10 Game Design Lessons Learned This Year

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It’s been a crazy year!

Lots of projects. Late nights.  

A windy path from ideas to reality…

Here’s 10 game design lessons learned this year:

1/ If in doubt, take it out.

A few months ago we had a game prototype with some half-finished features. One was a Gallery to help players savour past adventures. When push came to shove we removed it from the alpha - after much hand wringing and a tinge of guilt.

So what was the impact of the removal? Not much.

The fun factor remained almost identical without it.

We freed up cycles to improve the core gameplay, with a much better game as a result (one that still doesn’t include the Gallery… but we’re fine with that)

Early on, less is more.


2/ Context, child.

In that same project we had an item discovery mechanic we named the “Shop”. In focus group after focus group players told us they felt frustrated and confused.

At one point I questioned whether the mechanic would work, and considered a switch back to something less risky.

In the end, the fix was simple: don’t call it a “Shop” (doh!)

Once we switched the name, expectations changed and a under-performing feature turned into something fun.


3/ UI  =  ”Ultra Important”

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One stuff up this year was an RPG, an early project we had to reboot.

The mistake?

Designing a deep game that seemed fun in a GDD, but couldn’t work in an actual phone UI.

I had designed the specs on paper, our devs implemented much of the systems before reality dawned - we couldn’t fit it all on the screen without greatly confusing players.

And by that time mechanics were too heavily linked, making it much harder to remove individual parts.

Ever since, we’ve had UI mockups in lockstep with game designs and prototypes. More up front work but far less pain down the line…

4/ Don’t balance bottom up

It’s not much fun to build a fun prototype and see players blow through the content too quickly. Or discover there aren’t enough quests to fill out mid-level progression.

The big picture lets you set your anchors in days, weeks, months and years, and guides you on how much to fill in the day-to-day path.

5/ Dialogs deserve prototypes too!

Raise your hand if you had to rewrite or throw file away thousands of lines of text. Perhaps twice?

*sheepishly raises hand*

Why?

We started text “production” before we’d set the right story form and function to fit the game and UI.  And in another case because the mechanics changed and made the original text redundant.

It’s much better to test a small amount of text first and then write the rest once later on, once it’s all locked in.

6/ Don’t bumble the bundle

In a recent beta we had to delay to optimize the initial download to under 50MB. This required dropping assets to later bundles and adjusting tutorial, thankfully not too bad as we have a streaming asset system, but still a last minute scramble.

And no, you can’t really “cheat” and just put overflow into an initial download on first run.  We’ve seen 40%+ dropoff rates with even as small as a 30MB download after first launch.

Thinking through the initial asset budget in more detail saves headaches down the line.

7/ Plant your story in a big pot

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We discovered that our first game continues to have a much longer lifespan than expected, with many players playing now for over a year.

At the time of launch, we hadn’t thought through the story expansion, and had to twist together a second act that resulted in some inconsistencies we had to iron out later (the game now is more than double the original in length)

These days we imagine a launch version is just the first part of at least a trilogy worth of content that we have thought through (at least at a high level), to make sure we have plenty of space for expansion.

8/ Programmatic trumps manual balancing

Well strictly speaking, that’s not always true.

There are always some parameters better hand crafted, particularly in the NUX.

But as a game designer you only have so much time in the day, and you can’t spend them hand crafting prices for thousands of items, or manually pick rewards for hundreds of levels.

We switched the bulk of balancing for new projects to formula bases.

A bit of extra work up front for the coders now results in many benefits:

- much faster tweaking of difficulty and progression
- lets us goal seek the parameters to meet overall balancing goals 
- enables us to run much easier A/B experiments 
- more sleep

9/ Polish can wait.

Similar to premature production of text, creating near polished UIs and icons for a system that ultimately had to be changed…

I find now it’s much better to stick generic all the way through the prototyping and alpha, and then start real art production and polish at the last step.

This has had an extra benefit of helping concentrate on core gameplay early on, rather than what shade of purple to use for that Settings icon.

If a temporary “wireframe” UI can house a fun game, it’s a great sign for later when the real art and polish is added.


10/ New location for new inspiration

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It’s funny how a change of environment, even for a few hours can spur new thinking.

Exotic subreddits, watching TED talks or reading books are fine, but there’s something fresh about time away from the office.

