World of Goo review

I've just played World of Goo, the indie title by developer 2D boy that does everything right! The mechanics of World of Goo have more in common with building sand castles then any other computer game and as such is more of a toy then a game. But this is not a bad thing. To be accurate I have to say that I've only just finished the first chapter of the "story campaign" but so far this game does everything right as far as game design is concerned.

It's accessible, simply and easy yet engaging and engrossing. You can jump in to play for a few minutes or play levels of increasing complexity for hours. It's also a feast for the eyes and ears and has a lot of humor.

My only issue with the game is that it's fullscreen, it wants to take up all of my attention while playing. And though this might be most effective and certainly the first choice of most players it's quite odd to play such a light title without the ability to keep IMing on the side. I do that in WoW, why not in WoG?

Watch a video of the gameplay, if you find it even mildly interesting or seemingly fun you'll really enjoy the title. And please, BUY this game. It's cheap, it's indie and it doesn't use DRM. Support a just cause by getting your money's worth.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-A_JfkzPwww]

The power of habit in gamedesign

I love to talk and I love games. So naturally I often talk about games with my friends. The debates often circle points about game design and one of the usual sticking points is my belief that habits, or possibly the security of the known, affect our play and our game design. My idea is that the things we are used to always seem like good things, things to be fought for if challenged. We're always slightly against doing something other then what we're used to because it doesn't feel right, mostly because of nostalgia. This is a slightly odd notion but I've just noticed the supreme example of this behavior in game developers:

Hello Kitty Online. HK online is the social MMO based on the famous character and world of Hello Kitty. It's awesomely cute and looks fun and easy. When I was invited to the beta I was excited and happy, albeit a bit ashamed about my own reaction.

I downloaded the huge client, wondered a bit about why such a game needs GB's of data and booted it up.

Hello Kitty online is a World of Warcraft clone. Seriously.  It even has kill-collect quest grinding. It handles the same way, has the same systems... Why?

Yes, WoW is the most successful MMO of all time and making your systems at least as good as WoWs should be every MMO developers intent. But nothing in the Hello Kitty universe lends itself to the fiction the game play systems of WoW builds up, surely there are some systems we can copy and others we can leave out. For instance, killing in HK online seems a bit awkward. When did Hello Kitty become Dexter Morgan, hiding a serial killer under the cute & fluffy shell of a small rabbit.

I have no idea why the developers chose to copy WoW to this extent but I think most of them didn't even realize they were doing it. They thought this is what an MMO is. No, it isn't. That's what World of Warcraft is. We can make almost anything into an MMO.

That's how powerful habit is, we tend to stop thinking why? and instead think this is how it works. Designers need to watch out for this behavior, because it's an artificial boundary that impeded game development. What if we could make HK online with game play systems that give exact same results for the players as the game play systems of WoW but don't seem even moderately alike. We can do that, if we don't fall pray to the power of habit.

WAR release

Warhammer Online has finally received a release date: September 19.Which gives it a months head start on the next expansion for World of Warcraft in November.

Is this a good thing? There can be very little doubt that these two games are direct competitors. The warcraft universe is basically a ripoff from Warhammer and Warhammer Online has copied most of WoW's game systems.

WAR now has some time to gather a following. But will it divert attention from Wrath of the Lich King or will it simply loose a million players when the WoW expansion launches?

Hopefully WAR will survive with enough player growth to shake up the MMO marketplace a bit. But only time will tell, for all the faults of WoW it has proven again and again to be stronger then newcomers in the arena.

The spectrum of game audiences

Most articles and books about games give a certain skewed image of our audience, the gamers.I can't claim to know what most developers believe but from interviews and articles by some of them I get the feeling that we're looking at a polarized view of game customers from the developer perspective. This could mean serious trouble for games.

By a polarized scale of gamers I mean that in almost all the interviews and articles I read there seem to be exactly two types of gamers. Hard core (or 'gamers') and casual (web games, wii and soduku). Anyone will quickly realize that there must be some space in between these two, but I think most people underestimate the scale of this... eh.. scale.

It's always hard to categorize people, who all have different habits and ideals, but in this case it really isn't that hard because the games industry have spent years defining these two groups. Hardcore gamers are players that spend a lot of money and time on games. They buy the newest consoles and really consume games. Casual gamers are players who would rarely define themselves as gamers. They spend time with really short games with little effort in preparation. Mostly they play games online but for the last year some of them have bought a Wii. Common for them is that they spend very short amounts of time on games and waste little time getting their entertainment, browser based games work better then downloadable and so on. They also spend only small amounts of money on gaming at any one time (micro transactions).

But where are the middle spectrum gamers? Who are they and how many of them are there? Well, statistics provide us with some answers here.

