Solstice Salutations and Ruminations

Firstly, Merry Summer Solstice! I am not much of one for organised religion (there’s another rant, along with spectactor sport) but I do have plenty of time for honouring and celebrating the turning of the world. I hope you took a moment outside today to mark Midsummers Eve. If not, there’s always tomorrow.

It was a beautiful day today in San Francisco, bright as usual, and unusually warm. I feared that when I started blogging I would end up writing about what I had for lunch today, trivial humdrum workaday details, and so forth. Perhaps I should just jump that shark now. Today I walked up New Montgomery from our Howard St. offices to Kearny and Bush, where I purchased a sandwich from the Boxed Lunch Company. I ate half on the steps above Montgomery Bart on the junction with Market and watched the world go by. After a day packed with meetings and reviews (’tis that season at Three Rings) I had a tremendously sweaty ‘welcome back’ Martial Arrrts class and then ate a fine sushi dinner with Landon (our infrastructuremeister). Today I wore a new green plaid 1960’s three-piece wool suit that I picked up from Portobello market, which was thoroughly unseasonal. This week I have mostly been eating yoghurt for breakfast.

Ahh, that’s better. I can relax now, having gotten that out of the way.

I have been away on something of combo vacation and business trip to New York and London. New York is an exciting town; I think it’s a lot like London, but vertically stretched. It’s exciting to be there, and the girls dress really well — I am a big fan of the sneakers (I would call them trainers) and business suit look. I caught up with some friends, one of whom is working at the warehouse of a major arrrt museum literally shuffling about and packing up incredibly valuable masterpieces. Sort of ‘Would you grab the Van Gough over there, next to the C├ęzanne, and take it over to the packing table?’ The way she described the place it sounded like an art gallery version of the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark — infinite treasures of ancient civilisations locked away. The paintings in this case are, however, not generally sealed up… which makes me happier, even if only a few warehousarati are looking at them. This was only the ‘A’ list warehouse — they apparently have another one out of town. I also saw my pal Jennifer Behr who is doing really well with her new business. She’s been making hair accessories for ages for a bigshot ‘designer’ label, and just struck out on her own. This is the future, kids.

I was born and raised in London, and I have a lot of ambivalence towards it that most folks who visit (especially Americans, it seems) do not share. I often think of cities (along with countries and organisations) as animals. London is an ugly monster. Growing up under its belly you see the warts and mottled hue of its carriage. It is a tremendously old beast, glorious in its vast size, tremendous appetites, vices and manifold treasures. Part of this is scale; I find such ~15M+ great cities unwieldy and scary, whereas San Francisco with ~1M immediate population and ~4M in the greater metropolita seems like a very excellent size. Georgaphy and climate plays a part; the weather is of course often crap. National culture contributes; just as America is a young, big, adaptive and predatory animal that has come to dominate the global savannah, Britain is a small, crowded, narrow-minded country of bitter, angry disposition.

Despite this aversion, I had a very lovely time. I was nigh upon bombarded with babies on this trip, inspiring an apoplexy of procreative urges. I spent time with Persephone and the future lady-killer, Felix. My cousin Elizabeth has produced with her fella Rob the beautiful Irene, and my other cousins’ offsprings have propsered in their various shapes and sizes. This is one of the things I miss most about not living near my family and old friends.

While I was in England we won some football game or other, and I visited Brighton and Leeds, where we had a board meeting for Sense Internet, a company I co-founded in Leeds in 1995 with three friends from Unversity.

Rob Overseer is one of the co-founders. We were in the same flat in the first year of University. I hereby claim at least partial responsibility for introducing indie-youth Rob to the realm of ‘breaks’ (hip-hop, funk, breakbeat, hardcore, jungle, etc.) Trivia fact is that I used to play this kind of music, including a stint on Pirate Radio and lots of dodgy student parties in dusty basements with smoke machines and strobes. I was never a particularly good DJ (I mashed it up too much), but I had the ‘wicked tunes’. Anyway, these days Rob is a successful musician, with major-label publishing and recording contracts. His success seems to be based on the webternet, radio and lucrative video-game, film and advertising licensing. His CDs have yet to be widely distributed.

Sense is doing great, on a very similar scale to Three Rings with ~30 employees and similar revenues, but in the very different business of serving corporate clients. I’m much happier in a ‘consumer-facing’ business. Note: I rather dislike the word ‘consumer’, along with ‘user’. I try to use ‘player’.

Talking of players, we’re in the process of moving our servers to a new co-location facility in San Francisco. This is causing problems as we bridge our database between the two, which has led to some Puzzle Pirates downtime. Downtime gives me twitchy anxiety; it summons me back to 1990, in the back room of my mum’s house in West London fretting over losing the precious few customers of our commercial 2,400 baud dial-up MUD Avalon. My business partner would slap up a new release (hacked live on the production server during a ~12 Sunday downtime) and then skip out on the train, unavailable for a a few hours whilst the server merrily crashed and burned. Today we were down for ~30 minutes, but I find it hard to shake off the ants.

Thus, The thought of mates being unable to Pirate of a Midsummers Eve fills me with dread. My apologies to those affected, we are busting our booty to get everything shipshape.

It’s a warm night. We discovered today that the colocation facility we are moving *into* here in SF is selling out of space. This is a sure sign that things are warming up and getting very ‘web 2.0’ around here.

Merry Solstice, Mates! May the Sun and Moon smile upon us.