One of our new game designs was conceived during a weekend startup hackathon, in a big theatre amongst lots of great startup energy.

Another idea I’m in love with came from chatting to some young hippies in San Francisco (yes, the world deserves a basket-weaving game!***)

Summary 

Like most endeavours in life, learning to make great games is a journey, and the wins but also missteps have lots to teach.  

Thank you 2013, you’ve been great.

What lessons do you have? Tweet or email, would love to hear.

*** well not that idea, though it could be pretty fun….

A game that’s on your side

Let’s imagine games as people.

We’d think of attributes - brash or quiet, strict or forgiving, quirky or dry, daring or safe etc… 

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As game designers - what traits do we want for our game?  

Well, people tend to gravitate towards good looks and popularity, humour and fun.  Makes sense, and there are plenty more on the list (1)

How about empathy?

In relationships,  people (2) tend to value those who are thoughtful and make an effort to consider their point of view.  

Let’s call it a game that’s “on your side”.

It could be reflected in the core design and UI, and also in various small and simple features that signal the game’s looking out for them.

Some nice examples -

In Game of War by Machine Zone, the free speedup option let’s players shortcut timers when they fall under a 5 minute threshold:

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In Slot Machines by IGG, when you first run out of coins you’re given extra for free to keep playing:

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In Zynga’s Castleville Legends, hero quests don’t consume the items they request, allowing you to sell them after:

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The birthday gift in Supercell’s Hay Day feels thoughtful and personal -
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So are these games at their heart, altruistic?

Not at all (3).  Let’s not forget they are still free to play games that do a great job of extracting revenue from paying users, as they should.

But they do a good job of signalling they care for the players, and in the process help build attraction and loyalty.

Notes

(1) beyond the universal ones, player taste and personality matters a lot

(2) this particularly applies to women 

(3) as any free player struggling with storage limits and ingredient production times in Castleville’s mid game would tell you

Other great examples? I’d love to hear - email or tweet.

Game Live Ops (slides from Casual Connect)

It was fun to talk about live operations, specifically time limited* content and mechanics, at this year’s Casual Connect.

I’ve uploaded my slides here, which cover:

  • The different types of live ops 
  • Why game developers should care?
  • Some industry examples, including one of our own
  • Lessons learned

* new levels and missions etc also falls under the topic of live ops but the slides focussed in on time limited content.

The talk itself was only 20 minutes which was a shame as it’s a fascinating topic and lots of interesting things to go into (eg- pros and cons of different contest mechanics etc)

Any great examples of live ops out there? Share on email or twitter

How iOS 7 appstore changes affect developers

New iOS, new App Store…

If you’re like me, it’s time for optimism with a touch of dread. Are the changes better or worse for my apps? My players?

Recently we checked out the Appstore in iOS 7 vs iOS 6. Overall it’s a step forward and imho mostly positive for devs. Here are the side-by-side iPhone screenshots. Recommendations at the end.

Featured Page

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  • More new and noteworthy spots shown before requiring you to tap “see all” (around a third more) means more chances to get your game downloaded if you’re one of the lucky few selected by Apple
  • larger icon spacing, in general through the App Store
  • Rest is pretty similar

Top Charts

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  • Ratings now included (total number, not just for current version)
  • More downloads for the long term hit games
  • Now autoscrolls down to see the list, instead of to the right 
  • Not requiring you to tap “See All” reduces friction
  • More download for those popular games not in the top 25
  • Easier to access top grossing = more downloads for the monetizers
  • Category button is more prominent, meaning more spread of downloads
  • Rest is similar

Category navigation

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  • Similar

Subcategories - eg Role Playing

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  • New vertical scrolling layout, same as top charts (above)

Near Me vs Genius

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  • Genius is dead - less organic installs for game devs (though hard to tell how many it drove in first place - wasn’t a strong UX)
  • Favours locally popular apps (events, venues etc) - though for gaming that probably doesn’t matter as much, especially with country specific App Stores 

Search

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  • Search algorithm seems the same so far
  • Shows number of results in search bar
  • Larger screenshot 
  • Shows review count (all versions) - favours older games

Screenshots

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  • Second screenshot matters more than before - more now shown

App Main Page

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  • Larger game icon (can put text in there)
  • Link to the Related tab for more apps from the developer (better for organic intraportfolio growth)

Reviews Page

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  • Pretty similar, now shows more reviews before hitting the button

Related Page

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  • Similar with some sizing changes

My take

  • Your higher monetization games should get a bit more organics now
  • Less pressure to be up in the top 25 - download spread broader
  • Trying to do well in a single subcategory is a bit easier now
  • No more free lunch - whatever Genius gave has been taken away
  • Pay attention to the left of your second screenshot
  • Keep trying to get your app featured, more chance of impact now
  • Your rating and rating count matters more than ever - focus on quality and genuine ways to get more reviews

ps- big thanks to Frenzoo'er Jer for pulling this together!

