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…

The Vocation of Mobile


Sometimes I am haunted by Nelson Mandela. Or rather his quote: “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Working in mobile games, it’s easy to get stopped in your tracks by this quote, and to reflect on whether you shouldn’t be doing something more meaningful. Could there be anything more trivial than looking for ways to break Candy Crush Saga’s stranglehold on wasting people’s time?

Mobile: It Changes Everything from Andreessen Horowitz on Vimeo.

There are, of course huge hidden value judgements in this way of thinking. It’s is just 7 years since the App Store was opened, and only 5 years since free to play was made possible when Apple allowed in-app purchases. Mobile games are undoubtedly a young medium, and aren’t yet given the same consideration of older and more established art forms such as books and film. But there is no reason this should be the case. There are now 2 billion people with smartphones, and mobile games account for about 40% of apps downloaded. There has never been a creative medium that is more widely distributed, and we are only just starting to explore the potential of it.

“The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge. Parents take care to feed their children with wholesome diet; and yet how unconcerned about the provision for the mind, whether they are furnished with salutary food, or with trash, chaff, or poison?”

– Reverend Enos Hitchcock, Memoirs of the Bloomsgrove Family, 1790

New creative media have always been criticised by politicians and social commentators for the dangers they pose to society. As mobile games are the latest way people have found to express themselves and create, we should not expect them to be free from this criticism. But it would be naive and short sighted to think that this criticism is somehow immutable or different to the outrage originally provoked by novels, film or rock and roll when they first appeared.

This new form of entertainment has gone far to blast maidenhood … Depraved adults with candies and pennies beguile children with the inevitable result. The Society has prosecuted many for leading girls astray through these picture shows, but GOD alone knows how many are leading dissolute lives begun at the ‘moving pictures.’

– The Annual Report of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 1909

This of course does not mean that all games are worthy or should be considered art, just as we wouldn’t judge Sharknado 3 on the same level as Citizen Kane. If we want games to be considered art then as game makers we have a duty to make games artistic. If we want to feel comfortable in the context of Mandela’s quote then we have to make mobile games to our full potential – the scale of the medium is clearly there to support it.

How do we fulfil our potential as makers of mobile games? This is the same question as: how do we fulfill our creative potential in any other medium? And on this subject I am a big fan of the way that Scott McCloud thinks about things in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. It is a fantastic comic that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in art of any form, either as a spectator or a creator. In it, McCloud outlines six steps by which art is created:

Creation of art: Idea > Form > Idiom > Structure > Craft > Surface

  • Idea is the original purpose of the work. The message that it is meant to convey to others.
  • Form is the way that this idea is presented to others. Is it a game, film or book and so on.
  • Idiom is the genre or type of the form that the work falls into. It is the style that it takes.
  • Structure is the architecture and pacing of the work. What is the focus, what is included, and what is left out.
  • Craft is the quality of the production. The amount of technical skill used to create the finished product.
  • Surface is the polish that goes on top. The initial impression that a piece gives to the audience.

understanding comics

In contrast to how art is made, artists generally develop their skills backwards through this same path:

Development of artist: Idea < Form < Idiom < Structure < Craft < Surface

That is to say, many game designers start out mimicking the work of others and smoothing out the appearance and function of our games. We rebuild Pong to learn a programming language or working in QA we spot bugs and ensure a consistent finish throughout games. This is learning to master the surface.

As we progress we learn our craft – how to make things at a professional level. As a junior designer we learn how to write a proper spec and conduct user tests, as well as how to design off the shelf features to deliver particular player responses.

We get more experience and we start concentrating on the structure of our work. We learn how to pace a player through our games, how to balance the mechanics and optimize the first session. We recognise the necessary and sufficient features that should be brought together to create a satisfying whole – the required skillset for a competent lead designer.

At this point, how far we continue down the chain depends on our personal motivations. Those who are ambitious in commercial terms will likely focus on idiom, whilst more artist types will probably prefer form or idea.

To work on what McCloud calls idiom requires significant talent. Here we are considering the genre that our games are, and how we can make a meaningful contribution to it. How far can we stretch the definition of the genre to appeal to the same audience and deliver the experience they are after. I would argue this is where the most commercially successful designers will be, as the top 10 grossing charts in any medium are usually meaningful and insightful innovations on established genres. Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans are both good examples of games that took this approach and pushed the evolution of an existing genre another step.

