Why are game ideas worthless?

Well, it’s been two years since starting this blog.  Today 51 of you wonderful folks have subscribed to, read, and liked my posts.  I really appreciate it.  Thank you.  A recent twitter conversation reminded me of an old blog post, which is still relevant today.  “Until you launch something, the time you spend is meaningless” was controversial at a time when this blog had few readers, let’s dust it off and see if it still is.

An idea for a game is worthless.  It may sound like a rude statement, but don’t take it as a personal attack.  My ideas are just as worthless as yours.  We’ve been told the idea of capitalism is that big ideas make huge fortunes.  Minecraft was a great idea which made a lot of money, right?  Well no.  A well executed game idea is worth lots and lots of money.  That is capitalism.  Notch executed his idea well over time and Mojang continues to execute well (So many weekly updates! Can’t play them all!).  That is worth a lot of money.

Here are some reasons why an idea for a game is worthless.  And why your, and my, ideas might not be worth the same as a great idea well executed.

1.) Economics
Coming up with an idea is really really easy.  Coming up with a good idea is harder, it requires good input.  But a well informed person can have good ideas rather easily.  Price is a function of supply and demand.  We have an unlimited supply of ideas, and demand in only key areas.  Over supply means that most ideas are worthless.  What are the chances that my ideas are ‘worth more’ than yours?  Not very good.  There is simply too much supply of ideas for a single idea alone to be worth anything.

2.) Passion
Your idea is your idea.  Not mine.  Your idea may not be what I am passionate about executing.  Two people can take roughly the same idea and execute it differently, to produce different results.  It’s really hard to get me to be interested in your idea.  A game designer has their own ideas.  They don’t need one from someone else.  Executing someone else’s idea for money is called a job.  Indie game developers are not in the business to execute someone else’s idea.

3.) Project Management
It takes 6 months to develop ONE game if it’s a small project with a limited number of good ideas.  That game may need to contain a few hundred good ideas, but chances are most of them are not original.  There is simply not enough hours in a persons life to execute every idea, let alone all of their own ideas.

For these reasons there is simply no market to sell a game design ideas.  A game design document, even a prototype is not a valuable commodity.  And if I’m wrong I would love to know why.

Thoughts on High Grounds.

Spry Fox, the creator of Triple Town, has a new deck building game out.  It’s a pretty good game and has gotten a good review from PAReport.  With Scrolls coming along slowly and methodically, online collectible card games should have a good couple of years coming up.  Here are some of my thoughts on what it means to have a deck building or collectible card game in a digital medium.

When you take a Collectible card game and put it online you have this interesting design issue.  What does a ‘card’ look like online?  Does it have to be square?  The size and shape of the cards are limitations of the physical medium used to play the game.  But once the game gets created digitally it no longer has the same design constraints.

High Grounds clearly demonstrates the concept of taking a ‘card game’ and removing the design constraints. What does a ‘card’ start to look like once you remove a 2 inch by 3 inch piece of cardboard?  The card art becomes the character avatar, the stats don’t need to be displayed all the time.  Executing the stack becomes the portion of the game executed live, while playing the hand dealt becomes asynchronous.  Conceptually High Grounds succeeds at deconstructing a ‘card’ from a collectible card game while still retaining the essence of the basic game mechanics.

Whether the game is fun or not, I’m not sure.  Having played four or five rounds against the computer, it’s starting to drag a bit.  While no where near the grind that other online CCG’s can become in single player, turns are starting to feel a little too long.  The progression a little too linear.  There aren’t enough random good luck/bad luck things happening during game play.

I have not yet purchased any packs yet.  So perhaps my brain is expecting the risk reward stimulus from my M:tG days and not getting it.  There is just nothing like opening a bunch of packs and finding terrible stuff to activate the hope/despair portions of the brain chemistry.  Except maybe those times when you actually pull something awesome out of a pack.  Maybe if TapJoy were integrated into High Grounds I could earn a few gems by selling my time to advertisers.

There is clearly some tweaking that needs to be done on High Grounds, but it’s an interesting game which pushes the boundary of what a CCG means.  Overall I think it’s a very promising game, and it’s interesting to watch.  Now that you’ve read my opinions, go over and play the game at www.highgroundsgame.com!

Metrics Driven Game Design

Zynga has defended the idea that designing a game heavily based on metrics input is a winning strategy.   Although no one likes the idea of what the output is after that process.  The popular trope around the indie game world is a general feeling of distaste for the kind of game that gets produced by putting in more numbers based feedback rather than human based feedback.

