Qualities of Virtual Goods PDF Download

I’ve gotten a lot of requests to release the slides from the Qualities of Virtual Goods presentation that Volker and I held at the Browsergames Forum 2010. So now that I’ve cleaned up the slides some I can make the available as a handy PDF download:

The article is released for personal use only and it’s copyrighted by Gameforge Productions GmbH. The exception are the images licensed under Creative Commons and clearly attributed. If you have questions, need further information or plan to use the presentation for anything other than personal use, please get in touch with me.

“Qualities of Virtual Goods” @bgf2010

Just got back from the Browsergames Forum 2010 and it seems like the presentation from Volker and me was a success:

We’ve had a packed room, even though it was too hard to find and not really in the schedule. The talk itself went really good, even though the handheld microphone was a bit of a bother. And then after the talk we got lot of positive feedback from the audience, through twitter and all through the rest of the forum. I’ve even had someone compliment me on the talk in the men’s room.

Right on.

As for the talk: I’ll be putting the slides up shortly. We’ll have to adjust a few things first. Watch this space for the download coming sometime in the next few days.

Browsergames Forum Talk (+ more GDC)

The Browsergames Forum in Frankfurt, Germany will be in a few weeks (on November 5th adn 6th to be precise) and I’ll be there with a short talk on the topic of monetization. I’ll be speaking with my MMO colleague Volker Boenigk and the title of our talk is “Qualities of Virtual Goods”. It’ll run for about 25 minutes and you will be able to catch us on Saturday, the 6th November at 10:30. I’ll use the opportunity to take one of the segments of my planned GDC 2011 talk and present it to an audience. To give you an idea of what we’ll be talking about, take a look at the abstract I’ve sent in to the conference organizers.

This talk will present the audience with a system of attributes that most Virtual Goods possess. The chosen properties are primarily responsible for the users’ perceived value of an item and can directly be affected by the game design and visuals. Knowing about this system and the attributes is the first step in systematically improving the value of your items and overall repository of premium services.

By examining how this system applies to our daily business at Gameforge we will give some practical advice on real world application. To top off the talk, we will be using the developed properties as a foundation for some tricks and methods to improve the monetization of your own free-to-play game.

And having mentioned the Game Developers Conference talk above here’s a small update on that topic: Unfortunately my submission for the Main Conference was declined (*sad face*). However I’ve resubmit my proposal for the Social & Online Games Summit and I’m hoping that there’ll be some room for me in there. (*happy face*) Wish me luck.

GDC2010: Day 1

So, the official part of Day 1 is over. I’ve spent most of the day listening to the various lectures of the Social and Online Games Summit. Roughly half of them have been very good and interesting, the other half was so-so.

Indies and Publishers: Fixing a System That Never Worked
I actually spent the first 20 minutes or so in this Indie Games Summit lecture. Ron Carmel of 2d Boy (World of Goo) was speaking and since I was so fascinated of his opening talk last year, I decided to give this one a try.

Unfortunately the talk didn’t do anything for me. Ron simply presented the traditional publishing model and contrasted it with indie development. Then to fix the problems of Indie Development (lack of funding) he presented the recently announced Indie Fund.

While I love the idea and concept of the Indie Fund, the lecture just seemed like an ad for the fund, which was a sort of turn off for me. I got up and left during the Q&A session.

How Friends Change Everything
I then went over to this keynote lecture by Gareth Davis of Facebook who talked about the platform and it’s relevance for gaming. Even though I missed the first half of it I still enjoyed it. Unfortunately I have made no notes but I’m sure it’ll be well covered by the blogosphere. Either way, the lecture was interesting, even if far from groundbreaking. Still nice to get a look behind the scenes at the monolith that is Facebook.

What Virtual Worlds Can Learn From Social Games
Next up was this lecture. The first one actually held by designer: Sulka Haro of Sulake, the makers of Habbo Hotel.

There were some interesting tidbits there, such as using the six different playstyles as defined by Mildred Parten to look at Social Games. This makes it clear that Social Games as we currently know them are mostly about the parallel play. People can’t really play with each other, instead they play “next to each other”.

