May 2011

Call Of Booty: We’re So Money

"I just made $12 million while you were laughing at this picture."

Modern Warfare 3 to ship with a subscription service called Call of Duty: Elite. Well, then.

This is so industry-asploding money-printing what-were-movies-again big that some news sources you don’t expect to see linked to on my silly little blog dedicated to amusing EA executives commented on this. Such as, oh:

Wall Street Journal:

First of all, it’s important to keep something in mind: People don’t like to give up more of their money. This is just a general rule.

But in addition to the expected “gaming companies are greedy” comments, there is a lot of confusion about exactly what the new service will involve – and just what people will get for their money.

That disconnect is coming in large part because “Call of Duty” maker Activision doesn’t seem to have ironed out all the details yet. Activision executives told The Wall Street Journal’s Nick Wingfield that they haven’t yet figured out how much to charge for the service – although the Journal reports that it will likely be $7.99 or less. They have said parts of the service will be free, but there are conflicting reports about what exactly those free parts will include.


…like yet another company trying to overcapitalize on social networking BS, as I can speak for the majority of Call of Duty players when I say I don’t give a shit about the interests of the people I’m virtually shooting. And how can portions of a monthly paid subscription service be free? That sentence doesn’t even make sense.

The Guardian:

The driving force behind Elite is clear – the desire to gain revenue from the vast numbers of gamers who regularly play Call of Duty titles online for free. According to Activision, 20 million people play Call of Duty online every month – more than seven million every day.

This number represents a vast source of untapped income – and in an era of declining retail sales for games, identifying new streams of digital revenue is becoming vitally important. The problem is, attempting to install a subscription charge on online multiplayer activity would meet with massive resistance from gamers, who have always enjoyed free access to online functionality with shooter games.

Gamasutra (ok, I link to them all the time but it’s a good instanalysis):

While he’s something of a lightning rod among gamers, it’s worth noting that Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter was the first to forecast this service last year. And while he says he’s still sussing out the particulars, he doesn’t expect Activision to shove Elite down players’ throats out of the gate.

“I think Activision hopes to get up to 1 million subscribers this year,” says Pachter. “From there, they hope to get it up to 3 million next year, then up to 5 million. Over time, they’d like to migrate everyone over to it.”

One million subscribers isn’t exactly pocket change, but with a player base of 7 million users, it’s achievable – and it’s something that would be more than a blip on the company’s earnings.

“I think they’re in this for the long run,” he says. “For their next [fiscal] year, 1 million subscribers [to Elite] is about an added 3 cents per share. It’s meaningful, but who knows ultimately if they’ll end up with 1 million or 10 million.”

If those numbers do start to increase, look for the company to expand the Elite model to other notable franchises. And the most obvious places to do so are StarCraft and Bungie’s upcoming title.

So while the mainstream media ties itself up in knots over OMG WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, those of us who have followed the game industry follies for a while, including Activision treating the people who actually made Call of Duty a billion-dollar franchise with all the gratitude due the indentured servants they clearly believe them to be, this isn’t exactly a surprise. After all, here’s Bobby Kotick from a few years ago:

[The games we passed on] don’t have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million dollar franchises. … I think, generally, our strategy has been to focus… on the products that have those attributes and characteristics, the products that we know [that] if we release them today, we’ll be working on them 10 years from now.

How do you exploit people playing your game online for free? Well, charge them, duh.

In Retrospect, I Guess We Shouldn’t Be Surprised

Guardian: Chinese labor camps using slave labor to farm for gold in WoW

“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour,” Liu told the Guardian. “There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”

Memories from his detention at Jixi re-education-through-labour camp in Heilongjiang province from 2004 still haunt Liu. As well as backbreaking mining toil, he carved chopsticks and toothpicks out of planks of wood until his hands were raw and assembled car seat covers that the prison exported to South Korea and Japan. He was also made to memorise communist literature to pay off his debt to society.

But it was the forced online gaming that was the most surreal part of his imprisonment. The hard slog may have been virtual, but the punishment for falling behind was real.

