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Richard Bartle: 10 Games you Should Have Played

Normally, I don’t allow “guest posts”, but I’m making an exception for my “10 Games You Should Have Played” series. I’ve been asking other games-industry people to write up their own lists + explanations, and that’s not always compatible with their personal/work/etc blog. When that happens, I’m happy to post them here instead.

So, here’s Richard Bartle‘s take (“co-creator of MUD1 (the first MUD) and the author of the seminal Designing Virtual Worlds” – but if you read this blog, you should already know who he is ;).

I think it’s a great list. I asked him to define in his own way what he meant by “should” (why are we saying “should”? who’s the audience? etc) and to run with it, which he did …

Come up with your own rules for a top-10, define it clearly, and share your list.

“OK, well modulo all the usual complaints about lists of 10, here we go.

I don’t have any rules per se, but I am sort of assuming that this is for people who play games or design games or want to know more about games.

Also, I’m going to go with categories rather than individual games (except in the last case). This is because it’s not the games themselves that are necessarily important so much as what you get from playing them. I will, however, give an example of a game in each category that I myself have tried.

1) A game you have bought but haven’t played yet.

You should always have a game ready to play. I don’t care what it is, but unless there is one you’re never going to expand your gaming horizons.

For me, right now that game is “Victoria II”, which I’ve installed and read the manual for but haven’t actually started to play. The reason I haven’t started it is because I bought “Mount & Blade: with Fire and Sword” and snuck that in front of it in the queue. Once I do start it, I’ll be looking for another game to play when it’s completed – hopefully not another damned sequel…

2) An abstract game.

Games can be many things, but unless they have gameplay they’re not games. An abstract game only has gameplay. To understand games, whether to design, play, or study them, you need to understand gameplay; an abstract game shows you the game mechanics with everything else stripped away.

You need to play one. You may, if you’re keen, try think of a skin for it, but that’s not essential.

In my case, I guess the game would be “Chess”. I captained my primary school Chess Club, but my interest in the game waned when I realised that the openings were always the same and that people who were less good at the fun, thinking part could win by doing the boring, memorise-the-openings part. That came straight from an appraisal of the clear-for-all-to-see mechanics.

That said, I’d also like to give a shout-out to the altogether more obscure “Besikovitch’s Game”. Now that’s a mechanic with potential…

3) A tabletop role-playing game.

Everyone thinks they know why they want to play games, but they also need to know why everyone else plays games. They’re not going to get that unless they understand what it means to be part of the game. In a tabletop role-playing game, with the other players right there next to you, there’s no escape: you have to participate, you have to involve yourself, you have to become part of the game, part of the narrative. In short, you have to live the game. Unless you’ve lived a game, how can you ever hope to understand what’s gamingly possible?

For me, the hours I spent playing “D&D” with my friends in my late teens were some of the best gaming experiences I ever hard. I wish I’d been able to get a “Call of Cthulhu” group going, mind you, but it came out too late for me.

4) A spectator sport.

If a game is good enough that people will pay to watch it played, you need to understand what it’s like to play it. This gives you an insight into the theatrical aspects of games that you wouldn’t easily get from merely observing the performance. You don’t actually have to be any good at the game, and the game itself doesn’t have to be all that good either (in my case, “Snooker” fits both those categories); the important thing is to understand what gives a game presence. I don’t care whether it’s high
skill, clever strategy, viscerality, physicality – if you don’t play it, you won’t appreciate it.

In my own case, I played “Association Football” (yeah, soccer) at school (attacking midfielder if you must know); I was good, but we were never taught any skills or anything and most games descended into kicking matches. I nevertheless found out what made it “the beautiful game”, though.

5) A game in which you can lose actual money.

There is a dark side to games, and gambling gives people a chance to sense it. Personally, I don’t like playing games for money at all; however, a lot of people love it. Everyone has their limits, though.

For some, gambling games are at their best when the amounts involved actually hurt if you lose them; for others, it’s the amounts that can be won that make the difference. The point of playing a gambling game from the perspective of this list is to gain an appreciation of the morality of games. When something stops being “just a game” and starts to take over the player’s life, that’s potentially a bad thing. Unless
you’ve seen it (or something close to it), you’re never going to understand that fully. Gambling games let you do that. Warning: you run a big risk with this if it turns out you’re the one who gets hooked…

For me, I used to play “Poker” with my friends over lunch when I was 17 or 18. We played for Tic-Tac mints. This was before “Texas Hold ‘Em” got big, so we’d play mainly “Draw Poker”, “5-Card Stud”, “7-Card Stud” or, occasionally, “Montana Red Dog”. We stopped playing when one of my friends, who consistently lost, had to borrow money to buy more Tic-Tacs; I decided things had gone far enough, and called
the lunchtime sessions off. From that point on, no way would I design a game that deliberately tried to addict someone to it.

6) A game released in the year you were born.

Most games are built on the foundations of games that went before them, and an appreciation of their history means you appreciate the games themselves more. Games have a very long history (indeed, they go back into prehistory), but a modern game is unlikely to quote directly from ancient archetypes. They’re more probably going to quote from games from the generation before them. You therefore need to
play a bunch of old games to see where the advances were made. Unfortunately, “old” is a relative term: what you think is old might, to me, seem fairly new. What’s old enough for both of us is something from the year we were born in (or a year close to that). Play a game from back then and see how things have (or haven’t) changed. Bonus: you’re almost guaranteed to notice the gameplay more than you do in a (what currently looks) slick, modern game.

For me, the old game would be “Diplomacy”, which was released commercially in 1959 (the year before my birth, but that’s near enough). Ah, what a game! It’s trapped in its time, because it needs 7 players and could only really be played by post. Play-by-email is even more of a niche than play-by-mail was, so it’s not a game that is played a lot nowadays. Lovely mechanics, though!

7) A really bad game.

Some games are just BAD. The mechanics are all wrong, they’re unfun, or no fun, or the rules are ambiguous, or they drag on and on, or there’s a dominant strategy, or … well, the list continues. If you play such a game, you can ascertain what it is that’s bad about it; this will enable you to avoid similar games in future and to avoid
making similar mistakes in any games you design yourself (see next point). The more you understand about games, the more you’ll be able to find the games that are right for you.

For me, tempting though it is to nominate “Trivial Pursuit” as the game that laid waste to the British board games industry, I didn’t actually play that. However, my personal pick is one that I’m sure many other people will share, too: “Monopoly”…

8) A game you wrote yourself that no-one else has played.

Game design is actually quite hard to do well. You’re not going to know quite how hard unless you try it yourself. In the attempt, you’ll come to understand more about games and what makes them tick – but only if you actually play the game (if
it needs more than one player, play it against yourself). If you actually are a game designer, this is something you will have done many, many times before, of course; just make sure you keep on doing it.

