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Game Stores on Mobile and PC

This bit of news from RPS is pretty remarkable:

We’re not even halfway through 2014, and Steam has already added more new games than it did in the entirety of 2013.

Is PC gaming headed towards the fate of the iOS App Store, where there are eleventy-billion games and no one knows about 99.9% of them? Or is the App Store going to look more like traditional PC gaming over time, with bigger production and marketing budgets sitting alongside a plethora of highly available indie games?

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Indies have been on the rise for PC due to the decreasing cost of creating (through things like Unity, GameMaker) and distributing (through Steam, the Humble Store, and others) games. You could argue that on iOS, the same mechanics exist, taken to an extreme. It’s always been cheap to make mobile games (vs traditional AAA titles) and throw them on the App Store, and so there are many more titles.

On the flip side, since there are so many titles on mobile, standing out has gotten harder and harder. Fewer and fewer companies have the budgets to market a new game to the level required. A large part of this is the lack of discoverability on mobile. As shoddy as Steam is (I love Steam, but this is another story for another day), it’s a hell of a lot better at surfacing things than the App Store.

But if Steam is actually dropping Greenlight, then we’re going to need another way to deal with the glut of games. Maybe, as a commentator on RPS suggests, the answer is more storefronts (like GOG, Humble Bundle, etc) but no one really knows. Valve/Steam really are the gatekeepers on PC (whether they like it or not) right now, so the next few years will be interesting to say the least. Less restrictive gatekeepers than our overlords at Apple, but in control of a lot of market-making levers nonetheless. Interesting times to be a gamer, indeed.

Killstreaks

Last week I read this critique of Titanfall’s “unlock” system, as compared to Call of Duty. “Unlock” isn’t really the right word, since the author isn’t talking about Titanfall’s progression system (whereby you earn XP by playing and completing challenges, and level up to earn new weapons / modifications / etc). Rather, the argument is something like: Since you have access to really powerful features (like dropping Titans) as a new player, you’ll get bored since more power isn’t unlocked over time.

Yet this supposed solution also creates new problems. What you get in the first round is what you get in every match you play, and while unlocks, loadouts and Burn Cards offer flexibility and empower different playstyles, they don’t afford any tangible increase in power. As you get better, you get your hands on the toys quicker, but none ever really boosts your chances of winning.

The author’s example of a better system is the killstreak implementation in CoD 4: MW. If, and only if, you are able to run up a high killstreak are you allowed to summon an AC-130, tactical nuke, or other high-tech shenanigans. The point is that this system makes it a much rarer event to unleash something truly powerful (which is true), and that is therefore better because otherwise the game would become stale (which I disagree with).

The reaction that came to mind when I read the article was, “What about Team Fortress 2? Or Quake? Or CounterStrike: Any Version Ever?” None of these best-in-class multiplayer FPSes have killstreaks that unlock temporary power boosts, yet seem to have no problem flourishing.

Killstreaks encourage a specific kind of gameplay that may make sense in a Call of Duty world. It is less obvious they would make Quake 3 a better or longer-lasting game.

I was expecting a critique of the weapon unlock system in Titanfall - why am I forced to grind through 50 levels of XP to play with all the toys I paid $60 for? Titanfall’s progression system has it’s issues, but one of them is definitely not the fact that you get to drop Titans all. the. goddamn. time. The name of the game is Titanfall - how on earth would it be better served by only letting players summon a Titans when they reached a killstreak of 10? The article closes with:

Clearly, Respawn will tinker with Titanfall’s framework in the inevitable sequels to come. As it does, it would do well to remind itself why the multiplayer FPS exists. When power is permanent, the fantasy rather loses its shine.

Multiplayer FPSes exist because it is fun to be a badass and to crush your opponents. The authors would do well to remind themselves that blanket applying a mechanic from one game in a genre to all other games in that genre is unbelievably short-sighted.

The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird

This review of Flappy Bird is by far the most amazing thing I’ve read all year. It may be the best review I read all year, despite the fact that we are only one month in.

But in fetishizing simplicity, we also mistake the elegance of design for beauty. For Go and Tetris are likewise ghastly, erupting stones and tetrominoes endlessly, failing to relent in their desire to overtake us. The games we find ourselves ever more devoted to are often also the ones that care very little for our experience of them. This is the devotion of material indifference. To understand Flappy Bird, we must accept the premise that games are squalid, rusty machinery we operate in spite of themselves. What we appreciate about Flappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

On Free To Play

(Disclosure: I work at a company that makes free to play games. This opinion is my own.)

This weekend, the internet briefly went nuts again over the specter of in-app purchases destroying gaming as we know it. As a long-time gamer (I played the original Dungeon Keeper referenced in the article), I understand where the author is coming from, but the blanket vitriol directed towards IAPs and free-to-play is misguided.

The F2P version of Dungeon Keeper may nickel and dime players, but that’s a problem with the game’s design (I don’t know, I haven’t played it), not the entire business model. For every great game you pay up front for (XCOM, Dishonored, Minecraft, etc), there are plenty of games that charge $50 up front and end up being terrible (Duke Nukem Forever, anyone?). Is this somehow more ethical than letting someone play a game for free before deciding whether they’re happy putting money into the system?

Additionally, F2P enables games-as-a-service where it would have been impossible (due to financial constraints) before. I’ve personally logged hundreds of hours in Team Fortress 2 and appreciated the endless updates Valve has put into the game — if they only charged a fixed amount up front, what incentive do they have to continue supporting the community of players who are no longer paying?