To focus on form is to be concerned about the potential of games, stretching the boundaries of what games are, and how artistic they can be. This is to make games for the sake of making games and to explore new mechanics. Drei Etter and Karen are examples here. Drei Etter is an abstract set of puzzles that is game like, but really it is more exploration of collaboration between mute strangers. Karen is an interactive video story that stretches the boundaries between games and films, exploring our intimate relationship with technology. Both are interactive experiences that are truly innovative and creative, stretching our perception of what games can be.

In contrast, those who choose idea at this point are more concerned with using games as a way of communicating specific concepts or messages. Designers here are concerned with bending the medium to deliver an experience that cannot be delivered in another way. These sorts of games usually have a strong narrative or setting. Few mobile games are outstanding here (the medium is young, after all), but a game like Journey shows what is possible on consoles. It explores life and death in a way that is reliant on the controls, feedback and social nature of games in a way that isn’t possible in other media.

Is form, or idea, or idiom superior to the others? All may be of interest at different times and to different people, and of course choosing one doesn’t mean excluding the others forever. Most creatives will need to balance their need to earn a living and their desire to reach an audience against experimenting with new mechanics or exploring issues that are important to them. Not that creating something commercial excludes entirely making something artistic – this is perhaps better seen as a vague spectrum rather than a binary choice.

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Take Steven Spielberg’s work for instance. In 1993 two hugely different films: Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park. Both were massive successes, but in very different ways. Schindler’s List is the defining depiction of the Holocaust for most people today. Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs to life for millions and spawning a hugely lucrative series that is still running strong. Both built on the reputation that Spielberg had built up over the previous 20 years. Few would argue that Jurassic Park the more artistic work, but would so many people have seen Schindler’s List if Spielberg had not made so many mainstream films of its ilk? And wouldn’t a world without velociraptors on the big screen be a less exciting, imaginative place? Which film was the full potential of Spielberg as a filmmaker? Different people might have different answers, but either way few would accuse him of “playing small”.

The vocation of mobile games is not that we consider the current crop of mobile games to be masterpieces, but that we believe that the medium can support them. If the current state falls short of our aspirations, then that only makes the challenge of reaching them a fuller test of our own potential. This is not a transformation that will happen overnight, or to the exclusion of mediocre work, but given another 10 or 20 years I believe we will see plenty of examples of great mobile games, however people set the criteria, and plenty of people who are proud to have made them.

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

Hearthstone: A Game Changer for Mobile F2P?


Blizzard’s Hearthstone has defined collectable card games (CCGs) on mobile over the past year, and with the recent launch of the versions for smart phones on both iOS and Android the mobile revenues have rocketed roughly sevenfold.

Hearthstone is an interesting game to look at, because it breaks so many of the conventions of mobile F2P:

  • It has no energy system
  • It sells only permanent items
  • It is highly skill based
  • It is mainly synchronous PvP

As such it appeals to a lot of self designated “gamers” that find other mobile games somehow below them. This run down of the game will take apart the main features and discuss how they create and great game, and whether there are larger implications for the mobile F2P industry.

Core Loop

The core loop in Hearthstone is incredibly simple:

Hearthstone

There are two main play modes: Ranked and Arena.

Ranked can be considered the basic game mode, where players play against each other synchronously to climb a monthly ladder. Players use decks that they have constructed from their permanent card collections. It is free to play, and players earn coins for winning matches and completing quests that appear daily.

Arena can be considered a secondary play mode, but is hugely important to and complements Ranked play. Here players also play synchronously with each other, but they must pay an entry fee – either coins or real money. Players make a deck as they enter the arena, choosing one of three cards at a time until they have a full deck. The rewards depend on a player’s performance, but can be generous compared to the entry cost.

The balance of the two modes is important, because it provides both payers and non payers, as well as players of different skills something to do. Earlier on, players may find Ranked play easier as they learn to put together decks that rely on specific combos. Later on they may find Arena more fun as there is the challenge of putting together a deck on the fly, and all players have the same chance of getting legendary cards.

Pacing

Hearthstone-quests

Quests act as the pacing system in Hearthstone, but it is so well framed that many players don’t see it for is. Rather than restricting the number of matches that players can play in a certain time, quests limit the amount of coins that a player can earn. Players get one new quest each day, and are limited to having three in total at any one time. Players can earn small amounts of coins for winning matches in Ranked play (10 coins every 3 wins), but this is small both compared to the time it would take to play these matches (perhaps 30 minutes or more on average), as well as the coins earned from quests (40-100 per quest).

