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Author: Paolo

LinkedIn and the real World

This week I went to a fantastic event organized by GameBCN, a local video games incubator. They invited Anchor Point, a new NetEase studio that is opening doors in Barcelona. There was a talk on worldbuilding. I love narrative design, and the speaker was clear and inspiring.

I had the opportunity to meet my friends of the local games industry and, for the first time since years, I have noticed a clear disconnection between the world of LinkedIn and the real one. When I enjoyed LinkedIn the most, before and during pandemic, we didn’t have many tools to automatically create posts. LinkedIn has clearly suffered the process of enshittification that all social media have at some point.

Before it wasn’t like that. Before it was cool to meet in person the same people I met on LinkedIn and see that there were little difference. LinkedIn was a tool to facilitate connections, not followers.

People were worried, many of them are looking for a job or a project to work on. I am calm, honestly. When everyone is in the same situation, why worry at all? I can only focus on build my road, as I have always done.

Maybe it’s time to abandon LinkedIn, which is sad I have a good follow. I will start to use it differently, looking more for connections and less for reactions. Let’s see if the things improves…

Have fun out there, if you’re reading this!

Can effective teaching inspire narrative design?

I love to teach. Every time I am allowed to do it, I do it. It can be videogames, it can be Computer Science, or math. I love to put that seed inside of people. And I honestly think I am pretty good at that.

I was reading an article on effective teaching that appeared on The Guardian some while ago. I am doing it because I am taking a language course in Catalan and I believe that the teacher is really good. And I am asking why is that good to me. So I need also to make my mental model, as always. Designer professional deformation, I guess.

I am also taking a 3 week intensive course on narrative design with Kim McAskill these weeks. It’s very interesting, so my mind makes analogies and connections of course.

Telling stories

Although narrative design is different from storytelling, the purpose is always the same. It is actually the same as game design. Telling something, telling a story. If you want, we always want that. We always want to tell a story, our job and profession is one way of doing it.

And teaching is also telling a story, but you need your students to learn. In games you need your players to have fun. And having fun means, at the end of the day, to learn. That’s the spark of my idea on how to import things from teaching to improve narrative design.

Ideas for a better narrative design

I will grab the points describe in the article linked above and adapt them to narrative design. That is a branch of game design that puts in relationship the systems with the stories, creating settings, worlds, people, characters and the way of deliver them (dialogues, cutscenes, set pieces, and so on).

Narrative design is game design, and game design always creates narratives.

Let’s go:

  • Know your subject -> Have clear how Players can reach their goals: the most important quality of a teacher is, of course, to know what he’s teaching. The most important quality of a good narrative design is to know what the players need to reach their goals.
  • Praise can do more harm than good -> Giving too many rewards early make the Players skip some important step for learning. Players may feel frustrated later and quit, as well as students that may suppose that the teacher will be good with them.
  • Instruction matters -> Stories matter: the quality of teaching has impact on the students. The same is valid for a story. Games do not need a story, but games with a story may literally change lives.
  • Teacher beliefs count -> Designer beliefs count: there is something personal and unique in every teacher and designer. Our way of seeing how to teach or how to create fun influences the outcome. There is no best practice or rulebook, there are beliefs. It’s personal, it’s unique,
  • Think about student-teacher relationships -> Think about player – designer relationships: the interaction of the teacher with the students have a tremendous impact on the climate of the classroom. In a similar manner, designers especially in small realities have the opportunities to create relationships with students.
  • Manage behavior -> Manage behavior! Study the characteristics of your students and the data of your players to be more effective.

Let’s talk about generative AI

Imagine this business: you write which furniture you want for your flat. A green sofa for your lounge. A carpet for the studio. A small library for your dorm. You select the image of what you like and, for the price of transportation, you get the furniture.

Imagine you live in a country where robbing apartments is not a felony. And you know that this furniture was stolen from someone. How would you feel? You may think in the short term, you don’t have money. You don’t want to go to IKEA and fight the whole day with your spouse. Plus, it’s no felony so who cares?

Let’s switch context for a while…

We have lots of hints and suggestions redacted by millions of people over the years. Doctors who tried to solve some specific health condition. Programmers helping others to understand how backend development works.

Every time we need this information to solve some problem or face a challenge, we invest our time in finding the right answer. Meanwhile, we learn about other things we didn’t consider. In some cases, being faster can save lives. In other, don’t.

You are running for what?

Let’s take game development. The more you learn, the more things you spot you should consider, and the better your games will be. So, is it interesting to be faster?

Sometimes I am sure it is. Most of the time doesn’t.