“If I couldn’t complete my work quota, they would punish me physically. They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes. We kept playing until we could barely see things,” he said.

There are several independent things that are very, very wrong about this.

Writing Words, LIKE A BOSS

Oh, hi, I have a blog still. (I’d feel more guilty about neglecting it if someone didn’t invent the RSS feed.)

Ryan Seabury, formerly of NetDevil and very small genitalia, found a really great way to hype his new social game company: inhale SCREW YOU GUYS I HATE MAKING MMOS BECAUSE THEY SUCK AND YOU SUCK AND DID I MENTION THE SUCKING THING BECAUSE TOTALLY THAT GOES IN THERE SOMEWHERE exhale.

So of course, I had to be grumpy and fight for the status quo, because I’m old and still worry about things like facts. Or something.

I simply realized there actually hadn’t been an “MMO game” to get out of for at least two, three years. It’s no longer a meaningful label. Point at any significant entertainment experience trending today, you won’t be able to find one without some kind of social feature layers and persistent aspects. No one cares if something is “single player” or “multi player” or “massively multiplayer” anymore. We have come to a point where the game concept trumps such insignificant bullet points, and global social connectivity is a given.

This is a vast oversimplification, unless you think Farmville is an MMO. Note: Farmville is not an MMO. Sorry, Terra Nova. I didn’t think someone who advertises themselves as an MMO designer would, you know, need this explained to them, but an MMO is specifically a game that derives its attraction from having hundreds of people interact in a persistent environment. Farmville fails this test because there isn’t any meaningful interpersonal interaction (aside from advertising for the greater glory of Zynga to all your friends, of course). World of Tanks, which I lately have been finding a lot of enjoyment in trying to blow up large tanks with smaller tanks and failing miserably, fails this test barely, in my opinion, because it’s essentially a session-based shooter with some character persistence – if you call World of Tanks an MMO, you have to call Modern Warfare 2 an MMO, too. And while Ryan may do so, I don’t. You don’t play MW2 for the levelling, you play it to shoot people in the face. Which, while multiplayer, isn’t massively multiplayer in that there are only so many people you can shoot in the face.

Now, at which point the number of face-shooting opportunities you have transcends multiplayer and moves into massively multiplayer is worthy of some discussion, and may have been the point Ryan was trying to make, except he then immediately descended into some random tangent about Megan Fox. I kind of get that, because she’s much cuter than a design doc, but it doesn’t really help with making your point. “Global social connectivity” isn’t a gameplay feature, it’s a buzzword. Bundling in a Facebook API does not magically make your game an MMO.

At NetDevil, we were never that interested in safe, cookie-cutter projects. We always tried to push some boundary, be it genre, technology, or creativity.  As a result, we watched business models completely vaporize and consumption styles totally shift during the course of each of our projects. With cycles this long and risky, you basically get one shot to succeed in half a decade. Ever been to Vegas?  Ever put all your weekend money on a single number in roulette? It’s kind of like that. Better have some backup bling to bet that big.

I think he’s trying to make a point here about game development being overly expensive and risk averse. I might be projecting, though, and really, I’m only guessing, especially because he then launches into:

Playing around is expensive when you lead teams of hundreds over many years. Playing on the same project, no matter how deep, for many years at a time, is exhausting creatively. I also felt I would like to ship more than four or five games in my entire career.

My long time business partners and founders of NetDevil, Scott Brown and Peter Grundy, reached similar conclusions. So we came together again to form END Games, with a new mission to turn our approaches upside down while leveraging all the expertise we’ve learned in a decade of making the most complex and technically demanding entertainment forms known to man.

So, basically, new company, leveraging synergy LIKE A BOSS. Got it.

And Ryan’s point four of three (no, really):

In fact I came to a realization the other day, almost everything I consume in entertainment comes at the recommendation of a friend or social network contact. I don’t channel surf anymore, I don’t bother reading game or movie reviews, I don’t look at the NY Times Bestseller list. Not saying that plenty of people don’t still do these things, but I don’t. It’s not as efficient or risk-free as letting people I know tell me what sucks and what rocks, and deciding based on what I know of their preferences.

