Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top Wii games of 2008 [Metacritic]

Metacritic has put together a list of the top 5 Wii games of the year: http://www.metacritic.com/games/bests/2008.shtml

1 - Super Smash Bros. Brawl
2 - World of Goo
3 - MaBoShi: The Three Shape Arcade
4 - Okami
5 - Tetris Party

#3 hasn't been released in the states yet, but looks really interesting...and is likely to show up on Monday, just making the end of the year. Interestingly, after all the maligning of WiiWare, 3 of the top 5 rated games per Metacrtic are WiiWare games. I'm not surprised personally, WiiWare is horribly under-appreciated.

I grabbed the next 5 (well 6) from Metacrtic for the year as well:

6 - Guitar Hero World Tour
7 - Bomberman Blast
8 - Art Style: ORBIENT
9 - Boom Blox
10 - Mega Man 9
11 - No More Heroes

3 of the next 5 are WiiWare titles as well, bringing the total to 6 of the top 10...and Strong Bad, Lost Winds, Dr. Mario and Final Fantasy aren't even on the list.

So point one - WiiWare is under appreciated.
Point two - Innovation on the Wii is under appreciated. From that list of 10 I'd say at least 4 of them are innovative and different than what we are seeing on other platforms (World of Goo, MaBoShi, Art Style: Orbient, Boom Blox).

I've heard complaints that the Wii was supposed to change gaming, but it is failing horribly. I disagree with those sentiments of course, and I think the variety found in the Top rated Wii games is proof of it. (also interesting is the DS list - World Ends with You, Professor Layton & the PSP list Patapon, Space Invaders Extreme).

Notably absent...shooters.
...but I'm really not missing them.
I enjoy the occasional shooter, but I have to say, the Wii Top 5 list is far more diverse and interesting to me than the Top 5 list on either of the 2 shooter consoles.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Record sales! Record layoffs!?

The latest NPD numbers for North America are out and guess what? Video Games have never been hotter or sold more. 2008 is still on pace to be a record year for the industry!

So why is it that every other day we are hearing about layoffs and how the studio closures. Why are they fighting to stay alive when the industry is doing better than ever? Why is everyone so glum?

A few thoughts:
1 - The Party's Over
Over the years Nintendo noticed that the number of people playing games in Japan was decreasing. Doesn't that seem weird to say? More people play games now than ever! ...but what are they playing? Nintendo say in Japan that people played in their adolescence, then stopped, and that the number of kids was not increasing. They saw a highway to nowhere and so they changed strategies assuming the US would follow course.
Interestingly, the US has followed course. Strip out the Nintendo numbers and the industry is down this year by a lot. Those core games like Fable 2, come out, make a big splash and then disappear. The problem is, they cost a LOT to make and they need to have legs. However, there just isn't an audience for them beyond the first 6-8 weeks at retail...and that's for the hits. Costs more to make taken with flat to declining sales = industry in jeopardy. It's not the whole reason, but it's part of the problem. Nintendo adjusted, the industry has been sometimes on the attack against Nintendo, and has become especially so as they start plummeting. It's easier to blame Nintendo for the problems than it is to look at the industry and realize that there just aren't enough gamers who like the old 'core' games to support making them at the current costs. (which btw makes for more than one obvious solution)

2 - The Party's just beginning
Nintendo has opened up the public to gaming like never before. It's an opportunity to experiment and try different things as you have tons of niches that can likely support a game. You don't have only the option of shooters and sequels anymore! If you want to make a game about lacrosse, now is the perfect time! How about a stock market game? Rodeo? Personality testing? It's an opportunity for innovation with a better chance of hitting the mark than in the past (notably it's still pretty low ;)

3 - 3RD Parties are desperate need of some business schooling.
Quick, name a single 3rd party title that was made by the 'A' team at EA, Activision, Take 2, Ubisoft or well, any game developer not called Nintendo? Boom Blox? That wasn't the 'A' team. It was a good game, but not the 'A' team.
So the current cycle is something like this:
Big games from the 'A' teams are coming out on the PS3 and X360
Big game loses money
Little game/shovelware comes out on the Wii
Little game/shovelware doesn't make money because...well it's horrible...
Publisher/Developer claims Wii is destroying the market

Why not put the Bioshock or Dead Space or Mass Effect team on the Wii?
(I'm sure you have all kinds of protests in your mind...that's what happens at the big game developer's too, that is why the cycle just repeats over and over instead of being broken)

A final note... Rock Band on the Wii was the top selling version of Rock Band in November. Rock Band 1! Not Rock Band 2 that has been advertised and advertised over and over. You know why? Rock Band 2 doesn't come out on Wii until this week!?
Apparently either EA or Harmonix didn't get the memo that Guitar Hero sells best on Wii. Or they are just stuck in the cycle above? My guess is that they took soo long to release the horribly gimped Rock Band 1 on the Wii that they wanted to give it time to sell and didn't really care that customers were getting a piece of garbage. Apparently the brand value isn't very high and they wanted to horribly damage it? I'm really not sure, but I have to say it was the bone-headed business move of the year.
Instead of building brand on the Wii, what should be the lead platform for Rock Band, EA hurt branding and let Guitar Hero reign supreme. This is especially a bad move in light of the up-coming Beatles game. The Wii is the only console that can boast having an audience who listened to the Beatles in the 60s. So the Wii is #1 for music games and #1 for having an older audience. Do you think EA/Harmonix will bring the Beatles to the Wii first when it comes out? My guess is that the answer is 'no.' ...and the layoffs will continue...

