I usually consider Wednesday to be the first day of GDC, so we'll call today the day before the first day.
Premium to Freemium: Pivoting Monetization Method for Best-Selling Apps
Paul O'Connor of Appy entertainment talked about how they "pivoted" (that's a business-speak way of changing course on something) their business from selling premium apps (as in, pay $X to get the app) tofreemium apps (as in, pay $0 to get the game, but you have many chances to buy stuff inside the game).
Paul opened with what to me amounted to an apology for all this freemium stuff. He quoted a famous investor guy who made millions shorting stocks during the US's Great Depression of the 1920s. The quote is "Markets are never wrong. Opinions can be wrong." Paul's reasoning is that because the market has spoken and very cleary shown that freemium makes more money, then it's what we all should do. This is an interesting and terrible argument. On the one hand, it's a playing-to-win argument, but playing to win applied to real life situations has the problem of the real life situation not having a defined goal. Certainly the goal of life is not to make the most money (if it were, his reasoning would be ok), but such a goal would have us conclude that selling cocaine is what we should all be doing because the market has spoken. People really like cocaine. Yeah it's hard to sell here, but maybe we could invest in offshore cocaine selling, etc.
I found the entire apology mysterious because I was probably more likely than most people to be critical of whatever he was going to say next, but actually he never really said anything that controversial, or even that specific, so it's not like any apology was really needed.
Anyway, the possibly more relevant point here is that Paul is telling us that there is no debate on this freemium thing--that ship has sailed. He showed stats of how 75%+ of iOS apps are making their money that way, so your choices are do it or be irrelevant. Much of the GDC echoed this same idea. It's freemium or die. The people saying this (including Paul) further note that it's possibly the best time ever to be making games so far in the history of games because the access developer's have to digital distribution + the freemium model means success is more attainable than ever.
Paul told us how Appy Entertainment switched over the game Trucks and Skulls to a freemium model. They did this by doing a major update to their game, rather than releasing a new game. They wanted to keep the momentum, player base, and app store ranking. They were also very cautious about keeping their existing players happy. So this switch involved taking nothing away from players who had already bought the game, it just added more new stuff that could be bought with coins (new in-game currency) and new ways to grind for coins.
He said that in figuring out which activities should give coins, that it's best to tie it to stuff that players want to do anyway. For example, they already want to compete on leaderboards and their game already rates your performance up to 4 stars on every level, and players already want to try to get the highest rating on each of the 100+ levels. I thought it was an interesting distinction in that you (the developer) also want to tie rewards to things YOU want, like things that help the game overall. But anyway he emphasized only thinking about giving coins for what players want. Also, after this switchover, all players got just a few coins for free, to encourage them to try using the store.
He didn't really touch on whether you can by in-game advantages, but my guess is yes and that that ruins Trucks and Skulls as a competitive game, but I don't know, it wasn't really stated. You can definitely buy more trucks though, which seems fine.
The craziest thing Paul told us is that zero players complained about this switchover to freemium after the fact. He was very worried about this, but says the new version was actually a better game. He expected it to be not really better, just to make more money, but said that the rewards system with coins made it a more intense experience that got people even more involved. He said he personally checks all their facebook/twitter/etc ties to the community, so he would know about any complaints and that there were LITERALLY ZERO people who complained. The problem with this story is that that is completely impossible. I hope it's self-evidently impossible to make any change in a game and have literally zero people complain. I mean seriously, what? Anyway yeah, freemium is loved by all, and their revenue increased dramatically. Number of downloads were 9x, and revenue 5x.
Paul says one mistake they made was not having any expendable items. A freemium model really needs a nearly unlimited cap on how much someone CAN spend if they really like the game, but Trucks and Skulls is capped at the relatively low cost of someone buying every truck/item they have. So lack of expendable items is considered a serious fuckup in the freemium world, as would be mentioned later in the day by other speakers. Remember, freemium or die is the theme.
Like Herding LOLcats: Managing the Internet's Most Unruly Gaming Communities
Mike Drach is the head writer at forumwarz.com, a site that lets you role play what it's like to troll people in forums. You create a character from the classes of: Cam Whore, Emo, Perpetual NooB, Troll, or Hacker. Troll is, of course, the most common class at 47%. NooB is the least popular at 1%. His game has created an incredibly hostile community that his company has to figure out how to moderate.
I don't have much useful stuff to say here. I mean he told us to sometimes ban people, but sometimes don't and try to engage them more, and sometimes hellban them. And to have mods, and make sure they are in different time zones so someone is always there. He said when people troll you (the developer), to probably ignore it, don't give them the satisfaction of responding, or to try to post nice things back. He also told horrible stories of extreme harassment against him personally that cross the line into illegal, but I'll leave those out. This session unfortunately didn't have enough interesting advice, in my opinion.
