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Posts Tagged ‘game industry’

Crunch and Burn

Not much commentary from me on this, but I wanted to point out a couple of articles for those of you who try to look at the game development industry as a viable career choice.

Burnout, Crunch and the Games You Play

Slash and Burn Management: Unsustainable

Both great articles, both worth thinking about, mostly as someone interested in the field, but also as gamers who want to understand the industry a bit more.  It’s a fun and even occasionally worthwhile thing we do, making games, but it’s not all fun and games.  It’s work.  Fun work sometimes, but work.

So You Want a Job In The Video Game Industry?

There’s also the “ea_spouse” kerfluffle from a while back that’s worth noting.  Business does funny things to people sometimes.  Perhaps in a world of fluffy bunnies and free money, we’d have different games.  In the meantime, there are some curious factoids out there.  There’s also this article on crunch that I quite like: Crunch is Avoidable

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My Zomblobs! is a game designed in shells.  There are layers to the design, allowing for a “bird’s eye” game experience with little micromanaging, all the way down to a Civilization-like world conquering game with a Tactical RPG layer, between them plenty of opportunities to min-max your way into gaming geek happiness.

I’ve thought on more than one occasion that it could also be developed that way.  As in, develop the outer shell as a functional game and iterate down through the shells until it’s ready to weld to the TRPG (which could also function on its own) as a complete package.  Some of those iterations can stand on their own as playable games, perhaps even marketable ones.

This does spread out the work and allow for monetization to keep a project going, and even allows for design changes if it’s found that one of the iterations or directions isn’t playing well.  It also runs the risk of oversaturating the IP, making releases too disparate (in theme and/or release date) and therefore too easily ignored, getting lost in a crowd of shovelware (or becoming shovelware), dev team turnover, and code bloat.  There’s also the risk that all the shells may not play nice together if they have to bend to accommodate separate releases.

Still, there’s something appealing about the notion of breaking up a larger project into smaller bites to make it more manageable.  I’m not really sold on either approach at the moment, but it is still interesting looking at options.  The iPhone market and even XBox Live have allowed for smaller games to have decent viability in recent years, and I instinctively want to leverage that to make something bigger.  It’s a business sense that I haven’t honed very well, to be honest, but one that I can’t quite ignore.  I’d love to focus purely on designing the game and doing art for it, but the sad reality is that money makes the world go ’round, and if I want to turn the time I’ve spent on this into money (which really would be nice), I need to look at the business side of things.

On the other hand, since this is a one-man show at present, and I don’t have much programming ability or money to hire some, well… this may well all be academic anyway.  Sure, I’d like to learn the programming someday, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Still… dream big or go home, right?

At any rate, since I’m thinking of shells, here’s a rough concept of the outermost shell of Zomblobs!, the 3D globe Ataxx-variant I’m dubbing the Cytoglobe:

Cytoglobe layer

It’s a game that could stand alone as a smart phone game (or XBox Live or PC, whatever… though smart phone mobility and connectivity opens up a few new design options), and it could host a variety of variations, from multiplayer rule variants to a full map editor.  Ataxx-style play isn’t really all that mentally taxing, but it’s still fun, and I think a global geodesic version could be a nice spin on the idea.  (There’s also a fun tactile appeal of playing this on a touch screen… or even with Kinect controls.  Sort of a “megalomaniac conquering the globe” feel, as it were.)

Of course, from there it’s possible to drill down into discrete blobs with hit points instead of instant-capture, species-specific boons and weaknesses, location-specific special effects (with real world GPS twists, perhaps), progression mechanics (sometimes mistakenly called “RPG elements”), resource management, research trees and even stories.  The full Zomblobs! game would then only be a hop skip and a jump away, pulling all the elements together in a tighter fashion and welding them to the tactical game.

There’s a lot I want to do here, and there are good reasons to limit the scope of any single project.  Absent an organized plan of production, things can get hairy fast.  I’m still not sure what I’ll even be able to do… but it’s good to at least make sure I look ahead.  Forewarned is forearmed, and all that rot.

Any thoughts?

Would you buy a game that’s effectively a “slice” of a larger game?  Would you just expect it to be a sort of neo-shareware, offered for free, and the other layers monetized underneath for those who care to dig deeper?  Would you like a suite of games that work like cogs in a larger machine, or would you just want the larger machine?  Could you wait for new pieces?

…are any of you bored programmers with an itch to work on this?

…would a publicly readable wiki on the design be something worth making available?

…would Battle for Wesnoth eat my lunch anyway?

…EDITED to add the following great link to The Rampant Coyote’s recent article on “Feature Creep”… a highly relevant article as I sort out exactly what I want to do here.

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World of Warcraft finally steals the WarHammer Online “perpetual limited free trial” hook.

Too little, too late, says I.  The time to flank the F2P tide was a couple of years ago if not earlier.

It’s still probably a smart move.  It will be interesting to see what effects it has.

As for me and my house?  I’ll have a new baby Druid to play with when the itch strikes, and I don’t have to plunk down a sub for the privilege of picking up the game whenever I darn well please for a bit of sightseeing.  Oh, and I can patch the blasted thing without feeling like I’m wasting a couple of days of a month’s sub or firing up a new dummy trial.