Another thing was that the speed and responsiveness of an application can have a tremendous impact on retention and conversion rates. Habbo started out as a Shockwave plugin that was eventually moved to Flash for the much larger install base (98% vs 40%). This also sped up the performance of the app and led to +7% retention rate and +5% user conversion. Somewhat surprising that this has such an impact.

Sulka also talked about the advantages of the Facebook platform. An obvious one that nevertheless never crossed my mind is that there is no risk to lose users to forgotten user/pass data. How often do you just create an account out of impulse and then you forget which login data you used? Propably happens more often to your potential users than you’d think.

The last thing I want to point out was a little bit about the “placeness” of social games: In many games it doesn’t seem to be necessary. FarmVille has a game space but it’s not really used by the game. All that happens is the avatar walking around – and even that is best prevented by the players. There isn’t really a lot of justification to have such a game space. I kinda liked that statement because I am pretty much of the same opinion.

Why Are Gaming Veterans Flocking To Social Gaming
This roundtable was moderated by Noah Falstein (The Inspiracy) with Brian Reynolds, Brenda Brathwaite and Steve Meretzky speaking.

The four were talking on the topic and it was interesting to listen to them talk. All of them were attracted to the Social Game space by shorter development cycles, smaller teams and a sort of “pioneer spirit” as I’d call it.

Aside from that it was a great panel but not really something where I took a lot of notes. The only point I did write down was the argument about complexity: Will Social Games become more complex?

What was interesting about the answers was that there was a solid 50/50 divide. Two interesting arguments in this old debate that I want to repeat were: To keep gamers interested the game has to produce new content, sometimes in the form of new game mechanics. This layering will undoubtedly make games more complex. The other side of this is that the more complex these games get, the harder it is for them to lure new players in since there’s too much stuff to know and handle.

What Social Games Can Learn From Virtual Worlds
This lecture was held by Michael Goslin of Hangout Industries and definitely one of my favorites of the day. The talk was focused on the two key things that VWs/MMOs do better than Social Games: User retention and monetization.

According to Michael, retention is based on the following factors:

  • Player investment in the world
  • Deep content
  • Fresh content
  • Service
  • Concurrency (People playing simultaneously)
  • Community

He then elaborated on these points. I don’t have notes on this but I’ve taken pictures of each of these slides. I hope most of it is self explanatory:

Succeeding with Licensed Brands in MMOs and Virtual Worlds
This was the last talk of the day. Another roundtable, this time led by N’Gai Croal. Four licensors/licensees talked about their experiences with developing a licensed game.

The panel was alright, although a little generic at times. The key ideas though were: The approval process of the Licensor is generally in contrast with the need for constant, timely updates to keep the game fresh.

MMOs are services and monetized over a longer period of time. To have paying users, you need to retain them, which requires a quality experience. This is often at odds with the fixed deadlines as they are common in IP-based game development: Movie Games need to be finished and released by the time the movie hits the theaters.

So that was it for my first day. I’ll hopefully tell you all more tomorrow.

The three Qualities of Level Design

In this post I’ll talk a bit about the goals and requirements of good level design. This thing has grown out of my architecture degree and the numerous lectures I held on the subject of level design – especially those with architects-in-training as their audience. So if you’ve sat in on one of them, this will propably be familiar.

So before I get into level design, I’ll first have to talk a bit about architecture. Thousands of years ago, the roman architect Vitruvius identified what he called the three “qualities of architecture”. They are as follows:

  • Firmitas, stability. The building stands stable on it’s own
  • Utilitas, usability. The spaces created by the building are suited for their intended use
  • Venustas, beauty. This building has a beautiful aesthetic

The 3 Qualities of Architecture

They do make sense, right? Admittedly categorizing things is often arbitrary and can be argued for or against but I kinda liked that setup, where each layer is building on one another. If your building isn’t standing safely, it doesn’t matter much if your kitches is perfectly laid out. And if your doors are too small for people to get in properly, then it doesn’t help that the aesthetics are wonderful – the building itself is still a failure.

