Thursday, June 23, 2011

Yay Indie Game Bundles

I really like indie game bundles. With the Humble Bundle leading the pack, we've seen an explosion of bundles, and I buy almost all of them.

With that in mind, I'd like to look at A) the different methods of selling bundles and B) whether this might influence the sales strategy of non-bundles.

The classic "Humble" sales strategy is a DRM-free download for whatever amount of money you want to pay. DRM-free seems like the standard these days (YAY!) so I won't go into detail supporting it, but let's talk briefly about the "any amount" system.

Allowing people to pay anything is a brave foray into a new kind of sales. However, "pay anything" often ends up meaning "pay almost nothing", probably because our culture hasn't really developed a respect for the actual worth of something. If you pay less for a game bundle than for a meal, you're a total ass. Once our culture begins to realize this, we can expect "pay anything" to pay off better.

Until then, a few strategies have come into being to help nudge people to pay more. A big one I've noticed is the "average paid so far" marker, which lets people know what "normal" is. I'm not sure this works very well just on its own, but it is also possible to split this up into categories. For example, "Unix users pay $11.50 on average, while Windows users pay $6.40". I think this categorization is valuable, as I think it helps urge people to keep up with the best rather than just measuring themselves against the average.

In a continuation of that is the "leaderboard", where the top ten (or whatever) purchasers get their name and donation up for everyone to see. Often used as an ad, but that's fine, too. I think leaderboards can be very valuable, especially if you get a Colbert-style bump from somewhere. With the Humble bundles, the leaderboard frequently featured people who had paid thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. Obviously, your popularity matters a whole lot, but it's not that hard to code (you can even just update it manually if you need to) and is guaranteed to get you at least a few donations at a higher level than you otherwise would.

Another method (and my favorite) is the "pay more than average" reward. If you're monitoring the average, then offer a bonus for paying, say, at least $1 over the average. It could just be an art pack, or maybe you'll mail them a signed post card or something. Anyway, the existence of this will push people to raise the average, which in turn will raise your overall income dramatically.

Some people have posited some fairly complex schemes such as prices dropping or increasing over time. I think those may have a future once our culture catches up to our abilities, but until then, keeping it simple is probably best.

Some bundles aren't using a pay-what-you-want system. For example, a flat $5.

I think this is a mistake. If you want to do that, you might consider a pay-anything method with a $5 minimum. I think it's a weaker choice than the complex monitored feedback system the Humble bundles use, but it's still better than just a flat $5: I would have paid $20, but it's physically impossible. $15 in lost sales.


What does this kind of thing have to say about individual games?

Well, buying a bundle is inherently less risky and more attractive, just for starters. Half the games in any given bundle just aren't interesting to me. There's nothing wrong with Cortex Command, it's just not my style of game.

To some extent, you can think of a bundle as diversifying a stock portfolio. If you have games of varied genres and audiences, you increase your chance of appealing to any given audience member. The risk of failing to appeal to them is much lower.

If you're only selling one game, there's no diversity, which is naturally going to limit your appeal to a much smaller part of the audience. But that doesn't really mean anything horrible! After all, if you're selling on your own without the Humble-style pricing, you still have the same limited appeal. It's just that you need to realize the weaknesses in your offer: you can't directly compare an individual game to a pack of games.

Also, the bundles often come after the "primary" sales life of the game, so they are often thought of as a kind of end-of-life "bonus" instead of a proper primary sales method.

Despite that, I think that indie games might find themselves doing better with Humble-style "pay anything" pricing, perhaps with an absolute minimum if you can't bear the thought of someone paying $2.50 for your game. As our culture gets more comfortable with this kind of scheme, I think it will become more and more acceptable and profitable to do it this way.

It's also worth mentioning that Kickstarter and similar can often garner you funding at quite a surprisingly high rate. Attempting to fund your game on Kickstarter is not recommended, because most of us know that games cost more than you think and aren't likely to ever get completed. However, if you have a game (or 99% of a game) and want to take it a few extra steps, a Kickstarter project to polish the art or add in additional levels could net you thousands of dollars of investment before you begin, which is another valuable revenue source.

Unlike the Humble-style pricing, Kickstarter-style projects work perfectly for individual games. It's worth thinking about using both Kickstarter-style and Humble-style for your indie game...

