Musings on Business Models

Where we are:

So, the industry has been in a massive race to the bottom.

Congratulations… here we are… Free is the new zeitgeist.

Now we’ve ground that to ground and the top titles are ‘pay to not play’,  ie buy shortcuts to unlock things that you can normally get to by playing, but game-play is made to be so repetitive and grindy that people would rather pay money than play more.   So the lifetime play of those looks something like this:

  • Play something fun and exciting
  • Play it a bit more master it’s nuance and learn about upcoming unlocks and what new exiting element will be unlocked.
  • Grind some more.. slowly getting bored but the lure of the new upcoming unlock promises to be as much fun as the first 15 min when the game was fresh.
  • grind some more.
  • grind some more..  that unlock is looking fun by now
  • at this point the user either, a) keeps grinding,  b) pays to skip the remaining grind, or c) quits.
  • Go back to step 1.

Now the trick is to space the first few unlocks close enough where the player can get them all in a session or two, probably without paying, then the player is already invested heavily and has had several endorphin rushes of  ‘winning’. (no really, go research slot machines and emotional feedback mechanics, systems for building compulsive behavior etc… it will creep you out when you play a facebook game again)

Now you can start to increase the grind amount between major unlocks.  The goal is to gradually increase the required tedium to the point where the user starts investing real money.  And once they start investing money, the difficulty in getting them to spend again decreases dramatically.  Once the user is all worn out and spent, you’ll hopefully have their email address / fb profile etc… so you can cross promote your next game with the ‘From the makers of….’  which will hopefully immediately spark the flashback to the original 15 min.

I think that sucks.

So….Where can we go?

Well.. that’s a tough question.  Because games are everywhere, in greater supply than any user could possibly ever play.  Add in the long tail, and that’s only going to make things harder and harder in the years to come.

For example:

Why play a $15 indie title when it’ll be on a Steam sale  for $3.74 soon.  (Today, it’s the wonderful Orcs Must Die 2) .. but wait why play that at all.. when you can play last year’s AAA title that you missed for $14.99 (today it’s the Complete Prince of Persia pack (5 AAA titles))

The answer, I think, lies in :    investment, involvement, community and marketing.

Investment

Go play the first chapter or 2 of  Telltale’s awesome and gripping Walking Dead.  We need narratives that players can get themselves lost in.  Even better than telling gripping narratives are narratives that they make themselves.  Ask someone about their favorite Minecraft experience.  Everyone has one,  Minecraft is NOTHING but a player investing themselves completely in a world that’s receptive to it.   We’re lucky that Mojang has been great and not added mini expansions/addons/IAP because you know that it’s got to be tempting and would have been wildly successful… The days of running down a hallway and shooting things with little to no narrative for the user to invest in,  well.. you’ll be competing against every game that’s come before you and they can come in at a lower price point than you, because they’ve already made their money back.   Make the player feel like they’re in charge of something they care about and they will stick around.

Involvement

Alpha sale, Kickstarter, Pre-orders with Beta access.  Here’s a not-so-secret, Everyone wants to be a game designer.  (That’s because they don’t know what it really entails) Involve players in your process,  anyone remember alpha release Fridays from Notch?  How about hanging out in the Elemental alpha access forums?  Everquest beta?  Engage your customers..   Now the hard part is getting them in the door in the first place.. but it’s not that bad…because when you empower a user, they feel special and unique and THAT is how things go viral,  when a person can show their friends that they have something cool, unique and special  you just can’t get them to stop talking about it.   It takes time, (ask Notch about how hard it is to keep up with community expectations) and you have to be out there available for critique and since it’s the Internet, it comes with some serious bile.

Community

World War II Online has members who keep their subscription active, entirely because they love the community they have built.  Second Life would have sputtered out years ago if it hadn’t been because of the ability of users to create sub-communities in the game. Natural Selection2 would never have been released without their community coming together.   League of Legends, Dota2, StarCraft  all have strong user<–>user community interactions.  However, building a community is usually the RESULT of having a great game,  so it’s the best way to sustain a title.

Marketing

With every game ever made having the exact same priority in the marke place compared to your title what’s the easy way to stand out?  That’s right, throw money at it.  It works,  ask Cliffski at Positech..  The above methods only work if you have eyeballs on your game.  Now, marketing isn’t a bad word.. really.  And it comes in all shapes and sizes.  From Blog posts, to banner ads, to asking for feedback from Gamedev.net  it’s ALL marketing.. Every Tweet you ever do .. that’s marketing.. Even if you’re not selling a specific title, you’re generating interest in you.  And then, when you have something REALLY important to say, you want to be able to focus as many eyeballs as possible on it as fast as possible.    Think of Marketing as being the Shock Paddles and your game is your Frankenstein..  The above elements will let it grow strong and tall, but without an initial shock, chances are you won’t even get a toe to twitch.