Now I tried transporting this divide over to level design, and this is what I got:

  • Firmitas, stability. The level runs well without any technical or performance issues
  • Utilitas, usability. The space does a good job at leveraging the game mechanics
  • Venustas, beauty. The environment creates an atmosphere and provides affordances.

The 3 Qualities of Level Design

I’ll elaborate a bit on these three qualities and how I think they relate to level design as a discipline:

As mentioned before, this is a pretty basic category. A sort of minimum requirement if you will. If a level fails to fulfill it, it ceases to be properly playable due to technical issues. The two main areas here are stability and performance.

Stability as I see it refers to the level not crashing and breaking the game. Nowadays it’s usually quite hard to do that with a level itself since most engines are quite robust. It could be doable though with the level referencing a file that doesn’t exist or something similar. Also if there’s some sort of level script then that might be another source of errors. Of course if such a crash is very very rare it might not affect playability too much because it’s really hard to cause it. Still it’s a flaw in the “foundation” of the level. This can be avoided by working cleanly and paying a lot of attention. It might still creep in but that’s what the QA is for…

Performance is the other side and means that the level is running properly. Again this has become a bit less of an issue with higher end systems but it basically just means that your level doesn’t suffer from stuttering and frame-rate drops. In small amounts this can still be bearable but if your multiplayer level slows down to a crawl because there’s 6 players and 2 explosions, then you’ve done something wrong. This is often at odds with the graphics of a environment – the more detail you have the more your performance will drop. In the end it comes down to a balance between the two. And of course there’s a lot of clever tricks and thught out optimization involved. Everything from detail brushes to visportals and distance fog/culling. Whatever will do the trick.

This aspect of level design deals with the design of the actual play space. That is to say it defines the space within the player moves. I’ve talked (or at least tried to) about my definition of the digital play space some in my last (somewhat controversial) rant about how level design is game design. I’m afraid I failed somewhat since there were a lot of misunderstandings there – but I’ll try again sometime, maybe visually. Alright, slightly off course here, Let’s get back on track.

Utilitas defines the boundaries within which the player(s) move(s). It directs the flow of play and it’s job is to iteract closely with the game design to provide the intended experience (which doesn’t neccessarily have to be “fun”). It’s worth to note that these spatial constraints are what make the game possible and if they are changed, the possible experience is too.

The details of what Utilitas actually entails are too many to mention. This surely would be a great project quite similar to the 400 Project from Noah Falstein and co. but goes beyond the scope of this article, especially as these are highly dependent on the genre and game design involved.

These goals can range from anywhere between controlling the flow of players within the space to providing obstacles and challenges for the player to overcome.

The words original meaning and the quality as it relates to architecture refers to beauty. That is to say that buildings are supposed to be pleasant to look at. This makes a lot of sense if you consider the fact that buildings are quite permanent construct and having a disgusting building in the middle of town could be considered visual terrorism for some sensible eyes. Of course back then Vitruv didn’t know or write about theme parks and other types of experiential architecture. There being “ugly” can sometimes be goal.

And the same’s true for levels. They don’t need to be beautiful, instead their goal is to evoke a mood, an atmosphere. So following that tenet, everything that relates to the creation of mood and visual references is part of this category.

Admittedly there’s some overlap with Utilitas since the visuals affect usuability. For example when putting moody lighting in a scene the designer needs to take care that the important areas are still visible. Or when trying to use visuals to steer the player. That said, for the sake of easier categorization it’s safe to put everything that doesn’t affect the space (textures, light etc.) directly into this category.

Besides mood and atmosphere, there’s a few other jobs that the audiovisuals of a level can do. A quite important (and easily overlooked) one is that they can create associations. Familar visuals can cause certaun expectations in the player and they establish a frame of reference. If there’s a castle on a hill, odds are that there are going to be guards and that there’s something worth guarding there. Expecting some sort of ruling body there wouldn’t be too far fetched either. Of if there’s a door it might suggest that it can be opened. All of this are helpful cues to help the player figure out what he can do.

