Better Off Flying Solo? Joe Danger and the Risk/Reward of Self-Publication in Downloadable Gaming

A recent keynote at the Develop conference by Hello Games’ Sean Murray cast a harsh light on the realities of publishing downloadable games on home consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Sony’s PlayStation Network and Nintendo’s WiiWare Channel. He purports that self-published games like his recently-released critical darling Joe Danger (which sold 50,000 units week one on PSN) are both more successful and more profitable than those of major studios.

Joe Danger, breaking all the rules.

Arguably the most popular digital download channel, Apple’s App Store offers an extremely low barrier to entry – just $99 for a dev-kit and a revamped review process that sees new apps approved or denied in as little as three days. While a few iPhone gaming giants have emerged, there’s still plenty of room for a basement programmer to strike it rich (or at least make the “What’s Hot” list). In contrast, console gaming depends on the distribution models established decades ago by the book publishing industry. In order to get a disk-based game into players’ living rooms, developers must partner with a publisher who sets up the distribution (including dubious deeds like retailer exclusives). Self-publishing a game with a box and a manual is borderline impossible. But even when it comes to the zeroes and ones that comprise downloadable games, Murray perceives major developers as more of a burden than an asset to young development studios.  According to his research, casual card, puzzle and word games make up 31% of the offerings on console download services but less than 5% percent of the sales. This flies in the face of the notion that casual players fuel the download market.  In fact, it’s the long-time, hardcore gamers that are driving downloadable game sales, as evidenced by the top three selling XBLA games of 2009 (multiplayer-only FPS Battlefield 1943, oldschool-inspired beat-‘em-up Castle Crashers, and controller-crushingly difficult dirt bike platformer Trials HD). While the EA-published Battlefield may owe part of its success to the series’ long history, the other two titles were created (and published) by tiny development teams.

Murray argues that big publishers offer very little to developers in the downloadable games market, and this stems from both lack of experience and lack of effort or interest.  As he puts it, the person in charge of the digital download services at most publishers “is not necessarily the biggest deal for the overall structure of the publisher.” For the time being, Joe Danger is exclusive to PSN – Sony makes their development tools readily accessible, unlike Microsoft and Nintendo. As a passive rebuttal to the PSN Store, Microsoft created the Xbox Live Indie Games channel (née Xbox Live Community Games), and while it’s relatively easy to get a title published there, the games are incredibly difficult to locate, let alone market and promote to fans.

So what’s a developer to do? For PlayStation games like Murray’s Joe Danger, the money saved through self-publishing could be spent on a high-caliber PR agency (ahem) to spread the word and boost downloads. For a game destined for XBLA or WiiWare, write your local congressperson! And be patient. As consumers become more and more comfortable keeping their entertainment in the cloud, the move toward online stores will pressure companies like Microsoft and Nintendo to revise their strategy.

There’s one other major stumbling block – NPD sales data for downloadable games is between difficult and impossible to obtain.  As a result, publishers can’t use existing titles as a reference point to gauge the risk and potential profit of developing a new game.  If the console giants would relinquish this information and break down other barriers to entry, publishers both great and small could bring more creatively adventurous titles to market. With this capitalistic system, gamers would enjoy all types of new options, from big-screen versions of the $.99 bite-size games that dominate the App Store to $30 small entrées that don’t fit the current pricing/distribution mold. With vibrant, fun-focused games like Joe Danger, the reign of the murky brown über -macho FPS may be coming to a close. It’s simply up to us, as the nerdy masses, to e-vote with our digital wallets.

Clap Twice for Pizza: Gesture Recognition Makes this Dream a Reality

It’s no secret that, when it comes to home entertainment, we’re in the midst of a distribution revolution. Content once tied to broadcast airwaves is now being ravenously consumed on the internet via computers, video game consoles and set top devices.

TriplePoint has the privilege of working with some of these new media startups. PlayOn (which recently made the jump to iPhone; CNET link) streams Hulu and other web video onto PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, without the need for a costly Hulu+ account. For those without a video game console, Softkinetic is providing a Microsoft Kinect-like experience to a massive install base via their set top box gesture recognition system.