A final, final note...
Can you name one publisher who is putting at least some of it's 'A' platform on the Wii (though perhaps not the 'A' team).
Square Enix...though it's really a long ways off, I expect it will pay huge dividends on the DS and then the Wii. Now if the FF team could get moved over, we might really have something. From one developer at least ;).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In defense of WiiMusic

The game industry needs to grow up.

It's young and as a medium, games provide so many opportunities that aren't being taken.

I think the industry needs the gaming equivalents of Driving Miss Daisy and Life is Beautiful, but increasingly, it seems gamers and game developers, when considering making games that appeal to "grown ups" are limiting themselves to Saving Private Ryan. That narrow-minded approach is perhaps causing players and designers alike to completely ignore one of the most amazing titles of the year, Wii Music.

Movie = Observed, Game = Involved
On the way out of Disneyland last week I was talking to my kids about the new Toy Story ride. The ride is like a video game with 3D screens and a gun (cannon?) that you use to fire at various targets. It's an amazing ride that is a lot of fun, especially for someone who really enjoys games.

I told my 5-year-old that she should tell her Mom all about it, and she stopped me and said "But Dad, you told us not to tell Mom about Movies." It was a great moment for me to stop and think. For her, she couldn't see the difference between a movie and a game. She'd been told many times not to tell Mom about movie endings so as to not ruin the movie, and she thought this game/ride was the same thing.

Of course the ride is nothing like a movie. In describing it, I wouldn't talk about the story, and there is absolutely no way I could ruin it for you because you have to experience it to understand it. While there are some games like movies, I think the greatest strength of games is the fact that they are an 'experience.'

A 'Mini-Rant'
However, it seems that despite interactive being an integral part of games, when attempting to discuss how to make games that tackle more 'grown-up' issues we often limit our approach to that of movies and other observer types of media.

Books, movies and music are all bad comparisons with the whole of what video games offers as a medium. They all make statements to the audience instead of involving the audience in the statement. Interactivity is what gaming offers that makes it the most amazing form of entertainment and media of our time. Interactivity can provide a way for people to experience things and broaden their minds in ways that no other form of media can do. I believe gaming will struggle to be all it can be if we only consider a narrow band of what gaming can be.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 has become the favorite system for gamers. (at least in the US if no-where else) The type of game given the largest advertising budget over the 4 Christmases it's been available, has been amazingly constant:
2005 - Perfect Dark
2006 - Gears of War
2007 - Halo 3
2008 - Gears of War 2
That list I find amazingly disappointing because the approach is all in the same little box. Where Microsoft is putting its top advertising dollars is a very strong statement about who the gaming industry is. I don't want to take anything away from the games, they are great. The problem is, when we look at our efforts to make the industry grow-up or better appeal to adults, placing so much focus on such a narrow slice of gaming, hurts the industry. If we limit ourselves to trying to discuss weighty matters that are of real significance within such a small approach vector, we are condemning video games to a limited role in society.

So why the rant?
After watching E3, I scratched WiiMusic off my 'get' list. I was sure Nintendo and Shigero Miyamoto had lost their collective minds. In the weeks leading to the game's release, I watched the occasional video and read snipits on gamer blogs about the game, trying to grasp what the point was. During that time, it was easy to join the 'haven't played the game, but somehow understand it enough to hate it' mass that seem to define gamers of our day.

The first crack to my shell came from reading a piece from Stephen Totillo on MTV Multiplayer talking about the moment he 'got' the game while playing Every Breath you Take. I'm a fan of Sting and of Stephen's honest writing style, he had me interested.

Then I watched a video from JC Rodrigo on YouTube. I was further interested and thought the game would be worth a try at least and since I had a $25 gift-card to use, so it wouldn't be like a full-priced game anyway.

I've put in over 10 hours on WiiMusic in the short time I've owned it, and I feel like I haven't scratched the surface. It is a game unlike any other I've played, the closest thing that comes to it is WiiFit. (another much misunderstood and much maligned game by "gamers") WiiFit has made me think about myself and my health in a way that I never got out of a movie or any book. By being an experience I was having instead of something I was observing, it much more strongly impacted me.

Another tangent - WiiFit
Simply weighing myself every couple of days and doing simple exercises changed my perception. I became aware of how I balanced my body on my heels and started mentally trying to correct this. I realized how positive an impact exercising (outside of the game) had on my weight. I also had fun in a new and different way. I came to love several of the balance board games and looked forward to playing them for a few minutes as a reward for doing some of the exercises. I didn't play the game daily and play it much less now that I've had it for 6 months, but it has impacted my life. It has changed my perception of myself and my health and has done so by being a video game that pushed the boundaries in a way that made most gamers uncomfortable and has brought it under a lot of scorn. I bristle when I hear such things. If I never play the game again, I can say it impacted my life in a positive way, in a way that no other form of media could, and I'm pretty amazed by that.

So back to WiiMusic.
I've enjoyed singing in choirs and when I was younger I played in bands. I play piano pretty badly, but not horribly (which is how I play guitar). I like music and enjoy a wide variety of it (my interests are far from satiated by the play lists in Guitar Hero and Rock Band). Despite coming from what I thought was a pretty solid music background, WiiMusic made me 'get' music in a way I'd never gotten it before.

The game includes a few music lessons, and in one of them, you play each piece of a band on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It seemed dumb, and I was somewhat affronted by playing such a silly song, but no-one was watching, so I played on. Playing each piece, one at a time, seeing how different they were, and then seeing how it all came together to make something that sounded so rich and full was really amazing to me. All the parts were so diverse, but all the sounds jelled together so well. I of course had understood this concept before, but actually playing every part, made me understand it in a way I never had before. Ever since, as I hear music, I'm picking out the parts and thinking about them in a different way that I can't quite explain other than to say I feel like my mind has been awoken.