It’s not all black and white. There are terribly designed F2P games, and there are games like League of Legends, or Puzzle and Dragons that are perfectly playable as a non-paying player, and provide hundreds of hours of enjoyment. There are paid games that cost $60 up front that are worth the investment, and there are others that cause deep regret (*cough* Diablo 3).

I agree that on mobile, F2P has dominated the industry which makes it hard for games like XCOM or Oceanhorn to bubble up to the top, but this is actually a discovery problem. Since the app charts are built around the most downloads and top grossing, they are naturally dominated by F2P games which can acquire more users, and make more money. On PC, Steam / Steam Greenlight / Humble Indie Bundle / GoG.com and others make it easy to discover high quality games that aren’t just ranked by top downloads or grossing statistics. If you’re on mobile, you don’t have these other outlets (for now).

As a life-long gamer, I’m excited by the future of mobile gaming. I routinely put money into F2P games (LoL, Puzzle and Dragons, and TF2 all top my list), and also buy full games (Super Hexagon, XCOM, GTA V, etc). In the long run, the most successful games and franchises will be the ones that focus on creating delight for their players, regardless of the business model.

The thing looked fierce: the pointy ram intake/radome evokes images of the spiked helmet of a Prussian solder. The tiny, recessed cockpit of some versions makes it appear like some sinister subterranean carnivore from the front view. Over all the thing looks like a supersonic medieval mace; all straight lines and brutally sharp angles. The designers didn’t even bother with the “area rule” -they didn’t need to; it’s powerful engine punched through supersonic drag issues like a hatchet through dog shit. Unlike the swoopy-doopy SR-71 or Bristol 188 or Tsybin RSR, it is an undiluted incarnation of terrifying speed and electric death.

I have a long way to go with my wok-ing skills.

On Google Reader

I started using Reader November 30, 2005, a bit over a month after the product was launched (according to the Official Reader Blog).

I remember using Bloglines as my RSS reader of choice before Reader, trying out the new service, hating the “lens” design, and going back to Bloglines. It wasn’t until September 2006, nearly a year later, that I returned after the (first) big redesign, and never looked back.

When I joined Google in 2007, Reader was the product I wanted to work on more than anything else, and I was fortunate enough to be able to work with the amazing team before it was put into maintenance mode in 2010.

It’s obvious why I care, but to many people, the widespread passion around Reader’s shutdown seems strange - why do we care? Who uses feed readers anymore in a world of Twitter and Facebook?

Reader started out as an RSS reader, but it in no way needed to be only an RSS reader. RSS is only the infrastructure that delivers information (which is why Dave Winer is fine to hate on Reader as one of many clients) - it could just as easily have been augmented with Twitter, Facebook, and G+. Except for one problem: this was Google, and it doesn’t take a particularly astute observer of history to see how well Google plays with Twitter or Facebook.

So Reader was caught in a catch-22 of sorts. It needed to grow or die, but in order to grow it needed to expand beyond the scope of RSS to include the other forms of rapidly growing information consumption… that Google was unable to work with (and in Facebook’s case, didn’t want to share). Doing so would also require significantly more resources and an expansion of scope for the product.

Reader vs Twitter & Facebook

Comparing the usage/growth of a product that was an afterthought at Google, and hasn’t been staffed for three years with Twitter and Facebook is silly. Imagine if (somewhat absurdly) Google had decided to invest the resources of G+ into a product like Reader. Calling Reader a niche product isn’t an argument against Reader, it’s an argument against the staffing and support it received throughout its life.

I’ve always been confused why a company with the mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” never valued a product that did that on very personal level. Particularly in a world of increasing information overload, a product designed to take in a variety of sources and present them efficiently and cleanly certainly seems like it would provide value. One friend told me he had replaced Reader by using Twitter, Facebook, Techmeme, and Reddit, which sounds terrifying to me.

Judging by the growth of products like Zite and Prismatic (I use both of these), people are searching for a way to have relevant and interesting information (minus the friend updates, etc) surfaced for them in a way that Twitter and Facebook are pretty bad at. Reader served this through recommended and shared items, but also provided a way for users to explicitly declare what they wanted to see.

Reader provides a carefully controlled environment where you only see things you explicitly care about. No ads. No friend requests. Flexible UI that adapts to your reading style[1]. You might argue that the same content exists on Twitter or Facebook, but they don’t lend themselves to the same kind of publishing, and the UI is cluttered with a myriad of unrelated features and content.

Mike Elgan sums it up nicely:

In fact, Twitter is not a big RSS reader. RSS is something you control, and Twitter is something other people control. (Even if you dedicate a Twitter account exclusively to the same sources of content you had in Google Reader, the viewing options, functionality and everything about Twitter is controlled by Twitter.) That both give you streams of content is a superficial similarity. Fundamentally, they are opposites.

What Google Reader and RSS fans fear is not the loss of a good service and a great format. They fear the loss of control. They fear a future in which decisions about what they see, watch, read and listen to are determined by secret algorithms and the whims of the social media masses.

In the end, there isn’t much to say about the decision itself. Google’s effort to focus makes a lot of sense, and killing a product that wasn’t doing anything fits that, even if it was a self-inflicted stagnation. I think a lot of people’s frustrations are stemming from feeling like Reader was (to them) such an obviously useful and beloved product, and an accompanying sense of outrage and confusion over why Google doesn’t  understand that.

For me, I’ve known that Google either hasn’t understood or cared about Reader for years. I’m less sad for the loss of a product that I loved, and more for the loss of what it could have been, given the proper investment. The bright side is that there are now lots of people out there thinking (and working) on that future. Let’s just hope they don’t get acquired by Google.

Notes

  1. All items vs new items; by source or by folder or river-of-news; titles vs expanded cards; unread counts on or off
  2. I particularly liked this post on the shutdown as well