GTA Online – A Missed Free to Play Opportunity?

The next-gen (or is a year long enough to start calling the PS4 / Xbox One “current gen”, and relegate the older consoles to “last gen”?) version of GTA V was released this week, and by all accounts Rockstar have done themselves proud again.

GTA V was already an excellent game, but as well as the graphical improvements you would expect from a generational leap, they’ve also added a bunch of new content to help sell the idea of “double dipping” to people who already bought it 14 months ago.

As with most (or all?) next gen games, GTA V is also available to buy and download directly from PSN and Xbox Live, doing away with the need for a disc. What I am surprised by, is that Rockstar didn’t seize this opportunity to really try something very new for the franchise and allow players to download the multiplayer component, GTA Online, as a standalone free to play (F2P) title.

My reasons as to why this would have been a good idea are:

  • There’s a portion of the audience who are still going to be resistant to double dipping. Allowing them to see the graphical leap first hand could sway them. Essentially F2P GTA Online would be a huge demo for the single player improvements.
  • GTA Online already has in app purchases (IAP) of currency, and an economy of consumable items and vehicles. Having consumable IAP in a £55 game is a stance that never goes across entirely well with a core audience. Having them in a F2P title is expected.
  • It would allow the game to reach its largest possible audience – I doubt a single console owner would not download it – which strengthens the appeal of the game for those who would be willing to purchase IAP. Nothing kills an online title quicker than empty servers.
  • GTA Online has had 14 months “in the wild” during which Rockstar have stabilised servers, added content and tweaked their balancing based on analytics data. Essentially this makes the PS3 / Xbox 360 version a long “soft launch”.
  • Speaking of balancing, the current version of GTA Online makes it harder for players to earn money than it was when the game launched. It is clearly being positioned in a way that to get the very best kit in the title players are strongly encouraged to buy.
  • It would fully separate GTA Online as a title from GTA V. Though I believe this is Rockstar’s intention (hence it not being called GTA V Online), that its delivery system is “comes free with a copy of GTA V” means that the two are inevitably linked in the minds of players. Separating them completely makes GTA Online its own thing, that can run on as a game-as-a-service without any conceptual difficulty in the minds of players.

Best Fiends Design & Monetisation Teardown

Seriously is a company formed from a bit of a mobile gaming dream team. A couple of months ago when Best Fiends, their first game, had just released I predicted that although it’s very polished & fun to play, it would not break in to the top 100 grossing. So I thought I should probably go back and check to see if my fortune telling skills need work or not.

Was I right? Find out – You can see the full report embedded below, or download the PDF file.

Monument Valley’s Expansion Should Be a Sequel

The popular and award winning Monument Valley got an expansion this week in the form of Forgotten Shores, adding a bunch of lovely looking new puzzles for players to enjoy. Ustwo, the developers, decided to charge to unlock these new levels – a Tier 2 in-app purchase.

Apparently this upset a number of customers, resulting in a couple of news storiesand a bit of an outpouring of support in twitter as developers and commentators rushed to decry the unreasonable actions of “entitled” customers.

I would suggest that blaming the customers for exhibiting the behaviour they have been taught over a number of years is Cnut-ish behaviour (yes, I meant Cnut). I’ll just quickly go over some arguments I have seen pointed at these evil 1 starers, and why I think they are wrong.

They’re complaining about something that costs less than a X. Value proposition varies from person to person. I don’t think your $3 coffee is worth anything (I don’t like coffee). Perhaps these people don’t believe that 3 hours or so of new levels are worth $2.

They’re complaining about spending $2 for a game on their $600 device. Phone companies are very clever at making people believe their telephones are free – they should be, they’ve been doing it for years (ever since I’ve had a mobile, at least). In a world where you can get a brand new $600 phone “for free” every 2 years, is it really so crazy to expect a few hours of entertainment to also be free?

They don’t believe developers deserve to be paid for their work. Clearly false, as they have paid for Monument Valley in the first place. If they didn’t want to pay for games, there are plenty of free games for them to play instead. This argument is most telling of the problem, to me. Why are customers who are okay with paying for games not okay with paying for this expansion?

The headline of this post really gives the game away as to my suggested course of action for any other developers who fear they might be about to find themselves in Ustwo’s position. Sorry, I’m really not good at writing click-bait.