With two cameras and a powerful microphone, Kinect knows who’s in front of the TV. For games like Dance Central, the technology will track all the poppin’ and lockin’ you can throw at it. But as an entertainment hub, a Kinect-enabled Xbox 360 will change the way that marketers convey their messages. Advertising is the backbone of media, providing the funding for programming and keeping content free for the viewer.

Softkinetic and Microsoft face a major challenge with these user-recognizing innovations. The product must find the right combination of allure, cost and ease-of-use, or at least hit two sides of this triangle. Kinect is rumored to cost $150, putting it well above the $99 impulse-buy sweet spot and closer to the price of a new game console. Softkinetic, on the other hand, will have less features but will also enjoy wider adoption, since the system will piggyback onto cable boxes and not require additional equipment.

As these devices become a fixture of the entertainment centers in dens and rec rooms around the world, ultra-targeted advertising will be commonplace. In order to frame this in a positive light, marketers will highlight the family-friendly aspects of these targeted ad systems.  For instance, “No R-rated movie previews if children are detected,” or, similarly “no beer commercials until the registered account holder turns 21.”  Of course, there are many aspects of these targeted ads that appeal to advertisers, too.  For instance, gender-specific commercials can now be tied to the actual gender of the viewers, rather than the network making educated guesses about the viewing audience based on the channel, program and time of day

Interactive ads are not far behind. Many of today’s preroll web video ads ask if you’d prefer to interrupt your show with 3 traditional thirty-second commercials, or watch a 90 second long-form ad before the show begins.  By giving the viewer a choice, marketers engage the audience and have a better change of holding their attention.

With mics and 3D cameras in place, these ads will evolve into mini-games – how many on-screen Pepsi bubbles can you “pop” by waving your hands, before the time runs out? Sponsored gameshow-style quizzes are also possible, since the systems can detect multiple voices in the room. First one to finish this jingle gets 10 points on their gamerscore!  “Plop plop, fizz fizz…”

Social media integration is already built into modern game consoles.  In the future, before the new Top Chef episode streams, you’ll be prompted to invite other online friends who ‘like’ that show on Facebook to join you and watch together, virtually.

During the show, ads will feature music by artists from your account that you’ve “favorited.” Local advertisements will pinpoint your self-identified exact location and give you offers that are relevant to your tastes.  For instance, the Italian restaurant below your apartment is offering double-pepperoni for the price of cheese, and they’ll be open for another 45 minutes.  Since your credit card is on file with your Xbox Live or PSN account, you can literally say the word and have hot pizza at your door before Padma calls the chef’testants to the judge’s table. Are you watching solo, or did you invite the whole gang over? Accordingly, you’ll get promotions ranging from personal-pan pizza to the ultra-jumbo feast.

There’s a great deal riding on the success of these gesture- and user- recognition systems.  Their main strength is in eliminating the “input middleman,” giving users greater control over their own entertainment. They also give marketers new ways to reach consumers. While this new technology is exciting on many levels, it will also present unseen obstacles and take years before adoption is truly mainstream. Only time will tell if the universal remote can survive this Minority Report future.

Game Journalists Leave Natural Habitat, Spotted AFK. Quote of the night, “Most old games suck” – Stephen Totilo.

It’s not uncommon to get a journalist’s perspective – after all, they’re paid to write down their thoughts, feelings and opinions. In the case of most game journalists, their primary task is to let the game-loving public know which titles are worth playing, in what boils down to a glorified “Buy It, Rent It, Skip It” rating scale. But last night on the NYU campus, a few prominent game journalists discussed their craft itself as part of the Game Center lecture series. Stephen Totilo of Kotaku, Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra and Jamin Brophy-Warren of Kill Screen (a new gaming print publication, gasp!) gave their take on a variety of highbrow video game topics like gender, violence and the death of print.

