By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
lthough many computer gamers donít even know they exist, computer games owe a lot to the complicated non-computerized role-playing games, wargames, and boardgames out there. "Paper games" as they are referred to by some (perhaps the best term Iíve heard to sum up all the different genres of traditional games out there). There has always been a large amount of design synergy between paper games and computer games, and in the early days of computer games many of the titles produced were almost pure adaptations of existing paper games - computer games were even once seen as a curious technological byproduct of the role-playing craze which was created and popularized by Dungeons and Dragons in the late 70s and early 80s. With the developments in technology and the maturation gained from years of designing computer games, our industry now focuses primarily on games which could only exist on computers, and paper games are used more as inspiration or background than for direct translations. This is not necessarily bad, but paper games have continued to evolve as well, and computer game designers would do well to continue to be aware of and be inspired by the paper games out there.
The people I have known in the industry who really love playing computer games (something Iíve said before is a necessity for a great game developer) include a larger percentage of paper gamers then the average population, and I myself am something of a Games Workshop (GW) fanatic. GW is the British company primarily known for the tabletop wargames Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 and their accompanying vast ranges of rather expensive miniatures. Paper gamers tend to either love or hate GW due to the companyís somewhat simplistic rules which are almost entirely based around standard six-sided dice and plenty of chance, and also due to the rather extreme expense of the hobby. Those less fond of GW often accuse them of deliberately trying to extort money out of its players with its frequent and costly expansions to its product lines which often seem like near-obligatory purchases for proper use of their main games. However, the level of interest and enjoyment created by GW expansions is something that could actually be emulated in the computer-game field, regardless of how you actually feel about the games.
Games Workshop games, which the company itself refers to as "hobby games," are significantly visual. All games, even their basic boardgames like Talisman, are accompanied by some miniatures, and GW publishes their own magazine to both advertise upcoming releases as well as suggest how to paint them, or otherwise show off what their games could look like if every player had the time, skill, and budget of the companyís staff. They also employ many professional artists to illustrate all their products and rulebooks, loading them with far more images than all but the most highly-budgeted competing products. Each new expansion is supported by lots of new miniatures and art, giving players some new visuals to expand the universe of the game even before they finish reading the new rules and background material. Most other paper game publishers, for both aesthetic and financial reasons, tend to limit their releases to single books that may be fairly low on art, and donít produce their own miniatures. There are advantages to doing so, and one of the reasons some paper gamers donít like GW games is the guidelines they impose upon their playersí imaginations through all this visual definition. However, this makes the comparison to computer games much easier - in a computer game the look of every enemy and environment must be predefined. Computer gamers always expect their game expansions to give them a significant amount of new visuals.
The visual additions are one of the reasons that GW fans look forward to a new expansion, but on their own arenít enough to create the sort of urge to buy that many GW fanatics feel on the release of just about anything new from the company. Neither is the additional background material provided, which is common to most paper game expansions, and should be more common in computer game expansions. I believe the source of the urge is the unique sort of collectibility GW creates with their expansions. Games Workshop fans can feel compelled to purchase an add-on even if its subject matter isnít of particular interest to them because it may only be available for a limited time, and because they want to know the rules the add-on contains in case their opponents are going to be using it. The limited availability of their products is partially natural and partially artificial: it is never possible to maintain a physical productís availability forever, especially for a relatively small company like a paper game producer, but GW also deliberately revises their popular games completely every three or four years, changing rules and re-sculpting or even phasing out entire sets of old miniatures. However, given that miniatures are their most expensive and hobby-oriented products, the company also tries to maintain compatibility with old miniatures ranges as much as possible so that players who may have spent hundreds of dollars and hours assembling and painting large armies arenít suddenly left without any use for their collection when a new edition of the game is released. Since GWís games are set in two primary universes, this also means that miniatures collected for one game are often useful in another game.
