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Content pipelines

When I design a game the tool I use the most is a spreadsheet. I use spreadsheets for predictions, calculations, but also to define the concrete experience step-by-step. And that leads always to tasks for artists and programmers.

The things you have to produce more often have a sequence of steps to be produced. That sequence is called content pipeline. Or at least, I call it like that.

Content pipelines can make or break your game. I think in FC games from EA Sports, they managed to sell cards. Which is great for content pipeline, cards are relatively easy to produce compared with 3D models and animations.

One of my responsibilities as a designer is to find the optimal content pipeline to satisfy the product thesis. It’s a team effort, an interesting problem to solve. But design plays a big part in that, because we are usually more aware of technicalities.

Onboarding and investments

I name the first session of a mobile game, the onboarding. This starts with the tutorial, which is part of the FTPE, first time player experience.

The onboarding is critical to retain Players. Especially in free-to-play games, the currency that Players will invest in a game is always their time. You will pay to get them and you should make them return. Your duty is to give them a good welcome.

This concept is widely used in the industry as a way to attract investments. You need to prove that your game retains the Players if you want to get your project funded. But there is a trap which is very easy to follow.

The trap is to focus too much on the onboarding leaving the real juice of the game aside.

In my experience, the games that retained the better on their first launch where the games where the onboarding wasn’t present at first. The onboarding design and implementation should come later, you need to first find the real essence of your game.

Using tricks to attract investment can be detrimental on the long term. Because you basically put the whole team on a treadmill, not focusing on the core experience.

Do you want to find the best core to retain? Find the core that works great also without FTPE.

Use analogies to find new formulas

Videogames are sold online and physically to people. Some game is not sold, it’s given for free. Virtual good inside of the game are sold. Video games are fully into capitalism. And capitalism has many characteristics, one of them is that it repeats itself a lot.

You see constantly new trends appearing from nowhere, completely unexpected. And then the system copies, reproduces, re-skins. That’s because of the fundaments of capitalism. And there is nothing we can do about it. It is what it is, so let’s just enjoy and observe it.

Or maybe you want to build something disruptive, something new. In that case you better look from outside of the core of your business, games in this case. With analogies you can find something maybe in sports, or maybe in shoes business that can be applied to videogames.

It’s like repeating in the capitalistic way, but repeating something that out of our system. Something that can become new.

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.

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.

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.

Tending your garden

The secret is not chasing butterflies. It’s tending the garden so that they come to you.

Mário Quintana

I read this quote in a newsletter and it made me think a lot about when I work to improve the sales of virtual goods in games. Marketers know that there are 3 steps behind every buy: trust, value, and pricing. Game design helps with the three when we are allowed to do so.

A game that sells virtual goods is like a garden or amusement park. People arrive, and some of them go away. Someone decides to pose on a flower, someone to someone decides to line up for an attraction. Game design helps serve all those people.

Trust > Value > Pricing

Trust means that Players believe in what your game (and your company) is. If they don’t believe you, they won’t listen to you. You build trust through consistency and honesty. First of all, game design helps identify the segments of Players. Then we help the Players understand the game mechanics, setting clear expectations.

Township was a pioneer in introducing the same minigames that the Players saw in the ads in the game itself. Massive success. Why? Because of trust.

Behind the value, there is time, which is the real currency Players invest in a game. Marketing is in the middle of a radical transformation. Advertising on social media and search engines is costly and ineffective. Game design will show who you are to the Players and what your game represents. The value of a virtual good comes from the reasons and emotions it evokes in Players.

I buy extra movements in a match-3 because I need just another swipe to beat the level (reason). I don’t want to restart, because maybe on the next try, I will perform worse (fear, emotion).

Pricing is something decided by other departments. By using design research we provide an analysis of the pricing of our competitors.

I explain this very briefly:

We start by identifying which elements of the game are related to time (remember? Time is the currency). Then find the resources derived from those. Study the Shop to find and calculate the price of everything. For some elements, you cannot calculate the direct value. Make estimations based on assumptions. Imagine you are a Player who wants to buy everything and calculate the spend depth of your game.

That’s how you care for your garden!

The artistic science of game design

Yesterday I had an online discussion with a fellow designer that is following a trend. The trend is to think in game design as a mere science. Like you can be able to exactly structure and predict everything by using the right approach right from the start.

I listen to everyone and I respect this colleague, but to me great games are never made like this. Game design is not science, also if it uses a pseudo-scientist approach for some of its activities. Make an hypothesis and run experiments. But then, the theory (of fun) you get is constantly challenged by innovations.

To me, instead of make prediction, the best way to fix retention is to see back. To see what you did. You do this by:

  • Playtesting your game every day on your own, every week with your team, and at least every milestone with common people
  • Measure your results and work to improve them, without worrying too much about estimation
  • Learning from your mistakes, you will make a lot of them

This is how I educated myself as a game designer. Game design has also something in common with art, in the sense that you need to develop your taste, your craft and most importantly, your process.

Happy Easter, everybody!

T34 – The Dark Zone (Good Old FRAG)

I installed UEFN and tried out some Fortnite maps created by others. I was conflicted regarding how shooters have evolved these days. On one side, there are tons of mechanics and dynamics in Fortnite. On the other, the thing is getting very complicated! Too many things altogether, games back in the day were simpler.

So I decided to start a new project, codename “TH3FR4GGERZ” where for the moment I am rebuilding classic deathmatch maps for the kids to play what I played (ok, boomer).

I started from The Dark Zone from Quake, which I played tons of hours back in the days at LAN parties (ok, boomer x2). Do you remember it?

  • UEFN is an incredible tool, it’s Unreal Engine but it permits you to set up rules playtest, and publish very quickly without having to worry about code and other things.
  • Fortnite is a game where new and old audiences meet together. This is great as a designer because there are many things I have to understand about these new audiences that are not immediate. For instance, unlike games from my time, the Players receive EVERYTHING right from the start in the most successful experiences.
  • I can revisit classics and finally have an excuse to understand all the steps that led us, the FPS players, here today. Nostalgia level: 9.999.999
  • If you are a Fortnite player, please join: 4321-3870-5686
  • FFA
  • No build
  • No stamina, run forever

First Playtest for The Dark Zone

After a couple of days working on my first map and getting confidence with UEFN, I have a first version of The Dark Zone, a classic Quake deathmatch map to test.

I want to test specifically three things:

  • The dimensions: I had to scale the map up because of many reasons. Usually, in Fortnite, there are more players. Also, I want to express a sense of reverence towards the classics of the genre. Plus, the metrics of Fortnite permit the Players to move more agile across a map. Players can slide, run, crouch, and many things more.
  • The lights: the standard lighting system for Fortnite is very plain, but also better in terms of contrast. Still, I want to represent the darkness of these classics but at the same time make the visuals always readable.
  • Weapons: Fortnite has too many mechanics and weapons, and I have to convert somehow the weapons from Quake to a Fortnite counterpart. That can lead to a lot of balancing issues. I need to test it.