Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Economic Crises: A Game Design Approach

With the recent set of turmoil that has engulfed markets all around the world, I can't help but think of it as a game. At the moment the banks are all in trouble, the levels of trust in markets at an all time low. It is, in essence, a game of poker that has gone bad, and many people are taking their stakes and going home. There's a lot of culture of blame going on, with various groups and politicians calling for curbs on pay packets to executives and the like, which I tend to think is basic scapegoating when the actual problem is that the rules of the market game were poor and lacked balance.

Investment banking, indeed any kind of financial business, is really just a game. There are rules to adhere to, diplomatic phases to engage with, trades to be done and so on. The reward for playing the game well is money of course, but after a certain level most investment bankers would agree that the money that they get is really just points. The rules of the game allow for a vast accumulation of points, reinvesting of points to build even more points, complex deals based on the promise of the transfer of points etc etc. It's just a big MMO.

What happens with any game of any sort is that players instinctively try to exploit it. Grokking, as it's generally called, pretty much demands this sort of behaviour. To be a great player, you have to learn now only how to play but also how to play well, and what the limits of the system are. An example of this is rocket-jumping in Quake, or the road-rail cheat in Transport Tycoon. All game systems have unintended emergent behaviours and the more complex the system becomes, the more opportunities for exploits become available.

Exploits, it should be noted, are different from actual cheats. A cheat is where the player uses some outside influence to artificially alter the system (such as looking at your opponent's cards). An exploit, however, is legal within the system even though many players may not consider it sportsmanlike behaviour.

The current financial crisis is essentially the result of two things:

1. Poor rule design in the game of the markets.
2. A proliferation of exploits gone bad

Rule design
The key rule design that has been flawed is that of the complex derivative and credit swaps market. In short, the intergovernmental system had adopted a highly free market approach to all business as much as was possible over the last 30 years (pretty much since the 80s) which had had good effects in liberating a lot of credit but also had bad effects in limiting monitoring and oversight. While free markets sounded good in principle, in actuality they drove the complexity of transactions. It has been said a lot in recent days that the core of the problems really stem from most of the players having a very poor understanding of the transactions to which they were committed. A whole vast industry had arisen on the basis of this exceeding complexity to the point that pretty much nobody knew what anything was worth any more and everybody believed that everything was secure until they realised that it wasn't.

So what about those exploits? Well transactional complexity figures largely here because they essentially allowed the players to inflate their value in the absence of a clear sense of worth. Secondly in many countries the relationship between players and rule-makers was too close. Financial institutions (being as they are players) are motivated to want to collect as many points as possible and so they lobby for changes to the rules of the game in order to get those points. This is not dissimilar to high-level long-time players whining about their characters in WoW to Blizzarrd in the hopes of getting some advantage for themselves.

So since lobbying is legal, it has been an oft-used exploit. Another is the practise of creating new kinds of financial product at a rate much faster than the hobbled government can catch up to and examine them. When you have a mortgage market with hundreds of thousands of separate "products" (meaning deals) in it offering all sorts it seems that our political structures simply cannot react fast enough to them. The same thinking applies all across the credit market, and led to some real limiting-inducing types of product such as a the 110% mortgage with no deposit. Nobody seemed to understand why this is a bad idea any more because of the exploits involved.

The failure here is therefore political. Unlike the players in the market, it is ultimately governments that set the rules of the game. You can always assume that a player will play a game with such high stakes in an unfair manner if they can (because that's how it is in the top leagues) so the real fall-down is not with the players who simply played, it's with the politicians who either didn't understand what they were doing or didn't see the consequences, or convinced themselves that they couldn't govern. Non-governing government is a central theme in all of this, and it explains how they were caught so flat-footed.

Simply put, politicians of all stripes over the last 30 years have slowly relented from their responsibilities in government. This too is for reasons of a game: while a government controls so much of a bureaucracy or a series of departments it is vulnerable to attacks or even downfall from those avenues. This means a government running road, rail, postal services, schools, military, police and so on can potentially take a lot of heat - especially in an age of 24-hour news.

So their natural inclination has been to get as many of these concerns off their books as possible. Privatisation benefits the government because it makes headaches over the rail system someone else's problem. Extreme liberalisation of markets benefits the government because it gives them a convenient set of targets when everything is going to hell. And so on.

Sometimes it's good to liberalise, sometimes it isn't. In so doing to an extreme degree, the governments of the west have essentially been allowing the exploits to multiply for a long time. They have also been retreating ever further away from their essential role of the rule-maker, but it is still a role that they have.

Moving Forward: Digital Nation
This is where we, the game developers, can make a difference. The real issues of complex systems and exploit management are our bread and butter. We make games for a living, some of them very complex. We model systems and simulations on a more or less constant basis and we do so from the position of experts both in systems and in player behaviour. If you accept that markets are essentially driven by game thinking, then who is better placed to come up with innovative solutions that we?

