Burning Flipside, and the relevance of Burning Man to MMOs

I am taking off tomorrow morning to Austin, TX for my first trip to Burning Flipside, one of the larger ‘regional events’ associated with Burning Man. I’ve been to BM eight times now, every year since I moved to the US. Obviously I think it’s worthwhile, and not just because it’s a big silly vacation in the desert with my pals from all over the world and 40,000 other crazy dorks.

I think Burning Man is very interesting from an MMO perspective. At the excellent Austin Games Conference last year I moderated a panel on ‘User Created Content’, and set out an opening position as follows; I believe that MMOs (or Virtual Worlds, or whatnot) are tremendously important as the dominant media of ‘The Future’. In this context, there is a War for the Future. I likened this to a Tale of Two Cities.

Both are cities in Nevada that are primarily recreational in purpose.

One is a temporary autonomous zone created and dismantled over a week, built almost entirely by its residents, who bring nearly all the entertainment and consumables they require. No money changes hands. Incredible feats of creation and destruction occur. People party hard, fall in love, enjoy epiphanies and sometimes hard falls. It’s physically and mentally gruelling. ‘Participants’ spend months preparing and then weeks or months winding back down. What happens at Burning Man people carry away with them, changing them.

The other is a cynical corporate machine designed astutely to extract money from visitors whilst giving them the apparent sensations of fun. Everything is for sale. The buildings and scenes are extravagent and beautiful, mirroring the wonders of the world. The shows are astounding and intricately produced. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Give or take a good number of marriages, some broken banks and some terrible hangovers, most of experiences are ephemeral.

The analogical contrast between Second Life and expensive content-driven theme-park MMOs like World of Warcraft is obvious.

If humanity has a future (i.e. if we don’t blow ourselves up, or devour ourselves in green or grey goo), then I believe we’ll largely live lives of leisure. How will fill that leisure time will be profoundly important. As a creator of leisure, a builder of (virtual) leisure cities, I would much rather people spent most of their time at a virtual Burning Man than Vegas. That said, Puzzle Pirates is more Vegas than Burning Man. Heck, we’ve even got Poker. Clearly I have some work to do!

At the end of the Austin panel, after a great debate from the chaps there (Jim Purbrick from Second Life, Walter Yarborough from Dark Age of Camelot, Dr Cat from Furcadia, and Andy Tepper from A Tale in the Desert), I asked the audience to vote; Vegas or Burning Man? It was about 50/50. Here is the powerpoint from the panel, mostly images of Second Life and Vegas/Burning Man images I snagged from Google image search in the 30 minutes beforehand.

This year at the Austin Game Conference there’s going to be a whole panel about the connections between Burning Man and Vegas, with a bunch of fresh newbies who’ll still be dusty from their first trip. Should be fun!

Exile observations, China: Operators Selling Bots?

Recently I had to leave the country for the month of April to get a new visa. Fortunately I received said visa and all is well. During the month I visited Canada and then China and Seoul, Korea. I was hoping to post a long-winded travelogue, but didn’t finish it in a timely fashion and decided to trim things down for individual posts.

One tale I was told that boggled me was this; apparently a very large Chinese MMO operator (begins with S) has a very successful MMORPG that is overrun with botting (the practice of running third-party software robots to kill monsters and thereby gather up more goodies). Nothing new there, bots are common in many games. The Bot for this game is sold for ~$20. Fair enough, you say, underground Bot-hackers need to eat, too.

The incredible thing is that you can pay for this Bot using the official game-time cards sold by the operator. You can only pay for two things with the card; game-time (and/or in-game items, I believe their are switching models) and the Bot. Yes, the operator is essentially selling the robot. The implications for concurrent user numbers and revenue (where $20 is a lot more than the ~$2 monthly charge) are profound.

Somebody please tell me I’ve got all this wrong. It’ll help my poor eyes get a rest from boggling.

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)

Ahoy!

Fearless of any bandwagon, tis about time I lept up and began blogging. It will take a while for me to find my stride, but I believe that my starting position is to try to offend as many people as possible by being ridiculously outspoken. So, on the with the show!