Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Allure of Crossover Games



It's no secret that I love crossover games, from Capcom's "vs." series with Marvel, Tatsunoko, SNK, and Tekken to the plethora of platform fighting games like Super Smash Bros, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion. For years, crossover games have almost an unexplainable appeal. There's certainly a nostalgic value of seeing characters from different series finally meet up, whether for combat, kart racing, or playing sports. But more interestingly, it's the crossover of game mechanics that attracts me. It took me a long time to come to the realization that the allure of crossover games for me is actually the asymmetry of mechanics on the componential level.

The crossover game itself sets a foundation of universal mechanics, but each individual character brings with them unique mechanics from their own titles. More so than other games that include multiple playable characters, the variability of mechanics found in crossover games is incredibly high. It seems that the characters all came from different games, but that's because they did come from different games.

Let's look at the Super Smash Bros. series, as it's one of the most prolific crossover games. The series allows for a huge range of variability and asymmetry since many of the characters carry over mechanics faithfully. Perhaps the best example of this is Kirby, who has the ability to suck other characters and steal their main abilities. His movement is also extremely faithful to his games, as he floats around up to six times by sucking in air. Yoshi is another faithful character, carrying over his abilities from the Yoshi's Island series from his fluttering double jump and butt stomp to his egg throwing and his ability to turn enemies into eggs by eating them. Princess Peach has her floaty jump and her turnip throwing from Super Mario Bros 2 where she was first playable. Captain Olimar can summon, command, and throw different colored Pikmin, each with their own special effects. Link has his signature spin attack and uses his most famous weapons in his special moves, Princess Zelda has the ability to transform into the ninja Sheik, and Pok√©mon Trainer switches between multiple monsters.

Designing for a crossover game can be quite different from designing a game from the ground up. When you build a game from scratch, it's important to introduce unique mechanics to the game to make it stand out from the rest. Then as you introduce new characters and components to the game, the components generally follow the universal mechanics set out from the holistic design. In a crossover game, however, even though there are still universal mechanics, each component carries with them external mechanics from their original game. This creates a really interesting ecosystem where completely different mechanics are interacting and co-existing with each other.

This system inherently emerges from crossover games due to its nature of combining characters from multiple series into one. But there are certainly non-crossover games that achieve the same kind of ecosystem, implementing completely unique mechanics per component. Arc System Work's library of fighting games, including Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and Persona 4 Arena, is a great example. Although none of them are crossover games in the real sense, the team definitely follows that design philosophy. Using BlazBlue for example, Ragna can steal the opponent's health, Jin freezes with the power of ice, Rachel controls the wind, Carl can simultaneously control a puppet, Hakumen's meter is based on time rather than actions, Tsubaki can charge up for more powerful attacks, and so on. The game brings these unique mechanics upfront by assigning one of the buttons, the Drive button, purely to each character's special ability.

The entire MOBA genre, or Action RTS as I prefer to call them, is also built on this premise. Dota, the game that sparked the entire genre, specially follows the crossover design sensibilities. For example, Lone Druid is the only hero with a pet bear, whom he can buy items for and equip with. Huskar gets stronger as he get closer to death, Rubick can steal spells from other heroes, Meepo splits himself into duplicates, and Invoker has a massive array of spells that he invokes using combinations of his three elemental orbs.

I've always been a fan of crossover games of all genres as well as fighting games and Action RTS's. And I've come to realize that all these games actually share common design sensibilities. Asymmetrical components and large range of variability between characters are the ultimate appeal of these games.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Inside Social Apps Conference 2012

The Inside Social Apps is a full-day conference that was recently held in New York. There were 8 sessions total -- 6 of which were panels, one was a fire-side chat with Facebook’s David Fischer, and one was an analytic report about mobile apps. These are the key takeaways from the conference.

There was a pretty good list of game developers and game industry people who were speakers. Among them were Davin Miyoshi (GSN Digital), Doug Scott (ngmoco), John Getze (Kixeye), Mike Lee (Happy Elements),  Robert Winkler (5th Planet), Wilson Kriegel (OMGPOP/Zynga), Mike Foley (EA), Matthe Cullen (RocketPlay), Mathieu Nouzareth (FreshPlanet), John Spinale (Disney Interactive), Ben Liu (Pocket Gems), and Mike Sego (Gaia Interactive). These guys are all CEOs or VP of Marketing at their respective companies.

Facebook, iOS, Android: Which Platform(s) Hold the Most Opportunity in 2013?

