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Aug 12

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MTV has an interview with John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts, where they ask why Will Wright’s name would not be on the box of Spore. He answers:

 In music it’s typically a writer and a band of four. With films it’s a couple of lead talent, actors and actresses, a director and maybe a cinematographer. With games it’s typically 30, 50 100 people that make these things and they’re all integral to the process. So I’m absolutely in favor of bringing forward the teams. But the team dynamic in creation of our product is quite different than other forms of entertainment.

Basically, his answer is that teams make game, so it would be unfair to credit just a few people on the box. When asked about why, then, Steven Spielberg’s name is on the box of Boom Blox, Riccitiello backpedals:

Look, there’s business relationships you make with creators from time to time. Clearly Spielberg’s support and help and design of “Boom Blox” was great. We’re working on another title with him. And there are people who bring their sort of entourage of fame with them. At times that makes sense to put their name forward. But the truth is, behind “Boom Blox” there was a team of people, incredibly dedicated, talented people. And at times I can get a little frustrated when an individual is pulled out when I know how hard and how much innovation the rest of the team brought to the table.

So the real reason is that Will Wright isn’t famous enough to sell copies of the game while Steven Spielberg is. It’s the same reason Mark Ekko and 50 Cents (of all people) get their name on game boxes while game developers don’t. I find it sad that we have to resort to having to look at outside celebrities to market our games because publishers don’t feel promoting talented individuals.

I believe promoting individuals would be very positive for the industry. I don’t believe it would reduce motivation within teams — would anyone refuse to work work with John Carmack or Warren Spector because they’re famous? I think most people see working alongside a famous developer as an honor, not as an annoyance.

Promoting individuals would also put a human face on games. Humans naturally care more about other humans than about faceless corporations. Everybody knows there’s a huge team behind each of Spielberg’s movie, but they still care about him because he’s a creative force behind the movie. Nobody cares about PR representatives, yet they’re the only people publishers allow to talk to the press most of the time. I don’t think games will truly become mainstream until the public can put faces on the games, like they do for movies, books and music.

Perhaps most important of all, having famous developers would make it easier to market original games. Between a game you know nothing about and a game by a designer who’s work you liked in the past, you’re more likely to pick the latter. The name of the designer becomes a brand that helps sell the game — like Spielberg’s name is a brand that helped sell Boom Blox. American comics are another media where little promotion used to be put behind the creators and that forced them, like for games, to focus on extending previously succesful franchises. It’s only when creators like Frank Miller and Allan Moore became famous enough that truly original work started being more common. We need to do the same for games to end the deluge of sequels.

Mind you, I don’t think game developers could become as famous as actors, but they certainly could become as famous as novelists, and that would be a big gain.

May 26

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Somebody at work asked me today for a list of good book recommendations for game designers, so I figured I’d put the list here to help as many people as possible. All of these books have taught me important things about design or have helped my work even though they’re not directly about games development.

Creativity and Innovation

Project Management

  • Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering by Robert L. Glass: Quick overviews of lots of interesting topics on software development — nothing really in-depth, but you’ll get a lot of information in few pages
  • Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timethy Lister: A classic on project management. The only management book I’ve read 3 times — it’s that good.
  • Patton on Leadership by Alan Axelrod: Leadership methods based on General Patton’s approach to leading his troops

Interface Design

  • The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman: Essential tips on creating interfaces that are easy to use
  •  Emotional Design by Donad A. Norman: Going beyond interfaces that are easy to use, how do you make people have an emotional reaction to your design?

Writing Well

  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk jr. and E.B. White: A small book with a ton of tips on improving your writing.
  • Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger: How to create believable and interesting characters for any kind of fiction.
  • Story by Robert McKee: Learn how to be a great screenwriter

Communication

Marketing

  • Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath: Learn what makes ideas stick in people’s mind.
  • Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout: Essentials of modern marketing
  • The Anatomy of Buzz by Emanuel Rosen: How to create word-of-mouth marketing
  • The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell: More on word-of-mouth marketing and the effect of social networks on the popularity and impact of things.
Mar 11

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Most designers think of “Marketing” as a dirty word. They think a game’s success is just a matter of how much money is spent on marketing, as if marketing didn’t require skill, just cash. I think marketing is a very powerful tool for designers to understand and use. And marketing requires a lot of skill, not just cash — some games haven’t made enough money to just cover their advertising budget.

