Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

27 July, 2010

Two kinds of fools
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:04 PM

A quote I particularly like is attributed to William R. Inge: There are two kinds of fools: One says, “This is old therefore it is good.” The other one says, “This is new therefore it is better.”

I can’t help but think about this quote often in the game industry as new fashions are introduced. There tend to be two camps: one that clings to the old ways while fearing the new, and one that rushes to the new claiming it will wipe away the old. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between, but the game industry sure does like its extremes.

So, with this in mind, I want to take a look at social games and metrics-based game design, two more recent fashions to hit the game industry.

This look was inspired by an article by Erin Hoffman on The Escapist entitled, “How Social Games Ate Our Lunch”. She rightfully points out that the industry has a habit of ignoring things that don’t originate within the industry itself. We’ve seen this many times: traditional developers thought MMO games were a fad. Western MMO developers ignored Asian MMOs because they couldn’t be measured in the same way. And, yes, many game developers ignored social games and wrote them off, too.

(A digression: it also cuts the other way, however, as the game industry also picks up on some poor choices. For example, how many terrible FMV games were released in the 1990s? for something more modern, does anyone think 3D gaming is going to have staying power? Personally, I doubt it; I accept that I may be hoisted by my own petard in the future….)

The problem is that Erin’s article then goes into the other realm of foolishness, where the new has to be better. (Now, I’ve met Erin in person at a few conferences and know she’s a smart game designer, so I expect that some of this is exaggeration to draw attention to the problem from people who are still too dense to notice the change. Or, perhaps to draw interest in hiring her services for lucrative social gaming companies. ;) Her article is a breathless exultation of the virtues of social gaming and one game design change it has made higher profile: metric-based game design.

Now, I’ve written about “social games” before. My current assessment is that this is mostly just the continuation of trends we’ve seen before, not some kind of completely new and unexpected form of gameplay, which is why I said that social games are mostly “hot air” at this point. The real innovation here has been the medium of delivery: social networks. The ability to spam…. I mean, offer nice gifts to your friends, has encouraged people to play these games. And, I suspect Erin is right, in that these games have helped some people reconnect, giving them a reason to chat with each other about something other than the banalities of daily life or the local weather. I’m not sure, since social networks don’t do it for me, so I haven’t been very “social” when trying out “social games”. Ultimately, I’m not sure that “social games” will survive what the social networks are trying to do to the games. As I wrote in my previous article, the nature of publishers is to squeeze the margins for themselves and make themselves the gatekeepers of to the audience; it’s the same thing we saw with portals and casual games and there’s no reason we won’t see the same thing with social networks and the way they treat social games. So, eventually, the unbound creativity and newness of the experience will wear off, giant corporations will just acquire large companies who acquired smaller companies, and the same old system will be in force. (But, hey, congrats to all the people I know who had the foresight and commitment to profit from “social games” so far!)

But, let’s look at the other element covered in the article: metrics-based design. This is something that MMO developers have been doing for a while, but it’s come to greater attention since Zynga started championing it as part of their design process. There was some backlash. Erin dismisses the critics as people who are only looking out for the job security, those who believe that humans are still important to the design process. Well, sure, nobody enjoys automation that pushes them out of their job. But, is there more to it?

Let’s take a little test. There are two design options presented to you with some metrics. Which do you choose?

Option A: Players spend an average of $3 per month.
Option B: Players spend an average of $4 per month.

If you said either, you’re wrong, because you don’t know the whole story. What if option A increases player retention by 30%? What if implementing option B on a wider scale would cause a major PR problem? One problem with metrics is that it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you have enough information when you don’t. Not to say that game designers are infallible and always right, especially when they work on “gut feeling” instead of data, but sometimes they can see flaws that your collected data may not demonstrate immediately. At worst, it can lead to some wrong-headed thinking; As reported by Soren Johnson:

Zynga’s Mark Skaggs, formerly of EA, praised metrics as the answer to most game design problems. Much has been made about their discovery that pink was the best color for advertising Zynga’s other games, but the telling point was when Skaggs said that “if a player repeats something, it’s fun.”

(Any MMO designer or player can debunk that last statement easily enough.)

