Bourbon Cupcakes, BBQ, and a Sense of Community at the East Coast Game Conference

Two weeks ago, hundreds of game industry professionals and industry hopefuls gathered for the fourth installment of East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. While the southeast doesn’t quite have the bustling industry reputation of San Francisco or Los Angeles, attendees didn’t seem to mind in the least. That a show planned almost entirely by a board that has separate full-time jobs, competing with giant expos that bring in 30 to 70 thousand people, continues to thrive says a lot about the industry today.

The expo hall, much like the show’s attendees, featured a unique split of well-established companies (Insomniac, Funcom, Red Storm), growing independent developers (Spark Plug Games, Mighty Rabbit), and industry-focused businesses, all rubbing elbows as they showed off their work and wares. Panels and presentation topics ranged from business to mobile and social gaming, along with a standalone track led by the region’s most recognizable name: Epic Games.

Of these varied panels, one in particular provided some helpful insights into the continually evolving relationship between consumers, journalists, and public relations in the gaming industry. Within trappings of bourbon cupcakes and actual bourbon, covered to great effect by Kotaku’s esteemed Mike Fahey here, editors from Polygon, The Escapist, Kotaku, and IGN spent an hour going over some of the tougher ethical questions they face in their work.

At the end of the final day, as the expo hall closed and the last panels wrapped up, the unique spirit of the NC Triangle’s gaming industry became a bit more apparent. Attendees lingered and chatted as they broke down their booths, some helping others as they packed up to head home and very few seeming in a huge rush to leave.

While it’s true that hubs like SF and LA lead the industry in size, there’s a lesson to be learned in the continued success of the ECGC. No matter how competitive the space gets, or how much worry goes into predicting the future landscape, we’re all in this together in the end.

Oh, and one more extremely important takeaway from the show: bourbon before noon can be dangerous. Drink responsibly, and preferably a bit later in the day. Cupcakes optional.

Free to Pay: the True Value of Free to Play Gaming

There was a time, not too long ago, when the term “free-to-play” was a four-letter word in video gaming. As put by Riot Games founder Brandon Beck in a recent interview with Joystiq, however: “In the end, free-to-play is just a business model,” and recent moves toward said model from companies like Valve, Turbine, Funcom, High-Rez, and even Blizzard are a clear indication that perceptions are changing.

Penny Arcade on LoL

This is great news for both consumers and developers, as there are numerous benefits to this model for both sides: low barrier to entry, viral growth opportunities, a chance to infuse older titles with a fresh community, and, lest we forget, the fact that players don’t have to pay a cent. Ironically, that final, ultimate benefit to players is the very reason that you’ll see more and more developers moving to this model as perceptions continue to change: free-to-play also means players are free to pay as much as they’d like for their experience.

The most recent proof point for this is best illuminated by, of all things, the recent launch of the latest Humble Indie Bundle: a limited-time bundled collection of five indie titles with a pay-what-you-want pricetag and the option to decide what percentage of your payment goes to the developers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play Charity. By giving gamers the choice to pay virtually nothing ($0.01 as a formality) or as much as they’d like (a record currently held by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson with $4,048), Humble Bundle pulled in over $500k from more than 100k purchases in less than 24 hours. While the bundle technically isn’t “free to play,” it’s certainly a testament to how much money gamers are willing to pony up when given a choice.

Thinking beyond the PC market, the benefits of microtransactions are also being thoroughly (and successfully) explored in the mobile space. A recent study by analytics firm Flurry found that the free-to-play model has passed premium game revenue on the App Store, now responsible for a whopping 65% of revenue generated, thanks to titles like Tiny Tower. As of this post, seven of the ten top grossing games on the App Store are free to download.

