Why PUBG is Fresh

PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) is without a doubt the breakout PC game of 2017. Even though it’s just in early access and offers only one map (and plenty of bugs / missing features), it has established itself firmly in the world of competitive online multiplayer games.

As a relatively late adopter of the game, I’ve put in 60 hours in the game in the last 3-4 weeks, and feel I’ve had enough exposure (and luckily half a dozen Chicken Dinners) to put down some rough thoughts on why the game feels so fresh and is doing so well.

I’ll start by admitting I’ve not played the earlier Battle Royale style games (the ARMA / H1Z1 mods, or titles like The Culling), so I lack insight on what PUBG does better. Having said that, the base “Battle Royale” gameplay can be seen as an addictive mix of Roguelike single game progression and a tactical PVP shooter.

The Roguelike elements:

  • Randomized flight path = a different starting game state per run
  • Randomized loot = varied progression per run
  • Punishing perma-death for a single run = high emotional intensity (even if actual gameplay is slow)
  • 100-player PVP, general expected outcome for any run is “you lost” = very high emotional spikes when you do get the chicken dinner; not a lot of grief when you lose, in addition to the desire for “one more turn”

The tactical shooter elements:

  • Map is fixed = strategy and mastery via learning the map
  • Weapons variety + huge map with varied landscape= mastery curve of different weapons in varied combat scenarios (close quarters, open fields, hills etc.)
  • 2 / 4-player squads mode + revive mechanic = teamwork / coordination mastery

I also want to talk specifically about the game’s pacing:

  • The game has strong emotional intensity (you could die at any moment in 1 sec), but given the map’s size the mid game pacing is usually very slow (if you survived any hectic early-game chaos, which is the player’s choice)
  • This slow pacing is not boring in either solo or group modes, as in solo it plays on the player’s feeling of isolation, while in group mode it creates an opportunity for players to chat. This is actually fairly key for the game’s social experience (a team looting together and swapping gear is a good bonding experience), and helps with the game’s learning curve for new players (who are most likely introduced by friends)
  • The pacing downtime is also ideal for streaming as it gives streamers plenty of moments to interact with their viewers, which is a core part of the streaming experience
  • And ultimately, this pacing is very much at the player’s discretion – the player can choose for an exciting early-game by jumping into a high traffic spot, and can be on the offensive during mid-game hunting for kills as opposed to camping. And furthermore, PUBG side-steps the entire experience of “garbage time” in an online PVP game (e.g. a one-sided stomp in LoL or Overwatch, which you still have to play out), as the game is over when you die and you can immediately jump back into the matchmaking queue

Additionally, some thoughts on 3rd person vs. 1st person perspective:

  • While I understand high-skill competitive players’ complaints about 3rd-person being unfair (campers gain information without putting themselves at risk), it also makes the game feel much more accessible to new players (as a viewer on twitch summarized, it lowers the skill-ceiling while raising the skill-floor)
  • The devs are introducing 1st-person servers, which is an “easy” experiment to try (and shows they are listening to their audience), but this could be high risk in terms of fragmenting the game’s identity. What I mean by this is PUBG in its current form is not an esports title, and it doesn’t have to be – WWE is not sports but is entertaining, popular and commercially successful. If the devs start focusing on making the game more balanced for competitive play, it may hurt some of the organic fun that makes it fresh in the first place
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Revisiting mobile platform advantage

This post, which is mostly a rehash of ideas I’ve written about previously, is inspired by the following two gaming industry stories:

These two stories are very interesting when looked at side by side. On the one-hand, Overwatch is certainly one of the best new-game launches ever (for console/PC platforms), and has great potential to engage millions of players for years to come (in the clichéd games-as-a-service model). On the other hand, its impact (whether monetary or number of players or player-hours served) is completely overshadowed by Honor of Kings, and we are not talking about a small gap – it’s probably a 2-5x difference today and could grow to an order of magnitude difference (10x).

In one sense, a hardcore game having fewer players than a more accessible/casual game is nothing new (top Facebook games easily had tens of millions of players). However, compared to other popular mobile games (e.g. Pokemon Go), Honor of Kings is a much more hardcore game and it certainly serves plenty of hardcore gamers.

