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N3twork: "You can't control your audience"

Neil Young talks about the line between engaging and addictive, and how Tetris 99 stole some thunder from his mobile Tetris Royale

N3twork today announced Tetris Royale, an upcoming Android and iOS title that will enter beta testing later this year. As one might guess from the name, it is a battle royale take on the classic puzzle game, with 100-player matches.

If that sounds familiar, the basic concept is reminiscent of Nintendo's Tetris 99, a Switch-exclusive game that was surprise launched in February and lets players participate in 99-player matches. N3twork founder and CEO spoke with GamesIndustry.biz in advance of the Tetris Royale announcement, and he did not run from the comparison.

"Much to our chagrin, Nintendo launched Tetris 99 on the Switch before we had the opportunity to announce our product," Young says. "There are obvious similarities there. Beyond the fact that the mobile market is over 30x the size of the Nintendo Switch market, we think Nintendo's product helps validate the type of thing we're trying to build with Tetris Royale."

There are only a handful of games universally known around the world, Young says, adding that Tetris is definitely on that list. Franchises like that are particularly valuable on mobile, he adds, if they can be refreshed with contemporary and compelling elements.

"I think the product we're building takes advantage of all the things a modern mobile game can provide for you today," Young says. "The ability to not just compete against other people but to play with others in a social framework, to be able to do it whenever and wherever you want, and to be able to offer that product to the 3 billion people that play mobile games... What Tetris 99 does is it sort of validates the format, I think, but the market opportunity for Tetris Royale on mobile is really big."

As for how N3twork will realize that market opportunity, Young says Tetris Royale will be free-to-play and feature free and paid loot boxes that give players performance boosters, skins, and access to different game modes. However, after our talk N3twork sent over a clarification that it would use a Season Pass progression model instead.

N3twork has already enjoyed success with free-to-play monetization with its mobile match-3 RPG Legendary: Game of Heroes. That game launched in 2016 and Young says it brought in about $6 million that year, followed by annual hauls of $44 million and $105 million in 2017 and 2018. This year's bookings have pushed it over the $200 million lifetime threshold. That growth may be coming at a different cost, as the "most helpful" reviews for the game on the Google Play Store are bursting with stories from players bemoaning the game's pay-to-win mechanics and a perception that being competitive at the game requires too steep an investment.

"I think anything that children spend money on should be carefully monitored and controlled by parents. And I think adults should be free to do whatever they want to do"

Given the recent introduction of federal legislation in the US that would ban loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics in games played by children, we ask Young what he thinks of the issue.

"I think anything that children spend money on should be carefully monitored and controlled by parents," Young says. "And I think adults should be free to do whatever they want to do. So certainly, from my perspective, for the games we're building, we don't really think of them as products that we're building for children. We think of them as products we're building for people over the age of 18 for sure."

We point out that the draft of the Tetris Royale press release N3twork sent us to prepare for the interview specifies that "Tetris Royale will bring players of all ages and walks of life together in the name of Tetris."

"We certainly are not going to prohibit people from playing Tetris Royale if they're under the age of 18," Young says. "That certainly won't be the case. And making sure that there are controls in place that allow parents to appropriately monitor and moderate what their children are doing is really important.

"When you think about Tetris, I would say probably the group of people who know Tetris the least would be people under the age of 18. It's much more broadly known by adults, I would think."

While one of the defining characteristics those adults would probably assign to Tetris is its "addictive" quality (the game has been explicitly marketed as addictive in the past), that's not a term Young wants to attach to Tetris Royale.

"You can't control humans in general. People are going to play the way they want to play..."

"I think the games you would want to make would be games that people want to keep coming back to," he says. "I would want them to be engaging and I would want them to be retentive. I would want those things to both be true because I think they're a measure of fun, and how people spend their time and money is a mark of whether or not they're enjoying the things they're doing. It crosses the line if it's manipulative, and I think there are certainly examples of products that do that. I do not think Tetris is one of those for sure."

As for how to tell when something crosses the line between engaging/retentive and becomes addictive/manipulative, Young acknowledges it's a difficult distinction to make.

"You could take a look at the amount of time the extreme ends of your audience are participating in something and say, 'Hey that's unacceptable for humans in general so maybe we want to make some changes so that isn't necessarily the case.' I think you could probably do that. But at the end of the day, I think it's a judgment call. You have a choice of building things that live on some continuum between good and bad. As a game maker, I choose to try to make things that are subjectively good games, something I as a human can look at and say, 'This feels like a great piece of software.' At the end of the day, those things tend to be judgment calls more than anything else.

"I haven't met people that sit there and go, 'Ok, I'm going to go build a game that is specifically designed to manipulate people into spending, to trick them into spending or create a play cycle that is so intense it's going to occupy their entire life. I don't think there are many game makers that are sitting there with that intention. They're sitting there saying, 'How do I build something that I like?' And a subset of those people are also asking the question, 'Can it be a good business as well?' If you can keep those two things in the forefront of your mind and use good judgment, then you probably end up with better software at the end of the day that's at least coming from a good place.

"What you can't do is you can't control your audience. You can't control humans in general. People are going to play the way they want to play, and there are a lot of complex things going on in any individual's life at any point in time. So it's a little bit unfair to ask game makers to try to solve for all of those things."

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