[food for thought: part two]
In exchange for some civilised chow, videogame industry leaders give us their brains
Part one of our inaugural dinner with developers, which featured in E284, saw our table of industry luminaries chewing over VR and mobile. In part two, we tackle MOBAs, the impact of free-to-play, and the changing nature of game development. On hand between mouthfuls of pudding are Todd Harris, COO of Smite creator Hi-Rez Studios; Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software; Dave Ranyard, studio director at SCEE London; Dan Pinchbeck, creative director at
The Chinese Room; and Neil Young, CEO of mobile-game publisher N3twork.
At this year’s Evolve conference, Neil said that we haven’t reached peak mobile yet, but have we reached peak MOBA? Todd Harris Peak MOBA? We’re past peak MOBA, I’d say. We’re into MOBAshooter hybrids.
Randy Pitchford In terms of competitive games, though, I think we’re nowhere near saturation. I think that there’s going to be a point in our future when there are teams in every school playing a videogame as their form of competition – as opposed to going out on the football field and hurting themselves. And when those people grow up, they’re going to want to watch that kind of content as their equivalent of the sporting events we watch today, but they’re still going to be able to play as adults. Nowadays, we play football in school, but when we get older we stop playing and just watch. The neat thing about videogames is that playing them doesn’t have to stop.
We’re going to have to figure out how to come up with some kind of competitive game that’s OK to exist in schools. How do you have an online game that can automatically, and effectively, sort players, for example? Because having to play for months before you’re not embarrassing yourself with other players is the equivalent of joining the highschool basketball team and trying to step onto the court with the Los Angeles Lakers.
I think this sort of change is going to take decades, because it’s generational. All the old people have to die, and the people that grew up playing the games will come through.
TH I think if we’re talking about games that are played competitively, and eSports, we’re just getting started.
Dave Ranyard I totally agree. The way we watch sport has already changed so much. If you look at soccer, it wasn’t very long ago that people thought it was weird to pay to watch it on Sky TV, but nowadays people are happy to pay $90 to watch a boxing match.
TH in Korea, you have two television networks dedicated to showing 24/7 broadcasts of competitive online games. It’s the equivalent of ESPN for gaming.
How has your approach to development changed as free-to-play has grown?
TH In the MOBA world, and in much of the free-to-play world, it’s about player retention. You’re trying to optimise everything towards keeping your current players engaged with your brand. And that’s a pretty healthy approach to any business – to focus on your current customers ahead of acquiring new customers – but certainly the MOBA genre has showed how powerful that is, and that affects every aspect of your business. When we did Tribes: Ascend, we were learning about free-to-play as a concept, and back then we optimised everything around our predicted Metacritic score – we kept polishing it and refining it until we were looking at a Metacritic score of 85+. There was a stigma associated with free-to-play games at the time – a lot of them were crap – and our goal was to create the highest-rated free-to-play game of all time. And we got great reviews and hit our target – I think it’s at 86 on Metacritic right now – but we didn’t actually focus enough on some of the key metrics. It was a niche franchise, which meant that ultimately it would have limited appeal. We learnt so much between then and creating
Smite. Ultimately, you want the Metacritic score to be good, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter all that much.
Dan Pinchbeck A good Metacritic score isn’t going to keep players engaged.
TH It’s not. As a business, we want to make a mark on the industry, we want to have a good game, but the health of our business, and the health of our game, depends on retention. MOBAs really work in that respect for a number of reasons: there’s so much replayability, there’s a built-in engagement cycle because you’re getting a new hero or champion or god very frequently, and there’s a very high skill curve. Years ago, the game industry was talking about how everything would need to be dumbed down and made super-accessible in order to be successful, but with MOBAs it can take months or years before you even feel competent as a player.
Smite launched on Xbox One recently, and you said at Evolve that you foresee freeto-play growing considerably on consoles. How difficult do you think it will be for that marketplace to make the transition?
TH It’s not going to happen as easily as it’s happened on PC or on mobile, but I think when it’s done right, it’s a very playerfriendly model. The platform owners, Sony and Microsoft, have continued to show an interest – they did some experiments with the previous generation, but with this generation they’ve embraced free-to-play a lot more. If there’s content that can be downloaded for free, and it’s tailored to the platform, I think it’ll do exceptionally well.
