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Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Mon, 03 Dec 2007
Subject: Magnetic Billiards: Seriously Casual

Ste Pickford

I've been fascinated over the last few weeks by the the discussion surrounding the Live Arcade game Space Giraffe, and its author Jeff Minter's reaction on his blog to its low sales (around 15,000) and mixed reviews (loads of very high scores, and a few very low scores).

The game John and I are currently working on is being developed with Live Arcade in mind, and as the follow-on project to another brilliant game which got great reviews and didn't sell too well (Naked War, of course!), the Space Giraffe story is something I've been paying close attention to.

For the second time in my life I think I'm seeing a seismic shift in video game design; in developers' attitude and approach to their customers. It's the result of the explosion of casual games, the rise of download systems like Live, and the increased availability of playable demos even for retail games.

More than ever before a player's first impression of a game is critical. In the past the focus was on convincing a potential customer to simply buy the game using all available techniques - advertising, reviews, cover art, shelf space etc. Obviously making a good game helped, but it wasn't always essential for success, and even good games could be hard to play or difficult to get to grips with initially. Once a customer had handed over their money they would naturally be prepared to put some effort in to get their entertainment in return.

Thanks to free downloads and demos it's now more and more about first impressions. Pretty much all potential customers will be able to play any game for free before they even consider buying it, and with so many free demos and downloads available, the chances are they aren't going to play it for very long before making their decision. The current wisdom is that a downloadable game has to grab the player in the first minute or less to have a chance of doing well, and this thinking will have a big impact on game design decisions.

I don't think this is at all a bad thing. Attempting to make a good first impression doesn't necessarily limit the game itself, it just forces the designer to make the initial experience of the game much more welcoming and friendly. Much more so than we've had to in the past.

It does feel like a big change though. I think I've told this story before (elsewhere on this very website), but when John and I first met Rare in the late 80s they introduced us to the NES. We'd already developed dozens of games on the 8-bit and 16-bit home computers, and thought we knew what we were doing, but these console games represented a massive step up in user-friendliness and playability compared to what we were doing. Rare explained to us that every game had to be bug free, and had to be able to be completed - they even had to send a video of the game being played through to the end as part of the submission process. In those days we, the devs, never expected to be able to complete our own games. We just presumed that some expert player out there might be good enough to get to the end. Often we just made each new level more difficult than the last by increasing a value controlling speed or number of enemies, presumably until the player died or the game crashed. It was a real eye opener to start thinking about the actual experience of the player - the customer - rather than just showing off how many sprites we could get on the screen or what clever screen scrolling systems we could program.

It sounds ridiculous now, but switching from home computer to console development required a massive change in how we designed and developed games. We learned a lot, and became much better game designers and developers as a result. I think what's happening now with demos and downloads represents a similar change, and we'll all have to become better designers and developers to survive.

I'm not aware of any figures, but I wonder what the availability of playable demos has done to retail game sales...

I play quite a few demos of retail games. They almost always disappoint. It's rare that a retail game demo lives up to the hype, or maybe I'm just overly critical. Either way the result is that demos very often put me off buying games that I was half interested in buying, but they never convince me buy games I wasn't already interested in buying. This probably doesn't change the net amount that I spend on games, but if focuses it more sharply on good games, or games I like.

Of course, I don't often look at demos of games I'm not interested in (unless it's to point and laugh). If I was forced to play every demo I might be surprised to find that I like the odd game which I wasn't originally interested in, but I'm not - I'm free to pick only the demos I fancy.

This is brilliant for me as a consumer - I don't buy many games anyway, but I never buy games I don't like anymore. It can't be good for publishers who release less than brilliant games though (and let's face it, there are still plenty of those around), as the demo negates the effect of any hype or marketing. If I've tried it and I don't like it, no amount of advertising or high scoring reviews are going to change my mind.

Our new game is still only at the half-finished prototype stage, but John had a few 'gamers' staying over at his house a couple of weeks back (after a Saturday night out at Bury Beer Festival), so we showed it for the first time on the Sunday morning to some friends representing potential customers. It went pretty well and people were playing and enjoying the game (despite their hangovers) for a few hours. It was a little nerve wracking for us, but very interesting, and we paid particular attention to people's initial reactions. It became immediately obvious that there were a few little bits of the game which felt wrong to some players within the first few seconds - bits of the game they didn't understand instantly or aspects of the control system they didn't get straight away. A little explanation from John or myself and they were fine, but John and I aren't going to come free with each download. These initial niggles stand out as the things we need to concentrate on fixing, to try and make that first impression wholly positive.

This primary focus on first impressions doesn't mean we can't have complex or difficult-to-master game mechanics, or parts of the game which require trial and error. It doesn't mean we can't have a steep learning curve in places, or sections of the game which the player won't 'get' first time. Rather, it just means that we shouldn't have anything like that at the very start of the game. We shouldn't throw curveballs at our customers until we've hooked them in - until after they've bought the game!

I think this was one of the big problems with Naked War. To a certain extent with Naked War we were just making the game we wanted to make - the game we wanted to play - and like Jeff Minter we think the end result is the best game we've ever made. And, although we did try to make the game welcoming and friendly and easy to play, the fact that the game is two player only is a significant deviation from the norm, which in itself makes the game feel unusual and off-putting to new players. We've thrown our potential customers a curveball straight away!

