How Head of State went from Passion Project to Top-10 Download

  Head of State is on iOS (here) and Android (here).

The Big Idea

I started working in the games industry at a small studio in Paris called Kobojo in 2011. We were making Facebook simulations that were moderately successful, but a far cry from the games that I enjoyed playing myself. Even so, I loved it. Finally hours of playing games from childhood onwards felt justified(!); the process of designing enjoyable experiences was itself hugely satisfying, and the sense of potential was intoxicating. Zynga was a tech industry darling, with Cityville breaking record after record, just as the portents began signalling an even bigger shift to mobile.

Politically though, the times were much less rosy: the far right was growing in popularity across Europe and the US, whilst in Greece Golden Dawn regularly made the headlines showing how fast the slide into neo-fascism could be. I found the politics confusing – I had grown up in the 90s and just about remembered the fall of the Berlin Wall. I thought this was meant to be the End of History and liberal democracy the natural order of things. It was fast becoming apparent that this wasn’t the case, that political entropy did not drag us inexorably towards peace and understanding.

So it was that I had the very first thoughts about the game that would become Head of State. I dreamed of a game that pushed the boundaries of games as a medium (of course!), whilst simultaneously addressing my pet fear of democratic collapse. The aspiration would be to contribute to the ongoing debate on democracy, just as Orwell and Huxley had with Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World.

Today we haven’t stopped reading novels, but we have started playing a lot more games, and some of those games have touched just as serious ground. BioShock is a personal favourite – I must have played it through 4 or 5 times. Far from impeding enjoyment of the game, its rich setting drawing on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was loved by critics and the game was a commercial success as well. I myself went on to read both the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in between replays… whilst the success of TV shows like The West Wing and House of Cards further convinced me that politics was far from a niche interest. However, it was to be four years before the game was anything more than passing fantasy.

A Game is Born

Whilst I loved the concept of Head of State, I had no idea of how the game would actually play. Partly I had had no inspiration for mechanics that would work for the subject matter, and partly I wasn’t trying very hard as I didn’t see how the game might ever get made. It was clear that none of the companies I worked for would ever be interested in the idea. So the concept sat at the back of my mind gathering dust, and only occasionally embellished when I’d had a few drinks and gave an impromptu rant to friends about games or politics.

Then last year, following the encouragement of several friends and developers at Wooga, I started playing around with Unity and built a couple of playable prototypes for other ideas. They were the creative equivalents of a 3-year old’s macaroni collage, but I found coding addictive and my learning trajectory was steep. You Only Live Once was a (very) dark, text based version of the Sims, which I actually pushed to the App Store, just to see if I could. Hardly anyone played it, but it made me realise that publishing a game by myself was possible. At the same time I decided to leave Wooga, frustrated with a number of projects that had been cancelled before launch. With the games industry becoming increasingly tough I didn’t see better prospects anywhere else, so I jumped into e-commerce, but I decided that my swan song to the games industry would be publishing this political game I always dreamed of in some format.

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As I said my goodbyes at Wooga and prepared for an extended break over Christmas and New Year I had a brainwave about how the game might look. I had realised from my growing coding experience that simple simulation games were within my powers, and in particular had spent a lot of time playing both Plague Inc. and A Dark Room. I initially envisaged the game as an incremental similar to A Dark Room where new options opened up to the player as their political influence expanded. One of the key themes I wanted to explore in the game was leading people down an increasingly dark path to more extreme policies and actions, even if they started from relatively pure intentions.

I cobbled something together in a few days, all ugly pastel buttons, stats and the occasional progress bar to look at. I was fairly happy with the results myself, even if it was incredibly simplistic, just because I had managed to match some mechanics to the theme. But when I showed it to my family, they hated it. No one wanted to play the bad guy, the evil dictator with a plan to subvert a nation. They all far too nice for that and wanted to rule the country as well as possible, eradicating poverty and ensuring proper governance. Unless I could make the game fun, it was clear that the audience would be limited at best.