  • The #1 driver to install in the iTunes App Store is SEO.
  • There are many challenges to changing platforms including the need to hire up and bring new talent, transitioning to new technologies such as Unity over Flash, going free-to-play, and fragmentation of hardware and resolutions on mobile.
  • Letterpress only uses GameCenter for its social features. It arrived and quickly died, because it was really difficult to get friends on your platform. Don't put all efforts on one social platform; you need to integrate as many as possible.
  • All apps are competing with each other in terms of user mindshare.
  • The cost of acquisition is increasing. There is, however, a six month window in 2013 for really cheap paid acquisition.
  • Microsoft is going to be a player in the space with Windows 8. Even though the technology might not be the best, history has shown that the best products never win. The most important metrics are ARPU and install base.
  • iOS has more valuable users, but Android has higher aggregate users. We need to think internationally since most of the audience exist outside the United States and outside the English language.
  • Games will usually kick off any platform ecosystem.
  • Advice to game developers: start simple and build your app with a simple architecture. The rule of thumb is that if someone sees it and asks, "What is that?" then remove it from the game. Simplify and reduce the game to its simplest form.
  • The four most important tenants of social and mobile development are install (discoverability), play (retention/engagement), share (social/virality), and pay (revenue/monetization).
Social and Mobile Game Product Design and Development
  • Your business strategy should be guided by where the users are going. FreshPlanet switched to focus only on mobile development with social components. It was very difficult, but ultimately a wise decision.
  • Facebook's audience is mostly only casual, but mobile also has midcore and hardcore gamers. There are more different types of audience on mobile.
  • All game design is observing what's going on in the industry, but you also need to bring your own creative process into the mix. Clones don't succeed. Innovation and word of mouth is the key to getting users.
  • Kongregate has real-time chat so developers get immediate feedback from their audience and it's great for clan/guild features. Facebook is lacking these features.
  • The real development happens post-launch. Developer hope to have a conversation with users for months and years. Developer can't develop in a vacuum.
  • 5th Planet has been in midcore genre for two and a half years. There's always room for good games and the platforms will upgrade to support richer experiences such as 3D and synchronous play.
  • Zynga is declining, but Wooga and King have been increasing their user base rapidly.
  • Flash was the best defacto platform for web games, but now we need AIR to develop for mobile as well. Unity is also becoming a big player in the space.
  • Mobile advertising is doing really well. Free-to-play is the way to go due to its very high distribution and its constant stream of revenue from in-app purchases.
  • There is a backlash against free-to-play games by gamers, and sometimes rightfully so, since some terribly designed free-to-play games just nickel and dime players. But gamers should think about it as paying for what you want and enjoy the most. This, in turn, will drive game design to build towards what people want and therefore, create a better game.
  • UI on mobile is an open space to explore. There must be a better way than virtual joysticks.
  • Developers need to build different experiences for tablet, mobile, and desktop.
  • Facebook connected users play twice as long and are 8 times more likely to spend money.
The Future of Mobile App Discovery & Marketing
  • The rising cost of user acquisition is a sign of industry evolution. Developers need to pay attention to how much they're willing to spend.
  • The cost of user acquisition might flush out in the future. Apple wants to control the channel more, but TapJoy wants to help developers with incentivized discovery. Research shows that incentivized discovery has 40% returning engagement compared to organic distribution's 45% returning engagement.
  • Small developers should get together and form a cross-promotion network. Gree acts like a large-scale cross-promotional network that helps small developers and do interest targeting.
  • People don't know if an app is good or not since ratings are ineffective. 95% of all app ratings are an average of 3.8.
  • What are some improvements that the App Store can make? 80% of people don't know what they are looking for since they don't know brands. We need an app search engine for casual users, better and more useful app descriptions, social app discovery, and more relevancy in their searches.
  • There are always methods to scoot up the ranks by gaming the system to get higher search results.
  • App Store icon and name of the app are very important. A/B test and evaluate all marketing materials during the beta phase to look for the highest click through rate.
  • There is a very small real-estate and very small window of time to leave an impression on the user. Results tend to homogenize from a consumer perspective. A lot of developers go for similar art styles, names, characters, and mechanics to attract users.
  • We need more app suggestions pushed to users and more categorical search relevancy. Searching "steampunk" only returns games with "steampunk" in the name, but not the entire genre and theme. The charts should also hide the apps that the users already own.