Just as any new business model, free-to-play gaming still has maturing to do before reaching full mainstream acceptance, but don’t be surprised if more and more developers start looking toward microtransactions as a viable foundation for new titles, rather than just a really clever way to rapidly grow the userbase and revenues of an older title. It’s been about a year since I last wrote on this subject, and EA has yet to confirm whether The Old Republic will use a subscription model only or have free-to-play opportunities. That certainly doesn’t mean they’re doing anything beyond keeping their options open, but to quote Emily Dickinson: “saying nothing sometimes says the most.”

Growing Up with Games: the Bright Future of “Retro” Gaming

Duck Tales for NES

Like many of the people who’ve found their way into the video games industry, I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can recall. I have incredibly fond memories of playing Duck Tales on the NES at a friend’s house, staring at the black-on-green screen of my original Game Boy for endless hours on long car trips, and spending lazy summer afternoons exploring every nook and cranny of Super Mario World and Mega Man X.

In the last year or so, I’ve found myself turning back to these memories more and more often, largely because the entire industry seems to be doing the same thing. Hundreds of classic games have already been repurposed for XBLA, PSN, and WiiWare, and a number of new titles seem to be pulling their design inspirations directly from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Heck, both Mega Man 9 and 10 pull their graphics directly from that era.

I have no complaints about this trend, but I keep finding myself coming back to one question… where is this all coming from? Is it simply the result of shared nostalgia among an aging consumer base, or was there genuinely something better about games “back then?” I’m not sure I had a good answer to that question before last week, but a few of my conversations at GDC have provided some new insight into the matter. To put it simply, most of us just don’t have as much time to play games as we used to.

While there is undeniable value in titles with “hundreds of hours of gameplay” like Dragon Age: Origins and WoW, the average gamer in their 20’s and 30’s may not have more than a handful of hours each week to sit down and play. This generally leaves them with two options: play through “big” games in bite-sized chunks or look for smaller gaming experiences that fit their schedule. The growing popularity of Facebook gaming, an increasing focus on smaller downloadable titles, and the overwhelming success of “casual gaming” companies like PopCap says quite a bit about how many people are choosing the latter.

What’s not apparent at first glance is that these smaller gaming experiences are, in their own ways, just as compelling as their larger counterparts. They may not have 20-to-50-hour storylines and sandbox gameplay, but titles like Mega Man 9, Castle Crashers, Bejeweled, and Braid are focused, fun, challenging experiences that tap into the core of what it means to be a game. The reduction in scope also lets developers do some absolutely amazing things that wouldn’t work in a larger title, and that innovation has never been more apparent than it was at the Independent Games Festival during this year’s GDC.

MONACO: What's Yours is Mine
IGF Award Winner Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

The IGF booth was consistently the most packed, energetic, and exciting stop on the show floor, with lines of developers, press, and other industry folk in front of every demo station. From the unflinchingly retro difficulty of Super Meat Boy to the “why didn’t I think of that?!” thieving gameplay of Monaco and the atmospheric platforming of LIMBO, the IGF games were an unquestionable display of the entertainment that can still be drawn from retro-inspired gameplay.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Despite the humble beginnings of most of the IGF finalists, a number of them are headed to one of the three major consoles before the end of this year. Super Meat Boy is slated for release on WiiWare and XBLA, LIMBO is coming to XBLA this summer, Joe Danger is on its way to PSN, Shank is being published by EA for XBLA and PSN, and Shatter is already available for PSN. A number of the other titles were also being demoed with console controllers, so don’t be surprised if more IGF entries are added to that list before the year is out.

Does all this retro love mean that big-budget games are on their way out? Not in the slightest, especially considering the sales numbers of Modern Warfare 2. That said, as the gaming population continues to grow and age, their taste in games must necessarily continue grow and age with them. Ironically, this may cause more developers to look back to their own fond gaming memories for inspiration… and if that means we keep getting titles like the ones at this year’s IGF, we’re all in for a treat.

