Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On My Mind: Pre-Ordering, Sales, and You

One of the things I hear often, from both gamers and non-gamers alike, is the complete hatred for "pre-ordering" games. The complaints often stem from the following points:

1. "Why bother, it's not like they'll run out."
2. "Pre-Order bonus are scams, they're just taking my money."
3. "I don't want to give my money to X and Y."

There's quite a bit of misunderstanding on the purpose and reason why pre-orders exists, so I'm going to clarify some of it based on what I know (feel free to correct me if I've gotten it wrong anywhere).

Let's get a few things out of the way: Yes, when you do a pre-order for a game, it does mean Company X is basically keeping your money for free and earning interest off of it. Yes, employees are encouraged to push pre-orders because they need to meet a quota. Yes, pre-ordering doesn't necessary mean you'll get the game either. However, there are reasons why pre-orders do matter:

1. Yes, games can run out - It doesn't happen often, but it's all about supply and demand. If a store orders 100 copies, and you are customer 101, guess what happens? You aren't getting one. This isn't about stores badly calculating demand, because for a store to keep excess stock would be bad business. If you did want a game badly on the first day, maybe you should have ordered it then.
2. It's an actual gauge for the publisher - Stores are usually allotted a X number of copies, either including or on-top of the pre-orders. Let's suppose a niche game (pick your favourite small developer/publisher, let's say Atlus or NIS, or even Majesco), and let's suppose their upcoming niche game was so under the radar that the store only ordered 1 copy. If you go pre-order it, suddenly the volume just doubled. If this is expanded over all stores, people will quickly realize that a) yes there is demand for this game, and b) they should really order more. Pre-orders, in effect, gauges the actual demand for a title.

One thing that I jumped ahead is "How company arrives at an ordering number", so here's my understanding of how the system works:

1) Large chains have buyers which appropriately gauges the actual demand of titles. These people work directly with the publishers, and looks at factors such as the "buzz" of the game, how the media is responding to it, the company's previous sales track record, etc. This is the basis of the number of copies stores will order.
2) When these titles are listed in the seller's database, they start taking pre-orders. If the number of pre-orders exceeds the number of copies the chain ordered, copies will be shifted around from different stores.
3) However, if the number of pre-orders GREATLY exceeds the number of copies the chain ordered, they may re-up the number of purchases from the publisher.

With this in mind, I think you can see how and why pre-orders greatly affect how publishers have been acting in recent years:

1) The number and the variety of incentives for pre-ordering isn't a way for these retail chains to "screw the player over", it's actually a method for the publishers to push for pre-order sales, which in-tern, hopefully translates to the chains ordering more copies from publishers.
2) Smaller publishers pushing heavily on pre-ordering, such as day 1 DLC (Vanquish's three bonus guns), offering limited (Deathsmiles Faceplate or Record of Agarest War's LE) items for the normal price, going as far as announcing the rarity of copies (DJ MAX Portable 3), in hopes of securing more copies for the game to sell. With AAA games going towards bigger budgets, the smaller niche publishers such as Atlus, Ignition, NIS and others have started embracing guerilla marketing tactics that hopefully help them get their games into more audience's hands. It's interesting to note that of the examples above, Deathsmiles received a second print run without the faceplate, and Record of Agarest War's sales did well enough to warrant a sequel for North America.

I guess my main point is this: Do whatever you like when it comes to pre-ordering big budget titles, but definitely help out the small guys if you're looking for those games.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Quick Impressions: Portal 2 (PS3)

Note: If you are reading this and haven't played Portal 1. Stop. Go to a PC/Mac/PS3/360, get Portal, and play it. Do not return until you are done. Don't read on until you are familiar with Portal 1.

I am not responsible for spoiling Portal 1 for you from this point onwards.

When Portal first came out in 2007, it was one of those groundbreaking landmarks that caught everyone by surprise: A FPS where you avoid combat? Puzzle Solving? No Multiplayer? Portal was one of those games that, despite being unconventional and boxed in between two excellent titles, stood out as a jaw-droppingly memorable every step of the way.

Fast-forward to 2011. Portal 2, as a "full game", feels just as jaw dropping as the first game. While it loses some originality, it gains a healthy dose of even wittier writing, fantastic pacing, and a much more even learning curve. After finishing the game for the first time, I'm itching to get right back into it for both the Dev Commentary (Just started it and it's already fascinating), and the Co-op multiplayer (interesting that they added multiplayer, but from all accounts, seems like a natural fit, I'll try it later). In my mind, Portal 2 comes dangerously close to matching Dead Space 2 as the current front-runner for game of the year (and the similarities don't end there either).