Putting the Fun into Evil

Still, I wasn’t going to be put off too easily, so I reached out to a couple of friends from Wooga – Rebecca Harwick, an American writer, and Ewa Chrusciel, a Polish artist. I had worked with both and knew them to be exceptionally talented, but I also suspected given Trump’s rise in the US and the growing discomfort of liberals with the Law & Justice party in Poland, that they would be interested in the theme (one of the benefits of living in Berlin is that most people are very liberal and relatively politically active). I asked them not whether they liked the game as it was, but whether they could see the potential, and were interested in fulfilling as much of that potential as possible. They both signed up immediately and we began meeting regularly, with the aim of launching a free game as a passion project in around three months.

The design evolved rapidly with the experienced feedback from Rebecca and Ewa. At the same time, the addition of a writer and artist supercharged the project’s skillsets, vastly expanding the creative possibilities for the game. We quickly divided the tech tree into Policies to allow the game to cover revolutions of all colors and not just the descent into facism. We also built out Control factions to reflect the importance of other state institutions, oblivious that over the summer Turkey’s coup would justify our decision to keep the Army and Police separate. The game also dragged towards the end, and I’ve never been a fan of fast forward options, so we added Momentum and the Revolution mechanic to bring things to a climax. Meanwhile, Ewa started working on more visual ways of showing the mechanics, whilst Rebecca worked on events and decisions that we wanted to include.

By March the game had come on leaps and bounds, and was unrecognisable from its initial incarnation. At the same time, we began to realise that we were only just getting started on the changes that we wanted to make, and had already used up the time we initially set aside. The process was fun though, and the team dynamics were working well, so we agreed to continue iterating on the design and push it further. We started play testing, and again got feedback that the game felt too dry, more political statement than game. We knew adding humour was the solution, but struggled to find a tone that was the right mix of enjoyable without being superficial.

After several discussions and exploring different styles we found an irreverent sarcasm that seemed to fit the bill, and we spread it generously all over the game. Meanwhile, as we dug deeper into the mechanics, I also picked up a renewed appreciation for why so many things in Plague Inc. are designed the way they are – we added a map and then pins for Influence, Events and Protests to give the player more to do.

Summer meant various holidays and other commitments for everyone, but the game was looking far better than I could have ever imagined. We decided to charge $1.99 for the game as we felt the quality would be high enough, and anyone interested in a political simulation game wasn’t likely to baulk at the price. Trump had already clinched the Republican nomination and then Brexit happened, and we were reinvigorated with the need to launch the game as soon as possible. July was a blur of polishing and testing, putting together marketing materials and grabbing lunches with anyone we knew in PR or App Store optimization. Finally, we set a launch date for August 7th and arranged a small BBQ for friends and family to celebrate all our hard work over the past months.

With the icons ready and App Store description written, I couldn’t wait to see the game go live. I called Tom Kinniburgh, a friend in the publishing industry excited to push the button, when he bluntly informed me that proper launch prep for any chance of featuring would take 5-6 weeks, rather than 10 days. It was a frustrating moment, and I considered pushing ahead regardless – we thought our chances of getting featured given the political theme were only 20% or so, and knew that the game wouldn’t capture the zeitgeist forever. Every day seemed to count and we had already been working on the game twice as long as we had initially expected.

Patience Pays Off

Fortunately Tom was quick to talk me out of rushing the launch, and we picked a new release date of September 8th. With development finished we focused on launch PR, reaching out to as many journalists as we could think of, calling in favours from anyone remotely involved in the media, and sending out a barrage of speculative tweets. We set up a thread in the TouchArcade forums and sent very polite yet enthusiastic emails to Apple and Google.