  • Charts work for app discovery but is limited. Games crowd out non-gaming apps because they're far more popular.
  • The App Store is like the grocery store. There will always be a place for marketing outside the App Store. People consume media in different ways.
Fireside Chat: Facebook's David Fisch
  • Facebook wants to help with app discovery, which is currently a big problem like Web 1.0 discovery.
  • Facebook really changed discovery. Friends were pushing content to you and friends were the best filters for good apps.
  • Facebook wants to create value to mobile developers since mobile devices are inherently social.
  • The mobile experience is much more at the moment. What you do in life happens away from your desk.
  • Device fragmentation continues to grow. We need cross-device connectivity.
  • Most people don't read reviews or look at ratings. We need recommendations based on what we like and what our friends like.
  • SongPop has built a social app on mobile and integrated the experiences through Facebook. Logged in users are 25% more engages and also spend more money on the app.
  • Facebook is a vertical platform with canvas, but also horizontal with social. Facebook is meant to be complimentary to mobile and a cross-platform social component.
Social Apps for Marketers and Brands: Maximizing Audience Engagement
  • A lot has changed in the past year -- OpenGraph, Pinterest, Instagram, SoundCloud, Tumblr, foursquare. There is a re-emphasis on creating good content. The biggest change is that Facebook started rolling out mobile marketing.
  • Have business goals before you start planning out your project. Monetization is a big goal this year.
  • Developers can't build a small one-off app. They need to be a sustainable business and there needs to be inherent value in the app itself outside of its marketing goal. There is no point in launching an app without some paid media behind it.
  • Sweepstakes, coupons, and essay contests have high participation rates, but low sharing rates. The value is to the user and they are less likely to share. Personality quizzes, however, are 5 times more likely to be shared because it allows users to display their personality.
  • We need to move out of social media bubble. There are lots of other marketing channels such as e-mail.
  • Some successful marketing campaigns -- write about how much you love your mom on Mother's Day, Oscar Meyer taste-imonials with Coupons.com, Washington Redskins using template gallery to build themed pages for their fans, and voting polls on Facebook and Google Plus Hangouts.
  • We need templates that a community manager can put together and launch by themselves with zero budget and less than 24 hours.
  • The universe of possibilities have increased but the fundamentals of marketing hasn't changed.
  • LinkedIn released their API. Capture social interactions and leverage that for personalized pages.
Monetizing Social and Mobile Games
  • Kixeye has been in the business of core strategy games. Their games are free-to-play, but they sell "time" and not virtual goods. They sell abilities to repair base or generate units faster.
  • Make a fun game first and think about monetization later to fit the game. Monetization solves itself if you create something fun and engaging.
  • The first company that innovates and finds a real estate builds the fanbase first.
  • Advertisement works well with many genres, but not all.
  • Monetization methods include selling impatience, gambling, betting, cosmetic items, virtual goods, premium items, virtual currency, and daily bonuses.
  • Sports betting is time-based and based on real-life events, but there are challenges of downtime. You can add casino games to play during downtime.
  • Authenticity and passion is what is key to success. It's hard to reach critical mass so leave publishing to publishers. 
  • The future of computing is mobile with the proliferation of devices.
  • It's always more valuable if you're both the developer and the publisher, because you own the IP, data, and the customers. However, it's very expensive to publish, so partner with a dedicated publisher.
  • Games are a hit driven business like the record industry. All media content is hit driven.
Investing in Social and Mobile Games
  • Zynga went from $12 to $2. Secondary markets have been flat or going down. Six months ago (Facebook, Zynga, Groupon, etc.) were successful but failed after they went public. The exit scenarios and evaluations for investment have changed in the last year.
  • Fundraising is tough for gaming companies. Signia is one of three firms that still look at gaming deals currently.
  • Supercell is making $750,000 per day with only 60 people in the company.
  • Investors are looking for games with retention, engagement, and longetivity. They are looking for people who are building a business, not just an app. They need high quality free-to-play developers who are making games as a service. The three core skills for a developer to have are discoverability, marketing apparatus (acquisition, community, retention), and monetization.
  • With a packaged product, you've already made your money upfront. Now you have to worry about getting people to actually play your game to monetize them.
  • Kickstarter and IndieGoGo requires pre-existing fame to be successful. It's not all that interesting to the industry and will not change the ways that traditional funding happens.
  • Anyone can make games now such as garage developers, but the challenge is scalability.
  • Be wary of the casino space. The major players will spend money and they are ruthless about their space.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What I Love About My Company

