Speaking at the Virtual Goods Summit in San Francisco on Friday, Zhan Ye, president of GameVision, commented that he has worked on traditional, single-player PC games as well as new free-to-play games in China.
In fact, he's brought experienced developers from the West to China and seen the culture clash -- because the two types of games, while seemingly similar, have important differences, he says.
Changing The Way You Think
"As I was working with designers in the U.S. and China, I couldn't help but notice the huge contrast between the old way of doing games that I was used to, and the new way I've learned from the young designers in China," says Ye. "You have at least three decades of history; in China, because the industry is so young, we don't have a lot of traditions."
"If you are a designer and you start on a free to pay project and you start with those old assumptions, you will fail -- no matter how good a designer you were in the old days," warns Ye.
"Ubisoft Shanghai has the best and brightest designers in China, and they were all trained by Western developers... but when they left and started their own projects, they all failed."
The End of Fun?
The assumptions designers make about games in the West just don't apply to the market, now matter how core and obvious they seem, he says. "As a designer, your first priority is to make the game fun." Well, not in China.
"In the old days, [designers] didn't have to worry about how to make money. It's the business people's evil job -- you just worry about making the game fun, and people will come to it. That's not true anymore," says Ye. "Making a game fun is not enough anymore. You have to operate under dual objectives -- you have to make a fun game that can monetize well, and those two objectives are equally important."
When he first met Chinese designers, Ye "was very surprised to find how much they talk about monetization from day one of the project" As a Western-style developer, "You can view it as a burden; it's a huge change. It changes your approach to game design completely. Every game design feature, you have to look at it from two perspectives."
Users Don't Want Art
When it comes to Western design, "Another assumption is games as an artform."
When the medium began to get more cinematic in the late '90s, says Ye, that idea has seriously taken root. "Starting from then [1997's Final Fantasy VII] video games began to be treated seriously as an artform. For over a decade, that's the direction the old game industry has been moving towards. In the free-to-play world, all of that might not matter anymore."
The audience is what is driving that change, says Ye. "The gamers are paying attention to something else -- and as a game designer, you have to do the same thing. If you are still thinking about making a game as a piece of art that people can admire or respect, I think you'll be in big trouble."
Content Creation? No, It's World-Building
Content creation is the primary focus of game development in the West, but Ye, again, says that's just not applicable to the free-to-play market. "I think the traditional game business, especially in the U.S., is based around buying or selling content -- you're buying a traditional game, you're getting 11 or 12 hours of content. And as a game designer you look at it from that perspective -- you want to do more and more content, better quality content."
When it comes to F2P, says Ye, "Consumers are not going to pay for content. Game designers don't feel like they're selling content. They just look at the whole game development from a different perspective. And from a logistic point of view, the whole purpose is to try and keep people playing for a long time, so they'll start to pay..."
Experience dictates, says Ye, that "if we can keep the gamers for at least two weeks, they will stay, and if they'll stay, they'll stay for years." However, he says, "It's impossible to create content for a year or two years of gameplay; you have to create an environment or a setting in which a lot of people can interact with each other. Ultimately it's not the content that keeps the people playing, but the people."
Western developers are also often deeply concerned with fairness. Says Ye, "A lot of old-school game designers think we should treat everyone equally in the game. They're worried that if we reward those people who pay more money, then the balance in the game will be destroyed and other people will leave. Those concerns are very valid."
Ye sees fairness as just another tool in the toolbox rather than as a core concept. "But in the free-to-play world, especially in China, a lot of game designers believe fairness is not a goal, just a means -- the goal is to create a highly dynamic environment and community where a lot of conflict and drama can happen; if it helps to create conflict, fairness and unfairness can be used as tools to create those conflicts and add tension to the game world."
In short, "If we believe a game world is a reflection of the real world, the concept of fairness in a game should not be taken for granted."
Ye discussed a game where to attract rich users who could afford to buy powerful items, poor players were paid by the company to stick around. "Rich people were just killing poor people all the same time -- but you just have to solve that problem." This created a "welfare state" in the game, and tarnished both the game's and the company's image.
A better solution, Ye said, in all seriousness, was a game that allowed users with a lot of resources to form clans and attract followers, gifting them with items. "If you think about who these people were in the real world, they were business owners, used to managing hundreds of people." Rather than letting rich users mow down poor users, "We let rich people fight with rich people with the help of poor people."
Monetization, aka Psych 101
Monetization is, of course, the key to the free-to-play universe. And, says Ye, "This is not an add-on. You have to think about this from the beginning of the project." In fact, he says, games that change from a subscription to F2P model "are a disaster waiting to happen."
So what's the answer? "You just have to try a lot of things. Chinese game designers have tried thousands of ideas." Ye suggests studying ZT Online, as it's known in China as the "encyclopedia of monetization ideas."
When it comes to game design, in fact, there's an important distinction, says Ye. "Before launch it's monetization-driven; after launch, it's largely data-driven." Metrics are crucial.
And good social game design is rooted in an understanding of psychology, says Ye. "Good monetization design is based on a deep understanding of human psychology. The best game designers in Chinese people all understand what Chinese people want, what they think; their weaknesses, actually. Good free-to-play game designers are exploiting people's weaknesses in the game."
Key Impulses for Monetization
One tool for game design is conflict. "Conflicts make the game world more energetic and more lively," says Ye, but "more importantly they trigger emotions, and when people are more emotionally unstable, they'll make purchases."
Convenience items are important, but the recipe is not as simple as you think it is. Says Ye, "People will pay for convenience; however, what we found out is that convenience alone is not that powerful... you have to combine it with other factors. If you combine two or three factors you'll have a bigger chance to monetize."
For example, add peer pressure, and it becomes more more effective. "It's very easy to play with peer pressure," because of the volume of users in an MMO. One of the most popular items that Ye knows of is one that lets you respawn with your party when you die instead of returning to town. "Most people will say, 'I'll just pay', so they don't let their friends down." That's convenience and peer pressure rolled into one.
Items that allow players to show off in front of others are crucially important to the Chinese market, says Ye, "Especially if you create an environment where they're in front of their rivals or loved ones."
There's an item in one social game that is a gift -- of flowers. No simple bouquet, when the item is given, flowers fall from the sky and everyone can see them. Just as importantly, the game rewards the girl who gets the most flowers with a unique dress that can't be bought, and it will give her a special user title for chat. "[Girls] want to feel important, and being spoiled, that they're princesses. And there are a lot of male gamers who use online games as a dating tool."