Game Philosophy

A couple of weeks back, James Simpson, the CEO of Goldfire Studios, had an opportunity to speak at the TEDxOU event. In his talk, James spoke about the idea of games as truly social and how some “social” games are far from it.

In his blog post featuring the video, James pictures a world in which games can help bring people the world over closer together.

I envision a future where communities are no longer constrained by their physical boundaries. Where your closest friends are scattered across the globe, not simply in your backyard. Movies, books and music are great art forms, but they don’t have the inherent power to truly connect the world in a fundamental way. Truly social games have that power, and they are going to change the world.

James certainly has a great vision of social gaming and his work on Casino RPG and other HTML5 games has been geared toward that goal. As games rely more and more on online interactions, the ability to develop friendships and other relationships with the people you meet online will grow with it.

Goldfire Studios

Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of attention paid to a mobile game going by the name Flappy Bird. This game, with its simple concept of flying a bird through a series of pipes, sprung from nowhere to the top of the iOS free game charts. It is addictive, fun and brutally difficult.

Rather than celebrate the success of the game and its creator, the larger populous vilified him and his game. They sought to find any all fault with the game and the creator and use those faults to tear down his success. This all culminated in the developer, Dong Nguyen, pulling the game. All throughout this affair, Dong would get a lot of abuse from both players and haters alike. People threatened his life, demeaned him and were overly aggressive toward him.

In response to all this abuse, James Simpson of Goldfire Studios has written a post in solidarity with Dong. Titled “Flappy Bird Reveals The Truth In Gaming“, James shares some of his own experiences with people who send him abusive emails.

In our own experience as a small indie studio (with nowhere near the reach that Flappy Bird achieved), we see all sorts of nastiness directed our way on nearly a daily basis. The sad thing is that developers are often told to just “ignore it.” This works to an extent, but developers are human too, and it is hard not to read these things. You wake up in the morning, energized and ready to work on your dream game, and by lunchtime you begin to question if the long hours are really worth it. We know how you feel, Dong, you aren’t alone in the fight.

It really is a shame that people have devolved to such behavior online, and often offline as well. While it is fair to receive harsh criticism at times, it is not fair to let those criticisms escalate to the point where the recipient fears for their life or is pushed into a state of depression.

Why is it so hard for people to celebrate the success of others? Is it simple jealousy that they have achieved a success we can only dream of? Or is it more deeply seeded than that?

We express our condolences to James and Dong for the trouble they experienced releasing video games to the public. We also express congratulations for their many successes. It is not easy to make games and publish them. It is even hard to find the right formula for success.

As for those who resort to the type of behavior expressed toward Dong and James, we ask you to seriously reconsider your actions. Put yourself into their shoes and ponder whether you would feel comfortable being on the receiving end of your own actions.

Until then, we hope that the positive people will begin to shine brighter throughout the games industry, the games media, and the gamers. This is a wonderful pastime and it would be a shame to ruin it.

Originally Published on Techdirt.

Many times, when a company has an early release of their work leaked in the wild, it responds in much the same way that Fox responded when an unfinished version of the movie Wolverine was leaked. It complained about the leak. It got the FBI involved. It fired one of its own reporters who reviewed the leaked copy. Eventually all this lead to the arrest and sentencing of the man who leaked the film. Throughout the whole ordeal, we tried to explain how Fox could have turned this leak to its advantage by using the leak as a promotional opportunity.

When you compare that string of events to this latest report of an early release of Double Fine’s newest mobile game, Middle Manager of Justice, you can see that Double Fine has a better grasp of reality than Fox and many other companies.

“So I was on the train heading to work this week, and I get a call from our tech director saying, ‘Hey, um, so it looks the game is live in every territory.’ And I just went, ‘What!?’” Looking back on it, Chi laughs, but for a time he was worried about how this early launch could affect his game’s reputation.

“It wasn’t what I wanted the world to see quite yet,” he said. “At Double Fine, we pride ourselves on putting a solid product out there, so having something out there that was buggy and not quite ready yet was really frustrating.”

At this point, Chi had a number of options. He could have followed Fox’s example and complained about the early release and told all those people who downloaded the game to stop playing it because it was unfinished. He could have threatened those players if they released any video or screen shots of the game. Or he could have done what we tried to tell Fox it could do, use it as a promotional opportunity. And that is exactly what Chi did.

“I guess it kind of just turned into a beta test,” Chi said. “I mean, if people find bugs that we haven’t found internally, I’d love to know about them so I can fix them,” Chi said.

Even just a few days later, Chi says he’s received a ton of valuable feedback that’s helped Double Fine eliminate bugs, and make the game’s free-to-play elements less restrictive for non-paying players.