The game company that I work for intends to update their employee handbook; transform it from a dreadfully dry read to something fun and engaging for our new employees and perspective candidates. A couple of us gathered and discussed what exactly we liked about our company that we should include in the handbook. Coming out of that meeting, I felt quite privileged to be working for a game company that has a great work-life balance and opportunities for growth. It's been in my mind all day and I wanted to write out my personal reasons why I like the company. Hopefully, more game companies out there are listening and taking notes. We need less EA spouses and Zynga horror stories.

I can sum up my favorite things about the company with three keywords. They just all happen to start with the letter E.

1. Education
  • I happen to be in a privileged position as a programmer in the Research and Development department. We're rapidly making prototypes about every two to three weeks, so we have many chances to dive into new technologies. Over the past year, I've dipped my toes in HTML5, XNA, Win8 and XAML, Gamemaker, Construct, and Inform7. There's so many more programming languages and game engines that I want to be playing around with in the year to come and my position in the R&D team gives me the opportunity to do so.
  • We do, however, build most of our prototypes in Flash because it's easy to get a game up and running in a short time. Also, its high penetration rate means that we can get the prototypes into the hands of playtesters in the most friction-less way possible. Within Flash itself, we learn new technologies by working with several third-party APIs including Facebook, Box2D (physics engine), and Starling (rendering engine). Starling wasn't exactly necessary for our prototypes but we decided to tinker with it anyways because we thought it'll be interesting to explore. The research definitely paid off as now we've integrated a Starling module into our proprietary Flash engine for other Flash developers in the company to take advantage of.
  • I'm not an artist by any means, but I love art and I have a strong passion to learn art. I believe learning more skills would feed back into my other talents, making me a better programmer and game designer. The art director at the company has graciously allowed me to attend the weekly artist meetings, where I've picked up a lot of techniques and tricks. I've learned about onion skinning in Flash, smart objects and layer comps in Photoshop, and even how to sculpt clay. We also spend the last five minutes of the meeting looking at inspirational artwork and I've walked out of many meetings with an innovative game idea in my head just from looking at great art.
  • I don't just love learning, I love teaching and educating others too. I started an internal university program at the company, where people of talent teach their skills of expertise to coworkers in different departments. Like I said before, learning more skills, even if they don't directly relate to your job title, would ultimately make you a better developer overall.
  • I attend almost every game-related event in the NYC area. I take super-detailed notes on pen and paper, sometimes to the point where my wrist starts cramping, and I transcribe all my notes for the company to read. Sometimes, I compose all these notes into a presentation, since I know few people actually like to read walls of text. There's a wealth of knowledge that exists outside our office doors and it's important to be taking this and disseminating it as much as possible.
2. Expression
  • Too often I hear game developers say that they don't have a creative outlet within their studio. Luckily at our company, we generally work in small project teams where everyone gets to contribute and have their voices heard. As a programmer, I have contributed so much to design and art decisions in my previous projects. Our company culture makes you feel like you're really part of a team, rather than another gear in the machine.
  • We have a company-wide meeting every Monday, aptly named the Monday Meeting, which is hosted by a different employee each week. It's almost like an employee spotlight, giving each employee a chance to talk about their interests outside of work. Some employees take the opportunity to do crazy things like act out a murder mystery, put on a faux late night talk show, play Jeopardy or Family Feud, or read beautiful poetry.