At last, launch day arrived. Nervously we checked and rechecked the App Store to see if we were lucky enough to get any featuring. We had not had art requests for banners, but hung out for a minor feature somewhere. Then finally, around 5pm, we noticed the UK store features had been updated, and Head of State was included in the “New Games We Love” section at position 14. A few hours later we realised we were also hidden in the simulation games features in the US. The next day we started climbing the charts, appearing first in top paid apps (UK) at 41, then climbing all the way to 5 in paid games, and number 1 in paid RPGs in the UK and number 9 in paid RPGs in the US.

         

Now, the game is less than week old, but by time of going to press (3 days of data) we’ve seen over 3.6k downloads and over $7.8k in revenue, with an average rating of about 4.5 stars in both the US and UK (we never localised the game). We’ll see where the figures go from here, but the journey has already been far more satisfying, and exhilarating, both in development and launch than I ever could have imagined. In today’s market, I’m not sure anyone can guarantee this level of success, but if there’s a game that you desperately want to make, there’s always the chance that you’ll be surprised by just how well it does…

Watch out for iOS 9

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Will wearables be the next big gaming platform?

Almost every new technology platform has eventually ended up becoming a gaming platform, whether it was intended that way or not. PCs were originally work stations, but now owning one is the only way to be a “serious” gamer and engage with the likes of LOL and WoW. Smart phones were, well, phones before Apple opened up the App Store and games came to dominate both downloads and revenue.

So will the Apple Watch specifically, and wearables in general follow the same trend? I think it’s unlikely, but the way that we play on mobile might be about to go through a major upheaval due to the quick replies in iOS 9, which are already being used in my Watch apps.

Wearables suck for gaming

Watches make for very poor gaming platforms for three main reasons:

They are too small

The screen size is so small that it’s very difficult to fit much on there. Even if you focus entirely on UI then you might get four clickable buttons on screen and nothing else. A button and a readable image? … kind of. Descriptive text? … LOL.

Input control are imprecise

The Apple Watch can tell if you tap somewhere on the screen or swipe right across it, as well as giving users some finer control with the crown. Telling where users on the screen is another matter though – as above, the screen really isn’t big enough to fit multiple touch areas on anyway. This really restricts the amount of control that you can give players and actions that you can permit them to make. Games with single input controls are fine, but most current designs are too visual to work on a Watch.

It’s uncomfortable to use for long periods

You can play a lot of games on your phone with just one hand, allowing you to do lots of other things at the same time – carry the groceries, hold onto a bus handle, use the toilet… But that’s not the case with the watch. Although you’re only using one hand to input, you need to keep your other wrist in position to do that, effectively preventing you from doing anything else with that hand. So the watch is a two handed device. That drastically reduces the number of occasions it’s possible to use a watch in, and given the angle that you need to hold your wrist at to see the Watch it gets uncomfortable after more than a few seconds as well.

The watch is a two handed device

That’s not to say that there aren’t some games giving the Watch a good shot: Runeblade and Cupcake Dungeon are both passable idle RPGs, though you would probably skip them if they were on Kongregate or you didn’t have a Watch. Lifeline has done well in the App Store charts, probably because its notifications based story is gripping whether you have a Watch or not.

Actionable notifications are the next big thing in mobile gaming

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And that’s really my point. Anything that works well on the Watch works because it has minimal inputs and proactively reaches out to the player. With quick replies in OS 9, any app will be able to do this though, not just ones that you get on your Watch. Now apps can not only let you know that something has happened, but also get your reaction to that information without you leaving the lock screen.

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Imagine Fallout Shelter with this functionality. You already get notifications warning you that your dwellers have been in the wasteland for a while and you should check on them before they die. Now you could be given an option in the notification to recall them. Suddenly the notification isn’t a annoyance pestering you to return and play the game, it IS playing the game. Games can reach out to players throughout the day, keeping players engaged and themselves front of mind, and then deliver a longer, more satisfying session when players have the time.