Of course that was really just the beginning of my love of WiiMusic. Playing the songs in the game, it turns out, is really a challenge. Though most people I talk to think they get that each part is different, in practice, everyone just waves their remove or presses buttons like a mad fool, creating noise, lots of noise, and very little music that sounds interesting.

Playing a song well, at least my definition of well, which isn't quite Peter Gabriel, but nonetheless pretty intense, is hard, really hard. I played Motzart's 'A Little Night Music' over and over with my wife. Each time we'd finish and either she or I would say that we'd messed up on timing or in rhythm that made one part of the song or another sound garbagy, like we were a band learning how to play together, which in fact is exactly what we were doing.

Then there came that moment, after an hour plus of rehashing and playing the same song over and over again, where we really did jell together. It created the same sensation of accomplishment that I got when doing piano recitals and band concerts years ago. We really sounded pretty good. However, in watching the video, we saw areas where we could do better.

That's just one of the great moments in the game. An even more amazing moment comes as you push past making a particular song sound great and start making it sound like it is yours. That's when my creative side starts tweaking things, changing parts, timing and rhythm. Out of that, something new is created and I feel alive. It's the main reason I make games for a living. I love that feeling. WiiMusic provides an amazing workshop where you can create and tinker in a way that has never been done before, and in a way that only video games can do. It has opened my mind to a new world and left me humming my own favorite remixes of tunes that I created.

For me, I am really saddened by the negative reviews and comments that I've seen by the game. Based on the game's low sales, I'd guess that most of the people commenting about it haven't played it, or if they have, it was a brief experience at a friend's house.

WiiMusic isn't WiiSports. The first little bit may be fun, but it's not immediately accessible in the way WiiSports is. It takes time and experimenting, and a little bit of putting yourself into it to understand it. One I 'got' it, it changed my perspective about what games for adults should be like.

Some games can change the way you think and act by giving you information that you can only learn by experiencing it. WiiMusic did that for me. The fact that games are an experience is one of their greatest strengths! WiiMusic, I think, really capitalized on this.

...and it did it in a mature way, at least the way I think of mature -- that of expanding your thinking and changing your perceptions.

For any who have considered the game but passed on it, I hope you'll reconsider.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Off-topic: Microsoft Movie Maker and making software for the masses

I recently made my first DVD viewable on my TV through my DVD player. The process took nearly a year.

In going through it all, I found myself frustrated at Microsoft for the same reasons I'm always frustrated with them, and wondering why so few people are mentioning the problems I saw (and why there doesn't seem to be a solution through Movie Maker!?).

So the short of the story, we have a miniDV camcorder and I was able to easily bring my video recordings of Disneyland and Birthdays from a single 60 minute tape over to my computer. I thought I was half done in taking my movie from the camera screen to the big screen...but boy was I wrong.

The next step was easy enough, I used Movie Maker to splice up my movie, at cut effects for transitioning and even add some music at different spots to liven things up. I then tried to burn the movie to DVD. You have one option to do this in Movie Maker with not ability to control the quality of the output...and so I burned a DVD and watched the movie and it was, in my personal opinion, horrible. It was agonizing to watch the tape through the camera and see a crisp picture on the screen and then go to Movie Maker and have the movie turned into refuse. I gave up the project for 9 months and started back into it last week...6 hours of web searching and trial and error later I finally had my movie.

So let's get back to where my problem was. It isn't how Movie Maker makes amovie. In fact Movie Maker makes great movies! If you save the movie to your hard drive at a high-quality setting (for some unknown reason you only have that option WHEN saving to your computer) you will find that it comes out looking like a champ. Using Windows Media Encoder 9, you can even create your own profile and save the movie in HD and it will look fantastic. (seriously!)

...but if you try to have Movie Maker save the movie to your DVD, it lowers the quality...and there is simply no-way around it (short of swapping the files that Movie Maker writes to the DVD...while it is writing, a horribly stupid process!).
Using Movie Maker to make your DVD will ruin the perfectly good video you made by lowering the quality with pixelation and somewhat washed out colors. You can't change the save to DVD settings, there is no options to choose or ability to change it. Microsoft wants you to do it a specific way and you will do it the Microsoft way!

This lead me to another tirade about what I call Microsoft's Communistic Commands. Often in the name of helping customers out, Microsoft will decide there is a best way to do things...and then absolutely force that on the customer. For example, ClearType in IE7, which can help the Internet be more readable on monitors using DVI. It is turned on by default despite causing huge problems for anyone not using DVI (I was ill after upgrading and was looking quite desperately for a solution...). Microsoft nonetheless forced this option to be enabled by default in IE7 fearing that if they didn't turn it on by default, people wouldn't know it was there. My opinion has always been that if what you are doing is really valuable, they'll find out about it and use it. At worst an option could have been given during the upgrade process that enabled it by default, but gave the choice to turn it off.

Of course my opinions often don't matter when it comes to the way Microsoft does things. When a communistic command comes down, I can fall in line or get another program (which I have been doing increasingly often). In Outlook, for example, only certain attachments will come through your email. When you get an email with a non-allowed attachment, Outlook will happily tell you that it blocked the attachment, like a dog looking for applause after digging in the flowers. Outlook won't give you any option to access that attachment, even if you were waiting for it desperately. It will just tell you it blocked it and show you the attachment icon for the email that no longer actually has an attachment. You can't go into your options/settings and make it allow that attachment type...no the only solution is to go into your registry and manually allow the attachments.