One of the brilliant things that Dead Space 2 did was recalling player's past experience in the first game (I should write about Dead Space 2 too, that game has a lot of interesting talking points), Portal 2, interestingly, pulls a similar trick at the start of this game, taking the player for a ride through areas they have experienced in the first game. New players to the series should find the first few stages sufficient in teaching them the basics of Portal's gameplay; Veterans of the series will find the first few stages interesting too, as the new visuals tell a great story of the time between the first and the second game, and some minor tweaks to the early puzzles makes the experience even more memorable. I like to think that this technique of recalling previous games help players strengthen their experience and their connection to the game world: it's like seeing an old friend, trying to catch up to what happen, and see what's changed. In both Portal 2 and Dead Space 2, this "mechanic" was used to build anticipation and create surprises that a new player may not notice. While these sections may seem trivial and well designed to new players, they felt extra special to players who've seen the first. I've caught myself walking through different areas wondering what "twists" they will apply here.

The first Portal suffers from the same issues that typically plagues puzzle games: designers can try to iron out as many spikes in difficulty for a general audience, but all it takes is one stumbling block to throw a player off. While Portal 1 was fantastic, there were parts in the end game scenario that would have been potentially game breaking. To me, it seems like Portal 2 did a much better job of guiding the player to the key points they needed to see. Even though I was new to all the stages, I was able to pinpoint the exit, and the possible steps that I needed to take to reach the goal; the clever level design, layout, and organization made me feel smart about solving the problem (whether any intelligence was involved was debatable). One can say that some this new focus have made the game too streamlined (instead of a full wall, there's only a small section where you can put portals), but it really feels like there's been actual play session tests to make sure the game will feel challenging for players yet not to alienate people and discourage further play.

(As an offshoot, there's two specific points in the end game scenario where I was able to do things with lightening quick-reflex. I highly doubt it's voodoo magic, but there were enough psychological hints and telltale signs that motivated me to react properly on pure gut instinct. When you get there, you'll do it too, and we can talk afterwards.)

One of the key design elements mentioned in the first game's developer commentary was the "second act", where players walk through the "hidden underbelly" of the test chambers. While this was an enticing story arc, I've wondered how many players gave up on Portal before getting that far (some of the puzzles were brutal, requiring both reflex and mental capacity). I do think that Portal 2's story allowed much greater freedom for Valve to weave players through both "Real" tests and the "behind the scenes" sections. Fairly early on, players would be tossed between both the real and fake sections of the labs, giving a greater sense of decay in the environment, and the connection between what is real and what isn't. In the first game, you were essentially a lab rat until the world was revealed; here, you are shown right away that the labs, the tests, and the setting was part of something bigger. Every time a transition between the lab and the real world takes place, I would start looking around for other cracks within the facade, possible for things that give me a greater glimpse of the world. It's a beautiful done mechanic, and would-be designers should take note.

Perhaps the best part of Portal 2 for me was the writing. Portal's GLaDOS was fantastic, but here, both GLaDOS, Wheatly and the other characters are so well written that I often stop and wait to listen for more dialog. GLaDOS' snaky remarks, Wheatly's crazy incoherent banter and Cave Johnson's seemingly insane statements are delivered so pitch perfect, it brings life to the entire game (even though you are the only living person in the entire game). Without the dialog and chatter, Portal 2 would not be half the game it is right now.

Oh, and there's the ending, but let's not talk about that. It's absolutely Lunacy!

I've probably written way too much for a "first impression", but I think the parts I mentioned seems important enough to write about. There's a lot of good design substance here that any designers or would-be designers should take a hard look at how things work and why people enjoy them when they work.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On My Mind/Post Play: Assassin's Creed: Project Legacy (Facebook)

For all the hype Facebook games have been getting in the press recently, especially the Zynga "ville" games, I've stayed cleared of many of them. I considered sampling some of them before, but they just don't seem to grab me enough for me to care. A lot of them seem to go for the cheap route of appealing to people's hoarding sensibilities: give people enough carrots at the start, and dangle it in front of them and make them beg fore more. Then I started playing Assassin's Creed: Project Legacy.

So, why Assassins Creed? For one, it's tie-in to the console game Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (AC:B); it's also not a true Facebook game, lacking in both monetizing and socializing features that exists in most Facebook games. But let's start from the beginning...

...during a play session of AC:B, I noticed one of the uPlay points (UbiSoft's own internal award system, clever, I must add) references an event that needs to be unlocked via the Facebook game. Being the completion-ist that I am (or try to be), I decided to check it out. At the very least, I'd get an extra mission or two, I hoped.