LLM services offer a collage that makes you feel you can make art, or writing without having the talent needed to craft it. Like the stolen furniture example I made, they are a deliberate steal. They take things made by others and give them to you.

An interesting feature is that they provide a summary of hints too. You look for how to code something and they give you the code. You can be faster, but you need to understand what the code does. Also, the slow process of looking for solutions can make you discover things you didn’t consider. You have lost that if you surrender to LLMs.

In any case, they consume water and energy. They pay for that, but they pay a market price that I am afraid is not aware of the long-term damage.

Is it worth it? No, it isn’t.

It can be worth in a life-or-death situation. If a machine is better than the human eye to detect a condition, that case is good for LLMs.

ATTPP a new KPI

Many companies take one assumption for granted: regulars, people who play every single day, are the most willing to spend. This has always been said to me and I have never questioned it. The number of regulars, or its percentage, it’s an important indicator of the success of a service.

This leads the whole team to craft things to convince more and more people to become regulars. Many of them are dark patterns, which work in the short term. Never seen any study on the impact on the long term, of course. Game development is not science, it’s business after all.

This information comes from product and marketing. Companies invest money in advertisements to get a concrete return. Return On Advertisement Spending, ROAS.

Today I want to challenge that. To me, it’s impossible (read a miracle, too) to achieve success without good marketing. Marketing is important to identify an audience and its dimensions as well as make the product arrive at them.

However, the reasons for failure relate very often to game design and production. You need good game design and production to build on the right motivations.

In f2p every time I balance an economy I do it starting from minutes as the basic unit for fun. I have never seen in my entire professional life the ATTPP, Average Total Time Per Player as KPI.

The total time an average Player plays your game before quitting should intuitively be the most important thing to measure!

In my view, measuring that will shift the focus towards the fun. Maybe not a good strategy for big successes, we have best practices for that. Still, a good measure for when things are still small.

Progress and difficulty

I am reading a paper on personalized difficulty in games and I see this graph:

The graph shows clearly that the probability of playing tomorrow depends on how many levels (amount of progress) you beat today.

At GDC24 one of the talks showed this graph:

Kills in 10 matches of a FPS will influence the probability of playing again.

What can we learn from here?

  • Theory of Flow is always valid
  • It’s about the Player: the player of your game should feel good enough and progressing enough. It’s about them, not you!
  • You need to deeply understand the elements of friction, goals and mechanics that shape up the difficulty of your game.

The present of videogames

In 1998, me and my brother were waiting outside of a video games shop, in Naples. The owner promised us on the telephone that the game would have arrived for the opening, the next day.

The game was “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”. Its cost was 120k lire. With the inflation and everything, today would have a cost of 100,52 euros – source

The game was made by a team of more than 200 people and a budget of over $12 million. – source

Today, games with that level of quality have a higher budget and are sold for less money. That’s because of a lot of factors, it’s not simply one reason or another.

Videogames yesterday

In 1998 video games were one of the things that shaped our future as persons. Playing The Legend of Zelda was a life-changing experience. And it was much easier for that Nintendo 64 in our room to catch our attention. We had no smartphones and no socials. We had guitars, a PC with a weak connection, school books, and lots of board games.

The controls of that game were simpler than the controls of the vast majority of AAA games nowadays. The console was offline, you had the game running in less time than today with your PS5. Everything was so simple and so memorable.

Videogames today

Today we have two main challenges, as game creators:

  • The discoverability of our games. There is no friction anymore in making and releasing a game.
  • Games are not the super hot thing anymore. Today there are many drivers of culture, influencers and streamers for instance.

I remember when I read about Zelda on Megaconsole, an Italian zine dedicated to Nintendo games. Nowadays, people have no right to focus on a single article without getting spammed by lots of ads and notifications of sorts.

Combat, puzzles, exploration: the promise was unique. Today, I see Zeldas over and over

I remember my eyes popping out of my head when I saw Soul Calibur running on an imported JAP Dreamcast in front of my eyes. The effect is not the same when you watch trailers on YouTube. Games have lost that spark they had when they were pushing the technology and the boundaries.

How to fix that wicked problem?

The future of video games passes by offering Players real life-changing experiences. Players should come out of a game better than they entered. This passes by really curating the content somehow.

At least, that was the promise. Try to sell a game for 100 euros these days, and see what the people will write about your prices. Why? Because of the value they give to the games today, compared to the value we gave them in the past.

Virtual shops should focus on leaving to the influencers the curation of their content. Imagine opening Steam and having tips from the streamers you love. That’s probably the first step. Steam and other shops should never filter people out, but it would be great for everyone to have a reliable curation of content.

