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The 'immense responsibility' of creating value for players

The 'immense responsibility' of creating value for players

November 13, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

November 13, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Production

How do games deliver value to their players? Spry Fox's Dan Cook, of LostGarden fame, was at NYU's PRACTICE conference to share some experiments he's done toward answering that exact question.

When Cook, formerly of Microsoft and Epic, co-founded Spry Fox (Steambirds, Triple Town) with David Edery, he was excited by the independent company's opportunities to build new things.

"When you've been working on the same game for two to three years and it never seems to release, I highly recommend stepping outside of that, getting a hobby and starting some new games on your own," he says. "Pretty much the only place I'm avoiding right now is console," he adds.

Cook says he's "completely and utterly obsessed" with how games can efficiently add value to the world: Value and efficiency being the key words. "That 'efficiently' part comes from almost like a famine time in my career," he says, recalling the days of being a low-cost shareware developer creating passion projects.

"You'd get remarkably outsized returns because people would actually pay you money for these little, small games you'd been making," he says. But over the last decade the cost curve has ramped up massively: 100 developers and a budget of $40 million is commonplace in the high-end console market -- and personally Cook feels that as one person in a massive team, the quality of the design he can implement and his ability to create an impact is diminished.

Console retail is now one of the most mature platforms extant, however -- and it trickles downward from there as other platforms follow, with cost curves continuing to escalate. Steam is no longer an easy indie playground, and the barrier to success on the App Store has ramped up massively as the platform matures. "The cost to make a top ten free-to-play game has increased dramatically," he notes.

Are you having fun?

It's harder to find a basic ratio of development years to quality hours for the player. "What you find is that the quality hours of play becomes a really important concept, because I can get people to play something for a very long period of time, and the quality of that experience is absolute crap," Cook notes.

"We ask people, and we track... are you having fun? How fun is this game? Would you recommend this to a friend? And if you go down there's some positive-psychology survey questions you can ask about, what is the quality of this experience you're having?" he explains of quality hours. "And you can track this over time... we're used to tracking retention [and engagement], but I think the quality of the experience also ends up mattering."

Cook feels a huge responsibility to quality of play. As a result, he's been experimenting: One can always dump more developers onto the project and increase the time investment, and scale activities -- but instead, why not assume a small team of one to two devs, an artist and a part-time designer, for example, can tackle the design problem of how to increase quality hours given a limited number of preproduction, production and design hours?

Historically the commercial industry has been media-focused. With an earlier game called Bunni -- "the harvesting portion of a real-time strategy [game]," he describes -- there was a focus on storytelling ("there's a marriage, bunny strippers... very disturbing"). It was strange, but it worked, and a certain population adores some of the game's moments because, Cook believes, the game is built out of arcs, an execution that leads to "rich, strong, evocative feedback."

"You see an amazing picture or you see some stunning experience, and it hits your brain... it's stimulated, you start remembering that time in your childhood when you were on a swing, at the peak of a swing, and it's like... 'this game brings that back, and I feel wonderful'," he enthuses.

Economic value

The problem with conceiving games as an arc leading to evocative stimuli is that players burn through an arc quickly, like flipping pages of a book. For most people, the tickle is brief, and then subsides. That's why it's possible to conceive of games as sequences of arcs -- and yet you end up in a treadmill model that forces the developer to continue cranking up new and stimulating content to keep the player engaged.

"It's a one to one relationship: Make content, consume content," Cook notes. "It never ends."

Adding "stuff" -- goods with an economic value -- can often enhance players' sense of value in their experience. "The reason we fill our garages with stuff is because we bought something [that] we thought would be useful to us," Cook says. Giving players things to own that they feel are valuable can be more efficient than simply throwing content at them to enhance engagement.

In Triple Town, there's an object-collecting aspect to the gameplay, and a long, steep accumulation curve. "We calculated it out: To reach tier 30, it's going to basically take players about five billion years... this was a clever hack. This works," he says. "This was extraordinarily effective in terms of stretching out players' engagement with the game."

But there's a problem: For all the players who engage with and love this exponential progression system, there'll always be some who are focused on grinding and become discouraged to realize there's a billion hours ahead. There may be more hours gleaned from the player, but that player experiences a reduced sense of value for their time.

