Communications as gameplay

I recently watched the 2008 HBO mini-series Generation Kill for the first time. Focusing on realistically portraying the grunt’s perspective of war, it’s a great modern combat rendition of themes previously explored in works such as PlatoonBand of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. I quite recommend it.

Aside from the brutal horrors of war (and the senseless of it – a core theme of the series), Generation Kill also effectively showcases how the modern US military communicate, and the limitations of their advanced systems. Radios are extensively used – as the primary comms within a platoon, with their upper command, and calling in air strikes & artillery support etc. There also is a version of a BFT system shown, where a digital battlefield map can be seen with near real-time data of tracked friendly and enemy units (similar to the mini-map in RTS games).

Despite these sophisticated systems, the marines featured in Generation Kill often find themselves in states of confusion: at night, they receive friendly fire from a nearby friendly unit passing by; after reconning a town without identifying enemies, they see it bombed, with no idea where the order came from; they see an aerial unit attack a nearby location, but have no immediate way to communicate with the friendly aircraft; and in one ironic scene, they jam their own radio channels so that an incompetent leader cannot send out a wrong (and dangerous) command.

This sparked a thought – what video games employ communications as a central gameplay mechanic? A few different examples came to mind:

  • The fun party game Spaceteam used speech as a primary mechanic. And last year’s phenomenon Among Usobviously leans on speech for a majority of its gameplay content as well.
  • Any team-based multiplayer game that emphasizes real-time coordination as a vector of mastery – whether PVP (like MOBAs or shooters), or PVE such as MMO raids. And in a military shooter like PUBG, the communication have many direct similarities to the military in real life.
  • 4X games (“SLG” in Chinese gaming terms), by virtue of their large and hierarchical guild social structures, create strong needs for layers of communications, not unlike the military chain of command. The senior leaders of a guild will have a private chat channel for strategy formulation and decision making; lower level grunts may only receive commands on a need-to-know basis. And social manipulation / influence is a key part of the gameplay (e.g. trying to bribe an enemy guild’s senior leader to defect, or backstabbing an ally).

Obviously, placing a premium on communications can create nasty negative effects. Toxic communities – in short players being assholes to strangers online – can drive many players away, especially targeted minorities (for example female players in shooters that often encounter a lot of abuse in voice-chat). So there’s also a counter trend of games taking away communication means in-game, and thus pushing players who want these features back to 3rd party tools.

Death’s Door (2021)

Death's Door

I played through Death’s Door on Steam this past week. It’s a highly enjoyable action adventure that lasts about 10 hours, and to my surprise it was made by a 2-person studio (Acid Nerve – the full game credits list 8 people).

To me, the game is heavily inspired by Soulsborne and Zelda games, presented in an isometric camera view. The eponymous doors (there’s lots of them) function quite similarly to bonfires, resetting the game world whenever you go through them, and also acts as a teleportation device to switch you to different locations / levels. (The doors also reminded me of Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. franchise.)

Like Dark Souls, the level design has a strong emphasis on “connectivity” – as you explore a new area for the first time, you’ll repeatedly unlock shortcuts that take you back to the beginning area (and close to a strategically placed door). The levels are intentionally maze-like, with lots of winding pathways and verticality – for example, to access the cliff on top of you (where there’s a collectible), you might need to walk around a large section of the level. In addition, sections of the level are completely inaccessible (usually, rooms with juicy secrets) until you’ve unlocked some later abilities to your character – this is clearly meant to make the levels have repeat exploration value, as you come back to hunt for specific collectibles.

With these elements in unison, the game could feel like a chore sometimes – you could be lost (“how do I get there again?”), or just frustratingly trying to figure out how to access a secret area you’ve spotted, with no feedback of whether that goal is currently achievable or not. But these are minor gripes, especially considering that it is trivial to search online the solutions to the game’s secrets & puzzles – indeed, it took great restraint for me to not open YouTube during the majority of my playthrough (at my age, if I can’t figure out the solution to something in a game in 5 minutes, I usually start searching online, as I feel I’m “wasting time”.)

The game’s combat is simple (in mechanics complexity) but quite robust:

  • You have a light and heavy melee attack (the heavy attack can be charged up to be even stronger).
  • Melee attacks charge up your energy bar, which can be consumed as ammo for your 4 ranged abilities (unlocked over the course of the game – you start out with a basic bow / arrow).
  • You have a dodge with invulnerability-frames.
  • You have 4 health (initially, can be upgraded to 6 through collectibles) – each enemy hit always cost 1 health. There’s very limited health regen available in the levels, so there’s the Souls-like tension of trying to push to the next “break” in the level (usually unlocking a shortcut back to the nearest door).
  • Enemies can hurt each other – AOE explosions and projectiles can be utilized against other enemies. You can knock-back projectiles (e.g. a fire bolt aimed at you), and the ping-ponged projectile will damage other enemies. You can also trick enemies into environmental deaths (rolling off a ledge; walking into a laser). This creates a fun mini-game.

There’s about 10-20 types of regular enemies (your usual mix of melee / ranged / elite enemies), and perhaps 6 boss fights. Combat is about learning and reading the telegraphed movesets of each enemy, and taking advantage of their vulnerability windows. Interestingly, the game does not have HP bars for enemies (most enemies die in 1-3 light attacks anyway), but rather communicates damage state visually (blood stains on the ground, red VFX cracks in the enemies’ bodies). This ups the tension in boss-fights as you don’t have full insight on how many additional hits you need to land.

I would say the combat is not difficult (the windows of opportunity are overall quite generous), but they require discipline. I also liked some clever bits of the moveset AI – for example, there’s one fight where the enemy will always use a leap attack when you try to aim a ranged attack. I was a bit frustrated at the final boss fight (not the “True Ending” fight, the boss-fight that leads to the credits scene), I felt it was a tad overlong and felt repetitive (I hadn’t unlocked any health upgrades at the time, and I felt it was a bit punishing on 4 health). It reminded me of an extended platforming sequence in Ori and the Blind Forest (which to be fair was much more rage inducing).

In all, I felt this was a great game made by a surprisingly small team, especially considering how polished the game feels, and how good it looks. It is a good reflection of the state of the industry, where small teams through smart creative decisions (stylized art, re-usable design) and tight scope control can deliver such quality experiences.

2020 year in review

My recap posts on 2019, 2018, 2017, 2015. I don’t remember writing with such consistency (my son was born Jan 2016, I guess that explains the gap?). Skimming these prior posts, I do see I’m repeating myself an awful lot, but it’s still rewarding to see how the same themes (and my attempts at framing them) have evolved over time, and quite gratifying when some predictions I’ve made turn out to be on the money.

As usual, I’ll write about a few topics that I personally found fascinating.

Genshin Impact and the coming “Industrial Age”

At the end of my 2019 post, I called Genshin Impact an aspiring blockbuster, which was not that bold a claim given the viral hype (and controversy) it already enjoyed in China at the time. It has easily surpassed my expectations, even more so in western markets.

