Consoles in China

Recently the Chinese game site Gamecores did a couple of podcast interviews with the respective China heads of Xbox & Playstation. These podcasts are well worth a listen (if you speak Mandarin) not only because of the topic (how are the console platforms doing in China?), but also because of the insight into the people driving these businesses.

First, the two podcasts (btw, I thought this site is really well made):

After listening to both of these talks, I think the bull case for consoles in China can be summarized as follows:

  • The analogy that consoles in China are like the domestic films market 10 years ago. Back then it was plagued by piracy and entry barriers – now the China film market is rapidly becoming a close rival to the US film market, and Hollywood has found many ways to achieve success in China
  • The government stance towards consoles have shifted (and more importantly) been clarified, clearing the way for some amount of free enterprise in China by foreign console platform owners
  • Both Microsoft & Sony have deep roots in the China market, they are committed to the opportunity, and they are throwing respectable talent at the console problem. Having not really looked at this space before, I gained a lot of respect for both companies and I think their China console heads are decently speaking the gamer language 1

Meanwhile, the bear case for consoles in China, as usual, is focused on content:

  • A substantial amount of the top tier AAA games will not get through the regulatory process to publish in China. Just this year, it’s hard for me to see The Witcher 3Bloodborne or Metal Gear Solid V come through for either ideological or sex/violence reasons, and these are the 3 best games of the year so far IMO
  • The “chicken & egg” problem of Chinese gamers’ willingness to pay upfront for gaming content. Soeda touched on this in his interview – to get high quality localization done, there needs to be confidence in sales; if sales are weak there will be fewer quality localized titles, which leads to lower supply and certainly lower sales
  • Chinese family acceptance of gaming in the living-room. For years Chinese kids convinced their parents to buy them PCs, in the excuse of studying and learning the computer. There’s no such pretense with the console (although I remember Xbox tried to build a case for that with some of its demo videos at Chinajoy last year?)

Personally I’m rather bullish on consoles’ prospects in China. I think console gaming still represents an integral part of the core gamers’ experience and there will probably continue to be a fair amount of console exclusives that really define AAA single-player experiences (think The Last of Us). And with the advent of streaming platforms there is going to be higher awareness with the non-console gamers in China of the type of experiences that they are missing out on. 2

Lastly, I’m also reminded not only of the China film analogy, but also Apple in China. Going back 6 years, I lamented at the time that Apple’s app services are woefully inadequately localized and I mocked them for not “getting China”. Fast-forward to now and they’ve certainly solved many of the implementation problems. I see quite some similarities in the types of challenges that Microsoft / Sony faces compared to Apple, and thus I think those are solvable problems that just need time and consistent drive.

  1. Comparing the two interviewees, surprisingly it’s the Japanese representative Takehito Soeda who comes across as more native, with a fluent Beijinger accent, whereas the Microsoft veteran Xie Weien sounds a bit like an ABC with the amount of English he’s slipping in. The Sony veteran also won the popularity vote from the comments section of the podcasts it seemed.
  2. For example, GTAV is now a staple on Chinese streaming sites, despite never officially launching in China.

The difficult Google play in China

Early last month there were some news circulating about Google plotting a return to China. The past few days there were also increased speculation after Chinese netizens discovered some changes to what are being hosted domestically by Google.

So far most of the above are just speculation. But it’s worth doing a quick thought exercise.

First, the market context:

  • In Google’s 5 year absence from China, the smartphone revolution has really taken over the market and there’s arguably half a billion users of Android devoid of any Google services
  • There’s been a big entrepreneurship boom (which may be going into hard times currently), with several cycles of intense competition in a number of sectors – staring with the 1,000 groupon clone wars of 2010, to the more recent taxi-app wars and the broader O2O wars. And of course let’s not forget the home-grown Android vendors such as Xiaomi and the battles in the Android space. From the ashes of these intense battlegrounds have risen a number of companies with $10B+ valuations1
  • The traditional big 3 – “BAT” have extended their empires in numerous directions and continue to compete in multiple fronts. For example, Alibaba has made big bets in film entertainment and Tencent is eager to follow suit
  • Apple has seen major success in China – it has generated over $45B revenue in Q1-Q3 of its FY2015, which is about double of Google’s entire worldwide revenue in 2009, right before it exited China

In short, the 5-year opportunity cost for Google in China has turned out to be huge, which is not surprising then if they are indeed seeking an return.