“If anything, I welcome these suggestions from people, because we’re still learning and we plan to work on this well after it goes live to make the game deeper, and luckily this means we’ll get an early start on that process,” he said.

While the game was not meant to be in the hands of players, Chi did what he did as a way to preserve the integrity of the company as well as strengthen its relationship with its fans. He used the early release as a way to help fans become more invested in the company by becoming early testers. He didn’t have to do this. He could have had Apple remove the game from those players’ accounts. Yet, he didn’t because having a healthy relationship with consumers is more important than a mix up in the release schedule. Hopefully, more companies will take notice of how Double Fine handled this affair and will respond in kind.

Originally Published on Techdirt.

Piracy has been a part of the entertainment industry for as long as content has been released on copyable media. Whenever piracy is around, content creators have attempted to fight the actions of fans sharing their favorite movies, music, games and other works with their friends. While some creators have learned to cope with piracy and have succeeded in spite of it, there are still many more that feel the need to do something. However, many of those creatives have that “something” wrong.

In an article over at Euro Gamer, Robert Florance shares his thoughts on piracy and what goes through the mind of a consumer when making a buying decision, and where content creators should target in order to maximize sales. Robert introduces us to what he considers to be the thought process of a consumer as he makes a choice to buy something.

1. HERE IS A THING I LIKE

2. DO I WANT IT? (YES)

3. DO I HAVE TO PAY FOR IT? (NO)

4. DO I WANT TO PAY FOR IT? (YES/NO)

5. YES: PAY FOR IT

6. NO: JUST TAKE IT FOR FREE

END

That’s it in a nutshell. And here’s the fundamental problem with the whole piracy issue. Publishers are focusing on dismantling Stage 6 of that process when they should be analysing decisions made at Stage 4.

We have written many times about how content creators can affect the result of the decision made at step four. We have written in the past about how consumers don’t just look at price when making a purchasing decision, but weigh a number of currencies. By adding value through these and other currencies, a content creator can make it far easier for a consumer to choose to purchase over getting the content for free. However, if these content creators fail to add the value the consumers want, those customers will have a far more difficult time making the choice to purchase. As a result, the company making the content could fail.

“But these giant companies would have to close down. People will lose their jobs!” And yes, that’s horrible. No one ever wants to see people lose their jobs. But if these companies can only stay in existence by charging their customers extortionate prices for bland, safe product, should they even be there in the first place? Are they not living on a lie? And the creative people at these companies, people who currently spend every day texturing guns and other guns and extra downloadable guns, might they not do greater work on their own? In small groups? Forming daring little companies? Working to progress gaming and earning goodwill from people who will pay and pay again to see their work?

Over the years we have seen companies lose creatives who then go on to create the content they want to make without the interference of gatekeepers. These creatives have moved on to work with enablers that help them add the right kind of value to their content, which in turn sells more to the end consumer. Will larger companies die off? If they don’t adapt to changing trends in the market, yes they will. Is that a bad thing? Of course not.

Finally, Robert explains just what a pirate actually is. He lead up to this in his intro, but it deserves its own little plug down here.

Let me tell you what a pirate actually is. It’s just a word. And that word is a weapon. Corporations and governments will use that word to try to destroy our freedom and halt progress. They’ll use it to try to turn us against each other. When big business talks about a pirate, it’s creating a bogeyman that will be used to justify the continuation of its worst practices. We have to reject it, every time. There are no pirates. There’s only me and you.

We can see these actions by corporations and governments all over the place. Whether it is SOPA, or excessive DRM, or the DMCA with its anti-circumvention clause and heavily abused takedown process, they have been used and promoted as a way to fight pirates even though there is little evidence that such measures are effective in any way. Even a company like Ubisoft, with its strong history of DRM use, has backed away from its previous position. Music rarely if ever comes bogged down by DRM anymore. However, DRM has been replaced by other excesses in copyright enforcement.

Yet, all those actions target the wrong part of the consumer decision making process. They all focus on step six when they should be focusing on adding value that leads the consumer to move to step five. Those pirates that will take content for free no matter what, if they do exist, are just not worth the hassle and burden of actions that negatively affect those who are willing to pay.

Originally Published on Techdirt.

Piracy has become a force of nature in the entertainment world. No matter what you make or how you release it, there are pirates waiting around the corner to try to get it for free. No matter what you try to stop this from happening, you just can’t — much like a storm, you have no control over its movements and power. All that is left is to embrace it and hope to harness the storm’s power for your own benefit.

This is what Daniel Cook from Spry Fox has decided is best. In a reprint of his comments at Gamasutra, Daniel explains that piracy is a fun activity that can be harnessed for good.