So when the company is game design, it makes sense to track as much information as possible.  And not use it inside the game.  Games have to be fun.  Making games mechanically for the “lowest common denominator” among hundreds (hopefully thousands) of players does not make a fun game.  This LCD effect of designing for very large audience prunes out errors and issue, quirks, of the game.  You get something with pretty art that plays like Farmville.

Metrics are still necessary; especially for a game design start-up company.  But I want to argue that they are not important in the same way.  Metrics are best used to design the company around the game, instead of the game itself.  As the ‘business guy’ I can tell you it’s hard to run a company without metrics.  Every company tracks something about itself.  Old companies track income and expenses.  Newer companies have a whole host of company metrics.  Running a company would be impossible without tracking data about how that company is run.

Games should be fun.  They should have quirks.  They should not be ground out of huge player bases but should be made with devotion by passionate developers.  Avoid the “LCD”, lowest common denominator.  Go ahead and collect the metrics for the game.  Use those metrics to build the company, not to drive game development.

Ownership and investing.

As a complicated person with many ideas, knowledge and experience I have an odd view point on investing in companies.  If we were to sit down and talk one on one about how to go about investing for retirement  for profit, etc. it would quickly become apparent that I am a fan of Jack Bogle.  Keep expenses low, use EFTS, re-balance every year, etc.  Invest in Exchange Traded Funds and understand regression to the mean.

Likewise as a business major I have strong opinions on when, why, and how to take companies public.  You don’t.  Companies perform better when they are private organizations.  People take companies public because they think they’ll make boatloads of money. Let’s relate this to the game industry.  Facebook and Zynga have both had tons of problems after going public.

But I’m very interested in equity crowd funding.  The JOBS Act signed this past April, although completely up in the air, promises to allow sites like kickstart to do more then just take donations for projects.  Right now you can’t buy ownership in a copy.  You pledge funds and if they meet a goal you get swag.  Equity crowd funding means those pledges buy you ownership of the project or company.  Exactly what I would talk you out of as an investor.

This is the central heart of the debate about allowing equity crowd funding.  Being a registered rep and business major there will come a time when I’ll someday be involved with asking gamers to help build a game by purchasing ownership in a project or company.  At the moment I’m not sure how to resolve asking for someone to buy equity when I wouldn’t advise them to make that purchase if the shoe was on the other foot.

This is all academic moral questioning right now…  But at some point this will have to get sorted out.  Not just by me, but by everyone.

RTS eSports Opinion

Most RTS titles from the big game companies are attempting to move in a direction of eSports.  This is somewhat similar to the arch of Magic: the Gathering.  If you are not familiar with M:tG it’s the classic CCG that came out in the early 1990’s.  When first released most players were hardcore table top RPG nerds playing classic Dungeons and Dragons.  The draw of the game was being able to cast spells and magic away from the D&D table.  Eventually it became about competitive winning at the pro tour.  Creating the DCI (Bonus points if you know what DCI stands for) was an amazingly smart and forward thinking move on the part of Wizards of the Coast.  However the tournament scene caused the innovation and the refinement of winning deck design to take over the community.  There were really two different games running simultaneously.  The people playing ‘just for fun’ and the people playing in the Pro Tour.

The RTS genre is going through a similar change.  Warcraft was originally about fun and storytelling.  Dark Reign was also a very entertaining, although buggy, RTS game.  Blizzard has, however, moved the genre towards entertainment by way of competition.  Whether you claim they are learning from real sports, or M:TG or getting their ideas from somewhere else, proponents of esports are definitely aiming to keep players attention by making them compete with each other.  It’s an interesting solution to the problem of longevity in AAA title design.

On the other end of the gaming spectrum we have the absolutely amazing success of Minecraft.  Some people may say they have gotten a ‘lucky’ hand dealt to them at just about every turn. I think they have tapped something altogether lacking in most game titles.  There is no real sport to MC.  Not at the moment at least.  I personally doubt that Spleef or any other Minecraft activity will ever dwarf the amount of time people spend simply expressing their creativity.  At least I hope that is the case.  The game is about expressing one’s creativity and has tapped a deep seated desire to create and control a world.  The replay value of the game comes not from competition with others, but rather through expression.

Competition is not inherently worse than creative play.  It’s just not what everyone is into.   The major game labels are missing out on an audience that is looking for creative sandbox play.  There are plenty of eSport RTS games out there (Starcraft II, Firefall), but it would be nice to have some more titles out there like Dwarven Fortress, Minecraft, Dungeon Keeper, where yes it is real time, and yes it is strategy, but it also provides the opportunity for creative play.

