The Boston Marathon
I am from Boston and have been watching and celebrating the marathon for my entire life. Marathon Monday is a day of inspiration and celebration, the fact that this was destroyed in an instant saddens me deeply. There is not much more to say other than this is a day I am sad for all of us, as humans, that one or more of us would choose to do something like this.
I am wondering why, and I am pretty sure none of us will ever be satisfied with any answers we hear.
Thoughts on Startup Advice
I am a first time CEO. Over the course of the last five months I have had the privilege of talking to numerous founder and CEOs about their experiences and invariably receive advice whether I ask for it or not. This is great, it is an amazing part of the entrepreneurial community that is always willing to give back and help those just starting out. The challenge is trying to actually learn something from these stories and find a way to apply the advice once it is given.
Each person I have spoken with has had a fascinating story. I have received advice on product, fundraising, hiring, market strategy, location, equity split, board dynamics, and so much more. The advice has ranged from somewhat complimentary to straight up contradicting and it is impossible to say which advice is more correct. Every person is pulling from their unique experience with their unique startup in their unique industry with their unique team at a specific unique time.
For a while I attempted to pattern match advice by going over the notes I took when talking to entrepreneurs. This never felt quite right because I tried to put them in my shoes and make adjustments for our market, our team, our product and the current landscape. It was impossible. I found myself frustrated and annoyed that I could not figure out a way to leverage this information to become a better entrepreneur.
Eventually I realized the specific advice was not the takeaway, the value was in the path to the final decision. The thought process, the key decisions points are the applicable skeleton that entrepreneurs can build from. I quickly learned how ask for that knowledge and it was as simple as following up “what would you do if you were in my position,” with “why would you do that?”
Asking “why” has given me a chance to understand how other entrepreneurs view my situation, my team, my product, and my market. I will probably never follow any specific advice at first, but will certainly follow the path that other entrepreneurs have laid out and see if I make it to the same conclusions. In the end it is that perspective that I have found to be most valuable.
PAX East 2013 - Board Game List
Every year at PAX East a few of us spend the majority of our time trying out games from the board game library. This is arguably the the coolest part about PAX, because you can try out some board games and then decide which ones you want to buy. Here is my list for this year:
I have heard great things about this game and it sound like a board game version of Civilization IN SPACE.
This is a re-release of the original and since it looks like it takes forever to play I think PAX is the only time I could actually get a captive audience together for that long.
I have heard great things and the gaming group is somewhat obsessed with zombies so this one snuck onto the list.
Only two player but it is supposed to be excellent.
This was a Kickstarter that I sadly missed. The game looks to have some original gameplay and a cool theme.
This was a christmas present I received this year and have yet to play. I love deck building games so this one looks quite fun.
We will also play some of our old favorites, like Zombicide, and I am excited to check out the Kickstarter Arcade to see all the new board games. I will report back next week on what games we liked best and what I ended up actually buying.
The Rise of (Meaningful) Choices
I have been playing through the Heart of the Swarm expansion for Starcraft 2 — which you should totally play if you like Starcraft at all — and was shocked to see just how many choices this campaign actually has. I guess I should not be surprised since I noticed this trend while playing Dishonored as well, but at least that game sort of fit the genre of a RPG.
In the Heart of the Swarm campaign so far I have been able to choose which planets to travel to (which impacts how you unlock units), unit upgrades, unit evolutions and skills for the Kerrigan Hero Unit. The fascinating thing about my experience so far how my limited experience meant that I was effectively just randomly selecting options but how invested it these decisions have made me feel. Since these choices come so early in the game it is hard for a more casual player like me to actually feel confident that I am making a strategic choice, but the fact that the majority of them are non-binding meant that I did not feel the typical buyer’s remorse but instead knew I could go back and fix any mistake I made.
So why do this?
This is not easy for the design team, it is a considerable chunk of additional work to try and balance all these choices and options to ensure that the player will have a good experience. These choices are starting to appear more and more in games that would traditionally be very linear, and there are so many of them that they cannot all be meaningful to every player and their unique play style.
As a player these choices make my campaign feel unique. It allows the player to customize their experience. This gives the player a feeling of power and control that provides investment on a personal level and draws the player in to the game and story at a deep level.
The option to replay the game with different choices means that the systems and content can provide a much larger experience. This is great for both the developer and the player because this opportunity can make the game have a much longer shelf life.
These choices make an impact on the game, story and world. This makes the game feel alive and reactive and gives the player the feeling of power and control. The player is leaving a footprint on the game and the player’s actions really do matter to the outcome.
