By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
With these realities, the current industry standard of only doing expansions for the most successful games and always giving them plenty of features makes sense. However, Internet publishing, where you pay for and download a game directly from a publisherís website, stands ready to change this. Internet publishing is not yet a reality because it is still not feasible for most people to download more than ten or twenty megabytes at a time, and because there is still much fear about internet commerce even with reputable businesses, despite there being about the same chance of your credit card number being stolen from a phone conversation or a written bill as over the internet. This fear seems to be easing given the number of internet stores now advertising on television, but the download size will remain an issue for at least the next year, until cable or ISDN connections are as common as 33.6 modems. There also continue to be reliability problems with the Internet and with server software, leading to interrupted downloads when connections are poor and crashed servers when demand is high which will probably keep internet publishing from being a standard for full products for some years yet, and I personally hope that physically-published software never entirely goes away, because I like having a physical disk for a lot of reasons. What is completely possible today is Internet publishing of software add-ons. It is entirely possible to download twenty or so megabytes without problems and without an incredibly long wait even over a modem, and with the right content, as Iíll soon describe, there is no reason why expansions have to be much larger.
Being able to publish over the Internet opens up a whole new realm of possibilities, and I hope publishers are creative enough to see them. Internet publishing allows publishers to have products available for much longer with no shelf-space worries and no need to spend what essentially amounts to graft to get their products more prominently displayed in stores (next time you go to a software store, look at the games which are displayed at ends of isles or on small individual displays - this is not some accident or gift of the retailer, it was paid for by the publisher). Just as Games Workshop does with their magazine, a publisher can get maximum advertising exposure and control for its product by just putting pages up on their website. Internet publishing also means that existing marketing notions about perceived product value go out the window. These ideas come from decades of traditional marketing experience based mainly on tangible products displayed on shelves. In the intangible, infinite Internet, much of this experience doesnít apply. Once we are rid of existing notions of perceived software values, it will become possible to sell software for small amounts of money, like five or ten dollars. At a lower price, the software can have a smaller amount of content. Consumers might balk at paying $49.99 to download a full game off the net if they didnít get a box, manual, and CD, because they are used to getting those items for that price, but they will initially have few expectations for the $4.99 or $9.99 product.
This is where we get back to the Games Worskshop model. In the paper-game industry, there are far fewer restrictions on expected prices, and Games Workshop is able to sell products ranging from their sixty to seventy-five dollar games to fifteen dollar character packs for their "roleplaying light" game Warhammer Quest. Minimum-priced computer game expansions, around five or ten dollars, could consist of as little as three levels, or a single character, or a new weapon or group of similar weapons. Higher-priced expansions could consist of short adventures, like back in the old days of shareware games where Doom was sold in three parts, or an entirely new side for a real-time strategy game. Getting these expansions out could become a lot easier. It is still entirely feasible for a game character (just about any sort of game that has a character) to be put together by one, maybe two people, in as little as two months. Groups that small can work far more quickly than groups even slightly larger - if you have worked in any sort of team environment you are probably aware that the larger the group, the slower the decision-making process, even with extraordinary leaders (who, sadly, are often lacking in our industry). Small expansions also make it effective to take new hires or individuals from other teams and put them on a game they have not previously worked on, because they will not need to have as comprehensive an understanding of the game if they are only working on a small part. Simultaneously, consumer expectations for low-priced, small expansions will be lower: five nailguns with different types of ammo arenít tremendously exciting if they are the weapons which come with the Quake level pack half a year after Quakeís release, but at a month after the gameís release and a price of five dollars they suddenly seem interesting. These add-ons could be published every couple weeks until interest in the game drops off or another game is published. Even with only a few major titles a year or long gaps between products, publishers can maintain their presence throughout the year, one of todayís most pressing problems.
Although small, Internet-published expansions open up a whole new realm of possibilities, for true effectiveness they will also require some design changes in computer games. The significant difference between paper games and computer games is that the vast majority of paper games are either competitive (like Warhammer), or cooperative but not pre-plotted (like AD&D if played without modules). Itís extremely easy to make additions to these games - just start fighting against that new army, or introduce new monsters and rules in your next AD&D session. Enhancing your typical single-player plot-oriented first-person shooter would currently be more difficult. It would be fairly easy to add in new characters with different powers which could be selected at the beginning of the game, and since many of these games can be finished in 15 hours and are often re-played, itís reasonable to believe if an add-on character changed gameplay in noticeable ways many people might want to use it to replay, but new weapons and monsters would only be usable in new levels or non-plotted play under the current typical FPS design. Any game which is set up for a largely random distribution of weapons and monsters like Diablo or Ultima Online can very easily have new items added, provided the underlying engine is capable of handling a constantly-growing database. Many games are going to be headed to online play within the next few years anyway, and all will need flexible databases and flexible designs and backstories which can constantly accommodate new material, folding it into the existing levels to as large a degree as possible. Single-player games can take routes such as having a plot where it makes sense for the protagonist to continue having a variety of rather random and unconnected adventures even after the main plot is done, or introducing new protagonists in the expansion packs. Any basically competitive, strategic game like your typical Dune II clone can handle almost any changes thrown at it through expansions.
The time is ripe to change what consumers expect from games. Despite the attempts of many severely misguided developers, games are not movies and are not the ideal entertainment to be consumed and then thrown away. The amount of time it takes to play through the average game works against the throwaway mentality. To me at least, it is depressing to spend fifteen or twenty hours of my life on something and then forget all about it. Computer games, no matter how good their plots ever get, are still about interactivity at the core, and it only makes sense to allow and encourage players to return to their favorite games and enjoy more of that interactivity. And although Mooreís law does make any game obsolete about two years after it is released, the long-standing paper game tradition of finding ways to translate "data" from old or different games and use it in new ones could be adopted by our industry as well, and has even been attempted a few times in the past, like in the Bardís Tale games (if I remember correctly), which could import Ultima or Wizardry characters. Ultimately, everything Iíve described here is the best way to prolong the lives of games, and perpetuate their memories. Letís hope it happens.
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
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