Am I a consumer free at last from the tyranny of the retail distribution monoliths of the 20th century? Of course not. Somehow my social network is getting informed about new products and experiences, and the best of these make their way to me based on personal credibility. It seems like the marketing is just less direct and intrusive, albeit maybe a touch nefarious in some cases.

You still need to market, and the same people still own most of the important channels. Yes there’s a lot of noise-over-signal in the market place. But finally, after all these years of the industry moaning lack of innovation and sameness, there is noise! As a player, it’s like everyday you can find a new box of random toys to sift through and discover little gems in.

Noise is good. Don’t let the PR trend of the day scare you  Everyone pushing the message “it’s too hard for products to get noticed now” is selling something. Like a good dating network, artists are finding more compatible audiences quicker thanks to ubiquitous internet and technology and the nature of the idea of “network”. It may take time and patience and a little bit of money and sweat. Still, what a great opportunity to have some fun and try some ideas that would never clear production oversight in traditional development models!

So – to break this down: social networks changed everything for Ryan, Ryan never talked to his friends about movies before Facebook, Ryan figured out guerilla marketing, and Ryan’s new company is going to work on low budget Cow Clicker clones.

Our next title was built to answer the question “What is the simplest game construct possible?” We believe we found the bizarrely addictive answer in Click!, which will be playable on iOS devices as soon as Apple gets around to approving it, or maybe Android if they take too long.

OK, so I’ve been really snarkily harsh (you shouldn’t be surprised, it’s kind of what I do) and there are a couple of valid points lost in the free floating hype. Traditional game development is in an arms race of ever-escalating budgets that choke creativity, casual gaming does give the opportunity for game developers to Make! Money! Fast! (admittedly, usually by promptly selling their company to Zynga), and it is important for game developers on the edge of burnout to have private projects, game related or not, that they derive personal and professional satisfaction from.

Of course, just writing it as a paragraph like that doesn’t mean I can get Kotaku to hype my new social game company. LIKE A BOSS.

The Worst Case Scenario

Image: Ars Technica

SOE hasn’t had a good month already, and yesterday it got a whole lot worse.

The crisis at Sony deepened on Tuesday as it admitted that an extra 25 million customers who played games on its Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) PC games network have had their personal details stolen – and that they were taken before the theft of 77 million peoples’ details on the PlayStation Network (PSN).

The electronics giant said the names, addresses, emails, birth dates, phone numbers and other information from PC games customers were stolen from its servers as well as an “outdated database” from 2007 which contained details of around 23,400 people outside the US. That includes 10,700 direct debit records for customers in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, Sony said.

The hack resulted in SOE’s games going dark – and they still are dark. Combined with Sony’s PSN network going down for what is no doubt frantic retooling, and you have easily the worst case scenario for a company that bases its income off running an online service. If you don’t have an online service, and can’t collect money for it… well, there’s really not much point, is there?

Writing as someone who also works on the periphery of similar issues – as best as I can tell, there is no silver bullet that wasn’t chambered, no best practices that SOE inexplicably ignored. The hell of it is, and what the wider world is discovering, is that online security is a dark art, and sometimes the black hats win. About the only mistake that SOE apparently made was leaving a years-outdated database of credit card information mistakenly accessible to the outside Internet – and it was enough of one to shut the company down.

The inevitable lawsuits are of course already spooling up, but the real cost for Sony will be in user confidence. Who will want to enter their credit card into Sony’s database? Even the most casual of consumers has heard of this. There’s no stuffing the genie back into that particular bottle. The barrier to cross for convincing a new player to enter payment information – already the highest hurdle for an online game company to achieve – is higher now because of this. Confidence has to be restored, and fast.

One way to do this would be for online gaming companies to embrace more often using data brokers such as Paypal. When I pay for a subscription to, say, Rift, Trion never sees my credit card number. I run through a Paypal gauntlet, am validated, give Trion permission to bill me, and there it is. At no time are my CC digits crossing the digital divide, allowing me to affect an air of smugness.

Until Paypal gets hacked.