As an aside – I always thought Google’s decision in early 2010 was an incredibly difficult decision, and one which I have always disagreed with (to the detriment of my friendships with some American friends). Not to be overly sentimental, but one of my biggest points of disagreement was that this decision went against Google’s own company mission – to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful – with such a mission, how could Google shy away from serving Chinese users? Wasn’t exiting China a cop-out to avoid the really tough choices of operating in that environment?

But to come back on-topic – if exiting China was tough, coming back will be tougher:

  • What is Google’s value proposition to Chinese consumers? Most of its services have been fully replaced by local competitors, who are arguably more nimble and responsive to local user needs
  • What does Google focus on? The rumored Google Play makes some sense, since they should prioritize re-establishing a position in mobile, while desktop search is slowly but surely becoming irrelevant
  • Can Google find any local allies? Out of BAT, Alibaba probably has the least conflicts of interest with Google (Tencent / Baidu both own big Android app stores); in the Android vendor space, it has already partnered with Huawei for a Nexus device, so perhaps Huawei can return the favor somewhat in China
  • How much autonomy / empowerment will the local team have? Can they attract the type of talent they want, given their flip-flopping in China?
  • Fundamentally, how much product experience is Google willing to sacrifice/compromise to meet the government’s requirements?

Given how nasty the 2010 exit was from a relationship stand-point, I suspect Google’s return will be tiny baby steps at first.

  1. Xiaomi, Didi-Kuadi, and the new Meituan-Dianping merger are a few leading examples

The Last of Us (2013) – a review

The Last of Us was on sale recently on the PS4 store, so I got it for HK$120 (~$15). The main storyline made for a pretty compact play-through (maybe a dozen hours?), and my main thoughts are as follows.

What makes this game stand out is its top-notch writing. In my opinion The Last of Us is among a pretty short list of mainstream games with narratives that are on par with top quality films / TV / books1. Indeed the opening scene alone deserves praise for its super-concise yet highly-impactful character building, mostly via a few well-crafted dialogues and a sharp plot-twist 2. Beyond this intro, the narrative follows two unlikely companions, Joel & Ellie, and the focus is squarely on their evolving relationship.  This relationship evolves via a convenient “road-trip” plot device, which puts the two through ever-changing scenery and a host of side characters that they briefly interact with. This eventually culminates in the disturbing (to say the least) ending that certainly generated a bunch of discussions back when the game was originally released.

What I found rather surprising about The Last of Us is that in aiming to craft such a strong story, the developers at face value completely went against the principles of player agency. This is the direct opposite of games such as The Witcher and Mass Effect series, where the player decided how the story progressed (and chose the endings) and determined the fates of individual characters. Instead, here the story is set in stone, and with one notable exception3, critical developments are all presented via cut-scenes.

In this sense, at times I found myself breaking from the immersion, because I could argue that all I was doing was getting through the action sequences so that the plot could unfold. But really this is just a minor gripe, as the story & the two characters are hauntingly beautiful. If anything, it simply shows that there’s no single correct way to make a story-driven game, each approach (to present players with meaningful story choices or not) has its trade-offs.

Lastly, to talk about the gameplay mechanics briefly… it’s primarily a stealth game with some survival scavenger design. Playing on Normal difficulty, I didn’t really fully appreciate the skills system, but there’s certainly some player agency here to pick perks that suit the player’s play-style (those who are more eager for combat vs. those who prefer stealth). The combat can be surprisingly intense due to some tricky enemy designs (some Infected, which are basically zombies, can one-shot the player if they get into melee range), and with the strict cap on inventory (i.e. you can’t stash up a ton of ammo) the player is always one bad move away from being resource-deprived. This adds a lot of extra tension to some otherwise mundane combat encounters (e.g. clear an area to progress). The only glaring problem was the AI, which I found unsatisfying due to a couple of frequently-seen issues: 1) enemy AI stealth detection when you have friendly AI following you seems erratic; 2) sometimes enemy AI reaction seems nonsensical (running around in circles, or fleeing from you when clearly he could inflict damage).

