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John Riccitiello slams "opportunists" who just want to profit from games

John Riccitiello slams "opportunists" who just want to profit from games

Wed 31 Jul 2013 6:05pm GMT / 2:05pm EDT / 11:05am PDT
BusinessPeoplePublishing

In his first interview after leaving EA, JR candidly talks about next-gen, mobile, Activision, and hails BioShock Infinite and Ken Levine

Prior to his fireside chat with John Gaudiosi at Casual Connect, GamesIndustry International sat down with former EA chief executive John Riccitiello for an in-depth conversation about the continually evolving video game landscape. The CEO seat at EA is still practically warm and while Riccitiello can no longer speak for EA, it's obvious that he's enormously proud of the work he did in transforming the publisher. In fact, there were times during the interview where he slipped up and said "we" when referring to EA, only to quickly correct himself.

Perhaps what was most evident from our lengthy sit-down meeting with the industry veteran is that he remains extremely passionate about games, and in fact, he chided those who would seek to get into the business or start a company simply for the sake of making a profit.

"Let's be realistic. I'm going to be cynical for a minute. I find this terribly hilarious - you talked about game companies, things you write about on the website, these game companies who are going to create the next generation of new ideas, they're all about fun etc. And they're working on a Puzzles and Dragons rip-off, except they're going to change one of the colors to blue. I mean, wait a minute. Are you in this because you want to create something or does it look like the easiest way to make money is to take one of the top-ten games and tweak it?" he said.

"What I don't like in the games industry today is that there are too many opportunists who are there to make money"

"One of the reasons we're seeing a lot of stuff that looks alike and plays alike is because that's how a lot of stuff gets born. It gets funded that way," he continued. "I think we're going to start seeing a lot more differentiation as people get bored of seeing the same apps in the top 200. They're going to come at it and realize that if you don't make a fundamentally different product then it's very difficult to replace something that's up there with your own original design."

Riccitiello added that the reason people should get into the games industry is to see their big creative visions through - if you make something great, the profit could follow. "What I don't like in the games industry today is that there are too many opportunists who are there to make money," he said.

He noted that Zynga's new boss, Don Mattrick, who's a personal friend of Riccitiello, falls into the opposite spectrum: "I think making money is a fine byproduct when you're trying to do something great, but I don't think you do something great because you set out to get rich. I think you get rich by trying to do something great. Don fits into that category. He'll do that more than most anybody you'll ever come across."

Riccitiello also views BioShock Infinite creator Ken Levine as one of the individuals working for all the right reasons, and he believes that Levine has truly created one of the masterpieces of our era.

"Ken Levine and the world he built in Columbia is perhaps the most fully realized world ever created, in my view, in any medium since Lord Of The Rings. It is that deep and rich an interesting place. It rivals, as I say, some of the great creations of our time in any form," he said. "As a game, it's really not any different than the first BioShock game was; in fact, in some ways it's simpler... mechanically it wasn't that different. But part of what makes for great games is the concept behind it, and then sometimes what makes for great games is the mechanics. So frankly the difference between say Konami's soccer game and EA's soccer game is not the concept - the rules of soccer are pretty much laid down, it's about the craft. And the craft in AI or the 11 players on the field and the systems that are used to support it are superior in FIFA, which is why it's got a bigger market share."

1

One of Riccitiello's favorite games

It's evident from Riccitiello's passion for BioShock that he remains very much a gamer, and he's also a big believer in consoles. In fact, while some pundits have been predicting that next-gen consoles will sell only a fraction of the volume of units that current-gen has, Riccitiello sees PS4 and Xbox One sparking bigger sales overall.

"We're driven by top 50. The indie movement, I hate to say this, but you go to a lot of indie conferences and the numbers are really small. And people are doing it out of love, not business economics"

"I think they'll be bigger than the last generation, actually. The last generation can be described as supercharged engines - they had super-powerful boxes. But the entirety of the online communication and being able to connect to your friends and all that stuff, a seamless, smooth, social experience, was just masking tape - barely put together. Remember that this was eight years ago. Most people were just moving on from their 28k modems. Now these are fully functioning, fully integrated online computers connected to the best screen in your house," he noted.

Riccitiello believes that next-gen gaming will benefit not just from being more connected, but also from a greater ease of use for the average consumer. "You put a super computer under your TV, plug it in with one connection and it works. It knows who you are, it knows what your games are and it's unbelievably simple; it's not like PC plug and play, it's just plug and play. The next generation of consoles are going to be a massive improvement on user interface. So I think that 's going to matter," he said.

As much as Riccitiello loves the new consoles, he sees perhaps the biggest opportunity in mobile. But also believes the two sectors will continue to "happily coexist." Tablets in particular get Riccitiello excited.