So when I found that I couldn't change the quality of the output to DVD, I was frustrated...but unfortunately not all that surprised. To reach wider audiences, you have to simplify the interface of programs. For example, giving the customer no options after they click save to DVD. However, when the option to save at different quality levels IS available if I choose to save to the computer, I'm just at a loss.

In the end I was able to make a higher-quality DVD using DVDFlick and ImgBurn after first making the movie in Movie Maker and then saving the high quality version to my PC.

The long process to burn to DVD frustrated and fascinated me as I consider what making software for the masses entails...and what it should entail!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Take it Easy on Me - Difficulty in Games

In finishing up Airport Mania, one of the things that was really a struggle was the difficulty. As the designer/producer of the game, I had played it a bizillion times by the time we were ready to go to beta. I used my scores as the starting baseline of what a 'good' score was to be on a level. (if you haven't played it, every level of the game has 4 skill levels that are based on your level score and are shown to you real-time as you are playing)

After putting together my baseline, we went to beta and I started gathering back in the results of how the players did and of course (for those who have done something similar) I found that most people were scoring about 1/2 to 1/3 of what I scored on each level. The highest score on any level was 60% of my score. Unfortunately I'd set the high scores on each level at 75% of my best scores. There was a pretty big gap.

So of course I moved the score needed to 'excel' down...a lot, and I kept tweaking the score goals all through our 6 week beta. In fact, by the time we released I'd dramatically changed all 4 skill levels at least twice on every one of the game's 84 levels. In the end I thought the game was incredibly 'easy,' but then I had played it a bizillion times.

Once we released I started reading player reviews and found that while some people found the game to be easy, some still found it to be impossibly too hard. I was certainly sad that the game couldn't be all things to all people, it only underscored the difficulty in getting the difficulty level in a game right.

While in hindsight I might have liked to add a second difficulty level, I have to say that I think making the game 'easy' was the right way to err. (honestly, based on sales, I'd say we definitely went the right direction for this particular game)

The similarities between movies and games fascinates me. One great advantage that movies have over games is that they control everything. Everyone watching a movie sees the same thing and regardless of whether the audience understands things or not, the movie will end and resolve the plot (unless the movie is just horrible or trying to be artsy).

Movies don't have to worry about whether or not the people in the theater are of different abilities. The people in the audience don't have to fight to save Endor or to save the White City themselves, it's all done for them. Unless they walk out of the theatre, movie goers get the whole experience from start to end.

Most people who play video games don't go all the way through most of the games they play. I can't count the number of people I've talked who start games, proclaiming their adoration of the title, and yet haven't finished the game...nor do they have any plans of doing so. (and of course I'm a member of this club)

Why don't people finish games? Well it's a topic big enough for 2 semesters of coursework, but one of the reasons people don't finish games is the difficulty.

I was talking to a long-time gamer last week who gave up on Mario Galaxy because they just wanted to play and hated the challenge of the boss fights. My own experience with the horrific 30-minute boss fights in Metroid Prime 3 is similar. I often consult guides and gamefaqs to figure out bosses...I have zero interest in figuring it out...I just want to move on to the next piece of the game. Boss fights are often like that lull in a bad movie when you wish they could just get back to the plot.

Like when I see a movie, I want to see the whole game. I like the story and the set and the characters...there's just parts that don't thrill me. If the game was a movie, I'd wait it out, knowing that a bad scene can only last so long. But in a game, I tend to quit, and the game joins the hundreds of others on my shelf that are unfinished despite how good I thought they were. (how many GREAT unfinished games are there on your shelf?)

Of course...at 34 I'm old for a gamer (as I'm often reminded) and I'm not very good at games (though I was VERY close to cracking the Top 10 in the last Mario Kart Wii Tournament).
I also work increasingly in casual games, which are focused on making it easy for players to immediately play. So clearly I'm biased towards easy...

...but I'm also clearly not alone in my desire. A very healthy percentage of players of Half-Life 2 Episodes 1 & 2 are playing Half-Life on easy! Fairly or unfairly I label Half-Life players as a very hard core group. One that eats wild animals for breakfast and calls a 3-inch cut a mere flesh wound. They're the ninja masters of gaming. ...and nearly 20% of them like their games easy. It's like watching an army field general do ballet in front of his troops. (not that there is anything wrong with that!) It's amazing to see the ninja masters of gaming looking for their games to be easier.

With Airport Mania, I made it easy. Part of that comes from my belief that the majority of people who play casual games are looking for relaxation, not metal taxation. Part of it comes from my own experience in thinking that most games, even those made for kids are much more difficult than they should be. (THQ...seriously? what is up with the difficulty of your games...take a note from Travelers Tales...please!)

A lot of players aren't playing games through to the end. They are giving up very early on. Developers who have played the game over and over don't realize just how much harder it is for the average player to do what has become second nature to those who created the game. I think hard difficulty levels for those who are looking for the challenge and apparently have nothing to do all day but play games are great! Just be sure to include the easy difficulty level when you make your game. I want to see how it ends!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Rant: Innovation - to love, to fear

With WiiWare launching today I've been feeling like a kid again. I only got a short play session with Lost Winds, but I was just thrilled with the innovative game play. I was playing something unique and fun that continually made me smile. However, the truth is that most people won't be playing Lost Winds today or anytime soon because they'll have trouble comprehending it simply because it is so different. They complain that the wind is just a little too difficult to control or wonder why you can't just press jump like EVERY OTHER PLATFORMER for the last 25 years. The point of course is that Lost Winds isn't like all of those other games. It takes what you are used to and changes the play to something you are not used to. I hope that everyone will get a chance to play this little gem, but again, I fear most people will skip it.

