Archive for the ‘social games’ category

Onward and Upward, Once Again

June 28, 2013

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.

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Where I’ve Been and Where I’m Going

April 11, 2011

“Some people try to turn back their odometers. Not me. I want people to know why I look this way. I’ve traveled a long way and some of the roads weren’t paved.”  – Will Rogers

A lot has happened since I last posted here.  We had one major project slowly grind to a halt, abandoned by the publisher. Not a fun story, even if we did learn a lot.  And we had another flash briefly, just long enough to prove out the design and technology, if not long enough to make back its production costs.

Social games have continued their astonishing fast-forward pace.  The game industry changes faster than any I know of, and I have never seen things change this fast.  One of my new mottos is

If you don’t have whiplash, you’re not paying attention.

What was a wide open blue-ocean part of the games industry a year ago is quickly consolidating and stratifying into Huge Players, Big Players, and Everyone Else.  There are good games and money to be made at each level, but on different scales and with different difficulties. And game designs or production practices that worked less than a year ago have to be discarded now to stay current with the market.

For myself and my company, Online Alchemy, the latest blows we endured were too much.  I’ve rebooted the company before — after a triple-play debacle in 2007 (DARPA project killed by world events, development contract pulled at the last moment, and the long-lamented demise of the Firefly MMO at the hands of Fox and Universal), so I know how to do it.  And I have an amazing team of people to work with.  But the costs of rebooting again now seemed too high and too risky.

So, time for a pivot: I have joined Kabam as an Executive Producer.  This is a terrific company with a clear focus and top-notch talent all around. I’ve been very impressed with the blend of agility and process I’ve found there. I can’t yet say what I’m working on, but as with everything in this part of the industry, all will be clear soon enough.

Online Alchemy will be sticking around, but will be returning to its focus on “social AI” research and development.  This is definitely an area for research, building on the company’s existing work in artificial emotions, relationships, and reputation, but as yet no real consumer market has appeared for such AI.  I still believe one will, but it may be ten or twenty years before it happens.  I’m content to be patient, and persistent.

So, what’s next?

 

Beta?

November 10, 2010

Recently when talking about an upcoming project, I was asked whether we were going to put “Beta” on it.

I’m not even sure what that means now.  What does it mean to say your game or app is “in beta” these days? (more…)

Wait for It…

November 5, 2010

More news coming soon (no, I haven’t died or lost the keys to this place).  We’ve been working hard on a couple of very spiffy things and we’ll be saying a lot more about them  shortly. Sometimes not saying something too soon about what you’re working on is one of the most difficult things about this business.

In the meantime, have a look at this terrific image from an upcoming app of ours, or read this very insightful article by Trip Hawkins, CEO of Digital Chocolate, about using the wealth of publicly available information we have to assess the health of social games and social games companies.

We really do live in a time of unprecedented change in the games industry: faster development cycles, much closer relationship with the customers, much more resilient revenue models, incredible metrics and marketing tools, and — I hope — the ability to create new kinds of games on that foundation.

 

The Early Game

July 3, 2010

I’ve talked a bit here about the need for depth in social games — the need for an elder game that keeps you playing after you’ve grasped the primary gameplay.  This need is showing up in the “dangerous curves” we’re seeing in many of the first-gen social games topping out and drifting downward as people tire of the same-old gameplay.  There’s no doubt that it’s important to “avoid the VOID” in game design — where VOID is Varies Only In Difficulty (coined by Dan Arey, I believe).  In other words, if all you do is dial up the difficulty as the game moves along, it gets boring pretty quickly.

But on the other end — the nearer end, the one you have to get through to be able to worry about an elder game — things are heating up too.

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Dangerous Curves and Social Games 2.0

June 18, 2010

I’ve written here a few times about the business model for social games and why I think this is a very good area to be working in.  I continue to believe this is a large market in its early stages, with more people spending more on virtual goods in the past year, and with  at least one recent study predicting incredible revenue growth over the next few years. We’ve all seen the meteoric rise in this sector in the past couple of years, both at the top end in Zynga, Playdom, and Playfish (now EA), and in the medium-size and long-tail developers.

But recently, some of the shine seems to have come off this area. This is most clearly seen in the dropping MAU and DAU in the top social games — Farmville for example has dropped from a high of about 83M MAU in March to 66M today.   66M is still a number that no one else can touch, but it’s also a huge drop in a game that had been rising steadily.

And it’s not just Farmville.  If you look at the graphs for the top games that have been around for a while, rising continually (e.g., Texas HoldEm, Cafe World, Pet Society), each shows a peak and a subsequent fall-off.   Notably, this isn’t just due to the age of the game: some more recent games like Treasure Isle and Hotel City show the same dangerous curve at around the same time, even though they haven’t been around as long.  Some like Nightclub City show a rising MAU curve — but a daily users curve that has peaked, indicating that the trailing MAU indicator will show this soon too.  Still others, despite strong PR-backed launches in what seemed like good areas, have fared much worse from the start (indicating among other things how critical repeat play is to the success of these games).

So other than the fact that simply putting out a social game isn’t a license to print money, what does this mean? (more…)

The New Social Grind: Begging as Gameplay

June 9, 2010

Zynga recently came out with its latest “social” game, Frontierville.  It features the same cartoony art style and single-player gameplay as their previous games, and reportedly combines elements of others including Farmville in a new skin.

Another thing it does is hone the concept of what I’ve called “ugly viral” — in this case, using begging as gameplay.  Not only does this game make it impossible for you to move forward without others helping you — in a way that involves no social interaction at all —  it’s very up front about this as the poor li’l teary-eyed supplicating pioneer in the illustration (from the FB feed) shows.

So what’s wrong with this?  It’s all in good fun, and it’s cute, right?  Well, maybe.

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