But since you’ve read this far, I’ll briefly say why I believe this really should have been a sequel.

To be blunt, paid content updates are taboo in app stores. Not just the iOS App Store, but at least the Mac App Store, and probably others I don’t have regular access too as well. When a developer expects customers to pay for updates to their OSX software with new features, they get flack for it. You see, like telephone companies, app stores have spent a long time telling customers that upgrades should be free. I believe psychologically this is similar to the push-back that day 1 DLC and DLC that unlocks content already on the game disc gets in console land. People have trouble separating out content and delivery systems – that you’ve budgeted your game to have 10 levels for $50 and an extra 2 for $5 and set your teams to work accordingly doesn’t matter to your customers. All they see are 2 levels that “were held back for DLC and should have been in the game”. So when Monument Valley updates and a player’s device now has these extra levels on it, they expect to be able to play them.

In the world of games though, sequels are accepted. Expected, almost. In the days before Games as a Service came along, this is the way you’d get your extra levels and new features. These sequels (or expansion packs, or DLC if you want to be all modern) would still come on their own disk or download, but crucially they were always a separate delivery to the original. You pay, you get a new chunk of stuff delivered to you. Not the other way around.

If you want proof of this in action, take a look at The Room and its sequel. Both well received successes. None of the uproar for having to pay twice, despite mechanically being identical. (Yes, I admit there are friction issues with having to alert players and guide them to your new game to buy, but since iOS background updates apps automatically these days there are similar problems with getting someone to relaunch or possibly reinstall a long-finished game anyway.)

So, a messaging problem then, and one that is easily avoidable for developers in the future. Don’t try to change how players think about content delivery, work with their mental model instead.

*An interesting end result of Ustwo’s 2 tweets is that defenders of the developers rushed to the store to redress the balance of the 1 star reviews by leaving a huge number of 5 stars. These could turn out to be some of the most effective “please review our game” messages written.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find Out What it Means to Free (to Play)

Originally I was going to be giving this talk at Develop Live, in Edinburgh. I offered to pull my session in order to help the organisers out when there was some criticism over the perceived lack of diversity in the speakers. Since I had the notes done already, I thought I may as well put them up here. It’s like a Web Talk – a Walk. Hmmm, no that doesn’t work does it? Anyway, the notes were written to be cues and aids for speaking, not as a basis for slides, so they’re quite informal and kind of broken English. Enjoy!

(Oh, if you’re a conference organiser and you want this talk at your event, let me know. I don’t consider it dead, and if anything I believe the issue is only going to get worse.) 


R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find Out What it Means to Free (to Play)

  • Drinking game – if anyone’s got any alcohol with them, take a tiny sip any time I say the phrase “free to play”, and we’ll check back with you at the end of the talk and see how you’re doing.
  • Assumes everyone in the room wants f2p to survive long term as a business model.
  • At Develop in Brighton this year, Dr Richard Bartle said he thought there was a half-life for free to play, possibly around 10 years, but that it would happen that people would get tired of the tricks and mind games.
  • Put it to the room
    • Hands up for who agrees. Now who disagrees?
    • Well, you’re wrong.
    • Sorry, what I meant was I think you’re all wrong.
  • How the model is being used now, Richard’s right.
  • But I don’t think it’s inevitable.
  • If Free to Play was the movie Back to the Future 2, we’re at a point where we’ve just been given the Sports Almanac and hidden it in the sleeve of a copy of Oh La La.


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • Terms:
    • Not “greedy / generous” – will talk about those terms later.
    • Not “ethical / unethical” – strongly emotive, people stop listening if you say they’re making “unethical f2p”.
    • Gentle / aggressive?
  • Undergoing a gold-rush mentality.
  • A lot of money coming in to f2p because the potential ROI is huge.
  • But looking for short term results, and cashing out – treating games like day trading.
  • Product managers tweak for retention & revenue in their current titles.
    • If you make a game, it becomes a habit for a player for a while (how long a while is largely up to the skill of you and your dev team), and then you use your knowledge to tweak variables and squeeze them for money.
    • When they do kick your game’s habit, will they regret playing it? Or will they seek out your other games?
    • Finding local peaks, but not considering long term effect.
  • As a quick example. Who here would be sad if you were earning the money of League of Legends?
  • At GDC Europe Teut Weidemann gave a talk where he claimed he could double its revenue.
  • Would be happy with losing 60% of the non-paying player base to squeeze payers more.
  • No concern for how that would have affected the game (or Riot’s) wider popularity.