It is from this lens – viewing Honor of Kings as a game that’s closer in spirit and purpose to League of Legends/Overwatch as opposed to Candy Crush/Farmville – that the expert opinion in the 2nd link above is even more interesting. I have a lot of respect for the opinions voiced from the 4 industry peers interviewed – they made many reasonable points, such as concern over the average session length as a blocker for attracting players. However, I also think these opinions are founded on some assumptions about what mobile games are / aren’t which may not actually hold.

The biggest shift in perspective required is not viewing mobile as an inferior platform versus console/PC for gaming, but rather a superior platform. Mobile does have some severe constraints (such as the lack of physical feedback for input, and input often taking up valuable screen real-estate), but many commonly-cited constraints are artificial. Take average session length – Honor of Kings has easily proved that almost 200 million players in China 1 have no problem regularly spending chunks of 20 minutes for one match, which is certainly mind-boggling for anyone used to thinking of single game length of under 5 minutes as a golden rule for mobile. If you are able to suspend belief and imagine players spending hours a day gaming on their phone (which they do in China), your perspective of what games are possible on mobile changes. Another common constraint I see is somehow phone-screens “are not large enough for complex gaming”, and devs end up optimizing for tablets2.

Put another way, I see a self-reinforcing cycle – if devs don’t believe in the potential of mobile and blindly accept conventional-wisdom constraints, then they can only make games that operate under these constraints3.

I’m often reminded of phone industry experts reactions to the iPhone when it was first announced 10 years ago. A lot of very smart people made some terrible predictions, when in hindsight the conclusion was so obvious. I feel more and more that mobile gaming will continue to grow and grow, and eventually force devs that prioritize console/PC to make some very painful transitions.

  1. Based on analyst estimates in this Bloomberg article.
  2. e.g. Vainglory was clearly seen as a game intended to be played on tablets, as evidenced by its marketing videos
  3. i.e. the casual arcade / casino and async strategy games that dominate the US app store rankings
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Innovating beyond Clash Royale

Some short thoughts here, after sampling Netmarble’s Star Wars: Force Arena, which can be described as a hybrid between Clash Royale and Vainglory.

First of all, it’s no surprise devs are looking at Clash Royale and trying to build upon its success formula. From the initial wave of cheap Chinese knockoffs, we are now beginning to see the more serious attempts to innovate. Aside from Star Wars: Force Arena, there’s also the recently announced Smite Rivals, which we can get a sense of from this teaser video:

Both Smite Rivals and Star Wars: Force Arena implemented the idea of 3 lanes. In Force Arena’s case, the 3-lanes setup is tied to 2v2.1

Force Arena also went the extra step of the MOBA-like camera angle, which likely went hand-in-hand with the addition of the hero gameplay. I’ve mixed views on this concept. On one hand, having unique hero characters per deck is intuitive and awesome (and ties in closely to the fantasy); on the other hand, actually controlling the heroes feel cumbersome. There might have been another direction with making the heroes just unique cards that anchor the decks.

This camera angle adjustment also required a battlefield map that needs panning to navigate around. In my opinion this was a high cost to pay – it costs the player time and energy to move around the battlefield, and a lot of the action is happening off-screen.

Another issue I have with Force Arena is the units design. Being a IP-licensed game, there are basic rules around what units could be. Granted, this is a lot of the fantasy that drive fans to play this game, but at the same time, it is likely limiting game design. At least in my limited play-time, the action does not look as intuitive as Clash Royale, and many units feel “meh” (a lot of humanoids, and the shapes look similar).

The net result of all this is a game that’s more exhausting to play, and less satisfying to watch. To me it’s still a worthwhile experiment, and doing the comparison to Clash Royale helps highlight some key design insights (e.g. such as keeping the action on one fixed screen). I also still think as a general space this area is ripe for further innovation.

 

  1. Incidentally, this was also a direction some coworkers brought up in our water-cooler talks, so it’s exciting in that sense to see the idea brought to life and tested.
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Thoughts on Top Eleven

As a casual player of football sims, I’ve been very impressed with the thoughtfulness of Top Eleven, and here are some thoughts to sum up what I found interesting.