"I think touch changed everything, I think tablets are incredible. I think they're probably... one of the best ways to game out there. I'm still a believer in the next generation of consoles but another billion and a half people came into the industry as a consequence of mobile and I think that's a pretty cool place to focus," he said. "I'm a gamer, I like games, I like people who build them, and I'm going to continue to work with them."

That said, he sees the mobile games industry as one that's got plenty of maturing ahead of it, and the game creators and publishers have much to learn.

"It's been shockingly immobile at the top. I think people expected it to work like popcorn where the bottom kernels popped up to the top and it would just be recycled this way, but for how long have we seen Candy Crush and Clash Of Clans at number one and number two? 200 days now?"

"What we are doing with mobile games today is I think we cause the user to play it almost to the point where they want to take their iPhone or iPad or their Android phone and throw it through a window, because it's like we just grind them and bleed them by either the back end or quantitative marketing. You might be happy to be lifetime revenue optimized for six months but there's a point that it gets pretty exhausting. You feel grinded, I think," he said.

Similar to his Casual Connect discussion, Riccitiello wondered aloud if mobile is really producing lasting franchises at this point: "This year EA will ship Madden 25, and franchises like The Sims and Sim City and Need For Speed and FIFA are all past the decade mark, if not approaching the 20-year mark. And they're still long lived and each successive product does better than the one that preceded it... What did they do that allowed them to have 10-year anniversaries, 15-year anniversaries and 25-year anniversaries? And do we think that there'll be 25-year anniversaries around some of the games that are chart topping in mobile?"

Riccitiello cautioned the mobile games industry that it's risking "blowing up its brands." An analogy to daytime soaps on TV was made: "They fizzle, because in a way they abuse their audience. I don't think we're at the point of abusing our audience, that's not the headline for this conversation, I just think that we need to think carefully..."

2

Clash of Clans, one of mobile's great triumphs

"I think there's a good question about what brands will rise and sustain. And I don't mean brands like Batman coming to mobile, I mean brands like Clash Of Clans and Camelot and Candy Crush and Puzzles & Dragons and others. Which of those will be around in a decade?" he continued. "They're going to have to come up with a different formula than I think we're seeing right now. And then secondly what skills in those companies are going to be resident in there to make that happen?"

"The industry is going to look much like it does right now but I think the challenge for mobile is going to be how to sustain a brand over the long term. How to make sure new technology enables new types of game play, not just more expensive games and more expensive to sustain games. And how to keep respecting your audience through that process."

One of the benefits of mobile and the digital revolution is that indie developers are getting more notice than perhaps ever before. It doesn't mean that these hard-working developers are able to easily make a living, however.

"We're driven by top 50. The indie movement, I hate to say this, but you go to a lot of indie conferences and the numbers are really small," Riccitiello said. "And people are doing it out of love, not business economics. And I'm in this industry for the love of it, but the fact is that the top 50 are getting bigger and bigger and bigger and I think they're going to absorb the lion's share of the business on mobile, just like they have on console and on other formats. And then the question is how do we build products that serve that intelligently? I don't know that in mobile we've got a pattern; we think we've got a pattern but we're only a few years old."

"If you think deeply about free-to-play, it's not just a business model, it's a game design. So inherent in the game is a mechanic where the management of the money or the resources that you want them to spend is fundamental to what is enjoyable to the product"

At the same time, though, Riccitiello fully admits that the nature of a hits-driven business means that the big publishers are just one or two steps away from total destruction. That's the double-edged sword of AAA.

"The consequences are huge," he remarked. "If Ubi fell on Assassin's or Activision gets the lead on shooters taken away by EA, that's going to be cataclysmic, and there's going to be huge issues there. I mean what do you think GungHo will do if Puzzles & Dragons fades?"

Speaking of Activision, it's abundantly clear that Riccitiello has enormous respect for Bobby Kotick and how Activision has managed its business. Sure, Riccitiello took a radically different approach to the business while he guided EA, but it's hard to argue with the success that Activision has had over the last generation. That said, Riccitiello fully believes that this is finally the year that Battlefield dethrones Call of Duty in the shooter market.

"There's one scenario where they ship a new MMO, it replaces WoW, Call of Duty stays at the top of the charts, Skylanders goes from strength to strength. They do a couple of things with their licenses, everything goes fine. Then there's a scenario where WoW continues to decline, Battlefield takes the mantle from CoD, Skylanders proves to be a flash in the pan and Activision proves to be a shitty company at that point. What's been fascinating watching Activision over the last few years is that I've heard that mentioned before, about them not being the company they could or should be. They've pulled off some notable successes," he acknowledged.

