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Mobile Mindspace

The rise of the mobile gaming over the last couple of years has been covered rather extensively already. And up to this point, I would have argued too extensively. As a phenomenon, it is certainly interesting seeing a market emerge in real-time, but it never really seemed to impact me. The “gamer” population swelled with the ranks of people playing Candy Crush, which had little to do with any core gamers. Maybe a few well-known studios released a mobile app, whatever.

This past weekend ended up being pretty busy, but I still managed to squeeze in around 5-7 hours of gaming. And close to 100% of that time were spent in mobile games on my phone.

Granted, a few of those hours would have been dead time had I not had my phone with me. But close to half of the total was literally me sitting at my computer desk, dicking around with Clash Royale and similar “time wasters.” Part of it was undoubtedly post-game depression stemming from completing Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is always tough for me to mentally transition from 80+ hours of one title into a brand new game that promises similar hours required.

The other part, though? I am wondering whether it is due to my age that I am gravitating towards more instant gratification. Or maybe traditional game designers are getting worse at their jobs?

I spent approximately 20 minutes playing FFXIV over the weekend. I logged in, talked to some NPCs, teleported to some cities, talked some more, then had to take a minute Chocobo ride back to the main base camp to complete the quest. The main story quest, mind you. I had more fun in the 60 seconds of dead time on the Chocobo than I did in the entire 20 minutes playing overall, as I was able to boot up a mobile game, snag some rewards, and restart some locked chest timers.

Now, of course watching chests explode with goodies is a cheap, diversionary tactic at best; it is hardly fair to compare such things to the slow burn of a (supposedly) epic narrative. At the same time, those now-empty chest slots drew my eye to the 2v2 Battle button hovering just above, fat with the promise of compelling and amusing gameplay just a press away. And if I just get 6 more crowns from destroying enemy towers, I can unlock another chest with even more goodies. Hmmmmm.

Needless to say, I logged off FFXIV soon after getting off the Chocobo.

I guess what I’m getting at is the shift towards mobile is a multi-layered “problem.” There is the vapid dopamine rush from getting easy rewards, sure. There is also the front-loaded fun gameplay in quick gaming sessions. Then there is a whole class of game (MMOs) which are utterly reliant on back-loaded… everything. And it is not even that clear that such back-loaded fun is actually required to be back-loaded – that is simply how things have traditionally been done. Why doesn’t Waking Sands in FFXIV have a teleporter when just about every other town does? Is there a legit reason?

I am beginning to question everything. Opening a chest is a vapid reward. Is it more vapid than gaining levels in a traditional MMO? I am playing a Monk in FFXIV, and even after the revamped combat that came with the Stormblood expansion, I’m getting bored to tears with such a limited amount of abilities. I am stuck with limited abilities because the designers don’t want me to get all of them at the beginning because they are afraid I won’t feel rewarded enough in levels 20-60 after having received my full rotation. And they are right to be worried about that – it sounds awful.

Know what else sounds awful? Spending my time playing this game when I can play something else and be having fun right now.

Mobile gaming has not completely consumed my gaming mindspace, as evidenced by the fact that I spent 90 hours in Mass Effect just before this. But I am finding that the proverbial Fun Floor has risen dramatically over the last few months for me, more than it ever has before. Presumably, I am going to remember the twists and turns of FFXIV’s (later) story way beyond Quick Battle #4,872, and thereby justify the time investment.

But sometimes you just want to, you know, have fun when you play videogames. Right now.

Small Changes, Big Effects

I was thinking the other day about small changes in a game’s design that end up radically changing the entire approach I take with the game, either mechanically or just emotionally.

For example, many moons ago I was playing Candy Crush Saga on my phone, and reaching the limits of my patience with the game. I still had a few of the free special abilities left (e.g. your first free hit of crack), and was realizing that losing the level by one move was dumb when it often took extraordinary luck to even to get to that point – it doesn’t matter how skillful you are when success relies on clearing a row or column and having some helpful color replacements drop in. So, I used the free stuff, and then basically stopped playing the game.

A few weeks or so after that, the next time I booted the app up, King had introduced some sort of daily roulette wheel where your first spin is free. One of the prizes? A random special ability. Not all of them were as powerful as the Lollipop Hammer, but they were something. And knowing that I could accumulate these advantages by logging in every day provided an incentive to do so, and continue my progress through the game knowing I could use the special abilities should I need them. The move might have been a cynical cash grab considering you could buy additional roulette spins, but getting one free chance at nabbing a special ability enormously extended my interest in the game.