We envisaged Naked War working like chess. Everyone learns to play chess by playing against someone who already knows the game, and losing. You might know what the pieces do, but you need to actually play the game to understand it, so everyone loses their first game. On your second go you understand it a little more and play a little better, but you will still almost certainly lose. From then on you keep playing, getting better and better, and eventually winning the odd game. It's a great feeling when you finally beat the person who first introduced you to chess.

That was how we wanted Naked War to work. That's why we made the first game free, and that's why we made games free for challengees, and why we made challenging friends a big part of the system. Everyone's first couple of games would be free, and people would learn by losing a couple of games to their friends, who might give them some tips along the way. Unfortunately that's too different to the way other games work. I don't think video game players want to lose an online game, or at least expect to have a fighting chance of winning even their very first game online. Typically online games have an offline single player mode which the player can learn and master before they venture online, and for a new player that appears to be missing from Naked War.

If anyone downloaded the game and then had John or myself standing behind them explaining the chess analogy, and telling them not to worry, they just had to learn by losing a couple of games - for free, our system would probably work fine. There's still only two of us though, so that's not possible, and a big off-putting block of text on screen wouldn't do the job either.

A single player mode to play against computer AI would have done the job, but that would have been maybe another year of development work for AI and a one player campaign, on top of the two and a half years we'd already spent developing Naked War with just the two player / email mode, and we couldn't afford to spend yet another year on development before release.

So, like Jeff Minter, we found that we'd developed a really, really good game which required a bit of a leap of faith on the part of a new player to get over a hump at the beginning, because the game is either off-putting in some way, or slightly different to other apparently similar games. Unlike Jeff we didn't have a fan-base of thousands prepared to buy our game anyway and put the effort in to learn how to play it (our fan-base is more like Flight of the Conchords'). Neither did we have the advantage of having worked in the same genre for years, so we hadn't built up any kind of reputation amongst fans of that genre who'd have faith in us and be prepared to try something new. As a consequence Naked War hasn't sold anything like the numbers that Space Giraffe has. In fact I think we'd be feeling pretty smug right now if we'd sold 15k subscriptions. We'd probably think we'd cracked this self-sufficient, self-publishing indie game thing, and would looking forward to making even better games in the future with our money worries behind us.

I really like Space Giraffe. I don't like everything about it, but I love the fact that it exists, and I love the fact that there are still people making games with a personal vision, or for a niche market. I have faith that small scale but high quality games full of ideas and invention can find a big enough market to provide a living for their creators. I hope Jeff and Giles make enough from it to keep going, and keep making new games, and keep making the games they believe in.

I don't think there's any downside to making games more accessible, more inviting or easier to understand. I disagree with Jeff when he compares Space Giraffe's hardcore sensibility to that of old style coin-ops. Coin-ops had the most brutal real-world evaluation system ever devised: coin drop figures. New coin-op machines would be wheeled into test arcades, and the number of coins collected would be counted at the end of the week. If they weren't high enough the developers would have to change the game and try again with a new version. This would continue until the coin drop figures were high enough for a full release (in other words the devs somehow made the game accessible and appealing to enough for players to keep putting money in), or the game was canned. There's no arguing with a system like that. If the machine isn't tempting people to put their 10p's or quarters in then it isn't a good game, and if they are putting their money in it's a success. This system is why most coin-ops were great; the ones that didn't prove themselves to be great in test arcades didn't get released.

If anything, the changes being brought about by free downloads and demos are actually forcing today's video game designers to think more like coin-op designers. Modern download games need to to be 'instant', and communicate everything the player needs to know quickly and unconsciously via audio visual cues rather than through clumsy tutorial modes and manual pages.

I also wonder if this is the reason why Nintendo haven't made demos available for the Virtual Console, unlike Microsoft's Live Arcade. The fact is that the home console games of yesteryear, while in many cases being great games, weren't designed to impress within the first 30 seconds, and perhaps wouldn't suit the kind of try-before-you-buy system which Live Arcade is built around. Of course, it could just be Nintendo being cheap, but I suspect they'd sell fewer VC games if they allowed downloadable demos.

We plan to finish the prototype for our new game early next year, and after that we hope to return to Naked War. As well as fixing a few bugs, adding some extra content and making a few necessary changes, we're also hoping to have a crack at a one player mode. Possibly an AI system, maybe a campaign, hopefully a tutorial and perhaps even some other modes too (that was a typical developer statement - qualify everything, commit to nothing!). I think we need to make the initial experience of playing Naked War a bit more welcoming for new players, and for the game to explain itself a bit better, and maybe let players have a crack at playing a proper game before they take the plunge online.

I've always said that I've learned something new on every project I've worked on, but right now it feels like I'm learning at a much faster rate than ever before, or maybe there's just more to learn. It feels a lot like the transition from home computer to console - that a big step up in quality, ease of use and accessibility is required when designing games from now on. I think our current project is benefiting from what we learned through developing and publishing Naked War, and I just hope we can afford to take the time we need to make 'Naked War version 2' as good as we know it can be.


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