Free Love (give a little, take a little)

Gaming business models, like games themselves, are split into a number of genres. For example, there is free, there’s advertising based, there’s the virtual goods model and of course the traditional pay and play (and that includes sub-genres like Jon Hare’s brilliantly named “Free for Freaks” model, based at heart on the old coin-op model).

Dave Jones is now infamously, and probably forever, tied to his quote on the subject:

“If a game is built around a business model, that’s a recipe for failure”

To be fair to Dave here, I think he may have said this before the fragmentation of business models became as well known as it is now. But, and it’s a big but, even if there was only one business model available, your game would still be built around it. It has to be. We’re not yet in Roddenbery’s cash free utopia so if your job is the production of a good or service then your job is ultimately to sell something. Understanding how what you’re selling is affected by the way you’re selling it is key and should have implications on the design of the product.

For example, a friend of mine prints around 100,000 magazines each month and then dumps them in great big piles at the entrance to supermarkets in the South Wales area, people then pick them up without paying a penny for them and take them home. Obviously I’m being a bit cute here, there’s a very well thought out process here. The magazine aggregates all estate agent properties in the area into a single format brochure. What they really sell is an advertising and distribution channel for the estate agents (to potential buyers) who consider it part of their marketing budget. This translates into a free magazine for the public and a solid revenue stream for the business. The product is designed specifically around a model to make money. How long this model lasts for is probably debatable.

Conversely there’s something like TweetDeck. Last night as I read through some tweets, Tweetdeck (iPhone) continually crashed on me which it got me thinking that it’s a bit shoddy really. Then I remembered I never paid for it in the first place. Would I? No (crashing aside) as I also have the free official Twitter client, which logically brings us to the very free Twitter. So what are the business models here? My guess is that at the moment they have a ton of very very smart people trying to figure that out. How is TweetDeck making money, I can only assume at some point we’re going to see advertising interspersed with tweets (which will probably have Twitter’s own paid for tweets in also).

It’s all a bit flakey for me. Especially if you’ve got a lot of overheads to build and maintain those things. This is the old and bad trait of the web that I’m very familiar with. We’re back to ‘build it and they will come’ territory and you need very very deep pockets for that sort of thing (tied to a zealous faith in that you’re doing will eventually pay off). Having been there and done that, I never want to return to it.

My options at the moment look like this (these are the ones that best fit with my project):

– Variable download price (with some premium ‘gifts’ for the fanatical/family/friend users)

– Free with in game monetization and advertising

Both have attractions for me and ideally I would love to run the project on a hybrid of the two but I need to speak with some much smarter people than me on whether that’s possible or just confusing to the consumer. I love the idea of removing the barrier to entry to increase the numbers of users you can monetize but at the same time I feel it’s folly to lose revenue if some people are willing to pay something. This would be crucial to a small project like this, to get a return on some costs very early on – say a few thousand followers, friends and family would pay more etc. The development plan for the project is to run it in small iterative phases – the perpetual beta product =p With the first public release in 3 months. The take-up numbers on that first release will probably decide its future. We aim to fail fast.

As a (naive and very rough) example, I have around 160 friends on Facebook of those I think around 50 are family and very close friends who would, out of loyalty (and badgering), buy a copy of my game for about £10. The remainder are good friends and I think about 50% (say another 50) could probably cough up a fiver (£5). Then there’s my twitter followers who are less close but have invested some of their time following my ramblings hopefully by the time of release would provide another 200 or so that would pay perhaps a £2. So we could probably grab a £1000 on the first few days of release. That figure would be multiplied by any others that are involved in the project.

In my view not all consumers are equal and if possible it would be great to have the model cater to all of them i.e. have the game available to buy for the early adopters, perhaps a premium price for the friendlies which would include otherwise unattainable inventory items, then provide a free version with in game monetization (discounted for those that purchased) and then lastly bring in advertising if you get traction. Essentially the price structure would be to have the highest price you can get away with at the start which eventually declines to 0 but has a reverse increasing curve from 0 upwards for in game monetization.

This feels a bit like having your cake and eating too but I believe this is where my project lives and dies. I also think this, somewhere in all this stuff, is where the future of selling games lies.