Dual format sessions are already used by some of the most successful games

Players are already used to these sorts of different sessions. In the Fallout example, players might check in to the app to prevent a dweller from being out in the wasteland too long and dying. But they will still want to return to the app for longer later, to see what loot their dweller had found, and dole this out to the other dwellers. In Clash of Clans you often collect your resources 2 or 3 times a day, but might only attack people or reconfigure your defence in one, longer session.

Of course not all genres are suitable for this sort of gameplay. Games that rely on action, graphics and twitch controls will not work at all, whilst games that rely heavily on decision making will work best. But that means genres like strategy, simulation and RPG – some of the biggest top grossing genres on the App Store at the moment – could be adapted to make use of this, and my prediction is that within the next year we’ll see at least one top 10 game with more player interactions through notifications than through the app itself.

TL;DR

As with the analysis that a lot of apps are going to become much closer to messaging, and make much greater use of notifications, games are going to follow suit. The top grossing genres on the App Store currently are ones that could make most use of actionable notifications – strategy, simulation and RPG. Games that make use of actionable notifications will work well on iPhone and Apple Watch alike.

30 seconds to make a hit

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I’ve written before on how competitive the mobile games market is, and how difficult it is to stand out. Whilst having a great idea might give you hit game, it’s unlikely to fare well against the entrenched competition that dominates the top grossing charts. If you want indie fame and creative glory then by all means come up with a great idea and build it. If you want commercial success then you need a commercial strategy. So how do you do that?

  1. Understand your audience
  2. Articulate your Key Selling Points
  3. Deliver on your vision in 30s

 

Understand your audience

With a team in place it’s vital that you understand the audience that you are targeting. What are they playing at the moment? How many of them are there? What do they like and dislike about the current games they are playing? What are the points that they pay at or stop playing?

To make a commercially successful game you need to build a superior product for your audience, and if you don’t have a good idea of what they are looking for then it’s down to blind luck whether you make it or not. The odds aren’t great given the number of moving parts in a game if you don’t have a solid understanding of who your audience is, what they want and what they don’t want.

There are lots of ways that you can find out about your audience. Adam covered some here. See what the audience of existing games talk about on their Facebook pages and in forums. See what they are doing in the metrics of your existing games, if you have any. Recruit players via targeted Facebook ads to surveys and ask them about everything you can think of. Get a few players on the phone if possible, as the insight you will get from one to one conversations will be even deeper. Distill down all these insights into personas of the idealised player that you are building your game for, and make this visible and clear to the whole team.

Articulate your Key Selling Points

When I was 24 I set up a soft drink brand. I quickly learned pitching to retailers that I had to be able to articulate not only why it was great, but why it was better than something else that they were already selling. Pointing to their chiller cabinets, the conversation would go something like this:

“Hey, do you want to buy some of my drinks?”

“Do you see any space in my chiller?”

“No.”

“Ok, so what should I take out of my chiller to make room for your drinks?”

“[Something disgusting looking]”

“Why would I take that out? I sell hundreds of those each week”

“ …. “

chiller cabinet

Which product are you going to replace?

It’s the same with games. People are already playing games in the little free time that they have. The games that they are playing are the really good successful ones. That’s why those games are successful. If you’re not making a game that is obviously better than what they are already playing then why would they even try it?

So this leads to defining your Key Selling Points (KSPs). By this point you should know your audience inside out, so you should know what will really stand out and appeal to them. It doesn’t matter what you are excited about, it matters what your audience will get excited about. This needs to be a short list, perhaps 3-5 items long, each concisely articulated. Think about what you could communicate in a Facebook ad or a tweet, or even with your app name and icon – this may be all a player sees of your game before deciding whether or not to download it.

Empires and Allies

Empire & Allies has striking visuals in its marketing materials that clearly set it apart from Clash of Clans.

Exciting visuals are imperative here – as the adage goes: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. You can also look at the app descriptions of other apps in your category that are doing well. Many apps list out their Key Selling Points in convenient bullet form in their app description. Work out how to make your app sound even better and more exciting.