More importantly if we are also going to prevent this sort of catastrophe from happening again, who is better placed to help modelling a new form of digital governance than we? Politicians don't seem to have the tools at their disposal to make informed decisions any more or really see the results of what they are deciding, but we can. We can make systems that model the entire development of a civilisation  if we put our minds to it. We are the professional systems makers, simulationists and gamers.

So, when looking at the latest series of rises and falls on Wall Street and the latest ever more listless cash injections being used to try and preven further meltdown, think of it like this: What you're seeing is a badly designed game in operation being managed by people who don't have a firm grasp of it because of its complexity and who are really just hoping not to get the blame. We can do better than this, and we should.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Embedding and sharing in the Play Room

The Play Room is proving to be quite entertaining, and it's always fun to share within it. Some tips:

It's really very easy to join. Simply register a username on (this takes all of ten seconds) and then click this link: and the Join This Room button.

You can share items to the Play Room very easily using a bookmarklet. This is simply a button that you drag on to your browser's bookmarks toolbar. Thereafter, any time you see a page that you'd like to share, you simply click the bookmarklet and a little box appears asking you to fill in some details. Don't forget: While the bookmarklet is opne you can also click one of the pictures on the page to add it into your share. Shares with pictures are always more attractive. The bookmarklet is here:

You can embed a little frame of The Play Room on your own blog or site if you like. Simply add the following piece of javascript to your site, and you will see a widget just like the one on the right hand side of this page:

<script src="" type="text/javascript"></script>

Come join in the fun!

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Nine members

Well it's a start.

So far the activity in The Play Room has admittedly mostly been mine (come on members, get with the sharing) but some of those items have been quite interesting even if I do say so myself.

Two articles, for example.

  • One is about piracy and Cliff Harris's call for pirates to speak to him directly about why they pirate (A mildly confrontational, but I suspect fruitless, challenge).
  • The other is from Gamasutra and is about the hurdles that Johnathan Blow encountered with the Microsoft certification process for XBLA.
Both links are sitting in the room now. Come, join, comment, share. 

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Play Room: Friendfear?

Something I hadn't expected.

I've asked a few friends, not many - people in games - to sign up to the room. A few have. But some of the reactions that I've had from those who haven't has been something that I hadn't expected: Fear of publicity.

Specifically, that they didn't want discussions, even light-hearted discussions, on the subjects of games in case somebody somewhere (from their jobs mostly) might Google them and find them.

It says a lot about what it is to work in games when even a link-sharing group strikes terror into the heart.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Play Room: 24 Hours later

Well things have gotten off to a good start: There are 7 of us in the room now.

I've had an interesting day talking to a few friends about it in fact, giving them a link etc. All but one of them didn't know what Friendfeed was at all, and there was a lot of suspicion. One friend kept badgering me and asking what was in it for THEM. It was hard to explain that it was one of those "what you put in, you get out" deals.

For those that don't know: This is a wiki page about what Friendfeed is.
It's not a spammy service, it's just a simple gathering tool, not a million miles away from a webforum or Facebook group, but it's really easy to pass interesting links that you've found on the web and start discussions etc.

Come, join in.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Play Room

I don't know about you, but recently I have become very very bored with the whole blogging scene. Games blogging such as it is had this really high wave of activity about 3-4 years ago when people like Greg Costikyan and Scott Miller and Daniel Cook were at the height of their powers. It was all big, serious-minded people writing big serious essays on every subject from how to manage a brand to very in-depth talks about game design.

But lately the scene has just gone to seed. We're not along in this either: Lots of the world's biggest blogheads are engaged in furious debate at the moment over why blogging has gone so damn boring. A lot of them are now talking about micro-blogging, life-casting and sundry other concepts which could be described as fascinating and horrendous all at the one moment.

I'm not proposing to start life-casting my day or anything of the sort, but what I am proposing is to get a conversation going and leave the blogspace to become more noteworthy and probably turn into Google Knol in the fullness of time. As with games themselves, this blogging lark should be fun, no?

Well here it is: The Play Room.

The Play Room is a room on the social meta-service called Friendfeed. It is a service in which you can share links and comment on them, share photos, embed feeds, all that good stuff. A room in Friendfeed is simply a sub-division of that space in which an administrator (in this case me) sets a very few ground rules (like staying reasonably on topic would be nice) and really just lets everybody else get on with it. Friendfeed is ridiculously easy to use. Just sign up, set up the things you want to embed in your own feed, and then click on the link above (or here) and join in.

The subject of the Play Room?

GAMES of course. And social media. And funny videos. And webcomics. And photographs of queues outside shops at midnight to buy Halo 4. And blog posts. And links to neat magazine articles. And deriding E3. It's basically a place to share, think, comment and enjoy. Share and enjoy.