As players earn most of their coins from quests, and not from playing matches, Hearthstone has no need to limit the amount of times a player can play. Players can (and do) sink hours into climbing the rankings without breaking the economy, as after the first few games their in game earnings are virtually nil. This is such a simple yet effective feature I am amazed that more F2P games have not copied it – energy systems are by far the most hated, yet standard F2P systems.

Single currency, single resource

I count coins as the single currency in Hearthstone and dust as the single resource. Hearthstone does not have a soft currency for everyone and a hard currency for payers. It follows therefore that it does not have items that can only be bought for hard currency. Purchasable things in the game can either be bought for either coins or real money. Dust is reserved exclusively for crafting specific cards.

The fact that as a non payer you can get anything in the game, and you can earn coins at a reasonable rate, helps create an environment that seems fair and inviting for both payers and non payers alike. Whilst the temptation to drop real money on a bunch of packs is constant, it never feels like someone has beaten you just because they’ve spent money on the game.

Permanent purchases

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The nature of card rarity in Hearthstone also supports the feeling of fairness. Cards have one of four rarities: common, rare, epic and legendary. However, in contrast to many of the other mobile CCGs, cards cannot be upgraded or fused. This means that buying cards always results in a permanent addition to your collection, either directly or through the crafting system.

As with all CCGs there needs to be some method of dealing with duplicate cards, to maintain the randomness of pack opening. Hearthstone only allows players to have two of each card (one of legendaries) in their deck. Duplicates beyond this can be disenchanted for Hearthstone’s main resource: dust, which in turn can be used to craft any card in Hearthstone. The conversion rate is obviously not great – cards give only 25% of their cost to craft when they are disenchanted, and making progressively rarer cards gets ever more expensive. You need to disenchant 320 common cards to craft a single legendary. But the system does mean that even if players only get duplicates through randomly opening packs they can work towards specific cards that they want to create particular decks.

The fact that purchases result in permanent items that cannot be taken away from the player makes them all the more attractive. Players know that if they get a legendary card they will always have it, and its power will stay constant. Players can still spend huge amounts of money on the game, as there are so many cards to collect and the chance of getting a legendary is so low. Various Reddit posts put the cost of a Legendary at around $12-24, so with 67 legendary cards currently players could easily spend over $1,000 getting all of those alone. The cost of the epics and rare cards would be on top of that, and players can pay 4x for cards with a gold back – a purely cosmetic change.

Buying Experience

The permanence of purchases together with the overall polish in the game creates an incredibly positive buying experience. You would expect nothing less from Blizzard of course, but the pack opening sequence is spectacular, especially when compared to the drab experience in many mobile F2P games to skip a timer or add more resources. Buying something feels great, a detail that is all too often overlooked.

Skilled play vs. Pay to Win

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Most mobile F2P games steer clear of including too much skill. Skill makes games more difficult to balance, as players will have a varied experience of the same content. Furthermore, with highly skilled games it is difficult to give players a continuous sense of progression, as their skill level will typically plateau after an initial learning period. As most mobile F2P games are selling progress, they need to maintain the sense of progression that grind based games give, as ensure that players have broadly the same experience by leveling the playing field with luck.

In contrast, Hearthstone has a high degree of skill – the game has an impressive number of tournaments and events, and Blizzard host a World Championship at BlizzCon that had a prize pool of $250k last year. Youtube and Twitch are awash with Hearthstone matches and the top players are starting to make their fame and fortune from the game. This is clearly a far cry from games like Clash of Clans or Game of War, where success largely depends on the amount of time (and money) players can grind into the game.

That said, in Ranked play, working your way up gets more difficult the higher you go not only because you meet more skilled opponents. Any player will tell you that you need to both have the right cards to put together in a deck to create the right combos, as well as the ability to change your deck as you go. This flexibility is vital as the meta game changes as you move through the ranks. At a given time, rush decks might be unstoppable at ranks 20-15, but easy prey above rank 10.

Always having the right epic and legendary cards to finish off your deck becomes essential, but you rarely need very many of them to create a good deck. The pressure to spend is in having the necessary breadth of cards, rather than a deck construct solely of very rare cards. This creates a dynamic where players do need to spend to play at the highest levels, just as League of Legend players need to practice with all the different Heroes rather than just the ones that are freely available that week. At the same time each individual card is balanced for its mana cost and players who have spent a lot of money to acquire a lot of different cards might be beaten by a player who has spent very little, but happens to have the right cards for that particular battle. Players must spend to progress in general, but matches don’t feel pay to win.