But also we, designers and developers, should try to only push out things that matter at least to us. When I meet someone working for a company with a proper contract, too often I see a bored person who is just doing a job.

We have lost that push that differentiate our sector. We need more passionate professionals, preferably with a broader range of skills. We need to build games on top of what can really improve the life of people through fun.

I am not sure that would solve the issue, but if Players are able to find their games and these games will change their lives a little, also with a simple smile, that’s the way to me.

Game design is facilitation not tactics

Game design is not a narrow world with stable structures. It is an activity where you cannot apply tactics and win the game somehow. You need to think broadly. You need to understand the culture and the past of the genre you are working on. You need basic psychology knowledge to understand human motivation.

That’s why it’s so hard to build and keep a video game company. The successful ones in the past managed to change things, reading the needs and the behaviors. Today you can recognize a bad company since the hiring process.

When a company sends you a technical test, they want to see if you know the formula. They have no time (they think they don’t) to interview you properly. To me, a designer needs to receive a technical test: but live!

That’s because game design is not about tactics. I mean, good game design. The issue is that when a company is led by business people, as it always happens, they look for formulas. They want to just express their vision and you, the designer, apply the right formula to move the project forward. And then the game reaches poor results, but it’s a market issue, Apple changed the rules, and so on.

Good game designers are professionals who know how to walk into the adventurous world of game development. We are facilitators, we facilitate the act of game design among a team. We want to change the culture, somehow.

When you call us just to make money, well… you get the kind of game designer that later in the career becomes a product manager. Nothing bad, of course, it’s just that I don’t fit in all this story.

Hyper-casual is still an opportunity

The hyper-casual business model is dead, but I believe that hyper-casual games are still very attractive. The real challenge is to find a suitable model for these games with little friction and complexity.

During the golden years of hyper-casual, the gold rush pushed many people to forget the basics of game design. With a couple of clients, I have seen in first person the sloppiness of businesses in making games.

One game per week was the mantra. Just do it! Test the CPI. D1 retention is too low: out! Next one!

This is not how good games are made, of course. I believe that hyper-casual games met the need of lots of Players but then they didn’t understood them. The business model is dead because of this lack of empathy. This in the name of fast earnings.

False promises

The promise of hyper-casual was to have an instantly playable lightweight games. A snackable, high engaging experience based in low perception effort. This translates into a high retention at the start.

But then the games are filled with ads with no specific connection with the game itself. At the same time, the experience is not refined after the first days. The result is a drop in players. Imagine, you spent actual money to make the people install your game. And they go after a while.

Companies started to make everything to lower the acquisition cost and increase the ads seen per player. That was the first, and wrong, solution to the problem. The good approach, instead, would have been starting from understanding how to serve better the Players.

The second issue with hyper-casual games have been that they were very easy to clone. The mechanics were so simple to copy. Probably, a competitive advantage would have been to focus on mechanical friction hard to imitate. To make an example, souls-like games are hard to make. The same is valid for good match-3 games.

When a game is boring is because the mechanic has no deepness, or that its deepness has not been explored enough. This causes to the game to be repetitive, and so Players will quit.

The solution to this challenge is to start from the passion for games and social engagement that part of the hyper-casual players had. Look at this data:

You can see that Players are also playing more complex and online games. This is indicative that something can be done to properly serve them without treating them like ad-watchers, clockwork orange style.

Starting from where they love, the games they play and simplify them. Try to find the essence of battle royale, arcade, role playing games. That would have been a success.

  • Is it necessary to have a different character for every silly minigame? Maybe the Player can have a chosen group of avatars represented in different behaviors and mechanics.
  • Which mechanics from hardcore games can be synthesized in a simple game?
  • The game can open in more complex mechanics based on different frictions: start from the mechanical, but then add informational or strategic.

I used two old reports from Facebook and Pangle+Newzoo to make my reflections. Images are taken from there.

Refusal as a generative act

Let’s talk about refusal as a generative act. The refusal has something similar to the design, to me. It identifies issues and creates new opportunities.

Right now in my industry, it’s a moment of change and challenges. Dramatic, somehow. But this is where things can change for the better. Refusal is a great tool we have.

I am reading on my feed dozens of posts written by people with huge experience who have been laid off. Now, these people are looking for work. It reminds me a little bit of the classic royal rumbles I watched on my television when I was a kid. Macho Man VS Hulk Hogan VS Ultimate Warrior… you get that! The most muscled guys in the world fake-fighting for a shiny belt.

Am I willing to join that? No, of course not! I can support this or that stunt, but I refuse to be in the ring. I am the guy with the big hand glove in the background, I love their spirit. But I am not joining that!