And remember, each of these 3 steps should come before you do any work actually building your game …

Deliver on your vision

Now you have a great team, a firm understanding of your audience and a snappy list of KSPs. These KSPs are effectively your design pillars. If a feature doesn’t support one of your KSPs then consider cutting it. It might be the best feature in the world, but if it’s not delivering on a KSP then your audience doesn’t care about it, or will never know about it before they stop playing your game.

Criminal Case spent 30% of their development time (6 months) working on their first session

Criminal Case spent 30% of their development time (6 months) working on their first session

Consider breaking the normal flow of the game to deliver a first experience that is exciting enough for players to want to play more. A great example of this is Clash of Clans giving you wizards in your first session to go and make an attack with. It immediately gives you a very visual impression of how exciting battles can be, fireballs flying everywhere, whilst you’re still a complete noob and weeks away from actually being able to build wizards yourself.

You need to deliver on all your KSPs in the first session, and preferably within the first 30 seconds of the user experience. F2P games are by definition free to download, so players barely think twice about downloading stuff that looks interesting. But if it doesn’t deliver on the promise immediately they’ll also likely never give it another chance – they have nothing invested in the experience both literally and metaphorically. Think about how many free apps you’ve downloaded because they sounded great, tried once, and then abandoned in disappointment. If it’s anything like me then it’s a LOT. You know what your audience wants, so make sure they see you are good for it as soon as you possibly can.

TL;DR

In today’s crowded app market you need to have a solid commercial strategy if you hope to have a commercially successful game. 

  1. Understand your audience
  2. Articulate your Key Selling Points
  3. Deliver on your vision in 30s

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Big Fish, Small Pond: Surviving in a Maturing Market

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Last week I attend Quo Vadis in Berlin and gave a talk on the title above. The slides are below.

My main take away was that companies need to set themselves smart constraints within which to be creative.

The four ideas I gave for setting yourself smart constraints were:

1. Know your strengths

Whatever your strengths are, be that an existing audience, particular technical expertise, or genre knowledge, you have to build on that. The market is tough enough without you giving yourself the best chance.

2. Find your pond

Incumbent games have too much market presence and content and too many systems and players to go head to head with. Define your market as a niche that is small enough for you to dominate (though big enough to pay the bills).

3. Manage the Risk

All game production is risk management – no one knows for sure if a game will be a success or not before it launches. Make sure that you manage the risk in production as well as possible. Do a risk assessment as you start out a project to get an objective feel for the number and scale of risks involved, and an idea of when they can be addressed (sooner is better!). This will also help you tackle the biggest risks first wherever possible.

4. Stick to the plan

It’s very easy half way through production, when things aren’t going well, to convince yourself that you just need a couple more months to fix things. Set yourself some fixed targets at the start of the project that trigger a full scale review of the project if they are missed. That way you will waste the least amount of time on projects that are doomed.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

Content Hunger and How to Sate it

The cost of content

Games are content, and so the economics of games are largely the economics of content. Content is what players pay for, and content is what takes time and money to build, with both the quality and amount of content increasing production costs. I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition recently, and having a great time. I’ve already sunk just over 20 hours into it, and if friends and reviews are to be believed, I have at least another 30 to go before I finish the main storyline.

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Dragon Age Inquisition has a huge amount of high quality content to explore

The world you can explore is vast, filled with scripted missions, side quests, wild beasts, roaming bandits and hidden secrets. Romping across the landscape from rocky deserts to dank marshes I am both awe struck at the variety and volume of content in the game, and slightly sickened by it. Sickened, because now I work in the industry I know how much time will have been invested into producing everything I see, and how countless days must have been put into dark corridors, rock formations and other mundane details that give the world authenticity, but will be largely forgotten and ignored by players.