…and I’d still pay for an offline version.

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Do What You Want, OKGO

Why are so many gamers content to just do as they are told?  Who exactly is to blame for not exploring the world of an MMO?  (Which is, after all, still a game, not a pure world simulator, for better or worse.)  Why, in one of the most potentially interactive entertainment mediums, are games so constrained or controlled, and so many “consumers” still so passive?

Outside of the games themselves, why do players offer critique, punditry or backseat driving without seeking to understand before demanding to be understood?  I guess it’s always just easier to blame the other guy.

Why do devs cater to player trends?  Might I suggest that at least some of them still want to make money?  That may be a tough question: make a game specifically to make money, or make the game you want to make and try to market it?

There’s a place for products that are built from a singular vision and that are uncompromising in how they approach it, counting on their labor of love to find the right audience instead of opening the tent doors to all the camels.  I suspect everyone has their pet product that might fit this mold.  I hope we never lose that corner of the game industry.  (Though it is changing thanks to budgets and tools.)

but it’s still an ecosystem of niches, not a way to survive the mainstream.  There’s gold in them thar hills, but it’s risky business.  The less risky mainstream might stumble onto a gem here and there, but by its nature, it’s more about keeping that shareholder cash flowing, and that means you can’t rock the boat much.

Oh, and challenge is still a variable, completely dependent on the perception of the player.  Too many players (and devs) don’t understand that.  There is no golden equation that collapses the player skill distribution curve into the Perfect Game.  Even player-driven variables (difficulty settings, for one) can’t possibly cover all possible players.

So what do you do?  You make the game you want to make, and you play the games you want to play.

…and let others do the same.  In a market that is ever more digitally distributed, there’s room for the mid-size games with modest scope and other assorted indie products (including hardware, apparently, which is fascinating).  The niches can work… but it may not always be easy.  They can’t try to be AAA games (barely interactive movies), they have to embrace the niche and, well… do their own thing.

As one author noted…

 Isn’t the point of an RPG — MMO or otherwise — to let me roleplay what I choose?

Not every game is one of those RPG things, but games from Puerto Rico (an interesting example as there are no dice rolls and very little mechanical randomization; the most important random elements are the other players) to Chess to Rook to StarCraft rely on player choice. Players need to make choices (not just solve problems), and devs need to let them… even if that means letting them choose not to play their game because it’s too different.  We all need to be confident in our choices and not worry so much about catering to anyone else.  I think we get better games and better gamers that way.

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I’m not stalling for time while I put together another Balance article.  Nope, not at all.  This is something I’ve been itching to share but only recently got permission to do so.

I’m an artist in the game industry.  I work with other artists who also happen to be in the game industry, which is convenient, since we’re working on the same projects at the same company.  Here at NinjaBee, the little studio that I work for, the artists have started monthly art challenges.  These keep our skills up and are just plain fun.  Beside that, most of these other artists are better than I am, so if you like my scribblings and paintings I offer on occasion, you might just like seeing what other artists come up with.

Find ‘em thisaway:

http://ninjabeeart.blogspot.com/

But please, don’t mess up the place.  It’s a nice, quiet, classy blog where some game artists post weird, wacky art.  I’m sharing because it’s great art by some great people, and I figure a few of you might appreciate that sort of thing.  It might even spur some of you to try some of our challenges, which can be great exercises for anyone interested in working in this industry.

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I’ve suggested it in a few comments recently on other blogs, and I’ve argued it for a while in one form or another, but I wanted to put a fine point on it for posterity.  Let’s not call this a prediction, since I don’t think Blizzard will do this (it’s potentially a lot of work and has a few wrinkles to iron out), but I’d recommend it.

The Cataclysm expansion is a perfect time for Blizzard to jump into the wider MMO market by diversifying their business model.  The recent trend of formerly subscription-only MMOs converting to item shop microtransaction business models isn’t a surprise, nor is it a move of desperation.  It’s realization that the MMO market is diversifying and maturing, and that the old ways of doing business aren’t going to work forever.

World of Warcraft is a bastion of subscription gaming, a behemoth that operates by its own rules, seemingly independant of the overall market.  Be that as it may, ignoring customers served by the so-called “free to play” or F2P games is effectively conceding strategic ground in the larger market.  It’s often suggested that converting WoW to one of these F2P critters may well not be more profitable for Blizzard, so it’s not likely.  I’m not convinced of that, but even conceding that as a given, as someone recently noted (Bhagpuss, I think, but please forgive me for remembering incorrectly if not), companies don’t always make moves for immediate profit.  Sometimes it’s about claiming market share or positioning themselves for future projects. *

* This is one counterpoint to my recommendation, actually.  Blizzard might be angling for the wider market with their next big MMO project.  Since that’s likely not imminent, though, I’m setting that aside, because the market is changing now, and Blizzard is oddly reticent to keep pace.

With that in mind, the release of Cataclysm provides a perfect excuse both in lore and in business to make a significant change to the WoW business plan.  What better time to break up the world than when a dragon is doing it for you?