[Further reading]

I must give huge credit to Nicholas Lovell who, for my money, is like the Seth Godin of Games Business. His blog gives focus and clarity to these ideas, ideas that I think a lot of us have had bubbling away as suspicions but not had the nouse to define. Check out his blog here: www.gamesbrief.com and in particular this set of slides:

Welsh public sector funding convergence or means?

With the zombie corpse of my last start-up still warm and twitching I was invited to the University of Glamorgan to a talk that promised to teach me “How to make a million from the iPhone” (where was this beauty when I needed a quick cash injection?). The talk was put on by a new Welsh organisation called “Software Alliance Wales” or SAW. Sadly SAW isn’t as sharp as it sounds and when I asked what its objective was I received a typically opaque line about accreditations, pamphlets and training courses. Undeterred and craving more information on this exotic beast I ventured to their website and found this definition:

“The Software Alliance Wales (SAW) programme is led by IT Wales at Swansea University in partnership with the Universities of Bangor, Glamorgan, Aberystwyth and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. SAW has been developed to provide specific support to the software sector, to address skills requirements and to respond to demands to help Welsh businesses to maximise the potential of exploiting new technologies.”

All clear? Me neither!

The talk sounded fantastic and it turned out to be just that. It was a talk about making lots of money given by careerist academics who honestly have no idea or experience about starting and running their own business (unlike like the guys from Abertay University for example who have spent most of their working lives in games companies before joining the Uni). Just in case you think I’m generalising I asked them candidly if they had run or managed one and the nearest I got was “no, but I have spoken with some quite a lot” and I was then offered a pamphlet on Software Quality Assurance as if I was opening my door to some new age Jehovah’s Witness. I wasn’t trying to catch anyone out and whilst different perspectives are important it’s trumped by direct experience for me. My insistence that they needed to focus on start-ups was met with a steely cold suspicion. They drew rank and file. I was obviously some free market private sector witch and needed drowning in a river of methodology pamphlets.

My overly zealous (and admittedly piqued) point here is that without start-ups there is no foundation for growing larger companies. You know, the ones that employ lots of people, train people and most of all, use those pamphlets on Software Quality Assurance. Without them there’s nowhere for entrepreneurial people to fail. Think about this, it’s not as stupid as you think it is.

“There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all”

– Bob Dylan, Love minus Zero

To top it off, last week I was by invited by SAW to attend their 5 day course on programming the iPhone in Aberystwyth. Which as I’ve just started a games company whose first product will be a … iPhone game, it sounded perfect. Even if the course wasn’t pitched at a high level I thought it would be good opportunity to network and group learning is always fun! So I replied saying I’d love to go only to be immediately turned away because I’d declared that I live in Cardiff, which is in Wales but not in the “convergence” area. So the convergence area sounds like something cool from Star Trek but is actually quite dull; it’s essentially all of Wales except the South East, East and North East.

I actually live about 2 miles away from the boundary which means that my cash strapped project which would directly benefit from the project can’t whilst in theory a cash rich (nay more savvy located) business in Caerphilly could hop on without problem.

I’d like to suggest that drawing a boundary on a map to determine eligibility, as an awful lot of history will demonstrate, is in this day and age, absurd. Why not introduce an element of means testing?…factor in the likelihood of the company’s ability to employ and train?… look at the actual product that’s trying to be developed and it’s impact on the region. For my money, trying to setup a games development company in Wales would be a relative Hen’s tooth.

So the convergence area means that this policy disregards those that can benefit outside of it, is made available to those within that don’t need it and is, perhaps something more damaging, spreading what little talent we have in Wales far and wide instead of concentrating into a single point of excellence like Silicon Valley for example.

I actually tried to connect them to some friends in Silicon Valley to bring speakers over for new Welsh startups to network with and perhaps setup a series of talks. These are speakers from Google, Youtube, Zynga, etc who I thought might serve to create a good series of “How we did it” type lectures to inspire the young Welsh entrepreneurs. Sadly, their only interest came from thinking they could create a possible “jolly” (A boondoggle to my stateside friends) out to Silicon Valley.