For me, well, all game designers have a corpus of games in various stages of completion that they have never shared with anyone else, simply because doing the design itself was the fun part.

I’m a bit low on computer games in this list, so I’ll go for one I did called “Mombasa” about the exploration of Africa. It’s not all that good, but the point is that I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t played it…


This is because I co-wrote the first virtual world, and therefore the more people who play these, the higher my kudos rises.

I’ll list the last MMO I played through up to the level cap as my example here: “Rift”. I came away not so much impressed by the game itself but by its developer, Trion Worlds, which is more understanding of its players than any other developer I’ve
come across except perhaps CCP.

10) “Mornington Crescent”.

It’s actually called “Finchley Central”, but I’ll go with the version that’s best known. This is a very simple game, the rules of which, in their entirety, are as follows: players take it in turns to name London Underground stations, and the first to say
Mornington Crescent wins. This is a game everyone should play, because it gets to the heart of what a game is: what happens when you freely and knowingly bound your behaviour according to a set of rules in the hope of gaining some benefit that you might not get. You play it for just so long as it’s fun, with people who also play for just so long as it’s fun. It’s the Magic Circle incarnate.

So those are my top 10 games that people should play. If you already played them, my apologies for having wasted your time with this list. If you haven’t played them, I envy you the treasure trove that lies ahead.”

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The 10 Games You Should Have Played

This list is WRONG (and it’s on the Internet)

…and here’s your chance to challenge it.

This was written in a frantic half-hour with 30-odd people with many different ideas and suggestions. My role was to shepherd the opinions towards a concrete list of 10. There *was* a specific agenda/aim I had in mind – but I didn’t tell people that up-front, I wanted to let them go in whatever direction they wanted.

Now it’s done, I’m reaching out to everyone who cares about this stuff, and saying:

Come up with your own rules for a top-10, define it clearly, and share your list.

Blog it, link it back here, and we’ll see what people come up with. I’m expecting a lot of variation on the inclusion-criteria for a top-10, and (hopefully) as much variation on the games people choose / reject.

Other people’s top-10’s

The original top-10

May 2011 – GameCamp 4

A few weeks ago, London was host to the fourth GameCamp – a 1-day unConference devoted to games, game-design, and game-playing.

I wanted to give a talk, because that’s half the fun of an UnConference. I wanted to do something fun, interesting, and above-all *new*. What’s the point of giving a talk you could have given at a “normal” conference?

My Plan

I vaguely remembered that Darius had once run a session on “Indie games that haven’t had the attention they deserve” (or something like that), where he’d cherry-picked some great fun games that were relatively unknown in mainstream circles, and gave them a free boost of attention.

I didn’t feel confident to do that myself,but I knew there were plenty of people at GC4 who were much deeper into the fringe of games and game-design, and no doubt *they* knew what was out there, and had played it all.

So, one quick scribble later:

“10 Games you Should have played (but probably haven’t)”


I was afraid I’d get an audience turn up and expect me to do all the work, where I needed them brainstorming and providing the ideas themselves. I could see it easily being shaped by the (lack of) variety of the first few suggestions, so I set out to come up with a wide range to kick off.

With a full TEN MINUTES before the start, I roamed the hallways, looking for victims. I spotted a few familiar faces, game designers and writers I could corral, and asked them for a quick 3 “games people should have played”.

First response I got, courtesy of Adrian Hon: “Paintball”. Ah. Thanks, Adrian. You just exposed the flaw in my title. I never mentioned the words “video” or “computer”, although I’d assumed them.

Other interesting titles I was given in the hallway included: Civilization (the computer game, via Adrian), Journey to the End of the Night (via Holly Gramazio, I think), Tetris Attack (ditto)…some good variety to kick us off.

Those 10 games in full

We had a packed room, approx 20-30 people. I won’t detail the process, but in our 30 minute slot we managed a long list, with some brief explanation of the more obscure games, and then we voted on which ones should go to top-10. Fortunately, there were 10-12 games that were CLEARLY a lot more popular than the rest.

Here’s the full list (illegible with crossings-out)

And here’s the top-10, with their respective (approximate – I was counting fast!) votes:

  1. Tetris [*]
  2. Portal [*]
  3. SimCity [*]
  4. The Secret of Monkey Island (either/both) [11]
  5. Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (text adventure) [10]
  6. Mario Kart [10]
  7. Zelda (any/all) [10]
  8. Deus Ex [9]
  9. Day of the Tentacle [9]
  10. Populous [9]

[*] = so many I didn’t bother counting; more than 2/3 of the audience.

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Dragon Age 2: When Designers go Bad…

Courtesy of Tom, I played the DA2 demo a few days ago. It’s the first Bioware game I’ve played that was so inherently dull and boring I lost all interest after 10 minutes. This rarely happens to me with any game, let alone one from a mega-studio like Bioware. I suspect, in fact, it’s just a really bad demo – the real game is nothing like this. I hope.

Intensely detailed (intensely sexualised) player-characters, but otherwise a depressing art-style (grey on grey with a backdrop of de-saturated blood – i.e. red-tinted grey – and an overcast sky of … multi-hued grey. Oh, and the enemies use a single-hue pallette too: grey).

There was some classic Bioware-ism in the intro itself – sounded and felt like NWN redux – same focus on narrative, but with an engine so badly broken it miserably failed to lip-synch (in a way that no other studio has done so badly for more than ten years), and the eyeballs appeared to have been sucked out, and replaced with ill-fitting glass bearings.


That kind of amateurism on the engine anim/renderer worked OK with something as rickety as NWN and even NWN2 – but now Bioware has a major Uncanny Valley problem: all other parts of the character models are intensely detailed textures, with oodles of shaders to give realistic skin textures, bright detailed eye irises, etc. And then the armour goes and interpenetrates the main character *in the pre-made intro movie* so badly she’d be dead of blood-loss before the scene was over (seriously – she’s got 4 inches of metal digging into her chest – medical EMERGENCY!)

But the worst part is simply this: the game had no depth, no sense of player agency, and no reason for you to care. Characters were randomly dropped in your face with zero explanation of who they were or why they were there, and you were expected to give a flying monkey’s – but since they were all immortal, and overly whiney, I found it hard to. Then they’d randomly disappear with no explanation other than a brief cutscene implying that “everything you just did was a waste of time HA HA! start again from scratch”.

Original? Hell no!

(I compare this against NWN2, whose opening sequences I remember well. Exact same idea, but pulled off with less over-dramatization, and a lot more clarity. Even though the NWN control-system meant it was often viciously confusing for the first few minutes unless you’d played NWN-1 before)

This has never happened to me in an RPG, except the truly dire ones. Same trick (again) was used in Assassin’s Creed 1, and lead to a lot of misery among players – but the joy of AC often kept people playing. At least until they got bored of walking everywhere.