"I'm wasting their life by going and being clever and creating a billion years of content for them," Cook reflects. "Math is great, but it doesn't always work when mixed with human psychology."

Triple Town is a puzzle game that requires skill: "I think of it as a single-player tactics and strategy game," he says. "It's all about placement, organization and planning ahead, and a good player plans ahead anywhere from about 20 to 50 moves when playing Triple Town."

The game has a skill barrier past which about 90 percent of the players drop off, but the remaining 10 or 20 percent will put hundreds, even thousands of hours into the game. "Your game becomes a hobby for them," he says -- rather than feeding the player content, they're receiving an opportunity to invest their time in improving their skill at that game.

Games become a self-contained value system. Even though players are gratified by attaining skill, it doesn't cross the barrier into people's lives outside of that game. That's why leaderboards, social media infrastructure and status items are another way to increase and enhance the value players glean from the experience.

But players who don't climb the status infrastructure so quickly or easily feel deflated. The lower one's status is the less pleasure they take in doing the exact same game tasks at the exact same level of skill. This effectively creates a situation where people waste their investment -- they feel and act less intelligent due to being relegated to a lower status.

"Leaderboards will often get you 10 to 50 percent improvement, but there's a cost to that," Cook points out.

This is where his idea of a "value engine" comes in, a new take on the mode where the designer creates and the player consumes. But what about increasing value through trade? Players who specialize in certain types of item gathering and creation naturally end up wanting to share with others who've invested their resources differently, and it builds a relationship ecosystem that adds player value.

"It's a non zero-sum act," he says. And it creates value, since items that go together are more valuable as a set than as items on their own.

In Realm of the Mad God, one simple additon made a difference to the entire ecosystem: The ability to drop items on the ground. From there players began to create and modify their own trading culture, creating new applications that facilitated trade, along with advocacy groups and trust networks.

"We saw this explosion of cultural norms," Cook says. "In order to trade with each other, it's a highly inefficient process... there were ways of communicating with each other. People created languages for talking about what they want, how they could get it in a very efficient fashion. We didn't have any money in the game so people started creating their own unofficial currency."

"I hadn't had the opportunity to design an MMO, so this was kind of a shock to me. It blew my mind, and it made me think: What if we're thinking about games completely wrong?" What poses. "What if instead of delivering these packages of value, what if instead our goal as game designers is to create these engines, these littel tiny rule systems, that instead generate value? What if we think of players not as consumers of value, but as these energy cells, where our job is to activate them?"

That takes games beyond hobby and into lifestyle, he argues.

Look at Minecraft -- in Cook's view its plot is childish, it's made of crude blocks, and there's hardly anything there in the way of narrative. And yet: "Given how much it fails at all the ideals that AAA games have pursued for the past decade or so, it still ends up being this amazing value generator," Cook continues. Minecraft creates incredible human capital in terms of the skills people can gain, and social capital, as when families play together and share the experience.

An immense responsibility

Crucially it lets players create actual artifacts, Cook says. The world of his Bunni had a massive forum on which players ended up creating Bunni fanfiction ("which was a lot more tame than you might expect given the contents of the game,"). There were thousands of posts with intricate player-created stories based on the game's world, and threads with people roleplaying characters within one of the game's taverns.

"This concept of fanfiction really is something that comes out of, if you do it just right you can actually trigger this explosion of player creativity," Cook notes. Designing for community and culture, with shareable artifacts, should also be a goal in building a game that can act as a generative value engine for players, and thinking of games as systems that build relationships between people seems to work, he adds. And the bigger games become, the more significant the designer's role in making millions-strong worlds with their own rules and cultures becomes.

"This is an immense responsibility," Cook emphasizes. "I look forward, and I see that we're only going to be more online; people are only going to find meaning in their life through games more, not less, and we're going to have millions of people, probably billions of people, that are building their community and their culture and their art around our games. And we have an immense power to shape that, probably like no other group of people probably ever in the history of time."

As a creator of small games, Cook will invest his energy not in creating content nor in media. "I'm going to drop a ruleset into the ocean of humanity, and create an ever-expanding tidal wave of value," he declares. "This seems like an efficient use of my time, and an efficient use of the player's time."

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