That's it, that's the pitch. Come on in, tell your friends, get them to come on in too.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Zero Tolerance: The new music in Zero Punctuation

I love Zero Punctuation, the mostly-weekly review video that The Escapist have been running for a while now by British emigré journalist Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw. For those three of you out there who may not know what it is, ZP presents 4-minute long animated reviews, mostly of one specific title at a time, and it does so with a calavcade of animated characters and a very distinctive speaking style on the party of Yahtzee. He literally fires through each of the points of his reviews in a mad rant that offers little or no chance for breath or full stops. Hence the name. It's the game reviewer equivalent of The Show with Ze Frank.

Aside from the machine-gun speed delivery, however, what makes ZP work extremely well are three things: Its visual invention, its analysis (which is sharp, witty and often brutally to the point) and its very British off-kilter tone. It has been the making of The Escapist also, which prior to ZP's introduction was a very dusty magazine full of intellectual pieces that seemed more at home in an academic journal trying to make some impact in the world of Gamespot and IGN.

But there's a problem and it is this. Someone in the editorial circle of the Escapist, whether it be Yahtzee himself (doubtful) or somebody at the magazine, has decided to jazz up Zero Punctuation with the introduction of boilerplate animations and music at the front and back of each of the new videos.

So where previously we had relevant and witty music choices.

Now we have cheesy metal and explosions.

This has to be stopped!
Letters need to be written!
Avengers assemble!

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The conference ritual

There's this ritual that I have: Every year I log onto whichever of the gaming news sites are showing webcasts of the E3 conferences, and in another window I click open British gaming forum, wherein live commentary is provided. It's a real treat for two reasons: 1. The conferences are usually dreadful, full of flash graphics and music around some of the worst presentation giving you have ever seen. They are legendarily awful unless there's some totally awesome hardware launch. 2. The commentary on the forum, on the other hand, is fantastic. They literally tear it apart in a super-lively babble of reality up until the point that the forum keels over for having too many users. Things we've shared over the years:

  • Fist-pumps to no applause
  • Timid voices trying to sound exciting
  • Everybody using the words "opportunity, "experience", "innovation", "compelling", "exciting" blah
  • Fake thanks on stage
  • People clearing throats
  • Bored bored bored journalists
  • The "one more thing" thing which is so tired even Steve Jobs doesn't do it any more
It's great fun, but not really what the interested parties are trying to do, surely? It strikes me that if you're going to do the conference thing then surely the thing to learn is some stagecraft? Don't put the timid exec on stage if he's not good in front of a crowd, for instance. Find someone to do it for you with confidence, even a celebrity if you have to. Don't talk about how exciting things are: show how exciting they are. Don't trot out lists of features as a replacement for content. In the end of the day, there are better ways to present this stuff but ultimately what it comes down to is charisma, and most of these people doing the conferences are no doubt very talented at their jobs but they comes across as nerds talking about their science project at the head of a bored class on a hot summer's day. "Exciting!"

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A question of value

If I were to ask you what you think the value your game's content was, what would your answer be? I think most developers would answer somewhere between 10 and 25 pounds (or 20 and 50 dollars US). It's what they would likely consider a fair price for their services rendered, and that's perfectly understandable.

The problem is that they don't set the value of their output, the public do. And the public have always placed the value of content at one number:


When paying for entertainment, the public are always paying for one of three things: Tickets, memorabilia or convenience. Tickets as in entry to an event. Memorabilia as in merchandise. Convenience as in the ability to use their content as and when they choose. So, for example:

  • A ticket to go see Led Zeppelin
  • T-shirts for the event
  • An album of greatest hits that they can pop on and listen to whenever they choose
It's not the actual thing that they'll pay for so much as the toll to get to the thing, in otherwords. This is largely born out by the radio and television industries' realisations back way whenever that people wouldn't actually pay to listen to radio shows or watch TV shows. Instead they developed the first business models that gave content away at the value which the public perceived (i.e. for free) and instead made the toll a business-to-business transaction in the form of advertising. And I think we can all agree that that model has been nothing short of a roaring success for those companies that could scale that model appropriately. Add in the extra ticket incentive of cable television and there you have it.

So, to games.

Currently most games sell themselves on the convenience model. The discs that the people buy to put in their Xboxes represent the equivalent of the album. Except not all discs will fit all boxes, a situation that fragments the market in a bad way and keeps games effectively on the sidelines culturally. While the industry wrestles over which format to support (and these are especially uncertain times in that regard), it effectively produces a natural cap for the consumer that does not want to be confused and suspicious.