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • Games engineered to be habit-forming products, but the habits aren’t intended for the player’s benefit.
  • One dev deliberately won’t use “addictive” when talking about their games, they use “compelling”. But use it in the same way. Their thinking was literally “if we say compelling then we can get away with giving this to kids, but if we say it’s addictive we might end up with legal bother”.
  • Zynga used a lot of “dark patterns” – crops dying if you don’t come back, hassling social graph, obligation.
  • Used them instead of fun game core, didn’t work out long term, company now shifting.
  • King following same pattern? Having to do a lot of paid UA – dropping a lot of players, people aren’t transferring from one game to the next.
  • Suggests low brand loyalty, even for casual players – why?
  • Can also see brand damage on EA, greedy launch of Dungeon Keeper.
    • Affected company’s standing in the eyes of fans.
    • Affected future viability of classic IP f2p projects.
      • Alternate reality where DK had launched with gentle f2p.
        • People enjoy it, still spend (but over longer term).
        • EA announce f2p “Sim City BuildIt”, initial reaction is better past experience.
        • (Rather than the actual reaction, which is predictably negative)


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • “We made this item more expensive deliberately because we want you not to buy it, but we know it tweaks a little bit in your brain that up sells a certain %age of you to spend more than you otherwise would.”
  • “We phrased this as you losing status, rather than boosting, because we know you’re more afraid of losing something.”
  • Bubble Witch 2 Saga.
    • Deliberately paced to have “blocker” levels you’ll struggle to beat, followed by nice levels to make it up to you.
    • Basically a game designed using the pattern of an abusive relationship.
  • Super monkey ball bounce
    • Pachinko / Peggle game
    • Levels that are effectively impossible without using boosts.


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • Generosity in games – personal beef: term “Reciprocity” abused, if there’s no return action (reciprocation) then you’re just trying to sound clever.
  • Eventually people do get sick of it.
  • Tupperware did well with reciprocity, but…
  • Imagine if you had a friend who invited you over for a party. They gave you some free drink & food, you had a fun hour, then they started the hard sell. “Buy this stuff.”
  • Next time they invite you to a party, would you go?
  • How many times would you endure a hard sell before you stopped taking this friend’s calls?
  • These effects have diminishing returns.


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?
  • Because of the actions of some developers now seeing more serious bodies getting involved.
  • The European Commission’s f2p ruling …
  • Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling that Dungeon Keeper can’t be advertised as “free”.
  • These are serious non-gamer bodies turning their focus on us because of the actions of some developers going for the cash grab as hard as they can.
  • Don’t expect this is the end of the legal regulation we’ll see. i.e. very specific laws in the UK regulating the use of the word “sale”, that a lot of f2p games are violating. (Yay for having a parent who worked in trading standards for decades)
  • Saying used to be that it took 2 bad games to kill a franchise.
  • The 1st bad game doesn’t put people off completely, they’ll give a series 1 more chance.
  • Take that line of thinking in to f2p.
  • How many aggressive games to kill your business?


  • If your players knew what you were doing and why, would they support you?

The Problem With Pre-release DLC

Have a look at the comments on this article, announcing the £20 season pass & DLC for new Lord of the Rings game, Shadow of Mordor.

If you can’t bring yourself to turn off your comment-blocking plugin and trawl through the bile (and I don’t blame you), I’ve got some here.

The Season Pass content in full:
– [insert a bunch of content we cut from the game so we could sell it separately as DLC]

Oh god. I was thinking about buying this game. But seeing this has put me off as I realize I would only be getting half a game…

It looks like a great game, and I’m thinking of getting it – but I don’t want to get nickel and dimed if I want to fight Sauron..

I remember when extra content came out a year later as an expansion if the game was good. Now they make it all before the game is even released and sit back whilst they charge us to get the full version of the game.

this clearly isn’t additional content, it’s content held back from the game in order to charge you extra. If the main game cost thirty quid then that’d be ok, but not at full price.

