Game Industry Outsiders Weren’t Surprised. At All.

One thing that is always striking about the mainstream game industry is how surprised game developers seem when they learn about the success of games, virtual worlds, and game-like systems that wouldn’t impress professional game designers. I don’t think the problem is elitism, just that the world of entertainment looks very different from inside the fuzzy vertical market called the games industry.

Game Insiders Were Some of the Last to Know

This spring I sat dumbstruck in my home office, watching a video of genius entertainment designer Jesse Schell building the intro to his DICE 2010 presentation (about the future of pervasive gaming) around the idea that professional game industry people were surprised by mega-hits like Facebook’s Farmville and Mafia Wars. Really? Ok, maybe some people just took a while to get onto Facebook (I know I avoided it as long as I could because I needed another online social network like RollerCoaster Tycoon needed a movie adaptation). Some degree of Facebook cluelessness is comprehensible.

But Schell masterfully builds rapport with his audience by highlighting “surprise” hits like Guitar Hero and Wii Fit, and inquiring who in the audience thought the Wii would be the winner in the last gen console war (to which I wondered “who didn’t know the Wii was the only console with mass market potential?”). This makes more sense if you were following the games industry in the earlier half of this decade when every conference was full of game devs trying to comprehend how people could make money creating cheesy match-3 games instead of real games like Battlefield 1942 (thankfully, casual games are now given a lot more respect in the industry, but in 2002 they were a target of much dismissal and derision).

I know Schell was resonating with his target audience because I’ve attended these types of events myself and I keep in touch with game dev friends (though I’m in St. Paul, far from the game industry hotspots). There are certain mentalities and opinions that are oddly pervasive, until the overwhelming evidence and thought-leaders like Schell convince everyone that these other kinds of entertainment experiences matter. DICE gets more of a diverse crowd than GDC, but still people with too much games industry focus and too little attention to the broader entertainment industry and what most people actually do for recreation.

Still, you’d think the games business types would have seen the money, and lit a fire under their developers to learn these new markets.

Game Devs Didn’t See Where the Real Money Was

You might think it’s crazy that game developers didn’t see that the big revenue in Facebook games wasn’t really the “viral effect” of inviting as many people as possible, but rather it was the way the game design pushed certain players into socially competitive, almost irrational, behaviors: logging in every single day for repetitive low-production-value gameplay, paying real cash for game advancement, and participating in ridiculous sponsor offers for products players had no genuine interest in. There was next to no value in the twenty friends you begged to join you in Vampire Wars if they only signed up to help you out and barely played.

The real value was the power player (who invited all their friends just to increase their game influence, regardless of the friends’ interest in the game). The viral effect did pay off when power players roped in new power players who also started playing like it was their job. But overall, it wasn’t a volume racket, it was a social hack to put people into a hyper-competitive situation trying to one-up people they knew in real life (while clobbering random internet adversaries on the ever-present leaderboards).

So, even though many game developers tried to dismiss Facebook games as some bastardized multi-level marketing scheme that only served to collect as many registered users as possible, the real money was in the familiar place that game devs should have recognized right off: the passionate player. People were genuinely invested in Facebook games. And why was that so difficult to see?

Facebook Games Are Considered Shitty By Gamers & Game Devs

Bottom of the barrel. Any hack could design Fashion Wars. We’re talking text-based games that any beginning web programmer can whip up in a week, with one to three central mechanics, no audio or music, and scant 2D interface art. Who would play these games passionately? Who would pay to play them?

Schell explained to the DICE crowd that the sponsored offers and paid game advancement were psychologically justifiable because as the players did what the game motivated them to do (log in, invite friends, advance slowly, become impatient…), they had to justify their continued investment in the game. Eventually, it made sense to do the sponsor offers, to kick in some cash. It made sense to ask people who didn’t want to play to sign up anyway. It made sense to friend people and join groups just to find more people for your pirate crew or mafia gang. Basically, these simple bare-bones games that would earn you nothing but derision and eye-rolls from the pro game dev community had mastered something that many AAA games couldn’t get right: motivating the player to generate revenue for you.

Remember The Sims Online? It took a massive professional team, tens of millions of dollars, and over 3 million lines of code to launch that world of fail that barely motivated players to play, pay, or, hell, just keep logging in. If The Sims Online were free to play (and at the end, it basically was), it still would have bombed. That’s how awful the experience was, despite all the talent, craftsmanship, and innovation they tried to put into it. Yet here are these crappy online multiplayer Facebook games motivating the cash right out of player’s wallets for next to nothing in return.