From a MSNBC article today on WiiWare:
It's whimsical. It's smart. It's different. But in the games biz, "different" isn't always a good thing.

From running GameTunnel for 5 and a half years now, I have a little experience on the topic of what people think of 'different.' Though I wish they were wrong, I think MSNBC nailed it on the head.

Innovation in games is like 2nd Life. Everyone is always talking about it, but it doesn't make enough money to be anything more than an interesting discussion piece.

That's also the definition of lip service.

Lip service and innovation have become too good of buddies over the last few years. XBLA was supposed to be the Sundance of Indie games. I work for the company that made Wik, one of the first games on the service. I've been told by many people that Wik is still the most innovative title on XBLA. That doesn't surprise me. After Geometry Wars struck it big Microsoft wanted more of the same. Big explosions, mind-number particle effects. I heard that from Microsoft myself as we were pitching our 2nd XBLA title to Microsoft, just 5 months after the 360 had been released. I don't blame MS, they did what every other other company in their place has done. They used the words like 'innovation' and 'indie' to get newspaper noteriety, and then gave the public what was selling well...more of the same games we've been playing for the last decade.

I'm not saying that there isn't any innovation in Halo 3 or COD4 or Guitar Hero 3 or Assault Heros or Undertow or Uno. There is.
But it is a different type of innovation than you get in Lost Winds or in Wik. One is trying to take the familiar and improve it, the other is taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar. Tower of Goo is a great example of this as it takes bridge-building physics and recreates it in a way that feels totally different than any construction game you've ever played with a style that just as unique.

Not lost in all of this is a third type of innovation, which core gamers find the most frightening of all. That is where you take the totally unfamiliar and present it to gamers. It's fodder for another post, but Nintendo has become masterminds at doing this. Which is more innovative WiiFit or GTA4? It's apples to oranges, but if you are looking for something that is totally unlike what you've been playing, WiiFit is what you are looking for. GTA4 is innovative in the sense of taking what you know and making it better. WiiFit gives you an experience unlike any other game yet released.

As much as we love to talk about innovation, my experience tells me core gamers are scared to death of it because it doesn't look like what they are used to. Innovation looks like WiiFit, and core gamers just don't know how to react to it other than to attack it the same way they would an alien in Halo.

Increasingly I find myself not only frustrated at companies like Microsoft who are using 'Innovation' and 'Indie' to meet their own goals without providing what I think of as innovation, but I'm also frustrated at the gamers who pass over interesting games like Wik and who instead of loving the new gameplay offered by the Wii have long lists of reasons why they hate it.

I'm hoping, as I have for many years in running GameTunnel, that gamers will give innovative WiiWare games a chance and that games like Lost Winds and Tower of Goo will sell by the bucketload. I've been doing GT long enough to make me to recognize the truth in what MSNBC said, but I hold out hope for gamers embracing the unfamiliar and innovative works of those who are setting out to truly give us a different experience. The fact that the Wii is selling better than any console in history gives me hope that maybe this time, innovation will be embraced and that everyone will be able to enjoy these uniquely fun experiences.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Does the Picture on the Box Matter?

I'm a big fan of what Nintendo is doing. I think their focus on Innovation and Fun is right on the mark. So, I rarely make any effort to note where they are missing the mark, but with WiiFit mania soon to come upon in the US, I can't help but think Nintendo has made a mistake.

The box on the right is what WiiFit looks like in Europe and Japan. I love it. It says so many things without cluttering up the box. The sense of exercise is quite strong, with a focus on silhouettes.

This box is the US Box. I think it is a disaster.


The box says toy.

I think a lot of the success that Nintendo has had in the US, which of the 3 regions appears to be where it has the most success, has been due to the Wii being purchased by many groups of people. This box tries to capitalize on that by putting many groups of people on the box. There is a problem with doing that. By putting everyone on the box, you for sure put something on the box that makes someone feel like they don't relate.

In this case I think the box makes the Wii less mainstream and more kid. It feels more like boardgame boxes from 10 years ago that had the family all around the game smiling. There is nothing wrong with that image, but it does preselect a specific group. In this case, it selects against people who want to pull the game out with their older friends. A group of all 40 year or 20 year olds doesn't want to pull out a board game at their party where on the box half of the people are kids. By putting faces to the box you've started selecting groups, which makes some people feel less inclined to be involved.

The Japan box doesn't have these issues b/c it skipped them entirely. The US box is likely to make Mom just a little more likely to refer to the Wii as a kid's toy...which is exactly the opposite of the message that Nintendo has been successfully conveying for the last 18 months.
I'm sure the US will still sell many copies of WiiFit, but I worry that if this approach continues, that the Wii will become a kid's toy in the US, which will ultimately keep it from reaching the marketshare it could otherwise reach.

The recent ads for Mario Kart Wii, only serve to make me more concerned that Nintendo of America may have lost its way when it comes to marketing their very popular console.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Casual Games & Manifestos

I read through The Casual Games Manifesto on Gamasutra today and I got all the way through despite wanting to respond immediately to some of what I saw. I guess I'm a little jaded and I'm sure it didn't help in my reading comprehension.

I do agree with one underlying point of the article, you should use the portals in the casual games market to create customers for you if you are a developer. I talked about it at length at the GDC last year, and it continues to be true! ...and there is a whole additional market-place that developers aren't taking advantage of...but should...and it's a topic for another day.

One of the issues that I had with the article is the difficulty in creating customers from the portals. The portals clamp down hard on anything that looks like a link to another website or a service running on another server inside the games they offer. I'd be surprised if you could find a way to get much traffic from them that way.

