[food for thought: part two]

In ex­change for some civilised chow, videogame in­dus­try lead­ers give us their brains

EDGE - - PARALLEL LINES - Pho­tog­ra­phy Will Ire­land

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”

[todd harris]

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”

[randy pitch­ford]

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

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