You’d think game devs would be studying this phenomena to figure out what was pushing player engagement and motivation, but most game designers I’ve talked to basically dismissed Facebook games as shitty designs with repetitive, unimaginative gameplay. According to real game designers, these Facebook games were only successful in the sense that they had a lot of registered players, and they only got those players because of their viral invite features (which are simply the Request forms provided by the Facebook Apps API). It was unthinkable that these games were successful for any other reason.

Marketing Games Are Generally Considered Shitty Games

Now, I’m not arguing that the Facebook games I’ve played were original or even particularly fun, but I do maintain that many of them were extremely well designed to do what they were intended to do. They were marketing games pushing players toward the purchase of game rewards and participation in sponsor deals. They were 100% in service of a business goal.

Yes, players could have fun along the way. Yes, that was a key constraint in the design. But fun was not the only, or even the most important, measure of success for these designs. Success was motivating the players to generate revenue. As a concept, I know this pisses gamers off. And since most pro game developers are passionate gamers, designing a game with that primary measure of success is repulsive. A few designers dig persuasive games, but it’s usually in the context of promoting an educational, political, or social cause. When the design goal is just profits, that turns almost everyone off.

For professional game designers from the games industry, where fun is King (not conversions or content), there needs to be a shift in thinking from “hey, you know what would be cool?” to “hey, you know what would really engage and motivate people to convert for our sponsor?” if game designers want to be a vital part of the booming online entertainment and funware marketing industries. Thinking like a lowly marketer is definitely outside of the comfort zone for a lot of game devs, hence people prefer to work on real games (games for gamers like themselves). When do you ever meet a young person who can’t wait to work on advergames at an IGDA chapter meeting? Or someone who is working to apply game mechanics to persuasive messages outside of education or social causes? Gamer game designers don’t get excited about marketing games the way passionate marketers do.

You can see why some would look down their nose at profit-focused, pragmatic game design. However, the funny thing is… the market validated these Facebook games with huge participation. If these were really bad games, why did they make money? Why were they so popular?

It’s well worth considering the possibility that the pursuit of excellence in AAA games is like the quest to create fine art films that appeal to only the most sophisticated movie goers (while everyone else is happy as a pig in shit at Transformers 2).

BTW, These Surprise Hits Were Not for Socializers

Another misunderstanding (that isn’t touched upon in Schell’s presentation) is that game devs think Facebook games are all highly social games (because they’re on a social network platform).

Facebook games tend to tap the traditional gamer types of achievers, killers, and some explorers (the completionist variety who want to keep advancing in order to see what comes next). Interestingly, few of the mega-hits like Zynga and Playfish games actually provide a good social experience for the socializer gamer type (even though the games are technically hooked into players’ existing social graph, there was little opportunity to develop meaningful in-game exchanges with other players).

Players are much more likely to build and grow new friendships in a richer online game like World of Warcraft or Runescape, or  in a chatroom-focused game community like Habbo Hotel or Likewise, there are few opportunities to achieve a positive social status in a helping or supporting role within Facebook multiplayer games. There is very little interpersonal contact to occupy the traditional MMO socializers who like to become organizers in their communities, guild leaders, and resources for fellow players.

Bartle’s familiar socializer and explorer traits won’t apply to some of the marketing games, pervasive games, and new hits in online entertainment. Many of the design theories in the game industry are going to need significant revision to account for the broader, previously overlooked reality of the interactive entertainment industry beyond just games.

Facebook Game Shock Isn’t Even the Tip of the Iceberg

The typical pro game developer is not surprised when the latest AAA console game sells well, but they seem a few beats behind when it comes to understanding how their craft relates to engaging, motivating interactive entertainment like Club Penguin, Stardoll, IMVU, Second Life‘s Ozimals, Foursquare, Polyvore, and HuffPost Badges.

People are starting to catch on, but I don’t really think game developers who were weaned on hardcore gamer culture appreciate how the gameification of life will impact the old school games industry.

To put it gently, the kinds of games that professional game designers like to design are no longer the only games in town. It might be a little disheartening to realize that what makes a good, fun game design in the land of game markets is not necessarily the same magic that works in marketing games, pervasive games, and persuasive gaming (though there are some folks who do think traditional game design skills are transferable). On the flip side, once pro game designers start thinking outside the games industry boxes, marketing games and more might improve dramatically.