There have been similar changes going on in Clash of Clans in the past month or two, although cumulatively they might not be able to be described as small anymore. Originally, I was feeling like I had reached the natural end of my progression curve, as I was losing more resources to raids than I was gaining from raiding others. My alternatives seemed to be either spending money, or committing to playing more than 3-4 times a day. Then things started to change:

  • Town Halls started containing many resources themselves, invalidating the old strategy of keeping them outside your base and hoping someone destroyed just that building to give you a 12-hour shield.
  • Only lose your shield if you actually commit to an attack, rather than simply browsing bases to attack.
  • Attacking only reduces your current shield by 3-4 hours, instead of removing it entirely.
  • Added a daily quest to earn 5 stars via attacking, gaining bonus resources based on rank.
  • Reloading traps is cheaper.
  • There is a broken “loot cart” after you get attacked, which refunds a percentage of what was stolen.

The approach I am taking with the game is completely different now. The bonus rewards you get for winning a raid (getting at least one star) was often not worth it if you could fail but still nab most of your target’s resources. Now that I’m in Crystal 1 Master League 3 though? 70k 110k bonus is nearly a 100% increase in what I can usually acquire, so now I’m pushing for full-clears. I also attack more often now, since there is less of a penalty for doing so (losing shield), and even more of an incentive (the daily). The end result is that not only am I more actively engaged with the game, I am still actually progressing at the same time. That these changes might actually end up squeezing more money out of F2Pers in the process – by encouraging buying boosters to speed up attack frequency – is good for Supercell, but ultimately irrelevant to me. Technically, it’s win-win.

In terms of MMOs though, I am mostly drawing a blank. Perhaps the introduction of dual-spec in WoW? Or that one glorious period of time where dailies were weeklies and you ended up burning yourself out running 21 dungeons across three alts on reset day?

…okay. Maybe not all little improvements are good.

Blizzard’s Q3 2015 Report

Rather than risking burying the lede, it feels more like there’s a risk of being buried by them.

First, WoW “only” dropped by 100k subscriptions in Q3:

Pump the brakes, kid.

Pump the brakes, kid.

I did not specifically offer a prediction for this quarter last time, and I’m glad I didn’t. Is it weird to say, though, that I’m both surprised and not surprised at only a 100k loss? It is one thing to expect the WoW house of cards to continue collapsing after seeing 1.5 million subs evaporate in the three months prior. But it is also entirely true that there are people still playing the first EverQuest and Ultima Online like it’s 1999. Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that there would still be people out there playing Star Wars Galaxies or City of Heroes if they could? In that sense, we kinda know already that there will be some kind of baseline level of WoW subscriptions that will always remain. The question is just where that floor is.

Of course, we may never end up knowing where the floor is because Blizzard has decided to stop reporting WoW sub numbers. I pretty much agree with the rest of the internet that this is a rather embarrassing PR maneuver meant to obfuscate the declining success of the game. It’s a shameful, shameful display, Blizzard… how could you sink to the level of EVE Online and FF14’s “lifetime total subscriber” tactics?!

That said, I do find this brave new world of faux news amusing. For example, from the last link:

Instead of subscriber numbers, Activision Blizzard intends to use unspecified engagement metrics.

As the company has pushed toward a “year-round engagement model” with its franchises, it has similarly de-emphasized traditional performance metrics like sales figures. It has never reported sales figures for Destiny, instead relying on “registered users” numbers, sometimes even pairing that with the number of registered users for the free-to-play Hearthstone and reporting a combined number. In its quarterly earnings, Activision Blizzard pointed to “key engagement metrics” for Hearthstone being up 77 percent, but neglected to detail what those metrics were.

I wonder how the job interview went for the person who writes these press releases. “Why should we hire you?” “I’m 77% better than the other applicants.” “In what way?” “Key ways.” I did end up listening to the entire Investor Call for more Hearthstone tidbits, but the only non-zero piece of news was it achieved its highest quarterly revenue in Q3. So… X+1 > X, at a minimum. I suppose we could extrapolate that Hearthstone is still growing, but without a baseline, we’re back in the weeds.