Additionally the audiovisual elements can help tell a story. Both in the larger sense of selling the setting (castles for traditional fantasy, spaceports for science fiction) and in smaller instances of telling small stories within the world. The entire topic of spatial storytelling is actually a fascinating one that I plan to write another article on in the near future.

So that’s it. That’s my rundown of the three Qualities. Now what do you guys think? Is that a sensible system to categorize and analyze by?

Immersion vs. Flow?

I’ve just watched a lecture from Clint Hocking (thanks for the link, Beren) about the changing demographics and generations and their impact on the Game Design Industry, as developers, critics and of course audience shift. Clint takes a long time to build up to his important points but it shows an interesting perspective on the different trends of game design and well worth the hour it runs. It again features Clint’s rapid-fire style I’ve already seen at the GDC microtalks. Since I recommend it. why don’t you check it out right now?

IGDA-Montreal – Feb 09: Clint Hocking – The Next Generation Player

(Slides are available from Clint’s Website)

However while I enjoyed the lecture, I want to write about an aspect only partially related to the talk. At the very end of it Clint presents what he perecives to be one (of two) critical questions of Game Design: Immersion. The problem he says is that Generation X games focus on full-time, single-player immersion (something he exhaustively explored with Far Cry 2), while Generation Y games would propably have to shift the immersion model to accomodate a more multiplayer oriented, bite-size immersion. This made some of my brain cells fire.

Taking a look at the Generation X immersion, it seems to me that it’s aspriring to emulate the story-focused immersion model as is used by movies. In the cinema you sit down to experience a linear, uninterrupted experience. Sicne this is a passive media it makes it easy to just absorb and become immersed. Afterwards you mingle with the other moviegoers and discuss what you personally took away from the experience. The Generation X immersion focused, story heavy, single-player games tried to do the same. They create a nonstop reality to engage in and once you’re over you can discuss you personal experience with other players, arguing about different viewpoints and interpretations. This seems to be a somewhat flawed approach, because contrary to the movie experience, games are not a passive medium.

The difference is that the player can directly act and change the outcome of the game. There is this abstract layer of game elements that’s between the player and the game world, which regularly forces the player’s mindset into a different space than that of the story. This is propably because there are two forces at work:

There is the story based immersion into the narrative, plot and setting.
And there is flow, the immersion into the game mechanics.

While I’m not sure where I’m going with this, I found this to be an interesting observation. It’s clear that there are games that focus only on one of these feelings. For example many of the games from thatgamecompany such as the eponymous flOw or flOwer focus on the sensual immersion into the flow of the game’s rules, the moment to moment interaction. Other games try to focus more on the narrative immersion, trying to hide the game elements as much as possible. This however seems to be somewhat of a futile effort. Regardless of how much you hide the interactive elements, the player still has direct contact with them, since they are his interface. This is propably the reason why flow-only games (Tetris, Lumines, Peggle) without a detailed narrative pull in the player much deeper than games focusing much more on the immersion. There propably is a good middle ground here, where your game flow is intriguing and in sync with your narrative immersion.

Tactical Architecture at Calpoly

More than a month ago, when it was clear that I was coming to California for a few weeks I got back into touch with a few people from here to see whom I could meet. Among these people was Tom Fowler IV, a professor for Architecture at Calpoly, with whom I was working during my stay there in 05/06.

He asked me if I wanted to hold a lecture about Architecture and Level Design. Of course I jumped at the opportunity and started to think about possible topics. Since most students were from the Architecture department and had little to no previous experience to making games I decided to just go over the very basics, explaining what game and level design is and what it’s goals are.

The lecture went well even though I was finished a bit too early and should have prepared some more in depth material. I was glad to see that there was lots of interest though since the (small) room was pretty much filled. I’m guessing 40 to 50 people.

Anyway, since the subject I spoke on is an interesting one I thought I’d like to try and write up a proper article for this blog sometime after I get back to Germany…