How do you feel about the emphasis being placed on player-led design nowadays?
TH There are two things that affected our thinking in that regard. Number one was just visiting Asian markets a few years ago, and seeing that the free-to-play model is all about player retention. At the time, we were
“I ’ ve always felt that t he best products are made by putting them in the end users’ hands as early as possible”
working on our first game, Global Agenda, and having conversations around how often we updated the game. We thought we were a really efficient studio, putting out massive updates every three months or so! But then we saw companies updating their games every week. So looking at constant updates was a lightbulb moment.
Then, when we got the Tribes franchise, the community really pulled us into engagement. They were so passionate that we really had no choice. So we tried to take both of those lessons on board with Smite, having more of a transparent development process, streaming from the studio via Twitch very early in the process, and producing a lot of YouTube videos. All of it was about embracing a little more transparency.
It feels like a double-edged sword in that, as designers, you’re not necessarily following your own instincts, you’re following the feedback and demands of your players, which reduces your creative input, but at the same time at least this way it’s guaranteed that the things you create will be received positively.
TH Well, that balance between heart and commerce can happen in a very natural way. For example, we have an artist who’s working on a new cosmetic skin, and it’s primarily us brainstorming, around a table, working out what could be cool and what the game needs in terms of a character’s role. But we want that thing to be something that people really want, and we’ve had cases where an artist did something they thought was going to be artistically awesome, but it fell flat with the community. When we show off the new skin via Twitch, the chat can be really brutal in terms of what players dig and what they don’t. So there’s a kind organic feedback loop to the artist: “Yeah, maybe we did a really good job with modelling and texturing, but maybe we missed the mark somewhere with the initial concept.”
I’ve always felt that the best products are made by putting them in the end users’ hands as early as possible. That’s how we think about games. It’s not right for every type of game, but for online games that are community driven, I think it’s a good, healthy way to work.
“It’s probably the smallest segment of our population, and probably the most pathetic, that feels that they must tell others how to create their art”
In today’s landscape, with so many feedback mechanisms in place, how much room is there for the designer’s ego?
RP Well, there’s a spectrum: at one end is pure commercialism and at the other end is pure expression. That goes for all art, not just videogames. If you go completely to the expression edge of the spectrum, that’s where all of the starving artists live, where the stuff they create is so bizarre that no one seems interested, no one even understands it. It exists only because the artist had to get it out – the artist may not even like it. Then, at the commercial end, it’s just lifeless and soulless, and it’s completely obvious to everyone who looks at it that it’s just trying to be something that someone might be interested in, and it has no heart and soul of its own.
Most of us live somewhere between those two end points. Almost anyone who’s ever sold anything has to live somewhere in the middle. Triple-A games, the games we’re making at Gearbox, are made by lots of people, and we’re probably a scatter chart. One artist would feel like he or she is more aligned to the expression extreme in what he or she creates, but there would be someone else who is really tied into the whole feedback aspect, the economics of the project. At Gearbox, we give 40 per cent of our profits to our employees, so there would be an artist who’s just thinking about what would result in more royalties. Everyone in the company is affecting this big soup. I don’t think there’s a particular answer for everyone, but I do think if you stray too far towards either end of the spectrum, you’re probably doomed.
DR There’s the quote that people attribute to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I want to work with our consumers and give them what they want, but at the same time you might not get innovation if you’re being driven by consumers to such a degree, because it’s not the consumer’s job to deliver innovation.
RP Imagine a future where a customer can just perfectly imagine the kind of interactive experience they want, and then it would automatically manifest, or maybe a developer would perfectly create what they wanted; the connection was so precise that the thing that was created was exactly what the consumer
wanted. Well, unless that consumer is paying a lot for it, it’s not going to be very fun to be a developer, right? It goes the other way, too. If the artist cares not what the consumer might be thinking of, then they’re taking a big risk that no one will actually want to purchase what they make. So I think it’s important to remember that spectrum, and play around with the edges. We kind of set ourselves in the middle, but we play around with the edges and find the places that we’re going to push.
