to limiting the amount of items obtained from other sources that players may want to sell to each other. The second major issue to consider is how fun crafting is. Most players expect a crafting profession that they have invested time into to be useful and even profitable for them. For example, if they have to create 100 level 1 items to get access to level 2 items, they will expect an NPC to buy those level 1 items for some amount of money, for at least as much as the fixed costs of vendor-purchased materials. Making players craft at a loss of income will make crafting unattractive and unfun in a game.

In conclusion, a designer needs to make the game economy fun. Adding controls to the game economy allows the designer some control over the money supply to adjust inflationary pressures. The game economy affects the player to player economy, but a designer has significantly less control over this; on the other hand, players tend to adjust this economy themselves since it usually operates outside of the game system. The biggest issue a designer has to worry about in a player economy is adjusting how often a player can acquire something that others may want to buy. Ultimately, a simulation may be more realistic, but it might not be more fun for the players. Sometimes you just gotta fake it.

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's best known as the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and as the writer for his professional blog.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Faking an Economy (Part I)

In Part I of this article, MMO developer Brian Green points out that a realistic economic simulation in a MMO may not actually be possible or even fun for the players.

Psst. Hey, do you fake it? It's okay, you can confide in me, I won't tell them. I'll admit, I prefer to fake it when I can; it's just a lot more fun that way.

...I'm talking about multiplayer economies! What did you think I was talking about?!

In a multiplayer game, there are actually two different economies: the economy of the game which determines how money enters and leaves the system, and the player to player economy that determines the prices that players will pay each other for goods and services. These two economies are separate but related. I'll focus first on the game economy because that is what designers have the most control over.

The main problem with economics is that few sane people would consider it fun, especially in the context of a game. Who here likes balancing their checkbook? I bet many readers at one time just checked your bank balance on occasion and hoped for the best when a big expense (or party) occurred. So, why should designers make players balance virtual checkbooks to manage their gold pieces? It's just not much fun.

Some people will say that they prefer a simulation of an economy in a game. A designer really needs to consider if a "realistic" economy really does benefit the game. I think that most simulations end up
being terribly unrealistic because people generally don't treat in-game currency like offline money. You also have all sorts of bugs that don't turn up in the offline world; one of my favorite bugs from Meridian 59 was when an non-player character (NPC) gem seller would buy back gems for more than he sold them for under certain circumstances. The NPC was programmed to accept this unfair deal with no reservations, whereas a human businessperson would probably have stopped even the first transaction from taking place.

What does it mean to make the economy fun? From an economic point of view, players have fun in a few ways. Gaining power is fun because it shows mastery of the game; this is usually the point of most multiplayer games with economies in them. Similarly, just getting new items can be fun if they give you new options to play with. Helping other people, particularly your friends, can be enjoyable for people who want to be a positive influence on others. In all these situations, players will want more than enough money to accomplish these things: getting more power (which includes accumulating more money), getting new options (usually in the form of items), and helping others out.

However, if everyone is making money and the money supply continually increases, then you have inflation. Everyone has more money to offer to acquire goods or services they want from other players, driving up the prices for items without a fixed cost. This can have some negative impacts on the game, most notably it becomes harder for new players to participate in the player to player economy since they will usually earn less money than experienced players. Increasing prices also mean that players might become interested in acquiring money with less effort, such as from gold sellers that can affect MMOs. (A discussion of the morality of gold selling is beyond the scope of this post, but let’s agree that it causes issues the designer needs to address.)

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's best known as the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and as the writer for his professional blog.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

First Five Minutes: How Tutorials Make or Break Your Social Game (Part II)

In Part I, lead social designer Aki Jarvinen explains why the first five minutes of a social game needs to engage players right away.  In Part II, he gives guidelines on how to design tutorials that accommodate, assimilate, and accelerate players into a social game. 

Tutorial as a set of metrics

As a sequence of steps where the player is guided by hand to click from one step to the next, social games’ tutorials create a funnel where less than 100% of those who start go all the way to the end. The rate of this kind of leakage is commonly called drop off rate, whereas a player who has finished the tutorial and keeps on playing is added to the conversion rate .

