Mind the Gap

The title applies to a lot of things. It’s been a loooong time and a loooot of twists since I last wrote here. I’m not sure how you managed to go so long without a post from me given how empty the rest of the Internet is, but I will try to kick it back up.

To start with, an easy one: Here’s video of a talk I gave at this year’s Casual Connect about cross-platform frameworks. Geeky stuff. But if you’re actually about to embark on a game and thinking seriously about launching it somewhere other than the death trap that is the iOS app store, give it a skim!

Why Candy Crunch Saga is the Gameplay Equivalent of Crack

Everyone here is familiar with the sugar-soaked juggernaut that is King’s Candy Crunch Saga. This “silly little puzzler” has been holding steady for months at a time as a top grossing title on Android, iOS, as well as Facebook.

Miska Katkoff, wrote a great analysis about how CCS has some of the best Mobile/Facebook viral and monetization design of any game out there. But while the elegance of those features makes the game long-lived and spendworthy, what makes the game itself so purely addictive is its near-perfect level design.

And when I say near-perfect, I mean neurologically and psychologically, viscerally and logistically, brain-in and balls-out, the near-optimal blend of challenge vs. release.

For starters, there’s something elementally brilliant about the Match 3 mechanic, first invented by Eugene Alemzhin as the DOS game ShairikiThe Balls. As with Tetris (man, what is it about those Russians?), the match 3 ruleset combines simple color, geometry, and gravity giving players the ability to work from a base of pure randomness and triumph or fail across a wide spectrum of possibilities, all the while flexing but never mastering caveman-brain skills of pattern matching, thinking ahead, and quick reflex.

I know a thing or three about match 3. iWin’s Jewel Quest is probably the 2nd most successful match 3 franchise, after Popcap’s masterful Bejeweled. In fact, many of the mechanics found in Candy Crunch Saga were first prototyped and invented by iWin’s game design savant Warren Schwader:

  • Turning background tiles gold to win so that where you match matters as much as how quick you are.
  • Different shaped boards, with hard to reach nooks requiring the clever pre-positioning of jewels.
  • Gaps in boards create narrow, unmatchable corridors and channels.
  • Unmatchable squares.
  • Moving elements from top to the bottom by removing jewels beneath them.
  • Special bonuses for matching four or five jewels.
  • Special bonuses for matching horizontally and vertically at once.
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.

But while Jewel Quest‘s level balance and design relied on the singular brilliance of Warren and other designers (along with a bit of level-reordering and time-tweaking based on results from a beta test or two), the creators at King have truly crowdsourced their balancing act, using metrics to be sure each level is barely solvable but increasingly tough. Numbers they are obviously looking at and tweaking constantly are:

  • Number of failed attempts at a level before success.
  • Number of moves made before success.
  • How much failure is too much, leading to game abandonment.
  • The blend of failure/success leading to the highest percentages of players returning and, ultimately, purchasing.

Using these metrics, they scientifically balance the difficulty and layout of each level so that most people are just one or two matches away from a win, inspiring the purchase of a few more moves, lives, or “get me out of any tough spot” candy hammers. The trick is to bring players mere paces away from the gates of heaven before plummeting them back down to the fiery abyss.

But is there more that King could be doing?

What if, instead of counting on randomness and aggregate stats, they came up with algorithms to tune each level and distribution of candy on the fly, so that the game intelligently reforms itself to bring players to the Golden Almost, the inevitable “just one more game” twitch. Why not pre-plan the layouts and new candy drop-downs to match each individual player’s style, progressively making levels either a touch more difficult or easy, in a way that reacts to that specific player’s strengths (good at looking ahead) and weaknesses (bad at speed). Like having your very own personal Product Manager.

Diabolical? Hell yes.

Fun and yet profitable? You know it.

Possible to do? Definitely. At least for a simple rule set like match 3.

It’s impossible for an outsider to tell whether King is already doing some more advanced heuristics like this, but based on my own frustrations of being stuck on some levels for waaaay too long, I don’t think so.

Then again, I am still playing, ain’t I? So maybe data-driven intelligence doesn’t even need to be that nuanced for most suckers.

Clone Home: Seedy Biz #3

(Part three a series looking at the seedier side of game business. Part one and two are here.)

[In my best Seinfeld voice:] What’s the deal with What’s the Word?

What’s the Word is a simple, single-player game. You are shown four pictures and must guess the word that all four have in common. The game by Russian developer Red Spell has been riding high on the iOS “all apps” charts this month, and even grossing in the top ten. The art and overall UI looks like it was designed by the same dude that programmed it over a Stoli and Red Bull-fueled weekend, but try it for a while and this game definitely compels — a near-mindless, perfectly bathroom-break-sized stock photo snack:

But then, today, what ho! A new game coming up as #3 on the charts also called What the Word!

