Category Archives: Games

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.

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.

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.

You Don’t Know What Will Be A Successful Mobile Game

You don’t Know for sure what will be a successful mobile game.

Wai… shhh… no, you really don’t.

But it’s okay. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. That guy doesn’t Know either. Neither does she. Or them over there. Or anyone in that entire company.

A lot of people will tell you that They Know. “Check out our business intelligence,” they will say, “you should totally make an infinite runner, they are more popular than platform games”. Or “what are you thinking? Nobody likes the Wild West, give the game a medieval setting”.

(This isn’t restricted to games, of course. Apparently a post Bat-Nipples Hollywood was quite adamant that super-hero movies were A Bad Idea, and that you can’t expect to make money off a sci-fi film that requires people to pay attention.)

It’s not just genre or setting, business models get it too. Free-to-play experts telling you they know exactly how to make your game make lots of money, premium game developers telling you that most free-to-play games sink without trace and it’d be folly to go that route. People who have had one hit title speaking at conference after conference proclaiming their way is The Right Way, and people with significantly less success telling you the same.

You Absolutely Must have feature X. Implementing Feature Y is a total waste of resource.

(Hindsight is 20:20, of course, and it’s an easy task to look at a success or failure and say what the causes were. How different the results would have been if the developers had just implemented Four Simple Recommendations To Make Game X Monetise Better, or followed The Five Reasons Game Y Is A Huge Success. Always safe in the knowledge you’ll not be proved wrong.)

No Business Intelligence predicted the popularity of Flappy Bird, or Make it Rain, or Plague Inc, or Threes, or Temple Run, or Monument Valley. The list goes on.

So if what I’m saying it true, if nobody has a sure-fire works-every-time 100%-reliable-or-your-money-back road to success (which they don’t, and if they did they sure as hell wouldn’t be telling it to you in a blog post or conference talk), what should you do?

Rather than wasting a lot of time and money trying to second guess your audience’s tastes, and only finding out if you were right when you’re heavily committed, throw away your assumptions and find out from the source. Speed, agility and being fast to market, are all traits of successful mobile developers.

If your assumptions were wrong then find you out quickly with the smallest amount of wasted resource, and move on to something else. Rinse, repeat.

That’s the only 100% Sure Fire Works Every Time Truth about making a successful mobile game.

The Delightful New User Experience of Another Case Solved

Another Case Solved is a free to play match 3 puzzle game available on iOS (maybe Android too, I am too lazy to check. Though not too lazy to type this disclaimer, despite it rapidly becoming about the same level of work. Possibly even more, now) where you play a detective, matching symbols to collect clues and solve cases.

EA EULA

EA’s End User Licence Agreement screen. Click for full sized.

When you first start it up, you get this delightfully dour box, taking up the entire screen. If this doesn’t scream “hey kids, hold on to your socks, because what’s about to happen here is fun, fun, fun!” then I honestly don’t know what does.

Look, it’s even helpfully highlighting the “accept” button for you. Because if you press “decline” you get a popup alert over the top of this saying “you must agree to EA’s Privacy and Cookie Policy, Terms of Service and EULA to play this game”, which then dumps you back here.

Quite why it bothers having a “decline” button I haven’t worked out. Maybe it’s a clever part of the puzzle game.

Anyway, this is awful and somewhere a lawyer should feel bad that they are, without doubt, churning users from their game before they have even reached the title screen.

Some Things I Like About Dungeon Keeper

I was going to write a longer article about Dungeon Keeper, but to be honest the subject has been covered so much over the last week I don’t really have the energy. Go and read one of the other articles for either a scathing attack on free-to-play (f2p) as a business model, a valiant defence of f2p as a business model, or an actual article about the game itself (if you can find one).

I’ve been playing it over the last week, and it’s not all bad really. Sure it’s entirely the wrong IP for the game & model, sure it goes in far too hard & heavy with asking for money, sure the initial timers are often too long so it’s hard to build a connection to the game quickly, sure the first time user experience (FTUE) is pretty bad with a tutorial that goes on too long and still doesn’t clearly explain the whole thing.

But there are some things I do like that it does.

  • You can slap your minions (the game’s builders) and for the next half an hour they will work at double speed, effectively halving every build timer in the game. There’s no cool down on this, you can do it every 30 minutes. It’s a nice way of further encouraging players to return to your game regularly if they want to maximise their efficiency and drastically cut down those big timers. (I’d suggest that the 30 minutes is too short a time though, again it feels like the game is too desperate for your attention if it’s popping up scheduled notifications every half an hour).
  • For the space that it’s in (asynchronous player-vs-player tower-defense) it’d be very easy to just use the IP and reskin the units and structures of genre-leader Clash of Clans. This is what most of the other games in the genre do (at least for initial launch, the ones that see some success tend to quickly introduce their own unique takes and options), it’s very easy to see the mappings. Dungeon Keeper at least spins units and defences out in its own style, with unique strengths and weaknesses from the start.

I’m sure there was a third thing. I’ll edit it in if I remember it.

Oh well, not exactly a spirited defence of the game some sections of the web have been calling a games-industry killer, that I had hoped for.