Category Archives: Design / Production

Cooperative Play

Tonight I spent about an hour helping my wife play Bejeweled 2 on XBLA. In what appears to have recently become a defining pattern in my life, I played the role of strategist; i.e. pointed out moves that were likely to result in big-scoring combos a few turns down the line, while Eve actually handled the controller. Funny how play imitates work sometimes.  :-)

But anyway, this got me thinking (once again) about how there aren’t enough cooperative games on the market. I really enjoyed helping Eve play Bejeweled, despite the fact that the game was never designed for such a dynamic. And I can’t count the number of people who have told me that they enjoy playing World of Warcraft with their wives in part because they can help each other on quests. In fact, when you really think about it, the ubiquitous Korean Internet cafe gaming+dating scene starts to make sense. Games really can be an ideal mechanism via which to express your affection for someone and via which to enjoy their company.

If we console makers want to attract more female consumers, we can’t just focus on new marketing efforts, or producing more casual games (in general), or hardware redesign. All of that definitely helps, but it just can’t beat twenty minutes of quality time enjoying a game with hubby, or with son, or with brother…

Increasing Creativity

I’m always on the lookout for general business news and research that seems relevant to the video game industry, and there was some good stuff in the latest issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. In particular, let me draw your attention to Is Creativity a Foreign Concept?

To summarize: a team of researchers from INSEAD and Kellogg conducted a series of tests on graduate students who had and had not lived abroad for a significant period of time (at least six months). They found that having spent time abroad increased the chances of finding innovative solutions to tricky problems. An even bigger boost was demonstrated by students who had lived abroad for at least two or three years. From the article:

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Grokking Corporate Culture

My friend Ben Mattes, a very talented producer for Ubisoft, made a great comment on my previous blog article which I’d like to unceremoniously lift out of context:

When I worked at Gameloft I invested significant energy into creative motivational ‘events’. When I left, the guy who replaced me continued this tradition and came up with (what I thought was) a great idea to help beat the heat in the summer. Instead of a traditional 5-7 with beer and chips, he brought in an ice-cream ‘team’ from the local ‘Ben And Jerry’s’ to serve cones and sundaes to the team after an important meeting. I liked the idea and tried it with my team shortly after starting at Ubisoft.

At the time no one said anything negative. They all had slightly bemused smiles on their faces and got in line to dutifully collect their ice-cream. Some even went back for seconds.

Months later, though, I learned that I had made an awful impression with this act. The team immediately questioned whether I “belonged” if I would favor ice-cream over beer (the stable for such events).

To this day whenever I bring the team together for beers the ice-cream fiasco comes up (all in good fun, I hope).

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Scheduled Bonuses vs. Other Morale Boosters

I’m subscribed to a producers’ mail list that recently hosted a discussion about the pros and cons of milestone-related monetary bonuses for employees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were a broad variety of opinions. I thought it might be interesting to share some quotes (plus my own thoughts, of course!)

There appeared to be consensus on the long-term ineffectivness of this type of bonus. A number of well-known research studies [example] have had similar conclusions. All the more interesting, then, that this form of compensation remains widely in-use (not just in the video game industry, but many others as well.) Comments from the list:

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Virtual Market, Meet Counter-Strike

One of my favorite topics is the emergence of “massively-social” elements in non-massive (i.e. traditional) single and multiplayer games. The most famous example of this is Will Wright’s Spore, a “massively single-player” game (Will’s term, not mine) that automatically shares user-generated content across individual game instances. I.e. players create alien creatures, and those creatures are distributed to (and unknowingly rated by) other players who otherwise never interact with one another. I threw around some massively single-player ideas of my own last November, in an effort to illustrate how social elements can be used to combat game piracy.

I mention all this because I recently noticed another nice, mainstream example of massively-social game design. Valve has decided to make the prices of weapons in Counter-Strike: Source dependant upon player demand — a virtual market, in other words. This sort of economic mechanism is common in MMOs but generally unheard of in other AAA games. And it’s brilliant. Why spend huge amounts of time tweaking and re-tweaking game balance when you can reduce your effort by starting from a reasonable point, then letting the market handle the rest?