Synchronous PvP

Hearthstone is one of the only successful mobile games to centre on its synchronous PvP experience. Vainglory and others have tried to take this challenge on, but no one else has succeeded except another game backed by a massive desktop IP: World of Tanks Blitz. Hearthstone was in beta on PC 9 months before coming to iPad, and had half a million downloads before it even hit the App Store. This period was essential to give them the critical mass needed to match players with each other at an appropriate level. Without it players would either be facing long wait times every match they played, or getting matched against players of very different skill – either case is a potentially game breaking experience.

Blizzard’s ability to drum up this level of interest in a new game is a testament to their expertise at launching new synchronous PvP games, but absolutely not a reference that other developers can hope to emulate. Without Blizzard’s existing World of Warcraft IP, installed fanbase, community management efforts and PR, the game would have faced a much harder prospect of building the community necessary for critical mass. I do not believe that we will see a synchronous PvP based game successful on mobile without a PC version any time soon.

Wrap Up

The success of Hearthstone, combined with how different it is from many other mobile F2P games makes you expect it would have a huge impact on the prevailed design trends in the industry. The pacing system in particular seems superior to the energy systems that are still prevalent in many games. However, the fact that Hearthstone was launched PC first on the back of the huge World of Warcraft brand has allowed a number of other differences that the vast majority of mobile F2P developers cannot hope to emulate.

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.

Harnessing the Psychology of Gifting

gifting-etiquette (1)

I feel like gifting has a bad name in games. Like the term “social” it has been ascribed to Facebook games that often implement interesting features in unexciting ways. Understand the psychology behind gifting in general – the phenomenon that is ubiquitous to all human culture and almost every human interaction – and I think things get a little more interesting, as well as suggest features that would work better than the average Facebook game.

Gifting and exchange are a component of almost every social interaction. This is even apparent in the way you greet your colleagues in the morning. If you see someone for the first time in the day that you work with then you are obliged say hello. They in turn are obliged to acknowledge your greeting and respond. If you barely know each other the exchange is short and perfunctory: “hey”, “hey”. If you know each other better, it might spawn a longer conversation or at the very least require more conviction.

Even this mundane situation exhibits what anthropologists know as the three obligations of gifting:

  • The obligation to give (to say hello in the first place)
  • The obligation to receive (to acknowledge that greeting)
  • The obligation to reciprocate (to say hello back)

In such a minor social interaction the exchange is fast and low value. But even so, to omit any of these steps would be rude. If a colleague continually ignored your greetings, then you would think less of them. Let’s examine the three obligations in a little more detail.

Giving

Giving gifts or initiating exchange is an action that is required in certain situations. In western culture we buy each other gifts at Christmas and on birthdays, and we take a bottle of wine or contribution to the meal for a dinner party. Failure to give at these times can be a serious faux pas depending on how well we know the other person.

Receiving

When someone offers you a gift you are obliged to accept it. To refuse a gift is to be unfriendly, if not rude. To turn down an invite to dinner for no good reason would be frowned upon, to refuse a Christmas present from a family member almost unheard of.

Reciprocating

There is an obligation to repay all gifts. In some cases this is more immediate and calculated than in others. If you give a friend a birthday present then you might expect one back from them, and Christmas gifts are often a minefield of social obligations to find gifts that correctly reflect the value previously received and current state of the relationship between two people. The tighter the relationship between two people the more that the value and timing of gifts becomes varied – both parties expect that everything will work out in the long run.

Indeed to repay a gift too quickly or exactly and remove the implied social debt is as unfriendly as not returning it. If your friends help you move house you deliberately repay them with something where the value is hard to calculate, such as cooking them a meal, rather than paying them cash. Relationships typically start with small one-off gifts of time or effort and gradually extend into a continuing cycle of reciprocity. In extremis, almost all major religions advocate giving to charity for benefits in the afterlife or from the universe in general. We have an innate belief in karma of one kind or another that is hard to shake.

Now we’ve gone over the theory, let’s look at gifting in three games in particular to see how it’s applied:
1. Pearl’s Peril is a Facebook and mobile hidden object game with fairly typical energy and item gifting. (Disclosure: I’m currently game designer on this game)
2. Clash of Clans gives you the ability to donate troops to your clan members when they request them.
3. Animal Crossing has a sophisticated gifting system with both other players and NPCs.

Pearl’s Peril

Pearl's Peril

As in many Facebook games Pearl’s Peril allows you to send energy, soft currency and low value collection items to your friends. In each case it doesn’t cost you anything to send the gift – the gift is created out of thin air during the gifting process, and the process itself is incredibly streamlined, allowing gifts to be sent from multiple points in the UI and delivered to the recipient’s inbox where they are accepted in a click that is barely noticed coming into the game.