  1. The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption are 2 other AAA games that immediately come to mind.
  2. Example reaction (warning: spoilers) when un-suspecting teens play through this scene.
  3. As part of the climatic ending, the player has no choice but to perform an act that would likely be universally considered immoral.

India as melting pot for China & Silicon Valley

A couple of recent articles to frame the context for this short post:

I worked in India briefly in 2008 (a couple of months on a consulting project for a Korean consumer electronics giant – you have a 50% chance to guess correctly…). Even back then, the comparisons between India and China as the two emerging markets were numerous. My impression from that project was that India was decades behind (not scientific measure, just a figure of speech) China in infrastructure (roads, electricity, water, telecommunications) but had pockets of really strong entrepreneurship and less long-term political risk.

7 years later, though I have not been back to India, I can probably safely guess the infrastructure gap is still there, since post-financial-crisis China has been pumping vast amounts of money into big infra projects such as high-speed rail and subways across the nation. And the NYTimes article confirms that a lot of the infrastructure challenges are still there for India. However, flipping this comparison the other way, it also means that India is under-penetrated and likely to represent key future growth (“the next billion” and other headlines).

Hence all the interest from US and Chinese tech companies, and this creates a curious market to watch. The safe prediction to make is that Chinese companies will focus on the (low-cost) hardware side of things while Silicon Valley focuses on software / services. In this sense, China and SV are not competing, but rather co-existing in a growing market. And this Indian melting pot may thus create some truly interesting mash-ups. 1

  1. PS: the bolder prediction is that Chinese companies will compete fiercely with their SV counter-parts… but it’s hard to see that happening. For one thing, Chinese companies are literally decades behind US companies in terms of operating globally (Lenovo being the single exception I can think of). Secondly, Chinese companies won’t enjoy the trade-protective benefits of the Great Firewall in India, and while it’s not the only reason (nor the primary reason) why US companies “lost” in China, it was certainly a big factor. Thirdly, the closer cultural bond between India and the US (look at how many senior execs in Silicion Valley are of Indian descent, vs. Chinese) is also not in favor of Chinese companies.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – a short review

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the latest and maybe the last game in the franchise to have Hideo Kojima’s name attached to it. This is a franchise I’ve heard about quite often but frankly played very little: my last interaction was a PC port of Metal Gear Solid some 15 years ago, and to the best of my memory I don’t think I finished it.

Which is surprising then, that somehow I still remember how that game felt when I played it, and therefore I felt completely at home in MGSV. In my view this game is great demonstration about the power of a “vertical slice” that is extremely sticky/addictive – the core gameplay of stealth infiltration in a modern military setting is essentially the same, and yet after dozens of hours spent I still feel compelled for “one more mission”.

The layers wrapped around this vertical slice are hit and miss, in my opinion. The plot feels like a direct-to-video action flick that has gone off the rails, with the opening prologue especially faulty as a case study of “what NOT to put your players through in an opening level”. The base-management/R&D meta-layer is reminiscent of X-Com and Syndicate (especially having to farm missions for bodies really echoing indoctrinating civilians in that 90s classic), in a generally good way. And I didn’t venture into the online play much, but at a glance it felt like multiplayer ideas from mobile games such as Clash of Clans were liberally referenced, and probably can provide some light diversion for players still wanting more action.

And then there are the level designs… Generally speaking I found the occasional boss-fight levels to be unsatisfactory, because they typically broke the stealth gameplay and required you to go loud and confrontational. Otherwise the levels felt well-crafted, and felt like puzzles with multiple solutions available. Combined with the variety of equipment available (and therefore gameplay styles), the whole package made for very high replayability. The design of having optional mission objectives hidden in the first play-through felt a bit cheap though (as a gimmick to force replays for completionists), especially given the sheer amount of content packed in the number of missions / side-ops available.


Mobile gravity, and what it may mean for games (part 2)

Link to Part 1

In hindsight, a lot of my first post was about mobile gaming as the classic low-end disruption to PC&console gaming – mobile devices may be more constrained across the board (power, storage, screen size, input precision etc.), but they can compete along other dimensions (almost universal availability to play, wherever your are; hardware that’s not available to PC&console, e.g. camera, motion sensors etc. that unlock new design space; etc.). And also using the disruptive innovation analytical framework, it may very well be possible PC&console are over-servicing the player needs – e.g. it’s nice to have ever-more realistic graphics, but there’s probably a case of diminishing returns for actual player value delivered by these graphics. (The rest of the framework applies nicely after this setup – I won’t bore you with writing out the conclusions.)