The convenience model for games therefore has its limits, because the prices for new games are quite high compared to other forms of entertainment, and the selections are small. Thus the only predictable course for the industry overall is to continue building self-enclosed toy empires that extract value as much as possible from each step of the chain. The Nintendo model, basically, of which the only step that's still missing is for Nintendo to bite the bullet and open a set of retail stores. As things stand I can't see why they wouldn't.

Another fairly popular model is the ticket approach. In this model, the game is kept away from the player until he pays a toll to access. World of Warcraft is an example of this model in action, as is arcade gaming or interactive TV "pay to play" services (small disclosure: I currently work in that end of the industry). Ticket models have a significant advantage over that of the convenience model in that they can encourage repeat or continuous purchasing form the players. For their £8.99 a month, players play as much as they want, and Blizzard eventually make out extremely handsomely as the players eventually end up paying far more than they would have had they been individually purchasing the game plus updates.

Aside from the fairly small trade in gaming merchandise such as plastic figurines and cross-media applications like Halo novels and the odd movie tie-in, the main kind of memorabilia sale in the games industry is through the exclusive edition, in-game property (i.e. micro-transactions) and that sort of thing. People like a sense of ownership, particularly of something tangible.

The key thing to understand from all this nugget-wisdom above is that regardless of your feelings (as a developer or would-be developer) about piracy, your sense of self-worth, your feeling that things should have a value and so on, the public essentially doesn't care. A game is essentially the same thing to them as an album or a movie. It lacks a tangible quality and, being ephemeral, doesn't feel like it has any intrinsic worth.

Don't be depressed, because this is something that you can use to your advantage. It's just about realising that just because they think it has zero value does not mean that it is worthless. Here are some ideas:
  • Build a game based on ticket sales
  • Build a game based on sponsorship and promotion
  • Build a game in which the basic PC version is free, but you charge for the convenience of an iPhone version
  • Build a game in which tangibles mean something
  • Build a game which you distribute freely, but charge extra for support, etc
  • Sell a premium version of your game in a box with quality tat for 50 pounds a box
And so forth.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Why is the book world NOT threatened by gamers?

I don't normally do this, but I am moved to write a response to a post on the Guardian Tech blog by the journalist Aleks Krotoski on the subject of book publishing, computer games, and asking generally why is it that the publishing industry seems so behind the times. Her point is effectively an argument for the oncoming wonders of interactive storytelling.

I have written about this before (here) and made the basic point that the differences between games and storytelling are not simply a matter of one being a restrictive version of the other, but rather that there are key differences. Editing being one, and the role of the hero being another. So-called "interactive storytelling" isn't, in my view, something that is practically achievable because of these two key traits.

She writes: "In computer games, for example, the player is the hero."

No, she isn't. This is an essential and oft-misunderstood point. The player appears to be a hero because in a movie the hero is a walking talking thing with arms and legs that does stuff, and if I play a videogame I am also a walking talking thing that does stuff. QED? No. A hero in a story is an essential part of the structure of the story. Their personality and character, bad decisions and good are what make them as much a part of the story as the setting and the incidental characters. In a videogame, the player is not a hero. The game character that they manipulate is simply a doll, a suit of clothes, a projection of themselves into a game world. The player's mind is immersed in a world through that doll, but they do not become the doll (as in adopt their actual personality, motivations and whatever).

The publishing industry really doesn't have any cause to be afraid of what's going on in computer games. While there are many fans of the idea that games represents some great departure into a branching new age of multiple stories and generative solutions, there aren't any good games that back this notion up. One of the most recent (Grand Theft Auto IV, which is fantastic, play it) is a great example of how gaming and sliced story segments can work really well together, but it isn't a threat for an author of a novel.

Hanif Kureshi has it right. From Aleks's article: "At a recent literary event, I asked author Hanif Kureshi what he makes of interactive literature - the kind emerging across blogs, social networking sites and in the virtual sprawl of computer games. He poo-pooed the idea of co-authorship with unknowns, unless he could ensure that collaboration was with someone "good", and appeared reluctant to relinquish the control he has over the narrative experience."

The implication being that Kureshi is simply being a fraidy cat. He's not, what he's voicing is experience: Authorship is hard, and it's a mostly internal process. While there is some virtue in the idea that the wisdom of crowds might be applied to editing or offering constructive criticism, the authoring doesn't really scale. One only needs to look at various efforts across Facebook and Penguin's experiments to realise that crowd-writing of fiction is generally bloody awful (whereas crowd writing and editing of fact like Wikipedia is great). It's not simply because most people who write are bad writers; it's because the fiction process requires structured imagination and experimentation to work.

In Aleks's piece, she writes "Books are the equivalent of single-player games and old-school websites. They are snapshots of information at a single point in time, where stories are created and navigated from the point of view of one person. Social media has changed the nature of information gathering and production, and multiplayer games have re-inspired collaborative play. Static media which insists on remaining static is on its way to becoming a curiosity."