I say that, but, of course, I've never tried to sell an indie game. So take the armchair strategy for what it is... do your own research and come to your own conclusions. Just take note: pricing strategies and revenue sources are changing. Indies in particular can benefit.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fear Campaigns

This is chief Paul macMillan, lord high defender of the MBTA. I'd like to remind you that danger is everywhere, and any of the hundreds of pieces of litter and forgotten bags could be terrorist plots to kill you. Despite the fact that the MBTA has never been a terrorist target and, in fact, no American buses ever have, I'm going to spend the next 55 seconds loudly telling you to be afraid.

It is our hope that with so many people looking for terrorists, you will be too busy to complain about what an incompetent job the MBTA does. Since the number of complaints about incompetence have been rising and the number of terrified peasants begging for protection has been falling, we have once again called upon the "fear" branch of our "baseless propaganda" division. You will notice that not only have we added an additional 10 seconds to this speech, we've added a 15-foot cube directly in the middle of the walking path and labeled it "it's never this obvious". Which is true, because things that don't exist aren't obvious.

So please, everyone, participate in our "hear something, fear something" campaign and carefully look at the floor around you, your fellow passengers, anywhere but up.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Games On Multiple Screens

I'm a big advocate of multiple screens, or screens so huge that the idea of "fullscreen" is pointless. I like a view. Personally, I think that screen real estate is a major limiting factor on how well we "think" with computers - anyone who has done corkboard brainstorming is familiar with how much this sort of thing matters.

But right now I'd like to talk specifically about games on multiple screens. They already exist, of course, with Nintendo being the major purveyor.

In most Nintendo DS games, one screen is where all the action happens, and the other is a kind of status screen. Your stats, or the local map, or other status information. The idea is that you can refer to the other screen at a glance if you need that information. Of course, you usually don't. It's extremely rare that the "information screen" actually needs to be referenced live.

Some games instead make one screen an input screen and one screen an output screen. This is because of the hardware of the DS, which has one touchscreen and one normal screen. Personally, I don't like this very much, either: without tactile interfaces, it's almost impossible to use a touchscreen without looking at it, and the DS touchscreen is often very fickle about exactly where it thinks you clicked.

The upcoming WiiU is vaguely interesting because, like attaching gameboys as controllers, it gives each player their own screen as well as one large shared screen. But, for one player games, this is simply exactly the same situation as the DS: some buttons, a touchscreen, and a non-touchscreen. Size notwithstanding.

Many of the DS games which ended up being most compelling for the double screens were simply those that used the top screen as an extension of the bottom screen, giving you one long super-screen like an old arcade game. This, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that they are two screens - it could just as easily be accomplished by having a single screen that is twice as tall. Anyway, this won't be very possible on the WiiU, because the screens are not in fixed position with each other and not even vaguely the same size.

Still, the advent of multi-screen situations outside of the tiny handheld device market is reasonably important. I've been developing multi-screen toys on my own for a long time, since I have multiple monitors... But that's not the sort of thing most other people have, so it's kind of pointless. It'll be interesting to see whether the WiiU developers end up doing some of the same things as me or not.

One thing I have come to find is that the "details" screen does have an interesting variant. I call it the "context switch" situation.

Let's say you're playing a 2D RPG where you wander around the map as you see fit. Normally, when you approach a person or item, you press the "interact" button and some text box pops up to tell you that you grabbed it or they said something or whatever.

However, if you have two screens, it is perfectly reasonable to have the bottom screen be this navigation view while the top screen is the "what your character sees right now" view. IE, if you walk up to a bookshelf, you don't press "interact". The top screen automatically shows the bookshelf, including the book titles and so on. If you walk up to a person, you see a closeup of them on the top screen, including their facial expressions and body language. (Speech bubbles should ideally appear on both screens, so they don't require a player to switch which screen they're looking at.)

If you like, you can simply swap the screens, switching contexts. Now you have the person or bookshelf on your primary screen and the navigation screen is on the secondary screen. This allows you to do complicated dialog systems, pixel hunts, machine programming, or whatever.

"Wait, that's not fundamentally better than, say, a popup on a single screen!"

A third-person view substitutes for our personal spatial awareness. First-person jumping puzzles are difficult even if the same puzzle would be a snap in real life. That's because in real life, we're aware of our surroundings. In a third-person game, we get a lot of that same kind of awareness out of the game screen. Covering up the game screen effectively blinds that artificial eye.