Your thoughts? Have I missed something? Share on email or Twitter

Five highlights from E3

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E3 was manic. 

A whirlwind of next gen consoles and triple A titles. 

This year I roamed the show floor trying out as many games as possible.

Most were bigger & badder takes on familiar genres.

Forza 5 on Xbox One was stunning.  FIFA 14's animations flowed better than ever.  Call of Duty Ghost had gunplay, underwater! Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs pulled us into an immersive wired city.  Oh and mechs are back!

So what about non core games?  

Not that many.  

With a couple of exceptions most of the industry remains focussed on its male core gamer demographic.

There were bright spots though - 5 personal highlights:

1/ That Dragon, Cancer

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Not so much a game as a thoughtful piece of art.  The setting is a sad hospital room, the character a cancer patient and his thoughts.  This game had the most emotional impact, despite the lack of fancy graphics.

2/ Project Spark

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Little Big Planet and Minecraft just had a love child…

This was the most awe inspiring demo at the event.  Microsoft’s ambitious game creation platform is a joy to play with: the first time you swipe your finger and literally create worlds of ice and forests before your eyes takes your breath away. 

3/ Octodad

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Octodad is so ridiculous in its premise it can’t help but bring out the smiles.  Trying to control Octodad’s clumsy tentatcle to retrieve a wedding ring for your (female) bride is a farce, in a good way.  The game bursts with personality and character, a welcome contrast to all the high speed action and violence in the rest of the PS4 zone.

4/ Contrast

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This action platformer leaves a dark impression.  Contrast has intriguing female leads, gorgeous french noir art and a gameplay twist.  When your character’s shadow is on a surface you can change modes and control your shadow in 2d, moving and jumping amongst other shadows. Whilst frustrating in its controls it pushes the boundaries in creative gameplay.

5/ My School

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Not sure whether I’d call this a highlight or not, but worth a mention. This over the top school simulation game features plenty of “only in Asia” quirkiness (maybe fitting from a studio called Racoonsoft).  Busty teachers, an overabundance of cola machines and confused students looking for work, this game had it.  When I asked the goal of the game, I was told it was “to make money”.  

Education these days :)

ps - special mention to The Wonderful 101 - who knew 101 character multiplayer chaos could be so much fun…

What were your E3 highlights? Email or let me know on Twitter

Customer development ain’t cheap

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New bootstrapped startup?

Building a new app?

Ready your credit card.

Back of the envelope costs

  • Surveys to your target market $1000
  • Starbucks focus groups and usability tests: $200
  • Buy 1000 quality users to your new app $2000
  • x 5 rounds of product iteration = $16,000

Based on

  • $1 per response x 5 questions x 200 qualified respondents 
  • $20 coupons x 10 people (random & Craigslist arranged)
  • $2 targeted CPI x 1000 users

Conclusions

  • If you’re running lean, early on it’s probably your biggest cost
  • Good news: still cheaper than months of wasted design & dev effort 

Footnote

  • Chances are you’ll need multiple iterations (maybe it’s just me)
  • Figures excludes dev, launch marketing, hosting, pizza etc.
  • Asking friends for feedback is cheap, but biased 
  • You’ll need 1000s of users to test LTV in a freemium product

Question - is there a cheaper way?

What’s your take? Email or let me know on twitter

5 reasons virtual worlds died

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Edit: HN discussion on this post here

Lately I’ve been designing a couple new games and got me thinking back to virtual worlds.

Remember when they were the next big thing?

Millions of us tried them.  Gartner predicted 80% of all net users would have Second Life avatars.  VCs invested bigtime.  Even Google wanted a piece.  

My startup too. We launched the first browser 3d UGC world with cool tech we built on Unity. You could chat, create, shop and more.