I ended the first post with a quote from The Terminator series – “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” In my view it is by no means a fore-gone conclusion that the PC&console product category will be sucked in by mobile gravity. It is possible they can thrive at an arms’ length. Again, to think this through we can look from the lens of “jobs to be done”. Some examples here:

  • The cinema business is thriving in the digital age, and IMHO suffering minimal to no impact from online piracy. One big reason is the industry has convinced the audience that going to the cinema is a fun and unique experience compared to other film-viewing experiences – it is the aggregate of the high-tech audio-visual hardware (e.g. IMAX screen, Dolby surround), the mood & atmosphere of the cinema, the social event characteristics (group activity with friends / family, it is almost socially unacceptable for someone to go to the cinema by him/herself), as well as any differentiating service the cinema tries to provide (e.g. adult-only viewing in laid back seats with food&drinks service)
  • The arcade business in Japan. I’ve not visited Japan yet, so this is mostly hearsay, but my impression is that there is still a rather lively arcade business in Japan, and it has been ingrained somewhat into the cultural fabric. It’s worth pondering why people still go to arcades when there’s likely a better selection of games at home on their consoles – what are the jobs being done?
  • Similarly, the PC cafe ecosystem in Korea, and other developed Asian economies (e.g. Taiwan, and the coastal area of China). As a ballpark figure there are still something like 10,000 PC cafes in Korea with probably a million PCs. As far as I understand it, it is a social norm in Korea for people to go to a PC cafe after work/school and play for a couple of hours, just like how they may go to bars / restaurants / clubs. It is a quite mainstream social activity – with emphasis on social being a primary job being done here. This is why Korea is probably the most advanced country in the world in terms of internet connectivity (fiber to the home, 4g networks etc.) and yet people still flock to PC cafes.
    • If you are wondering what effects smartphone adoption has had on Internet cafes – in China actually there’s a renewed growth of Internet cafes (largely driven by government removing stringent license requirements), and a new wave of more sophisticated cafes – WYWK for example has customized hardware/software as well as a mobile social app that generated headlines previously for being a hook-up tool (sex has consistently been a primary “job to be done” of social apps). Also if you visit any PC cafes in China, you’ll notice that the primary application (by far) are games, similar to Korea

To go on a bit of a tangent – in the specific case of PC cafes, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that a PC games developer can be financially viable by focusing on this channel. I don’t mean just using biz-dev tactics to ensure an install base / player-base in PC cafes – most competent publishers know how to do that already. Instead, I’m thinking about game experiences that acknowledge the PC cafe setting and strategically leverage them in the game design, e.g.:

  • Core gameplay that really takes advantage of keyboard+mouse input method
  • Strong multiplayer focus, if not multiplayer only. PVP or team-based PVE
  • Preferably session-based play, with minimal setup & downtime in between sessions
  • In-cafe location-based-services which also scale online, e.g. in-cafe tournaments/game-modes, local social features, local leaderboards, cafe vs. cafe leaderboards etc. Also provide incentives to repeat play from the same cafe (e.g. cafe-based reward loops – this aligns the developer’s interests with the cafe’s interests, and also makes sense for players because it creates a more stable local scene)1

The first 3 points are super generic and pretty much applies to all the top PC PVP games right now (League of LegendsDotA 2, CS:GO etc.). They can be enjoyed in any setting but they are clearly best enjoyed when you and your friends are physically sitting together. The last point has not been done well for any game developer (none that I know of)2, probably partially because PC cafes are not a thing in North America and that’s where most of these games are developed.

The above side-discussion is to illustrate one area where PC developers can use an existing infrastructure to hopefully sustain against mobile gravity. At the end of the day, players will continue to seek fun / engaging gameplay experiences, and if these experiences are conveniently available and part of an accepted lifestyle (as PC cafe gaming is in Korea), then PC gaming as we know it today can continue to thrive.

To go full cycle back to the start of this discussion series though, developers should be super conscious why they made a platform choice in the first-place. Is it because your existing skill-set / dev-tools / infrastructure are tied to a platform? Or is it because the gameplay experience you are going after are best suited to that platform’s strengths? The chances of success in the former case are much lower than the latter.

