How Early Is Too Early?

Reading “Can Godus be fixed?” by Christian Donlan this morning on Eurogamer, a section of the last paragraph stood out:

In truth, it’s still hard to pin down what, if anything, 22Cans actually wants Godus to be. It’s probably often this way in development. Maybe a team really needs to “experiment, fail, and experiment again,” to quote Molyneux, even if that’s under the harsh, critical glare provided by hundreds of customers who have already paid up for the ride.

I haven’t followed Godus particularly closely (read: at all), but the above strikes me as a failure to manage expectations (on all sides). Reading the comments on the article further reinforces this, with some defending the current state of the game and others feeling like they’ve been cheated because they already paid up for it.

Finding the fun, particularly on an experimental or “reinvention” project, can be tricky, and can take a while. Even when you have strong reference points and a fairly clear idea of what your design pillars are, it can be tricky. The problem Godus seems to be having is that they’re building out infrastructure for the game before they’ve figured out what core play is.

At Vlambeer’s GDC session on their experience with Nuclear Throne last month, Rami mentioned that at one point on the stream they’d had to explain to viewers that they had to program what happened to bullets when they hit walls. To anyone involved in development, that seems like a silly thing to have to explain, but many people clearly have no idea how games are made.

Nuclear Throne looks to be a successfully managed Early Access project – it helps that Vlambeer had a game jam produced prototype (and arguably a stronger fanbase), but I also think the fact it’s fairly clear what Nuclear Throne is trying to be helps with audience expectation (subconsciously, at least). People know what they’re getting into and Vlambeer aren’t building foundational game engine bits because they’re using Game Maker. They had something that was fun from the very start of Early Access, so players can immediately see the potential and understand what the game is.

Godus on the other hand, has different expectations everywhere you look – some of the audience just want Populous 4, but that’s perhaps not what 22Cans are trying to achieve. Either way, it’s clear they’ve let people into the process far too early – it’s not obvious what they’re trying to achieve with the game when you play it, and as a result journalists and players are reacting poorly to it.

So it seems to me that Early Access (and equivalents) can be the right thing, but only at the right time. That right time varies from project to project. It will be interesting to see how Godus fares from here on in – is the reputational damage done at this stage irreparable, or can the project be salvaged?

This Week in Reading

CAPY practise Selfish Creativity:

At CAPY, our goal has always been simple: Create unique, beautiful video games that we love… and bring them wherever there is an audience (and ideally, a great controller) to play them. This is our goal with Below. This is our goal with Super TIME Force. This will be our goal with whatever crazy idea we do next.

Lovely retrospective at Eurogamer on the creation of Clash of Heroes (which you should totally play if you haven’t, it’s awesome) amd how it changed CAPY:

That sensation, a well-made thing that acquires an aura of magic, is something every developer would love to capture - yet how few do.

Halfbrick and the importance of planning:

This is also more proof that having a great game is only one part of becoming a profitable developer. You have to have a plan, and be ready to move on your ideas.

Andrew Haydon captures what playwright Mark Ravenhill actually said at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (warning, non-direct-games-content):

Don’t look for mentors, I would suggest, who are decades older than you. People like me – ignore us. Don’t look for business models from last year. Make it up as you go along. Do everything as if for the first time. As one of the most beautiful men who Scotland ever produced once sang: ‘Rip it up and start again’.

And a science non-games thing for good measure:

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science.

When Is a Clone Not a Clone?

When it’s a counterfeit.

Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about clones in the games industry, but after reading this article on Indie Statik about an Android game called Slap!, I think we (the industry) need to be clearer in our word choice.

It’s easy to throw the word “clone” around, but this incident – where the copycat game is “actually using the original sprites from our game” – I’d like to suggest a different term:

counterfeit: adj. made in exact imitation of something valuable with the intention to deceive and defraud. (OED)

I think that’s a much clearer description of what’s happened in this case, and should be targeted by a DMCA.

(As an aside, I do find it amusing that Slap! is “based on” the traditional game “Red Hands”, but the creator appears to claim that a Windows game called Hand Smash has “ripped off the [Slap!] mechanic”.)

Special Guest Post by Nick Hornby

This short essay by Nick Hornby is actually taken from the sleeve notes on The Gaslight Anthem’s latest album, Handwritten. I’m sharing it with you in full because I liked what it had to say: it also feels particularly relevant to my current project:

It would be stupid to try and tell you that the music you’re listening to is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. The songs on the Gaslight Anthem’s latest album are three or four minutes long, most of them, and they’re played on loud electric guitars, and there are drums, and to be honest, if you haven’t heard anything like this before, then you’re probably listening to the wrong band anyway. What’s great about the Gaslight Anthem is that there’s an assumption you’ll have heard something like this before – on the first Clash album, or on Born to Run, or the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, or maybe on a Little Richard record. That’s what hooked me in. I’ve been listening to rock’n’roll for forty years, and so maybe I’m too old to be writing this stuff, but on the other hand, maybe I know what I’m talking about, too: believe me, I know a lot of stuff sounds tired and derivative, and makes you feel as though rock music is exhausted. It’s hard to find new ways to tell stories and write songs; even clothes made out of meat won’t do you much good if your music is 1980’s dance-pop.