Mobile is some way behind the production values of consoles. Partly the hardware isn’t as good yet, and so cannot support such high end graphics. Partly developers have not needed to deliver such high quality games to win customers. But mobile is rapidly catching up, and whilst the quality of content may not be as high, the amount of content needed is already probably larger. The F2P business model dominates mobile, and success here is highly dependent on retaining your players for months or even years. Having something for players to do a year after they start playing your game is no mean feat. Wooga’s hidden object game Pearl’s Peril has 90 weeks of content – something that few if any console games can match, and as a result of this the retention in the game is phenomenal.

Content is a key competitive angle

It’s clear on both console and mobile that the amount of content you can deliver, and its quality are key factors for success. It’s hard to imagine an RPG without the amount and quality of content that Skyrim or Dragon Age has being a success. For a competitive  HOG you need to deliver a similar amount of content as in Pearl’s Peril – something that only one or two developers apart from Wooga can hope to do. One of the reasons that World of Warcraft has become so entrenched is the amount of content that it has built up over the past decade is now almost impossible for other MMOs to replicate.

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Pearl’s Peril has 90 weeks of content, each with 5 hidden object scenes and a point-and-click adventure scene

For many games the number of man-hours that have been put into content determines the production quality and amount, together with the efficiency that this time is converted into content, given the tools utilized. The older a genre is, the higher the production values are – by pushing the content bar ever higher, developers shut out competition and establish themselves in franchises for the long term. With each game developers up the stakes, both because they can due to improving tools and existing assets to start from, and because they must to continue attracting players.

Maximizing content

To be successful developers must therefore invest in their tools and production pipeline to match the incumbents in the genre they are going head-to-head with. Failure to do this sort of preparation can only result in failure. Indies and smaller developers that cannot match the content output of bigger companies must innovate on the gameplay mechanics more to succeed. By innovating they can produce a new experience that players will not directly compare with established games. No one compares Realm of the Mad God to World of Warcraft, or Faster than Light to Mass Effect. There are also a number of techniques that can be used to stretch content for as long as possible, and all developers, regardless of their content output are wise to use as many of these as possible.

Randomness: Games with randomness are far more playable than those without some element of randomness. In Candy Crush Saga, levels are different each time they are played due to the random way that gems drop into the board. Players replay levels effectively waiting for the right combination of gems to drop. Imagine the game without this randomness and each level has a solution that can be found by trial and error relatively quickly, and the levels become boring.

Alternative choices: Allowing players to customize their play experience in different ways allows them to go back and replay the same content to explore how their decisions influenced the game. Whilst this requires some additional content that not all players may see, it allows die hard fans to play through most of the same content several times with minor variations. A good example here is how Telltale games allow you to replay episodes making different decisions each time. These decisions allow you see how the other characters react and the story pans out. In Dishonored the skills you upgrade give you different ways to complete each level, and the amount of violence that you employ throughout the game affects the way the story pans out to give replayability significant appeal.

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The way you play Dishonored affects how characters interact with you, the overall ending and even the weather in levels.

Events: Most successful mobile games run timed events of some form. Often the mechanics of the event are very similar, but the appearance of exclusive content that is only available for a limited period engages players extremely well. For the chance of getting a new unit, building or item players will happily grind through a lot of content that they have already seen before, and the most active players will often only be playing for the events schedule, having already exhausted the other content in the game.

Difficulty levels: In games where the difficulty of levels can be increased, then replaying the same content is fun because it requires players to master a higher skill threshold than before to complete. Changes in difficulty can often be made with config changes that are cheap to implement, and the players will still enjoy the content. Guitar Hero or Rock Band use this mechanic to allow you to replay the same tracks again and again at a level that is always challenging.

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Rock Band lets you play through the same songs at several different difficulty levels

User Generated Content: In Clash of Clans, players spend most of their time attacking the bases of other players. As the layout of each base is set by the defending player then an incredible amount of variation is generated by the players. All Supercell needed to do was to give players the tools reason to vary their base layout and the players take care of the rest. Different bases require different tactics to attack and so even though additional buildings and units are released only very slowly, players stay engaged in the game.