The other issue I have is an on-going one that isn't exactly in the article. So the above is officially the end of my critique, and now I'm moving onto an almost related rant...

That second issue I have is the assumption that it is easy to get traffic or build up a website. Honestly, I worry that most developers, since they don't do websites, presume it is easy to create a huge website...just because they don't have any experience.

It brings to mind a favorite Dilbert comic:
Dilbert's Manager says "I put together a timeline for your project. I started by reasoning that anything I don't understand is easy to do."
"Phase One: Design a client-server architecture for our worldwide operations."
"Time: six minutes."

I can see Dilbert's stunned look on his face, unsure of what to say next.

Let's consider this for a moment.
How hard do you think it would be to create and run slashdot.org?
How about msnbc.com?
How about espn.com?
How about bigfishgames.com?

According to compete.com and collaborated by alexa.com (except alexa groups espn with go.com...) bigfishgames.com is the biggest of those sites. Stop and think about that for a minute...

That amount of traffic and what it takes to create and keep up a website of that size is ANYTHING but trivial. Creating and keeping that up is amazing. The type of thing that teams of people spend millions of dollars on and fail at most of the time. I'm not writing this to build up BFG, who we compete and cooperate with, but to just point out how enormous the task is of building up traffic like the portals have. The middlemen are middlemen because they are good at it. I encourage everyone to take on the market to the best of their abilities of course, but I wouldn't under-estimate the task.

...and back on point, I strongly agree with the point that you should try to steal the portal's traffic and re-route them to you and that you should build up a reason for that traffic to stay with you. I don't know that you can build a service into your game, but that doesn't mean you can't create a community of games that can be broken into separate pieces and sold through the portals for some name recognition...and maybe include some reasons for players to go looking for you :).

Monday, April 7, 2008

Daikatana & Airport Mania?

The programmer who I've been working with on Airport Mania sent me the following image as a gag, which considering the light-hearted nature of Airport Mania contrasted with Daikatana's in-your-face approach only makes it all the more funny. I couldn't resist but to share :). If you're not familiar with Daikatana's famous ad, check it out here.

Incidentally, Airport Mania is set for limited release (meaning it's only available in one place - http://www.airportmania.com/) this Thursday April 10th, with a full release through Reflexive.com on the 14th and your favorite portal in the coming weeks! :)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Indie Games Summit + My game

I'm at the GDC this week and will be hanging out at the Indie Games Summit Monday and Tuesday, and the IGF booth some of the rest of the time (Reflexive's own Axiom Overdrive is a finalist).

I kept somewhat copious notes of the first day of the Indie summits. There were some great presentations, including a very solid basic marketing presentation by Introversion. You can ready my highlights, responses and all my notes at GameTunnel (http://www.gametunnel.com/articles.php?id=673)

As well a sneak peak look at the game I've been working on is now up over on my Reflexive blog. The game is Airport Mania: First Flight, and I describe it as a mix between Aerobiz (one of my favorite SNES games) and Diner Dash. The game is more click-management than sim. YOu can see a bunch of not quite final pics of the game at Reflexive (http://www.reflexive.com/index.php?PAGE=Blog&BID=162)

Oh, and if you are at the GDC, be sure to say 'hi.'

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Piracy and Casual Games

My latest article has been published over at Gamasutra, and it has create a good bit of stir. I'm actually pretty happy about that as I really hoped it would be the springboard to some good discussion.

I thought I'd put in some additional details here in my blog. I ended up cutting 3 pages from that article while writing, which is very abnormal for me, but it was just TOO dry a read to keep all the info in.

On Ricochet Infinity the 92% piracy again was comparing full version against full version.

Some more numbers on that game: (these thanks to James C Smith, who made the game)
43% of the downloaded copies (including demos) went online (which means we can't track 57% - they may have not installed or not gone online, but as I mentioned in my article we can't assume that those who didn't go online were less likely to pirate than those who did go online)

Full data of all the downloads (from Reflexive.com):
2.3% Bought the game
29% Pirated the game
14% Went online with the demo
57% Never went online

So the 92% is the percentage of the full versions used online that were pirated.

The encouraging piece of all the numbers, I suppose (other than the very high CR of RI) is that of the non-pirates, the percentage who bought the game was a pretty high conversion ratio. I've often stated that the XBLA conversion ratios are inflated due to the $300 barrier of entry...people had to have already spent $300 to get to XBLA, clearly they are people who spend money on games. Online we cater to people who do and who won't. Clearly, if you removed the pirates (who according to the Ricochet Infinity numbers may account for 67% of ALL downloads in the casual space) the conversion ratio of the entire casual games industry would increase a lot :).

Another piece of data that seems useful is when we made the Fixes to the DRM.
Fix 1 was 12/15/05
Fix 2 was 7/12/06
Fix 3 was 4/18/07
Fix 4 was 12/5/07 + 12/12/07 (there was a minor follow-up to this fix)

Ricochet Infinity was released on 7/31/07

I actually had wanted to write this article months ago, but with the recency of that last fix...which was being worked on obviously prior to November, I wanted to give us at least some time to get a feel for how the results went.

Notably, that first Fix had dramatic sustainted results. I've mentioned this elsewhere, but that change is CLEARLY visible in the growth charts that we keep here at Reflexive. (and incidentally, a modified version of one of those growth charts was in my IGS powerpoints from last year's GDC...(text video)

Two last thoughts
I had planed to talk about one potentially positive result of piracy that I found interesting, but couldn't fit it into the article well, so I'll mention it here. In Ricochet Infinity anyone can create a level set and upload it to the server and watch it become popular...or ignored :). We've found that a good portion of pirates created level sets. I find that fascinating myself and it may speak to some possibilities of using piracy to a positive end.