Being a ‘pirate’ was being part of a community. You and your friends shared games like social gaming gifts on Facebook. It didn’t cost you anything to copy a game and give it to someone. A game was a social token to chat about, a gesture of kindness to reciprocate. A key takeaway from that time is that copying and sharing vast quantities of digital goods is a deeply fun, social and highly useful activity. This is a new thing, a new behavior in a post-scarcity world.

This is perhaps the most commonly ignored or overlooked aspect of piracy by those who want to end it. For many people, sharing games, movies and music is a fun activity that allows them to share what they love with their friends. Despite what those who seek to stop piracy think, there is very little animosity involved in the activity. It is this love of sharing that can be, as Daniel puts it, hacked for the benefit of the creator.

With shareware, we hacked the copying behavior. People would play the random floppies and some of clever programs would say “Hey! Did you know that you can pay for this?” And a small portion of users did. ‘Pirate’ and ‘consumer’ are not mutually exclusive properties. In our capitalist society, almost everyone (with a few notable exceptions) is trained to buy stuff. People who like checking out new software for free are really just another audience of potential consumers.

It was just recently that Ubisoft learned a similar lesson. That the percentage of people who pay for single purchase games is about the same as those that pay in free to play games. If you want people to pay for games, one of the best ways to get them to do so is to let them experience the game first and for free. By giving fans the ability to share the games with others who may not have heard about it on their own, you can expand the pool of potential paying customers.

Unfortunately, there are many creators and gatekeepers out there that want to vilify such behavior. They can’t fathom that someone is playing, listening, reading, watching their work without paying for it. They see no benefit in it. This mindset has dangerous outcomes for their paying customers.

It has been a really confusing time for businesses. Some lashed out by labeling consumers as evil, some tried to protect the old ways with DRM. Relationships with customers…who see themselves as just having fun sharing cool stuff…became antagonistic. 30 years. When you raise kids in a warzone, they grow up parroting propaganda. No wonder the conversation is polarized.

It is actions like adding DRM, anti-piracy ads and threatening fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars that will end up costing the entertainment industry more in the long run. As those in the industry seek to threaten and lash out at paying customers, many of those customers will begin to lash out as well. They will end up doing exactly what the industry wants to stop, pirate. For many purchasers of games, it often starts by downloading cracks for games in order to remove restrictive DRM. But there is a lot that can be done to turn the tide.

Detach yourself from the emotions of history. Give up the past forms of what games were. Adapt to the current environment with one eye firmly fixed upon the future.

People copying digital goods as an inherently joyful social activity is an opportunity. It is an artistic opportunity. It is a business opportunity. It is a cultural opportunity.

There are opportunities out there that many creators have found and are enjoying. It can be things like adding a “Cockroach Edition” to your payment options. It can be adding pirate hats to all your characters and putting the game on the Pirate Bay. It could be giving players the ability to set their own price. It could be anything really. By embracing the sharing culture of your fans, you can expand you fan base and increase the potential to make a living.

Originally Published on Techdirt.

There is a lot that can be said about being open and honest with your fans. Sure those fans can be pushy and complain a lot, but amongst all that, there is a real opportunity to connect with your fans and help them build up greater love and respect for you and your brand. We have seen many cases in which doing so has helped build a stronger following and bring in a lot more revenue in the process.

Despite this strong evidence for the power of being open and honest, there are still some companies that feel the need to avoid talking to the public. Any time a fan asks a question about anything, most often the responses are either silence or some form of “No Comment.” When fans hit that kind of brick wall, they feel as if the company doesn’t care about them and are less likely to be engaged in the future. Such responses can also lead to further complaints from the community as well as lost sales.

When the complaints reach a certain threshold, then it reaches the ears of those who have a platform in which to speak and reach a large group of listeners. So when a site like Kotaku gets on its soap box to complain about game publishers who will not engage with the community, then you know a lot of people are listening. The whole article is worth the read but I want to highlight a couple of the suggestions that Kotaku gives at the end.

  • Answer questions. As many as you can. Questions are not your enemy. We’re all here because we all love video games.
  • Don’t be afraid to tease games that are coming in the far future. We love teases. And we won’t even mind if those games get cancelled, as long as you don’t lie or pretend they’re not.
  • Just talk to us. Explain the logic behind your decisions. Help us understand you. Help us relate. Help us empathize.

They have a couple others that are a bit more specific, but these three cut to the heart. Answer questions, don’t be afraid to tease, and just talk. All these things are important to fans and potential customers. These are all part of that process in getting people to not just like what you do produce, but like you as a person or a company. How can they like you if you don’t engage with them? It is this engagement that promotes the transparency needed to increase sales, too.