Clones: Advancing the Discussion
Two indie guys from Vlambeer talked about the recent trend of cloning game designs and how terrible it is. To be clear, they are talking about EXACT copies of a game design. I think the most interesting point they made was that if you took Doom and Duke Nuke'Em, then took all the art assets in one and used them in the other one (so now they are both using exactly the same art) that the two games would feel very, very different still. So that is not a clone. But actual game cloners do the opposite of that. In the case of a clone, the underlying game is exactly the same and it's only the surface (the art and sound) that are different.
They said that the problem with the discussion on this topic is that it centers around several invalid arguments that are said over and over. Like how it helps the industry (no it doesn't), how patents would ruin the industry therefore cloning is ok (false dichotomy, there are other choices), and how it's "free marketing." They were clearly enraged at that last one, as they have personal experience with how false that is.
You see, their game was cloned. Their game that won two different IGF awards, some Dutch award, some other award I forget. Their game that they spent a long damn time on, and that they are close to being able to release on iOS. It got cloned on iOS and, this was such a clusterfuck that it forced them to stop all development just to spend time sorting out how they deal with the messaging and marketing surrounding that. They said it's very easy to be seen as the bad guy when you're the victim here. If you sue, you are almost automatically the bad guy. So it took a lot of time an attention for them to address. The worst thing for them of all is that they think there is a very, very high chance than when they release their game very soon on iOS that it will get a flood of 1 star reviews, saying that it's just a copy of this other game, and an *exact* copy at that, with just the art changed.
It's pretty real when they said this kind of thing will lead to creative talent leaving the industry. In fact, they will have to leave the industry if this kind of thing happens to them again, because it's seriously threatening their ability to make any money. Meanwhile, there are talented people who are working for cloning companies, but their talent is spent on this terrible anti-creative stuff, so it kind of doubly sucks.
They said they'd like to propose a direction for change to address this. They don't propose more laws or patents or anything like that. They're looking for a cultural solution, rather than a legal one. They say that they want everyone to know that "games are made by people," which is an interesting phrase that I think refers to the previous night's screening of Indie Game: The Movie. The filmmakers there said that at Sundance (note: not a game conference) lots of people came up to them saying "I've never played a game in my life, but this was so interesting and intense" and "I didn't know games were made by...people." I mean yeah they knew they weren't made by robots or armadillos or something, but they're trying to say they didn't realize that making games is an intense struggle that's all-consuming to the people who do it. To indies especially, it's not a job, it's their whole being, it's their life and lifestyle. Oh and one of the speakers mentioned that sometimes he's felt like he was going to die working on his games. The audience laughed, but he said he meant it seriously, not as a joke. It's that fucking much work, ok.
So yeah, games are made by people. He's saying that there's a tendency to hold your cards to your chest, not show anything until a game is done, then unveil it to the world. But what if we did the opposite, like Indie Game: The Movie or the documentary film that will accompany Tim Schafer's upcoming kickstarted game? He's saying that by shining a big light on the creative process, that people will see what a struggle it is, and who is really legit. The implication here is that if the presenters themselves had been extremely public with the development of their game, that everyone would just "get" that this other game ripped them off, and that the other game is some factory of douchebags who are putting the real innovators out of business. I reserve judgment on that plan personally, but it probably wouldn't, hurt.
Setting Bejeweled Blitz Free: Lessons Learned Moving From Premium to Freemium on iOS
Giordano Bruno Contestabile is an excellent speaker, and I thought he used his Italian accent to his advantage, well, opening stilly Mario sayings and a red Mario hat. Other speakers open with jokes sometimes, but he prefers slapstick. He says next time he might open with mime.
Have some background data on how when Bejeweled was first made, there wasn't really a way to sell it. There was no XBLA and it wasn't a big sprawling game so no one knew what to do with it. They offered to sell it to Microsoft for $50,000 and they were turned down. Now over 500 million people have played it, on various platforms.
So Bejewled makes fucking ton of money. And they decided it needed to make way more than a fucking ton, so they switched over to freemium. Remember that not doing freemium is considered some kind of insane idiocy now. Anyway, they had a premium (meaning you pay for it) game called Bejeweled 2. Inside Bejewled 2 is this blitz mode thing that is fun. They wanted to adapt the game for Facebook, but it needed some modifications for to be the right kind of gameplay for the platform. Befeweled has an endless mode that people can play for literally months, off and on, but Facebook needs something much faster, like this blitz thing. Their entire company had 0 Flash programmers, but one of their QA guys learned flash in two weeks and was the lead on the project (uh...what??). They tested this 10 minute mode, but that was too long. For internal bug testing only, they made a 5 second mode (lol) and found it was actually really fun. So that told them fast is good. They settled on one minute for the Facebook version.