The three industry vets spent a good deal of time discussing the difficult nature of writing for such a niche audience. As Totilo pointed out, games are experienced quite differently than movies, and are thus a lot trickier to cover. Because modern games are both expensive and expansive, a journalist can’t assume readers have a “high gaming literacy.” That is to say, even with an extremely popular game like Modern Warfare 2, a writer can’t take for granted that players have beaten the single player campaign or that they’ve shared the same overall experience. This makes games journalism far more nebulous than film criticism, a field where it’s safe to assume that everyone has viewed the same movie in essentially the same way. It may take a player a few days to beat a game, or that quest may be stretched out over a year. Plus, as gaming becomes increasingly popular, the sheer number of must-play games can overwhelm even a dedicated nerd’s gaming time. Case in point – Totilo Beat 30 games last year, but played over 100. This abundance of games is one of the biggest hurdles for the PR industry.

Another hot topic was the divide between mainstream and enthusiast games press, which has increased steadily in the past years. But as the writers were quick to point out, some the most compelling pieces of prose stem from outlets like the New York Times, who approach their rare game coverage as a Times’ piece first and a gaming piece second. In short, the range of games coverage is as diverse as the quality of the games themselves.

From a PR perspective, the takeaway here is a bit muddy. At TriplePoint our goal is to connect with journalists and secure coverage in a wide variety of outlets, spanning the gap between the fanatically enthusiast and the widest-reaching mainstream press, preferably through a mix of print, web and televised content. We have our work cut out for us, just as these three journalists have a difficult task before them. By keeping the communication lines as open as possible, all parties stand to benefit. But with so many games and just one Leigh Alexander, for instance, it’s vital to stay in tune with her thoughts and opinions via persistent reading and social media monitoring. Because when the day comes when we’re working with an amazing new JRPG, I want her to be the first to know. As Jamin Brophy-Warren, points out, “When it comes to movies I just sit there and watch, but in games I’m the one making things happen.” That’s a very powerful experience – the glue that holds our industry together.

Waggle of Choice: Will Motion Control Decide the Future of Gaming?

[UPDATE – IGN’s editors weigh in on the PlayStation Move.]

Advances in hardware technology are encouraging gamers to get off the couch, but do the games actually warrant the price of admission (and broken lamps)? New gesture-based controls for Microsoft and Sony are novel, but in order to be truly innovative they have to benefit the gameplay. Otherwise these features will quickly be written off as tacky add-ons designed by marketing experts to keep consumers jonesing for the “next big thing.”

A few days ago at GDC I observed/tested a variety of new high-tech gaming devices, but wasn’t bowled over by any of them. Sony’s wand controller, now officially titled Move and set to launch this fall, does not seem to offer much beyond Nintendo’s Wii remote, which debuted three-plus years ago. It’s more responsive and nice-looking, but as with any of these new peripherals, there’s no way to judge the hardware in a vacuum. Rather, the software will determine the Move’s fate, and even if it’s compelling, to me this feels like a “day late, buck short” response from the historically-conservative Sony. Even if EyePet: Move is an amazing experience, the PlayStation does not stand much chance of moving in on the Wii’s immensely diverse userbase. Just because grandma can hold her own in Wii Tennis doesn’t mean that Little Susie is going to take an interest in dad’s Blu-ray playing, manticore-slaying PS Triple.

Generally speaking, hopes are higher for Microsoft’s camera-based Project Natal, but without substantial software demos, skeptics are outnumbering believers five-to-one. With that in mind, E3 2010 aught to be pretty exciting this year. With all three console giants committed to increasing console lifecycles, these unique add-ons allow developers to experiment with new game designs without starting from scratch on a brand new SDK.

While I can’t fault either company for wanting a piece of the motion-control pie, it seems that an entirely new kind of peripheral would garner a great deal more excitement and attention. As Dan Ackerman points out on the CNET Crave blog, the Wii owes a great deal of its success to its affordability and Nintendo’s reliable, family friendly reputation.  The Wii-mote/Natal/Move debate will push gaming even further into the mainstream, but isn’t necessarily the be-all-end-all of gaming’s future. The dual analog-stick controller has gone largely unchanged in the last eight years. As opposed to the waggle revolution, I’d much rather see a design overhaul for “normal” controllers wherein each button, stick, d-pad and trigger is put under the microscope and thoroughly tested and refined. Tomorrow’s best console games will be played via a truly innovative controller that will take cues from the most unique and high-end PC gaming peripherals. Its weight and sensitivity will be user-customizable like today’s gaming mice, it’ll have a variety of force-feedback options and triggers will alter their “give” according to the on-screen action. Yes, this technological marvel might cost a hundred bucks a pop, but it’ll be the official controller in the inevitable two-console future – the gamepad of choice for the decidedly hardcore console.

