Game Developers: Don’t Compete, Disrupt.

In the old boxed retail model of games, publishers often waited for an “off year” to capture a hit title’s audience. For instance, a publisher would release a competing open world game the year after a Grand Theft Auto installment to monetize GTA fans who are looking for a similar experience. This successful strategy spawned many hit original properties despite its “fast follow” basis.

Today’s hit games such as League of Legends are constantly updated services and thus never have an “off year.” As discussed in a previous post, we’re in a winner-take-all game economy. Top games consume all of the time and money of their players.

It’s exceedingly expensive to go toe-to-toe with a leading game-as-a-service. Not only do you have to compete with the top game’s deluge of content and social network, but you must overcome the switching cost users bear to move to a new game. A player could have thousands of dollars invested in his League of Legends character. Now you want him to start all over on your new, unproven MOBA?

Competition is possible, but only with deep pockets. The only company posing a distant threat to League of Legends is Valve with DOTA2. Not only have they made an excellent game, but are lavishing massive development and marketing budgets to compete with the frontrunner.

What can you do if you’re not among the most financially successful developers in the world? Don’t compete, disrupt.

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As described in my bible, Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, disruptive innovation typically arrives in a form that’s lower quality than the established player, but cheaper or more convenient to use for a low-end customer.

This low end customer is not as profitable, and thus not very interesting to big companies. The disruptive product’s quality improves steadily. By the time the threat is noticed by the incumbent, it’s too late. The disruptive competitor is attracting the old guard’s high-end customers.

A modern example might be what the tablet did to the netbook and is now apparently doing to notebooks.

How does one develop a game disruptive to the established players? Is it even possible to do so? After all, there are flaws when you apply the low-end disruption theory to consumer products. Let’s look at few vectors of disruption and how they may work in games.

Cost

World of Warcraft’s plunging subscriber numbers may be showing that Blizzard has fallen victim to Innovator’s Dilemma in the form of free2play competition.

F2p originally meant lower quality, lower commitment, and (supposedly) cheaper-to-play MMOs. Now, all major releases from Western companies inevitably become f2p. The quality bar has risen to where it’s possible to match or surpass the incumbent combined with a dramatically different business model.

Convenience

How about making a game more convenient to access? One way developers are trying is by bringing established PC f2p genres to mobile. The idea is that by making a MOBA simple to play on a tablet, it’s possible to capture a segment of the desktop customer. This ignores the fact that tablet-owning hardcore LoL players are still looking for an experience uniquely crafted for mobile–Not simply a long-session MOBA plopped into an iPad.

The problem when applying business model advice to the games industry is that most are based around solving a problem. The only problem games (and entertainment in general) may solve is boredom. When you aren’t solving a problem or “pain point”, you are selling based on other emotional qualities such a branding or user experience.

Lessons can be applied–but perhaps not literally. Which is fine. Slavishly following any business model or development methodology ends up in the creation of a process cult.

Feeling Ripped Off in Ravensword

If you’ve read my previous review of the Ouya, you may be familiar with my strange obsession with Ravensword: Shadowlands. It’s a hilariously inept Skyrim clone for phones, tablets, and the Ouya. The game seems like they went down the list of Skyrim features and implemented a bare bones version of each one. From horseback riding to guild systems, they all exist–but are laughably basic. Still, I must have dumped over 15 hours into this saga, exploring its ambitious yet flawed world.

One interesting element of Ravensword is the business model. It’s essentially premium, with an up-front cost to buy the game once the demo period is over. However, at any time you can buy gold, experience, gems, health restores, and talent points with real money. It’s probably the first single player RPG I’ve seen with such a business model.

Early in the game I hit a difficulty brick wall. Monsters were way too strong and there seemed to be no way to grind for gold or XP. I decided to make a one-time purchase of 5,000 gold pieces for $5. I then bought the finest equipment the shops in South Aven had to offer and ventured out into the wilderness, tearing through monsters that were previously kicking my ass.

Maybe 10 minutes after making this purchase, I found a chest containing a sword better than the one I spent the equivalent of 2 real-world dollars on. I felt ripped off. It’s the in-game equivalent of buying the latest iPhone a few days before they announce a new model.

This made me constantly suspicious of the game. Every time I hit a tough point, I thought about if it was some kind of game design sales funnel to get me to spend money. If there was any kind of competent story to be immersed in, it probably would have taken me out of the game, too.

As I stated in my Kotaku piece earlier this year, f2p game designs are still too primitive to carry a single player campaign. Ravensword is a prime example. I salute the developer for making a stab at merging a single player narrative with f2p economies. Yet, scattering purchases throughout a quest makes you second guess every design choice to the point of completely breaking any sense of immersion. Issues like this make me think it’s impossible to reconcile the design principles of f2p monetization and an epic single player experience. Yet, Ravensword is only the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully we’ll see some stronger attempts at this problem soon.

Add Asynchronous Gameplay To Console Games

Animal Crossing New Leaf is HERE!

The new Animal Crossing is out on 3DS and the Twitterverse is alive with 140 character quips of Tom Nook. Animal Crossing is significant because it’s among the first console games that had game events occur in real-time. I remember having to wake up at the crack of dawn to harvest rare mushrooms in the original Game Cube version–Or having to frequently return to my town in order to clear weeds that grew in real-time while away.

Real-time game events have since made their way into other games, such as how storefronts in Fable 2 earned money even while your console was off. Perhaps the most recent example is Undead Labs’ brilliant State of Decay. You can queue up construction tasks much like a Facebook game. If it takes 30 minutes to build a new structure, you can turn off the game and play in a half hour when construction is complete. This definitely shows social gaming’s influence on console games.

One game that sorely needs this is Capcom’s Monster Hunter. In the latest edition you have a farm and fishery as well as the ability to send players you’ve met via StreetPass or on-line on asynchronous quests. These are all great features, but the problem is that they run in game-time.

For instance, it may take until the completion of 3 quests before your batch of blue mushrooms is ready to be harvested from the farm. It would be far better if it actually took 10 minutes in real-time to complete. Then, much like Animal Crossing, you’d remember to fire the game back up later to reap the rewards.

These are the type of features that should be handled by companion apps. I eventually grew tired of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate after incessantly playing it for a few weeks. If my phone bugged me that my crops were ready, I’d re-engage with the game. Instead, my Wii U is turned off and the game world is frozen in time. At this rate, my honey crop will never grow. The combination of companion apps and asynchronous gameplay can be used as a retention mechanic to gently remind players there’s still more to be played.