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Opinion: The generous and the stingy - a growing trend in game direction
Opinion: The generous and the stingy - a growing trend in game direction Exclusive
March 2, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

[Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield discusses a growing trend in game direction, where content is parceled out instead of released as a whole. This editorial was originally written for Game Developer's January issue.]

There was a time when the backs of game boxes had a slew of bullet points printed on them, illustrating numbers of enemies, features, and hours of gameplay. We decried this, at the time. "Games are more than a series of features!" we said. "Games are interactive experiences, and can't be reduced to a simple list of numbers of items and maps!"

Nevermind the fact there aren't nearly as many game boxes anymore—I'm starting to actually miss those bullet points, as well. Or at least I miss what they represented—because game designs are getting stingy.

In the past, many of the best games were (and a few of the current best games still are) generously designed. By this I mean in some games a lot of the content will not be appreciated or experienced by most players, but it's in there beneath the layers, because the developers felt it should be, and because they wanted to make a vibrant, living world.

This allows players to keep discovering new ways to interact with and enjoy the game, even after playing it for hours.
I'll use a recent example: Bejeweled 3. Bejeweled is a proven property that's remarkably popular. You could probably spruce up the graphics, add some nice filters, and be done with it.

But Bejeweled 3 has a whole lot of interesting, weird ideas. It's got explosions, particle effects, and lush sound that would please any FPS fan, on top of eerie fantasy novel backgrounds that are clearly are meant to appeal to the more casual. The music is a fantastic take on classic '90s PC games, with a bizarrely compelling Mortal Kombat-style deep voice over.

There are 8 modes to play which all use the same mechanics in clever ways, to form a very curious and very compelling amalgam that, ultimately, Popcap didn't need to go out of its way to create. The game is very generous to me as a player. It keeps giving up little nuggets of enjoyment when I pay attention to this or that element of the design, art, or sound.

Microtransactions and downloadable content are making their way into everything. Until recently, Tetris was held up as one of those classic, pure examples of straightforward, fun-oriented game design. But now, a recent iOS Tetris has launched with a paid subscription. The game is 99 cents, and you can pay $2.99 per month to get access to exclusive content, and most importantly, a booster that lets you increase your Tetris rank faster.

You get a core game for one price, then you get the "extra bits" for an additional fee. Features that might be generous in the design are sold at a premium. This is decidedly stingy, and almost every corner of the industry is trending this way.

Chop and crop
Let's be honest about what we're doing here in the freemium space. We're taking what would traditionally have been a whole game, and we're chopping parts of it up to sell off individually. In Zelda, you never paid for a sword that was slightly more powerful, you found it in the game after a long and arduous journey.

Most folks will tell you their free-to-play game is fully-featured, and all the microtransaction-purchasable items are unnecessary for full enjoyment of the game. But that sort of design is inherently stingy. Even if you design to compartmentalize, you're separating something from the whole, and the capacity for generosity to players is diminished.

A lot of downloadable content for triple-A games is similarly compartmentalized through DLC. I do understand it—these models can extend the life of games well past their “shelf” life. In fact, in a game that’s inherently generous in its depth of content, like Fallout: New Vegas or Skyrim, DLC is almost a welcome departure: A sidequest can be a breath of fresh air.

But if you try to integrate that content into the core game, like the already generous Dragon Age: Origins did by making an entire character and story arc downloadable, the overall feeling of generosity is diminished. Ultimately, while I do not think DLC or freemium games are inherently bad, I believe that these types of models have changed the way games are envisioned for the worse.

Holistic design
In most parts of the industry, I’m seeing less and less interest in creating a full game that’s finished in one go. This is a money issue, of course. Everyone needs money. But what about the love of the craft? What about the care put into making a game with an authorial vision, or an overall "feeling?"

The feeling from games nowadays often comes from the community as much as (or more than) the structure and design. That’s all well and good for some, but that way of doing things won’t yield you a Shadow of the Colossus or a Far Cry 2. If you chop off part of the game’s "feel" into DLC, doesn’t this inherently change how you treat it as a creator?