But after a couple years we’d only gained 600k users so decided to pivot to mobile games.

Here are 5 reasons why virtual worlds never took off and some ideas for how they can live on in new games:

  1. No purpose

    Virtual worlds don’t have explicit goals.  

    No quests. No mechanics. No problems to solve. They aren’t games.  

    Give people a blank piece of paper and ask them to “have fun!” A few might get excited and start writing a poem or sketch a masterpiece.  But most will be annoyed, grow bored and give up.

    Same with virtual worlds. 

  2. No feedback

    Turns out, humans really love feedback.  

    Our addictive behaviours are mostly shaped by tight stimuli and response schedules.  We check Facebook often with the hope of new message or notifications.  We eat junk food and are rewarded with an immediate dopamine hit.

    Contrast that to virtual worlds where you might “work” for hours before getting feedback, which can only come from other players. Not very motivating.

  3. No theme

    Most successful UGC communities have either a particular topic that glues them together, or easy ways to dive to them.

    Reddit has subreddits.  Pinterest has tags and categories. Youtube has search and recommendations.  

    Themes make it easy to consume, start and keep up conversations.

    In virtual worlds there is no easy way to jump straight into the themes you like, and no structure that enforce adherence to them.

  4. Complexity

    Great technology doesn’t mean a great user experience.

    Virtual worlds offer great freedom, but also a LOT of complexity and ways to get stuck. 

    These days where the distractions abound, people don’t handle complexity well, especially when trying something for the first time.

  5. Needs met elsewhere

    Despite drawbacks, virtual worlds offered a couple of bright spots - online community and freedom to create.

    But the spirit of these can also be met in other ways.

    I can build a great farm in Hay Day or doodle in Draw Something 2, interacting with friends in simple but meaningful ways.

    Minecraft offers great creativity and community with a small number of important mechanics. 

    On the deeper end, MMOs like Entropia have great freedom and incredibly loyal community.  

So what’s new?

So for those of us creating mobile games, should we forget about virtual worlds?

I don’t think so.  Whilst never living up to its hype*, we can continue to incorporate their positives in a deeper way.

First is to figure out how to tie greater creativity into our mechanics to broaden possibility spaces.  

This can be really tricky - how do you “judge” creativity in a programmatic manner? Easier if it’s creativity to meet a certain functional goal (ala Bad Piggies), but is there a way to judge “beauty” or “artistic merit”?  In our first game we built a system to judge a fashion outfit.  Whilst sufficient I’d be first to admit there is a lot more nuance that could be added, though it’s not always easy to define and balance such a system.

If judging is community based how to you build systems to make it fair, tamper proof and not feel like work? And do it in a way that’s timely, and gets the core loop running quickly?

We could also do more to foster friendships between players that last years, not days. Ability to collaboratively work on shared projects is something extremely meaningful in virtual worlds.  Guilds in some mobile strategy games let you coordinate attacks which is lots of fun, but haven’t seen much yet in the way of coop base building, or crafting etc.

We can offer a deeper level of customization, allowing you to tweak not only your look but your personality and how you engage in the game world.  Chat and status messages are a start, but could you have ways to customise how your characters or army or base react programmatically under different circumstances (like scripting in SL but without the complexity).

Not all virtual world concepts translate well, and getting them working with a simple UX for a small screen is the challenge, but there are things we can learn from and adapt.

What’s your take? Email or let me know on twitter

*Whilst not a mainstream success, virtual worlds are still active amongst several niche groups, eg deep roleplayers, virtual artists, or the disabled - where they can move, express and socialize in a way they can’t in real life.

Rise of the microsale

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There’s an interesting trend bubbling up of extremely time limited offers in mobile games - let’s call them microsales.

In a microsale, there’s an offer - for example a deal on a virtual item,  currency or content (eg- access to a special dungeon).  This is presented with a very short countdown timer, typically 20 seconds or less.

The player is forced to make an explicit decision on the spot - take the offer now or let it pass with regret and uncertainty as to when or if it would return.

It’s an interesting entry in the monetization toolbox, and one that to me, makes sense:

A study by Scott Swain, Richard Hanna and Lisa Abendroth (2006) examined 3 mechanisms (deal evaluations, anticipated regret, and urgency) that influence purchase intent, through the lens of time limited sales.  They concluded:

shorter time limits create a greater sense of urgency thereby leading to higher purchase intentions…giving consumers more time leads only to more delay and, in effect, the shorter time limit causes the promotion to gain priority on consumers’ “to do” lists. However, caution is needed since… too short of a time limit can also increase perceptions of inconvenience, leading to lower deal evaluations and ultimately lower purchase intent.