Facebook and the Fate of Social Gaming in 2010

Facebook Logo

Facebook is staggeringly huge. They have over 400 million active users, half of whom log in on any given day, over 500k active applications, and can rattle off plenty of other impressive totals for those who’d like to listen. As an open platform, they have provided companies like Zynga and PlayFish with millions of dollars in revenue, and provided many other developers with a shot at financial success. Despite these achievements, and despite an estimated company valuation that extends into the billions, monetization remains the one aspect of Facebook’s business that hasn’t matched their growth. With this week’s sure-to-be-critiqued changes, that last piece of the puzzle may be ready to fall into place. But first, a bit of background…

On January 21, a group of the Bay Area’s social gaming forces descended on Google’s Mountain View campus for a panel discussion hosted by Peanut Labs and Google Orkut. The evening was inspired by a post on Three Rings CEO Daniel James’ blog which laid out some predictions for the industry in 2010. The panelists included folks from Zynga, RockYou, PlaySpan, Three Rings, Outspark, and Inside Social Games, and they all seemed eager to share their opinions, even if most kept their cards close to their chest while doing so. As the discussion progressed, one thing became crystal clear: the growth or decline of social gaming in 2010 will rest largely on the shoulders of Facebook.

Specifically, the discussion hinged upon upcoming changes to the way Facebook interacts with applications (changes that are now being put into effect). Prior to this week, any programmer on the planet, given some development time, could make money off of a Facebook game without Facebook earning a single cent. Devs could even use Facebook’s tools to grow their game virally for free, sending messages to users and posting notifications on players’ newsfeeds.

This was, originally, in Facebook’s best interest, since being an open platform helped them attract the attention of thousands of developers. It also meant that Facebook owned all the users these games collected, making the developers reliant on the platform for their successes. This setup worked like a charm, allowing folks like Zynga and PlayFish to reach a huge audience and turn an enormous profit.

Now the folks at Facebook have, understandably, decided they want to monetize the successful system they’ve developed. As a bonus, they’ve also figured out a way to clean things up in the process. The new “games” page borrows heavily from Apple’s app store setup, providing users with lists of the most popular games and info on what their friends are playing. Meanwhile, the recently introduced Facebook Credits will provide users with a universal in-app purchasing system. Finally, once the changes are solidly in place, applications will not be allowed to send notifications directly to their users, cutting down on the “spam” messages that many have complained about over the last year.

Facebook Games Page
(Image courtesy the Facebook Blog)

This promises to make the user experience significantly smoother on Facebook, but it also marks a significant shift in power behind the scenes. By making developers live within the framework they’ve established, Facebook is forcing devs to rely far more heavily on traditional outreach like PR and advertising for growth. Advertising is of particular interest to Facebook, especially when you consider the incredibly valuable ad space they now have to offer on the “games” page. Facebook Credits, meanwhile, will let them take a measure of control over in-app purchases (as well as a small cut of the profits) while solidifying their grip by getting users to tie their credit card info to the platform.

Thus, the new system still provides developers with room for viral growth, but it’s not going to be the rampant, sometimes questionably spammy, growth of the past. Facebook is taking control of the platform, both for their own sake and, ostensibly, for the sake of their users. This could be bad news for the developers who have been really cashing in, but as with Apple’s app store, developers that are willing to play by the rules should still be able to profit handsomely.

At least, that’s what Facebook is hoping. Only time will tell whether this plan will bear fruit or put a chokehold on the rapid growth of social gaming on the platform. Either way, 2010 is going to be interesting times for the social gaming industry!

VVVVVV and the Power of PR for Indie Games

It’s only the second week of January, and 2010 is already shaping up to be another incredibly strong year for independent game development. Derek Yu’s freeware colossus, Spelunky, and past IGF Grand Prize winner Darwinia are both coming to XBLA. Newgrounds sensation Meat Boy is headed to WiiWare, as is indie classic Cave Story. Many of the recently announced finalists in the 12th annual Independent Games Festival look poised to take the gaming masses by storm, if they haven’t already, and you can bet there will be plenty of talk about them as GDC approaches. Despite all the buzz surrounding the IGF and these heavyweight indie titles, some clever PR outreach by Terry Cavanaugh has ensured that his cruelly entertaining puzzle-platformer “VVVVVV” is the first big independent game of 2010.