But most people I know never appreciated this device existed until / unless they’d achieved a moderate mastery of the game. I.e. you had to play the game for 3+ hours and then *start again from scratch* in order to really appreciate this conceit. It was a nice idea, but I suspect overall a fail (note: just how differently AC2 approached the issue) – people got bored and dropped the game. But even that was given to you with decent narrative explanation – and believably.

Dragon Age 2 tries the same trick, but does it less cleanly, and smacks the player in the face, with no excuse given. Just: “I’m a game designer. You’re the less-important people who buy my works of art. Sucks to be you.” This is the antithesis of most good game-design. Also: not original. In fact, these days it’s almost a cliche. Sure, Bioware were one of the first major studios to do it, but … AC1 + AC2 + AC3 continue their worldwide domination, with bajillions having experienced life as Altair, Ezio, et al … so this is no longer a niche way to start a game.

And then I found this recent interview with the Lead Designer. I also found a bunch of players complaining that Mike Laidlaw may have missed the point when trying to “fix” Dragon Age with his sequel.

(giving me flashbacks to the fail that was Ultima 8, and the designers belief + claim that “Ultima 7 wasn’t good because you could bake bread – don’t worry, we’ve taken that out”…leading to horrified reactions from players: No, you really don’t understand: baking bread is EXACTLY what made Ultima 7 great)

In the interview, Mike is apparently “excited” by the use of narrative to replace / control the game. I’m not quite sure why; this is nothing more than what NWN2 did, many years ago (from the same studio!) – only it worked more in hand with the player back then, less against them. And without the gratuitous breasts-and-faces-covered-in- … *cough* blood *ahem* … shots.

(I’m not complaining, I’m just saying: the art direction on this project clearly had *someone* who was determined to get facials (of the pornographic kind) inserted into a live computer game. It’s funny, but it’s not subtle, and it’s hard to ignore – especially with heaving bared breasts, straight out of the old D&D covers where over-excited artists were depicting all women in “suicide armour” – holes in the most lethal of places, more a fashion statement than believable chain-mail)

In practice, it seems suspiciously as though Bioware has set a frustrated Author to design the game. The narrative conceit is OK if you wanted to watch a movie, but it takes away so much from the “game” aspect of the game that anyone looking for … game … ends up disappointed. And, as noted – the graphics engine is FUBAR.

A second opinion

So, Tom is a professional author (books), and until recently was a commissioning Editor for a major international political and literary magazine. To use a horrible phrase: he breathes words. Always has. And he really hated DA2’s start, because of all this failed narrative. I was zoning out at this point after a 20-hour day, but it seemed he was saying something like: this narrative is NOT inventive, it’s obvious, pointless, badly written, and would have been better off being left out entirely.

In summary

For me, there’s two major fails: the intro gets in the way of the game … and then does the one thing that an RPG is never allowed to do: invalidates everything the player has done to date.

When my characters started levelling up, I found I couldn’t care less. I’d already had my characters taken away from me once, with no choice in the matter (not even an illusion of choice). I’d spent several minutes with them auto-killing everything in sight, and now I was offered a bunch of bland and meaningless figures, all of which had LITERALLY no relation to anything I’d been doing up to that point in game … plus some bugs in the mouse-control for the level-up screen meant it took 6 clicks just to get to the screen. Level up was presented as an optional (and irrelevant) aspect of the game. There was no indication it would make an iota of difference.

Compare this with Diablo (the first one – go way back, to when Blizzard was a tiny company by today’s standards). See how exciting and in-your-face and *immediately relevant* they made every level-up. Despite IMHO achieving exactly what Mike claims the DA2 team were aiming for: “You get to an RPG and fire it up, and … it hits you in the face with a thousand stats. Those stats are very cool, but you may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to deal with them as your first thing to do in the game,”

Mike – please go and play Diablo. I think you’d enjoy it. There’s no stats at all, until you need them.

Oh, and the colour-scheme for DA2’s level-up screen, I believe – and I’m not making this up – was light grey text on a dark grey background.

Apparently, Dragon Age 2 is “The Game Of GREY!”. Certainly, the demo has convinced me (sadly) not to play again unless forced. I’m sure there’s a good game in there … somewhere … if you can get past the boringness. Maybe someone will hack it and provide a way to skip to the fun parts? More likely (I hope) the demo just isn’t representative of the real thing. Or, if not … roll on NWN3…

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EA Skate videogame helps pros practice skateboarding?

A year old, this quote, and the original source is from EA marketing (i.e. accuracy / provenance needs to be carefully checked), but still interesting, from Joey Brezinski:

“Its so sick trying to take a video game trick and make it reality, it just takes way longer with your feet then the sticks..

I can think of a trick, do it in the game and see how it works visually…the mechanics, weight distribution…then go do it in real life with a headstart I never had before. It just takes longer and hurts more in real life!”

(found via this very long and interesting article on the history of Skate video / camera work. NB the quote is a long long way down and unreferenced, but the EA marketing page seems to the be the original source)

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MINECRAFT: the last Mine Cart

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I almost paid for Civilization 5, but Steam prevents me

Today, I *almost* bought Civilization 5. The temptation was strong…

…but they still won’t allow me to buy it. You go into a shop, and spend money, and they tell you you’re a pirate, that you’re a thief, and that unless you create a Steam account and connect the internet to your PC, you “won’t be allowed” to play the game you’ve just paid for.

Over Xmas, I think I’ll pirate it instead. Since they won’t let me buy it legitimately.

(for the record, *if* I pirate it, I will also go into a shop and buy the useless £50 box of plastic and DVD. I’ll do the morally right thing, despite their attempts to stop me)

For the apologists

I’ve often spoken in public about anti-piracy measures for games. My conclusion was to include online-only content that you needed to be authenticated for.

This is a single-player, offline game. There is literally no reason to make it “Steam required” – every offline player will get no benefit, and will be better off pirating it. This is (yet again) mindless stupidity from a games company (probably the publisher).

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A little game called Minecraft…

I’m an idiot. It only just occured to me today to wonder how common a name “Markus Persson” actually is.

My first reaction on playing with Minecraft was: “Ah, this (much success, this quickly, with this style of game) is what the WurmOnline guys would have loved to achieve, I think”. Oh, the irony. Not that I expect the WO guys are unhappy with what they’ve achieved – WO is an achievement in and of itself, and continues to evolve in beauty and depth – but it’s too slow / too little to become a mainstream success. It’s a technical and personal success, not a business success. Unlike MC.

Now that I know it’s the *same* Markus – Wurm’s Markus_Persson from, and the author of Minecraft – I’m revisiting that first impression. Incidentally, in checking out this authorship, I saw I still have the 2nd highest post count on JGO (!), despite almost 5 years of personal absence. Wow. I really did talk a *lot* of crap, I guess ;)…


There are two things in MC that jumped out at me early on. The first one was pure simplicity. This game/world is bursting with a sense that someone has ended up with nothing left to take away.