I do believe there are genuine ways to go about freemium models or DLC which are not so stingy. Consider the model of Dead Pixels on XBLIG, which is quite a generously designed game for a dollar, with hours of randomized gameplay (and a co-op mode). This game uses a neat model where the developer will begin work on free downloadable content if the game reaches a certain sales target.

This in turn can incentivize more people to play the game, thus more sales, and thus more free DLC. But a large company would never take this risk—there’s little guarantee this will work. But it’s done for the love of the game, and as a player, that’s what matters.

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E McNeill
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This is an insightful lens, and I think it hints at a possible business strategy of generosity. Premium games could be the ones that are defined by offering far more content than the developers expect any reasonable player to encounter or appreciate. Skyrim, for instance, retains its wonder only because I don't think I'll ever see all of it.

Once I start to feel the boundaries of a game encroaching, I lose something, and free-to-play games often have me constantly bumping into those boundaries. Generous games could be defined by a feeling of freedom and possibility, rather than just "more".

Sean Kiley
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Freemiums are new territory for the industry. The people making a fortune off of these models inspire others to "head west". There will be good and bad ideas, profits earned and burned (for developer and consumer), but as the market saturates, the ideas that consumers like best will succeed.

Jon Ze
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Exactly. I wish more people would see this. This territory (at least in North America) is still in it's infancy. Of course there will be companies that try to extract every last cent - these are the same companies that will try to exploit every business model. Freemium is just a new playground for their greed.

On the flip side, there's the studios that will over-deliver, and create positive and extremely viable freemium experiences.

Ultimately this will balance itself out, and is almost a non-issue relative to how much negative, sky-is-falling discussion is happening.

John Painter
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Depending on where you look, the generosity of content and support does still exist in the industry. The prime example that pops into my head immediately is CD Projekt and CD Projekt RED, pioneers of GoG and more importantly for my point here, The Witcher 2.

The Witcher 2 was released as a relatively polished game, with reasonably minor bugs and a slightly skewed difficulty curve. These things were ironed out pretty quickly, as could be expected of almost any game, post-launch. What people weren't necessarily expecting was for new features to be added in for free. All the launch DLC from various retailers and download stores was made free to everyone pretty shortly after release, then new features for the game as a whole were released with version 2.0.

Next month, the Xbox 360 version of the game is being released with yet more new content, which for any other publisher would probably be released as a paid-for DLC pack for the PC version, but again it's being released for free.

Alex Leighton
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I tend to think the people who are nickel and diming will get their come-uppance in the next few years. Everything has it's tipping point, in this case it's the point where consumers will say: "Enough is enough". We're close, but not quite there yet. I tend to think it'll come in the form of some idiotic publisher locking people out of a game's ending. Once this happens, the developers who have been treating their customers as fans rather than dollar signs and metrics will get their just reward. Hopefully there will still be enough developers left who haven't lost all their morals in the pursuit of a few extra bucks.

Robert Basler
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You're cutting on a game that's 99 cents! Like that's a bad deal! Developers have to nickel and dime you in the app store, because the app store market is one of nickels and dimes. I'm sure developers would like to charge a reasonable price for their work and have more generous designs, but they can't. The market has spoken. Its a cheapskate. Take some responsibility.

Mike Weldon
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It's Tetris. How much should people pay for a clone of a 20-year-old falling-block game?

k s
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I almost never buy DLC as most of it is multiplayer based. I've felt for sometime the expanded audience for gaming is not a good thing. A great many of these people play multiplayer because it's a sport to them and they just want to win against others. Publishers don't care about crafting experiences, they care about making money (that's the whole reason they exist), they see a large group of pigeons to prey upon.

When I was young gaming was still very much a niche and games were very generous in their offerings but since the audience has expanded many games have degraded into E-sports and Nickle and Diming has become the status quo (sadly). I'm not against the idea of DLC itself but it's all too often just maps and other multiplayer crap.

I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again but we are heading for another industry crash. We can't continue on this path else gaming will stagnate just as hollywood has.

Evan Combs
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I take it then you really only play multiplayer games, as I have never seen DLC for Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Borderlands, Elder Scrolls, etc. have much if anything to do with multiplayer.Yes, there is a segment of gamers who play games as an esport. Most of the players stick to Madden, COD, and Halo. There are other segments that don't play games as an esport, but to have an experience. There are games for those people too, and those games typically have DLC focused around expanding on the game they created not on multiplayer.