  • We also have an open brainstorm meeting every Friday. Following a "there are no bad ideas in a brainstorm" mantra, it gives people the freedom and opportunity to contribute ideas without the social pressures. Though sometimes a lot of ideas end up being jokes and most brainstorms end up not being too helpful, the open forum environment carries on to affect the general company culture.
  • The core responsibility of the R&D team is to find great game ideas and prototype them. The engine that generates these ideas are all the people in the company. Any full-time employee can submit a game idea through our system, writing as little as one short paragraph or including a quick sketch. We wanted the idea submission process to be as friction-less as possible. The obvious incentive is to allow  anyone to get their ideas into the world, get it prototyped into a digital version, and hopefully, greenlit into a full production game. We also offer financial incentives such as a cash reward the moment the game is greenlit and profit sharing after the game is released. Some of our strongest contributors include a QA lead and a backend programmer, two non-developer job titles that if at another company, would have little opportunity to contribute to the game design process.
  • Another responsibility of the R&D team is to run an annual internal game jam. If you've ever been to a game jam, you'd understand the value that emerges from it. It's the next step above idea submission; not only do people contribute ideas, they jump right into the middle of the game development process. Everyone in the company is required to do this and quite possibly the best thing for us to see is when non-developers get into the thick of it. We saw a lot of people try their hands at different skills and surprise us with their hidden talents. Our community manager drew and animated a bunch of cute animals, a producer made pixel art and recorded a lot of hilarious voice overs, our business team Photoshopped art and made music videos. Our favorite story that emerged from the game jam this year involved a low-end .NET programmer, who discovered that she loved doing game programming, that she asked to be transferred to the HTML5 team that recently lost its lead.
  • Finally, we also have weekly department meetings. The programming, art, and game design departments in particular like to issue challenges to its members. These challenges are meant to exist outside the everyday work we are responsible for and are a great channel for personal expression. Just to go over some of these challenges, the programming team has had to make a one-button HTML5 game, a one-minute XNA game, an Inform7 text adventure, and CROBOTs to fight against each other. The art team was tasked to design characters of their own creation, environments, company logos, game jam logos, art comps for weird game ideas, objects sculpted out of clay, and most recently, contribute towards an exquisite corpse. The game design team has had to come up with games ideas based on creative real estates, random images, mashing up favorite games with another designer's favorites, random nouns and adjectives, and mashing up characters with locations. Each of these challenges let the members be creative and allow them to experiment with technology, aesthetic styles, and mechanics that don't necessarily follow our company's standard fair. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the R&D team is a cross-disciplinary team that's part of all three departments, so we have a lot of extra work to do!
3. Environment
  • Our company, by far, exhibits a family culture more so than any other company I've worked for. I've worked with actual family too, so that's saying a lot. I can't pinpoint any one reason for this but I think it's a culmination of all things said before. Our weekly Monday Meeting lets us learn more about every colleague, brainstorms and challenges show off our individual personalities and creativity, the game jam forces us to work collaboratively with coworkers we don't normally interact with, and so on.
  • We have a lot of company bonding events, mostly put together by our awesome office manager, but sometimes also happens organically. We have annual beach parties and Six Flags trips, we have board game nights, we get to leave a few hours earlier on summer Fridays, and we celebrate every employees' birthdays with a snack of their choosing.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Practice 2012: Designing for Thousands of Autonomous Agents