Sadly the mechanics of these funds tend to mean that the committees that oversee them, very well intentioned though they are, are wasting a potentially good idea and wasting it before it’s even able to make a difference. I mean a real difference, not a pamphlet or a consultant to come in and tell you what you probably already know. It needs to be focused to achieve three things: you need youthful talent, investment money and people with experience of how to manage those two things in a single geographic location. When those three things coalesce that’s when you will start to see exciting things happen. Not when you give it to people with no experience of start-ups and try to spread it across a region that has thus far only fostered agriculture and tourism. Let them carry on with that stuff, it’s useful and we value it.

Start-ups are not normal companies and you need to have been inside one to know what they look like when they move forward. They accelerate at alien speeds, often in strange directions and mostly into brick walls. You learn to fail fast, you learn that learning is everything and you learn to keep going. The ones that survive grow and inspire others to do the same. Let’s inspire the ones following in our footsteps.

“Only now, at the end, do you understand”

– The Emperor, Return of the Jedi

Just a little bit of history repeating itself

The past few days have been spent holed away transforming my single page game design, into a four page pitch for the Abtertay fund and most recently into a Powerpoint for a large studio. What’s been a revelation to me is that  at no point has anyone said the core idea is naff, in fact pretty much the opposite. So far, it’s gone away to three senior industry professionals who have all returned really positive encouragement; including a large publisher. Producing the Powerpoint has been the hardest part so far as it is a six page treatment of the idea, the mechanics & the architecture.

Like most written exercises, the hardest part comes in knowing what to leave out. Constrained by only 6 pages and knowing the end result is going to get passed to a studio exec who will probably conclude ‘no or go’ in about 20 seconds, the exercise is quite tough – and hugely exciting at the same time. There’s a nice little piece in Develop here about just this: http://www.develop-online.net/news/35631/HOW-TO-Successfully-pitch-your-dream-game

At this point you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the above picture of The Shatner. During the process of deciding upon a game idea, design and structure I’ve been thinking that to some degree I am being a little conservative (I’m capable of going “far out” with an idea but am actively disciplining myself not too) and that the current game landscape reminds me very much of the early to mid 1980’s which was awash with incredibly idiosyncratic and original game ideas. From Minter’s Camel obsessed shootemups to games about collecting trash (Google Trashman) it was a fantastically fertile time for the both the buyer and developers of games. But the transition from a cottage industry to a business was not without casualties. Some will lament this, the birth of the licensed tie-in, the death of the auteur, etc

Fast forward 30 years and the power of the hardware has followed Moore’s law predicted curve but idea wise we’re right back where we started: we’ve Giraffes in Space to games about growing Sweetcorn! We’ve another window of left field indie development open which is great but I wonder for how long. Personally, I don’t think the concepts have advanced as much as the hardware, they’re just better executed because we’ve more general knowledge as things are less proprietary thanks to the Internet, open source movements, game engine SDKs and of course the fact that the game industry is a very special community founded on sharing knowledge, much like the web app community.

My journey so far has brought me in contact with a fair few independent developers working on terrifically original and innovative ideas but there’s an alarming repetition to the lack of business and marketing focus during the development. Almost as if to be concerned with this aspect somehow prevents them from being seen by peers as a true indie – the artist in poverty syndrome. Personally, I think that’s bogus. It’s almost like the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy is seen as an acceptable business and marketing strategy. The problem with this approach is that it appears to work; albeit for an improbably small amount of ideas but they get the lion share of the press.

Maybe they’re right and maybe I’m focused too much on making sure I make some money from the process and that’s making me too conservative . We’ll see ;o)

Plan A, Plan B … Plan N

This week has been a long week. Well, it’s felt long as I’ve been doing a lot of waiting. And waiting. Which made me think of the recent A-Team posters heralding the awesome approach to project planning which adopts the “There is no plan B” tack.

While this probably makes for a great movie (I’ve no idea as I’ve not seen the film, as I was brought up on George Peppard’s crew this film is wrong on several levels to me, not least, for example, my Hannibal would always have had a plan B, he was a boy scout!) having no plan B would quickly result in project fail.

Back to the plot, last week I submitted a pitch for the Abertay Game Fund and I also wrote to the agent of a well known piece of I.P. to see if they would be willing for us to use the license for the game.