So you have two choices. The first is this: you do something nobody’s ever done before. You play the nose-flute underwater, put it through a computer backwards, and get a black Japanese guy to rap over the top. Or you write a novel using only consonants. Or you make a movie which nobody can see. And that’s all cool, but nobody will want to read your second novel written using only consonants, so then you’ll have to write one using only vowels. And the second is this: you think, write, play and sing as though you have a right to stand at the head of a long line of cool people – you recognise that the Clash and Little Richard got here first, but they’re not around any more, so you’re going to carry on the tradition, and you’re going to do it in your own voice, and with as much conviction and authenticity and truth as you can muster. And if you can pull that off, you’ll be amazed at how fresh you can sound.

And the Gaslight Anthem sound fresh. Anyone who has ever been frustrated by anything – a girl, a boy, a job, a self (especially that) – can listen to this music and feel understood and energised. (And if I feel energised, Lord knows what they’re going to do to you.) And I’m beginning to suspect that they, like, read books, too. ‘Great Expectations’ – now there’s a great title for a song. And here, ‘Howl’ – there’s another one. Rockers who read. Songwriters who are not scared to go head-to-head with everyone else in rock’s great tradition. The Gaslight Anthem are my kind of people.

— Nick Hornby, April 2012

Common Sense Prevails at BAFTA

Way back in March 2011, I wrote a post over at Scottish Games regarding a missing category in the BAFTA Video Games Awards:

However, I can’t help but think there’s a rather giant omission from the category list, given BAFTA’s stated aim of “developing and promoting the art forms of the moving image in the UK”: there should be a category for “Outstanding British Game“.

This week, BAFTA announced that entries were now open for the 2013 awards, along with a new category:

BRITISH GAME – For the best game of the year across all genres and platforms. Creative control and development must be led by a British development studio.

Hurrah! Well done BAFTA. Of course, I’d like to claim credit for this, but I’m just happy this particular hole has been plugged. I would still love to see an independent British game of the year prize though, an equivalent of the Turner or Mercury prize.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Ludometrics

Occasionally, I’m asked where the name “Ludometrics” came from. No, really. I first coined it in 2005 (December if the domain record is to be believed), after I found out about something called “econometrics”. Wikipedia provides this definition of econometrics:

the quantitative analysis of actual economic phenomena based on the concurrent development of theory and observation, related by appropriate methods of inference

Thankfully, it also provides this one:

the application of mathematics and statistical methods to economic data

As an example, what I was thinking about was measuring things like how long Mario stayed in the air for when he jumped, and then comparing that with other games that didn’t “feel” as good. Turned out that Ben Cousins had already done some work along those lines. I subsequently used it for measuring difficulty curves and level progression, and saw some surprisingly consistent results. Perhaps I should fund some more research.

Anyway, when I was looking for a new company name, I kept trying to come up with something new, only to find I didn’t like it. I then went trawling through the domains I already owned and decided to go with Ludometrics. This is now confusing as when people hear the word ‘metrics’ these days, they instantly assume you’re providing some sort of analytics service.

[Semi-interesting aside: I registered the company on May 20, 2010. Turns out that May 20 is, in fact, World Metrology Day – a day specifically celebrating the measuring of things. Who knew?]

After I decided to go with it, I also remembered that “metre” is an important aspect of poetics. According to Dictionary.com:

the rhythmic arrangement of syllables in verse, usually according to the number and kind of feet in a line

That fits pretty well with the level progression aspect, particularly in terms of introducing elements and pacing play. I might describe Plants vs Zombies as having excellent metre, for example, were it not for the fact that statement is essentially useless until there’s language around describing pacing. Perhaps, borrowing from musical tempo, I would use Andante (walking pace)? Perhaps not.

But here’s the thing: metrics in any form are no substitute for product vision. Metre can inform structure, data can provide clues on where to go next, but neither should be the starting point. They’re tools we can use to inform what it is we’re meant to be doing.

But what we’re meant to be doing is bringing fun to the world.

We’re Not Famous Any More

Something disturbing happened at Casual Connect in Seattle. I had a conversation that went along the lines of:

Me: I’m from Ludometrics, we’re based in Scotland.

Other: Scotland, cool, Is there much of a games industry there, then?

If it had been a one-off, I might have brushed it off. But it wasn’t – it happened at least twice a day for the three days of the conference. When I mentioned GTA, there was some vague recognition from some people that they’d heard it was made in Scotland, once, somewhere, a while ago. And really, aside from GTA, what else is there you can mention?

Me (looking into camera): Uh-oh.

You may say that Casual Connect was the wrong conference to talk about that, given the legacy of Lemmings, Crackdown and GTA. APB hasn’t been doing too badly either. The problem with that, though, is that virtually every company in Scotland is now working on mobile or social games – pretty much what the whole conference was centred around.