"The one thing I know most about now is Battlefield and CoD and I feel pretty confident that EA's got better cards. But the last billion dollar brand created from scratch in this industry was Skylanders. Is the next billion dollar brand going to come from Activision? I don't know. But if it does then they can sustain the loss of leadership in the field of shooters."

3

Will BF4 topple CoD?

Riccitiello also seemed fascinated by the challenges ahead for Respawn and Bungie. Each developer now has the difficult task of creating yet another mega-hit, and this too will undoubtedly affect the EA vs. Activision battle.

"I like what EA's got with Titanfall. One's an ex CoD team and one's an ex Halo team. We'll see. It's actually relatively rare for a team which creates a singular hit to do it again. These things don't happen every day. No matter what the pedigree, the second hit often doesn't come," he said. "Two of the most storied teams in the history of gaming are doing that as we speak and they're using the launch of the next generation consoles to get there."

The other big issue Riccitiello weighed in on is the free-to-play market, which of course has implications for mobile as well, but Riccitiello actually doesn't believe free-to-play will ever make a huge dent on consoles. Why? Because, ultimately, free-to-play is about game design; it's not just a business model.

"I have a bucket list. It didn't include dying in place with an EA tombstone. I love the company, I love the people. They'll be fine"

"If you think deeply about free-to-play, it's not just a business model, it's a game design. So inherent in the game is a mechanic where the management of the money or the resources that you want them to spend is fundamental to what is enjoyable to the product. When you're trying to work out how far you can get in a game with a certain amount of resources, that is a game design feature. It's an enjoyable feature, the management of resources to accomplish a goal," he explained.

"If you think about BioShock, I was completely captured by Ken Levine's world. I didn't want to be interrupted to resource manage. You can do virtual items, but then it becomes something different. The majority of people who play shooters never even play the single player. What they're really doing is playing multiplayer. Core to what their definition of what makes a good multiplayer is that it's a completely level playing field. I hate to break it to you, but mobile games with microtransactions don't provide a level playing field. Unless you consider that the bag of gold I bought to offset my lack of skill is level with you because you're more skilled with your thumbs than I am," he continued. "So it's a different concept, the level of investment is different. We've already seen Battlefield premium, which was a sort of mini-subscription for a lot of added content. But I don't know if any of those games would have been anywhere near as good as they are if they were driven by microtransactions."

"My only point is that there is more to game design than resource management around the money that you put into a game. There are other things that are equally as good or better in terms of satisfying entertainment. In those circumstances, I don't think we're going to see a free-to-play model prevail."

So what's next for John Riccitiello? If we had to guess, probably something related to venture capital and mobile, but he wouldn't give us many clues. "I'm not a golfer, and I didn't leave EA to retire. I'm a little young for that... I'm working on a lot of things in the games industry right now."

What is clear, however, is that he's still a big believer in EA and he's happy with the state he's left the company in, as the publisher continues to seek out his replacement.

Reflecting on his tenure, he commented, "The transition from PlayStation to Xbox wasn't easy, fiscal 08-09. We cut two thirds of the games, we restructured the company radically, got started on digital, got started on a new brand. We built Battlefield and FIFA to billion dollar businesses and built the biggest digital business in gaming. I feel great about that. I've been working with EA since '97. In reality I don't have many friends out there. 12-13 years in one place is a long time in a man's career and I think it takes time to pass the leadership on to somebody else. We'll see who that is. I have a bucket list. It didn't include dying in place with an EA tombstone. I love the company, I love the people. They'll be fine."

Interview conducted by Steve Peterson. You should also read about Riccitiello's thoughts on game marketing at [a]list daily.

23 Comments

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 942 0.7
I fail to disagree with alot of what he says. Seriously maybe since he left EA he is able to see things in a more objective manner but I really think the only reason a person should decide to make games is because they love them. If you want to make money there are plenty of other things to do. You do have to make money, to live and what not, but if you make a whole lot of money it should be to make even more games. After all its what you love and in turn its an investment you make in yourself.

I loved the part where he made reference to Bioshock and about the aspects of ingame transactions and the value of multiplayer, why people play and how not having in game transactions keeps the playing field leveled. Which is precisely why I dread ingame transactions.

However I cant agreee that most players go to multiplayer. I for one hardly play multiplayer and general enjoy a single player or co-op campaign.
"My only point is that there is more to game design than resource management around the money that you put into a game. There are other things that are equally as good or better in terms of satisfying entertainment. In those circumstances, I don't think we're going to see a free-to-play model prevail."
Alot of people with stakes in this business model will disagree, but as a gamer, i feel free to play takes alot away from a game. When I play the free to play game I play the free part. The instance I have to pay more for an upgrade or for the cool stuff, I feel its not fair, because my game progression rely's on how much cash I have. So it stops being a game and more like a paid subscribtion service. So my interest is immediatly taken away.