The result is a social feature that is rather like greeting a colleague each morning. In interviews players describe it as a habit that they fall into – almost like a pleasantry of saying hello. It’s a valuable feature because they value the energy, but the gifting act itself is less so. Players do not feel obliged to log in just to send gifts to their friends and maintain the cycle of exchange.

Clash of Clans

Clash of Clans

In Clash of Clans you can donate troops to your clan members. You have to spend resources to train these troops yourself, and you could use them in your own attacks if you didn’t give them away. In many cases the only value that gifting affords you is allowing you to take a few extra troops into battle: those troops stored in your clan castle and donated to you. It does however give lower level players the opportunity to play with much more powerful troops given by other members of their clan, foreshadowing units they will have in the future if they stick with the game. It also requires some degree of coordination so that you get troops that support your style of play, which stimulates discussion in the chat.

The system is much more powerful than energy gifting in Pearl’s Peril. Clan members can see how many troops they have donated vs. received and compared to other clan members helping them keep track of a number of different relationships and making sure that gifting doesn’t get too imbalanced. Donating troops was really the only thing that clans allowed you to do originally, but the system has been further reinforced by clan wars, which provide an obvious occasion to donate troops.

Players that fail to keep up their side of the bargain – not giving as many troops as they receive, or not giving troops when they should – face being kicked from their clan to make room for more committed players. Higher ranking clans often state these obligations and enforce them rigorously. At GDC this year, Supercell stated that the 2 year retention for Clash of Clans is 10%, and I believe that the gifting economy that they have created in the game is a key component driving this.

Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing

Anyone that has played Animal Crossing will tell you it is a magical game that creates quite a unique atmosphere. Dropped off in a village of anthropomorphic animals you can gather fruit, fossils and flowers, catch butterflies and fish, design your own clothes and furniture and develop relationships with the NPCs and other players in your village. There is no real goal, but players typically spend their time collecting things and exploring the world, which changes season by season and through a day / night cycle.

It is perhaps the game that shows the best giving mechanics that I have observed. The calendar gives you a natural context to give things due to birthdays, other occasions or simply because you found something you know they want or don’t have space for yourself. NPCs also prompt you to gift on a regular basis, by asking you for things, letting it known they are looking for particular items, and occasionally sending you gifts themselves.

Most of the activities in the game drop items on a semi random basis, with some items rarer than others, but the selection constrained by the time and place that you are collecting. This makes gifts unique items, with each one requiring time and effort to find in the game world. In contrast to the commoditised resources that are given in Pearl’s Peril, you know each gift is special.

Indeed even sending the gift requires effort as you need to find the recipient in the game world or visit the post office to send it to them. Even if players do have multiple items that they want to give, each one needs to be given individually, rather than sent off as a bulk action. Similar to sending someone a hand written note over an email, it enhances the sense that the donor really cared about giving something to you.

The result is a powerful system with real emotional weight behind each gift. Gifting is one of the key systems that runs throughout the game and gives it such a unique and magical feel. The series consistently gets superb ratings from critics and is listed as one of the best selling games ever with c.27m copies sold across 4 titles. However the real demonstration of how effective this gifting system is comes from anecdotes like this one, about a mother with multiple sclerosis’s gifts to her son. It’s impossible to imagine either Clash of Clans or Pearl’s Peril creating this kind of story.

TL;DR

Gifting and exchange are ubiquitous human behaviours found in all cultures and a huge variety of situations. Gifting consists of three obligations:

  1. To give in certain situations
  2. To receive gifts offered
  3. To reciprocate gifts received

Increasing the value of gifts increases the emotional engagement and social obligations that players experience. Increasing the power of gifting can be done by:

  • Making gifts unique rather than commoditized
  • Making gifts require more investment from the giver
  • Making the giving process itself require some effort
  • Prompting players to give in clear situations

Great gifting systems support strong long-term retention, player satisfaction and by extension commercial success.

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

After the Gold Rush: Competing in today’s App Store

It’s hard to believe that the App Store is only six and a half years old – it was launched in July 2008 with just 800 apps. Now there are 800 apps downloaded every second – 2 billion a month – and the number of apps available has grown more than 1,000 fold to 850,000.

Games dominate this marketplace, with more than twice the number of apps as the next biggest category, and well over 10,000 new ones being added each month. The barriers to entry remain low – you can code and release a simple game on your own – but the barriers to success continue to get higher. This is typical of all markets as they mature, but it is striking just how fast this has happened in mobile, and developers of all sizes are finding the competition fierce. Beyond the sheer quantity of games available, there are three clear indicators of this development.