Except it isn't. Games sales may be on the rise but so are book sales. We may be using utilites such as the internet to have great big global conversations, but we are usually conversing about the supposedly-boring static media. What the interactive-set hope for is essentially a future where the novel, the album or the painting becomes a fluid thing, but realistically it's just a fantasy borne from reading a bit too much William Gibson. There is no global conversation without topics of conversation. Mashups need starting points. Fan pages need something coherent to be a fan of.

We really are at the limit of where games and stories meet, and it turns out that they just don't have a lot in common. Games in reality have much more in common with architecture, the visual arts and mathematical systems than they do with stories. What I find interesting is this idea that has gotten into many journalists (and developers) that their goal is to take on Hollywood, or Big Publishing, when I think they should be looking much more at the world of modern art for their cues and inspiration.

Immersion does not have to be (and usually is not) achieved through storytelling-ish or even quasi-storytelling-ish means. It's all about ambience, vibe, triggers, music, good game controls, and true fluidity. GTA IV's genius is, and this has always been the case, that it embraces fluidity right down to the gameplay by dispensing with trying to be storytellers and instead using story snippets simply as a part of the ambience. In GTA, story is basically the thing that gives context to the missions, adds to the vibe, and generally stays very far away from trying to impose, inspire or whatever.

It's not interactive storytelling, it's interactive architecture. Kureshi need not worry.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Aggregation vs Portals: Where Microsoft is going wrong with Xbox Live

In perhaps the most interesting news of the week, Microsoft have announced that they are going to start de-listing games from Xbox Live Arcade based on two criteria: Sales and review scores. In their view this means that they are trying to bring some overall quality back to the product line, probably because they've had consumer feedback that says they are tired of wading through lots of mush in order to get to the good games. In my view it's likely the death knell for Xbox Live Arcade as somewhere to go for great games and is leaving the door open for Sony or Nintendo (or someone else, Apple perhaps) to take their crown.

It's also a move that's been a long time coming. If anyone has spent any time browsing through the interface of Live in the last few months, it's becoming an increasingly sodden experience. There are long, poorly maintained lists of product in there. There are a few notable remakes making the headlines (such as Rez HD) but also a lot of really very bad product (such as the Battlestar Galactica game, or the unplayable port of Marathon) and the service has lacked focus for quite some time.

But why is proposing to remove the crap a death knell move? On the surface it sounds like a sensible plan because it means that the consumer experience would be improved. Indeed. But the problems are threefold:

1. Any such system is going to be wide open to collusion, politicking and will reward only those companies who are more sales-driven and ruthless about getting good review scores.
2. It reduces consumer choice.
3. It doesn't solve the main problems.

Let's tackle these in turn:

1. Collusion.
The unfortunate truth of the retail games industry is that it relies on a lot of wheel-greasing, which is why it tends to favour higher-end publishers and developers with deep pockets. It's no great secret that review scores can often be bought indirectly through the means of exclusive interviews, junket goodies and even potential job opportunities for reviewers to become game developers. It's also no great secret that reviewers tend, as a group, to have certain in-built prejudices against certain types of game, and they tend to think and award scores like a community.

This behaviour is arguably necessary in a retail environment where the buying power of the retail chain is largely concerned with what bulk orders for volume they can place. With only limited shelf space up for grabs, a publisher looking to maximise its shareholder returns has to take the view that they need their product in prime position. Indeed it would be irresponsible of them as a company not to do that, and so the only questions become whether what they're doing is legal, and whether they have genuine ethical concerns about some of the tactics that might be deployed. In most cases the answer to that second question is "maybe, but not enough to make them stop doing it". Publishers are not evil, but they operate in a difficult environment.

So this behaviour model will clearly also translate across into Xbox Live Arcade. XBLA is already a constrained retail model (See point 3 below) and the threat of de-listing only intensifies that pressure. So what will happen is that sales-oriented developers will behave like retail publishers and start taking steps to get those high review scores. They will also continue to establish their personal relationships with members of the Xbox team so that they can have a champion inside the platform itself, because it's easier to de-list a game from someone anonymous rather than from your friend at developer X who'll phone you hurt and angry.

Lastly, and far more seriously, it means that the developers will increasingly pitch for products that they think Microsoft will like, or products that Microsoft themselves might think should be on the service, and so XBLA will become a much more for-hire service. While this is a valid model for a smaller digital service like interactive TV (and is basically what I do for a living), I'm not convinced that it's a model that should be applied to a console gaming audience.

2. Consumer Choice
Clearly this move affects consumer choice. Less games available for sale means less games available for browsing, which means more of a hit-driven mentality in an online space. This will mean less sales. I don't want to bore my readers too much with talk of the now-cliché Long Tail effect, but the fact remains that Amazon, Itunes and Netflix all consistently report that they see more sales as whole from their long tail aggregate than they do from their hits.

