Gaming Inspiration

(warning: heavy nerding ahead)

I usually find lots of inspiration from video games. I’m not a big gamer, but I’m fascinated with the space. Usually it’s less about the graphics or the game content, and more about the interactions that have been designed into the game. As games go, there seems to be a lot of really interesting things going on in massive-multiplayer games and web and phone-based games lately. Console games are sort of pushing each other deeper into this better graphics/extra gore niche. That’s mostly games for hardcore gamers. I’m more interested in what happens when there’s a wider cross-section of people just screwing around entertaining themselves.

I’ve seen a couple of interesting design/stratgey things lately, here’s my take on a few things I’ve seen. Hopefully you find some inspiration along the way.

Always Farming
I was reading this article that talked about a pretty interesting concept embedding in a game called Happy Farm. (The article is about a Chinese game but there’s also a Facebook app called Farmville and a few other knockoffs….farming seems to be the new shooting.) The gist of these games, which are massively popular at the moment, is that you have a virtual farm that you grow crops. It’s pretty simple and there’s a heavy fiddle factor around maintaining things. It sort of occupies your mind like Tetris or Minesweeper.

One of the things that makes this interaction interesting to me is that users can steal one another’s crops. The grounding concept behind the game is that it’s always on. When you’re away form your crops they grow, and you need to tend them. Sort of like a networked tamagotchi. The interesting interaction here is that if you’re not around tending your virtual farm, someone could nab your spinach.

This interaction is that makes MMPORGS like World of Warcraft pretty fascinating. Since you’re pitting real people against each other, anything can happen – you can’t design all of the foolish deviousness human opponents can create. If you were playing against the computer, that’s a rational device…playing against another player brings the fuzzy interactions that make the game interesting. I love how the simple act of making the experience open for multiple players takes something that would be very static and makes it quite dynamic. It’s a new flavor of immersion; if you’re into the game enough and you’re “AFK”, you might actually worry about someone stealing your crops and getting credit for it. That type of interaction adds this extra level of chance and richness to the experience, there’s the chance anything could happen.

Alternative Currencies

Continuing on the farming theme, many of these apps have a few ways to earn the crops you have. You can pay with time, waiting patiently for these cyber-sprouts to grow and slowly cultivating your empire. You can intervene and pay dollars and that allow you to grow crops faster. Or you can pay in effort – by taking quizzes or signing up for credit cards the game gives you some sort of currency or in-game tools in return.

Michael Arrington has sort of made a huge stink around this idea. He argues that paying through effort is a scam and it’s unfairly baiting users into all types of shady activity. Judging from his examples, he’s p right about the scam part, but the fact that you can pay through different means other than dollars is interesting. (In other gaming circles this buying in game currency rather than earning it is called ‘gold farming‘ – shocking amount of ‘farming’ going on here.)

I’m pretty interested in games that run internal economies. Lots of multiplayer games have this interaction and much like real life, money is one of the scarce good people compete for and use from trade with other goods. Most hard core gamers hate gold farming because it breaks their economy, goods aren’t scarce anymore when you can buy them in real life. This path to alternate currency is interesting because it doesn’t necessary throw an entire economy off, but it gives people an option in how they want to pay – time, money or effort. This is an interesting way to level the playing field and let the player chose which path is least scarce for them. For example, Tweens have more time than money, adults often more money than time (broad generalization, I know).

Pay For What You Get
OK, the final inspiration continues the thread around online currencies and economies. online multiplayer games usually have a two-stroke revenue engine. You pay for the software to play the game, and then you pay a subscription to play the game. It’s easy math to figure out these immersive models are big. money. Not only do you sell a $50 game, but each player drops $15 as long as they care to continue playing. To drive subscriptions, the games usually release minor patches to improve the game and major content releases (in another $50 shrink-wrapped boxes) to continue the experience.

Mike Masnik posted an article a few weeks ago talking about a pricing change to play an online DUngeons and Dragons game (yes, the exact one your thinking about). This change did away with the initial software fee and subsequent subscription in favor of allowing people to play for free and charging for certain features in the game.

The inspiring thing about this is that it orients the model around what the users really want. They want to play a game where tons of people are playing and wreaking havoc (that’s why they opted to play a massive multiplayer game in the first place….if it’s not massive, it’s not quite hat they’re looking for). ANyway, the other bit was how by removing the subscription fee, they actually “took the ceiling off of what people were willing to pay for the game”. There’s an interesting dynamic going on here, if you pay $15 you have an expectation of getting something. If you aren’t forced to pay, you’ll pay for what you want (and value what you receive). Additionally, if you take a break from playing the game for a few months, you don’t have a bagging feeling of getting charged for something you aren’t using. This segment is pretty hardcore games that switch between a few games, to keep things fresh. (The original article linked by Techdirt here.)

This balance is a pretty hard thing to pull off, and you sort of need an existing market. (Techdirt’s comments mention that the D&D brand equity really helps here.) Still, transparently pricing around exactly how consumers use your product seems so amazingly liberating. You’re now free to concentrate on how you can make them happier, and you just price against it, lots of the original complexity seems to fall away.

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