The art has a nice style in and of itself. This is something I’ve often talked about with other veterans of making cheap games … mostly, that means indie developers (many of the folks from JGO, for instance – especially look at the 4k Java games contest, and look at the frequent winners such as Kev), but it also includes folks from the big-budget games industry, like Thomas Bidaux and Ken Malcolm. And, of course, Matt Mihaly, whose Earth Eternal started out explicitly using an art-style to keep production costs low.

It’s a trick. It’s the avoidance of the uncanny-valley. Make your art look deliberately cheap, instead of accidentally, and you can achieve the same level of pleasure in your audience as if you’d built photo-realistic graphics. As far as I recall, it’s even been tested (in movies and visual art) and found to be literally true.


Here’s one key point where Wurm fell down … there was a vast amount to do, but it was damned hard to know WTF you could do, how, when, why, where.

And at this point, I’m going to pull out and dust off Runescape, circa 2001. Back when it was a few thousand players, and was already taking off, but long before it became famous. RS has changed plenty over the years, and has finessed their interface, but it started off with Andrew’s unrelenting insistence that the UI must have “no menus”. Everything had to be achievable with the LMB or the RMB. There were already examples of places where the interface was crippled and made complex because 3 (or 4) buttons were needed … and eventually Andrew relented and allowed for RMB to be a menu, with LMB being the “most likely option from that menu”.

The point being that if he’d not clung so hard to that desire for ultra simplicity in the GUI, then he’d probably have ended up with a series of rich menus – or more likely a many-button interface. Sure, it had to be modified as the game grew, but IMHO it was one of the greatest attractions to RS, and helped enormously with RS’s growth and success among the school-age market (where RS thrived).

Now back to MC. In MC, your actions are very narrowly limited. Indeed, they reminded me a lot of early RS. Everything relies upon context. In MC’s case, the compromise with game-richness comes in the form of the crafting interface. Here you have to step beyond the LMB/RMB setup, the “purely contextual” actionset, and move to a new UI element. It’s new, it’s extra UI, but … it’s still brutally simple, and yet (so far) proving more than adequate to the enormous demands of variety in MC.

… and logic

This is the second one that struck me, and it took a bit longer, a bit more playing around (and watching other players in their more advanced worlds), for me to spot.

Wurm Online was always one of the richest “physical universe simulators”: there was a huge amount of physical laws implemented and underlying everything you saw on-screen. This is not a good path for a developer to take: it’s a steep slope into exponentially large CPU and content-production costs … and even worse in terms of balancing and game-design.

Oh, you think that a world with “full physics” has no content production cost? Ha! How much time do you think it takes to implement each of the laws of physics? Even with a rigid-body physics engine to start from? May seem like there’s not many of them around, but just try coding it…

But many of WO’s laws were barely noticed by the majority of the players, while others were smack in their faces a large amount of the time. MC very nearly appeared to cherry-pick only the “frequently significant” laws, and focus on those. MC’s world is breaktaking in it’s depth, and yet if you analyse it closely, you quickly notice it’s lacking some very basic essentials of a world-simulator.

And, back to the irony, I felt that last point made MC feel very much like a direct sequel (in spirit) to Wurm Online: a “lessons learned … and acted upon” when it came down to the most addictive and engaging (and unique) part of WO. And yet I was still too dumb to connect the names together. Doh!

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Games and the loss of Art

If a picture paints a thousand words, then a 3D engine wipes-away 900.

Even a 3D engine with “a great game” and “good level-designers” still only manages five hundred.

It’s taken me a long time to realise this, but … games published today often have inferior visual Art to games published 20 years ago.

Working inside game studios you still get to see stunning art on a daily basis – it’s just that none of that ever makes it into the game. It’s all “concepting”: static, one-off paintings. And although it’s only a minor issue, I feel we’ve lost something in having these moments fade away from the games themselves.

I don’t have time to carefully research and pick my examples, so I’ll just pull straight from memory (and hope the point still makes sense by the end :))

1991-1994: in-game graphics

This is going to be hard to demonstrate if you judge each image too literally, but bear with me…

I’ll start with one of the most “art” games of the 1990s: Another World (1991):

Another World is easy for this post: the whole game was designed around “how good can the visual art be … with a very small colour palette, no shading, and very blocky characters?”

Here’s a screenshot from Ishar 2 (I think; could be Ishar 3?) – either way, 1993-1994:


Ugly, horrible. Composition is mediocre.

And yet … just have a look at the open book on the left-hand side, opened, with the pages caught in the act of riffling in a breeze. Hand-painted in *very* low resolution, with readable text.

Look around the room, look at how much stuff is crammed in a single image. Why? Because none of it had to be modelled in 3D – the game was crammed full of this kind of whimsical artistic painting, full of imagination.

Or look at Elf – published 19 years ago! Here’s two screenshots. First, look at the “normal” graphics in this platform game:,315213/

…now look at one of the “boss” screens:,315213/

In the second screenshot look at the background: hand-painted, but also soft-focus, to provide greater contrast with the player and the boss. I want you to consider the technique, rather than the actual screenshot – this is a poor example, sadly – but my copy of Elf is FUBAR so I can’t take a good one.

2010: the missing Art

15 years later, how has the artwork improved?

The engines produce stunning visual effects, fully animated, in 3D. Sony and Nintendo are now putting their games onto mass-market 3D displays so you see *actual* 3D images, rather than 2D simulation of a 3D scene.

But the artwork has atrophied. Modern games have no time to spare for epic vistas – there’s no room in the gameplay for static screens.

And it’s phenomenally expensive too: it used to be that painting a 100×100 pixel area of screen required 10,000 pixels to be painted – a matter of minutes with a good photo app.

Nowadays, you have to create 3D models – separately – for each item that will appear in that area. Then you have to paint textures for each one – usually 100 times as many pixels *each* as in the 2D equivalent – and apply lighting by hand, and positioning in 3 dimensions.

Net effect: low-importance areas of scenes are empty and ill considered (artistically). Flights of fancy are rarely possible (developers literally can’t afford them – it costs too much money in the salaries of extra staff)

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it”

Don’t believe me? Then try this site, find a game you’ve played, and compare the images here to the images you *actually saw* in the game:

From the about page:

an emerging art form that’s as far from the average screenshot as it is the average photograph.

So … what?

Go back to the Ishar screenshot.

Fire up Oblivion (a modern equivalent: a sword-and-sorcery RPG), and look for anywhere in the game with even half as many “interesting” items that might spark the imagination. What are those things? What do they tell about the character of the person who lives here?