I’ve already written a long post about the game. In the aftermath of the game’s explosive launch, much of the Chinese industry chatter was about “industrialization”. I’ve not seen a clear definition of the term in this context (it seems taken for granted), but loosely, the logic is that as consumers demand higher fidelity games (rivaling PC/console AAA in quality) and ever more content, Chinese developers will have to embrace the flywheel of “bigger teams (and more specialization of talent), more sophisticated production pipelines, and more advanced technologies and tools”.

In other words, Genshin Impact is seen as a landmark game, one that has permanently shifted consumer expectations higher, and subsequently started a new industry-wide arms race in China. In my view this is quite overblown – the dominant market leaders Tencent and Netease have for years chased higher budget productions made by “armies of developers” – but Genshin captured the zeitgeist with the audacity of its vision.

What’s next? A lot of UE4 projects, for one thing. To name a few: Tencent Quantum Studios’ Dawn: Awakening is an open-world survival game (with 3rd-person shooter gameplay) made in UE4. Lilith Games recently announced Farlight 84, another UE4 project with a post-apocalyptic theme, Battle Royale PVP gameplay (perhaps amongst other game modes) and mobile-PC cross play. (I don’t know if either of these will take off – their themes lack the easy viral appeal that Genshin Impact had.) Meanwhile, Tencent Timi Studios recently posted job ads for a “AAA-grade” realistic racing simulation, built in UE4 for mobile; and miHoYo has been recruiting UE4 developers as well.

When China meets the world

Chinese game developers have for years studied and learnt from their global industry peers – whether it’s GDC talks, studio visits, academic studies or direct talent acquisition. There still doesn’t seem like a lot of information flowing the other direction – language and culture are big barriers (for Chinese developers to share outwards – the “supply” side), but lack of interest on the “demand” side has been a deterrent as well.

In this aspect, the games industry seems a step behind the broader tech sector, where Silicon Valley now clearly pays a lot of attention to trends in China. When there is more interest, and deeper exchange of knowledge about China’s game development practices, I suspect there will be a good amount of bemusement and shock from the outside.

I’m reminded of an ancient news piece – when the first MacBook Air was announced in 2008 (by Steve Jobs memorably pulling it out of a manila envelope), a group of Japanese engineers did a teardown and expressed surprise at the “wasteful” and “expensive” internal design:

“If I proposed such a design, our company would never approve it,” said one of the engineers. “I can’t find anything that is technically superior. We can make the same computer at a lower cost,” said another.

In hindsight this was obviously missing the forest for the trees – the Japanese experts weren’t necessarily wrong, but their points were irrelevant in the big picture. Game developers should avoid making the same mistake when they examine Chinese game development – the sausage might be made in an ugly and wasteful way based on your perspective, but don’t neglect the end results or their growth trajectory.

Chinese developers have been self-reflective about the gaps. For instance, in this recent interview (in Chinese, but the Google translate is well worth a read) with the head of Timi J3 (the team behind Call of Duty: Mobile), he called out investment in tooling as one area where China still has much to learn:

姚远:… 再就是欧美厂商对工具化的实践比我们强太多。之前和《幽灵行动:荒野》的团队聊,他们说花5年时间做了个编辑器。这个编辑器强到什么程度呢?基本上随便拉一下,所有村庄、道路、人物、动物、植被全都出来。这就是育碧的工业化能力。

葡萄君:国内厂商不一定会做类似的事情。

姚远:是,国内很多项目因为开发周期限制,没时间做工具,但欧美厂商不一样。育碧的编辑部团队会在预研阶段做各种军事、历史的考证,去相关地点采风,完善工具,再慢慢把项目做起来。这个流程非常值得我们学习,如果真的要追求效率,还是得一开始就准备好。

Yao Yuan (head of Timi-J3): …Furthermore, European and American manufacturers’ practice of tooling is much stronger than ours. I talked to the team of “Ghost Recon: Wilderness” before, and they said it took 5 years to make an editor. How strong is this editor? Basically do some drag & drops, and all the villages, roads, people, animals, and vegetation will come out. This is Ubisoft’s industrialization capability.

Interviewer: Domestic manufacturers may not do similar things.

Yao Yuan: Yes, many domestic projects have no time to build tools due to development cycle constraints, but European and American manufacturers are different. Ubisoft’s editorial team will do various military and historical research in the pre-research stage, go to relevant places to collect features, improve tools, and then slowly start the project. This process is very worth learning. If you really want to pursue efficiency, you still have to be prepared from the beginning.

(English via Google translate with light edits.)

Earlier in the interview, Yao made this comment about their production capabilities:

举个例子,我们和一年前相比,同样是两三百人的规模,产能却翻了3~4倍。通过和近300人的外包团队协作,现在一个月能做若干玩法和地图,上百把武器和几十个角色。虽然有些内容总体所需的生产周期比较长,比如一个人物从概念设计到监修要3个月,但生产流程、管线都非常强大和成熟。

For example, compared with a year ago, we have the same size of two or three hundred people, but our production capacity has increased by 3 to 4 times. By cooperating with an outsourcing team of nearly 300 people, we can now make several game modes and maps, hundreds of weapons and dozens of characters in one month. Although some content requires a relatively long production cycle, for example, it takes 3 months for a character to go from conceptual design to IP-stakeholder approval, but the production process and pipeline are very strong and mature.

(English via Google translate with light edits.)

So the picture here is, this team is consistently churning out vast amounts of live-ops content, despite relatively immature tooling (compared to their western peers), and their efficiency is rapidly improving. And they have stayed on top of the organizational challenges of running such a large team. And there is still a lot of productivity upside if they do seriously tackle tooling – that’s the scary part.

5 years of Honor of Kings

Honor of Kings launched in late 2015. SCMP did a profile recently, and their graphs painted the picture succinctly:

Let’s be clear: the “real” lifetime revenue is a lot higher than this $7.8B figure from Sensor Tower, as it does not include China Android revenue (understandably hard to model), and Honor of Kings has very low revenue outside China. Indeed, I would say you can double that figure to $16B and possibly still be low. Coincidentally, $16B is a cool 100B RMB, a nice round figure for half a decade.

Beyond these eye-popping (and speculative) numbers, it’s hard for me to talk about Honor of Kings without doing some soul searching. Professionally I had a ring-side seat to this spectacle – I was a part of the China team at Riot Games, based in Hong Kong in 2015/16. I played the game when it launched, and was 1) amazed by how it recreated some of the high satisfaction moments of PC MOBAs, but 2) also confident that it was not a major threat to League of Legends as the gameplay was still too shallow for core players. My main takeaway was that Riot should absolutely look into making a mobile MOBA as well.

To show my thinking then: in March of 2016, I wrote a post titled “Are mobile games disruptive?“, and the disruptive game I was talking about was Clash Royale (which took up every second of my day when I wasn’t taking care of my newborn):

I believe mobile games have so far followed the [disruption] 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.

While my memory is fuzzy, I believe I largely stopped playing Honor of Kings for fun after the initial few months. However, by Chinese New Year 2017, it was clear that a disruption was playing out according to Clayton Chistensen’s theory. League of Legends players were being pulled into Honor of Kings en masse: it turns out social ties and bragging rights were more powerful motivations to many (if not most) people than gameplay depth and mastery. But really, the bigger story was how Honor of Kings activated so many non-gamers.

So that’s what it feels like to be disrupted.