The 1000:1 ratio is really, I think, the key takeaway of the article. Several people have grasped that and started applying it to different numbers in the industry, and the results are very disappointing. Clearly if we could always have a big gain from a fix that maintains itself, it is worth spending the time to fight piracy. However, since that isn't always the case, it can sometimes (often?) be pretty discouraging to try and stop piracy. I don't think that means that we should be any least earnest in our fight, but the ratio is quite interesting. I'd love to see some other portals disclose their numbers publicly to further the discussion :).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

AppleTV, Movie Rentals and Casual Games

I read about how AppleTV will enable Movie Rentals with great interest. The Movie industry is of course quite mature and they have learned a thing or two about how to maximize the money from their movies.

Consider the following revenue sources:
- Theaters
- Pay Per View
- Cable Movie Channels
- Network TV

Now consider those sources in terms of time. They don't happen all at once. The movie industry uses their value chain to make the most money they possibly can. When they started looking at making movie rentals available through AppleTV, the industry had to figure out how to make more money out of the value chain, and so movie rentals through AppleTV were timed to occur 30 days after the DVD release.

I think it is very fascinating especially in consideration of casual games. I've mentioned it to some degree before, but it bears further consideration. How does the casual games industry monetize itself?

- Premium online sale
- Reduced price online sale
- Monthly subscription
- Free with ads

That's true for the majority of games though for hits you can usually add in retail and very likely extend the list with mobile and other platforms. That's not a problem. The problem I think the casual games industry is running into is the growing pains of figuring out the timing of each item on the value chain. The movie industry sees that they can maximize revenue over time by making the offering available in different ways over time. From day one casual games are available at full price and at a discount as well as in most subscription services. Free with ads is delayed in most cases, but that may change.

The danger I think is in the focus on trying to maximize all the customers right away instead of creating value over time at distinct points. My guess is that the industry could increase their revenue by:
- First releasing the game at a premium price, making it unavailable for the discounts that are immediately available nearly everywhere in the industry
- Second making the game available through the discount programs
- Third making it available through subscription programs
- Fourth making it available as free through ads

I think the time frame involved is likely to be 6 months from step one to step four and the value of the content and the revenue from it is likely to rise. The current system amplifies short sales windows for each game and decreases lifetime revenue under the guise of trying to maximize profit in the 4 week period after a game's release. It's especially difficult for the smaller developers who are for the most part just along for the ride.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

O Casual Gamer

My newest article for Gamasutra went up yesterday, if you haven't read it you can find it here.

as games have become more mainstream, our understanding of who is buying thegames has become increasingly niche.

The point may have been overstated a bit, but I think the topic is very interesting. Essentially the idea behind the article is trying to take a deeper look at who casual gamers are and what motivates them to play.

I think one of the most difficult things to do is to look at the world through someone else's eyes. Whenever we consider anything we tend to relate it to our own view of the world. Unless you are really 'that' situation you can't really understand how it feels to be there. Trying to understand takes real effort and time to consider as many factors as possible.

As far as the casual gamer goes, they are feared and disparaged quite frequently. While that behavior is worthy of its own article, the question for the businessman is not how make gamers treat casual gamers better, but how to make more money off of casual gamers. Based on many of the casual games released on the consoles, I think we have a long ways to go in understanding what motivates casual gamers.

Some things that seem to have a positive impact
- Positive themes
- Female protagonists
- An easily and oft-obtained feeling of success
- Extreme accessibility

There are many values that are likely being fed by those things such as a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of progress and a sense of individual freedom. I'm not so sure the list of values for core gamers would be very different, but it appears that the road to the values is different.

Some things that seem to have a negative impact
- Coming under attack
- Not succeeding
- Complexity (in how you interface with the game or how it is played)
- Space themes
- Long range goals without any short range goals

Some things that don't seem to have any impact
- Darker themes (death, murder, frightening images)
- Frantic play
- Work themes
- Invulnerability/inability to lose

I'm sure the lists could be greatly expanded and debated. If you made your own, what would you put on them? What is leading casual gamers to play, and what personally held values are being positively stroked when a casual game is played?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Casual + Advertising = Nirvana?

Two of the hottest things in the gaming industry in 2007 were casual games and advertising. So adding them both together should equal bliss shouldn't it?

I was reading an article on ClickZ and it is timely as Reflexive considers advertising.

Casual game sites including RealNetworks and Microsoft began offering developers a share of ad revenues. Many publishers earned stronger revenues from advertising than sales.
It's nothing that hasn't been said before mind you. However, I've come to question the probable success of advertising and games. Certainly there are some places where it makes sense. However, the word 'some' should probably be replaced by 'few' to give a more accurate account of how advertising mixes with casual games.

Recently I did an article for Gamasutra that compared the different casual game portals. I draw attention to it as one of the things I looked at was whether or not there was apparent advertising at the portal, and if so where it was. I considered the website, webgames and in-game advertising. What I found was that though there is a lot of talk about advertising and games, there are few places using it, and of those few places using advertising, none of them were displaying it prominently. Taken together those points are the basis for my skepticism in advertising and casual games, but let's take a deeper look.

Why Advertising?
The theory behind advertising is to make more money off of your existing customers. It is OK to lose customers as long as you create enough revenue to make up for the customers lost AND your rate of growth is maintained.