Over the last week or so, talk of VVVVVV has been popping up everywhere, from EDGE (who gave the game an impressive 8/10) and BoingBoing to Destructoid and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Some people might chalk that up to word-of-mouth and the fact that VVVVVV is a great game, but the true culprit is Terry himself. He’s kept his fans up to date and provided behind-the-scenes details with a regularly updated blog, taken his game on the road to big events, done interviews with the right outlets, and weathered bad news honestly and gracefully.

Even more importantly, his well-planned preparations for VVVVVV’s launch, including an incentivized preorder campaign, have caused a plethora of stories about VVVVVV to hit the web in an incredibly short period of time. Buzz can be built up in a wide variety of ways, but one of the best things you can do to get people interested is make sure they see your game mentioned so many times they can’t NOT look it up.

At the end of the day, VVVVVV’s success does, truthfully, hinge on the high quality of the title. If the game wasn’t fun to play, we wouldn’t be hearing about it. That being said, the simple PR tactics Terry used to get his game out there and get people talking are what may take it from being a good indie title to a top game of 2010.

Whether you’ve got a team of 250 people making a million-dollar title or you’re a one-man studio with almost no budget, spending some time (and sometimes a little money) on public relations can ultimately be the difference between a good game and a great one. VVVVVV, the first great indie game of 2010, is living proof. Do yourself a favor and give it a try!

Desert Bus for Hope: Raising Money for Charity by Playing the Worst Game in the World

Originally part of an unreleased Sega CD title starring magician/comedian/TV personalities Penn & Teller, Desert Bus is the cruelest, most boring video game ever created. It is also at the core of a charitable effort that has raised over $130,000 in the past month, Desert Bus for Hope.

In-game screenshot from Desert Bus

Desert Bus, in brief, is a video game interpretation of the drive from Tuscon, AZ to Las Vegas, NV. Players must drive an empty passenger bus along a straight, empty highway at no more than 45mph. The game cannot be paused, the bus drifts erratically to the right, and going off the pavement means crashing and being towed back to the start. Unfortunately for the player, the entire game takes place in real time… even the potential tow back to Tuscon.

In simpler terms, that means a player must spend roughly eight hours playing Desert Bus perfectly to reach Las Vegas and earn one point, whereupon they are then given the opportunity to turn around and make the return trip to improve their score. This can be repeated up to 99 times, assuming the player can figure out a way to survive the forty-ish days of random button presses it would take to hit that number.

Unlikely as it may seem, one group of intrepid individuals has made an attempt to do just that for the last three years. Desert Bus for Hope is the brainchild of Canadian sketch comedy group LoadingReadyRun, and they have collected over $200,000 dollars on behalf of Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play charity to date.

The total for this year’s drive stands at a staggering $138,449.68, enough to hire a team of four Desert Bus drivers (switching off at set intervals, for sanity’s sake) for five days and sixteen hours. They earned over 10 points, their scoring potential slightly marred by an unfortunate bus crash midway through the run. Breaking the $100,000 mark also added to the masochism by forcing LRR member Matt Wiggins to watch as many viewings of “New Moon” as possible in a single day… all in the name of charity.

To better involve fans and help boost support for the event, the Desert Bus for Hope site featured live camera feeds of both the game itself and the driving team. A laundry list of folks connected to the games industry called in to chat with the drivers during the run, including A Life Well Wasted’s Robert Ashley and geek icon Wil Wheaton. The DBfH team also kept fans up to date on Twitter, collecting over 2,000 followers and making their way into the trending topics for a short time.

Desert Bus for Hope’s 2009 fundraising efforts have helped push Child’s Play over $1,000,000 for the fourth year in a row, an incredible feat in itself considering that the charity was only founded six years ago. To the folks at Desert Bus for Hope and Penny Arcade, you have our heartfelt thanks for making the world a better place on behalf of gamers everywhere.

