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Paolo's Blog Posts

Indies and F2P

As a freelancer I work with many realities, but never AAA games. I work mostly with indies and free-to-play companies. I had some blockchain gigs, too. They paid very well even if the business was confusing, to say the least.

A significant difference between free-to-play companies and indies is their definition of success.

F2P CEOs are looking to solve a formula: CAC < LTV. Customer Acquisition Cost less than LifeTime Value. Indie founders, instead, want to be able to make another game. Everyone would like to become rich of course.

On one side we have people thinking of something scalable, on the other teams who want to continue making games. They both can learn a lot from each other.

  • The importance of thinking in a business
  • The importance of having the right KPIs to measure results
  • The importance of working on something you love.

Creating content

“The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound.” (G. Orwell, 1984)

Videogames, like music, are perceived by some people working or investing in them as “content”. That’s where the very concept of creativity starts to be corrupted up to a level that is hard to answer quickly to some issue.

Creativity to me has more to do with removing things than adding. It’s like you throw the clay, or something like that, and then you start to dig material away from it.

Everyone who worked with me can confirm this, I start very ambitious and then I work shoulder by shoulder with engineers and artists to remove stuff. It’s better to have 1 thing well polished than 5 generic. It’s better to enhance a strong part of a game than to create a new mode to sustain the weakest ones.

The dopamine culture wants content, and it’s harder to see this simple truth.

The Action Man fantasy

What I really liked to see yesterday at Microsoft’s XBOX Showcase 2024 was the presentation of the new Call of Duty.

I am never been a COD fan, and I have never played that game too much. But I liked the developers’ interview explaining how they changed a single thing, the fantasy, to innovate meaningfully on the whole game.

The new fantasy of the “action man” led to a whole new set of features and animations. Some of them is designed for new audiences who, like me, are not experts playing that game. Refreshing!

Impressive and you can see how the game design is definitely a role shared among the whole team.

World Tetris Day (the day after)

I just discovered that yesterday was the World Tetris Day. The history of Tetris is incredible, they made movies and documentaries on that.

I like to hear stories about game design as an invention. Most of the time we work with projects, not inventions. Inventions in creativity have the potential to create nostalgia.

I like vision statements like “games that will be remembered forever”. They mean to work to develop a market, not just saturate it to extract profit.

The day after World Tetris Day I wish you to invent something new.
Have a great weekend everybody!

Grinding and working fantasy

One thing games and stories have in common is that, for some weird reason we love when they talk about work.

We love stories of lawyers and we love power-wash simulators. A friend of mine bought a freakin’ airplane cabin for his garden and teaches maneuvers to newbies every night on Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad.

We also love games with less fidelity, still on work-related stuff. Nintendogs had a tremendous success, for instance. Some DS owner just got that game and that’s it.

One of the best moments of What Remains of Edith Finch (the most memorable, to me) happens while you are cutting and cleaning fish.

These games can tell stories that we relate to deeply, and give us a different sort of escapism.

When we are kids, many of us play actual professions. I was an astronomer, I bought zines and everything: a true expert! I spent my afternoons with maps, numbers, and theories I didn’t understand.

When a game is bad or “grindy” for us we often say “I feel like I am working”, but the working fantasy has a huge narrative potential.

Games and novels can turn mundane experiences into ones that pull on our psychology of reward faster than the real world. There are sparkles, rewards, sounds, and bouncing numbers.

The working metaphor can be easily related to reality, we can feel productive in terms of that particular fantasy. A well-thought work fantasy can also intrinsically motivate players who like to feel productive and valued.

Are you holding or are you hosting?

Game design uses technology to create entertainment. Entertainment is one of the words that have been corrupted in certain contexts.

In the dopamine culture, the dream of many is to attract the attention of the “users” and trap them forever. Entertainment is read as a synonym of “holding”, which is semantically correct.

Entertainment to me has much more in common with hospitality, instead. The act of being friendly and welcoming to guests and visitors.

Also in the Bible, we can read different translations (Hebrews 13:2):

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

King James Version

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

English Standard Version

It’s your call: entertainment as trapping the people’s attention versus entertainment as showing hospitality.

Are you holding or are you hosting?

Mine is always the latter, I create entertainment for human beings (and maybe angels, who know?), not monkeys.

Squad Busters beat the “voluntary play” test

Squad Busters is a great toy, for me. I noticed this is a game led by game designers. I guess that they want to prove the long tail of this concept. And I hope they will because they are making something they like.

I bet that this game has passed the first very important test of any successful game. This is NOT the D1 retention that can be calculated in at least 4 different ways to trick stakeholders.

I call this test “voluntary play”: if the team is playing the game for pure pleasure, you have a promising game.

