Issue #5 - Content and Immersion

Over the past few decades a new genre popped up alongside the development of new networking technology: Massively Multiplayer Online Games. But these games suffer from a great threat: Competition. Why do many MMOGs lose players? Because they lack new content, and the existing content does not make the player feel immersed. The game just doesn’t have any appeal to the player anymore and therefore he or she has nothing to look forward to.
Yet another week has passed and we’ve hit the point at which we will discuss some terminology again. We will talk about content in MMOG and the need for immersion for a player to be kept as a customer. We have players asking for “more content” and complaining about how they “don’t feel immersed” in MMOs and we have developers who are constantly forced to keep pushing updates and changing the game to work against these complaints.
What kind of “content” do they demand?
That’s the big question. Content can be many things, ranging from simply adding in new items to entirely new areas and storyline. We should not ask the question of what to add, we need to ask “What is missing?”
Whenever a player comes to the forums or any kind of communication and asks for “more content” he has the feeling that something is wrong. He does not know what it is neither can anyone really put their finger on it. It’s simply the game as a whole that doesn’t fulfil what it’s expected to.
Therefore: What is content? Content is each and every mechanic available to the player – or the lack thereof – causing the player to act. Any object they can interact with, any item they can use. Now we have one issue, though: Interact with it once and the “magic” is gone. Most games have a limited – albeit large – number of objects to interact with. Once the player used them up, there is nothing left to do.
Three major solutions exist: One, add in more content every now and then. Not really a solution, but the problem hardly shows up, so ... we’ll consider it one. Two, create content through the players themselves. Allow them to define a part of the game, either by social interaction or by actually creating content through a toolkit.
And three: Don’t even let the player feel the magic disappear. The player is supposed to feel as if he was pulled deeply into the game – deep enough for the world to become real around him.
Immersion – Cure or Cancer?
This is interesting, actually. We just touched the core topic of immersion: Make the player feel as if the game world was real. This has one major drawback: The player might lose connection to reality and become addicted. We don’t want that either. Let’s be honest: An addict will stay with us for a few months, maybe years, then he runs out of money, has his life ruined and will sue our asses over intending so.
Immersion is therefore not only this “make the world real” part. It’s about creating a believable world – a world the player can relate to, albeit knowing it’s a game. Immersion is based on smooth and authentic gameplay and interactions.
A player who feels immersed in a game world is much more likely to ignore the actual lack of content, as the magic of the existing content is still there, regardless of it being “used up” already.
We face one major issue, though: The Uncanny Valley.
Personally, my opinion on the Uncanny Valley is that it does not only apply to audiovisuals, as we know it from the basic thesis, but also to gameplay. The concept of the Uncanny Valley is centered around the idea of “almost-realism” being hard to relate to, while “non-realism” and “full-realism” are near-perfect.
Creating a believable world can be hard when we end up in the middle of the Uncanny Valley in terms of gameplay. As such we have the choice to stay away from realism in this domain, or push our limits to the point at which we get out of the Valley again.
Player retention is a core issue for MMOs, but it is easy to achieve through any path that retains the feel of “new content”. Achieving that, though, can be quite hard, given the problems standing in our way.
MMOs redefined the way, content can be altered. Thus, we should try any possibilities of development in order to remain successful.

