Series Info...Biting The Hand #28:

Playing the Game

by Jessica Mulligan
June 25, 2002

At the Game Developer’s Conference last March, I sat on a panel concerning what the next-generation persistent worlds might look like. I was in excellent company; the other panel members were Raph Koster, former Ultima Online designer and currently Creative Director for Star Wars Galaxies for Sony Online/Austin, Rich Lawrence, Director of Development for Sony Online/Verant, Jake Song of NCSoft and creator of Lineage: The Bloodpledge and moderator Gordon Walton, VP and Executive Producer of The Sims! Online for Electronic Arts/Maxis.

During the hour-long semi-debate, the panelists brought five main points to the fore as items and issues to watch over the next five years or so:

  1. The future of persistent worlds is in finding ways to allow players to create content and have more control over the world, thus giving them more of an ownership stake and taking some of the load off the developer and lowering ongoing development costs. There was some discussion about just what defined ‘player-created content.’

    Frankly, this is just an acknowledgement of something that takes place, anyway. Once a persistent world is launched, the players take ownership and will play it in ways the designers never dreamed they would. Trying to make players stick to a static storyline or to one set vision of how the game should be played is not just silly, it is impossible and will only irritate the people paying the bills.

    This was more aptly described by Raph Koster in response to an audience question from someone who was obviously a Hollywood writer, wanting to know how to keep players of persistent worlds on his storyline. Raph’s response: “Get over yourselves; the rest of the world is coming.”

  2. The next five years will see evolutionary development of current methods and designs, although we may see the occasional revolutionary game mechanic or design element. A true revolution to create new ‘wowsers’ products may need new and perhaps unforeseen technology to spur it.

    I’m not sure there was full agreement on this point, mainly because there was some disagreement on whether or not these games have too many moving parts to allow an easy entry for non-hard core players. When I proposed that as an issue, Raph Koster immediately said (with that famous sardonic grin), “These games don’t have enough moving parts.” Raph thinks we need more moving parts in the form of more player options and player-generated content. We finally agreed that what we were both talking about was including more elegant moving parts, game mechanics and functions that better fulfilled their roles. Some of today’s game mechanics have a resemblance to requiring the player to slit his kneecaps with a razor and crawl through a salt mine to achieve some success. That has to change.

    I can see where Raph is coming from and an example from Star Wars Galaxies noted in a previous column - having skill-produced items deliver benefits to the player who created it when another player uses it, rather than on the creation - shows how he and his team are thinking about the issue. That is an elegant solution to one of the key problems of player-character advancement in persistent worlds: giving people a chance to have good time with non-combat related game play in a truly meaningful way.

  3. Getting past the ‘hard core gamer’ label is crucial to growth. That means designers are going to have start considering players other than rabid fans when constructing their designs. There is much hope that Maxis’ The Sims! Online and Sony Online’s Star Wars Galaxies will crack the Chinese Wall and bring more casual and mass-market gamers into the subscriber base.

    This is where the balancing act of elegant moving parts versus overwhelming the player with options is going to come in, and we can expect to fail a number of times as we try to find the right mix. Since neither the industry nor the casual and mass-market player really knows what those features are (if we did, we’d be retro-fitting them into the current games already, no?), there will be a certain amount of trial and error involved. That also implies a certain amount of ‘crash and burn’ as games that get it wrong go bye-bye.

    It also means finding ways to allow players to create their own good time in the game without being required to spend today’s average of between 12 and 20 hours per week playing. That may be were Issue 4 comes in:

  4. There will be much experimentation in adding more functions to take advantage of non-PC access means, such as cell phones, PDAs and Web access of game data. The idea is not so much to allow in-game play by those means, but to add value by allowing the player to be notified of events/happenings in the game, opt-in to be contacted anonymously by team mates via phone or email and maybe assign some solo tasks via the game Web site or over an Internet-capable device. You get the idea; expand the horizon and relieve in-game pressure and time-in-game requirements.

    As Gordon Walton pointed out, anything that helps drop bandwidth costs for publishers while increasing the options for players is a good thing. He also sees these devices as a possible means of creating viral growth. For instance, what if you could use your handheld device to send a client to a friend, in hopes he will join the game, too? And as Rich Lawrence pointed out, the PC is our only means of entry into the games right now, and that limits the number of people who will try the games because, frankly, the PC sucks for many people.