And perhaps one other take-away, for all developers regardless of their platform choices – be conscious that with regards to the general internet, the mobile internet IS the internet and to a first approximation everyone should probably be thinking mobile first when it comes to around-the-game experiences (like community forums and other social engagement).

  1.  Take note what Magic: The Gathering did for its hugely successful local play programs, and recreate that experience digitally with PC cafes as the venue
  2. Interestingly, ecosystem developers in China have made serious attempts at this space – but because of lack of integration with the core game, and sometimes malicious intent, the results are shaky from the players’ perspective

Mobile gravity, and what it may mean for games (part 1)

Ben Evans had a couple of posts several weeks ago that I’ve been chewing on:

Microsoft, capitulation and the end of Windows Everywhere

The smartphone is the new sun

In particular, his central summary/analogy that “the smartphone is the Sun and everything else orbits around it” is both elegant and provocative. Combining his two posts, you can say that he looked at it from both a platform perspective and a supply chain perspective.

From an end-user perspective (consumption behavior), there’s certainly data that supports the analogy. Especially in emerging markets, mobile share of internet consumption has been steadily rising (e.g. this recent post).

This is a virtuous & self-reinforcing cycle – because of the healthy growth and sheer size of the smartphone market (e.g. people see it as a critical personal device, replaced every 2 years), it now commands the tech supply chain; because of the userbase and growth outlook, developers are naturally shifting their attention/priority to mobile; and as there are more mobile apps that users have formed sticky habits with, and as these apps build their inter-connectivity / inter-dependency (symbiotic relationships, e.g. wechat as social identity / payment provider for other mobile apps), it becomes more and more cumbersome for users to context-switch to non-mobile platforms 1 for tasks, and hence more incentive for aspiring developers to solve these tasks on the dominant mobile platforms (and hence the cycle goes).

Another analogy (and IMO fittingly also physics related) to describe this is “mobile gravity”, the first part of this post’s title. All other hardware / software products that we regularly experience in our daily lives are encountering the gravitational pull of the mobile hw/sw ecosystem. A few obvious examples:

  • Mobile is a key enabler of the on-demand economy. Uber and its clones are forcing people to rethink our entire relationship with cars / public transportation. In this case, “mobile gravity” will likely permanently transform the auto industry, at least in the end-user service experience layer (and probably beyond that, in the supply chain & production as well, which is not a new concept if you’ve been following asymco)
  • In some smaller products / services, they have been/will be completely pulled in by “mobile gravity” and are no longer standalone categories. MP3 players (iPods) and compact digital cameras are 2 prime examples of dedicated-purpose products that have been replaced by the general purpose smartphone. Dedicated gaming handhelds are another product category that may be dangerously close to being assimilated, because the jobs they are hired to do can mostly be performed competently by smartphones
  • Some portable electronics categories will be embraced by mobile as peripherals. The Apple Watch (and wearables in general) act as extensions of mobile computing – they are kind of interesting as standalone products, but where they unlock value is when they work together with mobile platforms. And it’s not hard to imagine niche categories such as DSLRs move more of their tasks to the mobile computer and just act as “dumb cameras” that have the hardware capabilities to take complex photos2

So far I believe I have been stating the obvious. I think few people today would disagree that smartphones will likely remain the most personal computing device for the next decade3.

What I wanted to drill down further to discuss, and which forms the second part of the post’s title, is what exactly does this mean for games? (After all, I currently work in this specific sector of tech.) Though with a question so broad (and vaguely presented), there are of course many different ways to speculate.

The most obvious implication (and perhaps the most uninteresting as it’s so obvious) is the rise of smartphones as a gaming platform in its own right. Clash of ClansCandy Crush SagaGame of WarPuzzle & Dragons and Monster Strike are 5 games that were/are in the $1B/yr revenue ball-park, with millions (if not tens of millions) or players. By any traditional games-industry measure these are massive numbers4. And there will likely be more of these games (by sheer virtue of the platform sizes, and people’s intrinsic needs for amusement on the go, which is a gross & criminal over-simplification of the “jobs being done” by these games).