Finally he admits the development of AAA titles is a double edged sword and can either help or destroy a company and how other approaches in design should be taken.

Overall its a good read. He got a few good points across.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 31st July 2013 8:27pm

Posted:A year ago

#1

James Ingrams Writer

215 85 0.4
IF he thinks Infinite is the most complete world he's seen, and that "most gamers go straight to multiplayer even if there is a single player game" I can see why game sales are down 38% and how indie and companies like CD Projekt Red have grown so phenomenally over the last couple of years!

Posted:A year ago

#2

Todd Weidner Founder, Big Daddy Game Studio

415 988 2.4
John Riccitiello slams "opportunists" who just want to profit from games
Thats what and who suits are. A lot of pot kettle stuff in this article.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 31st July 2013 8:24pm

Posted:A year ago

#3

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,593 1,448 0.9
The majority of people who play shooters never even play the single player. What they're really doing is playing multiplayer.
It's so so so wrong to generalise this. Generalising this aspect of games is what leads to generic multiplayer clones of FPSs here, there and everywhere. The person who plays Dishonored and all its DLCs, or replays HL2 every year, is looking for a different experience to the one who plays the next iteration of BF or CoD multiplayer. Neither is better or worse, and they're very different experiences. And it's not even like you can differentiate the target markets easily - I've racked up 800+ hours on CS:S, but love single-player narrative-led FPSs.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 31st July 2013 8:51pm

Posted:A year ago

#4

Aaron Houts Designer, EA Maxis

4 6 1.5
However I cant agreee that most players go to multiplayer. I for one hardly play multiplayer and general enjoy a single player or co-op campaign.
He's talking about BF/CoD here (I'm not sure if you're talking about shooters or just games in general), and though I don't have statistics, the fact that the DLC for both of those games focuses on multiplayer is a strong indicator that that's where the engaged players are found. I'm not saying that your preference is wrong or anything like that, just that it's dangerous to assume that your play style is indicative of the masses.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer

578 322 0.6
In the film industry, screenwriters and directors are funded as artists. People with money put money up for them to develop the concept and the core blueprint. Before a single day of production is even begun. And this is big money. Then when production begins, everything is crewed up by specialists in that - line producers, production managers and so on. The artists don't get entangled in administration - thiough they must execute their craft efficiently.

By contrast, in the game industry, designers self-fund and slave away, taking on all risk, to build an actual working prototype before anyone will fund them. And then, the fund is an advance, which means they (the game designer) still have to take on risk, and they STILL have to go about actually building the production company that will make the game.

Posted:A year ago

#6

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,593 1,448 0.9
@ Aaron
He's talking about BF/CoD here (I'm not sure if you're talking about shooters or just games in general), and though I don't have statistics, the fact that the DLC for both of those games focuses on multiplayer is a strong indicator that that's where the engaged players are found.
Well, that paragraph starts with him talking about Bioshock, soooooooo... :) And, to be honest, you don't need to look at the DLC for BF and CoD to see where their focus is - the single-player campaigns for both series run to about, what, 6 hours? Anyone who buys either of those series for the SP campaigns is going to feel short-changed. :)

Posted:A year ago

#7

Sean Edwards Director, Shovsoft

6 6 1.0
Don't forget what he actually did at EA. He is responsible for EA focusing on Quality instead of Quantity and had the courage to stick to his guns despite EA's share price decline which was largely driven by the GFC. He was unpopular with the board & share holders but he had the right attitude. During that time EA put out some amazing games and took risks!

Posted:A year ago

#8

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,593 1,448 0.9
But let's not get too rose-tinted... EA put out some amazing games under his guidance, but also some absolute stinkers, and some games which have still not been patched to a playable status. Darkspore (released 2011) was recently pulled from Steam due to its unplayable and never-to-be-patched state. Dragon Age 2 (2011), Mass Effect 2 (2011), Mass Effect 3 (2012) have all been villified to some degree due to the dumbing down of the games in comparison to the franchises first titles. The Need for Speed series hit a critical and commercial low point in 2011, with The Run. Syndicate (2012) cannibalised a well-respected classic franchise name for a generic FPS with multi-player.

Which is not to say that good things didn't come from his reign, but more pointing out that we should remember his mistakes just as much as his triumphs. :)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 31st July 2013 11:19pm

Posted:A year ago

#9

Paul Jace Merchandiser

942 1,428 1.5
Popular Comment
We need to reexamine the term "breaking news".