I’ve often described Honor of Kings as an attack from below – if you think of the hierarchy of MOBA players as a pyramid, with the very pinnacle being esports players, Honor of Kings successfully activated the bottom tier first. There was little organic endorsement or word-of-mouth from the establishment influencers. (The game did try to piggyback on the popularity of League‘s esports celebrities, with ambush marketing like getting Faker to do a livestream.)

League of Legends: Wild Rift, in contrast, will be an attack from above. I played a modest role in getting this project off the ground (and I’ll shamelessly overstate it on my Linkedin page), so it’s something quite close and dear to me. The existential question for Wild Rift has always been: is there any chance against Honor of Kings?

Sentiments aside, I think the answer is yes, even in China. The League “establishment” that shunned Honor of Kings have been dying to play a League mobile MOBA, and perhaps this echelon of esports pros and streamers can create a big enough beachhead. And there is still a brand premium in my opinion, though that picture is nuanced as Honor of Kings has leaned into Chinese culture – in a way, it’s a bit like Apple versus Huawei in China. At the end of the day, players across all tiers of the pyramid will try Wild Rift – the question is can Riot get them to stay.

As an anecdote, I’ve been lurking in a wechat group of League influencers who have overcome formidable obstacles to play the game on Asian servers. Some of them are already organizing pro teams and recruiting players at the top of the ladder. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and gives me cautious hope about the next chapter in this saga.

Lastly, one other personal reflection from these 5 years is that, even with the personal experience of how Honor of Kings disrupted League of Legends, I was able to repeat the mistake when it came to thinking about PUBG Mobile. I had seen an early build before its launch, and I was impressed. But my gut again told me that it would not satisfy PUBG players, and its input complexity would be overwhelming for casual players. I was definitively wrong on both – I guess that speaks to how strong one’s biases can be.

(Optional extra reading – this piece in Gamesindustry.biz shows Timi leadership’s reflections about Honor of Kings and their views on industry trends.)

China’s dynamism

Taking a step back from games for a moment. I came across this year in review letter by Dan Wang, who is a tech analyst based in Beijing. It is thought-provoking and beautifully written, and honestly I envy his prose. (Seriously, you should stop here and go read that letter instead.)

This small bit particularly resonated with me:

This year made me believe that China is the country with the most can-do spirit in the world. Every segment of society mobilized to contain the pandemic. One manufacturer expressed astonishment to me at how slowly western counterparts moved. US companies had to ask whether making masks aligned with the company’s core competence. Chinese companies simply decided that making money is their core competence, and therefore they should be making masks.

This “can-do spirit” is Chinese game developers’ biggest (and perhaps most overlooked) strength – it’s the rising tide that lifts all boats. While studios elsewhere debated first principles about whether MOBA / FPS were viable on mobile, Chinese studios simply hacked away at it. When the Chinese government tightened the publishing license process, companies rapidly pivoted to overseas expansion. And with this “industrialization” wave, Chinese developers are again just diving head-first.

Having recently lived in the US for almost a decade, I feel the stark contrast. As I was writing this, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building. (It may well have been a scene from a dystopian video game like The Division 2.) There are bitter divides and deep social justice issues. It feels trivial, and perhaps disrespectful even, to be discussing game development against such a backdrop – but I feel the need to argue that Americans must find a way to rekindle a similar can-do spirit, and just build stuff. Build institutions, social welfare, infrastructure, housing, startups… Whatever it is that motivates you, which hopefully for some would be video games.

This is obviously a huge topic that was discussed in the US in 2020, when Marc Andreessen wrote his “It’s time to build” post. I didn’t follow the rest of the discourse closely, but I enjoyed reading this essay “On cultures that build.” I’m not well equipped to really add more to the conversation, but I will say this: China faces huge (if not bigger) societal challenges as well, but part of the dynamism is rooted in people’s belief that they can (and must) improve their livelihood via hard work. They have the lived experience of the dizzying growth – the building of everything – of the past 40 years. For Americans, more cultural exchange and economic ties with China – not less – may have a nice side-benefit in combating the complacency.

M1 Macs

In my 2018 post, I briefly speculated on “the beginning of the end of the PC (x86) platform”. With the arrival of the M1 ARM-based Macs (finally), I’d like to raise my bet.

I haven’t used a M1 Mac yet, but from everything I’ve read so far, it sounds like a generational leap in objective performance as well as subjective user experience. Now the question becomes, is this strategy and capability unique to Apple, or will others attempt to follow suit? I’d argue yes, if not simply because of the gravitational force of the mobile ecosystem. In particular, if Nvidia’s acquisition of Arm is cleared, Nvidia will be in an enviable position to attempt some big integration plays here.

If there is such a foundational migration on the Windows side of PCs, one clear worry is app inter-operability during the transition. It’s hard to imagine the Windows side offering as smooth a transition as Apple is doing with Rosetta 2, thanks to the much more fragmented hardware stack. And games as a special category of applications may suffer the worst of any transition. Again – a gaming-focused company such as Nvidia could be particularly motivated to navigate a path through this.

There is some irony, to me, if at the end of this, it’s consoles (due to their long generational cycles, and current commitment to backwards compatibility) that become the laggards that stick with x86.

Personal stuff

2020 was the first full year I’ve lived in mainland China for over a decade, and the first time I’ve lived in Shanghai. My timing was pretty good, in retrospect. When the strict lockdown started in late January, we thought we had the worst luck, but by May, life was mostly back to normal (even masks were mostly gone, except where mandated such as in public transit).

In the summer, many friends went vacation traveling again; we didn’t as we had very young children. But we couldn’t resist booking a short vacation trip for December. Alas, the weather in Xishuangbanna wasn’t warm enough to take advantage of the private pool we had in our villa, but it was still a pleasant trip.

Shanghai is a very livable city. I say that as a proud Beijinger. The summer is still too hot and humid for my liking, but the city has a good balance of culture (with a dash of western influence), urban planning, and pace of life. Beijing feels too bureaucratic, and it takes too long to get anywhere. Shenzhen feels too rushed, and the hot humidity is just as bad as nearby Hong Kong. Los Angeles – I love the climate, and the parks, but I don’t miss the driving.

The pandemic also gave me some new perspectives about effective governance. The US response has been appalling to see from afar. I wonder how much of it is uniquely the failings of the Trump administration, and how much is reflective of the general state of decay and complacency in US institutions. To be clear, I’m not looking at this from a lens of US versus China as superpowers, or other sorts of macro-economic debate. I’m much more concerned with the micro-economic life decisions we make as a family – where we should spend our precious years together, and can offer us the best mix of professional fulfillment, income, education, and life experiences. And for me the US fell a lot in the rankings this past year.

Investing: some years ago, there was a popular startup catchphrase about seizing the big trends, coined by Xiaomi founder Lei Jun: “even a pig can fly if it is in the middle of a whirlwind.” (Jack Ma, who’s living through some interesting times himself recently, apparently had a witty response: “when the wind stops blowing, it’s the pigs who fall to their deaths.”) The stock markets certainly made me feel like a pig facing a hurricane, torn between FOMO and having a nasty fall. It was quite surreal to see the market movements in contrast to pandemic life.

Remote work was a much discussed concept, and a collectively forced experiment. In my case, with 2 young kids running around the apartment, working from home simply did not work. When my older son’s kindergarten re-opened, it was marginally better. I’d probably need a private office away from the office to make remote work viable.

To wrap up with the games I played in 2020. I played various mobile games due to professional interest, but the one that stuck with me, surprisingly, is Merge Mansion. (Disclosure: my current employer, Supercell, invested in the developers.) I’m not a puzzle game player, and this is a game that’s still very early in development with a lot of rough edges. But it became the perfect time-killer game, and I’ve averaged 20 minutes of play every day for several months now.

On PC/console, I played Hades more during early access in 2019 than I did in 2020, but I should go back and play it some more to experience the complete game. During the depths of the spring lockdown, I occupied myself with Ghost Recon Wildlands and The Division 2. Fall Guys probably brought the most joy and laughter, and it was eye-opening to see how much it resonated with my 4 year-old. Later in the year, Ghost of Tsushima was an easy crowd-pleaser, which I spent more time on than I should have.

The game that resonated the most with me though, without a doubt was The Last of Us Part II. Its harrowing discussion of trauma, empathy and perspective-taking was particularly fitting for these times we live in. And the toxic fandom around the game felt like an inadvertent meta commentary that echoed the game’s core themes. Months after my playthrough, I still think about my experience with the characters. Perhaps it’s time to pop the disc into that new PS5…

Epic vs. App Stores

The ongoing fight between Epic and Apple / Google is one of the biggest tech stories of the year. The situation is very fluid, with a lot of developments since last week, and a ticking time bomb by end of August.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a lot of “takes”, most of which is candidly not too useful, and a small amount that have covered the situation from insightful angles. Instead of regurgitating these insights, I thought I’d just list a few here (most of these are usual suspects if you surf a lot of tech punditry):

The Chinese Android app stores example

I think it’s rather futile to debate the abstract merits of “open” vs “closed,” which at the ideological level is the heart of this fight. Tim Sweeney has been very consistent over the years – his public criticism of UWP is spiritually similar to his stance against Apple / Google, and I believe it’s stemming from not merely a business interest calculation (though he is often accused of such), but a genuine belief in “open.” 1

Instead, I think it’s more useful to discuss the Chinese Android app distribution landscape, as a real example of why Epic’s desired state (open up iOS to 3rd party stores and alternative payments) may not be good for consumers. (The linked Chinese post above is a great read on this, below is my brief summary of the same topic.)

When Google abruptly exited China in 2010 (and along with it, the Google Play store), there was a gold rush to fill in the vacuum left in the Android ecosystem. At a 30,000 ft level, a series of things happened:

  • In the beginning there was a flood of independent stores, with notable ones like Wandoujia (funded by ex-Google China head Kaifu Lee’s Innovation Works) and 91 Assistant.2
  • In a landmark deal at the time, Baidu acquired 91 Wireless (which owned the 91 store) for almost $1.9B in 2013.
  • As of 2013 Tencent also had an Android app store MyApp. After Tencent leveraged WeChat’s popularity to promote MyApp (“if you wanted the latest version of WeChat, go to MyApp”), MyApp gradually became one the most popular stores.
  • In 2014, prominent Chinese Android handset brands (with the exception of Xiaomi) formed a coalition called the “Mobile Hardware Alliance”. A major goal of this coalition was to exert influence in the distribution of games (which was recognized as the key cash-cow in app stores) in the Chinese Android ecosystem.

The current state of stores, at a high level, is this:

  • All the Chinese Android brands have their own stores, and because of the coalition, these stores have significant weight.
  • Tencent MyApp is the biggest non-OEM owned store.
  • The once prominent independent Android stores (without backing of OEM or a major social app like Tencent’s QQ/WeChat) are greatly declined in presence.
  • Collectively there are still dozens of stores.

How about the economics – let’s talk about that 50%?

  • There isn’t a unified rate – everything is negotiated. But indeed, if you are a game publisher not Tencent or Netease, the 50% store cut is the common term you will get.
  • Strictly speaking, this isn’t an “Apple-apple” comparison, as these Chinese Android stores call this “joint operations” of games where in theory they are providing more value-add (funneling more traffic etc.).
  • The prevailing rate for Tencent and Netease have been pushed down to 30%. (And of course Tencent keeps 100% in its own MyApp store.)

To summarize, the Chinese Android app store landscape is very much objectively a worse state than the Apple / Google monopoly Epic is complaining about:

  • Consumers have a confusing user-experience (overwhelming amount of store choices, fraud / security / malware concerns, inconsistent UX of the same app across different stores).
  • Developers are typically giving up a much higher share of revenue.
  • Developers have a lot more development costs / headaches (support dozens of app stores, SDKs, builds).

To be clear, it’s not a certainty that we will see a similar end-state if the Apple / Google “app distribution market” and “payment market” is opened up by regulation. (For one thing, the Hardware Alliance thing is clearly suspect to anti-trust scrutiny.) But it is clearly a possibility with strong factual support.

Problems that Apple should address

Having argued why “the grass isn’t greener” on the other side that Epic desires, let’s briefly talk about issues that Apple should tackle. This part is focused on gaming specifically.

For the 30% rate, I do believe (and clearly I’m biased with a vested interest here…) that this should be pushed lower with how the ecosystem has grown and evolved, even if purely arguing from an economies of scale perspective. Ultimately though, economics are a reflection of “who owns the customer”, so Valve’s model of volume-based tiers (starts at 30%, drops to 20% for sales above $50M) isn’t a bad reference. (This is also the common logic in retailer / wholesaler agreements.)

(Alternatively, Apple can continue to make confidential deals with the biggest partners, offering rev share discounts on a case-by-case basis.)

Apple also should update its strategy (and thus policies) regarding emerging services like cloud gaming. The rejection of Microsoft xCloud on iOS feels short-sighted, and untenable in the long-run if cloud gaming does take off. (It’s also a bit silly that at the same time thousands of HTML5 games are available directly within WeChat, which seems like a much bigger violation; arguably xCloud is offering much better games that would enrich the user-experience of iOS gamers.)

To end on a light-hearted note. Every time I write about Apple and mobile gaming, I will bring up my dream for an Apple-designed controller peripheral. I don’t think that will ever happen, but one can dream…

  1. Conversely, Apple, like Nintendo, like Disney, have been decades-long champions of the “closed” side of the debate. Just for transparency, at at the abstract level I lean closer to this camp, because I idolize seamless user experiences (which are typically easier to realize in a “closed” ecosystem).
  2. As a sign of the times, a popular feature-set back then was a PC client that was a storefront and also a manager for the download and installation to the phone, similar to using iTunes to manage iPhone apps.

The Last of Us Part II

Some notes on the controversial blockbuster sequel.

***Spoilers warning*** I’ll be liberally discussing all aspects of the game, so please do not read further if you want to avoid spoilers.

First a quick note about my play experience – I got the disc a week after the launch date, by which time there was already a massive storm online. Despite my efforts, I did have some key story points spoilt, so going in I was somewhat prepared mentally.

I could only afford to play a couple of hours a day, a bit more on weekends, so it took me a good two weeks to get through. My final session was a 5-hour binge on a weekday night, ending at 3/4am (that day at work wasn’t very productive).

I started the game late, was armed with some knowledge of the drama, and had the play sessions paced out – I felt all these were positive factors that helped me enjoy the game. To me this game is a flawed modern masterpiece, that deserves to be remembered as one of the most ambitious narrative games of the decade.

Narrative structure & theme

TLOU2 follows a very rigorous structure, which I’d break down as follows:

TLOU2 acts

The structure showcases the game’s risk-taking ambitions. In my view there are 2 primary risks taken: 1) the story decision to kill off the predecessor’s protagonist, Joel, as the inciting incident; 2) in a surprise switch at the half-way point, forcing players to play as Joel’s killer, Abby – and revealing that this is a game with dual playable protagonists on the opposite ends of a revenge plot.

In retrospect, to me the game’s real theme is about how people deal with trauma, via a story of hate-driven vengeance. The game delivers a traumatic event to players (Joel’s death), then forces players to go through the stages of grief (both in the game as Ellie, and in real life with their own feelings towards Joel). The perspective change to Abby is an experience in forced empathy, which to me is a secondary theme.

The perspective shift is not new as a literary device – Game of Thrones clearly leveraged this to great effect with memorable characters like Jaime and Tyrion Lannister. But this feels like the most ambitious example in a video game I’ve played, and the effects were fascinating. In the climatic fight between Ellie and Abby, like so many players, I did not want to hit the attack button. But, just like the predecessor’s climatic surgery room scene (which you revisit so many times in this game), the game does not offer you a choice. Thankfully, the game ends the fight mercifully.

I’m not going to go deeper on the narrative and theme – that would be a huge endeavor, and many people have already offered lots of great content. I’ll link here one video I particularly enjoyed.

Game loop & “level” pacing

The game’s narrative beats (the bullet points structure above) serve the long-term and mid-term motivations. At times this can feel ham-fisted: I felt Ellie’s 3 days in Seattle was a bit repetitive in its use of “go to point X to find the next clue about Abby’s whereabouts”. Anyhow, if we zoom in 1-2 levels further, we get to the layers of the “core loop” below:

  • Long-term goal, e.g. find Abby
    • Mid-term goal, e.g. go to Hospital
      • A series of “levels”, or set-pieces

My loose definition of a “level” here is a 5-20 minute section of gameplay made up of elements from the following:

  • Combat, stealth or non-stealth (sometimes forced non-stealth)
  • “Walk and talk”, the most basic way to deliver the story
  • Exploration, which is a lot of ambient storytelling (reading notes etc.)
  • Scavenging and crafting
  • Environment puzzles (some light platforming gameplay)
  • On-rails set pieces, e.g. car chases
  • Mini-games, like guitar simulator
  • Cut-scenes

From a player perspective, I wouldn’t say there’s any crazy systemic design innovations – these are the proven gameplay elements of Naughty Dog action adventures. The craft comes from the thoughtful sequencing & arrangement to create great pacing, and the insane polish (and the vast technical investments to deliver that polish).

What I thought the game did particularly well for pacing, was keeping players on their toes with surprises. Examples:

  • Have you grabbed by an enemy (either transitioning into combat or a cut-scene) as you go through a level transition (“squeeze through this space”, exit this door)
  • Give you a clear environment puzzle, then as you are moving towards the solution, have the floor collapse under you into a mini-boss fight
  • Give you a workbench (for equipment upgrades), as you start reviewing your upgrade choices, have enemies rush you and grab you from the bench

The game does these surprises very sparingly (like only once) – but they are very effective at making you second-guess yourself and stay alert. Is there going to be a jump-scare at that next workbench? (No.)

Also, they are done in a fair way – in the workbench example, these enemies didn’t spawn out of nowhere; they came out of a locked room in the apartment. So if you had planted some mines in front of that door before you engaged the workbench, you would have had the jump on them instead. This is the level of detail and polish that surpasses player expectations.

Transitions – in my view, any time where you go through a transition where you cannot backtrack (e.g. going through a door/gate and blocking it behind you, going down a sliding slope, jumping down a vertical), that’s usually a sign of a level transition, which serves pacing and possibly technical goals. There are also occasionally hard transitions after cut-scenes (teleporting you to a location), some of which I felt created dissonance (after having you struggle mightily for a few hours to get to a place, it seemed trivially easy how you got to another location).

There are some issues for me with the basic gameplay formula. Resource hoarding is a pretty big problem (at least at moderate difficulty). Thematically as a post-apocalyptic survival adventure, the game encourages players to engage in stealth through tight resource constraints. This is in conflict with utilizing the fun combat skills that players unlock. (The player could tweak the difficulty settings very granularly, for example increase the environmental resource amount to encourage more open combat.) To be clear, I actually agree with the game’s trade-off here: the combat is less fun, but thematically more immersive. But it’s one element why some players find this game un-fun to play.

Another problem created by the scavenging gameplay and ambient stortytelling is backtracking. That is, after clearing an area, combing back through it to open every last drawer, and trying to find every ambient story point / collectible. This is again in conflict with the desired pacing. And it also creates narrative dissonance – “I gotta hurry to rescue my friends… but after going through every drawer.” Even in levels/sequences where there was clear urgency, I couldn’t help but think – hey, maybe there’s some rare collectible here, I should take my time.

Lastly, the concessions in the buddy AI was at times immersion-breaking. As a Naughty Dog convention, there are many parts of the game where you have an AI companion. This serves important story goals (after all, without a buddy, it’s hard to have “walk and talk” sequences), and they can assist in puzzle and combat gameplay as well. But in stealth gameplay, they still land in uncanny valley too often – they can sneak around, and will look for positions of cover, but it feels like overall they are still treated as invisible to enemies. I’m not 100% sure of this – there was one occurrence where it felt like the companion was detected; but on the hand there’s probably a dozen occurrences where the companion should have been spotted, but was completely ignored (sometimes comically).

Problematic game length

This was the biggest issue I had with the game. If we take each bullet point in the 4-act structure above as a “chapter”, and each chapter roughly takes up 2-3 hours of game time, then we get to a 20+ hour game length. In my own experience, I got to the end of Act 2 cliffhanger after roughly 18 hours, and ended the game after about 32 hours. For a linear action adventure, it’s both an astonishing feat and an excessive over-indulgence.

I feel it’s the product of compromises – it was set that the game would have dual protagonists, and each protagonist’s arc demanded a experience that couldn’t be too compressed. But the end result is a journey that is both too long and still too rushed. There wasn’t space to flesh out the numerous side characters, and I’d loved to see more of the Seraphites’ story, for example.

I can’t help but think, what if this game was broken into 2 parts, and released episodically? This is most probably a terrible idea, with lots of risky questions – how will the episodes be priced, how far apart would the releases be? How many players would purchase the first episode but not the second? But to me it would seem to be a better match with the game’s ambitions, and could perhaps help position expectations better.

Alternatively – what if the “chapters” were unlocked at an announced schedule? Like an episode a week (more practically, maybe one chapter every couple of days)? There might be something here, if a narrative-focused game’s content release factored in the social media cycle – e.g. the weekly reddit discussion/reactions of the latest Westworld episode, and the community activity leading up to the next episode. Again, probably a terrible idea still…

Player expectations / toxic fandom

I feel we also have to talk about the massive community controversy since the game’s release. In hindsight, the marketing misdirection was probably too clever and came across toying with players’ emotions. And the overly-strict spoiler guidelines to reviewers was also a major lost opportunity to align player expectations. For example, I don’t think there would have been a significant downside for reviewers to discuss the dual protagonists setup – yes, it would have been less surprising in that moment, but the forced experience in empathy would still hold (and players would be less distracted wondering how long the Abby section would last).

I think I can empathize with much of the community angst, especially the most fervent fans who dived in on launch day and were shocked. That moment of shock, and initial grief, became a rallying call online, and took on a momentum of its own. In contrast, professional reviewers under embargo had to process that moment in isolation, and were obligated (professionally) to finish the game and reflect on the whole experience. This is perhaps one factor contributing to the gulf of opinion between professional reviewers and players.

However, this raw emotion of anger / denial is in no ways justification for the massive abuse (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and various other forms of prejudice / bigotry) hurled at the makers of the game. (Unfortunately, this is all too common these days – The Last Jedi and the 2016 Ghostbusters come to mind.) The sense of entitlement is out of whack. The industry, and the fans, need to reflect on this.

And I guess there’s some meta irony that a game about hatred (it’s futility and overcoming it) is the subject of so much futile hatred. It is after all, a video game, a work of fiction. Perhaps this was the 5D chess that Naughty Dog was playing all along. But at the end of day, as a developer, and as a player, I hope that we can see more games take risks like TLOU2, and I hope the controversy doesn’t discourage game-makers.

Valve的平台困境

This is a backup of a wechat account post, originally posted Dec 5 2019.

(楔子:写这篇,起因是上周Steam Controller手柄停产的消息,在我看来也算是Valve此前的一套策略的一个完结,故作此文。)

2011年我在加州刚刚进入游戏行业的时候,同事们聊起Valve这家公司都是带着万分敬意的:

  • 它不只是一个创造过数款划时代游戏的顶级游戏工作室;

  • 它也是一个有着令人敬仰的独特企业文化的公司(我们都认真拜读过其员工手册,并将其与Netflix著名的culture deck相提并论),小而美的数百人公司规模,在行业里四两拨千斤;

  • 另外在当时,其数字平台Steam已经初步确立了其PC游戏数字渠道霸主的地位,这也是一个令人艳羡的公司战略转型,之后的走势更是主导着欧美PC游戏行业的潮流(譬如近年来独立游戏的井喷,与其密不可分);

  • 延伸一点,既运作一个大型软件平台,又直接掌控了平台上最有价值的应用(Dota2和CS),这与微软当年左手Windows、右手Office两大利润中心如出一辙(不愧为从微软出来的创始人)。

在过去的近十年里,Valve这种奇特的小公司、轻资产、平台化的模式表面看起来依然靓丽,活跃用户数不断创新高,其它的指标(营收、平台游戏发行量等)画图大概也都是向右上方迈进。不过,我倒是觉得Steam陷入围城已久,种种破局的尝试也基本都宣告失败,未来十年的走势不容乐观。

对Windows强依赖

我不看好Steam的最大原因,就是因为其对Windows平台的强依赖。而Windows平台的影响力的式微,用A16Z的Ben Evans 2015年的一张经典的图可以概括(推荐拜读其原文”Microsoft, capitulation and the end of Windows Everywhere“):

(这里的点当然不是说Windows/PC业务崩盘了,而是在巨大的移动端增长面前,Windows平台已经退居次席,不再是整个生态的中心,也就与未来创新、新增长点大体无关了。在可预见的未来,Windows还会存在,缓慢衰老——这里可参考上上一代行业霸主IBM,大型机业务每年还在卖几十亿美元。)

过去十年里,Valve并非没有去积极尝试”去Windows化”。2013年的SteamOS(基于linux的操作系统),15年的Steam Machine(基于SteamOS的硬件),以及配套的Steam Controller手柄,概念上来说是已经垂直整合了整个终端体验,而且处处彰显着Valve借力打力、四两拨千斤的经典思维。

只是,在严峻现实面前,这套操作步步皆输。拥抱linux固然自由了,但作为面向大众终端消费者的操作系统,linux本身就是海市蜃楼(已经快20年了,linux消费终端爆发的春天似乎总是就在眼前);SteamOS得不到开发者重视,做不起来也就毫不意外了。(前两天看到某外国开发者吐槽,没记错的话大概是这样说的:”linux版本是我们游戏0.5%的销量,却占用了我们50%的客服资源。”)

而Steam Machine所期望的轻资产模式(让有意愿的硬件商来制造),也是很难走得通的。20年前微软进军主机市场,也曾寄希望于有外部厂商能负责硬件,但无人问津(商业模式上这是不成立的亏本买卖),微软只好自己砸钱。

至于Steam手柄,这本身倒是一个大胆的想法(怎样用一个手柄取代键盘、鼠标,以便于在沙发上对着电视玩游戏?),但也可以说是蛮典型的以公司痛点为出发点(而非消费者痛点)的产品——玩家并没有在电视上玩文明6的刚需,而是Valve抓耳挠腮在想怎样把自己的平台拓展到客厅里。

PC渠道的红海残局

回到Steam的主战场,本来似乎波澜不惊的残局(各大发行商的自有平台都只做得马马虎虎,Steam的大哥地位看起来很稳),但突然杀出了个Epic Games这样的程咬金。

Epic的路子迈得很大很野,而且似乎很清晰地就是在模仿Valve当年的策略,以一个现象级游戏堡垒之夜的用户量和利润为依托,强势拓展平台业务:

  • 打分成价格战、花重金签独代来吸引开发者,这其中还自然利用了其UE4引擎的垂直整合;

  • 坚持每周免费送一款游戏去拉玩家;

  • 最野的一步是在安卓端,借堡垒之夜安装包自建渠道,无视Google Play。

面对Epic的搅局,以及一个没有什么大增长点的红海市场背景,Steam的市场份额与利润几乎必然下降(平台分成下调恐怕只是时间的问题);如果应对不当,得罪了开发者或玩家,甚至可能让出龙头地位。

破局思路?

那么Valve面对这样的局面,有哪些宏观策略选择呢?