Firstly, the top grossing charts are largely static. Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans have been in the top 3 games for over 2 years now. These games appear to have locked down their respective genres in the way that Call of Duty or World of Warcraft has on other platforms. Many of the other games in top 10 are similarly long lived, and just two developers: Supercell and King consistently account for at least half of the top 10. Games that do manage to break into the upper reaches of the charts are notable because they are so rare now, and often supported by very strong brands, such as Kim Kardashian.

Secondly, the cost of user acquisition is rising steeply. SuperData estimated that the cost of acquiring a user increased 37% between Jan 2013 and Jan 2014. Machine Zone’s recent $40m advertising campaign for Game of War illustrated just how much money the top companies can throw at marketing. SuperData also reports that CPI now stands at an average of $2.78 for mobile games, whilst average revenue per user is just $1.96 – not a good ratio for developers.

Thirdly, the production values of games have increased dramatically. Super Evil Megacorp spent two and a half years developing Vainglory, and it showed – the graphics looked closer to AAA standard than what we would normally expect from a mobile game. Smaller developers can pull off great looking games such as Monument Valley or Badlands, but only when they choose very stylized appearances that facilitate lower costs of production. Even the UI transitions in Hearthstone demonstrate a level of polish that few established studios, let along Indies could hope to pull off.

So where does this leave us? How to we compete in a market that has become this tough? It’s a question that we ask ourselves a lot at Wooga, and even with our current successes (Diamond Dash, Pearl’s Peril and Jelly Splash) something that we are still working out.

Looking at the charts it is clear that cloning games does not lead to success – the only game with similar mechanics to Clash of Clans is Boom Beach, also by Supercell. Replicates of Candy Crush Saga have performed similarly poorly. It is for this reason that we do not clone games at Wooga, and never have. It’s also creatively unsatisfying and for a combination of these reasons many people advocate the opposite end of the spectrum: radical innovation in the hope of striking it lucky.

This was my approach on my last game too. Whilst Wooga has a history of casual, single player games, I set out to make an action strategy game. I loved the genre myself, and felt there must be an audience who were likewise unsatisfied by the current offerings on the App Store. I felt that given the talent at Wooga, our understanding of game design and the amount of user testing we used in the creative process we could make a success in any genre. But in hindsight this approach seems just as misguided as cloning games, as I had failed to recognize the current state of the market and the value of building on existing company expertise, tools and audiences.

Games are complicated systems, especially action strategy games designed to give years of play. We had a good prototype and the gameplay was novel and fun. But the more we worked on the details the more problems we threw up. Exactly because the gameplay was novel, we needed novel solutions to these problems – we could get inspiration from other games, but no one had solved these exact problems before. The team did a great job of working through these, but it took a huge amount of time and emotional effort to be continually rebuilding large sections of the game.

Furthermore, as we worked through design issues, we realized that we were left with a number of risks that we could not remove before launch. By staying true to the vision of the game we had ended up with intense synchronous PvP gameplay that only Hearthstone and World of Tanks came close to. These are successful games, but it seems largely because of their existing PC audience. We also started hearing horror stories about the CPIs for the mid core audience, several times higher than the best LTV any of our existing games had. In combination we were not sure if the audience we were targeting existed, and if it did whether we could profitably reach them.

Despite the team’s enthusiasm for the game I could see that this was becoming a passion project for us rather than a legitimate chance at creating a commercial hit, and unfortunately for those of us that make games professionally, commercial realities cannot be ignored. Eventually I decided it was time to stop burning time and money and start on something afresh with greater potential. I realized that we had been arrogant enough to assume we could build something as good or better than what was already out there, despite having none of the tools, none of the design knowledge, and no audience compared to developers that were already making these sorts of games.

I remembered that Clash of Clans was an iteration on Backyard Monsters and Candy Crush Saga a refinement of Bejewelled. But even before their big successes, Supercell had experienced teams working on Hay Day and Clash of Clans, and King had its casual gaming portal and picked games out of that to develop for Facebook and then mobile. In each case the companies had existing assets that they built on, as well as refining mechanics from other games.

A company with the size and track record of Wooga has plenty of assets to build on. We have an existing audience, established IPs, game design experience earned through hundreds of user tests and millions of players on our live games, the know how to set up extensive content pipelines and so on. We hadn’t recognized their value before though, and instead choose to innovate across the board. Our core gameplay was different, our elder game novel, we were attacking a more core audience we knew only as players ourselves. The only asset of Wooga that we really used was building on technical expertise from previous games. In our post mortem we realized this was also the one area that was free from major problems over the course of the project.