(in Oblivion, you’ll find that everyone has a fetish for broken crates and buys their chairs and tables from the same – apprentice – carpenter. Some of them have a couple of houseplants. That’s it.)

This post was about the visual art, but the loss is felt in the games themselves, in a loss of immersion, and a loss of *player* imagination. Sole-author flash games – often made by artists working alone – go some way to redressing the balance. Even if they didn’t, it’s small, and it’s subtle – it’s really not that important. But it’s a loss nevertheless.

(some of my favourites from Dead End Thrills)

computer games design games design games industry marketing

One Hundred MEELLEON Dollar! (…wasted, on RTW/APB)

18 months ago, Scott and I described our perspectives on the fall of Tabula Rasa. I said that if you’re going to spend $100m on an MMO, you’d better be aware of MMO history and not repeat those mistakes.

It would seem that Real Time Worlds wasn’t listening – coincidentally, $100m is how much *publically announced* money just went down the pan, now they’ve gone into administration.

No-one in this industry likes to talk openly about their enormous fuck-ups – and the few that do tend to become pariahs, sued by their employers or shunned by future investors. No major company openly documents – or “allows to be documented” – anything of import. It’s a system that punishes progress in the professional field.

There’s a single public analysis on RTW/APB right now. It’s an anonymous source (oh, for god’s sake! When will we stop shooting the messengers?), but some non-anonymous sources have backed it up. So, let’s take a look…

Anonymous: ExRTW on RPS

(source is here)


“lead you to think it’s going to come right by release … You end up in this situation where you’re heads down working your ass off”

Me, 18 months ago:

“The implication being that they didn’t do anything wrong, perhaps, but that they stood by and watched the train rolling slowly towards the brick wall and didn’t try (hard enough) to stop the collision.”


“APB … came together… relatively late in its development cycle … leaving too little time for content production and polish … lacking any real quality in some of its core mechanics”

Me, 18 months ago:

It wasn’t ready for beta. I said so. Many others said so.


“it was pretty clear to me that the game was going to get a kicking at review – the gap between expectation and the reality was huge.”

Me, 18 months ago:

A survey was taken, internally, asking what people thought. The results were never published – so no-one (apart from the survey takers) knows exactly what the results were, but we were told that the *company* knew.

Incidentally … I was afraid to come clean at the time (and upset individuals), but that survey of all staff was EXTREMELY negative about the project, and I have been told (but you’ll have to take this as unsubstantiated rumour) that the reaction of the top-level execs on seeing the results was simple:

“Bury it”


“I wasn’t on the APB team, so I played it infrequently, during internal test days etc. I was genuinely shocked when I played the release candidate – I couldn’t believe Dave J would be willing to release this.”

Me, 18 months ago:

[I wasn’t on the TR dev team, but] given my position I had the luxury of a lot of insights that other people wouldn’t have had.

I played TR in the alpha, and I actually enjoyed it

it was a good pre-production prototype [but – at best – YEARS away from being a finished project – and they went to beta only 6 months later]


“The real purpose of beta is publicity, not bug fixing. We never took that lesson on board.”

[I didn’t cover this, but Scott’s post did, IIRC]

And, finally…

“MyWorld is an innocent bystander caught up in the demise of APB. Which is a real shame, because it is genuinely ground breaking, though not aimed at the traditional gamer audience. ”

…which sounds an awful lot like Scott’s team and Steve Nichols team (the former very basic playable but unreleased, the latter Dungeon Runners)

Major differences

EDIT: it’s 100k sales, not 10k.


“the real killer, IMO, is the business model. This was out of the team’s hands. The game has issues, but I think if you separate the business model from the game itself, it holds up at least a little better.”

I originally (mis-)understood
the figures that Nicholas Lovell has dug out, but apparently sales were over 100k (presumably that means practically zero sales in USA?).

By comparison, the previous big-failure MMO which went down because of the “bad business model” was Hellgate: London.

Hellgate sold 500,000 units, and estimated that even if they’d made their subscription compulsory, they’d still have sold 250,000.

So, not as strongly as I originally put it, but I’m still dubious about the business model being the cause. This stinks to me of a marketing/sales failure (unless those 100k sales are spread equally across territories)


“we should have kept our powder dry. Our PR felt tired and dragged on and on, rather than building a short, sharp crescendo of excitement pre-release.”

IMHO this is a really bad idea – unless you remove the entire “MMO” part of the game. Big Bang Marketing doesn’t work for MMOs; this is the old-school of game-marketing.

Although, given how ineffective RTW’s marketing seems to have been, I doubt a big-bank-marketing-campaign could have done any worse.

Conclusions … and “moving forwards from here”

Two parts of this industry need to talk, one part doesn’t. As I said in 2009: “We need to talk [about failure]; when will we talk [about failure]?”

The professionals: you’re getting burned out, chewed up, and spat out. Your lives are being wasted.

The investors: you’re getting screwed. You write it off as random failure, and you can afford it, but you’re shying away from “games” as a result, leaving good profits behind on the table.

The inexperienced, the mediocre, and all those people who don’t actually MAKE the game, but do get to ruin the process (rockstar-designers, producers, marketers, directors, managers, etc) : you’re doing great. Your lack of skill hasn’t held you back, and the company will often go bankrupt before anyone gets around to firing you for incompetence.

…Can we actually move forwards, though?

When I left NCsoft, I was cold-contacted with some new job offers.

A typical example: “make a success of” a project that had already spent several years and many millions of dollars and was about to launch. But I wasn’t allowed to move said launch, and they had “infinite” funding (I kid you not).

There was a fat salary for anyone willing to shepherd that disaster (and, I suspect, become the public fall-guy). The game itself launched as they insisted, and was a laughable failure. I doubted it could have been fixed without another 12-18 months of development.

And me, personally? Nowadays, I run a freeform studio developing mobile apps and games for corporate clients. Each employee is responsible for themself and for their own decisions. If you need a project-manager to mollycoddle you every day, you can’t work here.

Personal responsibility, and personal authority; so far, it’s working pretty well…

alternate reality games computer games games design

Graduate/intern games job, London (SixToStart)

Details here

a six-week paid internship, beginning in October. We’re looking for smart people who are interested in making social and story-based online games. You must be able to demonstrate experience of having worked on games in the past, whether you helped make a big game, or worked on your own in your spare time, and we’re particularly interested in:

* Front and back-end web developers
* Game designers
* Artists and graphic designers (aimed at games)

This is one of those “exceptional” opportunities – SixToStart is a tiny tiny company, but they have a habit of winning awards for their unique mix of modern games, at the cutting-edge of game-design, using computers as only a part of the overall game. Google if you don’t know them…

computer games games design marketing

How not to market an MMO: EA/Mythic Entertainment

Mythic Entertainment – End of Subscription

(subtitle: EA/Mythic forces themselves into commercial failure)

8 months ago, I tried to play Warhammer Online.