  5. The companies that find ways to reduce the issues that cause a need for customer service representative intervention (i.e. fewer bugs, fewer design holes, fewer exploitable game mechanics, faster response times when these issues happen) and provide better, faster service on the remaining issues will end up with higher subscriber bases.

    As Rich Lawrence put it, “Players don’t know where the parameters of the service are, and that uncertainty is unacceptable of a service.” The obvious solution is start designing the customer service experience at the same time the game is designed, so the tools can be integrated from the start. What happens now, for the most part, is that customer services tools are usually tacked on as an afterthought or, when designed into the game during the design process, they are generally the first tasks cut when development starts to slip.

    In general, the panel agreed that customer service has to be a focus, not considered an irritating sideline and given short shrift.

Having had some time to think about it, here’s I see it playing out over the near term:

With all the talk about bringing new players into the fold, and with at least five major PC-based persistent worlds scheduled to launch by the end of the year and Microsoft scheduled to do the same with Xbox Live, their online console gaming service, there was much speculation at the GDC and E3 in May about just how many people will actually, ya know, pay for this stuff. This is not an idle question; with some 500 million people worldwide accessing the Internet regularly, we still have only about 5 million people paying subscriber fees or cyber-café fees to play persistent worlds, and only about 500,000 to 750,000 of them are in the US. At some point, we’re going to start cannibalizing our own user-base, unless we figure out how to get more people to cough up some dough on a monthly basis.

According to Dean Takahashi of Red Herring, the Interactive Digital Software Association did a little survey recently. In that survey, only 6% of gamers said they’d be willing to pay for online games. I haven’t been able to find that survey in the media section of the IDSA Web site, but I take Takahashi at his word; he’s pretty reliable with numbers, especially for a game journalist (which, as a class, are better known for hype than for accuracy). That 6% number seems a bit low to me, but my own rule-of-thumb number, 10%, isn’t much higher. Besides, considering the decade of numbers-excess we’ve just experienced, a little conservatism in numbers should be a welcome breath of fresh air.

The IDSA quotes a number of 145 million people in the US who play computer/video games. If we use that as the potential subscriber base, then 6% of 145 million US players is 8.7 million potential ‘payers’ in this country alone. At an average price of about $11.75 US per month each (the trend is higher, with new games launching at $12.95 and some older games previously at $9.95 rising to meet that level), the potential in US-based subscriber fees is therefore about $102 million per month before expenses and about $1.23 billion annually before expenses.

OK, not shabby, as potential, especially considering we’re only going to see half of that US-based revenue potential realized on a worldwide basis over the next two or three years. Personally, I think there are more people than 6% willing to pay for persistent worlds and similar content. As mentioned before, my own rule of thumb for years has been 10% of the total user base; that estimate has held up well over the years, through radically changing business models and introduction of more and more of the non-hard core computer users. If it continues to hold up over the next five years, there could be gold in them thar hills.

The bigger issues, I think, involve cost per month to play and hours per week required to have a good experience. Price-wise, to the hard core/early adopter crowd, $12.95 per month USD is bupkis, a sum unworthy of worry. This is not surprising for a crowd that will spend hundreds of dollars to insure they have the latest technology to improve the gaming experience and will risk burning out a CPU by over-clocking the chip to get just a little bit more processing speed. And we need to find ways to keep these people interested; they are paying most of the bills right now.

On the other hand, the average joe may really think twice about anything over his/her monthly Internet access fee. It seems likely that there may end up being a two-tier pricing model, one for the hard core experience and one for the casual/mass-market experience. On the gripping hand, better player tools may obviate a need for tiered pricing and add enough value to make the game work for everyone at one price. Lord knows, tiered pricing has never worked very well in this space, with the exception of premium servers with premium features.

Concerning the issue of better player tools and hours per week, again, the hard core players don’t care much. They are already spending twenty-plus hours per week in the game; they’ll take any tools designed to reduce player in-game time you give them and use them to make sure the whole clan spends as much or more time playing. That time may be targeted toward better organization and less waiting around for something to happen, but it is unlikely to reduce total in-game time by much, if any at all. For the casual or mass-market player, however, having an affect on the world without having to spend twenty hours each week leveling up and trying to stay even with the rest of the social group is a definite plus.

If we, as an industry, can find ways to successfully address that broad gap between the hard core and everyone else, $1.23 billion USD annually is a drop in the bucket. That’s a great big ‘if’ to consider. We should have a better idea of our chances at it after The Sims! Online and Star Wars Galaxies launch.

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