(For an overview of the game – check out this review. This is a game that’s been around for 6 years and surpassed 100M registered players in early 2015.)

At a high level, Top Eleven‘s core design thesis appears to be “how do we take the incredibly addictive gameplay of Football Manager, and make it a massively multiplayer social/mobile game?”. This spills out into the major gameplay systems:

  • Leagues made of human player-managed teams, with a long and tightly regimented progression system using the real-world concept of seasons (every 28 days in real-life form a season, and cup and league matches are distributed throughout the season so that on average you play 1-2 matches per 24 hours)
  • A 2d match engine familiar to any Football Manager veteran, and the associated tactics and training systems
  • An real-time auction-house (much like Diablo 3′s auction house) that serves as the transfers market
  • Being a free-to-play game, a set of virtual currencies that restricts player actions and provide some amount of pay for power

My first impression after playing the past 3 months, is that this is a well-tuned set of systems, and the player experience is pretty satisfying even for someone who hasn’t monetized (my basic principle for playing mobile games is to not monetize and test the design for a non-paying player). In every season I’ve competed in I’ve won the League with the limited resources available to a free player, and I’ve won the Champions League (a more competitive tournament) once. The holy grail of course is the treble (winning the League, the Cup and the Champions League in one season), and that is challenging but doesn’t seem completely out of reach.

In particular, I’d like to call out the League progression design as simple, effective and clever. It’s effectively a cohorts based design –

  • when you join you are placed in a league with players who started around the same time as you, and therefore have similar amounts of resources;
  • Every season the top 50% of the league are promoted to the next level, while the bottom 50% stay in place;
  • For each level, there are tight restrictions on the quality of player you could acquire, regardless of how much money you are willing to spend.

These measures ensure that on average the players progress through the game at a similar pace and are always in an environment where there are worthy opponents.

Similarly, the auction house design is also simple but extremely effective. There are a few additional options for player transactions, but the basic auction house is a real-time feed of player listings with deadlines, using an English auction format:

  • Players can only see and bid on listings appropriate for their level – again, carefully segregating the player population and controling the experience, and also creating a healthy economy of auctions (a higher level player’s 3-star NPC is an all-star for a lower level player);
  • The seller sets the initial floor price, and each bid increases the price by a set amount;
  • If there is only 1 bid for a listing, the bid wins when the listing expires;
  • If there are more than 1 suitor for a listing, the suitors face off in an unlimited number of short-session follow-up rounds (starting at 1 minute, and quickly reducing to 20-second rounds);
  • Each round a suitor must place at least 1 bid to be eligible for the next round, and the auction ends when there is only one bidder or none (the highest bid from previous round wins) in a round.

The catch for this system is that each bid consumes a super-rare virtual currency called a token. (An engaged, highly active player can expect to earn 30-50 tokens for free per season; in other words, a little more than 1 token per day.) This gives each action a lot of weight, and creates interesting psychological influences on players. From players’ perspective, it’s advisable to avoid a pro-longed bidding war for a single listing, but in the spur of the moment (20 seconds to make a decision), it’s easy to be trapped in a deadlock.

This design also creates room for lots of auction strategies, which creates uncertainty and fun for players. For example a basic technique is to track an empty listing and put in a bid in the last few seconds, to ensure the token is not wasted. Sometimes though, this backfires and you will see several last-second bids, which sets up a bidding war. Similarly there’s lots of mind-games in the follow-up rounds: do you wait to put in a bid in the last few seconds of a round (which puts you as the price leader for the next round, and also can surprise a rival who didn’t put in a bid); or do you bid early each round to signal that “I’ve got plenty of tokens, I’m going to win this no matter what”?

Having said all the above, Top Eleven is not without its issues. In particular, churned players’ teams pose an interesting problem. In my 3rd & 4th seasons, a vast majority of the teams in my League were clearly occupied by churned players. This meant that their neglected teams were weak and didn’t pose an interesting challenge, and in effect the lengthy League season came down to a few matches between the active players. This may be due to the inherent high churn at the beginning of the funnel (my current season seems to have the right mix of teams), but I wonder if there are better ways to solve this.