These are pretty typical of the reaction to finding out that DLC content is underway (or even completed) for the game, before it’s released. Worst of all, in the eyes of gamers, is content already on the disc (and therefore developed alongside the standard content) – the recent reveal that Destiny DLC is in the region of 9Mb per download stirred up these comments again.

Developers reading this will probably be thinking “yes, but all of this stuff has to be budgeted for. And with the rising price of developing a AAA game, the amount of stuff that you get for your £50 is shrinking. So although this stuff’s developed at the same time, or planned well in advance, it’s being paid for out of a different pot – the DLC pot.”

While that may well be true (it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a AAA budget, but that was certainly the way things were heading the last time I did), explaining it doesn’t seem to help. Players don’t care about your budget, or how the accountants and project managers are splitting everything up. And nor should they. In the same way that it’s not the end player’s concern that Destiny cost $500m. They paid £50, they want to feel they are getting their money’s worth.

The problem with pre-release DLC is a colossal messaging cock-up between developers, publishers, and their customers. One that really needs to be resolved.

Can We Please Stop Cloning Clash Now?

Star Wars: Commander is a nice game. In it you build up a little military outpost, train an army, and then go and attack the bases of other players as well as some bases that form a loose story.

It’s Clash of Clans but dressed in a kids’ Star Wars fancy dress outfit, in short. Its “unique” (and I use dick quotes only because I’m sure another Clash Clone must have already done it) twist on the formula is that you choose a side to align with – either the Rebel Alliance, or the Empire – and this has an affect on what order buildings unlock for you, and what units become available.

The thing is, you could reasonably expect that the combination of Disney’s development & advertising budget, the evergreen appeal of the Star Wars IP to a young male demographic, and the winning core gameplay loop and monetisation of Clash of Clans, would be a blockbuster formula. But is isn’t. It has done well by most standards, but is just managing to cling on to a top 10 grossing position by the tips of its fingers, it isn’t knocking it out of the park.

Do you have Disney’s money and a great IP? No? Well maybe you should think about not trying to clone Clash of Clans then. Players are getting bored of seeing the same game over and over.

Star Wars Commander's Top Grossing chart for the first 30 days.

Star Wars Commander’s Top Grossing chart for the first 30 days.

A Couple of Passages From Creativity Inc.

A couple of passages I particularly liked from Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, I’ve found it very enlightening.

On creativity vs. regurgitation:

When filmmakers, industrial designers, software designers, or people in any other creative profession merely cut up and reassemble what has come before, it gives the illusion of creativity, but it is craft without art. Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft. Even though copying what’s come before is a guaranteed path to mediocrity, it appears to be a safe choice, and the desire to be safe—to succeed with minimal risk—can infect not just individuals but also entire companies.

On data and an analytical approach to the creative process:

There are limits to data, however, and some people rely on it too heavily. Analyzing it correctly is difficult, and it is dangerous to assume that you always know what it means. It is very easy to find false patterns in data. Instead, I prefer to think of data as one way of seeing, one of many tools we can use to look for what’s hidden. If we think data alone provides answers, then we have misapplied the tool. It is important to get this right. Some people swing to the extremes of either having no interest in the data or believing that the facts of measurement alone should drive our management. Either extreme can lead to false conclusions.

The Hubris of Teut Weidemann

“If they let me change League of Legends I could double its revenue”

This article is rather staggering. Apparently in a talk at GDC Europe, Weidemann claimed that he’d double the revenue of LoL, mainly by selling power to players. Though that’d annoy a lot of people who’d leave the game, the sums still turn in his favour (well, as long as they don’t lose more than 60% of the players, apparently).

This is apparently based on the assumption that selling exclusive premium champions wouldn’t harm the game more deeply, would convert well, that the loss of non-paying player-base wouldn’t make the game less attractive to payers, wouldn’t harm the game’s eSports popularity and revenue, and wouldn’t kill the game off in a couple of years of burning twice as bright.

This line of thinking is not healthy for anyone but those in it for a quick cash grab, Only Fools and Horses style. “This time next year, Rodders…” It’s not healthy for the industry, and it’s not healthy for Free to Play (F2P) as a way of making money. Very well timed comment though, as it’s just been announced I’m going to be doing a talk on exactly this at Develop Live this year.

The key recommendation at the end of Weidemann’s talk is good, though. You should not copy Riot. They have the player numbers. They don’t need to run paid user acquisition (UA). They spotted a game genre that was going to be popular, and got in early with a high quality title. You would be playing the fast follow game. But slowly.