This level of customization will become the standard for games going forward. As a player, this trend is exciting to me because I love the chance to customize my experience and it is clear that these sorts of changes can mesh seamlessly with story-driven games.
Creating Innovative Gameplay: How Typing of the Dead inspired Letter Rush
Letter Rush was a bit of a passion project for us. We wanted to build something quickly to gain momentum as a team and practice our development process and App Store release process. There was no reason for us to build innovative gameplay in Letter Rush, we could have simply made a clone of an existing word game and it would have accomplished all the goals I listed above (and could have possibly been more successful). Innovating on gameplay is important to us, and we needed to flex that muscle along with everything else.
The genesis of the game came when we were discussing games that we could make fast that had not shown up on iOS yet. One of the ideas tossed out was to make Typing of the Dead for mobile, or Texting of the Dead (get it?). This idea inspired me to start thinking about a prototype.
When I looked at Typing of the Dead I tried to breakdown what parts of the gameplay make it fun and interesting. I played the game for a few hours and took notes on what I liked (see a youtube video of gameplay here). This is what I came up with:
- Typing out the words as they show up is a repeatable and fun mechanic, it never gets old
- The player can get better at typing to gain mastery of the game, the player learns something while playing
- The strategy of choosing which word to type first works very well and made me feel smart
- Difficulty can be ramped up by putting more words on screen, making the words longer or making the Zombies faster
This all seemed to translate well into a game that had a repeatable mechanic with interesting strategy and plenty of room to scale difficulty. There were only two issues left to tackle: making 3D zombies is a lot of work and typing on a virtual keyboard on an iPhone is not fun or elegant. Luckily for me, the theme question was not one I needed to answer in the prototype, but the keyboard one was.
Below is an image I sent the to the rest of the team on my idea to make the game work for mobile. (Warning: It is ugly)
As you can see, the idea was to swipe the words as they appear. The skill was not in how quickly you could type the words, but in how fast you could find the words. I was hoping it would feel a little like Boggle, but I needed to build a prototype to find out. Below is a screenshot of that prototype.
I built this in a day, the board was hard coded and there were only 12 words that would show up randomly. The number in the middle is the time left to spell the word, if the time expires a new word shows up. The player gets 10 points for every word they spell, plus a multiplier for how much time is left when they complete the word. If the player gets to 100 points they win.
This was the point of innovation for the game. The switch from using typing as the primary action to using a swiping word-find completely changed the feel of the game. Most of the other mechanics, at their core, did not really change from Typing of the Dead.
This version of the game was sent to the team and they had a chance to try it. It turns out that this was actually sort of fun. At this point Dan Ogles, our CTO, built out a fully playable version of this prototype with randomized boards and more words. I put a screenshot of that prototype below.
From here we continued to iterate over the course of about two months to release the final version of Letter Rush (pictured below). As you can see, we came a long way from the Texting of the Dead idea but that is how we create gameplay. We start somewhere and iterate on the concept until we are happy with it. Breaking down a game to the core elements gives the rare material needed to rebuild a new game from scratch.
(if you are curious about how many major gameplay iterations it took to get to the final product I counted about 16, at some point I will go back and screenshot all of them)
6 Tips on Building a Game as a Service
Every game is now a service. With pre-orders, DLC, subscriptions, persistent profiles, and premium upgrades, the ability to let players customize their experience has never been more widely available.
Free-to-play games are going to continue to become more popular and games as a service will become commonplace—if not the standard—industry very soon. The team at Proletariat was there at the start, making free-to-play games on the web in the mid-2000s, graduating to Facebook in 2009, and then on to Zynga in 2010, finally ending up founding Proletariat in 2012. Along the way, the team learned a thing or two about designing and building these experiences.
This post covers proven mechanics and successful trends in current and past games. Free-to-play is great for developers and it can be great for players too, it just takes some work. Whether you are a developer hoping to try your hand at free-to-play or a gamer trying to grab a view of the future, please read on.
Disclaimer: All games are different, not all of these rules may apply to your game, company, platform, or product. These are ideas that have worked in the past, but they are not the only way to do free-to-play.
Let Them Pay
The first rule of games as a service is to make it easy for your players to pay and interact with the premium content. This means surfacing the store and premium currency to users, showing the player how fun premium content can be, giving them clear value propositions at strategic times and generally making the purchase experience frictionless and making the player feel awesome. Ideally, the player will come out of the experience feeling great about making a purchase, they should feel superior and high class. Games can provide this feedback by making the player feel special, giving them in narrative encouragement (like CSR Racing), and generally rewarding them for being “premium”.