Why do people think everything is a zero sum game? Especially when it comes to video games?

k s
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@evan I don't play multiplayer at all! Most of the time I read about new DLC it's for multiplayer maps or gear, yes there is some for single player but the vast majority I see is for multiplayer which is why I don't tend to buy DLC.

Adam Schwenk
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This article diminishes the value of free to play and generalizes a lot of design decisions made on behalf of game developers. The point of freemium (and, in the cases you presented, none of them really are), is that you are enabling the entire playing audience to try your game out for free. Yeah, you could pay 60 bucks for a fully featured game with little details and extra elements, but the market has found that 1) players don't finish these games, and 2) the barrier to entry (cost) is exceedingly high. So how do you get your product to the players willing to spend money? Free to play. When the barrier to entry is $0, more people will likely try out your game. And adding in extra content for different price points enables a developer to obtain a reasonable ROI of a well-crafted game experience. Remember the CORE game has to be good for people to want to spend money. So the hole in your logic is that the core game experience is inherently broken. Not true, as shown by the many very successful game companies utilizing the freemium model to great success. Let's not diminish the work and efforts of the creators trying to appeal to a wide audience by generalizing that freemium is inherently broken because developers are greedy. This is a business, not just an art form, and people need to generate incomes to create new products. That's how it works. The easiest way to do so is to invite the largest audience to your game experience and then offer premium services and goods to those willing to pay, those people essentially paying for the audience that is unwilling to hand out their own money.

Adam Bishop
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"When the barrier to entry is $0, more people will likely try out your game."

This barrier can be removed without having to resort to the freemium model, by simply releasing a substantial demo of your game that allows players to have a good idea of whether or not the experience is what they're looking for. Plants vs Zombies, for example, had (has?) a demo that lets you play as much of the game as you can manage in an hour, plenty of time to determine whether or not you're enjoying it. World of Goo has a demo that lets you play through roughly 1/4 of the game, if I'm remembering correctly.

By the time you've played that much of a game, you've got a pretty good idea of whether or not you're going to enjoy the full product. This addresses the problem of people not knowing in advance whether the product is worth paying for without altering the game itself or the way in which players interact with it in any specific way.

Benjamin Delacour
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There isn't much of a difference between freemium that adds extra content without affecting the core gameplay and a demo. Also, vanity items like skins aren't significantly bad. Zynga Poker's little drinks, monkeys, etc. don't really affect the gameplay. Play for a while for free then get a subscription is okay (the subscription model itself may or may not cause gameplay compromises). Some freemium is just fine.

When you think about "the rule of 0-1-100", however, you see that what is happening is the game has been designed with holes in it. You can fill a small hole by stuffing $1 into it but there are other places the game is lacking that you can only try to mitigate by stuffing $10 or $100 into. These money dams work for a time before returning the _game_ to it's deliberately lacking state.

Yes, it's a business. The point is, game design is deliberately compromised for casino-like profit.

Lennard Feddersen
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"because the developers felt it should be, and because they wanted to make a vibrant, living world. "

When your dev. team costs 10-15K per head (after factoring in all costs, go talk to your accountant) and the market has said that they prefer free to games that cost a whopping $0.99 it's hard to compute making vibrant living worlds while still staying in business (reference all of those studios you mentioned going under).

Also, you are complaining about a $2.99 premium fee to play premium Tetris content for a month like $2.99 is exorbitant. A "value" chicken sandwich costs $3.99 at KFC so how is a month of Tetris at $2.99 a bad deal if it's something you want? Everything costs money.

Robert Boyd
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Well, $3/month for Tetris feels expensive considering that Tetris has been around for over 25 years and you can find many good versions of the game for relatively cheap these days.

Also, what studio is paying $10k-$15k per person and selling $1 games? If you have that much overhead, you're in AAA development.

Brandon Sheffield
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I'm not complaining about cost, I'm complaining about a design/direction mentality.

Jacob Germany
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@Robert While costs are certainly wildly different per company, I can easily, easily see a team of people needing 2-3 months to develop an entire polished $1 game, which isn't hard to imagine coming out to 10-15k per member without being "AAA development". This is also ignoring that the same market tends to expect eternally free updates in both mechanics and content. So... I'm confused where the shock comes in?