Social, Casual or Both? PopCap Sells Cows, Gives Away Free Milk

So strangely compelling...
So strangely compelling...

In terms of wide-sweeping brand recognition, Popcap is to casual gaming what Nintendo is to gaming in general.  Your Grandma knows about Nintendo, but your Mom might know a PopCap game or two.  Founded a decade ago, the company does a spectacular job of keeping their games in the public eye and maintaining a friendly, unassuming aesthetic.  It’s as if making boatloads of money is the pleasant side-effect of cranking out highly addictive puzzlers, and to be clear, casual games are doing big business.  Most of their games are available on multiple platforms, with free versions hosted at  Because the games are both robust and replayable, it’s no surprise that their perennial favorite Bejeweled 2 hasn’t left the Top 10 Highest Grossing list on the App Store since that category was unveiled six months ago . Continue reading Social, Casual or Both? PopCap Sells Cows, Gives Away Free Milk

“Zero” Marketing is the Best Marketing: Dark Void Zero and Instant Nostalgia [Updated]

[As noted on Giant Bomb, a Zero or “0” in a game’s title establishes that it’s a prequel or remake, ala Resident Evil 0, Perfect Dark Zero and Metroid: Zero Mission.]

Dark Void Zero is a little game with huge potential – the lovechild of retro fan-service and innovative marketing has become a very compelling title, and is likely to lead the charge for similar games. Available today for a $5 download on the DSiWare Store, it’s clearly designed to build hype for its full-priced “big brother” Dark Void, ironically released today for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC – everything except the Wii. The two games are as different as their native consoles – Dark Void is a 3rd Person Action game (think Gears of War + jetpack) while Zero is a 2D action/platformer with a decidedly old-school look and feel. While it’s easy to write off Dark Void Zero as nothing more than a puffed-up, buyable advertisement, the game’s nostalgic details make it worth a second look.

Cheesy-yet-awesome "box artwork" for Dark Void Zero

Continue reading “Zero” Marketing is the Best Marketing: Dark Void Zero and Instant Nostalgia [Updated]

Purposeful Wandering: Exploration in Gaming

I game slowly, and I don’t mind admitting it.  I play games methodically, ponderously, and I like to fully explore an area before moving on.  Strangely enough, though, I’m no completionist, at least in the sense that I don’t strive for every last achievement or feather or flag.  No, I’m fueled by a combination of curiosity and cautious preparedness.  I don’t want to rush into that next boss fight under-equipped, and I certainly don’t want to hurry past a rare item. I’d love to say that my commitment to exploration is a product of child-like wonderment, but in truth it’s been nurtured by years of gaming.

Wandering off the beaten path has been advisable in gaming since the hidden warp pipes of Super Mario Brothers (1986).  Super Mario World (1990) introduced the Ghost Houses, which always featured a boring “normal” exit, as well as at least one hidden exit that would reward the player with goodies like access to the invaluable Top Secret AreaDonkey Kong Country (1994) furthered my curiosity by including hidden rewards in just about every level, highlighted by nothing but a sole banana above a seemingly bottomless pit.  More often than not, the digital road-less-traveled yields a rocket launcher, health upgrade or shiny new motorbike

Gotta Turn Those Blue Squares Pink : Super Metroid

It’s a chicken-and-egg relationship that I’ve grown to love, and when my patience and thorough searching leaves me empty-handed, it’s incredibly frustrating.  I feel betrayed when I knowingly walk an in-game mile in the wrong direction and find naught but an invisible wall.

Continue reading Purposeful Wandering: Exploration in Gaming

Finding the Mythical Immersive iPhone Game

The future of iPhone gaming?  Probably not.
The future of iPhone gaming? Probably not.

As the iPhone and other smartphones accompany their owners everywhere, so does the chance to have fulltime access to games. Gamers and journalists alike are asking for more immersive iPhone games, but it’s unlikely they’ll flood the App Store anytime soon. Sure, it would be fantastic to have a lengthy, engaging iPhone game with depth, character development and a solid narrative, but it’s highly unlikely.

