Ask the Game

My co-founder (and chief creative genius) at Kineplay, Laddie Ervin, pointed out this today and it’s awesome — it’s Double Fine’s Tim Schafer in a very funny bit on pitching his new Kinect game Once Upon a Monster.

Laddie and I have been on both sides of the table over the years. I’ve spent a little more time on the pitch side while he’s been in the decision-maker’s chair more often. We agree that Tim’s video is hilarious — and not all that different from what really happens. We’ve seen plenty of executives act like “cookie monsters” with millions of cookies at their disposal, and there is no shortage of “monster ideas” that can eat through them faster than milk can sogify ’em (in the case of Tim’s new game, it’ll be money well spent — the game looks great!).

Funding decisions, especially in traditional gaming but almost as common in non-traditional gaming, are far more random than what most people realize. Because it’s a creative business, many managers think they’re super-creative and tuned-in, but when it comes to a great game idea, their judgement is extremely hit-and-miss. Why wouldn’t it be? They spend their time managing, not making.

Likewise, developers often think they have the Next Big Game and stubbornly resist changes to their vision. Or worse, they have no vision and will do whatever it takes to get the gig. In both cases their interests aren’t going to align well with funding expectations.

What works best is when the funding monster and the maker monster agree on the initial nugget of a game idea, then hold themselves accountable to it — fill out the design by asking the game. Objectify the idea and ask it about story, art design, scale, mechanics — the exercise is subtle but important. Good fiction writers will tell you that they often see themselves as reporters who tell the story, not creators. This perspective takes the pressure off to “be creative” and especially for a complex and expensive project like a game, it provides a safety net for expression.

Playifying Work

I finally had time to run through another delightful presentation on gamification by Sebastian Deterding, Don’t Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design. There’s always more under the hood of Deterding’s presentations, and this one was no exception — great stuff on game design in general, fun theory, designing choice and the impact of more-or-less gamifying life. Some slides are mashed up from his other presentations (all excellent), but this one is longer and more philosophical.

The general grok for me is that modern gamification is often an attempt at simply playifying work — a worthy pursuit but also very often too clever, too much of a trick and fatigue-inducing. Of course that makes me think about workifying play — something a missed game implementation does by over-burdening an otherwise playful game mechanic (easy to do and not uncommon).
Note: At this point I’m now no longer even thinking about the presentation, but other things I can -ify. Like WordPress, which both blogifies websites and webifies blogs. Apple, who has appified smartphones. Google, who has brought searchification to every website. And of course VC’s, who fundify entrepreneurs.

Sitting on a Gold Mine

Rovio announced last week that they’re partnering with Barnes & Noble to geo-contextualize Angry Birds. Customers can now download a free “Mighty Eagle” add-on on their NOOKs at any store. I don’t often get to B&N (Amazon will usually do), and I’m not a NOOK fan, but maybe it’s awesome.

Then again maybe not-so-much. The add-on is part of Rovio’s larger “Magic Places” (love the name, actually) rollout, which they announced last month and which aims to use connected devices and location to expand Angry Birds. Magic Places will work a little like a traditional location-based game — when a player arrives at a specific location, she can use her smartphone to unlock special game content like new characters (e.g. the Mighty Eagle) and levels.

This is more gaming value than location-based gamification — and it’s a step in the right direction — but it’s not very thoughtful, considering the gold mine that Rovio is sitting on. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got the right idea — according to Gigaom’s brief interview with Rovio Product Manager Ramine Darabiha, Rovio sees Magic Places as a way to encourage players to find new places and content, and they view location as a legit distribution channel.

But Gigaom reported that Rovio’s plan isn’t to aggressively monetize Magic Places, but to build deeper engagement with the Angry Birds brand.

Razzle-frazzel-frackin-fricken. It’s another example of Low-Hanging Fruit Syndrome, and while no surprise, I was hoping for better. After all, Rovio’s been in the trenches. They developed a slew of titles, many of which were unsuccessful, before Angry Birds. They came back from near-bankruptcy at the eleventh hour. And they’re from Finland.

Building brand makes complete sense — that’s a big piece of what they should be doing, but they’re already doing it with merch, film, lots of press and of course porting and extending. Not to mention their $42B round of funding in March (a chunk of that money, I would think, is paying for marketing).

If they want location to help them reach a billion downloads by the end of next year, they’re going to need more than the unite-retailers-with-customers model. Their markets are big and the Birds are still on fire, but a billion downloads? They’re at about one quarter of that goal today. Rovio CEO Mikael Hed is talking wartime but his location strategy has gone peacetime.

Rovio should stay on-product and re-innovate to fully leverage location. Why not let players design their own basic birds and/or levels and drop them anywhere on the globe? Use AR to find “birds in the wild” to top it off. Reward mobility but don’t require it. Give the crowd a way to crowd-source and share actual game content — be scrappy and focus on a location strategy that has a better impact on gameplay.

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