Lennard Feddersen
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I agree that $3 for Tetris feels expensive but when I go into stores in the real world I'm hard pressed to find many things that I can buy for less than that. We've just raced ourselves to zero and now I'm reading an article asking why publishers are starting to rein in costs on features that players won't necc. pay for. The question should be why was that particular arms race started in the first place - it wasn't sustainable.

As far as AAA development at $1 - look at the app. store, you will see many, many examples of high quality product at the rock bottom price of $0.99. We've gotten used to crazy cheap content but, in the long run, it's hard to imagine that it continues at that price point. One of the obvious ways to combat runaway dev. costs is to not spend on features and to get free demo product into the hands of gamers and then, when they start voting with their dollars, to add additional content.

Keith Nemitz
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"By this I mean in some games a lot of the content will not be appreciated or experienced by most players, but it's in there beneath the layers, because the developers felt it should be, and because they wanted to make a vibrant, living world."

This is why my games take years to make. Stupid of me. I'll probably lose my business because of it. Over-Content Creation Anonymous, anyone?

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Thomas Engelbert
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Payfeatures in F2P games were a good idea to even out the odds between those players with more time and less money and those with less time and more money. You could invest either of these two ressources to get your ranking up.

Bad thing is, you still got players with less time and less money (who still maybe just wanna enjoy a relaxed end-of-the-day 30 min of gaming, but get f*cked all the time), as well as players with time and money, who then tend to dominate the top ranks.

A better approach would be to match up players by their stats, implement daily/weekly/monthly top rankings as an addition to overall rankings, and to implement only aesthetic payfeatures. "Pay X€ for a new coat. Does nothing, but looks awesome!"

Both versions tend to make 90% play without paying, but still giving a broad playerbase, and 10% paying, but keeping the game alive. Though this is a statistical median. Of course some games wither and die off, while others stay 'alive' and keep being played.

And about DLC: I love the idea. I'd always choose to pay 60€ in little bits over paying 50€ at once, for the same game with the same content.

The reason is simple: For the basic game I might pay 10€. When I play and dislike it, I've lost 10€ to a game I didn't like. Shit happens. But if I like it, I can get more and more extra content, and I only have to buy what I like.

Let's say there would be three 2€ DLCs for a FPS: The Sniper DLC, the Melee DLC, and the Machinegun DLC, and I'm hardly using Sniperrifles and hardly ever go into melee combat - all I'll get me will be the MG DLC, saving me 4€ for features I hardly use anyways.

OR I can say "This game is so awesome, I wanna support the developers and buy all." Which is what happened when I played Magicka. Awesome game - I really wanted to support Arrowhead, so I got all the DLC - but I've never played mulitplayer.

Same with Borderlands: Got it on a sale on Steam, liked it, got all the DLCs for a few Euros and enjoyed it. Maybe I wouldn't ever have bought it if it would've cost me 30 or 40€ in the first place.

DLCs make it my choice. I don't want to pay 50€ or more for a AAA Title, only to find out that advertising made me hope for more than what I actually got in the end.

Also, DLCs could maybe serve as a quite precise feedback instrument: If you'd imagine in the example above, 90% of the players would buy the MG DLC, 70% the Sniper DLC, and 45% the Melee DLC, what would the next DLC be that you'd bring out?

And on top of that, you as a developer can see earlier how well your game does. If you bring out the basic version, and it hardly sells, why put any more ressources into it? But if it bodes well, you can go on and bring out new DLC after DLC until players get bored and turn to another game.

Jacob Germany
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I think what some worry about is that certain features or content that might have otherwise been easily added to the game for free or at release might instead be cut for the sole reason of selling it as DLC later. It's hard to gauge how often this happens, and how often it's more honest and deserving. This seems even more of a potential problem in the price-fixed console platforms, rather than the more variable tablet/phone/Steam/independent platforms.

But discourse just like this article and your comment are exactly what the industry needs more of in order to sort out the ethics, meaning, intent, and reasoning for various forms of DLC, freemium, and other similar concepts that are very new and mostly untested waters.