Update: Name was changed to "4 Pics 1 Word - What the Word" on Feb 12

Yes — everything from the title on down is identical to the Red Spell version. The photo puzzles are different, but it would be nearly impossible for a casual player to tell the difference between these two products. The German company behind this masterwork is LOTUM GmbH. (Perhaps that stands for Lord of The Unembarrassed Misappropriation?)

But wait! What’s this?! A new What’s the Word title on Android by a group with the punk-rock meets STD name of Itch Mania. The icon looks the exact same as Red Spell’s, but the interface is a bit different:

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Companies like Zynga have long been criticized for cloning or “fast-following”, but this… this is something else…

Digging in a bit, seems that the Red Spell’s What’s the Word came out on iOS January 25, 2013 and Android a few days later. LOTUM’s game hit iOS on February 4 and launched on Android a few days earlier on January 22. And Itch Mania’s came out the 27th of January.

What in tarnation is going on? Who is cloning who?

It’s pretty difficult to tell, but it seems as if LOTUM actually created the initial game, and then was cloned within a week. Perhaps LOTUM contracted a group in Russia to build their game, without stipulating that the code couldn’t be reused? Or perhaps such stipulations don’t matter much in the Land of Putin? There are already three or four more different What’s the Word games shooting up the charts as well.

The same thing happened with the game Logo Quiz a few months ago.

So there you have it, ladies and gents. We have entered a brave new world whereby if a game is simple and addictive enough it can be cloned and out-gunned via aggressive distribution within a matter of days.

All the more reason to make a game that requires some actual technical and creative chops to build. Oh… wait:

1. Wordblitz by Games for Friends GmbH (subsidiary of LOTUM) 
2. Ruzzle by MAG Interactive
3. Scramble with Friends by Zynga

Of course, all of the above games ripped off Boggle (which I’m sure itself was lifted from an ancient Sumerian game involving cuneiform letters on stone cubes).

The Zombie Tunnel O’ Money: Seedy Biz #2

(Part two a series looking at the seedier side of game business. Part one looks at evil user acquisition tactics.)

For those game-crafters of a certain bent (i.e. burdened with the desire to provide fun user experiences), it’s tough to use the term “monetization” with a straight face. The very word conjures up the image of a forlorn soul stumbling through a slimy, dark, corridor while ganglia of detached zombie arms pluck as many shekels as possible from the poor sucker’s pockets.

But of course, the best designed free to play games make the transaction a core part of the experience. The tapping in of the “verify purchase” password becomes the launch code of a super-weapon, and the minor pain of the spend only amplifies the joy of victory when the investment pays off.

But some apps aren’t quite as sophisticated. Take a “quiz game” like Vampire or Not by the ironically named Free.Kompany.

The experience starts with a modicum of actual artistry and intrigue:

Image

Answer some stock multiple choice questions, pulled from a circa 1990 web quiz.

“Do YOU like the morning or the night?”

Then… wait for it… the “player” must pony up $2.99 to get the answer. A green arrow guides you to the proper choice in case you are in doubt:

Surely a small price to pay to learn the dreaded truth about your Transylvanian bloodline.

The grossing ranks aren’t up there with Clash of Clans, but indicate that a good percentage of people are unwary, drunk, or little-kid-pestering-harried-mom enough to tap BUY.

Looking at the ratio of grossing over chart rank, Vampire or Not‘s conversion rate kicks the ass of most other games, giving a lifetime customer value high enough to support the cheap flow of ad bids. Buy off a few fake reviews to balance the torrent of pissed off consumers, and… Instant profit!

This tactic must have really cleaned up back in the day, before re-entering your iTunes password was required to unlock the In-App Purchase.

So the game bites. I’m not suggesting, however, that apps like this shouldn’t be approved by Apple or should be banned. It seems to fall within the boundaries of the rules, and all’s fair in free market warfare.

On one hand, this shows how easy it is to monetize — just friggin’ ask!

On the other, though, it highlights the precariousness of the whole venture. We need to tread carefully. Even if it doesn’t take much cleverness to pluck shekels from players, we’d be well-served to craft our monetization systems and the experiences they unlock as the gently outstretched hand of a pal offering his buddy a good deal… Because once a player gets bitten by too many zombies or vampires, he’ll stop opening up his door at all to strangers lost in the night.

Continue on to Part 3: Clone Home 

A Howl and Two Coconuts

The very first Ferris Wheel, built for the World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893.

A lifetime ago (2008) I gave a talk at the GDC titled “Beyond the Box.” The central image was a lonely Ferris wheel standing in the middle of a trash-strewn, dusty field. The point? Even the best digital games at the time lacked context, relevance, and human connectivity.

The talk was tepidly received, and rightly so, because it had a tepid conclusion. I said that the world needed a special place where people and their fellows could seamlessly interact and play… but I couldn’t quite paint a coherent picture of what that place would look like.