In casual games, there is a misconception that 99% of the customer base is getting a free ride by playing demos. The thought is that if you can find a way to charge the 99% you'll make lots more money.
(btw, if you are wondering why the 99% is a misconception, the reason is in the denominator. 99% is figured by subtracting the 1% conversion rate from 100%. The problem is that conversion is a measure of sales/download, not sales/customer. Customers often try a ton of games in deciding what they are purchasing. Trying to monetize their trials isn't the same as trying to monetize people who aren't buying. Compare it to Baskin Robins. You can go in and taste multiple flavors before buying your cone. Baskin Robins doesn't try to charge you for tasting. Their goal is to monetize each customer, not each taste.)

Where advertising works
Places where advertising makes sense for me are places where customers are not impacted. I can think of only one: web games.

When a player playes a web game, they are expecting it to be a free experience. Most web-games are in fact advertising something else, often either a full-version of the game you are playing or another website. The type of customer who enjoys web-games does not seem to struggle with advertisements being plastered on every side of the game. I believe strongly that you can make money with web games and advertisements. Often, when statistics show that large amounts of money is being made in advertising in casual games, web game focused websites, such as Shockwave, are the focus of the articles. I think it is certainly significant to note who is and who isn't mentioned in articles about the bounties of advertising.

Where advertising might work
Websites and in-game advertising are both places where advertising might work, but each must be considered on its merits.

- Websites
Website advertising is easy to access and there are still places out there that will pay unreal CPMs to advertise. I continue to believe that very high CPMs disappear overtime and are quite unstable. A recession or economic down-turn quickly decreases advertising dollars. That said, why shouldn't you get money off of your website if you can do so?

When I did my article for Gamasutra I noticed that most of the big players (BFG, Real, Reflexive) did not have advertising on their websites (note: Real has it on the website, but not in their game client, which is where nearly all of their traffic occurs). If you think about a website that is selling a product, it makes sense not to have advertising on your sales page. You want to close the deal and avoid anything that may distract the customer. Ads are a big distraction. The only reason I can think you'd use advertising on a sales website is that you haven't optimized your sales process very well and so you're earning more by sending a portion of your customers away than you are by selling to them.

Of course many advertising aggregators will state that these companies just want 'face' time. They just want to be seen and don't care about anything else. If you hear that, just ask the aggregator if that is what they tell their clients who are advertising with them.

Website advertising makes sense for products that are "free," (news, web games, email, search results, etc.) but not so much for products that you are selling. When you are selling something your hole website should really be one great big advertisement...FOR YOU! From my observing the different portals, the amount of advertising on the portals has been decreasing over the last year, I think that is perhaps very telling.

- In-game Advertising
The parallel is often drawn between games and TV shows, suggesting that interruptions will not hamper the player or change the experience. Some portals (MSN, Real, iWin) have gone this route. (Wild Tangent uses a very similar tactic of having the advertiser pay for your pay session). I disagree with the parallel. I think games are closer to books or movies than to TV. You can't walk into a movie theater and choose the free version of this week's latest blockbuster that is speckled with commercials. That's left for TV. Books don't require you to turn pages trying to figure out what page the story continues on. That's left for Magazines. I see games as premium content that you are paying for. The free model paid for by advertising doesn't make sense for me, except in one case: old games.

Much like new movies commanding a premium, I think new games command a premium. You can't get a new movie on DVD the day it is released in the theater. You can't see it on TV until after the DVD sales have died down. The content is sold as premium until it is common and then monetized by ads when it is common. I can see games following the same model, and from what I see with in-game advertising, that is the model gaming is following.

Go to Real or Game House or iWin or MSN Games. Find the games that are free to play if you watch the advertising. Can you find them? Anywhere? I think the greatest point in all of this is proved by the experience in trying to find the games. If they aren't put in a place where they can be easily accessed, then clearly they aren't that important to revenue.

When you do finally find the games you'll see that the list of free games is old. There are a few newer games mixed in, but for the most part, everything on the list has had a sequel, and none of the sequels are free. I think the approach is the right one, and based on the 'hidden' placement of the free games on the 3 (Game House is owned by Real) companies that offer them
I don't believe that in-game advertising is anything more than a great way to monetize old content that otherwise isn't well monetized. That said, it may be a great way to do that, and a nice supplemental income.

The Danger
In the rush to monetize the "99%," it would not be surprising to see advertisements popping up in new games and even in game demos. I think that will hurt the premium standing of games. My marketing professor loved to tell us stories about companies who left the niche to access the masses. Companies like Pizza Hut with their 'Bigfoot' who tried to get the Little Ceasar's customers, thinking 'there are so many of them, we can make less per customer' or Pioneer who thought essentially the same thing, have gone from being the best in their class, selling a premium product at a premium price, to losing most of their market-share and becoming 'common.'

Creating a marketplace where new casual games are equally valued with free flash webgames I think would be very damaging.

Proceed with Caution
The other part of this tale is Reflexive's part in all of this. We've been staunchly anti-advertising for quite some time. However, we also run an affiliate program, and that program taken as a whole is much larger than Reflexive itself. So, we work to provide to our affiliates the things they are looking to do. Advertising revenue is something that everyone is talking about, and so many of our affiliates are interested in knowing if we will help provide a solution for them. Of course they can already to website advertising on their own, the real questions are about web games w/advertising and in-game advertising.

We're looking into it. We test everything we consider to see how it works for us, and the actual impact on our customers. We carefully measure everything to see how it goes, and who knows, maybe I'll be proven wrong on this whole advertising 'opportunity.'

Certainly advertising has remained an elusive opportunity for most in the industry, making solid sense for web games and being debatable in other areas. 2008 will be an interesting year for us to see just how much of an opportunity advertising is or isn't. No matter what the outcome, it's worthy of a lot of questioning and debating before adding advertising to casual games.