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.
Share

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.

Share

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.
Share

Clash Royale – one month in

Writing a short update to my previous post about Supercell’s new game Clash Royale.

A lot has happened in the one month since I started this game:

  • It’s still in soft-launch mode, but a wide-release window has been set for March 2016, and for both iOS and Android. So clearly Supercell folks are quite happy with the reception so far
  • The devs have started a regular balance cadence (3 so far, I think). These changes have created spikes of meta changes, as far as I can tell
  • Regarding my biggest gripe from the previous post (what I called the “anti-play” loop), not a surprise, this was also one of the biggest complaints from the early adopters. In response, Supercell implemented a fairly simple change – starting a game now costs nothing, but chest gold has been lowered slightly to balance. This simple move has been able to largely change how the game feels when played, at least for me – now when I’m locked out of chest slots, I’m perfectly happy to grind a few (actually, a lot) more games to try to progress in the ladder

A month in, I stand by my previous thoughts that the core gameplay is really solid – I’m still having a lot of fun, and I can feel myself learning and playing the game better. At this point, my current biggest concern with the game is how it will manage the tricky relationship between high-spenders and low-spenders/f2p players.

Just like Clash of Clans, this game has a deep monetization well – a Youtuber who is a top-level player mentioned in his reddit AMA that he has spent $4,000, and even with that he’s still under-leveled compared to some of the other high-spenders at the top of the ladder. This doesn’t mean this game is all “pay-to-win”; rather, it means that there’s a really high cost of admission if you do want to play this game currently at the highest level (another top 10 player was briefly #1 after dropping $5k on-stream to upgrade his cards).  This cost of entry at the “pro-level” is in pretty high contrast to Hearthstone (yes, players will be comparing these two games a lot), where there isn’t the concept of levelling up an individual card after acquiring it – which exponentially increases the collection depth especially with the higher rarity cards.

Directionally, there are “easy” fixes1, and the devs have already added support for one – capping the card levels in a “tournament mode”. This means that realistically perhaps even pure f2p players may have a shot at the competitive events (if and when they occur), if these capped card levels are still in the realm of possibility with free unlocks. Other directions could be to have a separate ranked format, e.g. a pay-to-enter queue (like Hearthstone Arena) where everyone is on a equal setting.

Another anecdotally interesting point: a lot of the top clans are apparently Chinese, despite the game not launched in the market yet. Some of these clans are by overseas Chinese; however this still is a signal to me that this game may have particular appeal to Chinese players. One factor to consider is that there are a lot of high spenders in games in China – this game’s mix of high spending requirements and skill may have a particular appeal to certain players in China.

  1. And this is probably not a new problem for Supercell, given their experience in Clash of Clans etc.
Share

Clash Royale – early review

I’ve been playing Clash Royale from Supercell since it soft launched in a number of geographic markets. Personally I got it from the Hong Kong app store (which is where I live currently, though my main app store account is still back in the US). If you work in video-games or are passionate/serious about making games, you need to play this game now. 1

I’m not going to do a full overview of the game – there’s quite a few detailed reviews. The short story is this game is at its highest level a PVP RTS game, with strong design elements of tower defense games and collectable card games (e.g. Hearthstone). Suffice to say the core gameplay – the PVP battles – are really well designed and addictive. It’s conceptually super easy to understand, yet the RNG of “what’s my next card?” combined with a good initial pool of cards to collect means there’s quite some depth and variety to the gameplay (the proverbial easy to learn, hard to master). 2

My early “negative” feedback from my personal experience so far is the chest unlock timers. The basic loop: after every victory, you are awarded a chest. Unlocking the chest requires a traditional mobile f2p countdown timer – the lowest silver chests take 3 hours, and golden chests take 8 hours. You also only have a total of 4 chest slots, which means after a good 20 minutes into the game (beyond the tutorials) you’ll have probably maxed out all your slots. You can keep playing, but you see this:

Chest Slots Full!
Making you feel bad about playing more

This sets up a pretty negative “anti-play” loop – I really want to play more Clash Royale, but this pop-up makes me feel like I’m left with no good choices – I can either wait for hours (literally) to be able to play for 1 more win (and then back to waiting), or spend precious in-game currency 3 to play and lose out on chests.

The alternative, of course, is to spend gems (real money) to instantly unlock these chests. But as a monetization gate this feels very heavy-handed, especially considering the CCG elements (randomized card drop, plus cards can be upgraded by collecting more of the same card, with a steep resource curve) already set up a fairly deep monetization well to draw from. As a player, I would say the obvious solutions are to either increase the number of chest slots or reduce the timers, but either would heavily impact the card acquisition model, so without running that spreadsheet it’s hard to say if these are viable solutions or not.

The above is my primary gripe with the game so far. As it relates to the content acquisition loop, I think it’s easier to fix. I also think the core gameplay is really solid (so I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a top 10-grossing game) and is a great example of where core mobile PVP games could be headed. On this particular note, I read this other blog post and can wholeheartedly recommend it. I think even without fancy interaction paradigms like VR, we are still only scratching the surface of super-immersive core gameplay on mobile, and Clash Royale is a big step in the right direction.

  1. It’s fairly trivial to create a fresh app store account on some of these soft-launched markets – this should never be a reason why you haven’t played a soft-launched mobile game on iOS. This also applies to the China app store, which I think houses some of the boldest yet conventional (as in brute-force) attempts at migrating core PC genres onto mobile
  2. CCGs are also by design great for monetization, so no one should be surprised to see the mechanic used more and more broadly in games
  3. each game costs gold, the higher your rank tier the higher the gold cost to match-make, and these do add up
Share

2015 Games in China – the year in review

Partly inspired by this Game Informer piece I read over the weekend, I wanted to do a quick write-up of some of the big themes I felt specific to the games industry in China this year.

