Digital distribution and eCommerce are at the heart of what I do for a living. And nowhere is the Long Tail more at home than at the junction point of digital distribution and eCommerce. Someday, when greater volumes of content are featured on XBLA, it should turn into a perfect Long Tail paradise, right?
Well, that’s what I’m hoping for. But there are a few potential issues that muddy the waters. Some of them are issues facing all community-centric online systems. Some of them are specific to video game services. I’ll give you a couple of examples, and hopefully you can give me some ideas in return!
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I’ve been meaning to write about a web-based MMO called Travian for a long time. Travian is, to my mind, the very embodiment of the phrase “so close, and yet so far.” It has all the basic components of a perfect low-budget MMO, but a few maddening design flaws make the game basically unplayable (in the long term) for most people. The following is a very long deconstruction of the game. If you’re interested in MMOs, read on. If not, it’s safe to skip this post. 😉
Travian in a nutshell
In a nutshell, Travian is a pseudo-real-time massive multiplayer strategy game. You build towns and armies, and use your armies to conquer and pillage other towns. I say “pseudo-real-time” because, while the game operates in real-time and you can take action whenever you wish, each action requires a variable but substantial amount of time to complete. (For example, building a granary might take 20 minutes in the real world; upgrading it might take several hours. And while you’re building your granary, you can’t build anything else. Likewise, sending your army on a raid could take as little as 30 minutes or as long as a day.) There is real genius in this — it preserves the feeling of a real-time game while effectively preventing people with tons of spare time from overwhelming competing players. The eleven-year-old who wants to can obsess over the world map and communicate with allies to his heart’s content, while the forty-year-old parent with twenty minutes to spare can quickly take his turns and tune out till the next day.
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Real-time communication in modern MMORPGs is a funny thing. With rare exception, it tends to resemble anything but “role-playing”. MMO user text generally consists of acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), poor grammar, and a million little references to the outside world (“hang on, my dog is barking.”) Speech is, in some ways, even worse — nothing like the screech of a petulant 10-year-old (or the sound of a toilet flushing in the background) to disturb the illusion of fantasy.
Outside the context of self-policed, dedicated role-playing servers, this may be impossible to “fix”. I put “fix” in quotes because it’s unclear that this is a problem of any real significance — it’s quite possible that the majority of potential players really don’t miss the opportunity to role-play more deeply, even in the “perfect” environment for it. But my gut tells me that, at a bare minimum, there’s room for something more than what’s available today.
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Gamasutra just published an interview with me. Any complaints about my responses? 😉
- Some great news: researchers have found that people who played action video games for a few hours a day over the course of a month improved their vision by 20%. And here I was, worrying about my eyes!
- SCE’s UK sales director, Kevin Jowett, has left the company (just weeks before the European launch of the PS3.) Reminiscent of Molly Smith’s resignation during the PS3 launch (she was the head of PR). Double ouch.
- Shanda’s free-game strategy, derided as desperate over a year ago, is paying off and winning over analysts. More on this from Business Week.
Lots of interesting news this past week about real money transactions (RMT) in MMORPGs. I’ll get into specifics shortly, but first, I encourage you to view the following information through this lens: are traditional MMORPGs first and foremost a game, or first and foremost a social networking service? (And assuming you think the distinction is even meaningful, what bearing does your answer have on RMT, user-generated content, cross-cultural communication, and “virtual property rights” in these games?)
First, from Raph Koster’s blog, a look at the power-leveling industry. As Raph points out, the average market value of a WoW level is $8, and an hour of WoW play is worth under 75 cents. Clearly not enough to turn most US citizens into WoW entrepreneurs, but certainly enough to keep inspiring “level farms” in China. What I found more interesting was a comment by Raph outside the article:
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The times/locations for my GDC sessions were just announced. I hope some of you will have the opportunity to attend and say hello afterwards. 🙂
Session: Sharing Control
Time/Location: 10:30am Friday, March 9, 2007, Room: 41
Session Description: This year’s GDC theme is “Take Control”, but this next generation of gaming should be equally remarkable for its emphasis on broadband-enabled social systems, multiplayer games, and user-generated content. This panel will grapple with the benefits and challenges of *sharing control* with gamers. Issues include: how can developers involve consumers in the design process, how can user-generated content help and harm a game, what are the best ways to prevent “low quality” UGC from frustrating the community, and how can user-driven marketing be encouraged?
Session: PC Gaming in an Age of Connected Consoles
Time/Location: 12:00pm Thursday, March 8, 2007, Room: 36
Session Description: The PC game industry is in flux. While sales of casual and massive multiplayer games are rising, sales of traditional AAA titles are reportedly declining. The panel discusses how PC games should evolve to compete with and complement console titles, and identify promising areas for ongoing PC game development. Issues include:
– Is the decline real (and, if so, what is behind it)?
– How will MMOGs continue to impact the market?
– Which business models are most appealing for PC game development and distribution?
– How should PC game design evolve in response to the capabilities of modern consoles?
- Bravo to Linden Labs for recognizing an opportunity to build goodwill and actually benefit from unthreatening parody exposure (the Get a First Life campaign). Far too many companies would have instinctively reacted with lawyers and threats.
- Henry writes a very good analysis of the debate over Second Life’s user numbers. (I’ll throw one small barb, Henry: cultural change may be difficult to quantify, but profit is not. Users matter partially because Linden Labs is not a charity.)
- Google is bringing ad revenue-sharing to YouTube. Let the flood of lawsuits commence! (And check out my previous article on this subject.)
- Lost Planet cost $40M USD — half marketing, half development.
- An article about vote-based TV programming. One interesting quote: “It is far from clear, though, that the connections voters make with their favorite new talents are the sort that are built to last… aspiring stars — even those backed by a bloc of voters — still need support from old-line media gatekeepers.”
- Ian Bogost tackles one problem with many exergames: lack of social/cultural/creative depth. Quote: “Exergames will have to do more than just demanding physical gestures that produce latent exercise. In addition, they will have to simulate and create the social rituals that make us want to be physically active, whether alone or with others.”
- Great little video explaining the meaning and importance of Web 2.0. I agree with Kim: thoroughly inspiring!
While in Beijing, I visited the “gray market” in order to learn more about video game piracy in China. I’m not sure what I expected… something between an official street market in New York and those guys near Times Square who try to sell you DVD ripoffs (and who pack up their stuff the instant they spot a cop.) I couldn’t have been farther off the mark.
The gray market in Beijing is nothing less than a clean, very commercial, very visible shopping complex. It’s brimming with small stores (one might call them fancy “stalls”), each staffed by several people. The stores have no visible brand, advertising, or sales strategy to differentiate themselves from one another. They don’t need to — there are more than enough customers to go around.
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Xbox / India link updated with correct URL. I’m batting what… one broken link every other post? Bah.