若继续坚持平台为核心的策略方向,那还是要回到”怎样在windows之外有存在感”这道题的解法,而在微软、索尼、任天堂、苹果和谷歌的主机/手机生态里面似乎都看不到什么明显的空间。(Steam的iOS app,存在很久了,基础的社交、购买体验实在是乏善可陈;而且稍微大胆一点的想法,比如通过app来云游戏玩自己steam上的游戏,也极易触及苹果平台规则的禁区。)哦,或许欧美安卓生态上,随着Epic对Google Play商城的公然挑战,会有更多的文章可做(会引来更多的效仿者),但Steam并不像Epic那样有个安卓爆款游戏/应用作为天然的流量切入点。

如此这般,平台策略里好像也只剩下垂直整合、开辟新硬件平台这条路了。而VR,看起来是Valve的一个重点布局,毕竟连当年发家的Half-Life IP都拿出来为VR站台了。只是,VR概念热闹了这么多年,能看到的杀手级游戏好像也就是Beat Saber(开发团队刚刚被Facebook Oculus收购);对于硬核游戏,单单是输入方式上就还有很多基础科研要做。

抛开平台策略不谈,其实作为一个玩家当然是希望看到Valve能继续推出好的游戏。回归游戏研发的本位,Valve是有巨额的IP财富的,但近年来的AAA开发的团队规模又已经上了一个量级。在玩家膨胀的预期面前,Valve的中小团队能否对经典IP交出满意答卷,恐怕并不乐观(卡牌游戏Artifact的雪崩就是实例)。

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands (2017)

I’ve been holed up at home due to the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak. The news and social media coverage got really depressing really fast. This got me itching to play a laid-back, single player, third-person-shooter with modern military weapons.

Turns out, there’s not many games that fit all of the above. Max Payne 3 was the first game I turned to, even though I had already played it years ago. I quickly remembered my previous annoyance at Rockstar’s heavy-handed narrative style in that game. I could go back and play Max Payne 2, which is probably my all-time favorite third-person-shooter… But the graphics do look a tad dated now. So ultimately I ended up buying Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands during the Steam sale for $30.

(Loosely summarizing the game’s setting: you play as a covert operative in a fictional version of Bolivia that has been overrun by a powerful local cartel. Your goal is to bring down the cartel one territory – from a huge open-world map – at a time.)

I had quite a lot of hesitations going in. The game had fairly mixed reviews (69 on Metacritic for PC), many of which seem focused on the repetitive missions and formulaic Ubisoft open-world. I thought I was okay with these faults – the “job to be done” for me was to chill and mindlessly shoot up some bad guys. I was a lot more concerned with some criticisms around stealth gameplay – to be clear, I didn’t want much stealth gameplay (see my “job to be done”), and I didn’t want to be frustratingly replaying some missions because of stealth requirements.

Thankfully, this game is primarily an open-world shoot-em-up, and stealth is mostly optional.1 Yes, if you crank up the difficulty setting and go for realism, you shouldn’t expect to be able to outgun whole armies (with air support) by your 4-man squad. But at regular difficulty you can certainly approach most areas “weapons free”, especially if you are riding in on an attack chopper with mini-guns blazing. (Doing so has been quite cathartic, in my current state of mind.)

Indeed, the attack chopper approach makes most early to mid-game level content feel broken thematically. The session loop becomes “scour the map for a nearby attack chopper, get it, and then blaze through missions”. To balance against this, some later areas are designed with SAM missiles to enforce a no-fly zone.

Quick commentary on vehicles: like any proper open-world, there’s plenty of variety across land, sea and air, but by far choppers offer the most utility – they are the easiest to control, seem just as fast as the planes I’ve seen, and offer insane firepower. From a design perspective this seems quite unbalanced. As a random idea, setting an ammo limit (at higher difficulties) could be a good way to bring them in-line for players who want more realism, without sacrificing the laid-back gameplay at lower difficulties.

Another commentary I have is around what makes the formulaic open-world core game loop sticky. It’s all about the layering of activities and rewards. A typical mini-loop looks something like this:

  • Look at world map – pick an objective
  • Seek a mode of transportation, often involving acquiring the transportation by force which becomes a player-created mini-quest
  • Travel to objective destination – en route, get offered many optional distractions, from emergent world events (GRW doesn’t offer this, but RDR2 and The Division for example both do this a ton), to optional side-quests / rewards
    • Get sidetracked by optional distractions, after which the loop is reset or continue to original objective
  • Arrive at objective destination, get offered again nearby distractions (some may be trivial, like a collectible reward)

    Finish objective and restart loop (the whole loop might have been anywhere from 5-20 minutes)
  • This short loop is quite sticky, even on repetitive play into the hundreds of hours, as it offers both nice natural branching activities (as well as a player-driven overarching goal), and lots of rewards big and small. All of this is layered on top of the most basic loop – the satisfying gunplay of every single enemy encounter (the audio-visual feedback of a headshot or bullet-spray).
  • After so many open-world games, the above seems common sense, but there are still serious offenders that break the flow – Far Cry 5 immediately comes to mind with its heavily intrusive story-quests, which when triggered will literally snatch you from whatever you were doing (like, flying a chopper) and declare you have just been captured. (That was enough for me to churn from that game.)
  • My last commentary is regarding loot. As a modern military shooter, guns and gear naturally bring a deep loot system, and this game goes as deep as any. There are both standard guns with lots of modification options (which all need to be unlocked), as well as special unmodifiable guns (effectively, legendaries). These loot (there seem to be hundreds of guns) can be acquired via missions, achievements and/or micro-transaction crates. At first glance it looks impressive and desirable, with lots of “chase” items; but after 20 hours or so I think the “chase” items feel largely cosmetic and diminishing returns hit hard (after all, do you really need 20 assault rifles that largely play the same?).

    1. So far I’ve only encountered one mandatory stealth – no kills – mission, which involves a cameo from Sam Fisher.

    Annual parties in China

    With Chinese New Year right around the corner, the annual ritual of burning a full month on corporate annual parties has thankfully come to a close. Here I’m jotting down some observations about the practice.

    First off, to state the obvious – Chinese New Year (CNY), which usually lands somewhere in January/February is a big deal. The whole country shuts down for about a week, as literally hundreds of millions of people scramble to get back home for family gatherings. For corporate life, right before CNY annual bonuses have usually just been decided; there are a lot of year-end business summaries, presentations and discussions.

    And then there are the annual parties, which occur at every level of the org. Tencent, for example, has a corporate annual party (tickets are raffled) usually held at a sports stadium, where key executives take part in some performances. Then the business units will have their own respective parties, trickling down to the departments / teams.

    There are 3 typical components of any party:

    • The performances, usually singing / dancing acts, and often modestly budgeted mini-films. Usually each sub-department provides one act
    • Prize raffles, which occur throughout the night, with each prize’s sponsor (a “boss”, partner team etc.) clearly identified. A current-gen max-spec iPhone is a typical good prize, while grand prizes can go quite a bit higher. If a “boss” (say, a director level manager) happens to win a prize, there can be a loud chant of “double”, which means the “boss” is supposed to re-draw the raffle and double the reward out of their own pocket
    • Drinking and toasting. For mid-level managers and above, this feels like the main function of the night: an elaborate and potentially stressful ritual of toasting and hazing, accompanied by private conversations. These conversations are often powerful bonding moments where important business alignments are forged / reinforced. It’s one huge networking and alliance-building session facilitated by a lot of alcohol

    The reason I said at the beginning that a full month is consumed by these annual parties at various levels is because of the invitation format. All these parties can have guests external to the org, and it is important to pay respect (and who you send to the party shows your level of respect to the host). If your work depends on a web of relationships with other departments at the company, you may be expected to attend a whole host of parties to oil these relationships. Which ones you go (and skip) reflect your priorities.