Stone Librande, the lead designer on the new SimCity, gave a lecture about the autonomous agent system that the game is based on.

Presentation
  • SimCity has been in development for three years. Unlike its predecessors, it has added a multiplayer component, both cooperative and competitive, and an agent-based system.
  • The first SimCity has a 2 MB filesize. In comparison, Stone's PowerPoint presentation was already 10 MB. The early SimCity games only had graphical indications of traffic, but no actual cars that drove on the road.
  • An agent is a carrier of information, bringing data from a source to a sink. Some examples of agents in SimCity include people, electricity, water, education influence, and fire and crime alert systems.
  • Resources in the game include citizens, happiness, money, goods, sickness, taxes, water, and electricity. The agents that carry these resources are people, cars, trains, buses, and garbage trucks. The paths the agents use are streets, power lines, water pipes, and railroads. The units where the resources are spent at include houses, shops, and workplaces.
  • Previous iterations of SimCity had a cell-based system. A police station, for example, had an area of effect so it could fight crime at any area in its vicinity. In an agent-based system, however, there must be a path between the house and the police station in order for it to work. If there's no path, the house can get robbed and the police station would ignore the crime, even if the house was right next to the station.
  • The benefits of an agent-based system.
    1. It's more realistic. The sims (citizens) need to work to get money, shops and factories need workers to operate, and there are real actual traffic jams.
    2. The gameplay is deeper. Streets and paths are as important as buildings. The game feels like a puzzle in motion and not just an Excel sheet.
    3. The game is more engaging. Every sim has a name and motivation, and the players will care about them. The city has a mesmerizing daily rhythm and there's a fluid liquid-like experience. There are actual rush hours twice a day, when people all scurry to work and come home from work.
  • The problems of an agent-based system.
    1. Agents are slow. They can't get answers immediately and sometimes they won't always arrive at the destination. The economy is driven by many game loops and it's difficult to design.
    2. Agents are dumb. Designers constantly have to keep an eye on performance and programmers ruin the fun of the designers. The agents will always get absorbed by the first available sink. If they're looking for a job, they will stop at the first open position they can find, even if it's not optimal to the player. The player might want them to go work at the power plant because he needs power, but the agent would get a job at the 7-11 only because it was the first sink.
    3. Agents are deliberately dumb. The team made an early game design decision to not let players tell the sims what to do. If the agents were too smart and made intelligent decisions by themselves, it would be very hard for the players to understand why.
    4. Agents create design issues. Statistical analysis of agent behavior is difficult to do and it's hard to predict what will happen even for the designer. There are lots of bugs and it's tricky to troubleshoot problems because of the large agent network. The developers end up not trusting the agents.
  • In the early design phase, the designers used lots of Excel and had to figure out correct sizes of all the units. Stone made giant one-page diagrams of all the game flows including residential flow, commercial, and industry.
  • In the residential flow, there's a 3x3 grid of possible city blocks, with one axis being wealth and the other being density. Stone made sure that the densest and wealthiest block was not the best one, because players would get to that and feel like they've "beaten" then game. There are cons to becoming too wealthy or too dense. Wealthier people waste more electricity and power for the amount of land that they take. Stone wanted there to be no right answer to play the game.
  • The game has a happiness system. Sims will be happy if they shop or go to parks, but sad if there's pollution, illnesses, or traffic. Unwealthy people who have no happiness will become homeless. The player will have to reduce trash from the city to get the homeless people to leave.
  • In the industry flow, sims will have to work to get one money token, in which they can spend at a shop. Wealthy people would always shop at expensive stores, and unwealthy people shop at cheap ones.
  • How do you work with tens of thousands of agents? Stone created an agent flowchart that defined agent behavior. He realized that if the flowchart was too big, it made the agents too complicated, so he deliberately dumbed down a lot of the AI and split up roles. The sims, for example, used to work until they get money and then shop until they're out of money. This was a complicated flowchart and also created a weird situation where everyone worked one day and then shopped the next day, but not do both on the same day. So he split up the sims into a worker type and a shopper type with one-track minds, and it made the day flow more realistically.
  • Tourists can also come to the city by train, boat, or plane and spend their money. A household can also have children who will wander the streets until they find a school. If there are no schools, the children end up being criminals.
  • Stone makes a lot of one-page infographics instead of wireframes and documents. This is more engaging for the team to see.
  • The game has about 25 high-end systems and thousands of agents following their own agendas.
  • SimCity is definitely more entertainment than it is a simulation. The developers are not aiming for realism; the game is ultimately a puzzle game.
Question and Answer
  • Stone waits until the last possible moment to balance numbers. He generally keeps the numbers simple and flat so it's easier to think about them. For example, workers always get one money token from working and always spend one money token when shopping. If they decide that expensive shops would require two money tokens, this is a change they make near the end of development. These are also things they plan to retune constantly.
  • The past designers of SimCity always wanted to make an agent-based game, but the technology was not ready for it before.
  • Stone hopes that SimCity and The Sims never merge together into one game.
  • The employee test involves building something on-site using the Glassbox engine in 3-4 hours. Their first task after they're hired is to spend a week building a prototype of their own design using the engine.
  • The game uses tiltshift photography and makes the city look like a small toy set.
  • The game needs a lot of tutorials and thought balloons from individual agents to teach mechanics. They wanted the teaching to be more organic and approachable. For example, in previous games, you needed to build the entire electricity and water system before sims would even move into your city. This was not particularly engaging to players who expect to jump right into the game and build houses. In the latest game, players can build houses and have sims move in, and then the sims would complain about not having water and electricity. The game plays towards player expectation and teaches through the agents about what's needed.
  • There are three designers on the team (Stone himself, a multiplayer designer, and a city simulation designer) and about 10 to 12 scripters who script the flowcharts. The scripters are also considered to be designers but more on the technical side.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Practice 2012: Building a Legendary IP: Growing Creative in League of Legends