The problem here is not that channelling consumer choice is a bad thing, it's that channelling choice should only be engaged in where it is necessary. In retail it is necessary because of the physical costs of distributing product and maintaining stores with high rent. In television it was necessary because the physical constraints of the technology meant that all interests simply could not be served (though this is now slowly changing).

In the online space it is not necessary. The cost of distribution is negligible and there are no technical constraints of broadcast technology. Ultimately an XBLA game as a product is just another small portion of data on a disk space on a RAID rack somewhere in Redmond that gets called up and downloaded as required. Delisting such product saves practically nothing and gains the consumer nothing. (And it doesn't answer the question of what happens to the consumer who bought a game which was subsequently delisted, only to have their Xbox hard drive fail at a later date: How do they get their game back?)

Which leads me nicely into:

3. The main problems
The real problems that Microsoft have (which de-listing is not going to solve) are all to do with key choices that they have made in the construction of XBLA for Xbox 360, and how those decisions are driven by portal-based thinking rather than aggregator-based thinking.

Portal-based thinking is basically the headset that tries to take the retail and magazine-based view into the internet. Portals try and push selected content out to their readers in a managed fashion. It inherently is driven by the assumption that consumers need to be sold to, and consumer-experience needs to be guided with studies of "journeys" and so forth. Portals worry a lot about managing the user expectations. Yahoo is a good example of portal-based thinking.

Aggregator-based thinking is the reverse. It's the headset that tries to provide the best tools for the readers to find what they want. In the aggregator model, the consumer and his friends are the sales people and the "journey" is unimportant. What's important is that there is enough content to be found, and that it can be accessed easily. Digg is an example of aggregator-based thinking.

Microsoft clearly have always thought of Xbox Live as a portal. This has led them to a number of decisions:

1. They have always throttled releases. This is a leaf taken out of Nintendo's old playbook with the NES, wherein you manage the release pattern of games so that every one gets the chance to shine. This results in a lot of developers clamouring to get in the door, and a lot of collusion-driven behaviour as a result. It also results in Microsoft starting to try and direct traffic in order to raise quality, which results in a highly managed catalogue full box-checking (as in they fulfil perceived genre or other criteria) bad games. In short, the throttled release decision is largely responsible for the poor quality of XBLA content.

2. They have focused the whole experience on the Xbox itself. You buy Live games from the Xbox 360, you find them through it and use it as your gateway into the wider world. This was an understandable but incredibly stupid decision made a time when they were trying to sell the new console. At that time it probably seemed to them that they really had to get people to look at their dashboard to get into the brand, but the problem is that using a console joypad as a primary means of finding and sorting large quantities of content simply sucks as an experience. It leads to short, stubby menus, long tedious scrolling lists and a general touchy-feely air to the design (remember, portals think "journeys" are paramount). It is simply not suited, nor will it ever be, to presenting large volumes of content. Imagine if Apple had created the iPod platform without iTunes and insisted that we all bought our music through the click-wheel interface and small screen of the iPod itself. That's largely what Microsoft have done with insisting on tying games purchasing to the Xbox itself.

3. The points system. XBLA points are a good idea, not dissimilar to pay-as-you-go phones and other similar models, and they allow gamers under the age of 18 (and therefore sans credit cards) to participate in the network, buy games that they want with their pocket money and so forth. The problem is that points are compulsory. In trying to manage the customer journey again (thinking like a portal) they have created a barrier for consumers who simply don't want the hassle. Also the fact that the Gold subscription for online play does work with credit cards but the purchasing of games does not probably creates consumer confusion and therefore aversion. It should be as easy as one-click to buy a game on XBLA.

It should be noted here that I don't think Microsoft are trying to be evil or mean about who gets to make games for Live. There is, after all, the example of XNA that shows that they are at least trying to embrace with the content in some shape or form. I just think that they can't seem to get the portal model out of their heads, and that's what's killing them.

So is it too late?
Is it too late for XBLA? Well I hope not, but I suspect it is. Microsoft increasingly have competition from Sony (whose online play is free after all) and now Nintendo - who have announced a very interesting scheme for WiiWare that is squarely aimed at the sorts of innovative small developers that Microsoft wanted to attract but ultimately repelled with their portal structure. Microsoft had an early-market advantage with XBLA 3 years ago, but their competitors have now matched (and may supercede) their offering. And with sales of the 360 console itself being caught by PS3 and out-classed by Wii, I would imagine there isn't much of an appetite in Redmond for large-scale changes to the system.

Ultimately it comes down to whether Microsoft as a culture really has the ability to think in an aggregator mindset, and whether they have a continued appetite to be in the console business at all.