They wanted the iOS version to match the Facebook version and have as much crossover as possible. So then they did something really confusing that they know was really confusing. They retired the iOS app known as "Bejeweled 2" and they launched two new apps. One is a freemium game called Bejewled Blitz and the other one is Bejeweled 3 (premium, regular paying for it) except they didn't want to call it Bejeweled 3. Instead, they wanted it to be a service that always gets updated, without having to care about this version number thing in the title. So maybe it would be called Bejeweled Forever or Ultimate Bejeweled. But they decided instead to follow up "Bejeweled 2" with a different game called "Bejeweled." They retired Bejeweled 2 and launched both Bejeweled Blitz and, uh, Bejeweled on the same day.
Even though that was really confusing, Giordano explained that it's ok. He quoted General Patton saying, "a violently executed plan today is worth more than a perfect plan next week." So they were doing things, making things happen, you know. Also this new plan was expected to make fucking lot of money more than their current fucking lot of money. And...it did.
He gave a bunch of stats, but really the point is freemium dominates everything. The number of downloads skyrocketed and even ARPU went up (average revenue per user). One really interesting thing in these stats was comparing iOS to Facebook across "the only metrics that matter." That means metrics that actually have to do with money, such as ARPU, % of players who monetize, total revenue, etc. Across the board, iOS was almost exactly 2x of Facebook on every stat. He says the reason is partly because the "always with me" nature of iOS devices means players are more likely to play more, and that it's a great "toilet game." The audience laughed, but he said he was serious, and gave some stat about 40% of something or other being played on the toilet, and that it's a real consideration. He also stressed that it might be an even bigger factor that iOS has completely nailed the payment system. 100% of users who can download the app also have their credit card or other payment info on file with Apple, so buying stuff in a game is very easy. Not so on Facebook, as many people play the game but don't have credit card info on file with Facebook.
The next point he made I found very interesting. If you flash back to GDC 2010, the summary of the entire conference was "Facebook, Facebook, Facebook." How about now? Giordano never discussed whether to be on Facebook, because to him it's so obvious that you're deeply fucking up by not being there that he didn't even need to mention that. But he just gave a stat of how iOS was really much better than Facebook, money-wise. But wait, there's more. He explained that the iOS version of Bejeweled Blitz has Facebook Connect functionality. He says if you *don't* use that, then the game is kind of lame, actually. You are playing Bejeweled Blitz...against yourself? If players use Facebook Connect on the iOS version though, then they get access to many other features, most importantly their "social graph." Giordano said (almost as a throw-away line) "and of course the ONLY social graph that matters is Facebook. There was a war, they won, no other social graph matters, only Facebook. That is what you need to tap into." It would be completely unthinkable to him to not tap into that graph, like he wouldn't even know what you are doing if that wasn't one of your top priorities.
I'm not exactly clear on how Bejeweled Blitz leverages your social graph. Maybe someone in the comments can explain more. From what I gather, you can see your leaderboard with your friends and challenge your friends (that alone is probably worth it), but there seemed to be more. I think there are some kind of tournaments and other events they do that he briefly said have really helped keep the community alive and that require Facebook Connect, but I'm not sure how those work, or what else they're using Facebook for.
Next, he talked about Andorid and how Android tends to make about 25% as much as iOS, then he showed a chart comparing how hard it is to develop for each platform. While iOS has 3 different screen resolutions, Android has 5. iOS has 2 OSs to worry about, Android has 4. iOS has 10 models of phone to test, Android has 100+ models. Overal, Android is big hassle to work with, a fragmented platform rather than an integrated one. So why do way, way more work to get 25% of the revenue? He says you really should because he believes that even though right now that sucks that it will still suck to develop for later, that the install base (currently 250 Million, about the same as iOS) will go up a lot and that it might monetize "as much as 50% of iOS by a year from now."
What do they actually sell, you are probably wondering. You can play Bejeweled Blitz for free forever, so there is never a "pay wall" that says you can't play anymore unless you pay. They have an in-game currency that lets you buy "boosts" for small amounts that you are inteded to use a lot of. He explained that these boosts give only a slight gameplay advantage, and that a more skilled player will overcome that. I know that there were no competitive game players in the room, because if there were, they would have barfed and/or screamed at him for saying such an objectionable, offensive thing that tramples on the very notion of what competition means. Giordano is a business guy without the first fucking clue what fair competition really means though. What he does know is what makes a fucking shit ton of money, and selling boosts is what does. So the market has spoken and they certainly don't want fair competition. They want pay for power, and they want to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for it, collectively.