Valve, to its credit, has been candid with the player community, which seems split between those who are excited about the promise of a more balanced gameplay experience, and those who fear unforeseen problems. I predict that this change will ultimately be embraced by the community as long as there’s no major error in its implementation.

Not much else to say for now. It’s clear (to me at least) that massively-social elements can make a game much more interesting and more profitable. The question is: how long will it take for most AAA game developers to embrace this design philosophy?

AGC – How To Write The Best Game Ever

This breakout session was led by Chris Avellone (the brain behind Planescape Torment, which remains my favorite game ever.) Chris encouraged attendees to speak openly about their successes, failures, and concerns; the result was an interesting survey of the demons troubling many game writers. Producers, take note.

For starters, not a single person spoke up when Chris asked them to describe a success. But plenty of people were willing to toss out failures and frustrations.

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AGC – Writing Comedy for Games

I’m only now getting the chance to process the notes that I wrote at AGC. Here’s a partial transcript of the “Writing Comedy” session (there’s another, also incomplete report at Gamasutra.) I’ve highlighted in red a few quotes that I found interesting and/or amusing.

Moderator: Rich Bryant, writer for Spin City (the TV show)
Panelists: Matt Soell, writer for Stubbs the Zombie; Tom Abernathy, writer for Destroy All Humans!.

Tom: Over the last 15 years, game humor went from the “one guy in a garage” kind of humor to, for better and worse. more sophisticated humor, as we in games have begun to compare our medium to film and TV. I.e. we’re not just writing fart jokes now, although farting was the basis of an entire design mechanic in Stubbs.

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Game Consumer Market Segmentation Study

Parks Associates has unveiled a study that seeks to eliminate the meaningless terms “hardcore gamer” and “casual gamer”. Kudos to Parks; I’ve always felt that the game industry’s limited vocabulary for describing customers has hobbled design and marketing creativity. (It’s like trying to describe the natural world with just three words: “plant”, “animal”, and “mineral”. You could do it, but you’ll definitely lose something in the process.)

The Parks study revealed six segments:

  • Power gamers: 11% of the market, but account for 30% of current spending.
  • Social gamers: 13% of the market; enjoy gaming as a way to interact with friends.
  • Leisure gamers: 14% of the market; spend 58 hours per month playing mainly casual titles. However, they prefer challenging games and show high interest in new gaming services.
  • Dormant gamers: 26% of the market; love gaming but spend little time because of family, work, or school. They like to play with friends and family and prefer challenging games.
  • Incidental gamers: 12% of the market; play mostly online games for 20 hours a month, mainly out of boredom.
  • Occasional gamers: 24% of the market; play puzzle, word, and board games almost exclusively.

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Snakes on a Plane

A big debate has been brewing for months now, and this weekend marked the event that will finally blow the lid off that debate. I’m not talking about “PS3 vs. Xbox 360” — partisans in that fight won’t rest anytime soon. I’m talking about the debut of Snakes on a Plane, the movie that bloggers (and a few media scholars) love to talk about, and cynics love to trash. There are lessons here for the game industry.

Intro to Snakes on a Plane

A brief recap, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this. Snakes on a Plane features Samuel L. Jackson, in a story so silly that as soon as bloggers got wind of it, they began gleefully making parodies and hailing the movie as the upcoming camp hit of the year. Makers of the movie (including Jackson) were probably not initially intending to create a camp hit, but when they realized what was happening, they did something relatively unusual in Hollywood: they adapted their marketing efforts (and even the movie itself) to conform to the camp expectations of the blogosphere.

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Organizational Processes

One thing that seems to be neglected at a fair number of game companies is the tuning of organizational processes (OP for short). OP relates to a wide variety of issues, including but not limited to: organizational structure, decision-making, corporate politics and culture, incentives and goal-setting, hierarchy, hiring, etc. Tuning OP isn’t simply a question of implementing, monitoring, or enforcing policies. and it is relevant to all managers, not merely HR professionals.

Unfortunately, I could write a few more paragraphs and you still might wonder what I was yammering about. So instead, I’ve decided to list some of my favorite readings from my old OP bschool course and summarize them for you. Hopefully, it will be immediately apparent why this stuff is useful! (Unfortunately, none of the readings are available for free — some are books, and some have to be purchased from Harvard for a few bucks.)

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