At a very deep level the Google Developers Conference 2014 in London was about all the things that you do not have to do to make a game. It is about the tools, platforms, APIs and technology that already exist and are there to enable games developers to deliver fantastic games experiences right across the universe of devices, connections and locations.
History and Pace of Change
Life for games developers changes at a fantastic rate. Just 15 years ago every team had to develop almost every aspect of a game themselves: network code, server code, render engines, database engines, input controllers and AI. Most teams were totally exhausted when they had done that. Few, or none, had the time and experience to create code and content to drive interactive marketing, user engagement, user interaction metrics, monetisation of additional content or persistent state information across devices.
Maybe a few were (Diablo II?), but they were very rare indeed. No pun intended.
Whole sections of the digital world that we take for granted were barely invented. In game advertising? (Yes, I remember IGA starting up). Engagement metrics before Zynga and Ad Mob? Social networking (barely invented, and we are talking Bebo, MySpace here) for viral spreading of games information? Videos of games online? Nope – YouTube not invented for another 5 years. Players score boards across games and across platforms? (People were trying, with “Boards”, but they were barely integrated and required lots of input to use)
Lacking all those features, the only real way to make money was to sell through retailers. That meant a developer was lucky to break even, and would rarely see more than 17% of retail prices appearing in their royalty statement. The poor developer was at the end of a long and very inefficient pipe full of very thirsty companies drinking before they did.
And that pipe not only stopped the money flowing to the developer, but it also blocked almost all of the vital data on what customers wanted and what customers did with games from reaching the developer. Publishers anxiously hoarded information on markets and behaviours, each trying to defeat other publishers but rarely if ever talking to any developers. The whole ecosystem quite literally starved the developers of the two lifebloods: money and information.
I was in the industry from 1999 to 2005, and Warrior Kings made quite the impact. I really enjoyed the industry, and everyone in it that I met. It was creative, technical, and financially complex – and allowed me to play games after hours.
Then our studio went broke (Lesson: do not rely on one publisher to pay your bills).
And I got out
So, around 2005, I got out. And I got out because the industry I wanted to work in had direct digital download sales to consumers, with instantaneous feedback of customer behaviours to the developer, on the fly game patching and downloadable content. I wanted games to run on every platform, and to seamlessly restart from exactly where I left off on the last device. Where each device delivered an aspect of the game experience that best suited it. Where developers could make money if they made a brilliant game that people loved, and, if they did not make it first time, they would learn enough and earn enough to refine, adapt and re-release until it did work.
The industry and ecosystem was, around 2005 showing every sign of being fundamentally broken. Innovation was stifled. An endless stream of branded re-releases and sequels, utterly devoid of creativity. Developers were going bankrupt at a terrifying rate.
But it got better
Hundreds of “failed” companies litter the road from 2000 to 2014. Far too many to list. Each one added a brick to the edifice of gaming. Distribution, data, marketing, monetisation, social, customisation, downloadable content, patch-on-the-fly, all got better piece by piece.
A lot of little pieces were created, and each gained a little advantage over the existing market and technology. Most of it was very complex, not very much of it “played well” with others.
Finally, jumping ahead, it took someone like Google to see the value in games, to assemble the pieces into a coherent whole, and simplify it enough that almost any developer can use them, and almost any gamer can see the benefit and use it.
The Android platform gave them a start, but I have to pass on a huge pat on the back to Google for making the whole Google Games platform reach across iOS and Android. This week, at last, Cloud Save and other cross platform services will seamlessly support BOTH platforms. And that really matters.
Why this matters!
Because the value of modern gaming is entirely in the size of the community. It is a simple mathematical function: double the people in the pool > reduce average ping times > improve chance of a match > reduce lobby times > make games more fun > improves the quality of the experience > increase retention > increase return players.
Oh, and it hugely increases the ability of a game developer to monetise the game they make. More adverts, more data, more players, and more sales. Simple.
Simple things like Cloud Save make people more likely to buy, because the gamer is less likely to lose their games and all their “hard work” to date. (* yes, I know games are not “work”).
Other simple things like the ‘Gift Giving’ and ‘Gift Request” social structures help to bind players into games and communities.
And all of this is built on the industrial strength, so-simple-I-could-code-it, Google Play platform. From now it works on Java, C++ and Unity. As simple plugins. Even to some extent on HTML5 (except for some real time networking for turn based games and stuff). Across all platforms.
And basically FREE.
But, there is a “but”
Yes, there is a “but”.
It is quite a big “but” (pun intended).
The “but” is this …
… it is so simple thousands of other people are going to be doing it, if they are not doing it now. Which means huge competition pressures. It means huge marketing issues. Really serious issues of ‘discovery’ – how will anyone find your game in the thousands and thousands of other games that clutter the space?
Hurdles that would have kept back 90% of the competition are now so low as to be almost irrelevant. There is almost nothing to stop anyone making a game (at least for mobile) and releasing it.
That huge boost of competition and clutter is really going to become the major problem for developers in the next couple of years.
Cutting the Clutter
Google Analytics is already deeply integrated with the Google Game experience and environment. It gives great information on key metrics:
- new players
- return rates
Smart developers will be using that data to help “hunt whales” (those are the 0.17% of the players’ community on mobile that actually pay for your game). That single fact – that under 1 in 500 people actually pay for the cost of a game – has driven all the utterly dysfunctional, nasty, abusive crappy games that flooded the market over the last 3 years.
Garbage In > Garbage Out
Did you get the fact that I REALLY HATE “social games” like FarmVille, CandyCrush, Angry Birds and similar brain-dead garbage? I don’t say that because I am an old school RTS and RPG gamer. I said it because I abhor parasitic commercial operations that basically use psychological tricks to mentally rape and then steal from gullible people.
You will hear of many reasons why the “Whale Ratio” is so low. My take on it is simple: the games are garbage, and the strike rate is so low that they just have to rain their putrid garbage down over millions of people to get anyone stupid enough to pay them money for nothing.
Sadly, this explosion of new games will, for a while, increase the amount of garbage. My advice will be to allow others to explore the garbage pile and learn from them.
Personally, i see the layering of monetisation onto such shoddy and unrewarding games as a bit like putting a Fish on a Bicycle. It makes no sense, and you end up with a stinking seat and a dead fish going nowhere.
The huge increase of exploratory games mechanisms and methods will, by the laws of statistics, throw up some lucky winners. My advice? Don’t mistake luck for judgment. Judgment, in my opinion is things like NaturalMotion. Luck is things like King.com. Judgment will allow repeatable success. Luck? Not so much.
Ultimately it will be good news
In a couple of years the market will settle down. The gamer population will have learned to avoid the psychological trickery, and the games that rely on it will all die out.
We will be left with more, better, games to play. They will be more fun, more engaging, more informative, more entertaining. We will play them with more friends, more often, in more places, on more devices.
And the road to get there is called ‘Experience’
All the metrics, all the ‘gamification’, all the monetisation in the universe is not going to get us to where games will go.
Good games will.
Really, really good games.
That is what developers would be, IMHO, well advised to concentrate upon. Make the game good FIRST, then work out beautiful, slick, invisible ways to make it pay you back for the time and effort it took to make it. Spend lots more time on the emotional experience that you are delivering to the people who are giving you the most valuable thing on this planet:
The attention of a happy human being.