Thursday, June 25, 2009

Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers Review

I spent a bunch of time with Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBox Live over the weekend. Perhaps a little obscure for a review. But I thought it, while fun, made a horrible mistake, something other developers can learn from.

Uh, Magic, Wut?

For those who never tried it, Magic: The Gathering is a very ingenious card game that has made about 3 batrillion dollars. You are, like, totally a wizard, and you wield a deck of cards that summon monsters and fire lightning bolts and other awesome stuff. The cool thing about the game is that you buy packs of cards, but the cards you get are random. You then pick the cards you like and build your own custom deck from that. And then you fight other people, who have their own nifty personal decks.

This is really cool because you can make a deck that best represents how you like to play games. You can make a deck with lots of fast nasty creatures and rush the opponent in a banzai rush, or a you can make a slower, more cerebral deck with powerful defensive cards to wear the opponent down before you fire back with one overwhelming blow. This customization aspect is easily the best part of the game.

So How's the Video Game?

Well, it's ten bucks. You play it, and they hand you a premade deck and you play with that. You battle against either AI opponents or other humans online. You do well, and you get a different fixed deck to play with. Some of the premade decks are OK. Others of them will teach you the joy of pure, undiluted frustration.

The game's production values are amazing. The AI is pretty darn good. The rules of Magic have been adapted to make a lively, fast-paced online version. The title is definitely fun enough to be worth ten bucks.

But it doesn't have the deck-building. You can only play with premade decks (which you can modify, but only very slightly, and usually for the worse). Sadly, playing with these decks is a pretty dry experience. If everyone was only able to play with premade decks, Magic: The Gathering would never have been any sort of success in the first place.

And thus, the horrible, horrible error.

Go On.

Wizards of the Coast, the creators of Magic, didn't make this game to get your ten bucks. It was clearly very expensive to develop, and they're never going to earn it from cruddy XBox Live purchases. They made this game to make Magic players, to get you to go to the store (or Magic Online) and plop down folding money to buy the actual cards. My guess is that they left deck-building out because they were, like, "We don't want to give those cheapskates out there the ability to actually play the game for a mere ten dollars? Who do they think they are? Lowly cretins."

That's the only reason I can think of for this decision. Compared to all of the production values they were pumping into the thing, adding deck-building to the game would be no trouble at all.

But, and this is the part all developers can learn from, they forget the first rule of making the demo for a game:


You don't want the demo to be fun. You want the demo to make people freaking fall in love with the game. You want to use the demo to fill customers with hot passion for your product. Believe me, if Duels of the Planeswalkers really gets someone interested in Magic, that person won't be sated by the rinky-dink assortment of cards and options available in the video game. They's gonna' go spend money. But, to make Magic into a video game, for whatever reason, they ripped its heart out. What is left might attract some players, but nowhere near as many as it would.

And Magic is expensive. They want players to drop a hundred bucks or more. This is a huge hurdle to jump over. You want people to make this sort of commitment? Then your demo has to pull out all of the stops. Not half of them.

When you make your demo, don't be grasping. Approach the player with glad heart and open arms. Show them your best stuff. Addict them. Enthrall them. And then, before they have time to tire of you, cut them off and ask for the money. That's how you do it.

My Personal Experience.

By the way, I was sucked into the Magic thing by the 1997 PC version of the game. It had, as much as possible, the full Magic experience, including deck-building. It was really made with passion for sharing the game. I played it. I saw what the game was really about. Then I went out and, over the next few years, spent tons of money on Magic cards. Just my personal experience, for what it's worth. Using a video game to suck people in to the paper game can work.

Of course, then again, I shouldn't criticize them for doing less to get people addicted to Magic. That's like being angry at dealers for selling less addictive heroin.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Indie games: Still Too Cheap. Getting Cheaper.

I wrote a couple of articles not long ago about how the expected price for Indie games is becoming really cheap. Too cheap to support a thriving, innovative Indie scene. I thought that pricing all games below 10 bucks on Amazon and XNA Community games, sets a dangerous standard and steals the freedom to influence prices that developers need. I got a reasonable amount of abuse for this, because, of course, people hate being told that the things they want are unsustainable.

Which brings us to the new development at Big Fish Games, one of the larger casual games portals ...

