Scott Howard
These are the personal musings of Scott Howard, Producer / Designer / Gamer

Over the last 15 years in the games industry I have worked on console, mobile, social and free to play games enjoying the nuance and challenges each of these brings. 
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Entries in video games (4)


Ca$h Royal - “Show me the Money” or Monetizing on value.

Since the simple pleasures of Adventure on the Atari 2600 days, I have been a life long gamer. Since the uncharted frontier of the first out of the box, internet connected console - Sega Dreamcast, I have been a 17+ year, (and counting) veteran of game development. I have seen various business models, distribution models, technologies, etc come and go, like the ebb and flow of ocean currents. I have spent most of my career working on, “the" thing, before if became, “the” thing. Connected consoles with 56k modems, mobile games years before an iPhone ever shipped, F2P when it was called, “Social Games”, etc. Some times it has felt like paddling for hours only to miss the big wave before it had time to develop. After awhile though, you see certain patterns emerge that create some basic truths about the video games space and real market places in general. 


After making the transition early on into free to play (F2P), I found it to be hugely liberating and exciting. See previous blog post, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Free to Play”. Here I wrote about what I saw as the basic order of operations of game development of the two models.


Order of operations for F2P
  • Step 1 - Figure out how to make a fun game that engages people.
  • Step 2 - Figure out how to get a reasonable amount of the player base to spend enough to sustain the business.
Order of operations for P2P
  • Step 1 - Figure out how you are going to get people's money.
  • Step 2 - Figure out how to give them entertainment value greater than or equal to the money they just spent.
Five years later and I still believe in that same core concept. Free to play is not evil, the devil or the beginning of the apocalypse. It has pros and cons which we have seen play out in myriad ways. The problem is that so much of the F2P space, (and even in some ways the premium space), has pretty much become Las Vegas, minus geographical limitation and regulation. Blackjack is a game. Craps is a game. Poker is a game. Slots are games, but Vegas has no desire to make those games any better, they simply want to optimize their KPI’s. In other words, get people to monetize more, engage more, retain more and incentivize people to tell their friends about all the great fun they had losing money in Vegas (i.e. Virality). 


I am not saying there is anything wrong with Vegas, go ahead and get your gamble on, but lets call it what it is, gambling. The two main differences are, one, that in gambling you know, (or should know), that you have a greater than 50% chance of losing your money and two, you actually have some chance at winning real money, (true value), vs winning virtual goods that have only perceived value.


This is why when I see and play games like League of Legends (LoL), Dota 2, Clash Royal, Hearthstone, Team Fortress and a number of others, I actually enjoy them vs feel angry at them. They are monetizing on value vs monetizing to remove discomfort. When you buy a Champion in LoL or Dota 2, you are buying something of obvious value, the significant time and effort it took a huge number of artisans (concept artist, modelers, animators, VFX artist, writers, designers, engineers, sound designers, etc). This is not lost not the player when they open up their wallets. When you buy a new skin or champion it is actually a pleasurable experience like opening a brand new lego set or other recently purchased toy or coveted item. This also holds true for card packs in Hearthstone, or chests in Clash Royal (though, some subtle differences exist there which I will get into).


One of the things that I believe makes Clash Royal so successful, is that it takes an existing monetization mechanic, the Gatcha box and switches it from effectively a slot machine, to a more straight forward monetization for goods. In so many games, that use the Gatcha mechanic, such as Eternity Warriors, Summoner Wars, Puzzles and Dragons, etc, the player must wade through mountains of crap to find the rare, rare item of any value. In effect they are playing a slot machine that clearly, "pays out" way less than 50% of the time. Most of these games have secondary systems in them where you effectively, “trash” your crappy drops into very small incremental progress towards useful gear or items. The exchange rate is so terrible, that it is only barely worth more than not doing it at all.


To me this is the true innovation of Clash Royal, that when a player spends a small amount of hard currency to open a chest, they actually feel good that they are getting something of value, instead of removing discomfort (chest timers). Sure you can argue that they are using the standard timers so many other games use to monetize, but what is in the chest is pretty much always valuable, the cost is relatively low and the timers are effectively fixed and don’t scale up over life time play. Additionally the time cost is proportional to the reward and not in a BS way, such that a higher tier chest really does have more and better items in it.


I am not saying Clash Royal is perfect, clearly they are still tuning a bunch of the game, but they have managed to find a sweet spot in terms of taking a tried and true, yet some what, “dirty" monetization mechanic and tweak it towards returning real value to the player for their purchase. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming months as the game scales and certain units become useless, effectively power deflation. In time we will see if they are back at square one, with much of the items in chest being perceived as useless or functionally are useless. Only time will tell. Of course in that time, I have me some games I have to get back to playing ...



Down Time = Game Time

Having some down time on my hands gave me a chance to catch up on a bunch of games I have been wanting to play for a long time now. I feel like when I got home from my grandparents house on christmas eve, busting in the door to dump the contents of my stocking on the floor and tear off wrapping paper like a thresher maw from Mass Effect. 

So what have I been playing?

I could write up a ton of stuff on each, but I actually wanted to call out three games that I thought were really doing some good stuff in the F2P mobile space. 

HearthStone - Fit, finish and polish
The attention to detail is just fantastic. The art is beautiful, just sifting through cards is a pleasure. Sound is great and doesn’t get old. Everything is animated and feels alive. They “Peggled the shit out of it” (Thanks David Scott for this term), when you win a match and even when you lose there is a sense that you can surely win the next one. What is amazing to me is that for all the visual polish, the game doesn’t feel noisey, or cluttered. In fact it feels simple and easy to use, with a clear consideration that less is more when it comes to interaction design. In short all F2P games should be looking at HearthStone and asking themselves, “How can I make my game feel like it has this level of quality”. Unfortunately, the answer is usually suck it up and make the effort to put the quality in. Don’t shortcut things or trim the details, they matter.