And this creates other opportunities for me. I work mostly with people who are starting to build new companies. People who are exploring a vision. There are lots of them, more than profitable companies for sure. There is a lot of work to do. And the more I help them, the more things I learn, the more I can help others.

And the best jobs I have had in my career, I mean full-time regular jobs, have started from this spark. Creativity, making games together. Not screening, filtering, testing, trying, questioning, and all these blockers.

That’s how, through the refusal of the standard processes, I keep and foster my passion for making games.

First screening with a web logical test? Not gonna happen. Unpaid home assignment? Not for me. More than 3 rounds of interviews? I am out.

Let’s meet for 2 hours in a room with a dashboard and a spreadsheet. Introduce me first to the producer and only at the end to the HR manager. Show me you’re looking for experience, design, and concreteness. Show me you want to make games.

I have created this post originally for LinkedIn. But then I removed it from there, because it can be read in wrong ways too.

Let’s talk about refusal as a generative act. The refusal has something similar to the design, to me. It identifies issues and creates new opportunities.

Right now in my industry, it’s a moment of change and challenges. Dramatic, somehow. But this is where things can change for the better. Refusal is a great tool we have.

I am reading on my feed dozens of posts written by people with huge experience who have been laid off. Now, these people are looking for work. It reminds me a little bit of the classic royal rumbles I watched on my television when I was a kid. Macho Man VS Hulk Hogan VS Ultimate Warrior… you get that! The most muscled guys in the world fake-fighting for a shiny belt.

Am I willing to join that? No, of course not! I can support this or that stunt, but I refuse to be in the ring. I am the guy with the big hand glove in the background, I love their spirit. But I am not joining that!

And this creates other opportunities for me. I work mostly with people who are starting to build new companies. People who are exploring a vision. There are lots of them, more than profitable companies for sure. There is a lot of work to do. And the more I help them, the more things I learn, the more I can help others.

And the best jobs I have had in my career, I mean full-time regular jobs, have started from this spark. Creativity, making games together. Not screening, filtering, testing, trying, questioning, and all these blockers.

That’s how, through the refusal of the standard processes, I keep and foster my passion for making games.

First screening with a web logical test? Not gonna happen. Unpaid home assignment? Not for me. More than 3 rounds of interviews? I am out.

Let’s meet for 2 hours in a room with a dashboard and a spreadsheet. Introduce me first to the producer and only at the end to the HR manager. Show me you’re looking for experience, design, and concreteness. Show me you want to make games.

The future of AAA

AAA is a marketing term. And what happens with marketing terms is that they are repeated so many times that they end up infecting also development. Expectations on AAA games are very high, in revenue and design terms.

To me, AAA means games with push-the-boundaries-high quality, extremely good game feel, and long duration. Two messages are spreading fast these days:

  1. 61% of PC/Console players choose 6+ years old games
  2. AAA development is too expensive and we need smaller games

Both messages are true, I guess. But you can read them also in a dangerous way. It’s a matter of “taste” somehow.

Small games are great. If I were to start a new company I would choose something small and grow from there. But video games are mediums not just to convey a story/experience. They are born to push the boundaries and show the technical capabilities of computers. For instance, I own a PS5 and I have zero games that are showing off its potential. Zero, probably the best game I have technically speaking is Horizon Forbidden West, and it was the first game I got with the console. I didn’t purchase a PS5 to play a JRPG made with RPG Maker, sorry about that.

People still buys high quality games

High-quality games have a market, players love games made with details and authorship. The issue lies more in our productivity as game makers since the overall software world is declining.

You should see this!

We should fight for more quality and more productivity, not less ambition. We should start from simpler abstractions because much knowledge is getting lost in the name of being “faster”. Faster doesn’t mean more productive, generally speaking.

  1. Players choose classics because of many factors. I identify 3 of them:
  2. Classics are highly available thanks to 2nd hand, massive discounts and subscription services
  3. Classics tend to have higher quality (in terms of software quality, less bugs) than new releases
  4. Also the game design slowed down in innovation, so that <GameTitle>7 is not that novel compared with <GameTitle>6. So, if <GameTitle>6 costs 10 euros and chapter 7 costs 70, guess what I’ll play?
  5. Over time, the familiarity with titles grows. We like something the more we see it.
  6. Improvements on technology have slowed down. A new title for PS5 is not that different from PS4 as it were between PS and SNES.
  7. The more games Players will have, the bigger chances to play old ones
  8. Game production has been affected by the post-COVID effect

I am positive, I believe we have all the tools to come out from the limbo. But we have to work on it, and maybe this crisis we are living in will bring good opportunities in this sense.