On mobile the “inconvenience” factor I think is reduced - you’re already in a “limited time” frame of mind, and all it takes is a single tap on a button to take up the offer - especially when using virtual currency, not needing the interruption of IAP password entry.

That out of the way, all you need is a sufficient time for the deal to be evaluated, which is normally in the period of seconds, not minutes.  

Does that mean traditional 24 and 48 hour digital sales are on their way out?  I doubt it, but I suspect that we’ll see a lot more of microsales used in parallel in the future.

Have you used or seen a microsale lately? Would love your feedback.  Tweet or email

Whither the wither mechanic?

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In the first social game wave, two common mechanics were harvest (appointment) and its companion, wither (delay penalty).

Playing off the harvest, the wither helped reinforce the regular return cycles those games were designed around. How?

The fear of loss can be strong.  The feeling that your precious crops would decay (or be stolen) was a strong motivation to log on that one last time before sleep or early morning before packing lunch for the kids.

Fast forward two years later, the wither mechanic seems to be falling out of favor. 

This year’s most successful mobile farming sim, Hay Day eschews it.  

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So do many others that have ranked in recent times. Even Zynga’s Castleville team at GDC talked about how they wanted to remove it, but were constrained due to other factors.

So why this trend? Some thoughts…

  1. Social players are already conditioned to return and harvest.  In the inital social game wave there were millions of first time “gamers”.  Early hits like Farmville trained them how to play, checking back regularly to collect and progress in bite size chunks. 
  2. Other systems provide calls to action.  With development of more mechanics for high grossing whales (eg events), there are other drivers for players to return.  Zynga shared that 64% of players are prompted to return through  platform reminders - a growing set of open graph stories, pictures, notifications and requests.  An extra set just adds more complexity.
  3. Elder players are motivated by efficiency.  For example, a deep crafting and request system provides strong drivers for players to be optimal in their return schedules to gain ever increasing rewards.  This desire for increased payoff turns out to be a very strong retention motivator for experienced players.
  4. Wither unwieldily as a monetization driver.  Some games allow you to rescue decayed crops (or revive near death puppies) for a cost.  This can help as a time based monetization driver, but it’s hard to balance.  eg- the amount of crops a player may have growing at any particular time could vary greatly.  It’s also something part of the core loop, which can affect core satisfaction with the game, in the case you couldn’t log on last week due to, you know, real life.  Instead, other approaches such as time limited events provide a simpler single monetization request (extend the easter egg hunt by 24 hours?).  It’s also one that doesn’t punish you as part of the core loop, and instead gives you an chance to win something extra special, if you chose to.
  5. Wither is a negative experience.  Losing something isn’t pleasant. Especially when that thing may have taken plenty of time and effort to create. Punishment and its avoidance has a place in game design, but arguably not as your primary return driver.  What are the options? A better way to handle that could be to remove it, or flip it around to be something positive.  
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    For example Zombie Farm by Playforge originally had a wither mechanic.  However the sequel was changed to be an early bonus system - i.e. when you returned to Zombie Farm 2 on time you got a freshness bonus, but no matter if you returned a week or month later you never lost all your crops outright.  

This type of system gives the player a warm feeling, one that the game is on your side.

Update - a great comment on the article by Nick Bhardwaj brought up Clash Of Clans having a subtle wither mechanic with troops, which need time to be produced but can be lost via PvP. Personally I’d describe this as a core PvP loop rather than wither - there is no way to securely “bank” your troops for use later (shield is something separate), and there is also no attacking done by the game itself, just other players.  Fear of loss and the need to revenge are very strong drivers in all online battle games. His take was that Supercell encourages you to return and immediately “spend” your troops, which is more positive than the environment taking them away ie- its a more upbeat multiplayer twist on an established mechanic. Interesting discussion.

Does wither still have a place? Love your feedback: email or tweet

Catch up at GDC

Quick one -

I’ll be spending the full 5 days at GDC next week.

If you’re coming and would like to catch up do ping me at simon@frenzoo.com

See you pirates there…

Simon