Their current pricing scheme, as I understand it, is that you can get any of their games for $6.99. This subscribes you to their service, which charges you that amount per month and gives you another game in return. Of course, you can pay the $6.99, get the game, and immediately unsubscribe from the service, which is what I suspect a number of people do.

So I decided to poke around for a bit and find out how standard this sort of pricing is. At Yahoo games ...

... and MSN games ...

... and GameHouse ...

and so on. $6.95 is currently the magic price. Generally, to get that price, you need to buy a subscription. In other words, use the developer's game as a loss leader to win their private route into your credit card.

So let's run some numbers. A typical deal on these portals is that the portal keeps, say, 10% of a sale for expenses and then pays a 40% royalty. (This is pretty close to what I generally get.) Which means each sale of a game on Big Fish would earn you roughly $2.50. You better hope you're earning more per copy elsewhere because otherwise, if you want a pretty meager payout for your work (say, $100K before expenses), you have to sell forty thousand games. You know how hard it is to move that many copies? PRETTY DARN HARD.

Now, this is the point where generally some Internet knucklehead says, "Well, they have the right to do whatever they want." Yeah, of course. And I have the right to point out the gruesome consequences of their exercising that right.

To have a chance of not getting murdered at those prices, you need to sell a monster pile of copies. This is exactly the situation that punishes serving niche markets, taking risks, and doing new things. And those are exactly the roles people are supposedly looking to Indie developers to fill.

I have been arguing that these low prices will result in a desolate and uncreative Indie games space. Look at the offerings at the casual portals, and I think you'll see that I have a point. PopCap provides some cool, innovative games (they're basically the Pixar/Blizzard of casual games), but otherwise the casual portals are a dry expanse of Bejewled/Zuma variants, simple puzzle games, and milking of established properties. Much like in Hollywood, the need to get a blockbuster to survive delivers a harsh blow to creativity.

Of course, it's easy to say, "But they're casual game fans. They don't want anything challenging. Scrabble and hidden object games are the limit for such simple creatures." I personally think that this is nonsense. But the way we're going, we'll never find out.

So What To Do About It?

First, support and encourage portals that don't force developers to sell their work for a pittance. Like Steam, Greenhouse, and MacGameStore.

Second, if you are writing a game of your own, don't let anyone steamroll you into giving your work away. If a portal is going to sell your work for $6.95, make sure you've written a game that can compete in that market. If not, at the very least, don't give them your newest freshest stuff. I'll let them sell an older game for that price for the advertising and exposure, but only after I've already made good money off of it.

What I care about is having a marketplace where a wide variety of Indies can write a wide variety of games and make a living. The casual portals have their place, but, if you aren't prepared for how little they're going to pay you, they're a trap.

Edit: I should have also mentioned Reflexive games, who are also being admirable in pricing Indies at a level where they can actually make money.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

About Addiction-Based Design, Part 2.

Last week, I linked to my last View From the Bottom article about addiction-based game design. It was originally meant to be a two part article, but most of the second half had to be lost to fit everything into one part.

This is the original second part of the article, which gives more examples and clarifies the sort of design elements I'm trying to isolate here. A tad dry, perhaps, but worthwhile. I think that World of Warcraft grindy addictiveness can be found in a lot of more games and systems (like achievements) than it first appears.

About Addiction-Based Design, Part 2.

In the last article, I wrote about addiction-based game design. This is game design that encourages players to experience the same content again and again (often referred to as "grinding") in return to obtain a series of little rewards. These constant positive reinforcements (money building up, skills increased, experience bars filling) are very satisfying, to the point of being mildly addicting.

It's a powerful design technique, and there are a lot of good examples of it being used (and pointedly not being used). Some of the examples are quite surprising.

Massively multiplayer games are probably the best example of encouraging addiction. When character advancement is frequently referred to as a "treadmill" and gold farmers earn money playing the game for other people's behalf, that should tell you something. Every level or nice piece of loot results in a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. If you play these games any amount of time, you will see players get into passionate arguments about who gets the nice treasure a monster just dropped. Of course they do. They are junkies fighting for a nice hit of their drug of choice.