(And as for his hubris, well – with a man this talented and capable of making money on staff, you have to wonder why Ubisoft’s not seen any notably huge F2P success.)

Develop 2014 Notes

The other week I was at the Develop Conference in Brighton, and I took some notes of sessions and other things that I saw. Because I’m nice, I’m going to share them with you all both.

Session Notes

Player Driven Development Phil Mansell (exec. producer for Runescape at Jagex)

  • Thought this was a really interesting talk, especially how much control they give over to players.
  • They really heavily include their players in Runescape’s development now, taking a lot of creative direction. The point of it all being that players get a game that’s more what they want, and because they’ve felt involved in it they’re more engaged & loyal.
  • They view their player involvement in dev as being a major part of Runescape’s success – they have 15k posts per day on their official forums, are usually in the top 10 Twitch streamed games, a conversion rate of 40%, and over half of their players have accounts 6+ years old.
  • There are 10 things they use to get info off their players. A numbered list!
  1. Community Sentiment Reports.
    • These are hand-written 24 hours after every update. And broken down by channel. Each point is given a red/amber/green status regarding the community’s sentiment towards a particular change.
    • Labour-intensive to make, but easily distributed & easy to glance at. Only captures vocal community.
  1. Play testing: Player visits
    • They bring people (clan leaders, community advocates, etc) in to the studio, all expenses paid for by Jagex. They use these for early previews and have long playtest & feedback sessions.
  1. Play testing: Usability
    • They use Player Research and also their in-house lab to record sessions & interview players.
    • Both of the play testing things are used to gauge stuff when there’s still plenty of time to make changes (they’ll do this for speculative changes, or major new systems). But it’s a small sample size.
  1. Surveys: Customer Service
    • Link appended to support emails, users rate their experience.
  1. Surveys: Targeted Questionnaires
    • When they want to deep dive on specific features, or specific player cohorts.
  1. Surveys: Customer Satisfaction
    • General “how much do you like Runescape” surveys, broken down by content & aspect (billing, combat, client performance, CS). Re-polled monthly.
    • All the surveys allow them to see impact of updates & trends over time. But expensive to run regularly. Depending on your game you could also integrate the survey in to your game client.
  1. Automated Chat Analysis
    • Keyword counting in in-game chat, given a +/- bias. Also detects trending words. Then a person goes through and adds commentary (suggesting reasons for particular trending words, such as the world cup). Aside from the commentary it’s automated & emailed out daily, so once it’s in place it’s very low maintenance.
    • The bias is pretty unreliable (no sarcasm), but the general analysis does help highlight unanticipated issues. Trending words hasn’t been useful yet, just interesting.
  1. Predictive Modelling
    • Using analytics to see trends of events that lead to players churning, and also patterns that lead to increased engagement. They then feed these back in to the client, and when it spots a player following a negative model they nudge them with some kind of custom high engagement = reward feature they have). They also use the model to adjust content offline (for example if 75% of people who plays a certain level never come back to the game, they kill that level).
    • This requires a huge strategic investment from the company (in terms of expertise & tech infrastructure), unless you use an external provider (but an external will always be a bit generic & not 100% tailored to your game).
  1.  Customer Relationship Management
    • A system built in to the game that connects all of their communication channels in to one central hub, and key display points through the game. . Means that players don’t have to follow all your channels to find out what’s going on. What players see is segmented to avoid annoying them with stuff they would hate.
    • Another large investment to get this in to your game, but the best way of making all of your players aware of new content etc.
    • How much benefit your game will get depends on your output rate in terms of new content, offers, news, etc.
  1. Player polls
    • They have put a/b polls inside the game asking players what stuff they want to see next. At least one new poll a week.
    • You have to make sure you are either happy giving up creative freedom to the players, or that you don’t ask them about stuff you don’t want to change. Players feel super-involved in the game’s development which is a massive boon. Have to be very open with players, otherwise their expectations of what a poll result might mean could make the whole thing backfire.