On the other hand, by ignoring your fans you lose the power to control the conversation as well. We highlighted a story last year in which Nintendo made a very weak gesture at engaging with fans. Unfortunately, there was no such engagement and the fans took control of the conversation. Since Nintendo failed to control the conversation by being engaged, the fans began to complain about policy decisions they felt were not ideal. By not engaging, Nintendo lost a lot of good will that day. Had Nintendo actually taken the time to answer and ask questions as Kotaku recommends, they would have had a far better promotion at the time.

As more and more companies learn how to be properly engaged with their respective communities, we should see a lot more successes like those we highlight on a regular basis, such as Louis CK, Amanda Palmer and Double Fine. These people have taken the time to really build a relationship with their fans. A relationship that leads to those fans parting with their money to see more art created. Isn’t that what is important?

Originally Published on Techdirt.

Piracy is one of those things that is pervasive throughout video gaming. It has become a force of nature, a fact of life. While many companies attempt to fight piracy of their works through DRM or complaining loudly, others are taking a very different approach. Last year we posted a story about a company called tinyBuild that decided to embrace piracy rather than fight it. It released a special pirate themed version of its game on the Pirate Bay and saw a positive response from it. When discussing the move, tinyBuild stated, “I mean, some people are going to torrent it either way, we might as well make something funny out of it.” By having a positive sense of humor in the face of piracy, one indie game developer was able to cope with it and succeed despite it.

This sense of humor is catching on too. Gamasutra highlights another indie dev, Paul Greasley, that, when faced with the realities of piracy, decided to approach it with a bit of tongue in cheek. The developers of the game Under the Ocean released the game under three different options. The first was early, cheap access to the game for $7. The second was a more feature rich and personalized version for $25. The third was a hat tip to piracy.

The Cockroach edition was actually not an attempt to cut down on piracy. It was just one of the liberties of being an indie developer, with nobody to answer to. The elephant in the room is that 90 percent+ of people are going to pirate your game on the PC (and ours is no exception, based on the traffic logs). We just thought it would be fun, and frankly honest, to point that out!

To further seal the deal, Paul had originally included a link to the Pirate Bay. Unfortunately, some wet blankets in the indie scene overreacted to the inclusion of the link. Those developers had claimed that the inclusion of the link was Paul condoning piracy, something he denies. So, to put out the fires and save his cred with those developers, he removed the link while leaving the rest of the option on the site.

It is quite interesting that he even included the link to begin with. Most developers, especially those from large studios, try to do their best to pretend that such sites don’t exist in the off chance they accidentally convert a potential customer into a pirate. Including the link was a massive show of openness with fans. By showing that he knows what the competition is, he was showing fans that he understands what it takes to build up a loyal following.

We’re going to be releasing a whole bunch of frequent updates, with lots of feature additions. If you want to stay up to date, buying it is much easier than pirating it. The users win, because it’s DRM free and they get a bunch of cool new updates for Under the Ocean, and we win, because the updates get us new ways to promote the game outside our game forums.

Make a product people want and will talk about, make that product as good as you possibly can, and treat your customer base with respect.

By recognizing the reality of piracy, Paul was able to identify features and services that will build loyal fans, things like avoiding DRM and providing frequent updates, not just for the game but from himself. What this means for Paul and his game is that players get a great experience from someone who is open, human and honest and in return they will spend more money on his game.

Originally Posted at Techdirt.

A couple of years ago, we highlighted a story that asked the question, “What if Microsoft Had To Approve Every App On Windows?” At the time, this was a purely hypothetical experiment to highlight some of the weaknesses inherent in a closed platform such as the iPhone. Little did we know at the time, such a scenario might be coming to pass. Microsoft has been talking up its latest operating system, Windows 8, for a while now trying to drum up excitement for its bold new look and direction. Yet, some game developers are taking a step back and looking at the broader direction Windows seems to be going here.

Gabe Newell is one of those developers. In an interview at the Casual Connect conference, he questioned the move to a more closed ecosystem for Windows 8.

In order for innovation to happen, a bunch of things that aren’t happening on closed platforms need to occur. Valve wouldn’t exist today without the PC, or Epic, or Zynga, or Google. They all wouldn’t have existed without the openness of the platform. There’s a strong tempation to close the platform, because they look at what they can accomplish when they limit the competitors’ access to the platform, and they say ‘That’s really exciting.’

We are looking at the platform and saying, ‘We’ve been a free rider, and we’ve been able to benefit from everything that went into PCs and the Internet, and we have to continue to figure out how there will be open platforms.’