The other question is: what is the ultimate purpose of collecting metrics? The trend recently has been to focus on generating income, of course, as that’s how you keep the investment money flowing. Now, I’m not exactly an anti-capitalist and I did help write a book about business issues in the game industry, but I’d like to think there’s more to games than extracting the maximum amount of money out of players. (This likely explains why I’m rapidly approaching middle age with no retirement savings, of course.) There’s the element of fun that can be important for games. And, while we can try to quantify fun in different ways, I’m not sure that counting clicks is necessarily the most effective way of measuring if a player is having fun. Not to say that you shouldn’t create metrics, but keep in mind what the limitations are. I worry that the goal has been merely to get the games to become habit-forming rather than really providing a great experience for the player.

Let me share a bit of Babylon 5 to demonstrate the problem with metrics. (Special thanks to Sara Pickell for reminding me of this scene.)

In other words, be careful not to confuse the tools you use to search for fun for what creates the fun.

What do you think? Are social games the bright new star that people are overlooking? Are they the doom of the game industry? Or are they just a different expression of games on a new platform? What about metrics? Bane, boon, or just another tool?

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  1. Or are they just a different expression of games on a new platform?

    I did tried to find some games on Facebook and all I seem able to find are clones of Cow Clicker. Well ok this one came after but still. I see clickers, spam traps, cute graphics but not sure about games. Or too be fair I think I should say there is one game on Facebook. One game with various names (I’m sure there is 1 or 2 exception out there but bah …).

    The perfect MMO player’s rant about any new MMO is to say that this new MMO is just a clone of this old MMO and it’s indeed often true. I’m surprised we don’t hear that more about “social games”.

    My problem is that the platform is defining what kind of games “must” be built instead of being a tool to allow games to be discovered. The day this platform disappears then all those games will most likely also disappear. The same can be said of other platforms but the social platform seems to be even more restrictive as it doesn’t seem to have stolen players from other platforms but instead brought a new kind of player to milk… eh to please.

    We will see more games trying to incorporate more social aspects in them ( anyone?) as there is something in there to help those games (I guess) but “social games” won’t take over. People are just observing what is good and what is bad and will try to take the good and apply it to their own products (and not create new products designed for such a restrictive platform).

    Just like we see more and more MMOs going F2P. People have been observing this for some time, waited to see what was good and what should be improved and now the big players here are making a move. We can’t really say though that all of these MMOs going the F2P route have now become clones of those asian MMOs we used to know as “pay for that big sword that will kill everyone”.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 27 July, 2010 @ 7:44 PM

  2. For fifteen years, every group I’ve seen adopt metrics has had their incentives perverted by them. Mediocrity follows (with good metrics!).

    Comment by Scot B. — 27 July, 2010 @ 7:47 PM

  3. Put me down for “different expression on a new platform,” although “new platform” is not exactly correct. I vividly remember meeting people through playing Hearts with them on The Sierra Network back in 1991. (set GeezerMode=true)

    There are at least two big differences between TSN and Facebook, though. One is the integration of today’s social networks with all kinds of Web-ish technologies. The other is the one or two orders of magnitude more people using today’s socialnets. Both of these combine to dramatically increase the amount of social interaction that’s theoretically possible…

    …and yet, people still just want to play something like Hearts with their limited number of real-world friends. The potential of thousands of social links makes biz-tech types salivate, but it’s an illusion — Dunbar’s number still applies, and the vast majority of people have far, far fewer than 150 people marked as “friends” in their online networks.

    If that’s true, then the real win will come not from apps that try to exploit (or generate) virality from thousands of weak social links, but from apps that themselves spread virally because they entertainingly reference the existing strong links between friends. In the Darwinian environment of socialnets, it’s my belief that apps that consistently make it pleasurable to lightly interact with friends on a personal level will survive while the parasitical, just-in-it-for-the-money Cow Clicker apps go extinct.

    We’ll see.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 27 July, 2010 @ 11:08 PM

  4. Bonus points for bringing G’Kar into any discussion.

    The usefulness of metrics of any sort in software development boil down to some form of A/B testing. Run a test, make a change, run a test again – then compare the results. If they “improve” with the change, maybe it’s worth running with it.

    I’m stating the obvious; the point is – well, there are many points… but let’s ignore most of them and focus on one: “fun” isn’t easily quantified. Metrics … well, the name says it all, they deal with measurable things.

    So using metrics might be a great way to identify and remove annoyances that prevent people from finding fun, but that’s not exactly the same as generating fun. The term “metrics-based design” only makes sense to me when applied to UX design, not game design.

