July 2, 2011

Evolution, Dinosaurs, and Cave Men

People always seem to be all or nothing when it comes to any debate. You can even see this on user reviews on iTunes or sites like Metacritic: "OMG THIS GAME IS AWESOME - 10/10" vs. "WTF NO OPTION TO PUT PANTS ON MY AVATAR - 0/10."

The game industry, its customers, and its developers are just as bad: PC Gaming is dead, console only. Digital is king, no more brick and mortar. Social is the death of traditional games. F2P will kill pay up front.

I just don't understand these sentiments, especially coming from so many otherwise intelligent people who have created these juggernaut, billion dollar industries. Humanity is highly nuanced. People want different things at different times. Sometimes, the same customer wants different things, much like how we don't eat fried chicken for every meal.

I'm pretty new to the mobile space and even newer to the social space. Now that I'm on the other side of the fence it's easy to fall into the mindset of traditional games are all going to die. But it's just not true, nor do I want it to be. Plus, this new model provides me perspective on how assumptions I used to have are just plain wrong. The key perspective is that there's room for everything.

The best thing I've learned, which will serve me throughout my career on any platform, and really for any product I ever intend to sell (even non-game related), is that you must design your product or experience for the platform and audience. There is no one-size fits all. This is the key to Zynga's overwhelming success and precisely why "hardcore games" have, with very few exceptions, utterly failed on Facebook. FB social players are distracted, bored at work, looking to kill 10 minutes. That's it, and it's a beautiful thing.

It's square peg/round hole syndrome. Our industry has tripped through this mistake time and time again with every new platform. Just look at the horrid FPS games that can be found on the Wii, DS, and PSP. "Shooters  are huge on console and PC," they think. "They'll kill on these other platforms." Time and time again, the answer is "No, they won't." You can argue poor execution (It's clear The Conduit is not Halo: Reach), but fundamentally, the interface of the device and their target demographic conflict with these games every time.

Same with Facebook. Same with iPhone. Same with PC.

Should Xbox developers design their experiences to meet this Facebook demographic? Lord no. But, could Xbox developers better integrate analytics and data tracking and put in more micro-transactions (DLC on the consoles)? Yes. Valve's been doing this for years to help design and re-balance their games. They just called it telemetry. Remember that insanely hard elevator sequence on Half Life 2: Episode 1? Valve noticed a massive drop off in players at that point and re-tuned it accordingly.

DLC has been touchy for a long time, but I'm in favor of it, both as a consumer and from the business side of things. Look at what Bethesda has done with Oblivion and Fallout 3. They made huge, fully fleshed out games. But, due to good planning and foresight they were also ready to ship small content expansions that were timely and very reasonably priced.

I've got some predictions based on what I see, what the big movers are doing, and what I pick up from smart folks on Twitter and whatnot.

Smart phones will continue to eat away at Nintendo and Sony's handheld devices' market share. My iPhone lets me download $.99 games anywhere, plus it is a phone/computer/game system/media device. Conversely, 3DS games are expensive, it only plays games, and it doesn't really fit in my pockets.

Hardcore will continue to be largely unsuccessful on Facebook. Yes, you'll have your Kabaams. Yes, traditional gamers will "ooo" and "aaahfor a little while when a "real" game like Dragon Age: Legends is on Facebook. But, I think those are an overwhelming minority. The gameplay mechanics and art will probably become richer and deeper over time. Look at Cityville and Empires & Allies compared to Farmville. However, these changes will be incremental and the success of the titles will still be largely based on virality driven by social mechanics paired with highly accessible gameplay.

Next generation consoles need to get with the times. Digital downloads for every game should be front and center. I want the equivalent of Steam for consoles. I should be able to play free to play games like World of Tanks on my console. Services like OnLive (streaming games, like Netflix for movies) should be available. The variety of payment and game types I find on my PC and iPhone should be on my console.

All this being said, before social was such a hot catchphrase, Microsoft recognized the necessity of online connectivity as a way for them to stand out from Sony. Lo and behold, Achievements, easy Parties, easy Chat, easy Grouping, and a unified online experience across all games has made them THE choice platform for third party and multiplayer games. Microsoft is already doing social and I'm really curious to see where they take it.

PC will continue to be a hotbed of innovation and rapid development. I've done a complete 180 this past year and now all but ignore my consoles. On my PC I have great traditional, yet free, games like Spiral Knights and World of Tanks. There's a burgeoning sandbox movement with my beloved Minecraft, but also newcomers like Terraria. Steam is incredible and is why I can enjoy incredibly slick, unique, and sometimes weird games like Hoard, Anomaly: Warzone Earth, Solium Infernum, and Love. None of which require the traditional publisher/developer relationship or gigantic development teams. That's exciting!

Truly social experiences will be more impactful and meaningful than "real" game mechanics. Social mechanics, like asking friends for required components to build a structure, or required help to complete a mission, and more, are proven to both improve retention, monetization, and all those things. But, I think improving the social aspect of social games will be more important in the long run than improving the game mechanics.

To me, the most social games are board games and card games. You sit around a table, no distractions, and play the game while conversing. Jokes are told, house rules are created, and out-of-game rivalries turn bad strategies into hilarious experiences. The best board games aren't even that complex. Apples to Apples is a joy to play. Drinking games are so much fun. Risk, which is largely a game about infuriating probability, has been worth hours of our lives for as long as I can recall.

I wonder what impact, if any, Google Plus will have on social games with their Circles feature? They claim to be creating a more nuanced, personalized social experience. Would a Dungeons and Dragons app succeed via Plus? Would people gather to play, or are our lives too busy now?

Turntable.fm took the brilliance of Pandora and created this amazing social experience. That is precisely what I'm talking about! The music didn't improve, nor did the way it's played. It's that you're sharing and experiencing it with others.

I remain optimistic.

The industry is in a good place. Lots of new platforms, lots of new business models, lots of new games. 

No comments: