Quick anatomy of a great Bloodborne boss fight

I’m not a game designer, so this is a fairly “amateur” opinion piece, but I really enjoyed the Lady Maria boss fight in the recent Bloodborne: The Old Hunters DLC, and thought I would try to summarize what I thought made it so great.

First, a quick video of the fight from Youtube:

Why is this fight great? From an aesthetics perspective:

  • Lady Maria is probably the most memorable humanoid boss in the whole game. The majority of Bloodborne bosses are beasts, which are generally physically much bigger and usually don’t wield weapons, whereas Lady Maria dual-wields the Rakuyo and dances around the arena with agility. This makes it feel like a classic samurai showdown scene
  • Lady Maria’s 3 phases – where she gains new powerful attacks – are accompanied by evolving visuals: lots of blood (dark red) in phase 2, and added flames (orange) in phase 3, making for some very attractive (and deadly) eye-candy
  • The arena has a gorgeous backwall – the astral clocktower’s clock-face with lots of natural light dropping into the relatively dark wooden flooring
  • In terms of sound-design, this fight not only features an epic score, but also cleverly utilizes the destructable wooden candle-racks (two rows on the two side-walls) to help create tension

From a gameplay / mechanics perspective:

  • As the player in the above video narrates, Lady Maria utilizes timing delays in her attack to throw the player off. So on the first encounter she may feel incredibly over-powering, but after a few trials the player can learn to properly predict / dodge her abilities – this is consistent with Bloodborne’s overarching design philosophy (hard but fair, rewarding to learn)
  • Her attacks (especially in later phases) also reinforce the counter-intuitive design where the closer you are to the enemy the safer you are – this is counter to most players’ natural inclination to keep a safe distance (“fight or flight”)
  • Like other Bloodborne bosses, she can be beaten with any weapon (or no weapon at all), and or even by a character that has never been leveled up. There are strategies that exploit her weaknesses (in Lady Maria’s case, she is quite susceptible to parrying), or you can try to fight her “fair”. The player can pick and choose his/her own challenge in how to defeat this boss – the game is extremely open to different play-styles / player fantasies
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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
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China’s unique core mobile games

This is clearly old news, but Chinese publishers and developers have been hyper-focused on the mobile market the past couple of years, and it has come to a point where at a macro level the Chinese mobile games market is looking significantly different from the western markets.

To present some simple data – according to a local analyst report from CNG, the top grossing mobile games of November in China were:

(The revenue unit is 100MM RMB, so for example 10.22 is 1,022MM RMB or $158MM – that’s a crazy monthly run-rate!)

A few immediate observations from this chart:

  • Very high revenue estimate numbers. $158MM is a crazy monthly run-rate, and even if this was over-estimated by a factor of 5 it is still really impressive
  • Heavily represented by core game genres taken from PC gaming. #1/2/3/4 are fairly typical MMOs for Chinese players (#1 & 2 are two different MMOs based on the Journey to the West lore, published by Netease); #5 is a card combat game leveraging the Kings of Fighters franchise; #6 is a mobile MOBA (that if I may say so looks quite like League of Legends…); #7 is an arcade shooter; #8/9 are the only western games on the chart, and are the typical western mobile strategy games; #10 is a casual puzzle game
  • This is in stark contrast to what’s popular in the west – take the US for example, the top-grossing games still heavily skew towards casual games like Candy Crush and core PC genres like MMO / FPS / MOBA are not highly visible

Another way to look at the data above is to say, the biggest MMO globally in terms of revenue (and possibly player-base too) is likely a mobile MMO only available in China.

As a separate data point, last week Tencent also launched the mobile version of Crossfire, its top FPS on PC (and a regular $1B/year game for Tencent), to some strong initial traction (they announced 10MM downloads and 1MM PCU after 3 days). The Wall Street Journal also reported last week about Tencent’s ambitions to launch its other mobile FPS WeFire in the US after some success in the Korean market.

I think western developers have generally seen these core PC genres as extremely challenging to “port” to mobile. There have been attempts in earnest (e.g. studios like Gameloft have probably tried every PC genre on mobile), but certainly no runaway success like the Netease MMOs or the Tencent FPSes. A fundamental question that would be asked is “why would gamers want to play these games on mobile?”, and while the answer to that question generally applies to both western and Chinese gamers, there are some environmental factors that have made Chinese gamers early adopters here.

In a sense, these games start from the same low-end disruption thesis: they offer an inferior core gameplay experience (in terms of visual and input fidelity, etc.), but excels on accessibility (anywhere, anyone – everyone has a smartphone, any time – since gameplay loops have been optimized to be short sessions).

The diverging environmental factors that may contribute to the observed market difference are as follows:

  • Chinese gamers are generally much less sophisticated and have fewer gaming choices. The Chinese gaming market is heavily skewed towards online games – for example, none of the GOTY nominees at the recent Game Awards have been officially published in China. There seems to be a strong desire to stick to the genres they are comfortable with
  • More generally, Chinese gamers have fewer entertainment options, and gaming is the affordable entertainment option for everyone. So from a “jobs to be done” perspective, gaming in China fulfills a stronger role of connecting people socially, and gamers are used to this type of behavior (playing a MMO to be part of a community / make friends etc.)
  • The broader market context of mobile adoption and mobile tech leap-frogging PC in China. Chinese consumers have been trained to be more mobile savvy (e.g. using mobile payments) in part because the legacy infrastructure was not well-developed (and therefore no switching cost, just adopting cost). Spending more time playing more hardcore games on mobile conforms with this macro-trend

To wrap up – I think it’s possible that China’s mobile games market today is where the western markets will head to in the future. Having played some of these chart-topping games I can say that they have found some core fun that should be universally appealing – the question is who will successfully replicate these formulas for western gamers.

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Fallout 4 – a half-review

I’ve pretty much been living in a cave the last month due to Fallout 4, and I think I’m “done” with the game for now, despite not “finishing” it per se.

I don’t have a strong history with the series. I think I played the original Fallout for like 15 minutes, got stuck somehow and never went back. And I don’t have a strong affinity for Bethesda titles – I played Skyrim for perhaps 5-10 hours and moved on because I found the first-person melee combat to be wholly unsatisfying (personal opinion).

If anything, I got into Fallout 4 thanks to some really strong word-of-mouth. The Chinese gaming site g-cores.com (which I can’t sing enough praise about) produced a series of podcasts that deep dive into the Fallout universe, and I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t just the content that gripped me – it was also the sheer enthusiasm in the podcasters’ voices as they discussed one of their favorite games. That right there is the power of speaking the player’s language.

I played the game on the PS4, and generally speaking I enjoyed my time spent. Bethesda could certainly upgrade their systems onboarding (I had to google a lot of “how do I…”) and the overall UX, because it is a pain to navigate the pip-boy menus and breaks the immersion, but that problem has been well analyzed by various gaming sites so I won’t dwell on it too much.

Then of course there’s the various bugs and the perceived lack of “polish”. It certainly is a by-product of the way the studio chose to work (e.g. it wants to keep the studio small for culture reasons but it tackles big open-world projects), but to say it’s not polished is over-simplifying: to paraphrase a co-worker’s comments, Fallout 4 has a lot of polish where it chooses to (for example: in the terminals scattered around each location, there usually are tons of emails and other details you can dig into that will portray an interesting story, and serve to remind you of the pre-apocalypse world that had flourished). 1

What I felt Fallout 4 did really well is the mini-reward loops that keep the player busy. The big plot is pretty thin (and I found all the faction endings to be pretty unsatisfactory, which is why I didn’t go for an ending), but the game excels at giving you things to do as you are wandering the wasteland. It’s not uncommon for you to start off wanting to pursue a quest somewhere, path across a location or two that houses a few other quests you have saved up (or just have some raiders stationed and you know there’s some loot around), and end up spending a couple of hours cleaning up these locations. And this free exploration feels satisfying partly because the experience needed to level up scales fairly linearly 2 so it often feels like the next level is always just around the corner, and the perks system is deep enough (and offers enough variety of play-styles) that you do care about these extra points earned.

  1. It has to be said though, The Witcher 3 is certainly showing every other game up this year, in terms of delivering on a big open-world and a really high level of polish.
  2. Each level requires 75 more XP than the previous level required, e.g. level 1 is 200, level 2 is 275, etc.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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
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