    Comment by unwesen — 28 July, 2010 @ 12:05 AM

  5. Might I also suggest, tangentially, that chasing trends is a fool’s errand? It’s never the way to significant, lasting success, and neither is riding a trend into the ground. It’s as true in “investing” as it is in actual productive work. Sure, you can make a living cloning popular or good stuff, but you’re always playing catch up, and never in control, and the tides can shift during your dev cycle, killing your momentum.

    It’s better to *create* trends, or at least, be on the very front of the wave. The earlier you can see a wave coming and position yourself to ride it, the better.

    Comment by Tesh — 28 July, 2010 @ 10:48 AM

  6. One might expect that the weakness of using short-term metrics is in the ability to affect long term behavior. And indeed, retention on Facebook games is generally dismal.

    Comment by Matt — 28 July, 2010 @ 4:06 PM

  7. Heh! The everlasting chase for that magic “great game formula”, the secret is that it doesn’t really exist.

    But this tip gets you partly there:

    Get rid of any flaws, as anything that irritates or annoys a player will drag their opinion of the game down, regardless how good it is.
    A good game or a great game is when a player is asked what things they didn’t like about a game, and is unable to think of anything negative to say. You obviously can not please everyone, but if only 1 out of 100 reviews are negative, then you probably did a good job (assuming the reviewers was objective or openly subjective).

    After all, it is easier to point out negative things than positive thing. Because if it was easy to point out positive things then everyone would make and play only great games, right?

    Comment by Roger Hågensen — 29 July, 2010 @ 2:27 PM

  8. I totally agree that trying to measure these things is pointless because we can’t just reduce our lives to one big set of metrics for us to analyse and disect. Unfortunately companies forget that human beings are intelligent, complicated and fickle creatures and that we don’t act according to rules and formulas. I think games – whatever form they may take, MMO, social, Facebook etc – are popular because they have ‘soul’ and those utterly unmeasurable qualities that make them ‘good’ and ‘fun’.

    We see this sort of thing a lot in Hollywood. Someone makes a comic book films and it flops so everyone assumes that the public don’t like comic book films. 10 years go by until someone takes a punt and makes a really great comic book film. It sells tremendously well and suddenly studio executives think that the public love comic book films so they start to churn out anything and everything. Eventually a couple of comic book films flop because they just plain suck so no new comic book films get made because the companies just assume the fad as passed. At no point do they consider that people just like seeing ‘good’ films :)

    I believe in the old principle that quality matters and if a product is genuinue good then it will do well no matter the media.

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 1 August, 2010 @ 6:03 AM

  9. There is a lot of hyperbole on all sides of the social games topic. To me, as a one-man game making machine (ie, tiny by any measure), most of what is said about social games is utterly irrelevant. If Zynga zyngs, should I zag? (Whee!) Probably not, because I’m not in the same league as them. I try to look at what is most interesting from my own context, as an indie game developer who can really get somewhere with social network distribution at my disposal.

    As you said, Brian, the network is the real point of interest for social games (and as Facebook opens up more, that will apply to the wider web–a good thing, so we can get/stay out of the grip of those gate keepers). Lots of the “top” games (measured in terms of player count, not necessarily revenue relative to costs) are casual and banal to the max. But there are quite a few small and medium sized developers making good/great money. Just, nobody talks about them because they don’t have $5 billion valuations.

    Metrics for design? Pfft! Metrics are for analysis, not synthesis! You measure to refine. This is yet more hyperbole and lots of people take it without any thought and find themselves bankrupt (a friend of mine used to work at a company where that happened; they’re gone now). “Clone and measure” seems to be the mantra for those who want to be Zynga. But, for me, I can’t be bothered to pay attention (much less apply) when all of my problems and goals are very different from a company with 700 employees.

    You can’t automate design of any sort.

    Off topic: I love how, in the the video clip, nobody was satisfied until he boiled the answers down to soundbite abstractions. Oh, the world is a funny place.

    Comment by Jason McIntosh — 5 August, 2010 @ 6:35 PM

  10. There are three types of fun: The joy of discovery, The sense of accomplishment, and Interaction with others. An accurate set of metrics should measure the three separately.

    Comment by AB — 5 August, 2010 @ 7:14 PM

  11. Brenda Brathwaite and Laralyn McWilliams gave an interesting talk at GDC this year about metrics:

    The summary is that metrics tell you what, but not why. You still need a designer to guide the design, then metrics to tweak and adjust.

    As I said in the article, this is what MMOs have been doing for a while now. It’s not rocket science.

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 March, 2011 @ 10:35 AM

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