On Thursday I heard back from Abertay University and they really like my idea and also the proposal in general – it seems all those years of managing traditional projects with structured and methodical documents is useful after all! The only issue with the fund is that it will take at least another month to negotiate the next stage. Which is very reasonable and well thought through, only I’m itching to put the whole project into top gear now as there’s been 6 weeks of planning and thinking. One of the stipulations of the funding is it’s for prototyping so you can’t do too much otherwise it’s not valid (catch 22!) The project manager at Abertay has been good enough to direct me at a traditional publishing route, so that’s what I’m exploring now.

The second waiting game was in regard to the license of the well known I.P. and as yet I’ve not heard back (other than their initial, “we’ll get back to you”). I’m sure they get lots of these requests so no surprise there but obviously this project needs to progress forward so I’ll reluctantly have to shelve that idea for the time being and explore some others. It’s a shame as the license is a great fit both thematically and motivationally as it’s one I love, but as per the post title sometimes plan A doesn’t work out. Luckily the project idea can fit a number of different genres so the idea of using a well known license can continue with some other licenses.

So plan B it is, thanks Hannibal!

Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away

50 years on and the Beatles still sound as fresh as they did when they first released that record. But extrapolating John Lennon’s demeanour from the 80’s would now pitch him somewhere in the region of a cantankerous Naom Chomsky with an inferiority complex. Sorry, I was always more of a McCartney fan.

I can imagine Paul using Facebook; sharing his status, his photographs, his youthful inspirations: Constantly. John, I could see hurling out acerbic barbs like shurikens on Twitter. Ringo wouldn’t care about any of that nonsense, he married Bond girl Barbara Bach. George, ever the voice of reason, searching for a higher plane, would be trying to unify everything using some aggregation platform.

George was my favourite Beatle, I think he wrote the best songs and I’d be with George, I want to unify all these channels so I don’t want to worry about who posts where using what: I just want the stream.

Therefore, when it comes to writing a game that accesses this information there are some interesting choices: Do you post to Facebook, Do you post to Twitter, Which friends list do you use, Should you use OpenFeint, what about Google’s new Facebook killer how do we incorporate that, what about the oldest social stream of all, email?

A friend, Mark Delaura (Google’s Game Developer Advocate) just wrote a piece about the demise of the phrase “social game” http://www.satori.org/2010/08/the-demise-of-the-term-social-game/ but the piece is really about the need to make use of social graphs and the need to have an abstraction to let you get to the data without worrying about the mechanics of it, as per the questions above.

What will no doubt occur is a server based API (it has to be server based as all the underlying social services are in a state of flux, witness the number of times Facebook changes its API) therefore a server based abstraction will let the developer get on with the job of worrying about their game and not the protocols. This is what has largely happend with graphics and sound, although when you want to do something at a lower level you exchange convenience for a more inflexible but more precise implemtation.

This project will also produce a server based API to deal with social graphs and I think I’ll release parts of it as I go along to see if any other developers can make use of it. I think this sort of middleware needs to be open sourced and away from the main providers of social graphs, not that I’ve anything against them, just they may well come and go (Bebo, Friendster, MySpace, even Google aren’t immune to this Say Hello, Wave Goodbye Google Wave), but the game development community I suspect will carry on as it always has. Essentially, as a developer you don’t really care to access 10 different APIs to retrieve the user’s friend list, you just want a single abstraction such as:

FriendList usersFriends = SocialGraph.getFriendList(user);

Where usersFriends is a collection of that user’s friends across multiple social networks, a Friend object could then provide more granular information such as flags to see what networks they’re on, e.g. boolean Friend.onTwitter which could be used with the current user’s preference as to which networks they read and write from e.g. boolean User.useTwitter. You could argue at this point that the abstraction should be more abstract and the API shouldn’t expose the physical network, but  I think you’ll have to compromise somewhere. What the developer needs is a nice interface that doesn’t change in a way that will break what they have implemented in the past so they can code against without worrying about the underlying network API changing a la Facebook.

If you’re reading this and want to use the social networking API we’re developing just drop me a line.

Finishing games that I start, ’tis a rare thing these days.

The past week or so I’ve been doing a lot of research, reading several books on video games, game design, science fiction, Bob Dylan (well, you’ve got break things up a bit) and also submitting my project proposal for possible grant funding. I also managed to complete Gears of War 2 at the weekend, which as a previous post hinted at, really surprised me. Not least because my paucity of “spare” time combined with the marathonic nature of today’s triple A games.