A great example of this is Clash of Clans on iOS. The premium currency is surfaced at the top level of the HUD and it is made clear how you can spend them to get boosts without even opening up the store. After purchasing a boost there is feedback that the boost is working and the player can see their money is well spent.
Give Lasting Value and Instant Gratification
All games are different and free-to-play gamers will pay for different reasons. Some will want to buy new gear, maps, content, or characters to permanently enhance their game, while other players will want to circumvent timers or get more energy to give them a quick burst of fun right now. Both of these strategies have value, and if you can build a game to leverage both, it has options for all manner of player and payer.
For an example of instant gratification, look at the way energy works in most social games. This is a consumable item from which the player does not gain a permanent benefit. These are essential to a long running service-based game because they provide a near unlimited amount of items to purchase without a heavy cost to produce the content. Some players, however, will never purchase these because they feel it is “cheating” or that they have the will power to grind it out.
The other item type is non-consumable. Using the energy example above, this would be an increase to the energy cap. This particular purchase permanently makes the player more powerful. These items are more difficult to create because they often involve making real content or creating new features.
The real secret sauce comes from structuring the game economy so that the player can make non-consumable purchases that they feel good about while having room to scale these purchases up so there is always something more to buy. This is what drives games like Rage of Bahamut, CSR Racing, and the real-money auction house in Diablo 3.
Make it Harder
Keeping players happy is about controlling players’ expectations for the game and the service as it evolves over time. Most users are savvy enough to understand that the game will change and will expect it to always get easier, not harder, for them. MMOs are the classic examples of this: when new content is released, older content is often deprecated, with new items and skills taking the place of the previous, making the player more powerful (take this story for example: WoW Patch 5.2).
Developers never want to be in the position where they need to make something harder. A change like this will almost always result in a negative outcome, be it reduced engagement or community backlash. If designers make the content difficult, it allows them to reduce the difficulty later, and be seen as heroes within the community. This is a double-edged sword in regard to changing prices, since players that paid at the higher price will feel that they were unfairly charged. Always make the content harder than you are comfortable with to start, and be ready to tune it aggressively as soon as it goes live.
Build A Fun Free (or Vanilla) Experience
This sounds like a no-brainer, but it comes up all the time. The game should be fun to play for free or initial purchase price without any additional add-ons. If it is not fun to play without paying, it becomes very hard to get a player invested enough in the game to pay for it. When thinking about the balance between how much you give away for free, consider the player’s overall investment in the game.
For a free game, developers need to build investment from scratch since the player did not pay any money up front. How many times have you bought a $60 game and wanted to stop playing but didn’t until you felt you got your $60 worth? That is investment. Games need to prove their worth to players before you can ask them to pay. Make sure you are providing a worthy experience.
If a player already paid to play the vanilla version of the game, there needs to be value commensurate with the purchase price. If the game does not feel like a good deal to players, it will be a challenge to convince them they should pay more (see the backlash to EA’s announcement). Additional content and clear expansions are a good option to show obvious value to a player that is a fan of the vanilla game.
Leverage Limited Time Offers and Sales
This is a heavily-discussed topic, but it cannot be stressed enough: sales and limited-time offers work. Creating deals that feel too good to be true will push more sales, but be careful about how often these come up to a player. If a player always sees the currency on sale, they will start to habitually wait for a sale before purchasing.
A game that does this well is CSR Racing. As you can see in the screenshots below, this is a tempting offer for anyone that is even considering spending money in the game.
Prepare For and Celebrate Holidays
When you build a service, you are building a world. You want players to come back often, and one of the best ways to do that is to have timed events. Much like the real world, players want to see the game change over time. One way to think about this is how our culture treats holidays.
People are always preparing for or celebrating a holiday. It is a common topic of conversation amongst friends, for example, “What are you doing for Memorial Day weekend?” We love planning events with our friends; it is almost as much fun as the actual event. For examples, look at MMOs or Facebook games, but find ways to give your players something to prepare for or celebrate every week.
The writing is on the wall: we will see free-to-play coming to the next generation of consoles and it has already become mainstream on the web, mobile, and tablet. There are ways to do it well and create a loved, lasting service by respecting players and giving them high-quality products for their money. The team at Proletariat is excited to see a new age of free-to-play games on the horizon.