Wrap Up

In any genre, games compete on the amount of content offered and its quality, both of which drive up the cost of production. It is important to recognize the demands of producing this content before starting production and only choose genres where you can compete. Having chosen a genre it is vital that developers build the tools and pipeline to deliver the required content, as well stretch the playtime from their content however possible.

This post was originally published on Adventures in Mobile Game Design.

The Joy of Energy Systems

The Theory Bit

I recently watched an excellent short video on Penny Arcade about how energy systems are framed. Watch the video itself for the full 5m08s of insight, but it basically pointed out two things.

Firstly, energy systems (I included any mechanism that paces play here, from CityVille’s energy to World of Warcraft’s rest) are there for three reasons (plus one I add myself…):

  1. To make game companies money
  2. To spread out content for longer
  3. To habituate players to playing games
  4. (To distribute wealth more evenly amongst players – not something PA mention but I’ve written about it before)

Secondly, they point out that many social games don’t frame these mechanics very well, leading to player frustration and resentment.

The Good and the Bad

World of Warcraft is the exception, because instead of limiting how long players can play for, they give them a bonus for logging on after an absence. The game economy used and player behaviour resulting is identical, but the player experience is greatly improved. Players love getting a bonus, where they hated getting a penalty.

So how could we frame existing energy systems in social games to give us the benefits outlined above, but in a way that players would like?

If pacing systems can currently be divided into energy based systems (e.g. CityVille) and time based systems (e.g. War Commander), then I think the answer lies somewhere in between. How about a system where buildings, crafting and other contracts are completed over long periods (like WC), and players have a limited source of “energy” which can accelerate these and itself recharges over time (like CityVille, but inverted into a bonus)?

Reframing Social Games

The Grinns Tale currently employs something along these lines, and despite the game’s other flaws, it’s very good. In The Grinns Tale, crafting an item might take 1-2 hours for a mid-level player, and your wood and metal factories fill up ready for collection over a similar period. These contracts can be completed instantly for hard currency, but they can also be accelerated for “villager actions”.

Villager actions take 2 minutes to recharge, and accelerate contracts by 2 minutes… they are actually very similar to energy points used in other games. The number that you can have depends on the number of inhabitants your village has, but easily 30-40 for a mid-level player without using hard currency, so players have enough to complete a medium sized contract instantly, once per session.

The result is that play is paced to 1-2 hour intervals, but with each session players aren’t limited in the number of actions they can take as in CityVille. Eventually players will run out of things that they can do and be left with a time delay whilst crafting completes, factories refill etc., just as in War Commander. However, as a player you can elect to accelerate particular time delays by using your villager actions.

The resulting feeling of control gives players a satisfying rush, rather than a frustrating obstacle, and is a much more pleasant experience than either pure energy or time based pacing systems. Although as a player you are encourage into regular sessions to maximise use of your villager actions, you feel like you have a lot more control over the way that you use these to plan your production.

The Grinns Tale could probably improve this system further y adjusting the balance between the timed delays and the villager action acceleration – at the moment the former dominates and the latter feels like a bit of a bolt on. To make this system work really well the bonus needs to be significant, and I suspect that increasing the recharge rate and acceleration bonus to 5 minutes, and increasing time delays proportionately to compensate, would leave players with an even better feeling.

Wrap Up

Pacing in online games is important for a variety of different reasons:

  1. Monetization
  2. Content rationing
  3. Player habituation
  4. Distribution of virtual wealth

Framing such pacing is important to ensure that it does not adversely affect player enjoyment. This can be achieved by positioning energy as an acceleration bonus to a time based economy, rather than as a hard limit to the number of actions players can perform in a session.

Image from Monica Vidal’s Flickr stream.