The Playstation 2 became a mainstream machine before the current generation of consoles were announced. Sony's machine has sold something like 120 million units. The current generation consoles, ps3 and xbox360, have together sold something like 40 million units. There is a gap of 80 million possible costumers who've still to adapt to the new technology. Now according to our scale, what kind of games consumers are in this gap? They've chosen NOT to buy the new exiting technology and instead hang on to old and outdated games. These are not hardcore gamers, they are also not casual because they do buy consoles. So who are they? In between gamers?

For another piece of the puzzle lets look at online gaming. Sadly it's hard to find conclusive statistics on players from casual gaming sites. So the closest I've stumbled over is the least casual type of online gaming. Massively Multiplayer Online Games.

World of Warcraft, the most successful MMOG in the western world, currently boasts over 11 million subscribers. It has been online since late 2004 and had over a million players by 2005. It grew really quickly and has had many millions of subscribers for several years. Now we can't know for sure what WoW's churn rate is (churn = players dropping off - new players). But a somewhat safe bet is that it's at least around 5-10%. That's a lot of players. That means that over the years WoW has had at least 20 million players. And most of them never saw end game content. That means that most gamers played the game without reaching hardcore goals, that should make them casual gamers in the polarized scale. But they're hardly casual gamers in the sense of browser based games and non investment if they're playing WoW are they? No, these must also be in between gamers.

These in between gamers are actually an interesting bunch. Because if we do a quick search for games that target this demographic we'll find only a few. One of the most famous, if not the most famous, is Sins of a Solar Empire - a spectacular RTS game by the way - that specifically targets PC gamers that used to play games but don't care to make hardware investments to be continuously shot as cannon fodder for the ruling game elite (hardcore gamers).

An even more surprising move with Sins is that is completely free of DRM. It has no copy protection what so ever. Compared to another current RTS game, World in Conflict, Sins opted for use of 'old' graphics and easy to use installation as well as a really cheap development cycle.

Even without the copy protection Sins has outsold World in Conflict by a longshot. And WiC is a fantastic game.

From the statistics I so lightly touch upon we can deduce that somewhere in the range of 20-80 million "in between" gamers are out there. They are not being actively pursued by the games industry. From my quick look at Sins and World in Conflict we can also see that they are not as prone to piracy as the hardcore demographic. They are in other words; ideal game consumers.

Here the skewed image of our gamers set in. We're not catering to a large part of our target audience. We're simply creating for the top percentage of players and hoping the rest will follow suit. We need to focus on this hard to define group of people, let's hire a marketing company to seek them out. Let's give a million dollar budget to a small studio to make a mainstream game just to see how it turns out at the stores. Let us at least acknowledge that this part of our audience is important.

If we aim for lower specs, go for gameplay that has proved to be fun and make a small but good game. Sell it for a reasonable price and make it as easy to buy as it is to pirate. Not only will we make a game that will sell, we'll probably be more or less alone in a 20-80 million strong demographic part of the gamer spectrum.

This is a huge mistake on the part of our industry. Someone at EA or Acti/Blizz should realize that.

(please comment for improvements or information)

Age of Warcraft

I just started playing Age of Conan and I must say I'm impressed. I've played a lot of MMOGs for research and Age of Conan has the smoothest and most intuitive startup of them all so far.
The fighting feels really liquid and action packed, at least for a start, much unlike the one click combat of WoW.
But the environments make me feel claustrophobic. Don't get me wrong, the world in AoC is beautiful, its just so packed with hills, rocks and stuff that I can't the forest for all the trees.

Overall its a very interesting game but I need to play it a bit more to give some form of real evaluation. A friend of mine claims that the content dries up after lvl 40. Judging from my previous MMO experience I'll get bored a lot sooner the lvl 40 but we'll see, I'm still going strong at lvl 9 and it took me several weeks to get passed lvl 7 in WoW.

I still have my article on the cognitive limitations of the avatar coming up soon. Just need to sit down and write. Later!

Another line of work

So, after encouragement from Ole Herbjørnsen at Funcom, I've started playing World of Warcraft again. This time with the aim to max level a character and analyze the various systems I find on the way.

Now I've played WoW at least four times before. And the start of this character was no different, it was boring. Really boring. But then at around level 15 something previously unknownst to me happened.
I was enjoying myself!
Not the actual gameplay though, the fighting and grinding was still boring. But I started enjoying traveling through the world. The world itself in WoW is quite beautiful with it's five year old graphical style and the vastness and continuity of it really got to me. But instances and fighting... Let me give you an example:

Last night I had planned with a few of my friends to play Wailing Caverns, a horde instance in the barrens. It is the second instance for players playing the more colorful horde side of WoW.

But after dinner I found myself procrastinating, a lot. Even doing dishes!
Eventually my girlfriend Caroline prodded me:
"Weren't you supposed to play an instance with the guys?"
"...yes..." *sigh* "do I have to?"
"erh... I'm not sure you should pay for this game."

I did play WC, I did enjoy doing something with the guys. But I'm glad I have a few hours yet before I have to do it again. The basic gameplay in MMO's has got to change. Not many people can actually enjoy the one-click combat.