But as many would quickly point out, there’s a world of difference between the 5 games I listed above and “core” console & PC gaming titles such as Metal Gear Solid 5The Witcher 3, and the Call of Duty franchise, to name a few. And this is where things start to get interesting IMO…  If by “console & PC gaming” we are actually referring to the core content experience (hi-fidelity audio-visuals presented in an immersive format such as a big screen or VR in future, richness of interactivity and gameplay depth etc.), I don’t think the need for that is going away. I think people will continue to crave  these types of highly polished entertainment experiences, and the bar will continue to be raised – bigger screens, higher fidelity, more immersion (VR?).

Again, stating the obvious I think. But what’s not obvious is whether Windows / Mac / Xbox One / PS4 (which btw are all based on the x86 CPU architecture) will be the software platforms powering these core experiences in 5 years’ time.

I think one way to think about this is via the following set of questions regarding the content experience:

  • What is the desired experience? e.g. “a cinematic story set in a big & richly detailed open-world that the player is fully immersed in” (which is kind of what The Witcher 3 is)
  • How do you interact with the experience? This includes both the input method but also the presentation method, e.g. “designed for big screen (40″+ TV) viewing, and meant to be played with a dual-stick gamepad” or “designed for a VR device with a VR controller”
  • What’s required to power the experience? This is computing horsepower, storage, power consumption, network requirements (e.g. latency is a key bar for good real-time PVP experiences), and also the presentation hardware and input method hardware

It’s important to note that while from a current standpoint mobile platforms are far behind PC/console in most of the above listed requirements, things are constantly in flux and paradigms can be broken:

  • Many peripheral vendors have tried making a controller peripheral for smartphones / tablets. From what I’ve read (haven’t bought any, partly because a lack of games, which is the classic chicken & egg problem) they are mostly suboptimal, but as long as there’s continued effort a breakthrough could be coming. Similarly there are experiments like the Steam controller that’s trying to reach parity with the keyboard+mouse in the living room
  • Related to above, a well crafted game can sell the peripherals required to play the game… Rock Band / Guitar Hero is the prime example where the hardware barrier to entry didn’t matter – people wanted the experience that bad. So it’s not unfathomable a phenomenal game can sell the platform and the peripherals needed to enjoy the game
  • We may frequently over-estimate the input method lock-in. Keyboard+mouse is seen as the pinnacle for FPS gaming (much more accurate / responsive than gamepads, which is partly why multi-platform FPSes don’t support cross-platform play), but let’s not forget that console FPSes generally speaking outsell their PC counterparts by a lot (which leads to development decisions such as making Destiny console-only). Similarly, there are developers constantly pushing the limits of our imagination in terms of what’s “playable” on a touchscreen – The Executive being a recent example of a touchscreen fighting game that I had a good time with (caveat being I’m not a core fighting game player)
  • I’m skeptical about the current wave of VR devices, but again this is something that likely will be cracked one day, and when that day comes, gaming will be one of the biggest applications and you will no longer be constrained to your living room to enjoy a core experience

I’m going to take a quick break here… I feel I’ve rambled a lot. There are still a few more things I’d like to note down in a next post. As a small teaser, despite what I wrote above, it’s not necessarily all doom & gloom for PC/console – at the end of the day, “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves”, and there are some angles that PC/console platforms can leverage to sustain their position in gaming.


  1. I’m not speaking of specific form-factors / devices, but rather software platforms, i.e. Windows vs. iOS vs. Android. I suspect iOS / Android & other mobile platforms will increasingly expand to more form-factors, just like how they’ve already done so with both the tablet and the smart-watch↩︎︎
  2. As an aside – DSLRs on-camera software generally suck in terms of their usability, and feel they belong to the feature-phone era. This cannot sustain – either DSLRs actively integrate with mobile platforms, or they will be replaced by new specialized camera peripherals for mobile platforms that can perform the tasks of the DSLR↩︎︎
  3. They will continue to evolve / extend, but the basic premise of a battery-constrained, ultra-portable computing device with built-in wireless connectivity will probably persist for a while.↩︎︎
  4. BTW this doesn’t equate to mobile gaming being a profitable field – it’s very much a “red ocean” as I understand it and these are the “unicorns” amongst a sea of “dead” games.↩︎︎