Only 5% of games pass this test. If more people would make this test we would have fewer meaningless games in the stores. We prefer to keep working on something uninteresting because “we should check CPI”, or “Let’s see D3“.

My question is: why should the people play that crap if you won’t?

Squad Busters has a strong hook, for sure. If its tail is high enough, building the mid-experience on vertical progress should be easier than following the old playbook. And if it doesn’t work, it’s still a game related to their brand. They could also try to expand to more platforms.

I would play this on Steam, for example.

And for mobile, I would add a new control system for people like me who prefer to swipe. A system based on giving directions to the squad by swiping on the screen. With points of interest for them to act with elements in the range.

Self-expression means self-discovery

A report I read days ago confirms self-expression as one of the trendy drivers of motivation to play a game. This is why the top games are always Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft. These games are masterpieces and they are champions of self-expression.

According to the MDA Framework, there is an aesthetic of games (which means an essence of a playful experience) called expression:

Expression: the Game as self-discovery.

[…]

Expression comes from dynamics that encourage individual users to leave their mark: systems for purchasing, building, or earning game items, for designing, constructing, and changing levels or worlds, and for creating personalized, unique characters.

Self-discovery is to provide tools to the Players to create their assets inside of the game. That is expensive because there are usability issues. It’s hard to prepare an economy on self-expression motivation.

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!

When it comes to self-expression, in my experience there are 3 archetypes:

  1. Creators: they play games that empower them to create their own worlds. They want to turn their vision into reality.
  2. Storytellers: they need freedom to hold the protagonist’s actions in their hands.
  3. Belongers: they want to be part of a team and feel a sense of relatedness.

There are 3 main drivers: creation, emotional immersion, and independence.

For creation, ask yourself these questions:

  • How can I create a world of my own?
  • How can I use my imagination?
  • Can I explore the way I want?
  • Can I create items that I can call my own?
  • Can I explore new environments in other worlds?

For the emotional immersion, ask this:

  • Do I feel completely engrossed in the world/story?
  • Can I care for something or someone within the game?
  • Will I feel an emotional connection to the story?
  • Do I feel a sense of ownership?
  • Do I have an emotional response to an experience?
  • Do I feel like an integral part of the story?
  • Can I be someone else?

Finally, for independence ask yourself:

  • Can I create a different life I want to live?
  • By playing this game can I feel in control of something important in my life?
  • Can I have an experience and not be judged by the game?
  • Can I break the rules?
  • Can I do something I can’t do in real life?

That’s it! Now take Fortnite, Minecraft, or Roblox and answer the questions above. You can see they mark all the checks.

The thing is alive!

Game design is the act of deciding how a game will be. The whole team designs the game, in the end. Every member puts its grain of salt. And then the game starts to drive the game design!

Game designers care about Players, as I said the other day. The game is a medium to realize a playful experience for them. The team builds the game brick by brick. And we play the build every day. It happens that the build itself starts to drive its iterations.

I am reading many analyses of the new game from Supercell. Many of those are written by consultants who have to sell their services. Which is good and healthy, I am a consultant too! I don’t consume all this free knowledge to know what to do. I study because it helps to improve my toolbox, not my choices.

Players, do not care about monetization flows and core loops. Players want a game on their phones fast and engaging when they feel stressed. Something that continues forever, they want to feel the sense of progress. Someone wants to connect with other people through a game.

Every tentative of building a game on best practices, breakdowns, and playbooks fails miserably. I have worked in the last 8 years on dozens of games and it’s always like that. Many business people would love to have an algorithm to create the best game, but it doesn’t exist.

The personality is impossible to imitate. There are companies built on imitation, and the result has always shown their personality. In game design, we need tools but we give our best when we work with what we truly, deeply love and understand. And that happens rarely, that’s probably the main challenge of our craft.

Games drive our work

I am reading breakdowns and opinions regarding the last game from Supercell, Squad Busters. I love to read those things, but the point of all that content (writing and video) is to sell the idea that something like that can be done following a concrete set of practices.

The real goal of the game design is to entertain people using a video game. A video game is an artifact made of technology and entertainment. When you and your team are working on a game, it’s the game itself that guides the whole thing.

You create a game one brick at a time, and you design its systems step-by-step. At some point, it becomes an entity that will inevitably drive your design choices. If the business side starts to impose the imitation of others, that’s a dead end sorry about that.

You can decide what the game should be about, of course. And it’s better to be something that comes from inside of you, somehow. You will not make the next Squad Busters, because you’re not Supercell.

It’s interesting to have a mental library of mechanisms and methods to work with. Your toolbox is important. But you need to put something truly out. There is no other way around, especially if you want to build something solid that lasts.

Nothing new can be predicted to be a success, you have to put yourself in it. And make the game drive your choices according to its evolution. In fact, following others using your intel will only drive you to failure.