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The China Dilemma

In the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of updates with regards to the regulatory approval of mobile games in China. First, SAPPRFT (the agency formerly known as SARFT… the lengthened acronym reflects its growth in scope) mandated that from July 1 all mobile games must be pre-approvedRumored details of the approval process (link in Chinese) quickly conjured farcical images of everything wrong with bureaucracy: developers were supposedly required to mail in 2 smartphones (with activated numbers and data-plans) and 5 DVD copies of the game package…

More recently, another agency with growing clout (CAC, which has a say in all things Internet related, and whose former head whom Mark Zuckerberg famously hosted at Facebook HQ a couple of years ago) issued a broad set of requirements on mobile apps with regards to user data.

Collectively, these new developments fit the macro trend of regulatory tightening in China during the past few years. For domestic developers, they represent an ever-growing cost of doing business at home, and there are already predictions that the pre-approval rule will wipe out a large swath of indie and mid-sized developers. For international developers, they represent the closing of the app store loophole in China: while in theory all games published in China have always required government approval in addition to a domestic publisher, Apple’s App Store ecosystem famously were operating outside this rule. This has enabled western developers like Supercell to effectively tap the China market without conceding publishing rights. Now it seems this is finally being reined in.1

Taking a step back, and coming to the main topic of this post: China has become one of the most important and hardest strategy questions for any game company, thanks to the juxtaposition of the biggest market globally and an increasingly challenging business & regulatory environment. Hence, the dilemma.

There are useful parallels to be drawn between games and other industries. Hollywood, for example, has been grappling with the same question, with even harsher regulatory restrictions (a strict quota of the number of foreign films that can be shown in Chinese cinemas per year, and seasonal blackouts where the box office is reserved for domestic films). Faced with a stagnating US box office in contrast to the tremendous growth in China, Hollywood has resorted to a mix of co-production and content pandering to get around the quotas and SAPPRFT.2 For film-goers, some of these pandering efforts definitely leave a sour taste (and often a WTF reaction), but in terms of strategy there are clearly no ambiguities in Hollywood’s direction and execution.

Back to video-games: in contrast, foreign developers / publishers (the EAs / Activisions / Nintendos of the world) have had the luxury of ignoring China (despite its growing market size), partly because of the complete lack of presence of the console market, and heavy pirating on the PC side. For traditional AAA boxed titles, this has meant that pragmatically China was often not worth the hassle, and one could argue it was better for IP holders that Chinese fans played the pirated original version rather than a version contorted to pass local censors. With the double whammy of the rise of “games as a service” (which has always been the China market’s bread and butter) and mobile gaming, however, these foreign developers are having to have a serious thought on their China strategy.

Without trying to be overly prescriptive – and there are no easy answers – I think the following would be a rough thought process for a developer to navigate the problem:

  1. Reflect deeply on the values of the company and the kind of games you are passionate about creating, and assess if it’s compatible at all with the censors. You would not be in a happy place if regulatory compliance requires challenging your core values, halfway through the process – decide if you are “in” or “out” upfront. For example, if you are all about freely exploring mature themes (and that is the brand you are known for), then it’s highly possible you will never get past the censors, and thus you shouldn’t worry about the market (until a change in the regulatory climate). Many Rockstar games, for example, would probably never pass this test; similarly, many war simulation games (especially those set in World War II) may also have issues with historical sensitivities.
  2. If you do think censors won’t be a big problem (and the big question is what you do in the gray area, such as a game like Diablo 3), consider next how well your business model and platform fits in China. From a market perspective, there is very little space outside of PC/mobile free-to-play, which makes things simple in a way. This doesn’t mean traditional AAA upfront purchase can’t work – Overwatch being a good recent example – but it would be a tougher sell. Offering a try-before-you-buy would probably be a good idea (e.g. Diablo 3 in China, you can play the first 4 Acts for free, the purchase decision happens when you want to play the Reaper of Souls content).
  3. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned tweaking gameplay (except for the censorship point) – in general I would strongly advise against tailoring gameplay to any particular market. What is fun is fun. Tinkering with game design for a specific market more often than not can lead to strong player backlash, because the hardcore players are savvy and passionate, and there is ample exchange of information between players of different markets.3
  4. Identify a Chinese publisher that you can have the best alignment with, since by law you are required to have a local partner, and this is a marriage you will have to put up with. There are sharp differences in how the major Chinese publishers work and what they are good at. At work, I’ve interviewed lots of people in various Chinese publishers and their western developer counter-parts. While there are some common themes (“The developer doesn’t understand China!” “The publisher’s requests make no sense!”), it is fascinating how different the dev – publisher setup can be, down to the minute details (e.g. is it the developers’ engineers or the publishers’ engineers that maintains/updates the servers) that could make a huge difference in what the player experiences. The publishing negotiations are going to be tough, but be really deliberate here, since it’s a decision you will live with for a long time.
  5. If you are “in”, act like you are all in. Your Chinese publisher is going to offer a ton of suggestions and requests, half of which are nonsense and half of which can take your game to the next level in China. You need to have the team that can thoughtfully assess the input (and distinguish the bullshit from the diamonds in the rough), and the development prioritization in place to actually address them. An easy way to see if you are doing well or not – is China your #1 or #2 market?
  1. Which brings up the question – when will Steam get the axe and be blocked by the GFW…? Since there’s a vast amount of games in Steam that the Chinese government have strong opinions against, especially some of the best-selling ones such as GTAV… To be clear this is not something I wish for as a gamer, just that I think it’s almost inevitable given recent trends.
  2. Plus, Chinese entities are straight-up buying into Hollywood.
  3. Indeed, it’s a popular type of content on Reddit and in the corresponding Chinese / Korean forums to cross-post opinions from the other language forum. Players want to know what other players think.
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Thoughts on Uncharted 1-3

Over the past couple of weeks I rushed through the single-player campaign of the Uncharted series. As someone who owned a xbox 360 last gen this was one series I missed, and now I know exactly how much I’ve been missing.

This series has a clear theme / identity: it is a console action adventure “tentpole”  equivalent to the Indiana Jones movie franchise (with some heavy influence from The Da Vinci Code). Each game follows the same basic premise: the protagonists are on the trail of an ancient lost treasure/myth (El Dorado, Shangri-la, and the lost city of Atlantis for each game respectively) competing against some antagonists, and hops from location to location in an amazing race (and always ends up with no treasure – these myths are forgotten for a reason).

Its lead Nathan Drake is a college athlete/frat-boy version of Indiana Jones, with a comical mix of these stereotypes (he can be very scholarly and knows his latin when decoding ancient riddles, but he’s also a hot-head who rarely plans ahead and relies on improvisation to get himself out of a bind; he’s also the most athletic rock-climber ever).

Drake’s supported by a handful of characters that at first glance fall into clear stereotypes as well: Sully is the father figure/dirty old thief, Elena is the blonde romantic interest, Charlie Cutter is basically Jason Statham, and so on. The series is light-hearted in tone (this is not The Last of Us, also by Naughty Dog), and character development is generally minimal. For example, most of the Drake – Elena relationship happened “off-screen”: between game 1 & 2 they were dating but split up; between game 2 & 3 they got married but separated1.

However the series is surprisingly effective at making you care about those “one-dimensional” stereotypes, through the strength of its voice acting (a superb cast) and the sharp dialogues – there’s a number of running jokes that the characters play on each other and the game plays on the characters, for example:

  • Sully, the lowly thief he is, likes his hookers, and has a tendency to utter lines that can be interpreted in a dirty way by others
  • In the setup to a action set-piece, one of the characters would often say “let’s do this quietly”, usually directed at Drake (the player-character). It almost always never is done quietly (even if the player went full stealth, there would be an explosion sometimes to progress the scene) 2
  • Similarly in the lead-up to a set-piece, one of the characters would say “listen guys, I’ve got a plan”, suffice to say it almost always does not play out like the plan

Another major strength of the series is its cinematic flair. Uncharted is not shy to borrow established cinematography techniques from movies:

  • There are some great scenes where the camera either starts from a vista shot and pans/zooms all the way in to a detail where the character is, or vice versa. Superb at establishing the grandiose space and set design
  • There are lots of action shots with Drake facing the camera, running, with a chain of explosions chasing him. A typical movie cliché that’s somewhat fun to play through (and not just watch), but can be annoying if you can’t get it right the first few times (usually because the camera angle hinders you from predicting moves)
  • Especially in game 3, there is a beautiful 15-minute desert scene that acts as a buffer between two action set-pieces. It’s light on interaction (just walking) but heavy on scenery and character. This was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever played, and is a fantastic case study of the intersection between films and video games

The cinematic flair goes hand in hand with another major strength – the series’ breathtaking set pieces. The series can certainly be a prime example of one reason why people play video-games: to experience life differently and travel to places you may otherwise be unable to. There was obviously immense care and attention paid to the environment and it remains a huge achievement.

Lastly, to talk briefly about the actual gameplay: the series is a blend of 3d platforming (the Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time type) with some minor puzzles, and 3rd-person shooter (with minor melee combat). For the shooter piece, I felt it was run-of-the-mill, but the series showed notable improvement (game 1 felt very dated in this regard, whereas 2/3 aged well and are still fun today). The platforming is mundane as well, but fits snugly with the series’ set-pieces and therefore feels fun.

  1. BTW this was done using simple but effective dialogues, for example a couple of lines commenting on Elena’s ring in game 3
  2. At first I thought this was a gameplay issue – the dialogue doesn’t fit the moment-to-moment gameplay needs, so the “quiet” part isn’t enforced, but the frequency at which this occurred made me feel it was or became intentional.
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Are mobile games disruptive?

I have written previously about the “rise of the mobile core” in China – traditional PC genres such as MOBA / MMO / FPS being fairly successfully converted to mobile.

With the launch success of Clash Royale (see my impressions here, here), I think 2016 could turn out to be the year that synchronous multiplayer games (what I will call “real multiplayer”) also come of age for mobile gamers outside of China.

If this does happen, I think it will be a big deal, as it could be an important data point to evaluate whether the mobile platform is a disruptive innovation on PC/consoles.

Minor aside: above I linked to the wikipedia entry on disruptive innovation, because the term has been used so much that its meaning is not so clear. The theory is actually quite strict as to what qualifies as disruptive innovation1:

“Generally, disruptive innovations were technologically straightforward, consisting of off-the-shelf components put together in a product architecture that was often simpler than prior approaches. They offered less of what customers in established markets wanted and so could rarely be initially employed there. They offered a different package of attributes valued only in emerging markets remote from, and unimportant to, the mainstream.”

I believe mobile games have so far followed the theory here:

  • They have focused on catering to previous non-gamers / casual gamers, and most of the early successes reflected this (Angry BirdsCandy Crush SagaFlappy Birds)
  • These games were simpler to play, and offered less complexity in the gameplay
  • These games were generally looked down upon by core gamers

What gets interesting is what happens next. The disruption theory says that from this low market position, the new entrants are able to mount an attack on the establishment thanks to both product evolution (so they catch up in product experience) and their new attributes which the power users (core gamers) previously didn’t care about.

By the way, what are these “new attributes” for mobile? The obvious ones:

  • Never before has there been a personal computer that literally everyone will own. This means that the ceiling for the network effects of a mobile game is theoretically the entire population, which previously has not been true. More concretely, this translates into benefits such as insanely fast match-making, always populated virtual worlds, and much larger social peer pressure (do you really want to be the one guy in your school not playing a particular game?)
  • Mobile devices are always on, and people are glued to them. Proximity to other mobile apps, especially social apps, means that players can stay immersed in the game communities they care about (notifications, sharing achievements etc.)
  • For developers, the app store infrastructure dramatically lowered the barriers to entry2 and made it possible for very small teams to serve 100MM+ players (think Whatsapp / Supercell)

To be clear, there are already plenty of mobile games that appeal to core gamers: for example if you have ever had a friend addicted to Puzzle & Dragons and was trying to min-max the f2p progression, odds are that friend of yours is a pretty heavy gamer generally. It’s just that to date, most of these games have shied away from experiences that directly compete with PC/console3. Some of it was due to appealing to the “casual audience”, or technical limitations (e.g. unreliable network connection).

