Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Shhhh! Don’t Give Them Any Hints!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 16, 2013

Steve Peterson (designer of the original Champions RPG, among other things) explains how the old models for game development (and game design) are now all but obsolete, and must change with the times:

Trimming the Fat: How and Why Game Design Must Change


This is pretty much ancient history for most of the folks reading this blog, I imagine. I was starting to get a heads-up about how unsustainable it was back in 1999, for crying out loud, but I grossly underestimated just how much inertia (and room for growth) remained in the system.  It seems that the AAA industry, while flirting with the possibilities for several years, is finally cluing in to the fact that the old way, which has led to $50+ million budget games brawling it out in the marketplace with a winner-takes-all mentality – is just not going to fly anymore. At least not at its previous scale.

One key point: “It all comes down to design, in the end. Designers have become used to designing to the form dictated by retail sales, and they have to break out of that mold when the realities of the marketplace change.”

This is something I’m wrestling with, as well. The kind of games I want to make are heavily influenced by a particular model that I most enjoy — very ‘productized’ single-player games. Fire & Forget, a complete game from start to finish, heavy on the strong narrative.  These days, it seems like a popular path to success is to sell your game piecemeal, leaving it open-ended and replayable enough so that more pieces can be added (or finished) as you go. The kind of games I want to make don’t fit well with that model. I don’t think that model is “dead,” but it does make me wonder what else I could be doing to modernize it or improve upon it.  One of the wonderful things about being indie is that the world of game development has been constantly changing and expanding. There are countless possibilities out there now that didn’t exist when I got my start.

The thing is, the games need to be designed around their distribution / monetization approach from the get-go.  This was true in the arcade days – games were designed specifically around the coin-op model. Where we fail is where we adhere dogmatically to the form games took under a previous model – because it is something that we loved – without addressing the needs of the current marketplace. That’s where we end up with guys trying to be “nice” on the iPhone market and losing money because of it. I think the indie / digital distribution world has plenty of room for a ‘nice guy’ approach to succeed (look at Dwarf Fortress, for example).  But you can’t just force a square-peg game designed for one model to fit in a different distribution model and assume all will be well.  But I do think that things are open enough and ripe enough for innovation now that there are dozens of different approaches – some new, some old – that COULD work.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I think that’s great advice, but I think there’s a bit of subtlety to the problem: sometimes the audience isn’t aware that the audience is changing. You mentioned it with the ‘nice guy’ developers who seem to be trying to cling to the old business models, because that’s what the hard-core are demanding. Many developers tend to be (former?) hard-core players themselves, so they tend to relate to this position.

    I’ve seen this first-hand with MMOs. Subscriptions were essentially a historical accident, where a developer just mimicked what an ISP was doing at the time. The funny part is that the game design was still doing what they did when the business model was per-hour charges, leading to a situation where the hard-core were playing a hundred (or more!) hours per month while paying a low fee. But, subscriptions are not sustainable for games that don’t reach certain threshold; they work well for WoW, they didn’t work so well for Meridian 59.

    But, as the MMO market has tried to change, the hard-core people left have been tremendously resistant to change. There are some people who are convinced that free-to-play is the devil’s tool intended to cheat them out of the maximum amount of money possible. The big problem is that it’s no longer an “all you can eat” proposition for the people who tended to consume a lot of content. And, of course, there have been some companies that have not been very forthright with the model. But, from a developer’s point of view, it’s a great model to get people interested in your game with low barriers, to support a smaller population of fans, and to get the hard-core to pay for access to more of the content.

    I guess the lesson here is you should design to to the market and distribution, but keep in mind the current model and the most outspoken users may not be a good indication of what you should do.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I remember even earlier playing games that had per hour or per minute pricing. That one didn’t last. 🙂 But yeah, you are right – you also have to deal with player expectations, which may or may not be ‘reasonable.’

    Interestingly, the reason I quit my favorite MMOs was because of monthly pricing — after realizing I’d been paying a monthly fee for a game that I’d barely played in 3 months. While they had 3 months of charges for providing me effectively nothing, the downside of that was that when you lost a player, it was much harder to get them back. Whereas with a “free to play” game, there’s no barrier to a player coming back for a visit.

  • Xenovore said,

    I’d personally like to see the return of demos, or shareware, where I can try the game out and then, if I want more, I can purchase the full game. And yeah, I wouldn’t mind at all if games were more segmented or episodic, if that means I get new games more frequently. (E.g. Valve had the right idea with the Half-Life 2 episodes, although they failed miserably to deliver on it. Ditto with L4D; that could have worked very well as episodic content, but again: fail.)