However, there are other excellent examples that don't involve MMORPGs at all. Consider the Lego games (Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, etc.). The gameplay in these games, when you use adorable Lego people to reenact their namesake movies, is fairly simple and repetitive. Much of the fun comes from playing the levels over and over again to gather money, characters, and hidden treasure. Lego games encourage grinding the levels to earn cash to buy a stunning variety of rewards. Oh Legos, when did you turn to the Dark Side?

Games in the tower defense genre also use repetitive gameplay, accompanied with rewards, but in a far more benign way. In these games, you generally defend against waves of increasingly powerful but otherwise similar foes. You use the money from the victims to buy stronger defenses. It is the entire grinding/reward cycle, compressed pleasingly into a few minutes. The free Flash game Desktop Tower Defense is an excellent example of the genre, and it also shows that games can create that satisfying illusion of achievement without necessarily eating up huge chunks of time.

Another amusing example is the free game Progress Quest. It is a brilliant parody of the RPG genre, a game that plays itself. You just run it and watch your character gain levels. It's quite funny, and yet it is worrying how satisfying watching that bar fill up can be.

One of the best and most interesting examples of addiction-based game design, in my view, is Achievements, that metagame that can lay a layer of grinding and reward-gathering on top of even the most innocent game. Even World of Warcraft has them now, a move of awe-inspiring cruelty to its already fixated player base.

Addiction-based design is a powerful tool, but it is not necessary to create a fantastic game. There are games at the other end of the spectrum, that completely resist addiction-based design in their quest to provide fun. Tetris is a classic example. Left 4 Dead is another. You start a game, play for two hours, and you are done. Music games like Rock Band have a few grinding aspects (like gathering stars and fans for your band), but the bulk of the fun simply comes from picking a song you like and noodling along to it for three minutes. You can grind out fans, but it's completely incidental to the point of the game.

Here's a good rule of thumb: If a game doesn't need to save your progress or scores to be fun, it's fun isn't addiction based. It might be addictive, but it is that way simply because it's fun.

And, now that I've done as well as I can illustrating this aspect of game design, I have to ask the big question: Is it bad? Is it something that "good" designers resist?

No. We should understand what is going on and notice it when it's happening, but trying to addict your players is not inherently a bad thing. In moderation, the grind/reward cycle is like alcohol ... Pleasant, in moderation. The sense of achievement when gaining a level, or, you know, an Achievement, is real. It is odd that it's so satisfying, but it is satisfying, and we designer would be foolish to ignore it. Heck, I write role-playing games, a genre that is almost entirely founded on the grind/reward cycle.

But, like Spider-Man, we should use our powers for good and not for evil. If we want to write innovative games that further the genre and take it more in the direction of an art form, we have to make games that are more than just examples of some experiment where a mouse hits a lever and makes food pellets fall out. In my ideal world, it would be one color in our palette, nothing more.

But, then again, World of Warcraft has eleven million subscribers. So what do I know?

Another Artsy Indie Game

Since I linked to one artsy indie game the other week (Today I Die, which got the sort of media coverage and reviews I can only dream of, not that I'm jealous or anything), I thought I'd add another.


Simple puzzle-based game. Completely charming. And, like Today I Die, it's hard to see that it's a puzzle game just from looking at the initial screen.

Windosill is $3, which strikes me as kind of a "Why even bother?" price. But it is awesome to see clever people doing their own thing and still coming out with something actually fun.

Oh, and heck, if you haven't already, play Samorost.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

About Addiction-Based Design

My latest View From the Bottom column, sadly the last one, is now live:

About Addiction-Based Design

It made front page Slashdot, and the comments were not unfriendly. Which is kind of a first for me. It's a bit more dry that my usual articles, but I wanted to put on my fancy Game Design Theory hat and try to isolate a particular sort of way to make a game addictive: The World of Warcraft poopsocker way. Some academics in the psychology field have taken cracks at this, but I thought it was useful to approach it from the designer perspective, which includes not assuming that a game being addictive is not necessarily evil.

Anyway, the article was originally pretty long and I was going to publish it in two parts, but the column got ended so I had to submit a shortened version. Next week, I'll put up here the original second half, which I think has some other interesting points and examples.

And View From the Bottom, RIP. One of the sad side effects of the recession is that a lot of the editors and writers who boosted me for so many years are disappearing from their positions. Oh, well. Thanks to Richard Aihoshi for supporting me all these years, and best of luck at!