They also sell two other kinds of things. One is "rare gems." I'm not exactly sure how this works, but he showed a screenshot of where a player did something (skill-based, so not completely random) in the game, and was presented with a "rare Cat's Eye gem." This is a powerup that makes a huge cat appear and shoot lasers at gems all over the place, blowing them up while making meow meow noises. The thing is, when this gem is presented to you, you have to "harvest" it by paying a lot of coins. He emphasized that the gameplay advantage of the rare gem was actually no more important than the fun factor. In other words, it's very important that it be "awesome" and funny and good production values to use this thing in addition to the gameplay effect.
The other thing you can buy is "spins" on a slot machine. "Players love the slot machine mechanic," he says. "And you win something every spin! It's just sometimes you win more." (The lack of Jonathan Blow's head exploding told me he was not in the audience.) So you get one spin per day, but you can buy as many more spins as you want. Maybe I should be copying this stuff on fantasystrike.com, since clearly Bejeweled is kicking our as. That's not meant ironically, I mean their revenue is 1 million x ours, or something?
Giordano then explained something that some may critisize, but that I think is basically legit. He shared with us the true PopCap secret of monetization. He showed a joke equation with variables for player-retention, % that pay, and how much per month they pay, and stuff like that. In order to maximize that, the "secret" he says is to maximize fun. Even though he just gave this whole talk about their monetization methods, what he's trying to say here is that when they decide what changes to make to the game they are actually not that driven by metrics. I think he's actually specifically referring to Zynga here without saying their name, as they are notorioulsy driven by metrics. He's saying that PopCap tries their best to make their games actually fun, and the adjustments and course corrects they do are mostly about *that*, and that as long as they have a reasonable system in place to monetize, that the stats will come out pretty well there if the games are fun.
Note that their model is entirely based on expendables you buy, the very thing that Appy Entertainment left out, and said they really shouldn't have.
Create New Genres (and Stop Wasting Your Life in the Clone Factories)
Daniel Cook (aka Danc) of lostgarden.com spoke about innovation. I have to say right off, the content of his lecture was good and helpful, but the tone is just really upsetting. His entire premise is based on a value judgment that I don't agree with. Innovation is great, he thinks that, I think that, you think that. But he thinks it to such a degree that he very clearly and explicitly makes the value judgment that it's "better" to make something completely new than it is to make an incredibly polished, great thing in an established genre. And further, that if you did make something polished and great in an established genre, that you wouldn't really be that far along in your development, that the last step is making completely new things.
Uh...no, that's wrong and honestly a crappy attitude. He gave Super Meat Boy as an example of something that is only "journeyman" level because it's putting existing ideas together, while TripleTown is "master" level because it's completely new. I think it's better to classify rather than actually *rank* those ideas. I also think making something like Starcraft 2 is an amazing accomplishment, and I'm not about to tell the people they made it that they are somehow less than someone who created a new genre. The thing is, even when you create a new genre (which is awesome and exciting and wonderful), that doesn't mean you're going to have the HYPE that a game like Starcraft 2 has. Same goes for a fighting game. If anyone (me, you, whoever) created *the best* fighting game ever made, that solved many of the problems in our current fighting games, I think that would be damn great and they don't need Danc or anyone else talking down to them about not being innovate enough. If everyone had Danc's attitude, then no one would make that best RTS, that best fighting game, that best anything. The field of design is certainly not served by us leaving good ideas on the table, avoiding making them great so that we can figure out more merely good ideas.
I've been playing Soul Calibur 5 recently, and I desperately want a Soul Calibur 5 with no just guard feature, with the Soul Calibur 1 parry ("guard impact") added, and with just frames taken out. Also throw breaks fixed to require the same command as the throws they break, and disabling them when holding guard or doing a move. And the horrible system-wide bugs fixed, because it's important to have a steward of the game that actually cares and maintains it. I want that so bad that if I made what's basically a copy of their game, but with my characters instead of theirs (yeah new moves and stuff) and those features fixed, I'd personally be super excited about that. I'd *also* be excited about a completely new genre, but to preach that only completely new genes are worthwhile design endeavors...it's just annoying to have to sit through that.