Tried, and failed, because EA Mythic told me – in no uncertain terms – that it was completely impossible for me to play.

This was after releasing press announcements and running a big campaign trying to get people like me to play. They’d been too lazy / stupid to remove the “you cannot play this game” message from their own website, even several days after the marketing campaign started.

Net result: I never got around to playing. They made it such a pain in the ass that even when offered this *for free*, I never got that far.

So, I got this message today. And this just double-underlines my previous point. Read this message, and ask yourself: does it entice me into the game?

Throwing away money, one customer at a time

End of Subscription Notification

Your subscription for Mythic Entertainment Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning for Game Account [username] has ended for the following reason:

* Subscription is not set to renew

If you did not authorize this, please contact support at (650) 628-1001. Phone support hours are 10:00 am – 10:00 pm eastern time, Monday through Friday. You can find further information on account security at

Thank you!

This is an automated email from the Account Management site for Mythic Entertainment.

Games Workshop, Warhammer, Warhammer Online, Age of Reckoning, and all associated marks, names, races, race insignia, characters, vehicles, locations, units, illustrations and images from the Warhammer world are either ®, ™ and/or © Games Workshop Ltd 2000-2009. Used under license by Electronic Arts Inc

Let’s do a quick analysis. Here you have a DIRECT contact with the consumer – moreover a consumer who isn’t yet paying you any money, and who you know has NEVER logged-in to the game.

  1. 36% of the message is an IRRELEVANT copyright notice that shouldn’t be there
  2. 30% of the message is an INCORRECT security advisory
  3. 12% of the message is “this is an automated email”
  4. …leaving a mere 22% of actual content

Let’s look at the content, as any good marketing person would.

  1. What’s the Call To Action? (we’re talking to a customer; what are we asking them to do?)
  2. How easy do we make it to respond to the CTA? (the easier we make it, the more people will do it)
  3. Where’s the Appeal – a.k.a. what do we do to make the CTA attractive? (the more attractive it is, NOT ONLY will more people do it, but a great percentage will follow-through by paying money / engaging after the CTA)

Hmm. Respectively:

  1. None
  2. Make a international phone call – at cost! – to an unrelated department
  3. Technical language with no hint of “game”, or welcome. Wording is both appallingly bad English ( “is not set to renew”), and also fundamentally negative (implies that I *shouldn’t* want to renew, even if I do want to)

As I said 8 months ago, someone ought to deploy the PlayFish folks onto the smoking remains of Mythic. I very much doubt they’d allow such terrible excuse for marketing to go on…

amusing computer games games industry web 2.0

Tim Langdell sells a game on Amazon

…and Amazon’s intelligent recommendation engine leaps into action:

(if you don’t know who Tim Langdell is, and you work in the games industry, just Google him.

computer games design dev-process games design

Assasin’s Creed 2: Understatement of the Century

From the IGN walkthrough:

“If you have trouble grabbing the beam, just keep trying—we promise it works, but lots of readers have told us it’s not always easy.”

I’m a pretty good AC player, but after 10 minutes of trying to do that one standing jump, I gave up and stopped playing for a long time in frustration.

When game developers talk about “games should be so easy that all players can complete them; no-one should ever have to give up / fail to complete a game because something is too hard”, I usually disagree.

But in this instance, where the game is extremely, excessively difficult on something that the designer obviously intended to be extremely simple – and where the player has spent hours being taught that this will be easy – you have something different going on. It’s a failure of the control scheme; in fact, it’s a bug.

It’s a side-effect of the heuristics that AC uses to decide “what the player is trying to do” – heuristics that are far from perfect, while being very good.

In the first game, it took me a long time to get past the intro – no, really – because if you *try* to jump over gaps, then you fail. The heuristics were so heavily weighted towards “allowing” you to jump off buildings that running over a small gap became very difficult – until you learnt that the character “automatically” jumps small distances.

On the whole, I’m very impressed by the AC2 heuristics – compare it to Mirror’s Edge (a beautiful game, but feels a lot less fluid). I find them a bit too simplistic – I would love another 25% or so of user-control, and another 50% of precision on directional control – but (as ME shows) they got closer to perfect than any other game so far.

BUT … what do you do about a bug like this, one severe enough to make me stop playing the game entirely?

They had a huge QA team already (this is Ubisoft, after all), and such a vast amount of content in this game (multiple entire cities, modelled in fine detail), that there’s no way they could be sure to catch this bug.

Or is there?

This is the raison d’etre for a whole segment of in-game analytics / metrics: data-mining to discover undiscovered bugs.

Good metrics for game designers are VERY hard to describe, and IME the vast majority of the industry doesn’t know how to carefully hand-pick the few numbers they really need out of the millions of stats availalbe. Here’s a good example of how to pick well.

If the game reported

“the quest-point at which people stopped playing”

…then you *might* discover this bug. But it’s too coarse-grained.

If the game reported either/both:

“the segment on the map where people stopped playing”
“the segment on the map where people spent most-time during a mission”

…then you’d quickly and easily discover this bug. By “segment” I mean, essentially, a small patch of polygons approximately 6’x6′. This is relatively easy to measure algorithmically using greedy-polygon grabbing and hashing – although it would take a little care to make sure the measurement of the value didn’t take much CPU time (it could easily be pre-compiled for any given map, of course).

I’m not 100% of the “stopped playing” part – this is a console game, and while that info would be useful, it would mostly stop evenly distributed over quest-end points. Where it was more / less likely, it would be obvious just from knowledge of the story. ALTHOUGH: still well worth doing *in case* there were anomalies there – that should set off alarm bells.

However, the “spent most time during a mission” is more cut-and-dried.

This probe gives you a set of local maxima. It’s categoriesed by mission, making it one level finer than doing it over the entire world-map (which is too much, too uncategorised info), and it’s also coarse enough to correlate closely with user-behaviour (it merges results mission-by-mission; recurring bugs are very likely to show up by people doing the same mission and getting stuck at the same point).

The mission-based merge of results also has a nice side-effect: it tends to iron-out any anomalous results due to people wandering around the open-world game.

So. With a little bit of probing, using probes that you could/should have invented at the start of development (i.e. without knowledge of exact bugs that would occur) this bug could be ironed out. The three remaining questions are:

  1. does Ubisoft do this level of automated-bug-detection,
  2. do their designers bother to look at the anomaly-date,
  3. and if so … why hasn’t the game been patched?
advocacy computer games conferences games industry

PANEL: “Taking Video Games Seriously”

Last night, I went to the Houses of Parliament for the first time, for a panel session on Video Games, organized by one of our MP’s, Tom Watson. Walking through the enormous medieval Westminster Hall (stone floor, stone walls, massive oak timbered ceiling) en route was a bit surreal, and thankfully the event was small and cosy by comparison.