Posted:A year ago

#10

Eoin Moran Studying Bachelor of Engineering, University of Melbourne

35 32 0.9
But I don't know if any of those games would have been anywhere near as good as they are if they were driven by microtransactions.
Firstly I'll say that I do quite like John Riccitiello, whenever I've read his interviews he always seems like a pretty good CEO, but at the same time wasn't Dead Space 3 released under his watch? Also isn't Ultimate Team completely based around microtransactions?

Posted:A year ago

#11

David Serrano Freelancer

300 272 0.9
Popular Comment
What I don't like in the games industry today is that there are too many opportunists who are there to make money.
There's a tactic politicians use called projection. Projection is accusing your opponent of doing the very thing that you have been doing.

John Riccitiello to EA investors, March 4th, 2011:
One of the things that Ray Muzyuka and the team up in Edmonton have done is essentially step-by-step adjust the gameplay mechanics and some of the features that you’ll see at E3 to put this in a genre equivalent to shooter-meets-RPG, and essentially address a much larger market opportunity than Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 began to approach.
We’re huge believers in the IP and are purposefully shifting it to address a larger market opportunity.
Why did Mass Effect start out as a financially successful RPG franchise with a demographically diverse audience end up as a derivative shooter franchise which had little to no appeal outside of a demographically narrow subsegment of the core audience? Because John Riccitiello was only interested in money.

Honestly, in addition to being hypocrites and pathological liars these guys are also textbook sociopaths. I really can't comprehend how they can make these types of statements with a straight face. Let alone how they can sleep at night.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Paolo Davide Lumia Editor in Chief, MMORPGITALIA

3 1 0.3
Was he trolling himself?

Posted:A year ago

#13

James Brightman Editor in Chief, GamesIndustry.biz

252 416 1.7
@David Serrano, when you're the CEO of a major publisher you're kinda forced to be "only interested in money." Ricciitello had to answer to his shareholders, and it's been taking way too long for the steps he took to make EA profitable, and now he's gone. I actually do think Riccitiello does care a lot about innovation and game quality. He was sort of caught in between.

Posted:A year ago

#14

Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus

457 734 1.6
Here's the thing about John Riccitiello:

When he came to EA, things changed. Very suddenly, and for very good reasons. He ended the sweatshops. He ended the licensed garbage. Games got significantly better under his watch.

And the markets hated him. Have for years.

Not enough profit margin. too many losing quarters. Too many angry investors. Too many negative Pachter articles. Simply put, speculators couldn't short EA stock, so it fell, so people who wouldn't know a video game if Mario came out of their screens and roosterslapped them started getting edgy.

That's where we got the John Riccitiello of the past few years. The one that relied on microtransactions, project ten dollar, F2P mobile (and even then, they had some good mobile games), etc. All the things we hate, John Ricitiello lead almost against his will.

There are a few things I disagree with in his interview - he discredits indies in a way that I think is incorrect - but there's a very big difference between "I disagree" (Ricitiello, and some other big names - Cliff Bleszinski comes to mind) and "this man is a carpetbagger who could not care less about what he's selling" (Pincus, line one). I've always liked John Riccitiello, even if I've spelled his name about six different ways in this comment alone.

Posted:A year ago

#15

Goran Umicevic CEO & Co Founder, Squaricon S.r.l.

1 0 0.0
"I think we're going to start seeing a lot more differentiation as people get bored of seeing the same apps in the top 200. They're going to come at it and realize that if you don't make a fundamentally different product then it's very difficult to replace something that's up there with your own original design."
Do we really need 'riginal design' if - specifically - mobile audience is 'fundamentally' new w/o prior experience in any e.g. match-3 game... Want to say 'innovations' are too expensive for big GI players and that's why is expected from indies to take the risk.

Posted:A year ago

#16

Axel Cushing Writer / Blogger

104 130 1.3
All the things we hate, John Ricitiello lead almost against his will.
The thing is that it doesn't feel like it was against his will. Against his instincts, probably. Against his better judgment, more than likely. But he went out and pimped all the things we hate with gusto and that empty looking smile and got paid handsomely for his efforts. It brings to mind the old joke about the miser and the prostitute. "Now that we've established what you are, we can dicker about the price." For a guy who got paid $15 million last year, it's hard to generate a lot of sympathy about how unwilling he may have been. That sort of money should permit somebody to take a principled stand against an action, any action, that they know will be actively hostile and detrimental to the target consumer groups. If $15 million isn't enough to make you feel comfortable about risking your job to preserve customer loyalty, you've got some serious problems beyond just the fiscal.