You may say it doesn’t matter, nobody really cares where the games are made. That may be true on some level, but on another level – attracting (or even just retaining) talent to the country to help make those games is a fairly critical part of having an “industry”.

I’ve written about this before (in The Scale of the Problem), where I lament the lack of famous games in attracting outsiders. But if other people in the industry don’t realise we have a games industry here, we’re in trouble my friends. I don’t want to work in the Scottish games cottage industry.

So what to do? Making games that make money (as opposed to making money by making games) would be a good start. Talking about them, getting other people talking about them and telling people where they’re made would also be good ideas.

Telling people where they’re made sounds simple enough. Inspired by “Made in New York”, I’ve created a new site which is called (amazingly), “Made in Scotland”. If you’re making games (or any sort of tech) in Scotland, please go there and add your company to the list (it’s a simple form). Include the simple phrase “Made in Scotland” on your credits or options screen. People who want to or do work in games look at these screens. They’ll see it. It seems like a small thing, but small things matter. And it’s helped well enough for the tech scene in New York, so why not for Scotland?

Casual Connect 2012 and Selfish Creativity

Last week I attended Casual Connect 2012 in Seattle, where I was also speaking (slides at the end) about what I call Selfish Creativity. There was an IGDA summit on as well, although unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend that. Thomas Bidaux of ICO has a great write up on it, though, and he sums up my thoughts on the Casual Connect conference itself:

It was massively biased towards user acquisition solutions and monetisation services. It makes a lot of sense as it makes the most sense for B2B companies to be exhibiting at this kind of events, but it definetely fed into the impression it is all about numbers and gaming the poor discoverability of the different ecosystems.

This ties in with the one word I keep using to describe my overall feeling of the event: ‘frothy’. In other words, lots of activity on the surface, but no real structural integrity or substance. There are only so many ‘payment solutions’ you can use, surely?

I was asked what I’d learned from the conference. Moreso than ever, it was “Nobody Knows Anything”. Everyone contradicts everyone else with advice on what to do, what works on what platforms, and so on. There were a handful of good talks (there always are), notably the two from SpryFox and one from Wooga.

As promised, here are the slides from my presentation, “Selfish Creativity; Or, Can Making The Game You Want To Play Lead To Success”. It seemed to be well received by the creators in the audience, which is largely who it was aimed at. (Everything was filmed, so the video should be online by the end of August I think.)

It’s a games oriented extension of a talk I originally gave at ScotSoft 2010 (run by ScotlandIS). I’ve found examples of it all over the place (not just in art, but also in clothing, restaurants, domestic appliances, and so on). Independently, the same idea was included as point 3 in Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like An Artist” list, and was also the topic of a 5-minute talk Brandon Sheffield (editor of Game Developer magazine) gave at GDC earlier this year called “Make Games For Yourself” (again, unknown to me). It just proves the point really, which is that we’re not so unique that other people won’t want what we want.

TL;DR: The biggest, bestest, break-outiest things are often made by people who want the things they’re making.

This Week I’ve Been Reading

Just a selection of choice quotes from things I’ve been reading this week:

Given the choice, I would prefer not to compete head-on with these people. If you know about the new platform opportunity, so does everyone else. If you think you can make a splash in a new marketplace, so does everyone else. Why would you want to risk entering that free-for-all when a calmer, quieter, already proven opportunity sits begging for fresh talent?

For the first time in the history of mass media, we can entertain huge audiences without first bombarding them with advertisements for sugar water and corn flakes and without making them pirates.

Quality doesn’t just magically rise to the surface, and Apple can only recommend so many titles.

Why not forget the labels and concentrate on making games? Focus on making something genuinely enjoyable.

Switching Costs in Games

In this world of “multiplayer games as a service”, I see lots of chat about the power of network effects but little about switching costs. Investopedia defines switching costs as so:

The negative costs that a consumer incurs as a result of changing suppliers, brands or products. Although most prevalent switching costs are monetary in nature, there are also psychological, effort- and time-based switching costs.

In other words, there’s a cost (usually non-monetary) involved in switching from one game with friends to another game of the same type with friends. In fact, this cost rockets when your new game is of the same type – I don’t mean just in the same genre, but of games where the differences are not immediately apparent. The problem with the adage “never judge a book by its cover” is that people inevitably do judge things from a quick glance. So if your game looks quite a lot like Scrabble or Hangman, for example, then people will assume that it is quite a lot like Scrabble or Hangman, and stick with the game they already have that looks quite a lot like (or possibly is) Scrabble or Hangman.

Even if you can get a few people to check your game out, you’re then likely to suffer from the downside of network effects. Normally, network effects, where a service becomes more valuable the more people use it, are viewed as a positive. The downside of attempting to build something that relies on this, however, is that if there’s no one there to play against, no one will hang around waiting for others to show up. That clearly poses problems in building momentum for your game.

None of which is to say your game can’t make that breakthrough against a well-established competitor, but it’s going to have to work incredibly hard (and might take a long time) to do so.