Neil Young I think it’s really important to test what you’re doing and at some point bring the customer into the equation, but personally I just don’t know how to make something that’s not for me. I had the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg a while ago, and one of the things he said that I thought was really interesting was, “I make movies that I like, and what I like happens to be liked by lots of people.” Now, he might be managing the message a little bit, but I do think there’s a lot in that. I think it’s so hard to make something for someone that you’re not. It introduces so much luck into the equation; at the end of the day, even if you’re successful, you kind of don’t know why.
DP People come to you because they want to know what your vision is. You always have that collaboration with the community, and it’s stupid to say that you just don’t care. In games, your audience is keeping you in business, so if you don’t talk to them, you’re stupid and you deserve to be out of business. But they’re also coming to you because they see something in the work you produce which has an individuality, a voice, which they like and agree with. And they want to come to your games because they know what they’re going to get – they’re not simply going to get something that’s just blowing with the wind and going wherever the market takes it.
Many of the studios in the UK that have closed over the past five years were great studios, but they had really mediocre identities. The studios that survived weren’t necessarily better studios, but they had more identifiable games, which drew consumers to them. Pixar is an example of a strong identity: when you consider a Pixar film, the film itself is almost secondary – the Pixar name is the primary consideration, because it says that you’re going to get something of a certain quality, with a certain voice. There is a balance between commercialism and expression. You don’t want to lose your own voice, but you also don’t want to become someone who’s vanished up your own backside and doesn’t listen to the people who are being asking to pay for your products.
NY We’re talking here as game makers, but we’re also audiences in other mediums, and in fact in our own medium, too. I don’t really want to be involved in the process of the making of a movie – I actually want to see the filmmaker’s vision; I want to enjoy that experience. There are some things that I like to participate in – I’d like to participate in the next Star Wars as a fan, for example, to get closer and closer to the experience, in the way that you kind of got close to the experience in The Lord Of The Rings. But there’s something inspiring and fundamentally human about hearing someone else’s voice. Storytelling in that regard is super-valuable.
RP We’re all different, but it’s probably the smallest segment of our population, and probably the most pathetic, that feels that they must tell others how to create their art. If you think of all the people who buy our games, the actual percentage of them who come on to our forums, for example, or comment to us on Twitter, it’s a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the total number of people. I’m not sure that we should be listening to them.
TH I don’t know. In reality, many of those folks are the tastemakers. There was a session by a marketing group at Evolve, and they look at how invested some of these players are. Some of them are extremely invested in the success of certain games, so I think it is valuable to have them engaged in the process. It doesn’t mean listening to them. [Laughter.] It doesn’t mean we’re acting exactly on the feedback, but we certainly hear their feedback and put it within the context of all of the creative decisions we make.
RP I think most of us are like Neil, and are just interested in consuming what the artist wants to give us. We’re kind of curious about it, but if we don’t like it very much then that’s fine. And then some people really want to try to affect the work, and there are others that just want everyone else to listen to what they have to say about it. We’re all different. The people that I like listening to aren’t the ones that are going out of their way to make their opinions known to others, or trying to go out of their way to affect us. I want to listen to the people who are more like Neil. We have to find them, bring them in and show them things, then kind of force them to give us feedback. They’re the most valuable type of person. I think that kind of mind represents something like 90 per cent of your consumers, while six per cent of them want to tell other people what they think, and only four per cent are the kind of people who actually tell you how to do your job.
TH One of the nice things about the recent development of digital and online games is that you can actually see people’s behaviour, and it doesn’t always correspond to what they might tell you. We constantly send out player surveys and they give us answer A, but the actual data delivers different results.
RP Every game developer that has a forum has vocal critics. There was one guy who kept saying, “This is what broke Borderlands, and if you did this, it would make everything better”. And in one of our updates we actually tweaked the game a bit in that direction, but we saw a result that was inverse to what the guy expected. It actually hurt the game a lot. Experiences like that discourage you from listening to those people, because they’re going to drive you towards what the four per cent wants rather than what the 90 per cent wants.
Hi-Rez made Tribes:Ascend with an eye on its Metacritic rating. The company’s priorities have moved on since then
Gearbox’s experiences with the Borderlands series show how hard it is to feed specific fan feedback into the big picture