Like most Facebook games, it starts out slow and simple, with relatively quick progression and "high rewards" to start. At first I wrote it off as a simple Mafia Wars knockoff, with a relatively menu driven gameplay based on clicking through events. It was interesting to notice that even with a different skin, it doesn't stray too far from the formula of capping Action Points to slow down play progression, with a simple XP and leveling system encouraging players to move forward. The idea of earning items outside of currency isn't new either, but the secondary and tertiary economy systems work well enough and support different ways of tackling progression. While the game itself wasn't terribly interesting, I as still relatively far away from unlocking the two things I wanted into AC:B, so I kept on coming back daily, almost being trained by the game in a pavlovian way.

I think I really started taking interest in the game right before the "content" unlocked. I started messing around with the other timelines, and I realized that the game actually extends the side stories revolving around the world of AC1, AC:B and to a certain extent AC2. My desire to play was no longer driven by the need for leveling up (nor was it by the unlocks or loot, while that's cool to unlock things in AC:B), but rather to find out more with the story, the characters, and how they impact the main game. In this sense, AC: Project Legacy has succeeded in adding to the overall experience of the franchise.

It's interesting to note that while this game exists on Facebook, it lacks the hallmarks of a Facebook game: monetization and socialization. There was nowhere in the game to exchange real money for ingame XP, AP, currency or items; there was also no interactions between friends who are playing the game save the potential recruit links. Maybe the lack of these things were what appealed me to the game.

Outside of habit or boredom, I'm done with the game now until new missions are added. I've exhausted all playable events now, seen all the story has to offer for now, and hit a game breaking glitch that gave me 400 billion dollars. Overall, it's was pretty interesting, and at least from a story perspective, added quite a bit of "substance" to the AC universe.

I have to say I like what UbiSoft has done here in trying to tie in a Facebook game with a "core" franchise. It's a slow rising trend, and I really do believe that companies who are willing to experiment with such integration in the near future will come out ahead. I don't want to sound too pompous, but I saw this trend coming for a long time, and there are plenty of games that stands to benefit from this sort of integration. In the past few years, we've seen web leaderboards (Need For Speed), Twitter integration (Uncharted 2), Facebook integration (DSi, Blur), Youtube integration (PixelJunk Eden), but I look at this AC Facebook game, and have to say this maybe the most realized version yet, and I can't wait to see what's next.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Administrative Stuff: Oh, the important stuff...

You know what, I almost forgot...

...I don't think I've ever formally introduced myself on this blog. Might as well, right?

If you look on the right, you'll see my name, Harold Li. I'm not going to give my life story here (it's not all that interesting or important), so here's the shorthand, interesting, and relevant version. I've been gaming since I was 6 or 7, Game Boy, Famicom, the usual suspects. I'm primarily a console gamer, and have kept up with consoles games (mostly Nintendo stuff). Games to me had always been fun toys or a hobby, until late in high school when I realized that programming could lead me into games.

Five years and a University degree in CS later, I ended up working at a games company called Koei Canada, working initially as a programmer and eventually a designer. On the side I ended up buying a lot of games and played a lot (I always say it's for research, but sometimes it really isn't).

Let's say right now that I'm "in between jobs", so what better way to exercise my design skills with writing stuff about design? OK, maybe making something is better, but, oh well...

...other administrative stuff: It'd be great if I get some feedback on posts and stuff. I'll try to get a quick sample of each column, so I can get some feedback to work with and improve (iterative design process doesn't just end with games!). Also, it would help that I know people are reading, so use the follow button on the right side, thanks. :P

Administrative Stuff: Relaunch 2.0

I know I haven't been updating this blog for a while, and with all this new-found free time I have, I really should. I think one of the major things that bogged me down (besides lack of time), was my insistence on writing out my gaming history in a linear fashion. I still believe that knowing where I came from, and what games I gravitate to do matter in how I analyze things, but it's also made writing this EXCESSIVELY SLOW.

So, I'm going to try to harness the power of Tags, and writing out different "sections" of updates instead. Assuming that the "Cloud Tag" widget works the way it should, you'll start seeing it to the right of this blog. The few categories I'm thinking of using include: "Gaming Past" (What I've been writing), "Post Play Analysis", "Quick Impressions", "In The News", "On My Mind" and "Design Teardown". I'll probably add more as I see fit. This way, I can quickly jump from one topic to the next, and still be coherent. (ADD wins again!)

I'm not going to remove the old posts, it seems like a big waste of time re-writing them. Think of them as "the prototype".