Here Gabe states that many game companies, not just Valve, would not be in existence were it not for the openness of Windows in the past. Now that this openness is threatened, his company is looking at alternative operating systems. This is one of the drivers behind Valve’s recent push toward Linux compatibility.

The big problem that is holding back Linux is games. People don’t realize how critical games are in driving consumer purchasing behavior.

We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well. It’s a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we’ll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. If that’s true, then it will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality.

If you think about it, he is right. Take a look at the original marketplace for iPhone applications. When the iPhone App Store was released, it was a closed platform. If you weren’t approved by Apple you couldn’t release your app or game on it. Even with the presense of web apps and alternative app distribution through jailbreaking, the system remains essentially closed for the majority of iPhone users who are not aware of or don’t want to go through the trouble of using these alternative distribution channels. Can you image what the overall impact would be for something as widely adopted as Windows? Going back to that hypothetical question posted above, would Microsoft have approved Steam for release knowing it would compete directly with its own Games For Windows Live service?

Since Gabe raised this point, a couple of other developers have echoed his sentiment. In a tweet responding to Gabe’s “catastrophe” comment, Blizzard’s Rob Pardo stated, “not awesome for Blizzard either.” Rob later clarified the statement by tweeting, “Yeah… more trying to say that if everything comes to pass that Gabe said it wouldn’t be very good for us either.”

Next during a Reddit AMA, Notch responded to a question about the future of indie game development with the following:

I hope we can keep a lot of open and free platforms around. If Microsoft decides to lock down Windows 8, it would be very very bad for Indie games and competition in general.

If we can keep open platforms around, there’s going to be a lot of very interesting games in ten years, mixed in with the huge AAA games that we all love.

So not only is having a viable open platform ideal for large game companies such as Valve, but also the budding developers such as what Notch once was. If Windows were to close off in the same way that Apple has closed off the iPhone, many developers of not just games but other software may not be able to survive on the platform. Just as Valve is looking at moving to other platforms, those developers will follow suit. As more developers of games and software shift from Windows to other platforms, their users will potentially shift was well.

It will certainly be interesting to see where Microsoft takes Windows 8 in this regard. Is it willing to take a path so diametrically opposed to its own history and the growing desire of the public for more open platforms? As independent artists and developers continue producing and distributing their work outside gated pathways, can such a change be a viable business option?

Originally Published on Techdirt.

Earlier this year we talked about how a video game mod, DayZ, breathed new life into a 2 year old game, ARMA 2. This game was not a critical success by any means at release, but because the developer welcomed and made possible the ability for others to mod the game, it recently became one of Steam’s best sellers thanks to the popularity of the DayZ mod. Reflecting on this success, the creators of the mod, Matt Lightfoot and Dean Hall, spoke about what creating the mod means for the original game developer and other potential developers.

When asked how ARMA 2 developer Bohemian Interactive felt about the mod, Dean had this to say:

They’re very happy. The sales have been huge, just massive. By our calculations based on player IDs, you’re looking at 300,000 in sales, which is a very significant chunk of total ArmA 2’s sales. So they’re obviously very happy about that and it’s a validation for their strategy and focus with modding.

By embracing the mod culture in video games, the original creators were able to reach out to more gamers and make more money. This is a very powerful tool that game creators can take advantage of. Yet some developers seem to not want it, at all. Very strange. Perhaps as more developers look at successes such as this one, they will learn to be a bit more accommodating to fans.

But what is in it for the modder? Most mods are released for free and so there is little financial incentive to create them. Dean also has something to say on that front:

Yes, I think modding is really good because you go along someone else’s footsteps and you can learn a lot about how someone else has done something. It’s kind of like reverse engineering things. You figure out what they’ve done, how their data structure works, how their engine works and all these other things.

I think it is a really good place to start because you’re using someone else’s framework. If you want to cut your teeth straight in there with C++ I think that’s a lot to chew off and you can end up not getting exposure to all those issues that if you knew them would make a lot more sense when building your engine from scratch or using someone’s toolkit engine from scratch.

As a developer myself, this is something I can certainly attest to. You can learn far more by following and altering existing code than you can by trying to create something on your own. As you become more comfortable with inner workings of the programming languages or other tools you are using, you gain more confidence in your ability to create something from scratch. What better way to promote progress than to provide new developers the ability to learn from your work?

It is really great to see more discussion happening in the games industry about modding—and especially its potential to launch the careers of new developers. We have seen many mods such as Defense of the Ancients, a Warcraft 3 mod, spawn very successful stand alone games, which is a goal that Dean and Matt hope to reach as a result of this very successful mod.