Do you want to create popular games? Marketing is, essentially, the art of making things popular. Quality isn’t enough — it sure wasn’t enough for Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil. Studying marketing will help you understand why some good games fail on the market while some bad games succeed. That way you have more chances of making good games that sell.

A large part of marketing is communicating ideas in a compelling way. This is an essential skill for game designers: whenever you try to convince someone that your ideas are good (something designers do on a daily basis), you’re basically marketing your ideas, whether you realize it or not. Might as well learn how to do it properly.

So, why do I care so much about marketing? Because it lets me make games that are more popular and it helps me communicate ideas more effectively. More surprisingly, some of the biggest insights I’ve had on game design came from reading about marketing — what makes a game cool isn’t that different from what makes anything else cool.

Jan 18

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Would you go see a movie without having seen a trailer for it? A game without a demo is like a movie without a trailer.

A game trailer isn’t enough because you can’t convey interactivity properly through a non-interactive video. You’re showing all the superficial aspects of the game without showing what it’s really about: gameplay.

Jan 16

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Hugh MacLeod talks a lot about social objects on his blog — he strongly believes they’re the future of marketing. Social objects are objects that people gather socially around or talk about. If you’re bringing your new iPhone to your friends and showing it to them, it serves as a social object; if you geek out with friends by chatting about Lord of the Rings, LotR is the social object. You can read more details on the whole thing here.

The relevance of social objects to marketing is obvious: if people keep interacting socially around what you’re selling, you’ll be getting great word of mouth. Even if you don’t care about marketing — you should, but that’s a post for another day — making games that are social objects is really interesting. Wouldn’t you want to have communities of people interacting together because of your creation?

Multiplayer games are prime social objects: they bring people around them and whole social networks are created by fans of those games. Lots of people play World of Warcraft mainly to do something with their friends, for example. Xbox Live is a huge social network with some people making lots of friends, not unlike Facebook or MySpace. Party games like Guitar Hero and Wii Sports are other good examples.

Single Player games are not as easy to turn into social objects. How do you create social interactions around games that are played alone? Some games did it:

  • Pokémon: The game is single player, but it encourages players to trade with their friends. Kids in schoolyards everywhere huddled up together to trade their cartoony monsters to “catch them all”.
  • Donkey Kong Country: This SNES platformer had over 100 secret areas — they were hidden everywhere and the game encouraged you to find them all. That’s hard to do alone, but if you teamed up with a few of your friends you could figure it out much quicker — instant social object.
  • The hardware demo games: Those games were perfect to demonstrate the awesome power of your new computer or new console: Doom, Unreal and Gears of War are all good example of those games.  Even if you play the game in single player, you’re still interacting with your friends when you show them the graphics.

The key to turn a single player game into a social object is to put something to share in it, be it tradeable items, secrets, awesome graphics or something else. If there’s something worth sharing in your games, players will get together and soon enough you’ll have communities appearing around your game.

Sep 8

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The Escapist recently published a hilarious video review of Bioshock, shining some light on the flaws of this mucho-hyped game. Would you kindly take a look at it, it’s worth it.

Bioshock is the best game I’ve played in a long time, but it’s also quite a bit over-hyped. No game is perfect and this video points out the game’s few problems. In fact, Bioshock isn’t leaps and bounds over other games, it’s just a bit better – other games have had good stories and emergent gameplay – but that bit counts for a lot.

Let’s say you want to buy a game and you have the choice between game A and game B. According to internet buzz, game A is pretty good, but game B is a bit better. Which game will you buy? Barring any other factor, you’re going to buy game B – why buy the inferior alternative, even if it’s still pretty good? If you were to buy both, which game would you talk most about? Game B, of course – why recommend the inferior game?

You’re not the only one making those decisions, millions of players do. If millions of players decide to play game B instead of game A, and recommend game B over game A – even if they’re almost, but not quite, of the same level of quality – that’s a huge difference in popularity and sales number.

That’s what’s happening to Bioshock: a small increase in quality has an exponential effect on sales and buzz. Making a game 10% better does much more than increasing sales by 10%. That’s why “good enough” isn’t good enough – settling for mediocrity has a huge impact on a game’s popularity. And who wouldn’t prefer working on games everybody’s talking about?

Mar 27

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One thing I’ve always found a bit strange about the games industry is how games are sold immediately after they’re finished. A game is finished in August, you’ll see it on store shelves in September.

This method of working makes it harder to hit release dates, because being just a few days late pushes back the release date. It also makes it harder to promote your title, since you have to show an unfinished game to the press before the release. An obvious solution is to release games a few months after development has finished. That way being a few days late doesn’t have to impact the release date and you can show the finished game to the press months before the release.