Also because it’s not normally the sort of game I go for and also because it hooked me so acutely I had to finish it. And I bloody loved it. Yes, the dialogue is cheesy and the plot isn’t particularly novel but Epic sure know how to execute their idea well. The set pieces were, well, Epic and the game rewards you for hanging on to the end by giving you a brilliantly satisfying last mission.

It also uses an heroic story telling technique which I often forget about but it hit me like a freight train (thanks Bob) when I realised it, that the story arc ends in the place it starts, only that place has changed irrevocably as a result of your story. Brilliant stuff.

Anyway, it’s big week for Collision Games, a couple of irons in the fire might just set the project ablaze. They may also come out cold. Either way, it’s a big week.

Jaz Rignall on Writing #2

Following on from my post about Tom Bissell’s point re: the important of writing, writers and the need to get them to come in early on projects, I had a great email from Julian ‘Jaz’ Rignall who has, in many respects, written the book on it. He’s been an arcade champ, reviewed games, edited some of the most successul magazines in the industry and is still as passionate as ever about games. At some point I’ll do a little feature on the legend of Jaz as for me he is a pivotal figure in the U.K.’s computer and videogame history. His and other journalists contribution was to give the producers and consumers of games in the UK a voice, an image and more importantly a sense of humour. He’s even got his own wikipedia page here.

Jaz wrote to give his take on things from his experience developing games at Virgin:

“Interesting what you’re saying about needing a writer. When I was working on games at Virgin, one of the “tricks” we used was to back in the story/narrative at the very end of the game. That’s not to say we never had a story specced out: we always had a narrative in mind, but it was more like a stone skipping across a river than plotting a course across it. Ie, what was most important is setting up cool and fun situations first, and then going back to justify how they flowed later.

We found when we got into the story too early, we ended up in situations where we got bogged down with the details, grew too attached to bits of the story, painted ourselves into corners, and were often worried about changing things, so that the story was driving the game, rather than the game driving the story.

My rambling point being, the story/narrative is by far the most malleable thing: just make a game good by creating the best situations that are fun for the player – ie, create the puzzles/situations/challenges first – and then figure out how it goes together as a narrative later.”

And all things considered, I think I’ll take his advice! Jaz has also kindly done a sanity check on my game design, which aside from being phenomenally generous of him, was pretty nerve wracking. It was like handing in an essay to your favourite teacher…I’m very excited to announce that he doesn’t think it stinks, actually I’d go a little further and say he likes it ;o) More on that later.

How can you tell if a videogame is rubbish?

Iain Simons asked many clever game developers this brilliant question and got some great replies in his book (with James Newman), Difficult Questions About Videogames (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Difficult-Questions-About-Video-Games/dp/0954882504). I met up with Iain this week in Nottingham, at GameCity’s Antenna HQ, and had a great afternoon chatting about games and how Bruce Everiss is now blogging about shaving (http://www.bruceonshaving.com/) , amongst other things.

I like Iain a lot (I’m not just saying that because he may be getting more involved with this crazy project, which I’m very excited about) and as one of the founder’s of the National Videogame Archive you feel our treasure is in the right sort of hands. What the wrong sort of hands are, I don’t know, but they a probably gloved in black leather, stroking a white fluffy cat.

Anyway, back to that question: How can you tell if a videogame is rubbish?

The first time I fired up Gears of War 2 I would have said “if it looks like this”. I wasn’t impressed, thought it just an insanely amped up Operation Wolf as it’s very clearly on rails. This was about 5 months ago. I revisited it this week after reading Tom Bissell’s interview with Cliffy B. Tom’s portrait of Cliffy was someone who was instinctive and obsessive about creating great games, in fact when asked what he thought of people thinking he “played games all day” his reply was that he spends all his time “fixing broken games until they’re ready for you to play”. I liked this take on it so I went back and grabbed GoW2 and stuck through the dodgy dialogue.

That was yesterday and now I’m almost a whole day behind writing a 4 page funding pitch document for my game project. Thanks Cliffy!

So to answer Iain’s question, I’ll do it in reverse

Q: How can you tell if a videogame is not rubbish?

A: When you literally spend the whole day repeating the same phrase…

“Okay, just one more go”