    At the ground level, these parties are rare moments for the team to vent and let off some steam. At the studio/team level party (usually the smallest and most intimate party you attend), many people get very, very drunk. Subordinates team up and get their team leads drunk. Disciplines which feel they have been under the whip of another discipline (say, game design barking orders at engineering and art, as is the norm in Chinese studios) extract revenge. The next day often is still a work-day in theory.

    Thoughts about 2019

    An unfashionably late (as usual) post about 2019 and the big games industry themes that I found interesting. Similar to last year’s post this will be focused on the China perspective.

    Further global footprints

    A continuation of the past several years – 2019 saw Chinese devs & publishers continue to expand globally. Representative titles such as PUBG Mobile continued to gain ground, ending the year as one of the year’s biggest games in terms of revenue and active players. (Note that the game’s revenue is going to be meaningfully higher than popular estimates, as the game is integrated with various non-Apple/Google 3rd party payment channels that are significant – or even the majority in terms of payments market share – in Southeast Asia and other emerging markets.)

    Similarly, Garena’s Free Fire was also raking it in – primarily from Southeast Asia and South America – reporting over $1B in lifetime revenue since its 2017 launch. (Garena is based in Singapore, though Free Fire‘s dev team is based in Shanghai if I’m not mistaken.)

    To sum it up – real-time competitive PVP mobile games (by Chinese developers) PUBG Mobile, Free Fire and Mobile Legends are now household names across the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and South America.

    It wasn’t just about emerging markets – Call of Duty Mobile blew open the gates to the prestigious North American market. While it has a lot to work to do to lift monetization, it is likely changing the perspectives of the gamers who have the most platform choice (and who have been the most snobbish towards mobile gaming).

    IP partnerships

    Staying with Call of Duty a bit more: I’m very confident we are going to see a lot more of these types of East-West IP partnerships, purely out of necessity. Simply put, I’m not aware of any western studio that have the proven capabilities today to execute in-house against the development and publishing of a mobile game similar in technical complexity to PUBG Mobile or Call of Duty Mobile. Epic and Fortnite is the closest example I could think of – but even there, their mobile optimization and global footprint pales compared to the above.

    In a way, these partnerships, or talks of such partnerships, are nothing new – for example, over the past few years, Blizzard have certainly talked several times with Netease, Tencent et al about mobile projects around all of their various IPs. (Personally I’d love to see a Starcraft game on mobile.)

    But what is likely new is the seriousness of these conversations now – the Chinese devs have a lot more proven successes to point to, and the western IP holders are a lot more educated about the proven market demand. So expect to see a lot more of these, and possibly a lot sooner than you’d guess.

    Chinese design innovations

    What I personally found most interesting last year though, was the startling success of Chinese devs when it came to their biggest deficit traditionally – game design innovation. It was truly a break-out year.

    Consider the following list of titles:

    • Auto-Chess
    • Archero (I wrote about it here)
    • AFK Arena
    • Punishing: Gray Raven

    Each of these games were hugely successful in 2019 in some way. Auto-Chess spawned a esports genre after itself (and certainly disrupted the landscape of adjacent CCGs). Archero caught lightning-in-a-bottle with its surprisingly elegant (and highly addictive) core combat. Arknights and Punishing: Gray Raven both represent best-in-class games in their respective genres today (tower defense and 3rd-person action), on top of stylishly creative original anime-IP (interestingly, both were apocalyptic sci-fi in theme). And mobile developers couldn’t seem to stop talking about AFK Arena, a brilliant iteration from Lilith Games on a genre they themselves largely created half a decade ago.

    Also – almost all of these games on the list come from relatively unknown developers (the exception being Lilith). This certainly feels like the silver lining in the deep winter that Chinese devs have inhabited the past 2 years (venture funding has been nonexistent since 2017, and the game license issue has froze up the domestic market). I look forward to the many pleasant surprises that the surviving studios will bring to market – whether it’s aspiring blockbusters from known studios such as Genshin Impact (by miHoYo), or the next wave of indie hits.

    从Stadia出师不利说起

    [Note: the following post was originally posted on wechat last week Nov 20. I started a new wechat public account as an experiment, and will look to write posts in Chinese periodically. These posts will be posted here as well as backup.]

    今早看到了谷歌Stadia在北美等市场首发后的第一波媒体评测,初步反响可谓惨淡(Metacritic只有寥寥几篇好评,大部分为中性和差评)。随便以techmeme上摘录的几个媒体标题为例:

    • 纽约时报:”Google Stadia Wants You to Replace Your Video Game Console.  Don’t.”
    • Eurogamer: “Stadia tech review: the best game streaming yet, but far from ready”
    • VentureBeat: “Google Stadia review — It works, but it doesn’t matter”

    这个结果显然不是谷歌所愿。究其原因,首先会提到的是谷歌的执行,这既包括产品本身体验层面的(网络体验、逊于主机的实测画质、延迟手感,都有若干指摘);也包括营销层面,尤其是对于消费者及市场预期管理的严重不足,以及其毫无吸引力的商业模式和内容库(相当于只是在租服务器;游戏本身还是要全价购买、且锁定在Stadia平台;缺乏能招揽生意的独占游戏)。

    以上种种问题,倘若愿意砸钱(加大研发投入、运维预算、补贴用户、去抢独占游戏),或许都是可以改善的。然而这里仍然有个绕不开的基础问题:谁是云游戏的目标消费者?这个市场的体量值得这样投入吗?

    可以从这几个方面来想。一方面,云游戏可概括为用网络性能替换硬件性能。以当下的网络条件和带宽成本而言,这样的一个置换几乎一上来就割舍掉了绝大部分的发展中市场(如印度、南美、东南亚),也即与当前全球游戏市场的人口红利无关。而对于网络条件合格的欧美日韩发达市场来说,“不想买或买不起硬件,又想玩AAA游戏”的群体恐怕又是先天不足的体量:这是在一个成熟红海市场里面去搜寻种种边缘用户。

    又或,云游戏服务的出发点不是去取代PC和主机,而是在互补场景中(比如,出门在外接着玩)的增量服务。这固然是一个消费场景,但1)这里面临着游戏跨平台打通的种种难点(硬件平台政策,以及云游戏商业模式的困扰);2)这个场景本身的商业潜力(有多少人愿意为此付多少钱?)有待论证。(这样的一个互补增量方向,微软作为唯一横跨云计算与游戏硬件平台的公司,应是当下位置最有利的厂商。)

    另一方面,我们(尤其是中国游戏开发者)能看到的是,手机作为增速最快(无论性能、还是玩家消费和时长)的游戏硬件平台对PC/主机平台的空间压缩,这也自然压缩了当下云游戏概念的空间。如果手机上的吃鸡,已经在体验上逼近端游,那么云游戏吃鸡的场景又何在呢?

    这并不是说Stadia这样的云游戏服务毫无前景和价值。5G乃至再下一代网络的建设会降低成本、拓宽市场覆盖面(不过当下5G本身也是概念甚嚣尘上,实质可能比较悲观),届时或许会彻底改变这个命题。此外,也许云游戏技术的主流应用并不是一个面向消费者的服务,而是一个面向开发者的中间件(公允地说,Stadia发布的时候也带到过这个点)。当然,这样的一个服务的想象力和估值自然要比当下吹捧的概念小很多。