Razer Blade: Disruptive Technology that has missed the mark.

Razer released a full page Wall Street Journal ad telling us all the obvious. PC Gaming is not dead. Thanks. Mojang and I agree with you Razer. They made that claim as a teaser for the release of the Blade. A very thin, very portable gaming laptop. They must not have done much market research as they touted it as “the world’s first true gaming laptop.” Or perhaps they just don’t feel that Alienware machines are up to par.

Either way what’s remarkable beyond the terrible advertising, is the “Switchblade User Interface”. That little extra set of buttons and touch pad in the lower right corner of the Laptop. Almost like a mouse, but not quite.

This is an innovative product, perhaps even a ‘disruptive’ one. You can tell by the number of comments on various sites like Ars Technica (Great article Ben!), The Escapist Magazine, and Reddit that the community is divided. ‘Passionate discourse’ is a sure sign of disruption. That is exactly what a company wants in a product launch. The company wants half the people to love it (and buy it) and the other half to hate it (but not stop talking about it). It is a ‘good sign’ for the company that there are so many people making a fuss about this laptop.

However there are some things going on here which are amiss. They have missed the market(ing) for this device by a lot. Their WSJ add suggests a sort of ubiquitous gaming device that will ‘reinvigorate pc gaming’, but asking a very high price tag for it in a very bad economy. Any reasonable PC gamer with $2800 in their pocket is going to build a liquid cooled device with 6x 3.2 gig cores. Their brand narrative and their price point are at odds with each other. Learn from this my fellow business gamers.

These devices should have been put in the hands of a really competent WoW/FPS coder, and let them come up with a really swanky mod before release. Or perhaps sold to pro or semi pro game players. To stay at the present price point, their marketing should have targeted the ‘prestige class’ of gamers. They needed to do this because they need ‘early adopters’ who are capable of purchasing an expensive product.

All in all this could eventually be a big win for Razer, but in the near term the Blade will be a big flop. Razer has not respected “The Chasm“. They are trying to market disruptive (expensive) technology to every gamer. They should have sold it to the innovators first. This would allow some sales at this higher price point. Some sales, plus time would allow for refined manufacturing that lowers the cost of the I/O device before targeting the majority of gamers.

Instead they attempted to make a huge splash with the general gaming audience (and all readers of the Wall Street Journal). New tech is always expensive. But technology always lowers in price over time. This new input device is incredibly expensive, right now. For $2800 you get an under powered laptop… Using Alienware/Dell‘s website you can build a comparable machine for $1,649. That means that Razer is currently asking approximately $1151 for just the Switchblade UI. That is a huge percentage of the cost of the machine for a user interface that may not have any additional software functionality yet.

Then again the general PC Gamers may not be the target audience. Perhaps large corporations are the target audience. Lets assume for a minute that they actually know about “The Chasm”. Picking the WSJ to announce to the world that Razer is an innovative and disruptive company in a huge industry (I attempted to look for laptop sales figures, but was unable to find anything relevant, any help finding that data would be appreciated). Maybe they are playing a different game then we think they are. They could be really tricky, or really dumb.

I like the statements made by the CEO and Creative Director of Razer, Min-Liang Tan. They purchased their own Taiwanese company to produce the device. They use no focus groups in the design, they rely solely on making a device that they themselves want to game with. (All that quoted from ArsTechnica article previously linked, again thank you Ben.) Far from being a negative, in my mind this means they are directly in touch with the community. That means that when feedback hits them (and it will hit them hard), it wont be filtered through a third party. These are exactly the kind of things that disruptive companies do, and exactly the kind of thing that they need to do. While PC gaming was never truly dead, I hope this is a rebirth of Razer’s innovation. They just need to understand the difference between manufacturing technology and creating innovative technology. Razer does not get the difference yet.

An interview with the Coordinator of Everything at Harcos Labs

Every company has that person behind the scenes that does it all. There are the innovators, the founders who have the big ideas that turn into products. Most stories focus on those few crazy individuals who have zany ideas. But there are also the unsung hero’s of the business world. The people who come with 1000 great ideas about making a business run. Today we have an interview with just such a person, and she’s a gamer.

Natalie’s official title is “Director of New Business Development” for Harcos Labs. Harcos is the company that creates the Mana Potion and Health Potion Energy drink. I remember when the products first came out, there is such a visceral connection between the product and the games. Branding things for gamers was new

What do you do with Harco’s Labs?  What is your title?
I’m the Coordinator of Everything.  I’m sick of formal titles so I was deemed the lady who handles it all!  I mainly act as a brand manager – I deal with retailers and distributors, talk to sales staff about ways to grow the product, coordinate our marketing activities like Facebook, and assist on new product development.