Let me be clear though, that when I talk of innovation, I am not talking solely about design. I am talking about all aspects of production from the audience and genre you choose to the technical setup you have as well. Design can be innovative and successful, but innovative designs are best supported when you build on existing assets elsewhere. Hearthstone is a great example of this: the team built on a vast wealth of assets that Blizzard had to make the game a success. There was the experience of the design team, the strength of the Warcraft brand and Blizzard’s ability to recruit half a million fans whilst the game was still in beta. The gameplay was fresh, the genre basically non existent on the App Store, but even from the outset the risks that the team faced were greatly reduced by building on Blizzard’s strengths.

I also believe that this is the case whether you are a mid sized developer like Wooga with 280 employees, or an indie developer with a fraction of that scale. The key is to recognize the particular skills and assets that you have, and the niches where you can best apply these. Smaller companies may need to choose small niches to succeed, but they also need smaller successes to cover their costs. As a smaller company you can serve niches that aren’t big enough to warrant the attention of bigger players. As you serve that niche you should aim to build up tools, marketing channels such as email lists and other assets that aid your future work and thereby grow your business.

Learning from my recent experience, for my next project I will work on something that builds on a far greater number of Wooga’s assets. This is the best way for me to maximize my chances of seeing my game launched and successful – a goal that I am sure many developers can sympathize with. This might sound like a dispassionate approach to making games, but I don’t feel that it needs to be. Like most people in the industry, I work in games because I love games. Building on the assets that Wooga already has may seem constraining given the wonderful variety of games that exist. But it is an additional constraint and not the definition of an entire project, and as the saying goes, creativity loves constraints.

This article was originally published on Gamasutra

3 Flavours of Social: Facebook, Guilds and Beyond

Facebook has had a big impact on games. Before Facebook, video games were seen as an antisocial activity for spotty boys hiding in their bedrooms. Together with the ubiquitous usage of smart phones and Nintendo’s family marketing of the Wii, the perception of both the gender bias and social nature of video games is gradually shifting.

In fact, arcade games originally followed the distribution of pinball machines in bars where adults would socialize, before spreading to family friendly venues such as cinemas and malls. Reacting to a dire recession in the early 80s Nintendo decided to focus its marketing of consoles as toys for boys, rather than entertainment for all, and in doing so set the popular view of video games for the next 30 years.

Now, finally, the industry is beginning to come full circle, and it’s the social aspect that I want to focus on here. It was on Facebook that the term “social games” was coined. Of course, games were social before, whether you were playing Mario Kart with your friends or raiding with your guild in World of Warcraft. But now, even as Facebook is steadily replaced by mobile as the new platform for gaming, everyone is still talking about social.

It’s not hard to understand why. Kongregate spoke convincingly at GDC 2013 on the importance of social features, and particularly guilds. Their talk highlighted the dramatic ways that guilds can improve retention, engagement and monetization. A few facts summarized from their presentation:

  • Every one of their top 10 games has some form of guild structure
  • Dawn of the Dragons (5th Planet Games): conversion rate for non guild members: 3.2% vs. guild members: 23%
  • Tyrant Unleashed (Synapse Games): ARPU for non guild members: $36.59, vs. guild members: $91.60

But guilds are only one part of “social”, just as Facebook and your real life friends are. Humans are social beings, but their social interaction can take many different forms depending on the context. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to social in games, and each game must work out what is appropriate for its own audience and mechanics (and the same is true if you are building an app). I believe that the nature of social interactions depends on whether your game is really about your Friends, the Mechanics, or the Content.

 

Friends

When you play a game with your real life or Facebook friends, things work best when the experience is about your friends, and not about the game. Playing with people is a great way of strengthening your relationships with them. Games are appropriate for the majority of family gatherings, whether it’s Risk or Charades.

For the experience to work out well for everyone, then the game needs to be right. The game should facilitate building relationships, and act as a backdrop to this, rather than be the main event. Games of low skill typically work best as they allow participants of all ages and abilities.

This is why games like Draw Something and QuizUp work so well, and more complicated simulation games have quickly fallen out of favour on Facebook. In the former, the experience is more about your friends, and in the latter it is more about the game. Real life friends and family are not the way to drive distribution or underpin retention unless your game is about the people you are interacting with. As we all know from the complaints about people’s newsfeeds being spammed, it isn’t that common for our friends to share our taste in games.