In general, conversion rates with social game tutorials are higher than with other apps, as game mechanics are generally more rewarding than most other applications. Third-party services, such as KISSmetrics, Kontagent, and MixPanel, offer tools for analyzing the funnels of your game. Mixpanel has reported that with social games, if the user advances beyond the second step, over 90% of the users stay for the whole tutorial, even if it has a significant number of steps. This is considerably higher than with other types of Facebook applications, which testifies for the pull of games in online social networks.

Funnel analysis is useful for identifying bottlenecks in the tutorial flow: Possible steps where players drop off due to getting stuck, losing their interest, or something similar. Yet behavior within steps, for instance whether players read the text content of the tutorial, is difficult to be measure, and therefore the reasons for what causes a bottleneck in the tutorial funnel might be ambiguous. Moreover, the funnel should be treated as a sequence more than the sum of its parts: If you are not able to produce an engaging tutorial, perhaps there is something in need of fixing in your game itself.

Tutorial design guidelines

The structure of your game as a product, i.e. how it fuses gameplay and monetization, does have consequences for the focus of the tutorial. In case the game is primarily about individual matches between players (e.g. a Wild Ones by Playdom), and only secondarily about a persistent, over-arching goal structure, then a possibility to re-access the tutorial in the form of practice is important for player engagement and retention.

The structure of the table also suggests a design framework for social game tutorials, with a set of constraints concerning length, start and end states, and the structure with which the core game mechanics are introduced. If we return to the notion of onboarding, at least traces of the three steps of accommodation, assimilation, and acceleration can be found in all of the tutorials.

The following aspects are of particular use when thinking about your social game’s tutorial flow:

o How do you kickstart the player into the core mechanics?
o What resources and mechanics should be available?
o Who is tutoring the player, and what is the tone of voice?

o In what situation is the player left?
o Is there punctuation to the end of the tutorial, an uplifting crescendo that leaves the player positively hanging?
o Are there incentives to instantly carry on? Is something left ‘cooking’ so that the player wants to return and smell the kitchen?
o Does the UI ‘beg’ to continue clicking, i.e. does it leave the player into a middle of a flow that he is curious and engaged enough to carry through?

Structure & Length:
o What are the core mechanics and incentives the player is presented, and in which order?
o How much of the core mechanics can be communicated in the first 60 seconds?
o How many steps are there in your tutorial funnel? What is the overall average duration players are supposed to spend with the tutorial?
o Is this in line with the complexity of your game?
o Are there bottlenecks you could streamline or remove – perhaps make a gamble that a shorter tutorial springboards the player into a commitment where learning the advanced mechanics and features organically grows from repeated plays?

Tutorials evolve through metrics and the service aspect

Nailing the tutorial both in terms of the funnel and the learning experience at a certain point of the product lifecycle does not mean the work ends there - developing social games is about constant design, redesign, implementation and deployment of new features and content. In effect, players need to be told about new features, which might mean that revisions of tutorials or 'mini-tutorials' are needed. Nevertheless, this should be seen as a positive aspect of the service business process where social game design and development is embedded.

Robert Cialdini. Influence. Psychology of persuasion.
Suhail Doshi. How to Analyze Traffic Funnels and Retention in Facebook Applications.
Christian Crumlish &; Erin Malone. Designing Social Interfaces.
Eitan Glinert. Upping your game’s Usability.

[This article was excerpted and modified from an article of the same title on Gamasutra.]

Aki Jarvinen, Ph.D, is the Lead Social Designer at Digital Chocolate, with a decade of experience from creating casual game experience through mobile, gambling, and online games. He is writing a book about social games - you can follow the progress here.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

First Five Minutes: How Tutorials Make or Break Your Social Game (Part I)

In this article, lead social designer Aki Jarvinen explains why the first five minutes of a social game needs to engage players right away.

In a marketplace that appeals to casual gaming sensibility, such as Facebook, competitors and distractions are literally one spontaneous click away. If a social game does not manage to spell out its rules of attraction in the first few minutes, the player has already moved on. In-game tutorials have become the way to kickstart players into social play.

Introduction: Tutorials and the Freemium business model

As the freemium business model is becoming de facto standard in social games, the key design features factoring into acquiring and retaining players are shifting. Developers can no longer trust that their players will make the effort of learning the ropes of their game through a set of challenges, just because they have spent tens of dollars to get the game at their hands.