Managing the Creative Process for a AAA Production Sebastien Ebacher (producer at Ubi, most recently on the Spies vs Mercs in Splinter Cell Blacklist)

  • I quite liked this. Basically a method for removing some of the fuzziness around the progress on a task (one dev’s “it’s 35% done” isn’t the same as another’s).
  • On the quality/time/budget triangle, at Ubisoft it’s the quality that will make you fail – this is viewed as being most important. So they need to manage quality.
  • Conflicts between design/art/tech are important to push the game to be the best it can be. Since they’re unavoidable, structure these debates to be productive & professional, not shouting matches.
  • They use a production pipeline of 1 month sprints.
    • End of sprint meetings with the leads focussed on scope adjustment & planning.
    • Start of sprint full team meeting & team play session, so everyone can see where the game’s at (on a large AAA team it’s not uncommon for some people to do their work without regularly booting the game).
  • Never miss the meetings or put them off (stuff will often seem more urgent), they’re important for visibility & transparency, which affects team morale.
  • The team wanted status updates to be clear and meaningful – no “this feature is 47% complete”. So they split progress of a feature in to 5 stages.
  • Status stages:
    • Creative Brief: The feature’s meaning & purpose. High level intentions. A ppt deck. Agreed by leads as being something that is developable.
    • Feature Sign Off: The design doc (see below).
    • Prototype: The feature is playable by the team.
    • Alpha: It’s playtestable – QA inside the team can play it without instruction.
    • Beta: It’s reviewable. People outside the team can play it.
  • Feature Sign Off in more detail:
    • An Excel sheet, with each line being an element of the feature.
    • Details expected behaviour by element.
    • The design requirements.
    • This becomes a QA doc for the feature.
    • For each line, also lists what Status Stage is it needed for (vfx, for example, could be for Beta)
  • This makes each stage sign-off binary, for each feature you have a “go / no go” call at the end of the sprint on whether it has progressed to the required stage.
  • If “no go”, leads decide what’s needed to make the feature pass. Or cut the feature.
  • Each milestone has targets – how many features should be at each stage. You can then count up the number of validations.
  • Example: “milestone 1, 10 Creative Briefs”. Team managed 6 validated. So missed 4 = “K/D ratio: 1.5”
  • Production sets validation targets per milestone based on required velocity.
  • Velocity = (Validations * features) / Time Unit.
  • The downside of this method is that it’s very meeting-heavy for leads – lots of validation meetings.

The Future of Free to Play A conversation between Nicholas Lovell (gamesbrief) and Prof. Richard Bartle (inventor of MUDs & Bartle Types amongst other stuff)

  • Because it was a discussion, a lot of it was contradictory. For example, Bartle thinks F2P has a “half-life” (that he admits is likely in the order of 10’s of years) before people get sick of it, whereas f2p-advocate Lovell unsurprisingly disagrees.
  • In future years, developers will have grown up with f2p being a thing (rather than current devs, who have all had to adapt), so there could be less vocal resistance to it.
  • Methods will evolve & adapt – whereas currently lots are emulating the MTX techniques of Clash of Clans & Candy Crush, it’s reasonable not to expect these to last forever, people might “have their fill” and want fresh stuff.
  • Players will be more used to it too – more likely to have seen it before & recognise the “pay points”.
  • Bartle suggested there is a fixed number of whales, and though Lovell didn’t pull him up on it, this seemed a bit wrong-headed to me, since it suggests a conclusion that some people are unwilling to spend on anything, ever.
  • Bartle’s takes on his own player types doesn’t seem to match how they’re being used in the wild – but they’re still useful for taking a more rounded approach to satisfying players by ensuring you have things in your game that will hit each base.
  • They agreed that you shouldn’t “pollute” the central concept of the game with MTX – don’t force people to spend to get core features, see things around that.

The Business of Designing Games A discussion panel of Jason Avent (Boss Alien), Simon Oliver (Hand Circus), Matthew Wiggins (Jiggery Pokery).