Denis Dyack was burned with this problem last year at E3, when he showed the unfinished version of his game Too Human. Since then he’s been arguing for separating development schedule from release schedule — to finish development when it makes the most sense for development and to sell at the best time to maximize profits.

Next Generation had an interesting interview with him recently about this subject. He says:

“Showing previews and talking early about games is going the way of the dodo. How often do you see someone critiquing a movie before it’s finished? Never. Because the film people will never let you see it until it’s done. The previews that we have are endangering the credibility of the press and the credibility of the developers.”

About the advantages of this method:

“Once your game’s in the can it’s a guaranteed. You know that game’s going to ship. There’s no guessing, there’s no promising. You announce the date and then that’s the date. What about the CFO? Will they be happy? Reliable quarters? I think so. The retailers are happy. The consumers are happy.”

Feb 12

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An article I wrote for Gamasutra is now published. Here’s what it’s about:

Everybody in the gaming industry has a great idea for a game. The desire to see that idea become a reality is what brought many of us to this industry. Sadly, the quality of this idea – or even of the game itself – isn’t enough to guarantee a commercial success: critically acclaimed games like Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil have sold far fewer sales than they deserved.

How can you tell if a game has the potential to become a huge hit based only on its design? Marketing executives at major publishers have sophisticated tools to evaluate that kind of things, but you don’t need all that complexity to find the potential of your idea. With just a few questions, you can evaluate the marketability of your game. I compiled these questions in a simple test that you can use in 10 minutes.

I’d love to hear what you think about the article!

Nov 16

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I’ve been looking for work for a little while now (if you need a good designer, freelance or otherwise, please contact me) and I’ve started seriously looking at creating a start-up in games development. I love to come up with new game ideas for the fun of it — like I do on my other site — but I’d really like to take one and make it a reality. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a game a commercial success.

That’s why I started thinking about game demos. A lot of demos these days seem slapped together quickly; an afterthought released months after the game hit store shelves, if at all. It’s a shame, because I feel demos can be a powerful marketing tool if done well. So I decided to write a few guidelines to making an efficient demo.

1. Make One

Would you release a movie without making a trailer? Yet plenty of games are released without demos. Most games have trailers released before the game, but trailers can’t make players feel the actual gameplay. They’re like movie screenshots: they show what the movie looks like, but they don’t convey the emotions created by the movie.

Showing what the game looks like works for visceral experiences like Gears of War, but it doesn’t work for more reflective gameplay. Casual games are popular because of their demos, but nobody would purchase Bejeweled after seeing a trailer. You need to play a game to evaluate its gameplay, and that’s what demos allow.

2. Release the Demo On or Before the Game’s Release Date

Demos are a marketing tool, their role is to make people excited about the game. Releasing a demo months after the game wastes all the buzz the demo can generate. On the other hand, releasing it in advance can create a lot lot word of mouth around the game.

The partial OEM version of the original Half-Life is what first caught everybody’s attention. Everybody was amazed and couldn’t stop talking about that hot new game and how impatient they were to get the full version. A more recent example is Lost Planet on Xbox 360. The buzz around that game was minimal until the demo they released at E3 — then suddenly everybody got excited about it.

A demo is one the most powerful marketing tools to promote a good game. Releasing it after the game is wasting that powerful effect.

3. Give Enough Content to Hook Players

When Doom was released, it offered a full third of the game for free. It went on to become the best-selling PC game of all time. In fact, this model made iD Software, 3D Realms and Epic Games successful.

These days, you’re lucky if you get 2 levels in a demo. I’ve seen some that only contain the tutorial, the most boring part of the game. Demos should be long enough to hook the player and make him feel like he needs to see more. How long that is varies from game to game, but it should be long enough that the player is enjoying himself, not still trying to learn the controls.

I can’t think of a single game that I decided not to purchase because the demo gave me too much to play, but I can think of a few where the demo was so short I couldn’t get a good feel for the game. When trying to find the balance, err on the side of giving too much rather than too little.

4. Make Players Want to Return to It

Casual games lock you out of the demo after 60 minutes. That’s a mistake. If you’re not ready to purchase the game after those 60 minutes (you don’t have your credit card on you, you were about to stop playing, or whatever), then you don’t have any reason to return and play the demo some more. If you never restart it, what will make you want to purchase the full version?