Public Relations Lessons from the House of Mouse

The_Haunted_MansionAt the 2009 Game Developers Conference, Scott Rogers, a designer whose credits include God of War and the excellent (albeit tough-as-nails) Maximo, presented a talk that broke down the core concepts of game design into something everyone could relate to… Disneyland. It was a truly inspired idea and one that, when applied correctly, might also help shed some light on the power of public relations.

Amusement parks, even ones as carefully Imagineered as Disneyland, mean lines. Lots and lots of lines. As a visitor to the magic kingdom, you’ll probably have to wait in line for food, restrooms, the monorail, shows, and rides. For the most popular attractions, those wait times can take over an hour, which can be hard to justify when the ride only takes 5-10 minutes.

This is where the true brilliance of the house of mouse, and the potential power of PR, comes into play. Through careful design choices, the waiting area for just about every major attraction at Disneyland is an extension of the ride itself. The long, winding spaces the queues occupy are decorated lavishly with little interactions that both make the wait more pleasant and inform people what to expect when they reach their destination. They even provide helpful advice on what to look out for and how to stay safe.

Haunted_Mansion_SignConsider the Haunted Mansion. At the start of the line, visitors are funneled through a pet cemetery with plenty of dark humor. Before the ride, guests are divided up into manageably-sized groups and fed through the Stretching Room, a comedic-yet-chilling experience featuring an introduction to the ride by the “ghost host” and portraits of silly death scenes. Heading down a hall of transforming paintings, guests finally arrive at the Doom Buggies and hop on the ride itself.

Disney could have done what most amusement parks do, create a switchback line that dumps people directly onto the ride as fast as possible. It’s a quick and, to a certain degree, effective solution, but the overall experience suffers for it. By taking the time to build out the ride’s influence beyond the attraction itself, they have an opportunity to prepare their guests, keep them entertained while waiting, and set expectations ahead of time.

This is the subtle power that PR can wield over an audience. Much like convincing people to happily wait in line for a ride through the Haunted Mansion, getting someone to buy your game at launch requires their keeping their interest levels high and making sure they understand the title as the release date approaches. You can certainly stick with sending out a launch announcement and setting up a number of well-placed ads, but building on the basics and engaging with your audience can take things to the next level.

As a prime example, take the heavy metal action-adventure Brütal Legend. It had ample star power, a clever premise, and a ready-made audience of metalheads and gamers waiting in the wings. Instead of relying on these points and simply spending a ton of marketing dollars right before the Rocktober 13th launch, Activision focused heavily on pre-release PR efforts and made sure that the outreach acted as an extension of the title’s theme. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • To tease the game before a big reveal in Game Informer, Activision mailed out a limited number of vinyl singles from “Riggs Records” that (true to metal form) demonically chanted the name of the game when played backwards.
  • Video shorts popped up in various places online which had Jack Black (and Tim Schafer) introduce the world to the importance of roadies, the finer points of metal, and key details about the game.
  • Jack Black made multiple in-character appearances as Eddie Riggs in the months leading up to launch, including visits to Jimmy Kimmel Live! and the MTV Video Music Awards.

In other words, Activision and Double Fine built the spirit of Brütal Legend into the entire campaign, combining plenty of humor with traditional facets of both gaming and metal culture. The result was entertaining, informative, and just silly enough to let people know you didn’t have to love metal to join in the fun.

Walt Disney knew that the key to building a successful attraction was making sure the entire experience was accounted for, from the start of the waiting line to the last ten feet leading up to the exit. The same theory applies to successfully launching a new game. Get people to “jump in line” by making a big announcement, hold their attention by providing a steady flow of interesting information, use messaging that helps them understand what your game is and why it’s worth the wait, and, above all else, make sure they have the best experience possible leading up to the launch.

Considering how vast the gaming industry has become and the fact that many games are announced over a year before they hit the shelves, following Walt’s lead can make all the difference in the world.