For all of the good he did at EA, he burned up all the credit he built and then some with all of the crap he shoved down people's throats. Yeah, he pissed off speculators and short term investors, the poker players of the financial world, but they're a small group of people in absolute terms. Worst that would have happened would be him getting fired, and he would be a lot more highly thought of had he been fired for doing right by the customers. As it is, he's a pariah as far as gamers are concerned, and there's a lot more of them than there are Wall Street gamblers. That will follow him for a lot longer than Michael Pachter pooh-poohing him, and ultimately be more damaging as a result.

Posted:A year ago

#17

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany

822 654 0.8
All he says is true... but coming from him sounds a bit hypocritical. Sorry but that is how I see it.

Posted:A year ago

#18

Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve

340 292 0.9
@ Alfonso
Can't agree more, I had to do a double take when I saw the title of this article. It's like the Daily Mail turning around and saying "you know what, people are too tough on immigrants these days, I can't stand those people who berate immigrants at every opportunity".

Posted:A year ago

#19

David Serrano Freelancer

300 272 0.9
@James Brightman
When you're the CEO of a major publisher you're kinda forced to be "only interested in money."
Which is why calling others out as opportunists is absolutely ridiculous. The only difference between John Ricciitello and Bobby Kotick is Kotick never pretends to care about anything beside money.

Posted:A year ago

#20

Yvonne Neuland Studying Game Development, Full Sail University

32 55 1.7
I believe in the power of games.

People play games for fun, or entertainment, or escapism. This motivation gives game creators power over their customers that other products do not. The incentive for enjoyment is a powerful incentive . It is powerful enough that even if a consumer does not really like a product, or something about the product, if they derive a source of enjoyment from that product that they cannot get elsewhere, they will continue to consume the product anyway.

This gives game creators power over their consumers, and that power can be levied for both good and evil purposes.

John Riccitiello is absolutely right when he says
"What we are doing with mobile games today is I think we cause the user to play it almost to the point where they want to take their iPhone or iPad or their Android phone and throw it through a window, because it's like we just grind them and bleed them by either the back end or quantitative marketing. You might be happy to be lifetime revenue optimized for six months but there's a point that it gets pretty exhausting. You feel grinded, I think"
but I disagree when he says

"I don't think we're at the point of abusing our audience, that's not the headline for this conversation, I just think that we need to think carefully..."

For some sectors of the game industry market, developers crossed over the abuse line and right into exploitation long ago.

The AAA game developers do not seem to be abusing their customers, but a huge proportion of the mobile indie developers are.
"One of the reasons we're seeing a lot of stuff that looks alike and plays alike is because that's how a lot of stuff gets born."
This is true for AAA games aimed at hard-core players, but when it comes to casual and core games games that look alike and play alike are being produced because the people making them have a fundamental lack of understanding of what the audience wants. They also have a complete lack of interest in finding out what is is that the audience wants.

Developers of social and casual games view the games as "care-bear fluff," think they are stupid, and by virtue see the players who enjoy playing them as being stupid for wanting to play them.

I am currently attending school to learn Game Development, and during a recent class discussion one of my instructors derisively commented that "you don't do anything in those social games!" When I told him that that wasn't true, he just looked at me like I was insane. I see the same type of attitude in articles, game journals, developer forums, and the comments attached to all three filled with similar sentiments.

For some of these games it is rather true that you don't do anything, but that is because the game aspects of the games have been removed and replace with exploitative marketing schemes designed to bilk people out of their money rather than provide any game-play.

Instead of attempting to understand what the players enjoy about the games and find ways to build fully functional games, the developers treat their customers as marks who deserve to be taken advantage of for their vapid taste in games.

They also seem to think that the audience hasn't noticed because they continue to derive revenue from the games. Such developers scoff at people who suggest they are alienating their audience, and point to their continuing profits as proof.

There is an alternate explanation for those continued profits, however.

In his book Designing Virtual Worlds, Richard Bartle explains a concept he calls the "Newbie Hose."
"Designers don't get to control where newbies come from directly, although by desiging an appealing virtual world they can do so indirectly...Newbies can sometimes show up on their own, having been looking for a virtual world that suits them and deciding to give this one a try...Otherwise, if you want newbies, then you have to use marketing to entice them through your door...Well, that's not absolutely true: There is another possibility...:the newbie hose. This is where someone else has control of a flow of newbies and points it in your direction. The classic example is when a virtual world has links with a large portal that isn't ashamed of it, as with those on AOL in the mid-1990's...The advantage of a newbie hose is that it doesn't matter how full of holes your bucket is, there's so much water going into it that it's always full. The disadvantage of the newbie hose is that sooner or later it either empties the tank or gets pointed elsewhere."
This is why developers have been able to profit off of the exploitative games they pump into the mobile markets. The Apple Store and Google Play Store were pointing a newbie hose at them. Smart phones gained a rapid following, but it took several years for them to reach the complete market penetration that they are at today. While that market penetration was going on, new users were happy to go into them and download apps, including games, and free apps especially because it didn't cost them anything to try.