Then Facebook  happened. The lone Ferris wheel suddenly became a small feature of a rollicking, Rick-Rolling carnival.

Even a longer lifetime ago (2000), I co-founded a company called iWin with the belief that games were for everyone, not just teenagers who loved head-shots. iWin helped pioneer simple, addictive, all-embracing play via games such as Jewel Quest and Family Feud with philosophies such as making it impossible to really lose. People started calling the types of games we made ‘casual.’ Casual games were more than a market opportunity to me, but a real chance to make the wonder of digital play  relevant and accessible to the mainstream.

Then, from that fertile substrate of Facebook and Casual, the behemoth called Zynga was spawned, mastering the ability to beg, build, or borrow the best mechanics and all but take over the  social channels.

And so it came to be: 88.4 million people playing CityVille.

Everything I’d been preaching about and hoping for and working for had reached fruition…

It should have been a transcendant moment.

But I was disillusioned. I had gone way wrong somewhere, many twisty paths ago… and couldn’t figure out where.

The comparison gives me too much credit, but I suppose I felt a bit like Trotsky watching all he helped painstakingly build with the most humanistic of ideals become bastardized as the power structures grew to take advantage of what was most base and weak about humanity.

It was the unfunniest of Marx Brothers who said, “[History repeats itself,] the first as tragedy, then as farce.”

I didn’t really care, as so many industry vets did, that there’s hardly any true challenge or meaning in mass market games anymore. Experiments were tried. The mainstream has rejected the old paradigms of challenge.

Nor did it bother me that profit came from honing in on the deepest pathology of the most addicted — get bored onlookers to try. Get triers to use. Get users to share. Get sharers to spend. After all, the vast majority enjoyed these games absolutely gratis. And even the most cynical of these bejeweled Skinner Boxes are brightening an otherwise dull day.

My father trying to draw SWIG (when the word was actually SWAG). That’s so him!

No… what really stung was seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, nakedly a-cloning, fast-following, and pretending to grasp and control the almighty metric. It shamed me to see high-IQ analytical pattern-spotters, max-frame-rate programmers, edgy artists, and seasoned polyglot designers — working in unison with the noble goal of making a “gift wall” more viral….

It made me wonder for a time if the the right answer was to tear myself away from the carnival and retreat with the Hobbits back to the hard-core ghetto, where the Ferris Wheel rides are at least damned fast and fun.
Or get out of the games industry entirely and do something meaningful with life.
And it wasn’t just me having these thoughts. The massive Facebook audience that had, just months ago, so contently click-zen’d through CityVille felt the shallowness, too. Many argue that Facebook gaming’s audience decline was due to tightened newsfeed algorithms, but having lived through many market cycles before, I believe it was more audience saturation and then maturation.

Then the most amazing thing happened: Words with Friends came out. And I started playing it… a lot… with my mom. Who suddenly had an iPad. It was so friggin’ simple.. “just” another Scrabble clone. But the format fit perfectly and made the game into an accessible and ongoing layer of daily life.

Then Draw Something took over. And after a brief lesson, my dad got on board. We speak more genuinely through sketches and the game’s rudimentary chat feature than we do even the few times we get together in person. The game has made us laugh at, appreciate, and even better understand each other.

And so the howl of anguish turned to one of laughter.

Because as awesome as this new crop of truly social games are, they are missing a few important magic ingredients.

That’s why I’m extremely happy to announce the launch of a new mobile game startup called Double Coconut.We’re just a few souls at this point, but with the passion and know-how to make big things happen. I think we’ve finally cracked the code on achieving that perfect nexus of casual and social — and can’t wait to show you.

More to come soon!

MelVille

I am one of those pathetic souls guilty of agonizing over the issue of whether computer games can ever become real art. Yes, I dared give voice and ask questions like:

>> Can Mafia Wars ever come close to leveling up to the emotional tension and soul of the Godfather Trilogy (well, okay, let’s limit it to I and II)?

or

>> Will the Grapes of Wrath ever be harvested on Farmville?

And so, rather than lock myself in my basement with a flask of cheap bourbon and write yet another one of those why can’t games be more art-like whines,  I sneaked away from the kids for a few weekends and made an actual game — something that says something about something.

Behold: MelVille.

I won’t ruin it all by making a “statement of artistic intent” or somesuch. I won’t cow-tow about the meta-meaningfulness of satire. But let’s just say that games mean a whole lot to me… and that I’m less than thrilled with the direction the medium is taking  since the undeniable triumph of social network games. Also, Moby Dick means a lot to me. As a literary agent I once conned into a meeting once scolded, “You think your novel is experimental? All experimental fiction written since 1850 is just Moby Dick in drag.” That comment got me to carefully re-read the boring brick I had been assigned in High School… and I realized he was right.

If this game exposes a glimmer of what a Great Book can Do to even one person, I will be Happy.

If it hits an ARPU of $0.10 I’ll be even happier.