Onward and Upward, Once Again

It may be fitting that it’s been over two years since I’ve posted here. That time was my tenure at social/mobile game developer Kabam. I started there in April of 2011 and ended my time there this week.

In those two-plus years we’ve seen the indie social game market be swallowed by the Big Developers (which is one of the reasons I went to Kabam), seen the apex and initial decline of the Facebook game ecology (arguably after Facebook poisoned the well with a 30% “tax” on sales on their platform), and seen the fast rise of games on mobile phones and tablets.

The span of time when indies were making viable games on phones and tablets was even shorter than it was for web-based social games; successful phone/tablet games are now approaching AAA/console quality, and budgets and schedules are once again skyrocketing, leaving all but the most resourceful developers behind. Free-to-play is no longer an anomaly; there is still a lot to be learned, but companies are reliably making hundreds of millions of dollars in very profitable revenue using this model.

Discoverability is now the big problem for developers: players have to know about your game among the hundreds or thousands coming out every single week, or all your work is for nothing. And this has put Apple and Google in the position of kingmakers more than any publisher or retailer was back in the days of retail-box games.

The big question for many of us is, where does game design fit in this back-to-the-future world of visual polish and revenue-creating pinch-points? I think it’s still an open question. It’s entirely possible to make good games that spread their ability to bring in revenue over a wide range of payment opportunities… but I have yet to see a design (even of my own) where this business model didn’t affect and to some degree twist the design off of its natural course.

I don’t know that this is inevitable, or that better designs necessarily need to avoid various forms of “pay to win,” but I think we will have to explore a lot more to figure this out. And meanwhile, the market moves on, rewarding companies with astounding richesĀ if they manage to strike a balance between accessibility, visual fidelity, and some degree of fun.

In the past two years I’ve worked on some terrific projects and gotten to know a lot of great people. I also learned a ton by being on the front lines of social and mobile game design, development, and operations. But, as always the game market zigs and zags, and companies have to act fast and be nimble just to keep up.

I’ll let Kabam’s strategy speak for itself as it emerges over the coming months. For myself, I’m looking back to my roots as much as possible: real, deep game design and (in some combination) social AI.

I’ve managed to keep up some amount of AI work, even publishing a couple of papers (see the paper “Toward a comprehensive theory of emotions for biological and artificial agents“). I’m now in the process of stripping down and re-architecting the AI “People Engine” itself. I’m going to do my best to chronicle this re-development here, focusing on the more difficult questions I’m facing.

And oh yeah: I am looking for my next opportunity in games. I still believe that games are the vanguard of technology development and adoption. This is the place to be, in one form or another.

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12 Comments on “Onward and Upward, Once Again”

  1. AlexG Says:

    Yes its true, the indie developers have less chances than before but what can they do?
    And oh yeah, I am looking for talented guys to join me in creating next generation of social games.

  2. Chris Klug Says:

    Mike, if I may ask, what made you leave?

  3. Amit Patel Says:

    Hooray for new adventures!

    The cow clicking, angry avians, and rope cutting games show that there’s a lot of money in not-so-deep experiences. When I play games I’m looking for something different. Are there enough gamers like me? I think so, but maybe not enough to make a Kabam-sized business. That seems like an opportunity for indies. Make the games that the giant companies won’t make. I’m looking forward to Prison Architect, for instance, but I can’t see EA or MS or Kabam making a game like that.

    Re: AI – Have you been following Storybricks?

  4. Mike Sellers Says:

    @AlexG: what indies can and should do depends on their goals. If being an indie is about making the game you want to make no matter who else likes it, then keep on keepin’ on. OTOH if at some level it is about eking out a living, then things are getting more and more difficult.

    My advice would be either go with the flow and learn Unity (the emerging de facto standard on tablets and phones)or cut against the grain and stay with web games, since so many bigger companies seem to be leaving those behind. But, IMO, web games will soon become compressed in the game-archaeological layers along with hex-based games, text games, etc. (all of which are still around, but not in any way that’s relevant to mainstream games).

    @Chris: this was a restructuring away from some kinds of games and toward others. I’m much more oriented toward new IP and new ways of looking at existing games. But new = risk, and risk isn’t something that a company like Kabam can take on right now.

    @Amit: Yes, I’m big on new adventures. :) I’ve been through every part of the game development and game employment cycle, and in this case I’m happy to move on.

    I too am very interested to see if there’s a place for “long-form” games right now. I think there is, but it’s almost like all the evolutionary niches of the short-form, shallow-experience games need to be filled first (lower cost, lower risk, less systemic design required). I refer to what you’re talking about as the “Miramax strategy” — instead of trying to make only blockbusters, keep some room for smaller pictures that are likely to do okay and may do really well once in a while. But that strategy is a difficult sell inside bigger companies. So we’ll see what the future holds.

  5. kirikkomori Says:

    Sorry to see you go Mike.

  6. Leah Stitz Says:

    Mike, wishing you all the best and looking forward to seeing what you do with your AI work.

  7. neeners Says:

    gbye mike, hope you make it big

  8. PotSmuggle Says:

    I have always been a fan of you Mike. It is sad to see you go.. I hope you will make some more money and perhaps buy some more diamond encrusted yachts.

  9. Sam Karasik Says:

    I will miss you MSellers. I wish I could have gotten a ride on the S.S Cash Daddy…

  10. Crawdiddy Says:

    No matter the hate, I think all of us from RotMG will miss you on some degree. Whether you be remembered as the pimpin’ guy with the diamond encrusted everything or the politician who cleared up misunderstood threads, you’ll always be a part of the long history of Realm

  11. Arzonite Says:

    Keep ballin’ on Mike! We (The Rotmg community) miss you!


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