Christina Norman, lead creative director at Riot Games, talked about the current problems of the League of Legends IP and how the company is taking measures to fix them.

Presentation
  • Christina was previously the lead programmer of the dialogue system in the first Mass Effect, and then became the lead game designer focusing on combat in the Mass Effect sequels.
  • League of Legends is currently the most played game with 32 million monthly active users (MAU) and three billion hours played a month. The average player plays above 30 hours a month. It's a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) with 107 champions at the time of the conference.
  • League of Legends is an e-sport and not a narrative focused game, but the story is still important because the players love the characters. Players have deep emotional relationships with the champions.
  • Outside of the game, players also spend time in forums discussing the game and making their own media about the game. Players love great stories, but the League of Legends lore needs work.
  • The lore has issues. It was appropriate for a small action game, back when the goal was to get to 20,000 concurrent users. But now the game has reached 30 million concurrent users.
  • There are four key issues with the current lore and storytelling.
    1. Tournament IP.
      1. The lore explains that to stop the warring between Noxus and Demacia, a magical tournament was created to resolve all conflict. In this world, all combat occurs in the field of justice, the powerful summoners control everything including the champions, and there is effectively no war. This restricts a lot of conflict and limits suspenseful storytelling.
      2. The lore also over explains things, including game mechanics. To explain how allies or family members occur on opposite teams during some games, the lore says that the champions are mind-controlled by the summoners. To explain death and revivals, the champions are snatched right before they enter the underworld and are magically restored to life. The over explanations create an awkward and unbelievable world.
      3. To create an awesome IP, you have to respect what the players love and revise when necessary. Riot Games want to tell stories outside the tournament and outside the game mechanics.
    2. Lack of character depth.
      1. The champions in the game have a lot of personality, but no depth. Mordekaiser, for example, is an undead death knight that's so badass that when he kills you, he makes your soul turn on your allies. But Pikachu is also badass that he deals extra damage when it's the trainer's birthday. Being badass doesn't give a character any depth.
      2. The old process of creating a character involved someone getting inspired, they would write a one or two page bio of the character, the bio gets peer reviewed, and it gets iterated. This resulted in pretty good bios, but it was not good at creating depth.
      3. Christina was inspired by writer's rooms, putting several creative people in a room for several hours to talk out all the details. She instilled a new process of character creation which involves a bio slice being defined, creative people from different departments would talk for 4 to 12 hours about the character, notes are taken and written into a full-fledged bio, the team approves and validates the bio, and finally, the group iterates on the bio.
      4. This is a powerful collaborative process, but the drawbacks include long ideation sessions, needing a showrunner to provide leadership and creative direction, and potentially average ideas resulting from design by committee. The key benefits, however, are higher quality characters, team buy-in and shared vision, and the group is more creative than any one individual.
      5. Depth is added to the characters by giving them motivations, relationships, and complications. In Mordekaiser's revised back story, he is an undead general who enslaves souls to join his army and doesn't remember his life before his death. Now the character is deep enough to write a television series about.
    3. Lack of world depth.
      1. There are 12 major factions in the world of Valoran, but they are not clearly visualized to the player. One of the locations in this world is the Shadow Isles, which previously was just the place where the evil undead characters were from. There was no sense of a real background history or visual identity of the place.
      2. Christina looked outside of game narrative for inspiration. She found the House Lanister from Game of Thrones, which has a very distinctive personality and identity that support its characters. The characters in turn support the world. Riot Games also instilled a new world creation process that's very similar to the character process. 
      3. The visuals of the revised Shadow Isles were inspired by x-ray flower photography. In this area, life doesn't belong here, trees and flowers are spectral, and if you die here, you stay here forever. Characters are not just an undead horde from this location; they have motivations and reciprocal relationships.
    4. Wall of text.
      1. The narrative and back story of League of Legends were told in long walls of text hidden in the character details. This is not the ideal way to tell a story, but when your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.
      2. Riot Games needed more tools to tell stories. One new tool they developed was login voice over monologues. These were delayed by 30 seconds so that they didn't annoy players every time they opened the game, but they had a positive side effect because it made them feel like a discovery.
      3. Another tool was in-game voice over. This is not new to games, but it was especially hard to implement in a game with so much action going on. The team added some story bits when capturing alters at Twisted Treeline, a map that takes place in the Shadow Isles.
      4. One other tool was themed content releases. In the month of October, they focused their content releases around Halloween and the Shadow Isles. The map, two champions, bios, icons, skins, and ward skins all released in tandem to set the theme.
  • With a revised lore, characters, world, and storytelling techniques, the League of Legends IP is now ripe for future content. Movies, comics, and novels are all possible now.
  • The key takeaways are to create lore that supports stories outside of the game, use collaboration to develop character depth and rich worlds, and promote less reading.
Question and Answer
  • At Riot Games, anyone can submit a character idea. There is no formal structure to submit because adding a formal structure would make it feel like an exam and discourage people from doing it. The submitted idea then goes through curation and the creator makes a one-sheet. Keep the bio as short as possible because nobody reads documentation.
  • Skins exist outside the lore, but some fan fiction are inspired by skins.
  • People who enter the writer's room come in with the knowledge that 90% of ideas are going to get shot down. Sometimes an idea is saved for another character, but isn't right for the character they're talking about.
  • Riot culture supports moving around a lot. Employees need to be talented in creative and technical fields.
  • Christina plays about 20 hours a month of League of Legends outside of work.
  • You need simple in-game, surface level metaphors for the characters.
  • Christina is not concerned about the new narratives getting wasted if the company decides to never do anything with them outside of the game. She is more concerned about not having the opportunity to expand on the characters. She wants to keep the door open for these possibilities.
  • Character names are the most debated and passionate topic at Riot Games.
  • Be wary of code names because once the name is out, people get emotionally attached to it.
  • Dota 2 mostly uses functional names than the character names. People get anchored to the name already and they stuck with it.
  • In e-sports, people get and form narratives surrounding the players as well. Casters also help further these narratives.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Practice 2012: Dan Cook on Generation of Value

Dan Cook, founder of Spry Fox and creator Triple Town and Panda Poet, gave a talk about efficiently generating value for players with the least amount of development time.