Specifically, I would recommend that they take the Old World of Warcraft (the content from level 1 to 60, sometimes called “vanilla” WoW) and break it off into its own product, literally breaking the game into pieces.  They should then sell this like Guild Wars, as a single purchase that can then be played in perpetuity.  They should then keep the “live” Cataclysm-era world going for subscribers.  Players can upgrade from the Old World to the Live World, but not migrate backwards (maybe with some restrictions to keep gold sellers down, like no money migration).

This could neatly corner the F2P market by outflanking the other big movers in the field, including EQ2X, LOTRO, DDO and even GW and GW2, while still providing the subscriber experience that current users are accustomed to.

There are problems, to be sure.  There’s the possible need for two dev teams and consequent potential for divergent evolution.  There’s the need for new servers and the potential to confuse customers (who apparently don’t know how to spend their own money, the filthy proletariats).  There’s the likelihood of subbers just playing around in the Single Purchase Old World and losing some part of the WoW money pump.  There’s the banshee chorus of haters and fanboys who would proclaim the doom of Blizzard for deigning to let those people play the game.  There’s the work necessary to make things actually work.  There’s the question of what to let current players do.  (I’d suggest that anyone wanting to go to the Old World can do so, but it would be a complete reboot; everyone starts from scratch.  Current subbers who want to sidegrade can start new characters on the Old World servers like anyone else, without needing to purchase the game again.  They would have to pay a sub to play in the CAT era on CAT servers, but could play in the Old World without a hiccup, just starting over on the new servers.)  There is risk involved, as even WoW may not be able to function in its own shadow.  (But that’s a concern for their new MMO, too.)

Still, the timing is right for such a move, a grab at owning the best of both worlds.  In retrospect, perhaps, this will be obviously wrong, depending on whatever they do with their next MMO, but for now, looking at the market and the state of WoW, I’d say it’s an obvious move, and a smart one.  (This is, of course, totally ignoring the larger question of whether or not more WoW domination of the market is good for the players.  I think that could be argued either way, though, so maybe I’ll save that for an exercise later.)  There’s even room for more mutations, like true “classic” servers and private, gated communities for discerning customers, but one step at a time…

Of course details would need to be ironed out, and suits would need to be convinced.  Kotick would need to be bribed or something.  I’m convinced it’s not an intractible problem, though, and this may be the best time for such an earth-shattering, industry-shaking… cataclysmic business move.

…though I must admit, if it didn’t prove to sell well, just like if Blizzard’s new MMO doesn’t do well, leaving WoW as the clear aberration that I think it is, well… I’d laugh.

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First a quick pair of plugs:

Above 49 (Nels Anderson) and Some Accounting on the Cost of Making Games

The Rampany Coyote, tireless advocate of the Indie scene and indie dev in his own right.

In a nutshell, then, indie games can still be expensive to actually produce, but they can still be fantastic pieces of work.  I’ve worked for two game studios now, one a cog in the EA machine (then Headgate Studios, now EA Salt Lake), one a plucky independent developer (NinjaBee/Wahoo).  I’ve liked both, albeit for different reasons… but honestly, I like where I’m at now considerably more (NinjaBee/Wahoo).  It’s more risky, developing games without a patron like EA holding a financial net under our trapeze act, but at the same time, it’s also liberating in that we have a lot more control over what we do with game and art design.

So when we come up with something like A World of Keflings, know that it took time and hard work, and isn’t just something cooked up in a garage somewhere as an experiment or cheap sequel.  In many ways, it’s a labor of love, but since we think it’s a great game and has a lot of fun to offer, we also think it’s a great product and a worthy successor to the original A Kingdom for Keflings game.

Similarly, it looks like Recettear was a labor of love not only for the original Japanese developers, but also the intrepid localization team of Carpe Fulgar.  They believed in the game enough to carry it to term and throw it to the wilds of the internet.  It’s a great game, a curious mix of shop sim and dungeon crawler that manages to be more like fudge mixed with peanut butter rather than anchovies mixed with onions.  It came out of left field for me, but is a very welcome addition to my game library and a lot of fun.  That I can play it from a USB thumb drive is icing on the cake (yay for Impulse).  As Tipa notes, it’s well worth the $20.  (There’s a demo, but as fun as it is, it just scratches the surface.)

These smaller indie games tend to live or die largely on riding waves of interest and word of mouth.  As Nels notes, 10,000 purchases are a rounding error to the EAs of the world, but the lifeblood of indie gaming.  In an age of “social media”, spreading the word is easier than it used to be, but it’s still important.  The cost of sharing a recommendation can be very low, but to those of us trying to make a living making interesting games instead of Big Box clones, it’s a boon that we’re grateful for.

…so yeah, go check out Recettear and if you like the demo, it’s a game well worth buying!  Similarly, when A World of Keflings comes out, try the demo and if you like it, please buy it!  (It will be an XBox Live exclusive for a while, but we have promised a PC port like what we did for A Kingdom for Keflings.)

And if you like ‘em, please tell people!  Digital distribution and social media keep the indie scene alive and cranking out great games.  Speaking with your wallet and recommendations speak to us, nice and loud.  Without big box market overhead and publisher static, the signal is clearer.

Thanks!

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