Another way to frame this: mobile games to date can be seen as mostly complementary experiences to core games – they generally avoided head-on competition, and instead tried to capture core gamers’ downtime with bite-sized entertainment; however, I believe going forward this is going to change to a more cannibalistic/competitive relationship, where just like a core gamer today needs to choose between playing League of Legends or the hot new game The Division, he/she will increasingly need to choose between a mobile game and a non-mobile one.

Core gamers will likely continue to ridicule Clash Royale for its lack of strategic depth, but I have a suspicion it is here to stay, and we will see more real-time PVP games like it. These games will offer gameplay that may be easier in terms of mechanical complexity, but can offer similar degrees of strategic complexity to PC/console titles. They will appeal both to “retiring” core gamers (like myself) and a younger generation native to mobile, and they may eclipse and push core gaming as we know it today into a niche.

  1. Other kinds of innovation can be “disruptive” to incumbents in terms of impacting their business, but should not be labeled disruptive innovation.
  2. Initially; now the barrier to entry is in discovery, and thus marketing capital.
  3. The notable exceptions are the cross-platform titles, which is offering you the same experience – e.g. Hearthstone.
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Microsoft’s cross-network play

A fairly big piece of news for gaming today: Microsoft has announced support for cross-network play on Xbox, including potentially other consoles. This is something console gamers have always naturally wanted, but to my limited knowledge never widely done (except in a few games?) in previous console generations.

First of all, as a gamer this is obviously a good development. A larger network of players to play with means better network effects, possibly longer lifecycle of games (because the population is larger), shorter matchmaking queues, less anxiety about which platform to adopt (and the herd mentality of following your friends), and probably a wider choice of games. So to be completely clear, as a gamer (and owner of a PS4) I’m happy for this and hope it becomes something material and not just a marketing bullet point.

From a strategy perspective though, there are some intriguing questions, with the obvious one being why.

First, it’s important to acknowledge the macro-context that Microsoft is in – it has lost its dominance in computing, and is dangerously close to becoming another legacy tech company that will live on for decades but is completely irrelevant to most consumers1. And in this context there’s been a big turn-about at Microsoft at embracing other people’s platforms, from the new love shown to Linux to a bigger focus of Office on iOS. This Xbox announcement follows this pattern 2

Second, there’s also the macro-context of the smartphone revolution and the future implications for games. Consider this data-point3:

Supercell had 180 full-time employees in 2015. In comparison, and per Wikipedia, Activision-Blizzard, had 6,690 employees in 2015; EA, 8,400. This sharp contrast speaks not only to product strategy but also market characteristics: the power of mobile scale and the app store. A casual prediction: the first game with a billion monthly active players4 is not going to be a PC or console game – that number is reserved for mobile because of the install base involved.

The point is, in this context of a broader shift-to-mobile for the entire tech ecosystem, being the market leader in console actually amounts to very little, and it’s arguable that for consoles to have an independent future (and not just be subsumed into the mobile ecosystem entirely), perhaps it’s not a bad idea to ditch the barrier to entry that is compatibility. Again, being in 2nd place this gen, Microsoft has less to lose and more to gain with moving in this direction first; though Sony should think hard about whether it really wants to turn down the friend-request.

Third, and extrapolating from the second point, if the major console platforms became buddies, and also had full cross-play with PC, this “circle-the-wagons” move is likely to the benefit of most parties in the “traditional” game development space. And with both Microsoft and Apple wanting to make Windows / Mac more like mobile (the “walled garden” app stores), PC could look very similar to console from an user-experience perspective anyways.

Interesting times:)

  1. BTW, this is a perfectly valid business strategy, it’s just a far-cry from Microsoft’s lofty ambitions in the past.
  2. One of my favorite business school professors, who specializes in teaching strategy in the TMT space, had a very snappy summary about platform compatibility/interoperability – the market leader generally has little incentive in offering compatibility with a competing platform, whereas the followers have a ton of incentives to offer compatibility. This can be broadly observed across tech sectors, and Microsoft’s recent moves certainly exemplify this point.
  3. The financial metrics may not be apples-to-apples comparable, but it is still good reference. Alternatively can also compare top-line revenue.
  4. See this reference on the 12 pieces of software that have 1B users.
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Superhot (2016) – thoughts

Superhot is the full game of the 7-day game-jam prototype that made waves a few years back. The core gameplay is more or less the same, but with a full (albeit short – a few hours) campaign’s worth of content and a couple of new mechanics.