    Regarding F2P MMOs: In my experience, it’s usually a stop-gap measure taken when the MMO is bleeding out players, which generally happens due to poor content design; or old, over-played content. Going F2P is the easy way out for developers; they should be improving or creating content, but that’s more work. I.e. F2P is super-convenient for developers, even though it brings little benefit for players. I’ll allow that it can have some benefit for players that have played out the content or haven’t got the time to play, but otherwise… it does nothing to improve the game-play or world content. Also, F2P is usually implemented poorly, intruding into and detracting from the world content. There’s usually a pay-to-win expectation, and yes, a feeling of being nickel-and-dimed for everything. Ultimately, F2P tends to be intrusive and distracting to immersion in the world content.

    …subscriptions are not sustainable for games that don’t reach certain threshold.

    And why don’t they reach a certain threshold? Because they’re not good enough; case in point: Meridian 59. The fact is: if the MMO is good enough — i.e. players feel like they are getting their money’s worth — players are more than willing to pay a subscription; yes, WoW has been proving that for years now. The reason MMOs resort to F2P is because their game-play and world content is (or has become) sub-par, not because F2P is the new, de facto paradigm for MMO development.

    One more thing: The “hardcore” players are the ones that have been around the block a few times. Don’t ignore us. We are the ones that have been playing games for decades now and have a lot of experience with a variety of games on a variety of platforms; we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.

    …the hard-core people left have been tremendously resistant to change.

    We tend to be resistant to change because in most current games, change seems to be only for the sake of change; we’ve already seen better implemented game-play and UIs in past games.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Rampant Coyote wrote: Interestingly, the reason I quit my favorite MMOs was because of monthly pricing — after realizing I’d been paying a monthly fee for a game that I’d barely played in 3 months.

    Yeah, that’s one big benefit of going with a business model that doesn’t require a subscription to access the game. I play DDO and while I’ve spent a fair amount of money on points, I’ve never subscribed. In theory, I’d never had to pay another dime and still have access to pretty much everything I currently have access to. When you pay a sub, it feels like the money is being lost.

    Xenovore wrote: And why don’t they reach a certain threshold? Because they’re not good enough…

    Sorry, that’s bullshit. There are plenty of reasons beyond quality why a game has lower sales: smaller potential audience, ineffective marketing, etc. Frayed Knights is not a worse game than Angry Birds just because the sales figures are smaller, it has a much smaller audience. (For the record, I’ve played a significant part of the former but almost nothing of the latter, but I’m in the minority.)

    Yes, there have been some games that have used free-to-play as a shameless cash grab. I’ve seen a number of sleazy subscription-based games, though, in my wide experience. In many other cases, the free-to-play model has allowed a game with niche interest to get the profitability needed to keep running. The alternative is that every game has to be reduced to the lowest common denominator in order to succeed; that’s something I’d rather not see happen as an MMO player and developer.

    Let me give two quick examples: DDO is my current MMO of choice, using the free-to-play model. It’s an MMO that’s a lot of fun, more fun than WoW is for me. But, it features an incredibly complex character creation system where it’s easy for newbies to make a character they don’t like, but also possible to make a very custom character that an advanced player will love. Foolproofing the character creation system would go against the source material and upset the existing fans who like the complexity and possibilities. Therefore, the game has a niche audience and will not be able to gain as many players as WoW, a game with a considerably simplified design. I’m happy to have it be free-to-play and not have to compromise the design to cater to a wider audience.

    Or take my old game, Meridian 59. The focus was on hard-core PvP with death penalties. Absolutely not a game that has any sort of mass appeal for today’s audiences, but it has a very active and committed playerbase. The problem is that I couldn’t charge more for it than the going rate (and people balked at having to pay even $11/month after the standard price had gone up to $15/month). When I re-launched it, I would have loved to have gone free-to-play, but I deferred to the existing playerbase’s expectations.

    It’s simple mathematics on the business side: if my game of 10000 users charges $10/month, I make $100,000/month. The game with 1,000,000 users makes $10 million per month. The players are paying the same amount for both games, but one game has A LOT more developer resources. Not every game will appeal to 1 million users, and we’ve seen in MMOs that not many games can. If you’re limited by the subscription model, the ONLY way you increase revenues is to increase subscriptions, which doesn’t easily happen with a niche title. I’d rather see a different business model that allows for a wider variety of game types rather than seeing a ton of failed WoW clones and one aberration like EVE Online, personally.

    [Hardcore players have] seen what works and what doesn’t.

    Except that free-to-play works just fine, and there are a lot of success stories these days. As I said, hardcore players don’t like it because it doesn’t give them “all you can eat” content at a set price anymore.