With the current benchmark for a “premium” app being anything over $5.00, developers can’t afford a fully-fledged staff. Great games like Mass Effect use cinematics and professionally-delivered dialogue to draw in the player, but both budget and hardware constraints prevent this sort of experience on Apple’s ‘slippery brick,’ as evidenced by Mass Effect Galaxy.

However, there are other inherent flaws in iPhone gaming. Even with your earbuds in place and zen-like concentration, gaming time can be interrupted at just about any moment. This isn’t even kept to the external problems of your average day – even the device insists on bothering you with incoming calls or text messages. While one could set the device to airplane mode, this effectively turns it into an iPod touch – a quandary. By the very nature of being connected on the go, one makes the gaming experience tough to establish.

I find that I have the most fun playing puzzlers on my phone, and the reviewers agree. Over half of the top 15 games on Pocket Gamer are puzzle games, and as developer Tale of Tales founder Michaël Samyn points out, small screens are better suited for shorter, more abstract titles. The device’s limitations are not likely to hinder your play in a puzzle game, whereas shooters and RPGs can be a real headache.

Between the hand cramps and screen glare, I, like most gamers, prefer my iPhone sessions to be short and sweet, relegating my larger-than life gaming experiences to the sofa.

Eliminate-ing Payment Norms – Eliminate Pro and the Hardcore Quandary

Eliminate Pro – Free – released 11/2/09 – developed by Ngmoco (Rolando)

  • Currently the second best selling app in the Free section of App Store (was the first yesterday).
  • Currently the 11th on the Top Grossing section of the App Store (was the third yesterday).
  • The ONLY free app in the Top Grossing section.

Eliminate Pro is free-to-download and is, in a sense, a free-to-play first-person shooter, ala Doom or Call of Duty. However, unlike f2p MMORPGs, users don’t pay for in-game content, but rather to recharge their ‘credits.’ Without credits, you’re limited to playing offline against bots, and cannot earn experience or gain rewards.


It’s essentially like popping another quarter into an arcade machine, but in this case, your credits regenerate over time. When you download the game, you’re given 12 to start with, which works out to three rounds of play. After a few hours, you’ll be granted another round – and it takes half a day for the full twelve credits to regenerate.

The real money-maker for Ngmoco, though, is that you can buy credits at a rate of 20 for 99 cents, 280 for $9.99, or 975 for $29.99.

The game itself is a fairly typical FPS, controlled with virtual onscreen joysticks – fun, yet far less interesting than its monetization method. These non-essential microtransactions are a bold new form of in-game payment. As DLC becomes increasingly commonplace and piracy runs rampant, publishers and developers are trying their hardest to move away from the classic front-loaded sales model.

In fact, Eliminate Pro’s growth reveals a great deal about the nature of iPhone gaming:

  • The game itself is built to play in short bursts.
  • It’s cheap, with a low barrier to entry – it’s free to start, 3 rounds is enough to get you addicted, and extra rounds are cheap, falling into impulse-buy territory.
  • The industry is rapidly expanding – such is its growth that they’re constantly re-writing and building new payment models.

The DS and PSP appeal to self-described gamers – people who most likely have a current-gen system at home. The iPhone, on the other hand, is in its relative infancy, and those who pick it up and start playing most likely didn’t buy it for the games.

This, however, makes Eliminate Pro an enigma. Many iPhone titles err on the side of simple controls, including Ngmoco’s own Rolando, while this game features twitch-gameplay and requires quick reactions. In fact, it’s somewhat console-ish in its skillset – awkwardness of the on-screen analog sticks aside. Its success is built upon the casual models – easy-to-pick-up, cheap and addictive, yet it is, at its heart, a deeply competitive and aggressive title.

Has Eliminate Pro converted casual players into new potential core gamers? Have the hardcore crowds flocked to the iPhone unexpectedly? Or does the game crack some bizarre middle-ground code for making iPhone users buy into micro-transactions?

Ultimately, it could be a combination of all of the above. Who knew that a cell-phone could cause such a hullabaloo?

[Eliminate Pro app store link]