E3 MMORPG Lunacy

Each year I go to E3 and each year I am dismayed in various ways. I used to harbour resentment at the vast expense in creating noise and spectacle for essentially two important clients; the Walmart buyers, and the press, but I’ve relaxed on that front. If you need to throw $5M away to impress these important folks, so be it. In past years I would roll my eyes at yet more beat-em-ups or platformers or other expensive console games that all looked the same, of which only a few would have a snowball’s chance of success. Whatebbs. I confidently expect the console and retail business to be completely disrupted over the next ten years, to the point of anihilation or complete transformation for the dinosaurs walking the halls of E3.

This year I had a somewhat new experience; that of seeing 10+ brand-new MMORPGs that were all pretty much indistinguishable from one another. Each one of these projects has a budget of $10M+. Each one has incredible graphics with a swanky engine. The characters are beautifully modelled, high-fantasy and often anthropomorphic. Yes, Tiger-Man, you look very cool with that battleaxe. Each one has the same user interface of incomprehensible panels of tiny text and flaming icons. Although I’m sure they are all designed by smart folks to have their own intricate and unique details, each has apparently the same basic gameplay, down to the same ‘-20’ bling bling hit points that pop up over the poor hapless goblin/frogluk/lionwing/krog/alien lizard thing as you pummel it into glittering transluscent fade-away.

This is madness. For all their high production values, I feel that none of these new games looked as good as WoW. All the fanboys were still crowded around Burning Crusade. Maybe the overspill and churn from a 2.5M subscriber business (discounting Chinese subscribers, that are worth ~10% of US/EU/Korea) is worth scrapping over, but is it auspicious and wise to all bring exactly the same weapon to the fight?

I went through my requisite couple of years addiction to goblin-whacking on Essex MUD in 1982, and I’ve never managed to get excited about levelling much in the modern age of MMOs. Perhaps I am missing out. Perhaps I don’t understand the beauty and distinctiveness of each of these games — I will readily admit that I’m not as immersed in these games as I could be. But I maintain that this level of investment in what appears to be me-too design is foolish. Even Webzen’s WIKI, which looks kawaii and fun, is all about wacking clowns with swords.

Please, if you can get the check for $XX Million to make an gigantic MMO, do something different. Perhaps it’s not possible; often it seems that only fantasy games succeed, but at least you’ll be able to say that you tried. You might just hit it big and reach outside of the existing, heavily-exposed and saturated demographic to find a nice juicy new audience just ready to experience MMO fun.

There’s a thousand flowers still to bloom in the MMO space. Let us please start planting something other than whack-a-goblin RPGs.

Downloadable Games are a Dead-end

I am increasingly annoyed with folks blithely categorising the casual games ‘space’ as being equivalent to downloadable games and using the two terms interchangeably. My contention is that downloadable games in their current form, or ‘shareware 2.0’, represent an early and clumsy attempt to monetize the casual games audience, and in ten years will be regarded as little more than an odd footnote in gaming history.

The reason, of course, that people are making this categorisation error is that some people have found that they can make money making $20 try-before-you-buy games. I tend to believe that the reason that this business opportunity exists has little to do with customer satisfaction and needs, and has a whole lot to do with the often lazy strategy of some large traffic aggregators in casual gaming. Many of these sites have not had to do anything much to earn their vast traffic flows; like landed gentry, they are tithed great swathes of players by divine right of their corporate parentage.

These traffic tithes make it a lot easier to tolerate the economics of downloadable games. If you look at the successful casual games sites that have actually built tremendous traffic, such as Neopets, Miniclip, Pogo (pre-AOL deal), Big Fish Games, Habbo Hotel, etc. they mostly have nothing to do with downloadable games. Big Fish is the exception, and with its Ion Thunder acquisition is making a clear bid towards the non-downlodable space.

So, about those economics. Four years into the business and we have still to see a title with greater than ~2% conversion, the average successful game scoring around 1%. Only ~30% of players actually tolerate downloads at all, the other 70% preferring to play online. I believe this percentage of download-intolerant players is increasing. So, on a per-game basis, we have a total monetisation of $20 once-off from sub-1% of potential customers. Note that I’m ignoring advertising for now, although I’m aware that that’s where many of the portals make their real money. I’m ignoring it not least because until quite recently the portals were adamant about not sharing that revenue with developers, and I tend to think about things from the developer or the player’s point of view.

It’s ridiculous to begin to think that an offering with such abysmal revenue per potential customer is ‘the solution’. That’s before I even get started on the recursive ‘optimisation’ that’s taken place, such that games are increasingly made to appeal to the same 1-2%, scavenging and recycling the same themes and gameplay again and again. If you farm your land for the same cash crop, year upon year, you’ll exhaust the land. The extent to which downloadable games are foisted on players on some sites, given their demonstrable lack of interest in paying for them, indicates to me a woeful lack of strategic thinking and a very short-term revenue focus. I believe that, like the carriers in the mobile phone games business eschewing free trials to optimise short-term revenue at the expense of their customers, there’s the potential that over-focus on downloadable games will begin to drive away the 99% of players that don’t find them compelling enough to purchase.

Obviously I have an axe to grind here, but I do not claim that I know the answer. Puzzle Pirates, whose ~$1M development cost is an order of magnitude more than most downloadable games, has so far just met the approximate lifetime revenues (~$3M+ to date) of a AAA downloadable hit (Longer-term the jury is still out, as PP already has much longer tail than most casual games and continues to grow revenues.). Trying new things is dangerous and scary, and will often fail.

My point is that casual games should be a space rife with tremendous innovation. Casual gamers represent the big opportunity in games. Don’t build a downloadable ghetto and call it casual games. If you do, then the rest of us who are interested in monetizing that other 99% will have to think up a different name for the real ‘large audience’ space, with associated conferences and so forth. Save us!

(This post was inspired by and adapted from a post I made to the excellent IGDA casual games SIG mailing list)