The Witcher 3 – a review

I’ve played The Witcher 3 probably for over 60 hours now, and just finished my first play-through. Some thoughts…

From a systems/mechanics perspective, I found The Witcher 3 to not really hold any surprises:

  • Large open-world layout, supporting immense amounts of open exploration. Even with 60 hours in it, my map holds more “?” marks than explored areas. However I rarely felt the desire to explore
  • A deep questing system with a simple “mechanical” setup: explore 3 large areas of the world (with lots of optional quests per area) sequentially to uncover the next major set of main quests. The later main quests would at times take me back through these 3 areas and revisit earlier acquaintances
  • Real-time combat that’s mostly swords-based, with some defense/offense spells. The base versions of the spells (“signs”) are already learnt at game-start, as thematically you are a traveled witcher. To me the combat was the least interesting aspect of the game
  • A leveling system that mostly provides passive benefits to your character’s stats / abilities, with some limited additional active spells unlocked (twists on existing spells). Interestingly leveling is primarily through questing, as combat/exploration provides very little experience rewards
  • A crafting system that supports hunting/gathering component resources. The alchemy part of the crafting system plays a strong role in supporting the thematics, however in practice I rarely felt the need to hunt for components – I had the habit of looting pretty much everything in sight, so when I did need to craft a potion/piece of gear I usually had the ingredients (or could salvage them from dismantling items)
  • A few mini-games: a very thematic card game, horse-racing

The execution of most of the above areas are mostly just so-so (with one notable exception), and what’s worse is that there are quite a few glitches / bugs… For example in my PS4 copy, the Gwent card game tutorial repeatedly crashed for me, which made me give up on this entire mini-game altogether.

I’ve also seen quite a few reviews comment that “the combat is not Dark Souls / Bloodborne“, undoubtably with Bloodborne fresh on players’ minds – this was my impression as well. It is an unfair but relevant comparison, and to me shows the importance of focus – a game cannot be the perfect game to all players, it must choose what it focuses on excelling at.

For The Witcher 3, that focus is the storytelling (the exception I mentioned earlier). The questing system itself is wholly generic (and even cuts some corners with designs such as a notice board where you can conveniently pick up side missions). And the mechanics of the quests are not ground-breaking in any way – it’s the standard fare of “go there” / “get that item for me” / “kill someone”. But the writing quality, the sheer amount of writing, and the related production values in presenting those writing (voice-acting etc.) is simply astounding. Quests, even the smallest side-quests, will often have (surprising) consequences later on; there are always interesting plot twists, supported by a memorable ensemble cast of NPCs; and the game’s grim world-view will repeatedly show the player that the best intentions can have objectively bad results (such is the tragedy of life).

In one sense this is basic storytelling – create numerous interesting characters; plant some seeds and come back to them later (preferably in unexpected ways); have multiple narratives in parallel, creating pace and tension, etc. – but the finesse and ease at which this game ties its quests together are remarkable.

Lastly, The Witcher 3 mostly succeeds by having about a dozen characters that the player cares about, and having the player make numerous narrative decisions per character throughout the long playthrough. Some of the consequences of these choices are not apparent until the ending; in other cases, they require the player to make immediate life/death choices (forced under a timer) between characters. As the credits roll, it’s hard not to reflect on these choices and wonder what could have been (although with the power of youtube and community wikis, exhaustively exploring all the other choices is a trivial task).


Bloodborne – a short review

Bloodborne is the first Souls game I’ve played, and it represents a wholly different experience from other games I’ve played the past few years. Below I’ll summarize some quick thoughts I have after my first playthrough.

Much has been said about the game’s high difficulty, but to be honest I don’t think that’s why Bloodborne is unique. Diablo 3‘s randomly-generated elite mobs sometimes created extremely difficult ability combinations that created a lot of player frustration – these mobs were certainly hard, but the frustration came from not their random-difficulty but rather the lack of tools to deal with them. In contrast, Bloodborne is difficult because it ruthlessly punishes reckless play and mistakes, but it is also “easy” when you pick the right strategy and have honed your execution to a certain level of competency. Most of the times when I died, I only had myself to blame (“yep, got too greedy / cocky there”), but there was a minority of cases where I felt the game to be unfair (the design of certain enemies that I felt were too punishing, or when I felt I actually executed a parry but the game thinks otherwise).