If I were to propose some solutions, they would be these:

1. Build a web portal that allows consumers to find, buy and recommend games to each other. Change the Xbox 360 Dashboard to allow syncing of web activity and Live activity such that if I buy a game via the web portal, my 360 will download that game automatically the next time I log on. Decoupling game purchases from the console dashboard is the one problem that they really need to solve.

2. Allow consumers to buy games via their credit card directly. This ties into the web portal idea, with the overall approach being to allow easy purchases with as few clicks as possible.

3. Don't de-list content. Instead provide better filtering tools on the Xbox's portal.

4. Provide a simple means for users to rate games directly rather than relying on professional reviewers. Tie this in with the filtering tools in suggestion #3.

5. Stop throttling releases. It is likely that throttling has built up a regular enough audience who now check back every week for the new game, but that is small potatoes compared to the damage that throttling causes.

6. Simplify the distinctions. At the moment there at least two strands of Live's online games proposition (Xbox Classics and XBLA) and soon XNA will be a third. These are pointless distinctions that make lots of sense to a marketeer or someone who works for Microsoft (again: it's "journey" based thinking) but make no sense to consumers. To a consumer it's all just "games" and it's better for them if Halo and Hexic are sitting beside each other in the list than having to understand Microsoft's logic in order to be able to overcome their own aversion. This especially applies for XNA, which, going on the current model, is likely to only ever be of interest to XNA members owing to the levels of aversion that it will cause.

7. Fix the developer deal. Royalty-changes were an accounting-based manoeuvre but they have proved horrendously unpopular with the development community. Now that Microsoft has real competition from Nintendo and Sony, developers are looking elsewhere to see which network offers the best deal. And that doesn't even begin the cover the possibilities if developers look even further afield to iPhone, Facebook and many other markets that offer a much better cut of the action.

As you can see, Microsoft have effectively hoisted themselves by their own petard when it comes to XBLA. In trying to manage consumers and overcome what they believed was an image issue, they have created a network that organisationally can't actually sell a lot of games. Their solution is to reduce the catalogue, but this is essentially an admission of failure on their part. With the 360 probably having peaked in terms of overall appeal and other console providers and technology companies now delivering credible alternatives, it is up to Microsoft to rethink their whole strategy and decide whether this is a sector of the business that they really want to be in any more.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Is it over for the UK?

In the news today, a petition has been started on the Downing Street website (which I've signed) to basically ask the government to do something about the conditions that the UK industry has operated under in the last few years because times are difficult, and increasingly so. Though I support the idea, I think that it is basically doomed for the usual reasons:

1. The British public have a very negative view of games and wouldn't support it.
2. The British industry is not at all sure that they want it.
3. The other prevailing conditions in the UK (infrastructure, corporate tax rates, transport, location, standards of living, the crazy high value of the pound etc).

The British industry's chief problem is that it's full of middle aged men who have fought their way into a fairly comfortable position, and have no real need to change the way that they do things. No offence intended to any of the middle aged men out there, many of whom I am good friends with, but it is not exactly a young industry at heart and a lot of them have become suburban types with families and saloon cars, and they tend to be quite oppositional in their viewpoints.

This means that they see the industry as a big game of move and countermove, and to them the field is full of players that they already know. So for them the industry is largely a static place, so many of them don't support tax breaks on the basis that it means their enemy will get the upper hand. And to a certain degree, they are right.

But it doesn't really address the wider issues of the industry, which are things like why is it about to go bust again (And it will, now that the dust has settled on the new hardware generation and the publishers will be counting the costs of having spent so much jockeying for position), why is all the work increasingly not coming to Britain, and what does it mean for the future of the industry as a whole?

I'm sorry to say that the prospects are not good. Economic downturns are causing credit crunches, which means investment is drying up. Serious inaction on the part of the government means that places like Montreal, Shanghai and Mumbai are getting the upper hand in a variety of disciplines - all while still being cheaper than the UK industry. It's a global marketplace for skills, but the UK industry still behaves like a local one, and so does its government.

So in that respect, is it basically over for the UK as a serious source of game development?
What do you think?

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Gary Gygax RIP

Apparently so.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Not At GDC

Another year, another not-going-to-GDC.

Last night a friend of mine stopped over at my place, as I live reasonably close to Heathrow Airport. And why, you may ask? Well he's off to GDC of course. Lucky so-and-so that he is.

I have never been to GDC, or indeed any of the major game conferences except for ECTS (which was always a bit of a shambles to give it its due). They always seem to come along at inconvenient moments, such as periods of high business or dudgeon in my job, or low activity on the financial front. Mostly, I think it's because I've not really remembered that they're on until way too late.