Converging with Game Industry Outsiders

As Schell humorously highlights in his DICE talk, the pro game devs are generally not the folks designing these new hit entertainment experiences online. He jokes that it’s just whoever happens to be there, but the subtext is that many of the hot new entertainment hits online are designed by marketers, business people, and folks who hardly understand how their product even contains game mechanics (another reason that business-friendly concepts like Funware are so critical to get people framing these techniques correctly in the greater context of game and virtual world design).

When Schell described a day in the future, he only briefly touched on traditional game products (the game of Tetris on the bus, a game on the back of a cereal box, and some kind of multiplayer game played while watching television). Many of his other gameification examples involved the government, art foundations, businesses, and other non-entertainment entities handling these pervasive game services. And it’s true that game mechanics for government, non-profit, and business applications are HOT right now.

I expect that marketing people will be working on more games in-house as people learn how to use game mechanics effectively. With the convergence of traditional marketing and internet marketing, marketers need to learn about online interactivity. It’s very likely that there will be less need to outsource a game design in the future than there is now because the effective use of game mechanics will become part of the mainstream marketers vocabulary too. And a key take-away idea here is that game outsiders will be designing the experiences that compete directly with professionally designed games for player time and money.

People who make good games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Braid will be competing for customers and jobs with people who learned game design from studying the success of Farmville and Frequent Flyer Programs. I sympathize if you punched your desk or muttered an expletive of disgust just now.

Some Outsider Perspective Can Help Games Too

These outsiders might appear to bring nothing to the table for game developers, but sometimes a little perspective alone can be a welcome addition to a design team.

When I was about 22, I started taking a big interest in PC and console gaming. I loved chess, Scrabble and cards as a kid but I was never a gamer. My family never owned a console system. But once I played Civ III on a boyfriend’s laptop, I was hooked. By 24, I was reading game development books, following game developer blogs, playing as many games as I could, and subscribing to IGDA listservs to learn more about the mainstream game industry. I knew that these were the people who understood game design, the gamer markets, and the ins and outs of running entertainment software companies. I volunteered to work at GDC three years in a row just to afford the trip so I could attend the lecture sessions. So although I’m primarily an entrepreneur and marketer, I have a serious interest in game design too.

After about 4 years of that, I realized that the most valuable people to follow were academics and futurists, entrepreneurs, marketers, and economists. It’s not that the games industry isn’t full of experts in game design and execution. It’s that they don’t seem to have much vision for how to apply that knowledge in the problem spaces outside of console games, mobile games, web games, board games… games, games, games. They even call their industry vertical “the games industry” even though they are all really in the business of entertainment. The only thing more stubborn than their focus on games is their obsession with fun rather than the full spectrum of emotional engagement and motivation.

There’s an old marketing anecdote about the decline of the US railroads. None of the railroad barons thought of themselves in the greater context of the market they served. They only saw themselves in the railroad vertical, and they saw their only competition as the other railroad barons. Well, automobiles came along with many other technologies, national highways, and eventually certain freight markets and almost all passenger markets dried up completely. If the railroad barons understood that they were in the transportation industry, not just the railroad industry, maybe they could have developed trucking fleets and other products to meet the changing expectations of their customers.

Maybe when more people recognize the broader market for game design, professional game developers won’t be surprised at all when they see wildly successful non-game entertainment sites and crappy online games monopolizing users’ time and money.

I say “maybe” not because I don’t trust that the brilliant game developers will cotton on, but because I’ve been watching Gamasutra and IGDA for so long now that there is no excuse for anyone to be surprised by Club Penguin or its ilk. People have been talking about the new online entertainment options and all their ramifications for at least 4 years now. Yet every time, it’s the same chorus of “well, that’s surprising” which translates to “I thought that was a shitty product.”

Pour One Out For  Our Metaplace Homies

During this same period, some of the most celebrated game designers put their heart and soul into designs that were considered innovative by their game designer peers, only to see the market generally ignore them (I’m thinking specifically of Raph Koster’s Metaplace virtual world, which evicted its player-creators after a brief beta and quietly relaunched as a Facebook game company).

I only got into gaming in a big way as an adult so perhaps I’m just a lot more open to entertainment design ideas and trends from outside the games industry. But for the record, us outsiders were not surprised at all.

Were you surprised by the success of the products in Schell’s presentation? Add a Comment

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