Because players of social games do not fork out money to have the chance to try out a game, their time is of precious quantity. Therefore developers need to catch and hold their attention both through viral spread and gameplay itself. The core mechanics and social benefits of the game need to be sold to the players in a matter of minutes. Otherwise, they might never come back.

Tutorials as entry points to the user interface

Introducing a tutorial is a way to facilitate overcoming the familiar cold-start problem of a social game: Often a literally empty grid and possibly empty friends list. Therefore a number of user interface indicators are needed to communicate the game’s core mechanics, enticing players into executing them. Some players might get on with this, by pure exploration, but for those regarding themselves as non-gamers, a tutorial is in place.

In their book Designing Social Interfaces, Christian Crumlish and Erin Malone write about 'onboarding', i.e. the process, which helps people to get started and oriented with a web site. Much of their points are valid in social game development as well: When a Facebook user follows a link to the game, he is essentially taken a leap of faith, and needs to be guided by hand to get on board with the game - something especially relevant for non-gamers.

The notion of onboarding originates from human resource management. Crumlish and Malone identify three key steps in onboarding: Accommodate, assimilate, and accelerate. In terms of games, accommodation is about giving the necessary tools to the player, i.e. the necessary game mechanics & resources to start with. Assimilation gains a specific meaning from the context of the social network: It accounts for assimilation into the progress of one's friends playing the game, and the benefits from playing parallel to your friends. Acceleration then is about getting the player to engage with the game's full feature set and its possibilities.

Successful tutorials create the curiosity gap

This is particularly relevant in social games, which rely on the 'initiate & wait' type of game mechanics. This dynamic brings along the challenge of easing the player from the strongly sequential tutorial flow to asynchoronous gameplay, where something significant happens only after a certain time interval. If an empty plot does not ‘beg’ for seeds, play might stop right there, unless virality or friends manage to pull the player back. How to help your player across this gap in your social game is the first step for retention – this can be either by the means of user interface, or viral, and/or social design.

Sid Meier, in his recent GDC talk, was reportedly emphasizing how the first 15 minutes of a game have to be engaging, rewarding, fun, and foreshadow the rest of the game. In social games, tutorials try to get players engaged right from the start, towards those crucial 15 minutes – or even a shorter playtime.

In game design terms, this is about clear communication of an overall goal and the subgoals, and giving the player always something to do. In social games, this takes a turn towards marketing-like techniques of influence, such as creating scarcity and the so-called curiosity gap through, e.g. locked features and levels. The gap functions as an addictive pull that makes players continue and come back.

Tutoring for viral spread and monetization

There is another reason for tutorials' abundance in social games, stemming from the freemium model. The developers need to initiate their players into the monetization options, i.e. virtual goods, gameplay assists, etc. This need becomes evident in the visit to the in-game store, which is frequently included in social game tutorials. If the money is to be sunk to the game, the money sinks need to be part of the core mechanics, but whether they should be integrated to the tutorial needs to be carefully considered.

[This article was excerpted and modified from an article of the same title on Gamasutra.]

Aki Jarvinen, Ph.D, is the Lead Social Designer at Digital Chocolate, with a decade of experience from creating casual game experience through mobile, gambling, and online games. He is writing a book about social games - you can follow the progress here

Monday, June 7, 2010

June 2010: Multiplayer Economies

June 2010's topic, Multiplayer Economies, was submitted by game designer Sande Chen.

She writes:

Games have always had an economy or at least the semblance of an economy. In the ye olden days of single-player RPGs, you trucked your loot to the local merchant and used the gold you earned from it to purchase upgrades. Economies were more socialist by nature: prices were determined by the designer and not governed by any capitalist notions of supply and demand. Usually, the sale price was outrageously low while the purchase price was outrageously high. It was a system of inputs and outputs.

Nowadays, with auction houses and with game companies taking over what used to be the domain of eBay and other third-party intermediaries, players are used to a more dynamic in-game economy. Economies have become more sophisticated. Microtransactions have led to the development of dual currencies: one for in-game transactions and the other for funneling real-world money into the mix. Designers must adapt with the times.

Here are some questions for thought:
  • What are the challenges in designing for games with several monetization schemes?
  • Do players have different expectations based on monetization schemes?
  • How do you deal with on-going fluxes in the economy?
  • Do you prefer an open or closed economy?
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.