Issue #4 - Creativity and Money

Double Fine starts a kickstarter crowd-funding project for a new point-and-click adventure. 24 hours later, this kickstarter has surpassed the aim – three-fold. It has yet to run for more than 30 days at that point. These are the basic facts around Tim Schafer’s new project and the cause of this new tie-in entry about “creativity and money” instead of an entry about what we call “content” in MMOs.
So, this week we ask the question about independent funding, and the role of publishers. We have seen multiple cases of either self-publishing or crowd-funding recently, but the most surprising ones to date are certainly Mojang’s Minecraft and the still ongoing Double Fine Adventure kickstarter. Do these mark the end to publishers and their careful balancing of both creativity and money – which isn’t bound to success anyways?
Creativity – judged, or simply blocked by publishers?
Publishers fulfil three basic roles, says the industry consensus: a) Funding, b) Marketing, c) Quality Control. The core issues are both funding and quality control, we’ll start with the first, since money is our second topic anyways:
Quality control refers to publishers deciding which project is to be worked on, refined and brought to the market. What is a factor of success for a publisher? Grand revenue and a big consumer base to provide merchandise for.
This ideology conflicts with a simple concept of creativity: Innovation and filling niches. Creativity is based on new ideas, new means of achieving something, innovation as a whole. Anything “new” causes a risk, though. Will “they” buy it? Will they adapt to the changes? How big is the consumer base anyways?
Some of these questions are ruled out by “testing” these new ideas in already established IPs. How about a hybrid of an RPG and a Tower Defense game? How about combining some nostalgia with an already radically changed IP to get the lost players back?
It may work, but it is still risky, and most publishers still drop such ideas to prevent loss.
Publishers, therefore, attempt to keep the creativity to a minimum – allow it only, when it is expected to be successful.
Money – Cause and effect?
Well, of course this is all influenced by money. A publisher’s decisions are based on what changes to the income they expect.
As said before, a publisher seeks grand revenue and a good market for merchandise. This only works with already established IPs, and only with established features. Not with any offspring of some random creative minds.
As long as a developer has to rely on a publisher to get his ideas out there, they are unlikely to succeed. Either accept the fact that a creative project won’t be funded, or do the fundraising on one’s own – be independent.
With Double Fine’s kickstarter hitting a million dollars in less than 24 hours, we have seen a successful attempt at being independent already. This requires reputation and contacts in the industry, though. These can only be gained over time, with a loud voice to get one’s concepts out there.
Therefore, independent fundraising is ... ?
... a good idea, and certainly a path that takes us away from a publisher-focused model.
Why is it a good idea to move away from the publisher-model in the first place, one might ask. Given that this model is established in almost any medium’s industry, this is actually a valid question.
The answer is rather simple: Games are an interactive piece of art. They create a bond between whatever-company-is-written-onto-it and the player himself.
Publishers use this bond to evaluate their consumers. They are focused on catering to a certain base of people with money, willing to spend it on the publisher’s products. Publishers want to cater to as many people as possible, to gain the most income.
Developers see the “consumers” as the community. It’s a much friendlier relationship and the developers seek the most joyful experience for their community. This is the reason as to why we see developers communicating with the people playing their games, quite directly even.
Publishers still serve a purpose in our industry, and with a shift of focus on their end to a much more community-focused attitude, there will be no need to reduce their influence.
As it stands, though, publishers have way too much influence and block projects that might bring a whole new twist to the industry – even if it isn’t successful.

Issue #3 - Copycat and Competition

These days, our industry has seen multiple accusations – especially against Zynga. What was somewhat known to large parts of the gaming community already, has now been said by the companies affected. Zynga’s response? These types of games have to look and feel familiar and Zynga merely enhances their social features.
With that said, this week we will get some things straight about Zynga’s copycat tactics and the competition they pretend to present. Yes, this issue is directed to the industry rather than the gaming community and we’re going slightly off-topic regarding the intention of this blog.
So, you said copycat … Sounds biased.
Of course it is biased, with the blatantly obvious comparisons we have now. We all knew about it in one way or another before these accusations popped up. But now we’ve hit the point at which we do have the evidence – no doubts involved anymore.
But Zynga is only one case of such copycat tactics in our industry. It often strikes us … A game looking similar, familiar … somewhat like something we hardly remember, but we know it was somewhat the same. Will we be able to be more wary on such things in the future? Most likely not. Will we be less surprised than now when we see it? Definitely.
These incidents have already done a great deal of damage to the industry and the consumer’s perception – and expectation. But there is another threat: They might cover it up as „competition“ or even „innovation“.
While many articles and blog posts these days discuss this topic, we will focus on the market aspects rather than development. The flood of posts about how Zynga focus their „development“ on the social features and either are lazy when it comes to anything else, or innovative in their own way … Well, there is enough of that already.
What does this do to the market? Can we call it „competition“?
It certainly is a similar product with some changes to it, and it is thrown out onto the market to compete with the other such products. With that said, it is definitely some kind of competition.
Whether it is fair, legal and what kind of impact is has, though, is an entirely different topic here.
Let’s get some facts straight first of all: Zynga are a large company, they are established on huge social platforms – most notably Facebook, who even defend them these days. They attempted to buy some companies, or at least buy the IPs for some of their games. When those offers were refused, they copied the games. Small companies were forced to decide whether they take the money and lose their game and drop dead, or don’t take the money, lose their game to a larger company and then drop dead.
While this may be how capitalist pioneers believed the free market would work out – Darwinism hooray – it is definitely not how it should work out in the market we have nowadays. We had this issue with piracy already, and it pops up every now and then: Our market does not support the tactics that are used – at least not in a morally acceptable way.
What should we do to Zynga then? Pitchforks out?
Definitely not. Zynga needs to be taken to court, present their “innovations” to the law and hope for them to survive.
But the question isn’t what we should do to Zynga. The question is: What can we do to improve the situation for those smaller companies. The solution is simple: When a game reminds you of one you already saw, do some research. If you come to the conclusion that you can’t find the other game, or it is different in enough aspects for you to believe they didn’t just blatantly copy: Fine, go ahead and keep on playing.
Else: Tell those companies, throw up some threads on gaming forums. Ask for others to help. Get your assumption out there and get it judged by the hive mind of the internet.
It is up to us to decide where the line is drawn, but we need to draw it clearly.