 

Draw Something.Chibi Pikachu by HoangArtist

Draw Something.Chibi Pikachu by HoangArtist

Mechanics

In this category I would put everything from people who like playing otherwise family games to a competitive level, to immersive experiences such as World of Warcraft or Clash of Clans. If you are REALLY into bridge then you don’t invite your real friends over and grind them into the floor. You are going to have an unsatisfying time both in terms of the quality of gameplay, and social experience. Instead you either play a friendly match where everyone can enjoy the social aspect, or you join a bridge club and enjoy the gameplay.

Clash of Clans

Clash of Clans

This latter case is still a social experience of course, but it’s unlikely to be one with your immediate friends and family. It’s more appropriate to share it with other people that share your love of bridge. This is exactly what Netflix and Spotify have realized as they’ve shifted their recommendations engines from showing you what your friends like, to what other people like you like. Generally we do not really care what our friends have been watching. But if we enjoyed The Godfather and The Departed, then we are interested in what other people who also liked those films would recommend.

For games that rely on their mechanics, adding in a social layer can have some powerful effects. Initially, players can even be taught how the game works by more experienced players and this knowledge flow continues as players exchange thoughts on more advanced strategies. A social aspect can enrich the gameplay by requiring the coordination of several different players such as in raids in World of Warcraft or Destiny. Finally, as these interactions build new relationships between players, they develop a sense of duty to each other, which leads them to keep coming back even if they tire of the gameplay itself.

For the social layer to add value to players, and by extension developers, it doesn’t need to involve people who are real life friends. It’s much better to group people together by the intensity that they play the game, so that they can engage at the same level as the others in their group. This is exactly what happens in Clash of Clans and many other clan based games, where the top clans demand a certain level of engagement as a requirement for membership. Not that the developers need to worry about this, as given the right tools the players organize themselves.

 

Content

There is however a third, much rarer way of organizing people. In games where there is a strong narrative and the experience is largely single player and driven by consuming content in a linear manner, it makes more sense to group players by their progress through this content.

This is what happens when people live-tweet TV shows. Using Twitter, viewers can feel part of a larger experience and share in the unfolding drama, regardless of whether they are actually sitting with other people watching the same show. I believe there is an innate human desire to calibrate your social responses, and this fills the same role. It helps people comprehend their own reactions, see if they are appropriate and ensure they understand the situation in full.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 21.13.05

This is the equivalent of catching a stranger’s eye and enjoying a moment of shared understanding – we know it in a diverse set of situations from sharing the frustration of waiting in line to sharing the elation of hearing the opening beats of a favorite song at a gig. The same sort of social experience could enhance games like BioShock and Mass Effect, maximizing the impact of the most dramatic moments. However, most games that would fall into this category do not have any form of social layer, because of two problems.

Firstly, how do we bring together people who are all experiencing the content at different rates and different times? The solution here might lie in something akin to the comments sections on newspaper and magazine articles. Here the comments don’t need to be by people you know, or written whilst you read the article. But they are still relevant to you, because the person commented after they experienced the same content as you just did, and they enrich your experience of the article by providing additional information and opinions.

Secondly, how do we allow people to be social without breaking the immersion of deeply engaging games? The last thing people want after deciding who lives and who dies in The Walking Dead is for the drama of the moment to be shattered by being prompted to see what everyone else did. Luckily TellTale have the good sense to wait until the end of the episode, a natural break point before allowing you to review what everyone else did and connect you to the forums. In free to play games this might in fact be even easier, as the breaks between sessions and timers are natural point to allow people to engage with each other, both savoring recently enjoyed drama and anticipating exciting things to come.

A few games do manage to solve these problems and pull people together in this way, however. Dark Souls 2 allows other players to leave messages as you work your way through the world and narrative. These can either be helpful tips or troll postings luring you to an untimely death. You can also summon other players into your world to help out with particularly hard bosses. These interactions with other players enrich the single player experience by adding a new, social layer to it. In both cases the associations with players work because they fit into the context of your game, not because of the relationship that you have with the other players. Other players appear as phantoms and in doing so stay consistent with the Dark Souls narrative, and do not break immersion.

 

Wrap Up

Social rightly continues to be a buzzword in the games industry. However, there is not a single solution for what social should look like. Different types of social interactions are suited to different game experiences. When designing a game there is almost certainly some way that it can be enhanced with a social aspect, but this needs to be designed according to the type of experience that you are building for your players, rather than the design fads of the day.

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