The collectibility factor is given one final push by their product release and advertising practices. GW releases new products, even if only a few miniatures, year-round. Their monthly company magazine functions as their best form of advertising, and because they also use it to enhance their games with new rules and articles on painting and strategy, it is collectible itself, so GW essentially gets their customers to pay for the advertisements they read! I donít know few GW fans that donít subscribe to the mag or at least read a copy regularly. GWís website is updated weekly with their new product, although it lacks any content to make it as interesting and mandatory as the magazine. Nonetheless, between the website and the magazine all but the most casual of GW fans are made aware that new products are constantly arriving, and this serves to keep their interest in and awareness of the company high.
Iíve described the three basic features of Games Workshopís product line: their visual nature and appeal, their collectibility, and their constant release schedule. Every product GW creates is made to include these features in some way, and this consistency of vision and planning has led to a strong fan-base and consistent sales in a market where even major players like TSR can have a tough time of it and get bought out. The computer game market, although much larger, has similar problems to the paper game market, with companies constantly failing and being absorbed or just closing up, and very few which are consistently successful even with established product lines. Currently our industry is operating in a very similar manner to Hollywood, where products are released to stand and fail very much on their own. Successful products are milked as much as possible until they become worthless or another hit comes along. This is not a good model to emulate, as it has already created many of the same problems Hollywood suffers: product decisions made by short-term-oriented upper management who donít even know what makes a good game/film, little or no publisher/studio identity, high employee turnover which before long may create a per-project hiring standard as occurs with film crews, with "stars" - the big name designers/programmers/artists - contracted to several projects. Although claiming that adopting a GW-style product-line model can change our industry may be a bit bold, at the very least a company which attempts something different should have a very good chance of creating the kind of lasting and consistent sales which are desired and needed, and I believe the key to a GW-style product line lies in making better use of game expansions.
The current computer game industry thinking on expansions is that they are generally not profitable and not even really desirable to consumers. They are viewed as one of the few ways our industry has to capitalize on the success of a top-ten hit, and because of this are generally developed fairly cynically and rarely become essential companions to the original product. A large contributor to this kind of thinking is the horrible mode of publishing in our industry. Unlike the paper game market that is smaller and generates very few distinct products every year, many thousands of computer game titles are published in a year, all competing for a very small amount of shelf space. This means, with the exception of a tiny percent of titles, no game really has a shelf life of more than about three months. The amount of time an average game stays on someoneís hard drive is about the same. Any expansion which comes out after this initial three months is going to sit alone on shelves meaning it wonít be able to attract anyone who doesnít already own the game, and is likely to fail to attract even those who do own the game if theyíve already gotten bored with it and uninstalled it.
There are some convoluted and almost circular reasons why the chance of getting an expansion out within three months after a productís release is currently almost nil. Iíll attempt to explain: A phenomenon called "perceived value" causes our industryís marketers to believe customers view any product priced under approximately $29.99 as a "value item" and therefore "not as good as" a higher-priced game, no matter what the truth is. As long as marketers and the retail chains they sell to continue to believe this, they will continue to portray lower-priced products as less valuable to customers by consigning them to budget software bins or plastering significant phrases like "value priced" on them. Customers will then, of course, think they really are of lesser value (most marketers will not buy this argument, but then they arenít generally hired for their brains). An expansion product must therefore have a certain minimum price tag so it doesnít get brushed aside as a bargain item, but with a certain minimum price tag it must have a reasonable amount of content, or customers will think they are getting ripped off (this is what really happens, not just something marketers believe). In order to provide enough content, the developer must assign a fairly large team to create all the features, and once a team of even three or four people get together, the minimum time it takes to complete a product becomes about three months, especially when the team has just finished a major eighteen month to two year product. There are ways to attempt to reduce this time, such as staffing the expansion team with people from other teams or sending it out-of-house (but these cost time for learning curve), or starting the expansion before the original game has finished (but this costs time to deal with an in-flux pre-ship code base). In short, although it is possible to put a good expansion together in less than three months, it isnít wise to plan on this.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1998 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|