Do you think that Harco’s is more of a game company, or more of a production company and what forms your opinion?
It is more of a production company.  The products were created by two gamers that came up with the idea for Mana potion.  From that product they created other novelty items.

What types of games do you enjoy playing?  
Ok…don’t laugh but I love Guitar Hero.  I know I really need to get into playing more games and learn the lingo.

How have you seen the business grow during the time you have been there?  
Our business has grown internationally which is exciting to know that we have so many fans around the world.

What excites you most about working at the company?  
It’s exciting to hear from our customers – good or bad.  I like to know the products make them laugh, or disgust them, or give them more energy.  We have a blood product where the packaging is a blood bag.

Is there any exciting news that Harco’s is looking to share with the gaming community?  
Exciting for me…a beverage junkie would be the changing of the mana and health labels so they stand out more.  I feel the words get lost in the color of the product.  We want it to stand out!  Since I don’t know much about the gaming industry we’d like to launch new products that our mana and health fans would like.

What advice would you give to folks looking to get into the games industry (including game related companies)?
Use your creativity and passion to get you through those tough days.

Thanks for being a good sport Natalie!
Thank you.

Harco’s is a great company created by gamers, and run by gamers, which is why I love having them as an affiliate for my blog. You may have seen the blue energy bottle ad banners on my blog. If you are a gamer and like energy drinks you should check them out. Clicking on my affiliate link is a good idea, as you can buy them for wholesale price instead of retail. You’re buying directly from a small company, and helping to support my blog at the same time! Good on you!

Late to the Debate…

I like to think about things for a while before posting about them.  This Gamasutra article about Canada helping game designers reminded me of an opinion about our own debate about tax incentives for computer games.  This post is basically a rewrite of a comment Caroline’s post on the Fire Hose Games website. Give it a read and leave a comment with your opinion.  Also it would be great to catch up with the current state of this debate, so if you know of any locations where it’s being talked about online, link them in the comments section.

Robert D’Andrea recently wrote about 38 Studios moving to RI.  It has been in the news lately that RI will allow Game Design Companies access to the Flim Credit tax incentives.  Ma does not currently allow this.  The argument about Tax incentives usually boils down to paying money to attracted outside companies to establish offices inside the state.  For example this Boston.com Op Ed states: “SO NOW it’s the video game industry that wants to be bribed to do business in Massachusetts.” an continues with an unfair statement that a tax incentive for game development studios has to equate to “doling out lucrative tax breaks to privileged businesses”.  He compares it with Hollywood block busters, an industry fully outside of Massachusetts.  Why is this unfair?  Because Ma already has it’s share of small start ups trying to make it in the world of games.  Those are the companies we should be helping, not the established companies.  So in a way I agree.  The big companies don’t need the money.  The small start up companies need help.

We in the game industry need to turn this argument on its head.  The argument should not be about Ma attracting the big guys into the state.  It’s about the state becoming a big player by growing the businesses that are already here.  It’s about capturing some of the incredibly smart graduates from our colleges and keeping them in the state before they move to Silicon Valley or Toronto, to make games by making it attractive for them to start companies here.  The argument should be about the state investing resources into it’s own small businesses and growing them into a large industry.

I agree that “Targeting tax credits to politically wired special pleaders is terrible public policy. ”  It is a bad idea to throw money at ‘special interest’.  But the Independant game community in Boston, which is very capable of making great games, is not a giant special interest.  It’s small business owners from your own state, learning the ropes of business as best they can.  Even the proponents of offering a tax incentive to the video game industry don’t really understand the difference between gaining jobs by growing a local small business.

There are a host of companies, individuals, and organizations already supporting the community of small companies designing games in Ma.  Microsoft regularly hosts Game development nights at the Microsoft NERD Center.  MIT has the GAMBIT Lab, which had a discussion last night well attended by MIT students and Game Designers a like.  Boston Post Mortem and Boston Indies are thriving game communities.  Sure we have some very large companies too, like Zynga, Harmonix, Warner Brothers (Turbine) all have huge offices in the state.  But its the countless other small companies that actually need help.  The big guys don’t need any incentive to be here, they are already here.