  • Some guys chat about what they think makes for successful (in a financial sense) games design.
  • On CSR Racing they have been focussed on increasing retention, rather than specifically adding stuff for their identified “whales”. In particular they found that multiplayer has been their “evergreen” feature that’s kept people in the game (before they added that they had fairly high churn).
  • There was an anecdote about a shop that sells sledges, and how that’s only a good business when people have a desire to go sledging (i.e. it’s snowing). The point being that as game developers we can create the desires first (we make it snow), then sell to those desires (we sell the players sledges).
  • Procedural content is evergreen. But the challenge then moves from pure content creation, to how to make it interesting rather than impersonal. A mix of procedural & hand crafted mixed together seems a decent solution (either procedurally combining hand-authored chunks, like Spelunky, or just having some content be one, some the other). Hand craft “just enough” that it feels right.
  • There was some talk of the conflict between creativity and financial goals in a company, where designers want to make stuff because it’s something they personally want to exist, but this stuff could well be a financial dead end. They see the ideal being not just love of a specific product, but people who love creating things other people love, no matter what they are (they mentioned Apple & Pixar as examples).
  • Finally they talked about User Acquisition. Generally this was seen as a patch on top of a game that people didn’t want to talk about – if people wanted to talk about it, then you wouldn’t need to heavily advertise (don’t really agree with this myself, though there are obvious examples of stuff that has succeeded through pure force of word of mouth).
  • Social sharing in games is a way to encourage people to talk about your game, but it needs to be implemented in a way that benefits both players, and preferably without specific rewards for sharing (“tweet this and we’ll give you 5 gems”) because it’s clunky. For example, if a game wants me to tweet a message about it, the people reading that tweet don’t get anything out of the share – they’ve just been marketed to. The Candy Crush life gifting system is an example of the sort of sharing where everyone wins.

Remote Work the Indie Way Eduardo Jimenez from Eclipse Games

  • Essentially the answer was “Communication by whatever medium works for each team member”.

Failing and Learning to Be an Indie

  • Mike Bithell gave a talk about how all of the “first game indie success” stories you know about are bullshit, with the exception of Vlambeer. Nothing groundbreaking, but nice that the indie narrative set up by Indie Game the Movie & years of survivor-biased articles is being challenged a bit these days (there were a few talks along these lines).

Project Morpheus

  • I had a go on Sony’s VR thingy.
  • Played “The Deep” demo. Stuck in a diving cage while Bad Things happen. Felt like a Universal Studios-style fairground ride (but I wasn’t going to play Street Luge the day after a free bar).
  • Higher res than Oculus kit I’ve used (though that was a year ago), but narrower FoV I think. Never felt motion sickness like I have in the past with Oculus.
  • Definitely the immersion is there – I took an involuntary step backwards to “avoid” falling out of the cage.
  • Having AAA teams working on your demo software definitely helps sell it.
  • Still not convinced it’ll ever take off as mass consumer tech – no matter how small & acceptable they make the tech, it is by its nature hugely isolating. You couldn’t be playing it & interacting with someone else in the same room. Can see it doing well with hardcore gamers in their bedrooms though. (And also gamers watching hardcore in their bedrooms.)

Other Games I Saw That I Can Remember

  • So Many Oculus games. Felt like everybody in the world was showing something off. Nothing that felt like it would have any real interest without the VR aspect though. Some people combining VR with other stuff, like haptic controllers.
  • “Ready Steady Play” – a cowboy game compilation that looks lovely as well (the animations are really slick). The basic gunfighting game was super-addictive, I could see an ad supported thing of this gameplay taking off big style.
  • 4PM. A game about being an alcoholic. I could not relate to this one bit. At all. Definitely not. Some bits reminded me of The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up video.
  • A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build. Sokoban, but dressed up really charmingly.
  • Musclecat Showdown. Simple “copy what you see” mechanics dressed up with funny presentation & custom controllers.
  • SwapQuest. Didn’t get to play this, but it seems like a really neat idea. I like things that are entirely obvious from their screenshots. It won the Indie Showcase too.
  • Super Pole Riders. Not really new news, but I’d never got to play it before.

Wearables are The Future

There seems to be some debate over whether wearables (smart watches, Google Glass, etc.) are  a fad, or if they will catch on.

In particular I’ve seen this relate to two specific things: firstly, whether enough people actually wear watches anymore; and secondly, that Google Glass is a clunky ugly product that practically has a flashing “steal me and punch my wearer” beacon on it.

But before we carry on, apologies for the deliberate click-bait headline. I’m not saying “wearables will be The One True Future, so you luddites had better hop onboard”, but I certainly think there’s a big market for both smart watches and smart glasses. Slightly moreso the latter.