Richard Bartle also said this about newbie hoses:
"The rate at which people leave a virtual community is called churn. It's expressed as a percentage of the user base that leaves over a set time period....A newbie hose masks churn, though."
If you look at the rate at which users uninstall free apps within a day of downloading them, you see where the churn rate is. I believe most of the consumers of social games, as well as several other types of games, such as MMORTS games, view these games as virtual worlds.

Developers view them as easy money.

The Apple and Google Play newbie hoses have started to run out of newbies, though. As profitability has started to dwindle, instead of improving these virtual worlds to minimize churn, developers have simply ratcheted up their manipulation efforts using aggregated data to micro-tweak game elements. These micro-tweaks do not actually improve game play, they just increase the effectiveness of marketing tactics.

The mobile game industry has entered a constantly upward-spiraling cycle of increased monetization and marketing pressure offset by a constantly downward-spiraling player base. I read the transcripts from mobile developer conferences, and all I hear is them chanting "a whale-hunting we must go!" Whales do get tired of being hunted. Eventually the whales will migrate elsewhere, and you will be left with plankton they were feeding on.

Some innovation has occurred in the market place, but most of the "innovative" games are simply dumbed down versions of hard-core games. Statistics show that casual game players prefer simple games (at least that is what I read in game industry articles), and this seems to have been translated as meaning shallow. Dumbing down an MMORPG like WoW into a children's version isn't any more appealing to mobile customers than turning a RTS game into a vicious mind game between the developer and the players. Particularly when the developers then add the same exploitative monetization schemes to the games that they use in other mobile games.

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the first impression being made on mobile consumers is not a good one. The alienation of your audience damages the game industry, not only for the mobile game sector, but as a whole.

The mobile markets are now filled with thousands of exploitative clones, which literally differ in only the graphical libraries, and this causes several major problems.

The first problem is that customers develop the erroneous impression that this is all games are. Having judged what the games are as being exactly what they are, exploitative marketing schemes, the customers leave. Possibly permanently. They take with them a negative viewpoint on video games. Then when events like school shootings and the like happen, the media touts the effect of violent video games, and people who have never played AAA games but have experience with their mobile shadow clones draw conclusions about them that end up hurting the commercialized sectors of the industry.

Just because the gaming industry draws a line between AAA games and casual games, does not mean that consumers do.

The second problem that arises is that there are so many clones of the bad games spammed into the markets that it is irrelevant whether or not you make something great. The players will never even know it is there, because it is buried among hundreds of thousands of bad ones.

I foresee that this will cause a large number of indie companies to be driven out of the marketplace, because they will not be able to succeed. They will lack the budgets of large game companies to utilize marketing at a competitive enough rate to overcome the clone spam tidal wave of abrasively marketed games. Players will be driven out of the markets, and only companies with name recognition value will have any profit viability.

Free-to-Play is not inherently evil. There are good examples, such as the game Plague Inc. That game has everything in it unlock-able in the free to play mode, you just have to beat the game in hard mode to open up the next mode. Players who are determined not to shell out any money can work their way through it in a normal game-play progression and players who would rather pay a couple of bucks to unlock the cooler later modes can buy unlock keys. There is no difference between the free-to-play and paid versions, it is all a matter of personal preference. I don't see anything wrong with that.

Free to play games with ad-supported free versions and optional paid versions that got rid of apps were once popular, and that model is also fine, assuming you stop selling the data collected from the paid versions to other marketers. (That is the fair trade off, either get paid with the consumers information, or get paid in cash. Not both.)

Those monetization models have widely been replace with several other, more coercive and exploitative models, however. The first of the bad F2P models is the Pay-to-Enjoy app. You download these games, then get to pay by the click, or be tortured. This model alienates customers.

The second bad F2P model is the Pay-to-Play model. It is very similar to the Pay-to-Enjoy model, with paying by the click or be tortured scenario, but adds multi-player and pits you against the people who pony up by the click. This model not only alienates customers, but also hurts the ENTIRE game industry because it turns the customers into hulked out raging TROLLS who spread the word of the evil nature of the gaming industry far and wide across the internet.

The third bad model is the Ponzii-Scheme-Advertising model. It is monetized by having a list of other applications you can download in order to get bonus currency in the game.This model is usually paired with either the Pay-to-Enjoy or Pay-to-Win model. Most of these other applications are games or apps no one ever had any interest in downloading, and often contain mal-ware. Recently, the apps in the list have begun to be replaced by options to open credit cards, sign up for car insurance, subscribe to paid services both related and unrelated to the game industry, or sign up for things like prostate exams. This model alienates the consumer, sometimes transforms them into raging trolls, often harms their actual gaming platform (i.e. phone/tablet), and introduces ethical considerations like whether or not you ought to be coercing people into opening up credit cards or changing car insurances simply to play a game.