Let’s not bother spending money stealing jobs that already exist in other states, or lining the pockets of large companies.  That would be an incredibly inefficient thing to do with our money.  Instead spend the money to help grow companies that we already have in the state into industry leaders.  Check Boston Post Mortem to see a complete list of Independent game companies (computer and otherwise) in Boston.  Most of those are tiny companies making great games.  There is so much potential for those companies to grow larger.

We have a lot of great small companies in this state.  Why not make them larger?  Targeting tax incentives to help grow small business in the state, small business which happen to make games, would costs less.  Stealing jobs from other states by pouring money at large companies is not a productive thing to do.

Thank you,
Jeremy Springfield

4 Stages of Game Design

Some questions were raised in the post “Until you launch something, the time you spend is meaningless“, about the nature of computer game development.  There are many ways that you can develop a title, so these are not the only way that such stages can be defined.  This is in no way a complete list, but meant to provide basic awareness.  It will also form basic definitions for ideas that come in future posts.

Version 0 of the game. The goal of the first stage of game development is to create a working prototype.  Something that is playable and features some of the art and some of the graphics of the game.  While building the prototype you are looking for the fun, and designing the main game play loop.  For example the ZoRTS prototye is going to render some basic terrain.  Two types of buildings will be inserted into the terrain.  There will have two survivor units, and two zombie units.  This is much less than the full version of the game would contain.

Version 1.0 of a game.  You have revised the prototype to include as much content as you possibly can.  Even if unpolished and buggy code.  Even if the thing crashes some time.  All the intended functionality should be present and work at least some of the time.  The main game play loop should be evident and fun.

Version 2.0 of the game.  The vast majority of the bugs should be found and squashed.  New units could be added or old ones removed.  Game play should be tweeked and refined.  Numbers crunched for fairness and balance.  There should be some Quality Assurance people involved.

Players see this as a game with a title in a box on a shelf.  It should be working 99% of the time.  Some players may experience bugs, and things may need to be fixed, but the game should otherwise be stable.  It should be something that a customer is willing to purchase.

These stages outline the process of producing most AAA games, and I would assume many Indie games as well.  There may be different names, or some stages may be missing, but this is the progress that most games go through.

Game idea != Product

Scott McMillian, formerly head of MacGuffin Games, gave another great presentation at Boston Post Mortem Wednesday night.  It was a second showing of “Death of an Indie Studio”, a post mortem discussion the rise and fall of his own small business.  There should be audio and perhaps video of the entire presentation coming along soon.  Which will be really valuable to get the nuance of some of his statements (the art and business continuum, for example).  For now you can find my notes and links to the slides.  The official post from Boston Post Mortem is now up, with more visual goodness!

One of the points that he makes is Art != Business.  Additionally he sites the old “Time = Money” and lends his personal experiance to it.  He describes what he means very well, so I will not try to add any more.  However there are a couple logical relationships that add to his points.

  • Game idea != Product
  • Product != Company
Many gamers have a great game idea.  Experienced game developers frequently scoff, and don’t jump on board.  Why is that?  There are a couple very good reasons.  A great idea is not a product.  You can’t make money off a product that doesn’t exist. It takes time, effort, and no small amount of stress to take 1000 great ideas and make them a game.  Professional Game Devs often have great game ideas faster then they can actually make a single game.  So understand that if you are a gamer with a great idea for a game, you still don’t have anything.  A prototype on the other hand…  Now that’s progress.

Similar to that is something that my Project Management professor drilled it into our heads.  In actuality he just mentioned it and we all accepted and understood it as sage wisdom.  This man is so experienced that he uttered sage wisdom with even passing remarks.  And he’s a damn good lumber jack too (I’m not kidding).  You really must have a product (or service) before you can make revenue.  The plan for a project that will create a computer game is not a company.  The execution of the plan can result in revenue, but not always.  The silver lining here is that if you want to create a computer game, you do not need to create a company to do so.

Scott has been searching for a way to state this more elegantly.  Just because you have a game idea, does not mean you need to start a company.  Understand that start up business fail frequently.  New computer game projects also fail frequently.  If you take the plunge and gather funds to start a company, and fail, you have lost whatever money you put into the company.  Sometimes you lose other peoples money.  Starting a project is less involved then starting a company, and does not require raising capital (i.e. Debt).  If the project fails, you are not saddled with paying off the debts that would be incurred by closing a company.  You have most likely still learned a ton.

Gamers are lucky in that creating games is more of an art.  The tools you need to start making games are very easy to acquire.  Anyone with knowledge (or the ability to learn), and persistence can make a game.  But unless you really want to start a company staying a hobbyist is a really great idea.  It may take more time, but you won’t lose other peoples money.