Rise of the mobile core

For me the biggest thing (and I was certainly late in recognizing this, though I think it’s still not talked about enough in English gaming circles) is the rapid adoption of core PC genres by Chinese players. I only wrote about this recently (when the numbers became too obvious to ignore), but the Chinese dev/publisher efforts have been underway for at least the last few years.

To toss around some hyperbole:

  • The most played and highest revenue MMO across any platform this year may well be Netease’s Fantasy Westward Journey 1;
  • Tencent’s Crossfire Mobile only launched in December, but may already have more active players than CS:GO on Steam 2;
  • and Tencent’s Kings of Glory MOBA has already bested Dota2 in terms of PCU barely a month after launch as well 3

Obviously all 3 data-points above enjoy the benefits of China’s huge market size / population numbers, but they are certainly still very relevant comparisons. Chinese devs have brute-force migrated their core PC genres to mobile and players have largely embraced them. The thing to look out for in 2016 is will these player-bases sustain – if so they will pose some real hard questions (innovator’s dilemma) for the respective PC titles 4.

Esports/streaming bubble continue to inflate

Somewhat similar to global investor trends, in 2015 China also saw continued investment interest in esports, both on the execution front (hot money flowing to teams / tournaments / related ecosystem players like streaming sites) but also on the “story-telling for the stock market” front in a roller-coaster year for the markets.

Wang Sicong’s esports / entertainment empire building continued with the rollout of his own streaming platform panda.tv, and the formation of Banana Culture which will be the operator of the 2016 LPL, amongst other things. He also recently signed a high profile sports announcer from CCTV, a number of Korean pop acts; and the PC cafe chain he owns a stake in is building esports-themed venues nationally.

He’s certainly not the only one; for example I’ve lost track of the number of .tv streaming platforms, and there’s been intense drama this year on the talent competition front (disputes over high profile streamers “breaking contract” to join competing platforms). Similarly, the rumored contracts/transfer fees of pro players continue to raise eye-brows, despite fairly lackluster results this year in various world championships.

On the “selling stories to stock market” front, start-ups / VCs / public companies seem to be eating up the esports concept and are ruthless in packaging it for boosting the valuations of whatever they are trying to sell. Companies with <$100MM annual revenue are getting multi-billion dollar public market valuations based on some esports related concept, despite having probably very little visibility with players or product control. (Better yet, make it “mobile esports”, which is all the rage currently.)

Now the hype cycle may still continue well into 2016, especially since the esports concept seems to be just getting started in the west, with the likes of celebrity investors such as Mark Cuban getting involved. But given the real-economy uncertainties in China I think there could be some quick boom / busts locally…

(If I sound frustrated or cynical about some of these developments – not really, this is really just business as usual in the “Wild East”. The games industry is not isolated from the macro-climate and a lot of this is just indicative of the broader economy.)

Console’s humble beginnings

China only recently removed the console ban, and Sony and Microsoft have been diligently seeding the market (I wrote about consoles a month ago).

In terms of competition, the early results indicate a landslide victory in favor of the PS4, with media reports of 410k units sold vs. XboxOne’s 90k units as of Dec 2015. However these numbers are certainly tiny compared to the player-base.

The big question, same as what I wrote previously, is about content. My working analogy is consoles in China is like Hollywood films a decade ago – there’s some promise, but the difficulties of operating are high (censorship / approval / quotas etc.). This will continue to be a push-pull relationship: some “questionable” content may be able to get past the reviews with enough government relationship building, and some content will be built in mind with the Chinese audience 5.

Additionally, there’s quite a number of local studios trying in earnest to fill the void – creating local console titles that can pass the government review – but the learning curve of building good console content may be high. On the flip side though, there are a pool of console devs in China, thanks to the local dev offices of big global developers such as 2K.

From the gamers’ perspective, a small but hardcore group of players will continue to be hungry for AAA console content, and with the popularity of social media / streaming some of these console franchises are starting to develop a small brand. So in sum, the trend is positive, but it’s really early days yet.

Steam’s (small) splash

In a somewhat similar vein, Steam has had a pretty good year in China, with the expansion of local pricing / payment support in November. (Even before then, China sales of some locally priced content like GTA5 were starting to show up in data analyses.) And within the local hardcore gamer community, it’s no longer a foreign concept to participate in Steam sales. In sum, they’ve had some good growth this year and some of the local prices generated excitement with players.

My personal understanding is that Steam is currently flying under the radar – they don’t have a on-shore presence, and certainly the vast majority (if not all) of their catalog of games have not gone through Chinese government approval. This means a generally degraded player-experience in terms of download speeds, but also the potential risk that they would be targeted by the government (e.g. if there’s a big PR scandal over some game on Steam, say angry parents complaining GTA5 was corrupting their kids). As a gamer, I would certainly not want that to happen, since Chinese players deserve to enjoy the same AAA experiences as players elsewhere.

  1. Chinese media recently reported 60MM cumulative registered players and PCU of 2.04MM in the 9 months since launch; my previous post quoted analyst estimates of $158MM monthly revenue in Nov 2015
  2. CS:GO PCU was around 800k; CF mobile announced 1MM PCU after 3 days of launch, and is rumored to have 10MM DAU
  3. Kings of Glory announced 1MM PCU and 7.5MM DAU recently, while Dota2 PCU on Steam is 1MM
  4. Disclaimer: including League of Legends, which I work on
  5. just like the current Hollywood blockbusters that are bending over backwards to meet Chinese tastes, now that they see the size of the market
Share

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
Share

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.
Share

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
Share

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.↩︎︎
Share