Skip to content

Paolo's Blog Posts

Players may be tired of throwing their money at gem packs

According to the Sensor Tower service and some specialised media, the benefits generated by free-to-play smartphone games have decreased. Specifically, spending on the Apple platform is under 2.3%. On Android there was a dramatic decline of 13.8%.

Experts from around the world are also questioning Sensor Tower’s estimation capability. In short, these estimates could be wrong. As a game designer, I have one, single and simple doubt: are free-to-play games for smartphones losing novelty?

Historically, video games have always thought of pushing the limits of graphics and gameplay. If we look at the premium market, with a simple glance we can see how technological progress has supported the evolution of game modes in a superb way. Even there, however, companies have begun to bet on the safe side. That’s why we see so many sequels, remakes, etc.

I’ve been downloading and trying tons of free-to-play games every week for years. I remember when I started in this video game sector, in 2012. The Pareto Principle was applied in a more courageous way: 80% copying a game, 20% introducing new things. This trend has changed lately.

Free-to-play, in order to be sustainable, needs a huge volume of players. To make this possible, acquisition campaigns need to focus on finding a very large audience. Before Apple’s IDFA deprecation, it was possible to find audiences based on concrete actions. “I would like to have inside the people who paid in this other game”. “I would like people who complete the tutorial of these games.”

This led to a new application of the Pareto Principle: 80% copying from one game, 20% copying from another. You avoid risks, you play “safe” in theory.

The result: the games that we see in top grossing are, from a gameplay perspective, always the same. Human beings certainly do not want complete and revolutionary experiences. However, we need to see continuous evolutions, or we will no longer feel attracted to what the market offers us.

A pop-up comes up with an affordable pack of gems, boosters, and some new heroes. The same type of package I bought in 3, 5, 10 games. The novelty effect of long-term gets lost.

How could we try to solve this?

  • Accepting that it is better to aim at a very large audience and, once inside the game, create different experiences for different type of player personas
  • At the same time, put at the center of your game experience something really fresh
  • Try to create games that can be accessed by multiple devices, not just smartphones, to ensure the service scalability.

Pareto principle in videogames conception

The basic use of the 80-20 rule (Pareto’s principle) in video games is to copy the 80% of a successful or promising game in order to mitigate some of the risks involved in investing time, effort and money in developing it.

Then you have 20% of freedom, where you can put your own secret sauce to the cake.

The risks of this approach come when you do not understand WHY a certain competitor works out there. It may be a successful marketing case. Maybe a special UX is what makes it great. A great level or narrative design may be making the difference. Hard to tell if you do not know basically three things:

The first thing is to deconstruct competitors,

The second thing is to run playtests with competitors games,

The third thing is to study the audience of competitors in a meaningful way.

Be ready for no-internet scenarios

In my dayjob I use a lot: Google Suite, Unity3D, Python, Github (and git in general) and a bunch of tools more such Slack, Discord or Machinations.

I work into the cloud, so that every document and every simulation or concept or prototype I produce is instantly available from everywhere.

Those are strange times, anyway. We cannot take the Internet for granted forever.

What if tomorrow you cannot access to the GDD you were workin on? What if you cannot pull the last commit from your devs? Can you work offline for, let’s say, a week?

Probably it’s time to return back to the Office Suite too…

Is data-driven design good for games?

I work in a analytics centered branch of the gaming business, which is free-to-play. Mobile games constantly collect data on usage. The expression data-driven design is widely used, but I am not sure that is the right way of doing things.

People more expert than me say that there are basically 3 kind of design approaches towards data: data inspired, data informed and data driven.

Image created by The Fountain Institute (link here)

Data-driven design, as defined here is when customer data makes decisions and shows what to design next. In my experience, this always reduces to a basic behavior: follow the biased interpretation of data made by your game lead(s).

Data is intended as information here and not as pure data. To me the best approach is the data-informed one. Players with their behavior should help you improve your game, but you should never forget about your inspiration and intuition. Games are artistic artifacts, at least good games are that.

Most of indie games using data prefer the data-inspired design, but that is very risky because often leads to not set goals properly. In order to set a good goal you should also set up key performance indicators to make periodic sanity checks.

Don’t let just your intuition decide, don’t let just the data. A good game is the perfect balance of both!

My thoughts on seniority

I was talking to a friend and game designer about the future and our wishes. Sometimes I would like to dedicate to projects of a different nature than mobile f2p. Sometimes I would also appreciate to have different kinds of responsibilities.

Companies see my profile and normally contact me for:

  • virtual economies
  • tutorials and first time user experiences
  • game design documents for free-to-play mobile games
  • creative direction

I would love to be able to dedicate a couple of years to an action RPG for PC and Consoles at some point. Maybe I can be very useful in the level design of a moment-to-moment adventure games of the caliber of The Last of Us. I am absolutely convinced of it, even if companies of this type when my resume arrives they discard it in a few minutes.

You should then start as a junior designer in a new reality if you want to do this. Difficult to be a senior designer there.“, my friend pointed out.

I disagree with this. For me, seniority does not depend on concrete experience in a specific type of game.

What it takes to be a good game designer

Raph Koster says that a designer must express quality in three fundamental fields: artistic, technical and editorial.

The artistic side is essential to have that sensitivity to observe what players are looking for in a certain type of game and offer them an experience that in terms of aesthetics and challenge makes sense. The game designer is a bit of an artist: is the game imitating real life, or do you want to create a game that influences real life in some way?

The ability to write is also very important, especially being concise. I believe that the best designers use the formula 60-30-10 when presenting their ideas: 60% images, 30% text and 10% multimedia references. 30% text therefore needs to hit the spot and inspire. For that you need experience and editorial skills. I’m not even an English native speaker, so I have to constantly update myself on this point.

