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 riches 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.