Minecraft uses popup menus for all its crafting, which is okay-ish because Minecraft is first person: your situational awareness is already crap, you can't get any more blind. But Terraria, with its third-person view, carefully puts its crafting popups at the edges of the screen where they won't interfere much with your artificial situational "eye".

Unbroken situational awareness may not sound like much, but it's actually pretty important. It's the same reason why corkboard brainstorming is often very effective: you have that important detail off in the corner of the board. Even if you aren't looking at it, you can see it in the corner of your eye and you know it is there. It is a piece of the mental terrain. If you walk away from the corkboard and go to lunch, when you get back you'll probably have to spend a few minutes recovering that awareness.

So, some of my toys have been experiments in retaining situational awareness even when contexts change, and I think that's something that most games don't bother with. I'm hoping to see it become more common.

Augmented Reality and Imposed Reality

There have been a few vaguely interesting articles on augmented reality, and they tend to be like this. "How will corporations abuse us in this new, augmented reality?"

I think this is a topic that needs to be addressed more fundamentally. Rather than talking about the types of ads that can be served, we need to talk about whether or not ads can be served at all.

Right now, if you try to use an augmented reality system, you have to use one of the primordial research projects that are floating around the web, like Google Goggles or Layar. Most people seem to be under the impression that that's just the way it's always going to be.

But that's not the case.

As we move into the future of AR, we're going to have a few basic formats for data to display, and we're going to have loads of competing browsers. Like Chrome and Firefox, these browsers do not exist to serve ads, nor do they exist to take us to specific sites of the corporation's choice and force us to view specific things.

Sometimes, these browsers do. For example, Chrome recently tried to sell me Angry Birds.

So now I don't use Chrome any more.

The point is that, like web browsers, AR browsers will emerge as open solutions for interpreting any available source of data. We won't be using Google(r) ChromeOS(r)(tm) Goggles (r)(tm) with forced reliance on Google(r) GiantFuckingDatabase(tm)(c). We'll be using whatever browser we want to access whichever data sources we want.

Serve us ads? Lock us in?

Not for long!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Personal Mesh Nodes

One of the things I do pretty regularly is come up with science fiction settings. One feature that keeps intruding into my worlds is personal augmented reality. When everyone can look through their phone or glasses to see the world in another way, what does that mean for everyone?

One thing most people overlook is the fundamental technology behind this kind of widespread augmented reality. It implies that everyone has a strong computer - stronger than an iPhone - that is always being used to access local data. If we think in terms of a "super cellphone", we can see that the device must more or less always be transmitting and receiving tons of data from the cell towers. This is not ideal.

The solution I keep coming back to is local mesh networks. Since augmented reality heavily mixes in local stuff, it makes sense to communicate with other local devices instead of saturating the sky with long-range communication. While some stuff will still be non-local, a surprising amount of it can be made local with the assumption that nodes will have terabyte caches of random crap.

The key here is in the mix of mobile (personal) nodes and immobile (local) nodes. Your local Starbucks has their own (quite powerful) node that they make sure is always cached up-to-date with Slashdot and other geek media sites for maximum speed. It is connected to the Starbucks across the street, of course, and the Starbucks down the block... but these local nodes are also connected to every other random local node within range, including your apartment, the department store, that parked car...

Some of these nodes can connect to the internet, some cannot (except by routing through one that can). However, whether they can connect to the internet or not, they can serve up local information and perform local analysis.


Aside from developing this kind of scenario out of curiosity, what purpose does a distributed, largely anonymous mesh network serve? Isn't the internet a better choice?

When considering a scifi setting that's supposed to be reasonably hard, you have to answer these sorts of questions. Why did the mesh network come to be? What are its strengths and weaknesses? What purpose does it serve?

The answer is "an internet of things", to use an already-trite phrase.

"Things" can and will produce and ask for more and more data. Right now, we think in terms of price tags that automatically update and coffee pots that know when they're empty. But those are miniscule baby applications.

It's not unreasonable, especially if you're thinking in terms of scifi, to assume that things will become a whole lot more active. In a dystopian future, your TV watches you as much as you watch it, your clothes will whine and complain if you walk by their brand's store without shopping, your cell phone will constantly track and predict your paths to better bombard you with ads.