(Many thanks to Scott Rogers for the inspiration. Head to to check out the entire set of slides from his fantastic GDC presentation!)

Giving Away Games for Fun and Profit

DDO Unlimited

Since 2008, over 20 Eastern-developed, free-to-play MMO titles have launched in the US, and more will be released before this year is out. The list includes Atlantica Online, Deco Online, Florensia, LaTale, Runes of Magic, and many more. With these titles comes a new way of thinking: free-to-play.

While the Western MMO market has stuck largely with the monthly subscription model, Eastern MMO companies have been successfully giving their games away for years. Instead of relying on every user for payment, they offer in-game perks and items for a small fee (aka: microtransaction) and let users decide how much to spend.

The downside, obviously, is that the revenue stream is somewhat unpredictable. In an interview with Gamasutra, Daniel James of Three Rings revealed that only 10% of Puzzle Pirates players spend money on microtransactions. The upside? Users who do spend money spend an average of $50 per month, significantly more than the average monthly subscription fee. Combine that with reduced development costs, zero packaging costs, and lower barrier to entry for new players, and you have some serious potential.

Considering the number of F2P games that currently coexist in the Asian market, it’s hardly surprising that the microtransaction model can be profitable… but can it truly be competitive in North America?

Continue reading Giving Away Games for Fun and Profit

Gamasutra Takes a Close Look at Software Piracy

Piracy continues to be one of the top concerns in the PC gaming industry, but steps to address the issue are being taken by a number of leaders within the gaming space. Leigh Alexander, in a two-part feature for Gamasutra, picked the brains of both the PC Gaming Alliance (PCGA) and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) for insight into the way software piracy has affected and will continue to affect PC gaming.

The first half of the piece, found here, focuses primarily on the current piracy landscape, from online IP protection to anti-plagiarism education. The second half is chiefly concerned with countermeasures like DRM, about which Christian Svensson, PCGA member and senior director of strategic planning and research at Capcom, had this to say:

We don’t make money by making your lives difficult. If we didn’t feel it was absolutely, positively imperative that we have this for our business, we wouldn’t do it.

While the PCGA, ESA and many others are working towards finding an ideal solution, everyone wholeheartedly agrees on the challenges of the current situation. Maggie Greene of Kotaku sums it up quite nicely: “[PC gaming companies] don’t like DRM any more than you do.”

Of course, these companies and organizations won’t make much progress without the support of gamers. Articles like these help to impress upon consumers everywhere the negative impact they could potentially have on developers and publishers each time they’re tempted to find a torrent instead of buying a legitimate copy. Dedicated developers like 2DBoy deserve better than a 90% piracy rate in return for their years of hard work, else labors of love like World of Goo may become a thing of the past.

The PC Gaming Alliance Addresses Software Piracy

In recent interviews with Gamasutra and Ars Technica, PC Gaming Alliance (PCGA) president Randy Stude has firmly established his stance on software piracy. Talking to Ben Kuchera of Ars Technica, Stude remarked:

We are the guardians of the PC as a platform for gaming. We need to make sure there is an environment where publishers are not afraid to invest tens of millions of dollars in developing great gaming experiences…

He even went so far as to suggest a possible solution to the problem in speaking with Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra:

Let’s monetize every one of those pirates, and let’s advertise the hell out of them… Don’t throw [pirates] off [of the server], but show an ad every time a new level loads. The [paying customer] gets a billboard, a passive, less-aggressive ad than [pirates] are going to get.

These comments have prompted a number of discussions across the web, from message boards to major news blogs. Nate Ralph of had this to say:

The PCGA also proposes tracking piracy, and the relative effectiveness of anti-piracy measures to get an idea of what the best approach is… The solution isn’t to slap on more draconian measures, but to figure out how best to turn software pirates into paying customers.

If this discussion becomes more pervasive and real effort is made to better understand the issue,  we definitely think there’s a chance that the combined efforts of the PCGA and increasingly savvy PC gaming consumers will make software piracy a thing of the past.