If you don’t know what the core gameplay looks like, the below trailer will give you some idea:

Actually – the trailer just shows you what a completed level looks like, when it’s played at normal time-speed. As you are actually playing the game, you completely control time – “time moves only when you move” per the game’s tagline. So this game plays a bit like Braid or other puzzle games where you manipulate movement / time (though here there’s no rewind) – you can carefully plot out your moves, and the end result looks like a beautifully choreographed scene from The Matrix or John Wick.

The difficulty comes from everything (including yourself) is a one-shot kill, so if you misread the situation you will have to start the level from scratch. In later levels this becomes more trial and error as the margin for mistakes become much smaller and you really have to think about the consequence of every action – if I grab this gun I’ll be vulnerable for a split-second (during the execution of that action you don’t control time – you are committed to the action, kind of like an attack in Bloodborne).

The core gameplay is fun but imposes some strict constraints – with this style of “frame-by-frame” play, it could get incredibly tedious if the level becomes too long, but having short levels restrict the type of narrative you can present. What narrative the devs did put together is somewhat novel and indie-feeling, and wraps around this short-session level format fairly well. (The setting: you, the player, is using a DOS-like retro-interface and your friend shared with you a cracked game called Superhot.) There are also some moments of breaking the fourth-wall type of design, e.g. at one point the narrative has you unable to run the cracked game anymore, and tells you to quit – you literally have to close the program and relaunch the game client to progress further. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly clever but it is coherent with the meta-theme the game tries to present.

But really, the game is about those slick short-sessions where you feel like a badass (e.g. Chow Yun Fat from his bullet-storm John Woo Hong Kong cinema days). After you finish the campaign, you unlock additional modes (e.g. speed-runs, which sound like a great twist, and endless mode) that really enhance replayability.

In sum, I wouldn’t mind seeing more games like Superhot, and it is worthy of praise as one of the most original FPSes in the last few years.

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Firewatch (2016) – thoughts

Some directional spoilers in this post, discretion advised.

I finished Firewatch in a 3 play-sessions totalling about 4-5 hours over the course of two days 1. Overall I would say I enjoyed this experience, and thought it was worth the price of admission ($18 on Steam, after a 10% discount).

A few broad thoughts after letting the playthrough sink in a bit:

  • Strong production values – it’s certainly a beautiful game with strong art direction. Also great voice-acting from the two leads
  • It felt like a very cinematic experience. The opening sequence uses some strong narrative techniques (interactive fiction interlaced with some FPS tutorial elements at the same time…) to very quickly set the context for the character you are playing. The amount of content and emotional highs/lows in the opening reminds me of this Pixar favorite
  • Speaking of movies, this game also reminded me of The Sixth Sense (1999), as both heavily rely on a major twist in the final act that completes the experience in an unexpected way. Firewatch’s resolution may be unsatisfactory to gamers used to a lot more action/suspense in video-games, but feels thematically complete and is a nice little social commentary on the state of video-games and really blockbuster films as well (where gamers expect larger-than-life plots and fantastical narratives, just like the summer tentpole movies)
  • I say this game is thematically complete with its plot resolution, because ultimately this is a game about loneliness. The character you play, Henry, does not see another person’s face throughout the whole game – it’s at best silhouettes or someone with a big mask. And he’s in this wilderness setting because he wants to get away from some big life-issues. So the game’s plot, which some gamers see as a letdown, is actually very contemplative about a lonely person’s frame of mind as he goes “into the wild”
  • Finally, at a meta level, I personally hope to see more of this type of game, something that’s a creative mix of films/novels (with strong storytelling) and games, packaged in an experience that’s under 10 hours. I think there will be an audience for this kind of experience, as we have a generation that grew up with gaming (and wants to game more, but has less disposable time and perhaps a higher need for more sophisticated content)
  1. may have played faster if not for some motion sickness issues – I think turning head-bobbing off helped for me
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