Geometry Wars has a much better model. Each individual game is limited to 3 minutes, but you can play those 3 minutes over and over. It’s brilliant: you keep playing because the game is fun and you can improve your score in that time limit, but each time you’re reminded that for a small price you could enjoy the full thing.

You should make sure players are able and have a good reason to return to your demo, even if they don’t buy the full version. The more they play the demo, the more likely they are to buy the full version. If they run it once and never return to it, it doesn’t remind them that they should buy it.

5. End with a Cliff-Hanger

Imagine: you’ve reached the lair of the monster. He lays sleeping, but suddenly wakes up and notices you — this is going to be the most awesome boss battle ever! …And the demo ends: “Get it in December 2007!”. Are you annoyed? Kinda, but now you just have to get the full game to play that boss battle.

You don’t want to give a complete and comfortable experience in a demo. When it ends, the player shouldn’t say “Well, that was nice”. He should say “It can’t end like this! I’ve got to know what happens next!” Think of how good TV shows always end on an unresolved issue to make you want to come back next episode — it’s the same principle, applied to games.

6. Give Players Something to Talk About

The TV show Heroes is filled with mystery. People all over the country are gathering around water coolers, talking about it. Is Claire’s dad a bad guy? What happened to Hiro and that waitress? Will Mohinder return to New York?

A good game demo can create that kind of buzz, but it needs to give something worth talking about. Make sure you show something intriguing that people can’t stop talking about, whether it’s kick-ass graphics, a mysterious story or original gameplay. Upon finishing the demo, player’s first reaction should be to jump to their blog and tell the world just how awesome that demo was.

If everything in the demo is as expected, there’s nothing to talk about. Surprise players.

Show, Don’t Tell

In the end, a demo is the old principle of “Show, don’t tell”. With a demo, you show players why they should want the game — it’s a lot better than trying to explain it to them, even with nice videos.

Would you go see a movie without a trailer? Buy a car without a test drive? Then why would you expect millions of players to purchase your game without trying it? A great demo can transform a great game into a phenomenon. It worked for Half-Life, Doom and Geometry Wars, why not your game?

Oct 4

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Nintendo is trying, with the Wii, to create a disruptive technology that unseats current industry leaders. I believe they may already have created that disruptive platform, but it’s not their new console.

The concept of “disruptive technology” was popularized with the book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. The gist of it is that, in many markets, technological capabilities increase faster than most consumers’ needs. At the same time, some companies create new products that are less capable in the traditional aspects, but feature new characteristics that weren’t considered important in the past.

For example, in the past hard drives were big boxes that had large capacity (for the time). Capacity increased faster than consumer’s needs, and eventually having physically smaller hard drives that held less data became more interesting than large drives that held more data. The companies making the big old drives slowly were overtaken by the companies making the new drives.

Contrary to popular belief, disruptive technologies don’t necessarily revolutionize a market instantly; the new technology often existed in a niche market for a long time before its capacities became good enough for the mainstream market. Look at portable MP3 players: even though the iPod set the market on fire, there were many other similar products beforehand that were promising but not good enough to replace the popular portable CD players.

We can apply this logic to consoles. Graphics quality — the traditional metric for evaluating a console — is improving faster than many consumers care about. For all the talk about the HD era, very few people have TVs that support 1080p. Many people also note that we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns in graphics; adding a few thousand polygons more on the screen just doesn’t have the impact it used to. Yet, both Sony and Microsoft concentrate on graphics power to promote their new system.

The console market seems ready for a disruptive technology to shake its core assumptions. Is the Wii the platform to do so? Nintendo hopes so. They see their new console as the “Revolution” that will change gaming into caring more about ease of use than raw power. I don’t believe that will happen: the Wii games are just too similar to their competitors’, even with the new controller. The Wii may be a success, but I don’t think it will disrupt the status quo.

The good news for Nintendo is that they’re already the leaders in what may be the real disruptive technology: handheld consoles. Handheld games used to be too limited to reach the masses, but now the PSP and DS are reaching graphical quality that’s “good enough” for the mainstream. They also have unique qualities that traditional consoles don’t have: portability, easy connectivity with nearby players and approachable games.

Handhelds are good enough in the traditional characteristics of consoles, but also bring something new to the table. Sounds like a potential disruptive technology to me — as I said, disruptive technologies don’t overtake a market instantly, but rather do so when they become good enough for the mainstream market.

I believe the Nintendo DS’ success is the tipping point of what may be the real new era of gaming — forget the HD era, here comes the Portable Era. The next hot system may very well be defined by its battery life and ease of transportation rather than by the quality of its graphics.

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