ANYWAY, how about all the good stuff he said? There's lots. He talked about how to create a new genre, and that it involves branching your design somewhere else than you're probably thinking about. You tend to see a game, which he describes as a bundle of solutions to design problems, then you think about how to alter that bundle a little. For example just above I talked about the bundle of Soul Calibur and how I wanted to change a few things. Instead, he says to go waaaaay earlier in the process, like before you even have a bundle of solutions, and think how to go a totally different direction. For example, if you were looking at Doom's bundle of solutions, it involves first person aiming, ammo, weapons, shooting people in the head, etc. Most games that used the "first person aiming" mechanic also used to the "shoot people in the head mechanic." But let's question that. What about throwing out that bundle and using the first person aiming with something entirely different...like portals. That leads to innovation, in that Valve's game Portal stood apart from all other FPS's.
Danc also said to work on several games at a time. Like maybe 5. You should expect all of them to be experiments, you're looking for the fun, you're looking for how to evolve them into a finished state. It's entirely possible one of them ends up sucking, and if it does, you'll say "oh well, I have 4 other things." If that's the ONLY thing you have and it ends up sucking, you'll feel like you want to die. (Then we all thought of Indie Game: The Movie.)
Along these same lines, he emphasized more about how making a game is an exploration process. That means that if a team is producing new builds only every one or two weeks, he says that is a warning sign that they will probably fail. They need to make builds every single day, as this allows for 4 or 5x the course corrections, experimentation, and iteration.
Similarly, he said you should NOT write a design doc, whatever you do. He was very emphatic about this, and said that anyone writing a design doc is wasting their life. Doing so solidifies ideas far too quickly, when those ideas need to be tried out. He says what's better is just talking to team members about what you want, or writing on post-it notes, or anything fast and low-commitment. He also said that keeping a design log, like blog posts about that day's build, is a more effective tool than maintaining a design doc. Such a log can mention what you (the designer) thought about that build, and the next couple things you hope will happen with it, as opposed to a long-term plan of everything. Team members can read your log back through time as long or short as they like. If something isn't mentioned for a while and falls off the page of posts, then that's fine. Mention it again if it's important. Oh yeah, he hates the concept of milestones just as much as design docs and says that publishers who are asking for it are basically saying "please don't innovate and don't learn anything over the course of your production."
Something else he hates: clones. His game Triple Town was cloned by YetiTown, and he was obviously really mad about that, and justifiably so. He said that it might seem that the existence of cloning should mean that you shouldn't bother to innovate. After all, cloning is inceasingly predatory, even VC funded, and it's really ruining the day for innovators. His answer is that there is still an economic reason to innovate. If you look at the (almost) bell-curve of any technology adoption, including a genre's life cycle, you see it go from very small, to a big rise, to maturaty, to a decline and then to a niche. If you innovate, you start to ride that steep curve. If at that point someone comes in and clones you and executes better than you and markets better than you, you're fucked. This happened to Dune 2, actually, a game that created the bundle of design solutions that we know as RTS. A company with better execution, distribution and marketing came along, and they made Warcraft. Blizzard rode the success of Warcraft to eventually completely dominate the genre.
On the other hand, if you are the first mover AND you can execute, you become the genre king and you make a ton of money. He gave four examples, but I only remember Lemmings because that seemed like a weird one. Anyway, he says to innovate, but make sure you can execute or you might be toast.
Another good point he mentioned on this is that one reason people buy clones is because they played the legit game, finished it, and are looking for more stuff like that, except your sequel isn't out yet. He says you can hardly be mad at people for that. Danc suggested a major shift for our industry here, and it's the kind of thing where we're all fish in the water, so we don't know what it's like to not be in water. We wouldn't even think there's something other than water to be in. Danc explained that our designation as "game industry" is kind of a misnomer. To him, a game is a system of mechanics, an interaction model. He says we do very little of that (though he notes that the board game world actually does tons of this). The video game world is almost entirely about making *content* not games. Content is something that runs out, like the story in an adventure game, or the levels in some other game, or your PvE progression in an MMO. When it runs out, people look for a new experience (a clone, perhaps) while you scramble to make more content.
So he says if we focused on creating lasting systems instead of content, maybe clones would be less relevant. He gave the examples of Counter-Strike and Eve Online, where clones of them don't do well at all. They have so much endlessly replayable appeal (not from "content" but from systems) that people don't really run out and go looking for clones. They jus want to play those games more and more and then the community that springs up around them just makes it even more worthwhile to play the real deal rather than a clone. I sure get that, seeing as all my games are intended to be games you play for years. It's all about the system being so interesting and replayable that you don't need content forever.
I also went to the Indie Game Developer's Soapbox session with 10 five minute presenations, but rather than attempt to summarize all those, I really should get some sleep instead.