But dystopia is not the only place where objects are smart. Even in a utopian setting, items can be very smart and talkative.

Small ways are obvious - your clothes might track when they get tattered and alert you, your chair might detect that you are sitting in it (as opposed to someone else) and assume an ideal firmness and shape, your TV can auto-detect the signal and set its resolution correctly without you having to memorize the complexities of the menu interface...

But these reactive devices are not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about devices that buy and trade information. Huge amounts of information. Terabytes a day.

Your phone tracks the state of the network, keeping the mesh map up to date and plotting which hubs to rely on, always striving to get access to more restricted hubs for better speed. Your shirt constantly communicates with all the other clothes and adaptive murals in the region to cooperatively form a kind of mass artwork that expresses you as well as participating in the whole. Your AR gear constantly talks to the local nodes, "selling" them topological information that it can pick up with its camera in exchange for topological information it can't quite see.

The internet doesn't have infinite capacity, and cell phone communications have even less. Fundamentally, the centralizing protocols the internet uses are inappropriate for an "internet of things", no matter how many integers we increment them by. A mesh network is really the only answer.

Mesh networks have the issue that they are fundamentally decentralized, which is bad from the point of view of a corporation. Centralized information stores allow corporations much more capability to analyze, leash, and abuse their customers, so that's naturally their preference. However, less corporate devices will benefit most from talking to other devices of similar types, rather than simply serving as snoops for their hidden masters. In a utopian setting, talkative devices are largely loyal to their owners rather than their corporations, and may even be manufactured using 3D printers in someone's basement.

Right now, it probably seems like talkative devices are pointless and useless. However, they're almost guaranteed to be part of our future, much as your branded jeans and your lattes and your Youtube videos would be seen as pointless and useless luxuries fifty years ago. Unlike lattes and branded jeans, talkative devices might actually be helpful in the long run, assuming a view that is more utopian than dystopian.

Either way, in a scifi setting, mesh networks lead to a rise of things. In my settings, this is usually accompanied by a rise of AI agents and virtual pets - interactive things that the readers or players can get an intuitive emotional feel for. An equally interesting idea is that humanity will integrate the software agents into their personal feeling of self. Your shirt is an expression of your personality and will, there's no need for it to have an independent "face" for you to deal with...

Anyway, random talk.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Things I Don't Have

Today I read Seth Godin's opinion on why I really hate hearing about Steam and iPad games: because I'm jealous and regretful that I chose not to participate in these things.

To be specific, he says "The reason, I think, is that you're reminding people of a decision they made, a decision that might have felt right at the time, but when they made it, they didn't know about what you've got on offer. They actively decided to take themselves out of the running for this magic event, this extraordinary product, and marketing it to them belittles their choice."

It's true that I choose not to buy iWidgets, use Facebook, or use Steam. And it's true that I hate it when a cool game comes out that's only for iWidgeteers, Facebookies, and Steamfolks, and it's paraded in front of my nose day after day.

This is not because I regret not getting those things. In fact, two out of three of them are free. If I wanted to, I could get them right now. No difficulty at all. Seth says I'm upset because I'm a special kind of pampered jerk who chose not to get them and am now regretful.

I can't agree. Sure, I'm a pampered jerk. But the reasons I don't want to use those things isn't because I chose incorrectly or short-sightedly. I don't use those platforms because they are vile platforms.

Interesting things come out on those platforms, and I'm regretful that the publishers didn't bother to make their thing work on platforms that don't require me to get assfucked. I'm angry when I hear about Terraria because an otherwise awesome game requires me to cuddle up with a third-party piece of bloatware that exists solely to grab my hair painfully tight and scream ads into my ear while eating up my RAM, tracking my every move, and installing mandatory patches that never make things any better and usually make things significantly worse.

A platform is not simply a method for distributing or running software or games. It has good and bad points on its own. The idea Seth posits is that if they release good enough software and games, I should at some point be agreeable to them, want to use the platform.

That's a willingness to bargain away your freedom and privacy for a product. Really? You want to espouse the idea that, if only the things we were offered were a little bit higher quality, we would be happy to sell ourselves, our freedom, our privacy?

How about we come from the other direction, and say that a product is not enough to compromise our person. How about we point out that these platforms are not all equal, and many of them exist specifically to cut apart their users, extract anything they can, and either sell it or abuse it for the sake of further profit?