I didn’t intend to live-blog this. But then I realised I probably ought to, especially since I was too exhausted (work, recovering from illness, etc) to ask sensible questions at the time.

Here’s a semi-live-semi-transcript. As per usual, everything is re-interpreted by my hearing; errors and omissions are my own fault; etc. It’s hard keeping up with freeform speakers and capturing the meaning at the same time :).


  1. Tom Watson – MP for West Bromwich East (moderator)
  2. Tom Chatfield – author of Fun Inc. (published last week)
  3. Philip Oliver – CEO of Blitz Games
  4. Sam Leith – Journalist (Daily Telegraph, Guardian, etc)
computer games design games design web 2.0

2010 and the Browser MMO

What’s a browser MMO? Today, not 5 years ago?

In the previous post I poked Earth Eternal for claiming to be the “*REAL* MMO for your browser”, and disappointing on that front (although it could be awesome on all other fronts). I finished with:

So … EE may be a great game … and it may be launchable from within a browser … but it’s a long way from a poster-child for browser-based MMOs. It’s still fighting the browser as much as it’s complementing it.

It’s 2010. I know a lot of people in the industry still haven’t accepted even the concept of a “browser-based” MMO, let alone realise where they’ve got to now.

I’m not in the loop on this stuff any more, but it set me to wondering what I’d be chasing if I weren’t doing iPhone exclusively right now.

What about you? Are you fighting the browser?

The Executive’s impression

Game developers aren’t stupid. Executives aren’t clueless. But some are.

In the minds of those who make games but “don’t do” browser games on principle, I’ve found “a browser MMO” often means some or all of:

  1. A text-only game running off a single Perl webpage, where each action causes the whole page to be refreshed.
  2. Non-real-time interaction (because, you know … web-servers aren’t powerful enough to run anything in real-time)
  3. High-latency, jerky, shallow movement of characters and objects
  4. Weak 3D graphics – 5 years or more behind the curve of Console graphics
  5. Fat client downloads that “no-one” can be bothered to wait for, and would be better-off distributed on a DVD

What’s reality? Well, here’s a few observations…

Drop-dead gorgeous graphics … are the norm

For a look at today, go browse some of the Unity demos. Unity is *not* the “best” 3D engine, the fastest, the best language – but it’s nicely balanced towards ease of adoption. It’s very easy for new developers to get into. And so it’s setting a very achievable base standard that’s higher than many people would believe. With anyone able to produce 3D to this level, and embed it in the browser almost as an afterthought, the use of plugins becomes a new landscape.

Right now, crappy Flash MMO’s are still re-treading the ground of Dragon Fable (which is coming up to it’s 4th birthday) et al – albeit that’s now the “standard” and there is better and better appearing. But just as it only took a few games to adopt this approach and show how good it could look, widespread adoption of Unity, and a few high-profile innovative products, will drag forwards the rest of us.

(by “us” I don’t mean professional developers, I mean primarily the amateur and semi-pro teams who don’t yet work for a living – the students etc)

2 years ago I wouldn’t have thought it would be necessary to say this (I assumed that FB would have kicked everyone’s butts) but maybe it’s still relevant: going forwards, I suspect “browser MMOs” still need to be a lot more “browser” and a lot less “traditional MMO” if they wish to stand out.

The facebook question

Browser MMO, huh? So … Why is there no option to use Facebook Connect to login? In 2010, I think that’s what browser-MMO probably means to most people: “it works from Facebook”.

The massive, fundamental changes to Facebook that are coming in this year may push a lot of content-providers off FB, and back to the web – but users will continue to demand single-sign-on access, and shared access to friends lists. This already works, off-site, thanks to Facebook Connect (both for websites and for other hardware platforms, e.g. iPhone).

I may be completely wrong, but my suspicion is that many developers still want to “use Facebook”, by which they mean:

“use (the large number of accounts on) Facebook (to get lots of users in our game without having to do so much advertising)”.

…while (again, merely a suspicion) users want their games to “use Facebook”, by which they mean:

“use (the apps, data, and list of friends I already have on) Facebook (to reduce the effort I go through to play the game)”

The problem here is the developer is chasing more signups, and the user is chasing ease-of-access. IMHO, the FB changes are going to cut off most of the former, leaving the question: who will do best at fulfilling the latter?

The Glottal-Stops and Square Pegs of User Experience

When people surf to your MMO direct from the Web, do they get a feeling akin to the glottal-stop? Do they feel like they mentally “stumbled”, as the paradigms and user-interface go through a sudden change?

Embedded within an ordinary web-browser, does your MMO look like a square peg forced into a round hole?

The effects are subtle, but they decrease virality, decrease engagement. The effects are tiny, but with millions of web-users out there, they can be cumulative. Each time a user experiences this, you marginally shrink your maximum user-base, and you push your conversion rate down.

Why was I so shocked that Earth Eternal is (silently) Windows-only? (as is/was Free Realms, for that matter)

Well, largely because it reminded me of years ago, when you’d occasionally go to a website only to see:

“This site is only valid in Internet Explorer; you are not running that browser, so you are seeing this special page instead of the site. Please download IE now and then come back.” (or Netscape, or “desktop, but you are using a mobile phone”, etc)

History suggests that this is not a viable strategy when you’re fighting it out on the web…

I’ll know it when I see it

I’m waiting for one feature in a major MMO. I’ve seen it in a few “amateur” MMOs, and you get it on Facebook apps etc. It’s a fundamental expectation from the Web, and it is incredibly powerful:

Each piece of interesting content is *named* … it has a unique URL … so that I can directly tweet places, events, people, and things. I can bookmark conversations I’ve had. I can archive, I can cite, save, and return.

Bonus points for incorporating a service in the client, so I can literally copy/paste direct into twitter

I’m hoping it’s out there already, and I just haven’t spotted it yet. When it comes, someone let me know; until then, I’ll be spending more time in flash games, and less in mainstream MMO’s. I prefer my gaming to be Web-compatible, thanks…

computer games conferences games design games industry

Got an idea for a new game? Want some feedback and publicity?

In general, it seems that most entrants to game-design-competitions could get huge benefit from just a small amount of fairly simple advice and feedback.

I’ve been a judge on several game-design competitions. I’ve seen a lot of recurring mistakes and successes, and I’d like to see less of the former, more of the latter.

I’m hereby offering to provide *public* feedback to anyone who wants to send me their idea. I’ll publish your idea on my blog, along with my thoughts and reactions.

