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The Designer's Notebook: Selling Hate and Humiliation

April 8, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

The first job I had in the game industry was programming the PC client for suite of four online casino games collectively called RabbitJack's Casino. They ran on a small network that ultimately became America Online. The players couldn't win real money, but every day that they logged in they got 250 points to play with, and some of the good players accumulated millions of them.

RabbitJack's was a nice place. People were courteous, and there were a lot of volunteer helpers around to make sure they stayed that way. There was no such thing as "griefing." About the worst thing you could do as a player was make the other players at your table wait while you placed your bet, but since you had to bet within 12 seconds or lose your stake, it was never very bad.

The players paid $6 an hour -- ten cents a minute -- to play RabbitJack's. In retrospect I think it was the most honest business model the game industry has ever had. As long as we were entertaining people, we made money.

When they logged out, we stopped making money. People paid for exactly as much entertainment as they got, period. The price was ridiculously high by today's standards, but it was all completely straightforward.

I was pretty fired up about online games at the time. I could easily see the potential they had. The first lecture I ever gave at Game Developers Conference was called "The Problems and Promise of Online Games." The problems I listed were mostly technical ones, which we have long since solved.

At that time I didn't anticipate just how nasty online games could become, and I certainly never dreamed that game designers would start encouraging that nastiness and selling people virtual goods that let them hurt each other in real, not virtual, ways. But that's what's starting to happen.

A few weeks back a message dropped into my e-mail inbox with the subject line "An Obscenity." It was from Rich Carlson, one of the Digital Eel guys. All it contained, without further comment, was a link to the slides of a lecture given by Zhan Ye, the president of GameVision, at the Virtual Goods Conference 2009. The lecture was called, "Traditional Game Designers are From Mars, Free-to-Play Game Designers are from Venus: What US Game Designers Need to Know about Free-to-Play in China."

You can also read a report about this presentation on Gamasutra.

At the moment, free-to-play has the whole retail game industry in a tizzy. I saw the same thing about 13 years ago when Deer Hunter came out. A game that sold at gun shops? For $15? And was selling like ice cream in a heat wave? Deer Hunter upset the familiar business model and spawned a legion of instant imitators. The question on everybody's lips at the time was "Does Bubba really play computer games?"

As we now know, Bubba does -- and so do a lot of other people we had been ignoring. Deer Hunter was the first game to demonstrate the potential of the casual market, a good ten years before we started using that term. The freak-out at the Game Developers' Conference over Deer Hunter is long forgotten, of course, but it was paralleled at this year's conference by the freak-out over Farmville and other free-to-play games.

Free-to-play is a comparatively new business model for us. Free-to-play (F2P for short) means "sort of free." The game is free if you have a lot of time, but if you want to advance at anything other than a glacial pace, you have to put money in, and that enables you to get ahead faster. Paying money also gives you an advantage over those players who don't pay.

Zhan Ye explained in his lecture that in F2P game design, every feature must be measured by two metrics: is it fun, and does it make money? The designer is no longer free to concentrate purely on creating a fun game; the designer must be a businessperson.

I ran this idea by Martha Sapeta, who's the lead designer on Sorority Life at Playdom, which makes F2P games. She told me that at Playdom, every game feature must drive one of three things:

  • Daily average users, which simply means "number of logins"
  • Re-engagement, which means number of people coming back to play again
  • Monetization, which means people paying money for advancement or other game features

This is a new way of thinking about game design for me. In RabbitJack's Casino, fun correlated directly with revenue. We could concentrate 100 percent on fun because that was what earned us money. Players paid for the game continuously; we didn't have to coax them to make additional expenditures.

Then I moved on to EA, where we made games sold at retail. The designer of a retail game thinks about whether features will be popular or not, but he is free to take a holistic approach to it. He doesn't have to measure moneymaking potential feature-by-feature.


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