Smart watches are a convenience. It’s easier to glance at your wrist to see who just texted you or (if you want to use them for their old-school watch abilities) what time it is, than it is to pull a mobile phone out of your pocket. Especially one of these big modern smart phones that looks like an obelisk out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

There are three obvious downsides that I see to them as devices. One when compared to phones, two compared to a standard watch. It seems clear at this point that “the market” wants bigger screens on their devices – In terms of the amount of information that can clearly be displayed, and the ability to easily interact with all that stuff on the screen, bigger is better. Unlike phones, which have been creeping up in size and I guess are mostly constrained by the theoretical limits of how big a handbag or coat/trouser pocket can become, watches are going to have to stick with a small screen. This does limit them; though they will be perfectly fine for many uses, even with the finest UX design in the world there will be some things that a smartphone will trump them for, forever.

Compared to watches the issues are battery life (people who wear a watch currently are probably used to charging/changing the battery in the space of years, rather than days), and style. Smart watches, up until now, are ugly to varying degrees. Yes, even the Pebble (though admittedly it is on the less severe side of the scale, it still looks like a watch the 3D glasses kid from Back to the Future would wear). I’m making a guess here, but given that there are clocks all over the place these days – even on your phone! – I don’t think people who choose to wear a watch do so entirely out of utility, instead wearing it because it’s a nice piece of jewellery that they like and/or that they see as a status symbol that conveys a message about themselves to others.

Both of these issues will be overcome. Batteries are improving. Designs are improving. Eventually if you want a watch, there will be a smart watch that has a design you like, and with a battery that lasts. The only reason for not buying a smart watch at that point will be if the clockwork nature of the device is part of the status symbol you want.

That was entirely more words about watches than I’d intended to write. So let’s keep the glasses part short. Which is easy, because the issues are simpler.

Glass in its current incarnation, and at this time, is in its “80’s yuppies with mobile phones” phase. Big, clunky, overly visible units, with terrible battery life, and apparently primarily used by people with little understanding of social etiquette (though I suspect there is some confirmation bias going on and people are spotting “Glassholes“, but aren’t actually noticing the people who are going about quietly and respectfully using Glass).

But, like mobile phones and smart watches, all of these will change. The devices will get smaller, more discreet & stylish, batteries will improve, and usage will get more common as use cases become clearer and as people begin to feel they won’t become victims for using one (both through the gradually less conspicuous devices not attracting attention, and also that lack of attention grabbing forcing the “80’s yuppies” to move on to new places to try and foster their desired pioneer-and-trend-setter images). The device I’m about to talk about probably won’t even be called Google Glass, in the same way that an iPhone isn’t called the Motorola DynaTAC. Eventually the screen will be unnoticeable – probably manifesting as a contact lens or some such – and the camera will be barely visible, and easily mistaken for a tiny blemish such as a mole (or hey, why not as a piercing).

What are the use cases of smart glasses? What problem does they solve? The problem of having to look somewhere else to get information, mainly. When I’m out running if I want to get my current split pace, I have to try and focus on the small screen of my Garmin watch (during a jog, not easy). To use a sat-nav map in a car you have to look at a screen that isn’t the road ahead of you. To find out what the time is you have to look at your watch (smart or otherwise) or phone. Or a clock. And those are just basic cases – once you add augmented reality in to the mix it grows (have you ever used Shazam on your phone to identify a piece of music? You have to pull your phone out, unlock it, find the Shazam app, wait for it to load, then start recording. How much easier to just say “I wonder what this music is?”. Or you could even have your glasses running that app all the time, updating you every time the background tune changed, if you really loved knowing what sounds were around you).

Incidentally, this is why I think that smart watches, while they will be popular now, will eventually be killed off in favour of people wearing smart glasses (combined with a regular decorative watch if they have that “I listen to my records on vinyl” vibe about them).

Someone did say to me that they thought my opinion of Glass would change when I was run over and killed by someone distracted by it while driving. Aside from the obvious, that my opinions about a lot of things (not least the existence of an afterlife) will probably change once I’m dead, I don’t buy it. Accidents are caused every day by people being distracted by their mobile phones, but I still like those. It’s surely a relatively trivial act of engineering to make smart glasses software that significantly limits its utility while you’re driving a vehicle (trivial compared to the engineering required to make the device in the first place).

Still think that wearables are a dead end? Pft, you luddites had better hop onboard.