Presentation
  • Dan is concerned with how games can efficiently add value to the world. The two key terms here are "efficiently" and "value."
  • Looking at the cost curve of game development, you can see that games used to take two developers and $40,000 to make a game, but now it takes about 100 developers and $40 to $80 million. Expensive projects have a tendency to be conservative.
  • Dan lists technology in order from least expensive to most expensive -- Flash, paid mobile, Steam, free-to-play mobile, console digital, and console retail.
  • Dan uses a "development years : quality hours" ratio as a metric for determining value of his games.
  • He asks players to give his game a fun score on a scale from 1 to 5. He considers 4 and above as positive, and under 4 to be negative.
  • Designers have huge responsibility to create quality play. Dan was determined to keep the development years fixed for his games, but improve quality hours.
  • With Bunny, Dan tried to increase value through media. Bunny is a game that's the harvesting portion of a real-time strategy game. The problem with media is that players burn through the evocative stimuli like crazy. Developers end up on a content treadmill, continually making more content so that players will stay engaged with the game. As developers make content, players consume content, and it ultimately results in a 1 dev year : 2 quality hours ratio.
  • Bunny was just mind candy for players and it ended up consuming a total of 1227 years.
  • With Steambirds, Dan tried to increase value through capital goods. People like "stuff" so create lots of stuff for people to unlock and collect. There is economic value in these goods, as they help players earn more currency so that they can get even more goods. In Steambirds, players earn currency to collect planes which help them earn more currency. The problem with capital goods is that the game ends up with diminishing returns. Each additional plane added less value and the play space of fun was muddied by a lot of goods that were not fun. This results in a 1 dev year : 10 quality hours ratio.
  • Dan then decided to "screw it" and use math to reduce the number of capital goods that you needed to add. In Triple Town, players can obtain amazing high level structures, but the road to get there is an exponential curve. As a result, level 30 items take longer than the remainder of the sun's life to earn. While this results in a 1 dev year : 20 quality hours for casual players, it actually negatively creates a 1 dev year : -5 quality hours for players who like to grind.
  • This is similar to the story of the origin of Chess. The king offered to buy Chess from the creator. The creator agreed if the king would pay 1 grain of rice for the first square of the board, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, 8, 16, 32, and so on exponentially. The king, not well-versed in math, agreed to the deal. Afterwards, he realized that it resulted in millions of grains of rice, more than the kingdom even had. Enraged, the king executed the creator.
  • With Triple Town, Dan wanted to add value through skills, a human capital. Triple Town is a single-player tactics and organizational game. There is a whale player named Stephan who has a 62 million high score. The high skill barrier makes about 90% of players drop off, but for the remaining 10% like Stephan, there's a 1 dev year : 100 quality hours value.
  • However, some players write "improving Triple Town skills really doesn't count." They end up accomplishing nothing since the skills don't translate to the real world.
  • Dan tried to add more value through status. He implemented a leaderboard to Triple Town. This fundamentally deeply ties to the real world since people want to show off their skills to their friends. This creates a 1 dev year : 150 quality hours ratio for top players, but negatively creates a 1 dev year : -50 quality hours for people with low scores. It intimidates casual players and causes immense psychological stress. Leaderboards help some people, but are killing the rest. Studies have proven that normally smart people act dumber in the presence of "high status" people.
  • Finally, Dan stumbled on a value engine when he created value through trade. Capitalism creates value. Trading increases total value of all items since excess items can be traded for wanted items. This is also an transformative act. If a player with hot dogs traded a player with buns, they can both form a more complete item. This is a non-zero-sum act and a mutually beneficial act.
  • In Realm of a Mad God, the developers simply added the feature to drop items on the ground. Players themselves created a trading subculture. There was an explosion of emergent cultures from trading norms and languages to unofficial currencies and trading houses. There were also advocacy groups that would lobby for or against changes that the developers were about to make. There were trust networks that were formed to determine which players were fair to trade with.
  • The emergence of these subcultures blew Dan's mind. What if we're creating these games wrong? We shouldn't think of them as these packages that we build and release, but as engines and its players as the energy cells that powers the emergence of systems. Realm of a Mad God grew out of a hobby and became a lifestyle, resulting in a 1 dev year : 500 quality hours value.
  • Minecraft is a horrible piece of media. It has ugly graphics and a bad plot if any at all, but it's an amazing value generator. The ability to create cultural artifacts, build things out of your own imagination, play with friends, and learn while playing with parents make it a value engine.
  • Community generated narrative, or fan fiction, is also a great value engine. It turns out that Bunny, while not a very successful game, had characters that resonated with its players. The players culminated in forums and created a bunch of fan fiction.
  • We should think about more engines like creative tribes, sports, governments, and religions. Instead of thinking about game development as Creator --> Content --> Consumer, we should think of them as Creator --> Engine --> Community --> Culture.
  • Contents of an engine include building positive relationships, mutual benefit, persistence, specialization, working better with a group, shareable artifacts, and most importantly, non-zero-sum relationships.
  • Engines are still games and still need scaffolding. Tweaking culture feels like being a "dictator gardener." You are in control of an autonomous amorphous entity.
  • Millions will build communities, culture, and art around our games. We are creating legal systems for these worlds.
  • Small studios should not waste time making media or content, but just rule sets. This is an efficient use of both the designers' and the players' time.
Question and Answer
  • Mods have existed for ages and developers releasing tools like Hammer and the Team Fortress 2 hat system will further instigate them.
  • Realm of the Mad God outsourced most of the art to players since pixel art is easy to make. It resulted in a huge net positive since developers get free art and players feel ownership about their work.
  • Dan is not concerned about creating short one-off experiences like Dear Esther. However, he thinks the conversation about Dear Esther, in many ways, has more value than the artifact itself.
  • Positive psychology has gotten away from the study of "happiness." Hazing is a horrible experience for anyone, but it also has an extremely positive effect on group identity.
  • "Fun" is not the only positive value. There's also value in the "potential activity" even if you don't end up doing it. For example, someone can watch a commercial of an outdoorsy person with a hummer and end up buying the hummer without ever going to the woods. But the ability to go to the woods if he decides to is valuable.
  • The "big bang revenue model" is to spend a lot of time developing a game, release it, get two weeks of revenue, then see a huge drop off. Developers should look for a constant stream of revenue.