The final bad model is one with a seemingly fairly priced micro-transaction monetization scheme, accompanied by a "secret" Bribe the Developer With a Large Sum of Money option. I call this model the Pay-to-Win-and-Troll model. Players with enough capital can reap the benefits of the Pay-to-Win model, but since there technically isn't a Pay-to-Win monetization model, they TROLL both the paid and free version players with taunts about how much they suck at the game and then mock them for pointing out that they paid for their "skill" at the game. I say "secret" in quotes because the option to bribe the developer isn't really a secret, all the free and paid players know perfectly well what is going on, and in many cases, the developer does not even try to hide it. An example of a game like this is The Infinite Black. The developer's company name is WhaleSong Games. It is not hard to infer why it is named that. This model turns consumers into TROLLS as well. Very angry ones.

The vast majority of developers of games with these bad monetization models use aggregated data to increase their profits off of customers. Utilizing aggregated data to design a game is not necessarily bad, assuming you use it correctly.

If you use it with the assumption that the correlations between certain subsets of data are giving you some kind of insight into the player's psychology, your not using it right. Misapplication of "psychology" pseudo-psychology strategies through statistical analysis of aggregated data produces theories of game design with premises with accuracy levels comparative to those of Freud's theories of Penis Envy. (FYI...very inaccurate)

Without a firm understanding of the theory behind psychological research, and how to interpret the findings of that research, you are not going to be able to apply psychology to game design. Much of the terminology used by psychologists seems easily understood by the general population, but the words have a different definition for psychologists than the dictionary definition. Words like proof, significance, methodology, causation, correlation, results, and test do not mean what you think they do. Unless you understand what things like p-value, sd, ANOVA, MANOVA, t-test, etc, mean, you do not have the ability to use behavioral statistics in a meaningful way. You are certainly capable of using them in a non-meaningful way, but that would be and is self-defeating.

Behavioral statistics and the application of behavioral statistics in psychological testing methodology are interpreted with strict methodology, and are meaningless for real world application. Psychology research is not conducted for the purpose understanding how the brain controls real world application of behavior, it is conducted for the purpose of understanding how the brain controls human behavior. It might seem like the two are the same thing, but they are not.

Correlation does not equal causation. Just because there is a relationship between two variables in a test does not actually mean anything. 100% of people who get cancer live on a planet with a blue sky, but that does not mean that the relationship between the two implies that the color of the sky causes cancer.

Knowing that there is a relationship between 2 variables tells you nothing, except that you might want to look into why they are related. It could be meaningful, it could be a byproduct of a third common factor, or it could be random chance.

Looking at the correlations in aggregated data and acting upon them for game design is a misguided attempt at Industrial Psychology. If you want to apply psychology to game design, I would advise you to hire an Industrial Psychologist. Or study Psychological Testing, Behavioral Statistics, Psychology Research Methods, and Industrial Psychology.

Studying Anthropology Theory would probably be more helpful to most designers. When I got my first degree (B.S. Psychology), I also minored in Anthropology and took a course in Anthropology Theory. It teaches you a methodology for observing external cultures in an objective manner to understand them in their own context.

I do not know much about AAA designers, but the issue raised by John Riccitiello in this article is why I am pursuing a career in game development. I think that gamers deserve more than manipulative monetization schemes schemed up by designers who don't respect their taste in games.

You don't have to like the same games as a player in order to understand why they like them. In my opinion, it is amoral to levy the power of games to exploit consumers with abusive marketing schemes simply because you can. The fact that you have been able to profit up until now does not mean that you will continue to be able to profit in the same way in the future. I would point out one other quote from Richard Bartle's book:
"In the U.K., offshoots of the MUD1 family tree had done well, but were stymied by the system of high telephone charges that was then in place in that part of the world.....People were running up phone bills of 2000 pounds to 3000 pounds a quarter-this at a time when the average salary was under 9000 for an entire year."
MUDs evolved into modern day MMORPGs. Players of simple text based versions once paid thousands of dollars to play them, but complain about the $10 a month subsciption fee charged on the photorealistic graphical descendents that exist today. Whale hunting the players of other types of games will make them extinct. How will you profit then?

The gaming industry had an enormous opportunity with the advent of mobile to reach new audiences for their products, and to learn how to develop new game genre's with broader market appeal. They squandered that opportunity for the most part.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Yvonne Neuland on 3rd August 2013 5:30am

Posted:A year ago

#21

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