Finally, there are the technical skills. Using a game engine, knowing how to use spreadsheets and other skills that vary depending on the designer. Personally I am proficient with Unity and Python and I create scripts that often make things easier for me and the team. Others are very good at photoshop and can also create basic concept art. Some level designers come from architecture and therefore are quite more comfortable creating structures that make sense. All technical skills can be learned, however. In fact, in 3-6 months at the most, it is possible to enter a new world and acquire what we need to be fully operational.

What is seniority to me

Senior game designers are people capable of understanding the context in which they move, constructively stimulating dialogues and setting up processes according to the project they are in. They are very aware of the gaming business, too.

While I’ve contributed to various virtual economies, that doesn’t mean an AAA game designer isn’t capable of studying competitors and preparing mathematical models and spreadsheets. These are things that can be easily learned. The design process has stages that are independent of the platform, genre and type of audience. It is a question of understanding which problems must be solved, analyzing how other realities have faced the same problems and defining solutions according to a certain context (team, budget, scope, time and quality).

Seniority is primarily dependent on age, in my humble opinion. When I read “senior game designer” and I see an age under 25 I already start to have suspicions. Being senior also gives you the self-confidence necessary to defend designs with superiors. Except in special cases, if you are 22 it is difficult to overcome certain filters set by the experience of 40+ years old leaders.

Age, previous experience and context make the seniority, for me. Having faced the same kind of problems in the past certainly accelerates, but it doesn’t make the difference between junior and senior. You can be slower at start but way more effective on the long term.

Art explains tech trends today

Is video game art for you? For me it is. What is the result of human creative work and comes to attract the attention of other people can be defined as art.

If the video game is art, it is interesting to study the history of art to understand many of its facets. Part of the history of art is the time when living artists realized that they could have very large profits from a simple certificate of originality of an artistic work.

Which explains a lot of the NFT movement that has fully invested the video game in recent months.

This reporter explains it better than me. Enjoy it.

If a videogame is a piece of art, instead of creating multiple NFTs why not embed your whole masterpiece in a single NFT?

Some reflections on good professionalism

Lately for personal reasons I have been working at a much slower pace and I am asking myself many questions. Since work is a very important part of my life, I think it is necessary to ask the question “what does it mean for me to be a good professional?”.

Everyone says “be humble”. Humbleness, to me, does not only mean having a humble spirit, it also means having the humility to share the little that is known. It also means having the humility to try to inform ourselves as much as possible about what we disagree with. Humble basically means allowing knowledge to arrive.

Second, have the urge to study new techniques and areas that you don’t know. The video game sector and all technological sectors need constant training. Very often in a programming language course you can’t imagine you discover ways to save a lot of time! Give it a go!

Golden rule of the good professional: there is no free job. Work is always paid. I’ll give you an example: 3 months ago I started a personal project where I am training young people in the art of game design. I only decide to continue or cancel a project. I try to give these projects an exit. My greatest mission is to pass on my knowledge to people involved. I do not claim to generate benefits.

Should I pay or not? Shouldn’t they be paying me to pass on this precious knowledge to them? No. I expect weekly deliveries, updates and meetings from them. This is work and the work must be paid.

What I see in the Supercell’s CEO message

I read the last message left by the CEO of Supercell on their official website. I really liked three things:

  1. The CEO recognizes that luck is part of the equation, when we look for the reason of success of certain games
  2. The CEO recognizes publicly his mistakes, being a true leader and also a shield for his teams
  3. The CEO still has the mentality of “be bold, take risks” needed to start a project. Also if experts say that, at some point, you should go conservative.

I don’t know this guy, I have only met him once in a fair here in Barcelona years ago. I remind a simple person. That doesn’t make a complete judgement, but messages like this I believe that improve the industry.

Experts may say that Supercell YoY growth has been seriously going down in the last 3 years, but from the other side: the industry needs boldness, the industry needs humbleness and the industry needs honesty.

I did it, I used the Story Mode today

I did it. I was tired of challenge. Still I wanted to play the game I am finishing first this 2022. Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order.

I was playing at “Jedi Master” difficulty, but today I realized that my enemy was too strong for my stress of the moment. So that I switched to “Story Mode” (easy) and I defeated it. I did it.

Should a “Story Mode” be present in every game? That question makes no sense. Every game is in a different context.

How do I feel? Well, I feel a little like a cheater, still I had the chance to have a relaxed moment of gameplay in a 20 hours videogame. I do not have too much time to play, every stress I can save is a chance more to complete a game.

So, why not?

the moment I did it at 21:08. Shame on you (for judging me! xD)

World of MMO is changing and I have to accept it

When I was a young player I used to play a lot to Ultima Online. I played in an Italian shard, with real life friends. Good old times.

You started as a simple peasant with a class and lot of illusion. Then you set your goals. Most of the time I was interacting with other people. That was very interesting to me. Being able to play with a 56k connection. Good old times.

I downloaded yesterday Lost Ark from Smilegate. I don’t know if the product will be successful, but:

  • Loading time is extremely long and the game is extremely heavy.
  • You already have demonstrated (according to the story) that you are the hero. During the tutorial some god says that you are the chosen one.
  • Characters are hyper-sexualized
  • Combat system is all about crowd control, which is cool but you put let’s focus on the beauty and nobility of each monster
  • You have a mount from the very first moment you join the others in the server

Before you had to sweat to get things, now you have just everything. Or, at least, that is the feeling. In fact, it is a free-to-play game and I guess they will cash at some point. For sure mounts, pets and cosmetics.

My trouble is with the game experience itself. You are not the small fish trying to become a hero and then a semi-god. You are already the hero, the chosen one. What are you trying to achieve, apart from showing-off your combos and powers?