Hitman GO - Tactical shooter becomes turn based puzzle game. What the what?!?
I love me some stealth games, especially stealth assassin games. Metal Gear, Thief, Rogues in every Bethesda title, Assassin’s Creed, Dishonored, Deus Ex and of course Hitman. All of these scratch a particular itch for me. At their core though, they are puzzle games. How do I get in without being seen? How can I make it out alive? Etc. Since FPS’s all pretty much play like ass on tablets I thought Square Enix’s solution to bringing the Hitman franchise to mobile was brilliant. The game is incredible accessible, beautifully done and I believe will introduce a number of new players to the franchise, hopefully without alienating existing ones. This last point is of course a concern, people who play Hitman, have certain expectations, e.g. running around and either shooting people in the head or stabbing them in the neck. Time will tell if Square made the right call, but good on them for taking the risk to test the hypothesis, that there is a market for the Hitman series that doesn’t have to be more of the same, but can be something new and unique.

Trails Frontier - The complete package
Full discloser, I have worked with the amazingly talented people at RedLynx before, so of course I tend to like their work. That begin said, I was never a big fan of the Trails series of games. It’s not that they are bad games, quite the contrary in fact, it’s just that they are not really my thing. Now here comes Trails Frontier and I can’t put it down. Similar to HearthStone, the attention to detail is superb. Beyond the detail though, they have a fun story, solid humor, accessible controls, short play sessions, RPG mechanics as you level up your bike, a monetization system that feels fair and not “grindy”. In short, they put it all together extremely well. RedLynx has honed the gameplay to a razor sharp edge and packaged the whole thing up, serving it to the player like a prix fixe meal from the French Laundry

So food for thought.

Consider new ways you can use your IP. In the case of Hitman, even if you are using exsting IP, think about how you can use it in more interesting ways that might appeal to a broader audience. 

Pay attention to the details, fit, finish and polish. Sure, everyone wants to make a quality product, but that doesn’t mean you have to fill it with a ton of stuff. Take what you have and refine it so the attention to detail is unmistakable.

Lastly, make sure you put it all together like a fine meal, soup to nuts. That each piece of the puzzle works harmoniously together so your players put the game down satisfied to the fullest.

Ok now I have to get back to feeding my own personal game addiction ...



Public Transit + Multiplayer Gaming = Win!

As videogames move out of the basement and into mainstream culture, I am sometime astounded where they end up. Being fortunate enough to live in the Bay Area I have the luxury of seeing such innovation as multiplayer videogames as part of our local bus system.

To confess, I have not actually had the chance to play any of these games, but I applaud the effort of Yahoo, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agent and Clear Channel in coming up with this concept. 


Looks like you can check out more details here at tons of shots from various bus stops and the latest news on how North Beach and the Tenderloin are still neck and neck. 

Now I think I need to go ride the bus to help the North Beach team out ...


Arts and Crafts

This article over at gamesindustry.bizZynga: "The game industry is not art, it's a craft"really got me thinking about the whole debate on games as art that was the topic du jour awhile back when Roger Ebert was saying games can never be art.

Without really opening up the whole dialog again, since I don't want to rehash the old debate, (though if you want to know my opinion on games as art scroll to the bottom), I would instead like to point out the difference between game mechanics and games. The real problem with the statement from Andy Tian is that he conflates games with game mechanics. What Zynga has done, very successfully, is optimize a game mechanic, specifically a reward payout scheme. This mechanic is nothing new and games have been utilizing it for eons, the quintessential example being your classic Las Vegas slot machine. These machines are indeed games, but only utilize and optimize for a single game mechanic, to pay out just enough to keep the player playing, but not too much to make the casino lose money. This mechanic is crafted to a fine edge, to cut away the purse strings of the person playing it, but perfecting a single game mechanic, on a single platform, is not art. Though games like Farm Ville, Mafia Wars, City Ville, Cafe World, etc use more than a single game mechanic, they still use very simple mechanics optimized for their specific users on one specific platform.

Unlike games (in the most general sense), which can use a limitless number of tools in their preverbal tool chest (game mechanics) to create all kinds of different emotions from their players. See Nicole Lizzaro's work on emotions in games for really in-depth look at this. To put it game example, it is like chess and poker. You can design a computer to beat world champions at chess because the game is rather simple, though deep with permutations in move making vs. poker where the game is complex, not just in basic choices the player can make (check, raise, fold, etc), but variable in why they would make those choices (bluffing, trapping, protecting, etc), coupled with how well they convinced their opponent(s) the reasons for their individual actions. This makes is very hard to "craft" a perfect poker player, but who knows in time, perhaps there will be a "Deep Purple" to rival the great Deep Blue.

To further punctuation my point, take an example from game designer Brenda Brathwaite over a LOLApps and her book - Challenges for Game Designers.

You find yourself at the very edges of a criminal empire. On the one hand, you are tasked with infiltrating it and bringing it to its knees. On the other hand, you have to work with the others already in the empire to build a case against them. Doing so requires you walk a delicate line, simultaneously working with criminals and against them all the while hoping they will implicate one another (and seeding opportunities for them to do so). Craft a set of rules which would allow for such a game. 

Could you simply craft the one perfect design for this? Doubtful. So as to my own opinions about games as art? I only have this enigmatic response - How can large groups of people, called "artists" work on something for years and not have the final piece of work called art?