Marc Schaerer
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I think the article in general has some points but it also shows a hatred similar to mine over the growing issue of dumbification in games (thank you Zynga, inventor of superior AAA trash. I truely hope that your IPO reflects the quality of your games more sooner than later)
So lets break it down a bit:

DLC: I don't consider DLC per se bad. What I consider bad is when the main aspect of games gets ripped out to sell the games in pieces and that at unrealistically high prices. Its one thing if its done as it was done with Sam & Max or Monkey Island Stories which are sold in reasonable prices for being chapters and were planed and advertised as such. But its a whole different story if we look at the quality of those $80+ PC games here in europe that barely bring more than 6h of playtime and have their first DLC announced prior launch already. Thats simply absurd and caused by that part of the player base that I lovingly call 'graphics sluts' which don't care about the content and gameplay, just about the visuals (shooters exist on top of this userbase primarily)
The point against WoW was brought up yet I'm sorry but I've to say that Blizzard is one of a handful long standing studios that still favors quality and content over the fast buck as its standard with anything EA and Ubisoft control. Might be that its getting worse there too, but SC2 and the focus on quality really show there, every single *craft title got more love than Westwood / EA put into the whole C&C series from day 0 till today together.

MMORPG being the cause of worse games: I agree and disagree. I disagree because true RPGs didn't cause this. Take Ultima Online as one example or Eve Online, which while not being an RPG in the traditional sense, has so much player driven aspects including the large scale economics, that they definitely don't cause that. I agree because any 'Everquest Online', the first real incarnation of stupid brainless grinding crap, and its successor really lowered the quality on the MMO front and the asian flood of fast buck, no content trash that was brought to life by it has only speed that up.
But in all fairness, we have to realize one thing and thats that id Software actually started the dumbification long before we even had internet in usable speed and price ranges. This is because nothing, really nothing, caused more stupid, shallow, brainless games with no gameplay and no cultural right to exist than the FPS genre where the focus on graphics instead of focus on gameplay and gameplay relevant content has crossed the border to laughability many years ago from a devs PoV.

Yet its these brainless titles that show best how people behave and what they are looking for the spend their money on: they don't want something that would require their brain to really work (why expect it during the sparetime performing a hobby if the majority was not able to do it during work / school??), they want something where they can learn something in small bits round after round, as its this little thing which really gets people hooked to a game and a genre, which really adds satisfaction to the equation, when they get better.
Its now up to the devs to finally include this in their equations and create the content and DLC to go along with this instead of continueing to waste oversized budgets on art which deliverying boring, repetive, 0 learning content.

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Jonathan Jou
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Umm, I'm not sure if I'm in the right position to say this, so please accept my apology in advance as one speaking from the mere combined perspectives of a commercial software developer and an avid gamer.

However, I still need to ask this because it's really confusing me. Games are marketed and used as products of entertainment... right? So when there's a group of people who would happily spend their days clicking cows, shooting heads, or any other highly repetitive activity, giving them what they want is... "good business," right?

I can understand the upturned noses decrying the rise of stringing players along with content rather than replay value, or even some sort of disillusion with the way some games have become remarkably similar with only a slightly shinier coat of graphics. But I'd like to think that the good games are still out there, the people who push the envelope and innovate aren't confining themselves to making more of the same (I hope). The fact that video games have become highly visible household items, and their surge in popularity, seem to me as at least a potentially fertile landscape to attract new talent, new ideas, and new funding to turn those ideas into a reality. Big companies make safe bets, but not all safe bets need to be sequels, and not all sequels need to be identical in all but content.

So is it really a bad thing that there are giant, immensely popular MMORPGs? It's possible that WoW slowed the innovation in the MMORPG genre, but new ideas continue to appear, such as the dynamic events of Rift, the geographic tactics of Guild Wars2, and the action-like feel of TERA. These big games are backed by big publishers who I'd like to think took the money they made off of more traditional offerings and recognize the value of innovation.

I'd like to think, really, that the video game industry (economic recession aside) is a place for big new ideas to get the funding and find the talent they need to become a reality, and that even if we don't appreciate all the games available today, they probably pave the way to the games we might enjoy in the future...

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