I also find the whole conference circuit vaguely unsettling. A lot of my past comes from the world of rpg conventions and the like, so I know what it is to waste time in a hotel in some far-flung town getting drunk and talking crap with strangers. I'm aware that professional events such as GDC or E3 also have the illusion of business about them, but I can't quite tell if they're actually just pretending to be busy, or whether work actually gets done at them. It's quite an important question when you're talking about laying down 3 grand for a trip over to Northern Cal, especially if that ticket is not being picked up by your employer (and most in the UK don't send batteries of people over any more, as it is a lot of money).

A large part of the games industry likes to behave like as though it's the movies, with the image of deals being done and reputations being made at some grand insider carnival. Yet when you step back and take a look at the outside world, there doesn't usually seem to be a great deal of effect from the main conferences except as PR posts for the truly giant to announce their next big things? What does a small company get from sending a field agent out there apart from contacts, and wouldn't those contacts be better developed in individual sessions, trips, meetings, Linkedins and the like? Is there any actual value to what amounts to the gaming version of Sundance? Gamedance?

Why go?

Well the party atmosphere has to count for something. And the inspiration value as well. You can't forget that. Plus there is the thrill of being there, watching things happen (or at least pretend to happen). See? It's like I'm already there, liveblogging the whole thing.

Next year I'll get there. Promise.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Sudoku Blocks

For those of you who have Sky TV, we've just released a game called Sudoku Blocks, developed by Craftwork. I'm rather proud of this game, so hence the web pimping. You can play it by accessing the Interactive menu on your Sky remote, selecting "Sky Games" and it's on the front page. All opinions welcome.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

What are Kongregate etc missing?

I've become quite the fan of "neat gaming" in the last year. Not least because it has become my job (I now work for Sky Games as a development manager of casual games on interactive TV), but also because it is simply the most interesting and alive sector of the whole gaming world bar none.

Yes, you have your console shenanigans and your managed Live networks, your retro collections and your handheld cooking simulators, and most of these are perfectly valid enterprises. For a while, casual games was somewhat mired in the realm of big portals like basically squeezing value out of both developers and customers, but that is changing.

There are hundreds of portals now selling games or subscription packages for games, and distribution networks from companies like Oberon are servicing that whole fragmented sector, as well as helping to publish. The distinction between casual and self-labelled indie games is also blurring considerably, which is why I use a broader name like "neat gaming" to describe what is essentially a taste for smaller applications.

Services like Kongregate - which basically are trying to be a Youtube of gaming - are emerging and doing a good job of capturing the innovation mindset, the neat idea set and the popularity contest. And it seems to be doing all of this via advertising, which is the aggregation model that is very "web". There are even such neat things as chat clients hanging beside many of the games on such services, and attempts to place ads in-game via the likes of Mochiads.

Flash is really the technology that is making all of this happen (finally) and providing a road toward a single platform that the hardware makers and devkit-obsessed developers of the classic industry are simply unwilling to face. You can play any game on an aggregator, such as Bowman 2, for free in your browser without any fuss. It is easy to see how such a game could be converted into an iPhone-friendly format, or a DS format if Nintendo saw the light and opened the DS up to indie development with no strings attached (maybe that'll have to wait for DS2). In a world of gaming dinosaurs, Flash is the fore-runner of mammals.

The problem that these would-be aggregators have is that they are not quite there yet in terms of really embracing the aggregator mindset. They still have some of the elements of a games directory about them, and they have not yet really gathered the full power of the social network to their cause.

For example:

Kongregate places a lot of advertising on its pages and offers a Digg This link to help popularise its games. What it's lacking, however, is sharing technology.

1. There should be a link on the page that allows the players to share the game with their friends, embed the game in their blogs and so on. This is a critically missing piece.

2. Each of the games should have a Kongregate watermark or small bar at the bottom of the Flash app, and also a short pre-game advertisement in the Flash app. Thus Kongregate-hosted content can travel anywhere and be monetised.

3. Each of the games should have a facility that puts its tagging to use, recommending other games on the page. A lot of the detail on the Kongregate pages are unnecessary (such as the description text, which can wax lyrical) and instead be replaced with small icons for other games that the player might like to try.

Significantly, AddictingGames does include the ability to share games, but it doesn't always seem to work (I attempted to embed a game in this post by copying and pasting the embed data, but it didn't work).

The problem that AddictingGames has is one of layout, in that their sharing/embedding code is very tiny on the page, so much so that it's easy to miss. They are also missing the lively chat and community sense that Kongregate has, and the overall site design is not particularly attractive in terms of colour choices etc.

I think that these are mostly teething problems, however. Services like Kongregate and AddictingGames are likely the forerunners of what's to come. Between the embedded Flash game sector and the downloadable PC casual sector, the future of much of the games industry is all about what the web can do to break down the barriers. It's so much more interesting right now than anything that the traditional games industry has been doing for quite some time.

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