Here are my rules:

  1. MINIMUM of 300 words
  2. MAXIMUM of 500 words
  3. State whether it’s intended to be a Casual game, or a AAA game
  4. State whether it’s anonymous, or if you want me to include an email address and/or website URL (for people to contact you if they liked your idea)
  5. I will pick the most interesting ones, and publish the main text of your email, and my reactions, on this blog
  6. Email it to me directly, at adam.m.s.martin at
  7. You must include the text: “I have read everything on the blog post, and understand and accept all the terms and conditions”
  8. If I can think of someone better-placed to comment on your idea, I *might* forward your idea to another industry-expert blogger, on the condition that they publish it on their blog with their own feedback, just as I would have done myself (unless you SPECIFICALLY state that you don’t want me to do this)

Some notes…

SXSW entrants

If you’re already entered for SXSW 2010, don’t bother sending me your idea until after the conference. I’m not going to allow this to interfere with that event.

Public vs. NDA

If you ask for an NDA, you’ve already lost. Forget it.

In general, the only people who would bother to “steal” your game idea are so incompetent / uncreative that the “best” game they could create – even using your idea! – would be so appallingly bad that no-one would ever play it or talk about it.

Spelling and grammar

I will judge you on your spelling and grammar. Get used to it. If you are so lazy you can’t be bothered to spellcheck your entry, you’ve just screamed:


Cheat, cheat, and cheat again

Anything you can do to make your pitch more convincing is acceptable. Within the 500 words limit, of course.

If you’ve got concept art, a downloadable MOD, or even better a faked gameplay video … include links!

computer games conferences dev-process games design games industry

Panel at SXSW – AAA Game Design competition

In a few months time, I’ll be in Austin, TX, sitting on a panel at SXSW … judging people’s ideas for new computer games. I’m going to make an offer here, now, to help people entering future competitions (FYI: it’s too late for SXSW 2010).

This is the fourth time I’ve been a reviewer or judge for a game-design competition/panel/etc, and I’m noticing some recurring themes. This is interesting, since everything I’ve judged has been completely different (different countries, different audiences, different rules).

Recurring themes of game-design competitions

One theme in particular is that a large percentage (circa 30%) of entries are depressingly bad; it seems that many of the wannabe-game-designers in the world are just plain lazy.

Another theme is that when someone has a good idea, they often don’t realise how good it is. They end up spending one sentence (or, if you’re lucky, two sentences) talking about the interesting part, and the next 500 words spewing out meaningless drivel that applies to every game ever made.

e.g. “you will have different choices to make in this game, there will be puzzles, and when you finish a puzzle you will get a reward, rewards will be used to unlock more levels, and to finish the game you have to get to the last level, which will be harder than the earlier levels, and … ”

… and: STFU. You’re boring. Do you think that I’ve never played a computer game before? Or do you just think I’m so stupid that I can’t remember what they’re like?

Some tragic outcomes

NB: this is just one example of what goes wrong with competition entries; I could give you countless more…

Some of the judging I’ve done was at the start of a competition, where the teams then spent the next 3+ months full-time actually building their games. On those occasions where a team was let through because we saw something special in their core idea, despite them waffling about a million other things, the team tended to make the EXACT SAME MISTAKE during production. They would spend 10% of their time on the cool idea, and 1% on each of 90 irrelevant distractions. They never won (surprise!).

For the times when we just judge ideas, not actual games, my distinct impression is that a lot of “good” ideas get thrown out because they’re submerged in so much rubbish that the judges either don’t see them … or assume the above is going to happen, and so they want to give the attention to other, more focussed teams.


So, I’m offering anyone (anyone!) the chance to get some free feedback on their game idea, in the mindset of a competition judge. Maybe you’ll discover holes in your pitch, maybe you’ll discover ways to improve your core game … maybe it won’t help you at all :).

Details here: Got an idea for a new Game?

computer games games industry marketing massively multiplayer

What’s wrong with EA: EA Mythic, and the FAIL of WAR

I’ll do a follow-up post in a minute with the anecdote that lead me to this. But here’s the general opinion/analysis first.

Project history (skip if you know all about Warhammer Online and Mythic already)

Huge project (cost in excess of $50 million to develop), based on a 20-year-old IP that is known and loved around the world, the game launched last year to a big marketing campaign.

Initial sales figures were excellent.

First-month renewals were dire, the company lost large amounts of money, they laid off large numbers of staff, and the CEO quit/resigned. They are now (late 2009) into the key point in such a product’s lifecycle where it has one last chance to succeed.

The parent company has recently laid off 1500 staff across different countries and products, but also just bought a small studio for $400 million.

The problem with Mythic/WAR today

Here’s what’s going on right now (based on observation, guesswork, and personal experience of similar situations at other companies):

They are spending large amounts of money to acquire new customers, while simultaneously erecting artificial barriers to turn away those new customers.

They are running loud marketing campaigns to attract those who’ve already rejected the product, while simultaneously creating powerful negative publicity for their own product.

In other words, this is a company that has a failing product AND has a non-unified product strategy, and yet is continuing to spend heavily. This strategy is known as “pure, blind, Hope”. It looks extremely similar to what happened with TR towards the end of it’s (brief, painful) lifetime:

“let’s work harder, do more, spend more! Cross your fingers, chant the secret mantra, and hope it all turns out for the best!”

Hope is not a strategy. All that can happen is that they might get lucky despite all the mistakes; there might be enough good left that they can survive this foolishness long enough to ditch the deadweight and pull themeslves out of the mire.

The inevitable PlayFish comment…

Maybe this would be a good project for the new hires from PlayFish to start work on? The essentials are there – and if the product could be made to succeed, it is a huge cash-cow. It could single-handedly pay-off a lot of the debt on that $400 million…

bitching computer games games design

Will Wright is … lazy?

Let’s get this straight: if we judge him solely by output (games), then he is not a genius – he’s lazy. Everyone knows the 1% inspiration/99% perspiration quote, and – looking at the last shipped title – IMHO it’s inexcusable to ship crap and pretend it’s OK. You can’t just abrogate responsibility once you stick your name on Spore…

(disclaimer: when I say “lazy” I don’t mean universally; I mean that in at least one crucial aspect, he failed to apply simple due diligence to his own named project; arguably, it’s a kind of laziness in itself not to have checked this stuff, or a kind of cowardice not to have insisted it be done “correctly”; but this post is really about the overall impact of the game, and the way that an individual, if they were to stamp their persona on a project – and expect us to read their persona from interacting with the product – comes across. I have no idea what Will Wright is like as an individual; this is a post about Will Wright as the PR entity…)

computer games conferences dev-process massively multiplayer MMOG development network programming

AGDC-2009: Killing the Sacred Cows of MMO Technology

Slides for our panel arehere: “Killing mmo tech sacred cows.pdf”.

Final panel was myself (moderating) and speakers: Bill Dalton (Bioware), Rick Lambright (Gazillion), Joe Ludwig (Valve), Marty Poulin (Shady Logic).