The other unique thing about this game IMO is how it gives players a sense of progression. The industry convention nowadays is to track progression with leveling – again, Diablo 3 is a prime example (and executed quite well – as you level up you gained stats but also unlocked new abilities, which overall offered a “smooth” learning curve, spiced up gameplay, and provided things to look forward to), and certainly the dime-a-dozen mobile card battle games are entirely based on stats growth. Bloodborne does something very different – while there are certainly progression mechanics such as leveling up your weapons and your stats (and they matter a lot still), the real progression I felt (especially in the first 5-10 hours) was mastery of my character / weapons as well as combat tactics against specific enemies. It felt incredibly rewarding to be able to consistently clear an area where a few hours ago I was struggling to even deal with a couple of enemies – leveling up stats and weapons certainly makes this easier (and is a legitimate route to reduce the difficulty if I felt stuck on something), but the bulk of the progression came through learning and mastery. What I also liked is how the different weapons really had different personalities and facilitated a wide range of playstyles – I could cruise through a lot of the game on my trusted hunter-axe, but on another weapon (even at the same powerlevel) I felt like a completely noob.

Thirdly, I did develop a deep appreciation for Bloodborne‘s level design. It is incredibly well thought-out, and complements the gameplay well – finding and unlocking the many “shortcuts” designed in the world serves as great points to “base” (and hence helps with pacing) and gives another way of measuring progression. And the sense of connected-ness made the immersion deeper – it felt like a real world I was exploring, not a series of levels I was fighting through.

If I had any gripes about the game, I’d say that the final act of the game is not as interesting / strong as the earlier sections. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the latter stage boss fights (I thought some of the optional areas and bosses were truly spectacular, and got stuck on a few). The other annoyance is camera control – I felt it was subpar especially in tight areas (say a narrow corridor), and contributed to a lot of frustration in particular areas of the world.


To B or to C, that is the question

Jon Russel of TheNextWeb had this interesting tweet the other day:

 To paraphrase Ben Evans’ excellent post a couple of weeks ago, this is an unfair comparison, but a relevant one.

There are a couple of thoughts that I have on this. Firstly, the clichéd “necessity is the mother of invention.” Asian social media companies have generally been pioneers in the space of monetization via virtual goods, whereas Silicon Valley companies have focused more on ad-based monetization. IMO a big factor is the availability and maturity of advertising dollars – if the US does not have a thriving advertising industry and sophisticated advertisers (the blue chip companies and their global brands), Silicon Valley biz models will look very different.

Secondly, an ad-based biz model (B2B) demands a fundamentally different set of organizational structure and capabilities from a virtual goods biz model (B2C). In Silicon Valley, the former often requires an ad sales force fluent with convincing Madison Avenue ad execs to allocate client ad spend, as well as building the tools and support systems needed. In Asia, the latter model requires sophisticated retail / payments capabilities, such as a distribution network for physical gift cards that consumers can buy to convert to virtual currency (which can then be spent on virtual goods), as well as handling various online payment schemes (or building your own from scratch) and fraud, and also a customer support service that can handle literally tens of millions customers.

Another way to look at the fundamentally different capabilities required: ad-based biz model is generally about monetizing user data – user behavior / intent that advertisers value, so data aggregation / modeling / predictions would be key tech capabilities; whereas virtual goods biz model is about creating demand for content – “I want to buy that virtual rose so I can express my feelings to my loved one” – and hence requires a content pipeline as well as understanding of what types of content sells.

Thirdly, from a product perspective, “adding advertising to my free service without annoying my users (or not annoying them to the point of churning)” is a very different design goal from “providing value-added services that a (typically small) % of my users are willing to pay for”. Advertising in exchange for a free service is something that users tolerate; getting users to actually pay real cash is generally speaking much harder.

To be clear, I’m not saying that one model is better than the other, simply that two similar services (from users’ perspective) could mean fundamentally different company strategies.

I’ll end this post with another set of examples for comparison: and YY streaming. Both operate online streaming services in the video-games space. Twitch monetizes via video ads (as well as cut of premium subscription fees). YY mostly monetizes via virtual goods that viewers buy to gift streamers in the public chat feed that accompanies the stream – if that sounds bizarre, you really need to see it in action.