The lede of ledes though, is Activision Blizzard buying King (aka Candy Crush) for $5.9 billion. Pretty much everyone, everywhere has questioned the sanity of this move, and I’m a bit inclined to agree. King is on the decline, even Activision Blizzard agrees there are no synergies between the franchises, and this move has drained the company’s cash reserves of $4.5 billion down to… next to nothing. We can even envision a scenario is which the WoW movie flops – and that’s a real chance – and suddenly things could start looking unexpectedly grim.

At the same time… you kinda have to look at this from a business perspective. Throughout the Investor Call, Kotick and crew repeatedly stressed how they more or less bought ~340 million mobile customers. The sum total of Activision Blizzard’s exposure to to the mobile space up to this point has been Hearthstone and some Call of Duty apps. Could they build some amazing mobile games with $5.9 billion? Maybe. King is on the decline from its heights, but at least they demonstrated that they were successful at some point. If they can release/steal another hit, or start leveraging the mobile eyeballs to cross-pollinate franchises, this could suddenly seem like amazing foresight.

The other thing to look at? King is based in Ireland, which is famous for its double…. sandwiches. Or was that the Dutch? On top of that, of Blizzard’s $4.5 billion in cash they had prior to this deal, $3.6 billion of it was held overseas. As in, evading US taxes. Spending it this way gets the maximum value purchasing power which they may not have been able to realize any other way. And, of course, it moves Activision Blizzard from having little mobile presence to being a dominate player in the field. Even if King turns into Zynga.

So maybe this deal is a bit better than people think.

Peril of Subjectivity

As noted in the sidebar, I have been reading the Art of Game design. One part of an early paragraph sort of jumped out at me, and is kinda relevant to the topic of the usefulness of game reviews:

This peril is the peril of subjectivity, and a place where many designers fall into a trap: “I like playing this game, therefore it must be good.” And sometimes, this is right. But other times, this is very, very wrong. [Art of Game Design, pg 16]

Now, on the one hand, this is pretty straight-forward advice for a game designer. Just because you like the game you are creating doesn’t necessarily mean other people will. But it seems to me that there is a hidden edge to that sentiment, an implication that a well-designed game is one that most players enjoy.

Duh, right?

Well… doesn’t that mean Candy Crush Saga is one of the best games of all time? As of March of this year, 143 million people were playing it every day; the company’s revenue went from $164 million in 2012 to $1.9 billion in 2013 almost entirely on the back of a single game. While the game’s popularity is declining (as is King’s stock price), the takeaway should be that perhaps the quality of a game’s design is not necessarily a function of it’s popularity. Good games can languish in obscurity and bad games can sell beyond all reason.

Which, really, should not come to a surprise to anyone who has ever turned on a television, read a book, or seen a movie.

Here is the Wikipedia link of the best-selling books of all time (minus religious/political works), for example. The top looks pretty good: A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings, and so on. Then you hit The Da Vinci Code and your eye might twitch. It’s only when you scroll down to the book series section when you realize that 50 Shades of Grey sold more than 100 million copies. I wasn’t able to find how many each individual book in the series sold, but if we assume 33 million apiece that means the original 50 Shades of Grey is “better” than To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind. Or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or a whole swath of cultural brilliance.

You probably don’t even need to look at the highest-grossing movies listing to know it’s even worse. There is a Transformers movie at #7 and #11, for the record. And the one at #11 was released, oh, a week four months ago. As in literally seven days ago as of the time of this posting [Edit: I misinterpreted the Wikipedia note; the movie is still in theaters though] . I mean, it should really have been bad enough that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is at #48, ahead of all its infinitely better predecessors.

I suppose my point is that, going back to Tobold’s post, it does not surprise me in the least that Destiny received a 76 Metacritic score and yet has 3.2 million daily players. Just as it shouldn’t be surprising to see how little overlap there is between RottenTomatos’ Top 100 movie list and highest-grossing movie one. I mean, Transformers: Dark of the Moon got a 36% score, and is #7 highest-grossing of all time with over $1.1 billion worldwide. That’s more than LotR: Return of the King (94% fresh) which clocks in at #8.

So, basically, no – game reviewers are no more irrelevant than reviewers of any kind of medium. I mean, unless you think movie reviewers are there for some other reason than to direct you towards movies worth watching… in which case they should have just said “Transformers,” apparently.

I cannot really comment on Destiny’s actual merits for two reasons: A) it wasn’t released on the PC, and B) I’ve been playing PlanetSide 2 for an hour or more each day despite actively hating the game at least 60% of the time. I do not consider the latter indicative of Ps2’s game design brilliance so much as a personal deficiency.

Dungeon Keeper

Heard about that Dungeon Keeper controversy? You’d be forgiven for thinking that EA must have cooked up some particularly nefarious innovation in the mobile wallet extraction app market, but the reality is that this game is merely another straw on a camel-back-breaking pile. From the article:

Whenever you write about this phenomenon, the common complaint from people making the games in question is that not all of them are bad. As Thomas Baekdal realised though, the problem is definition. When your free-to-play game is all economy mechanics rather than game mechanics, when your game is all business design rather than game design, you’re not actually making a game – you’re constructing a scam, whether you realise it or not. If you’re doing it knowingly, you’re just a high-tech gangster.

If we get right down to it, I almost agree with him.

Yeah, no thanks.

Yeah, no thanks.

It is not a particularly robust defense to say that Dungeon Keeper isn’t doing anything worse than what other games have done before. Tobold compared it to Clash of Clans, which I haven’t played, but I have played Castle Clash which I assume to be similar. And between Dungeon Keeper and Castle Clash, there are a lot similarities, mechanics-wise: building troops (which takes time), harvesting resources (which takes time), removing obstacles on the game map (which takes time), attacking other players’ maps and stealing their resources (which is kinda fun). Indeed, about the only real difference between the flavors is how quickly you can reach the sticker-shock of needing to waiting 24+ hours for an action to complete; Dungeon Keeper immediately requires a day to dig a particular type of dirt block along the edges of the map (but there’s plenty of inner-map space), whereas Castle Clash took a while before revealing building upgrades would eventually start taking 7-10+ days.

In fact, as I type this, I have 5 days to go to upgrade my Gold Mine to level 16, 2 days and 10 hours for my Barracks to hit level 14, and it’d take 15 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes if I queued up the level 3 training to improve my Ornithopter troops. As near as I can tell, it’d cost roughly $1 in gems to knock off one full day of one timer.

This design is more effective than you'd think.

This design is more effective than you’d think.

The trick about these games is sort of the trick about Hearthstone: as long as it isn’t your primary source of entertainment, the restrictions are mostly irrelevant. I “play” Castle Clash maybe 3-5 times a day, for about five minutes at a time. Under this schedule, there really is no difference between an action that takes 10 minutes and one that takes 3 hours, as I’m either done with my break at work or whatever loading screen I was waiting on for my PC game has finished. If you only play Hearthstone every 2-3 days, then you will have enough gold to pretty much do whatever you want in each play session. You generally only really get into trouble with F2P games when you feel compelled to play them every day for hours.

Of course, that’s kind of the rub. Tobold is challenging people to think up a better alternative to the wait mechanic that doesn’t result in finishing the game in an hour, but it does sort of strike me as profoundly cynical to engineer a game where not playing is a game mechanic, especially when you offer money to bypass it. I don’t think it’s “entitlement” to ask for a game I can reasonably play for more than 10 minutes at a time, if I have need to. I have zero complaints for having spent a few bucks apiece for Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Dungeon Raid, 10000000, Where’s My Water, and so on, so the admonition of “game devs need to eat” rings hollow. Especially when it’s suggested that dropping $20 on Dungeon Keeper for more imps – which will allow you to run twice as many 24+ hour queues at a time, but still otherwise constrict you to 10-minute play sessions – is considered “reasonable.”

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

All that being said though, I have officially added Dungeon Keeper to my game app rotation. I’m not a fan of it’s constant up-selling in terms of ringtones/wallpapers and such, or the badgering for me to log onto my Google+ account (which I silenced by creating a fake profile), but it’s otherwise a perfectly serviceable Progress Quest-style game for those who derive pleasure from time-management multitasking. Between Dungeon Keeper, Castle Clash, and Candy Crush Saga, I can have an almost uninterrupted 30 minutes (!) of gameplay.

Which is a pretty sad thing to get excited about, don’t get me wrong. But there’s only so much you can do when you’ve beaten all the other mobile games you’ve paid for.