Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Watch Me Talk About Something!

Casual Connect is an annual convention in Seattle dedicated to the discussion of casual computer games, the design and marketing of same, and how to write games that milk every last penny from your aunt by getting her to bug you on Facebook for cow clicks or Smurfberries or whatever.

Anyway, they were kind enough to ask me to speak about storytelling in computer games for their Indie track. I gave my talk, and they filmed it. My talk is online here. Please enjoy my sultry voice, questionable game design principles, and unique posture. 

Or not. The talk is 20 minutes long. You could probably more profitably spend your time doing, say, ANYTHING ELSE.

(Technical note: My slides are a .pdf. I know. I suck and am unclassy. But my main life goal is to reach death without ever learning how to use Powerpoint, and I'm sticking with it.)

The most interesting thing about Casual Connect? How weird anyone who sells software in the old school way is made to feel. Here's what I do: I write a game. I give it to you in return for a set number of dollars. Then we part ways, and you never have to look at my pale, beardy face again.

This model is so incredibly retro now! Pay money for a game? Nonsense! Everyone real makes their money with microtransactions and advertising and nickle and diming you for packs of 100 Dragon Bux you can use to make your zombie ninja pirate dragon grow faster. And if you make money any other way, people in suits will act very nervous and not make eye contact with you anymore.

If you end up at Casual Connect and talking to actual grown-up business people, I suggest you do what I did: Have a firm, manly handshake. Make eye contact. Say "monetize" and "ARPU" as much as possible. And then pee yourself.


  1. Just give people a way to show appreciation voluntarily.

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  2. My main gripe with "freemium" is that it is implemented so poorly and so greedily.

    I would rather pay up front for a game, perhaps after a demo.

    But I've seen free games in the app store, which no one would ever pay more than a few bucks for if they were payware, have IAP packages of "jewels" or "coins" or "gold" for over 100 dollars!!

    Hardly anyone would pay that for a console title, let alone a Bejewellewed or Farmville clone.

    Sometimes IAP is done well though: when it's a feature that adds playability without breaking the game balance. Such as the ability to auto-pick up items, rather than having to actively pick them up. Or an item that speeds up sprite movement rates, that kind of thing. I would and have paid for those in the past.

    1. I suspect that the point of the hundred dollar items is to make the consumer laugh and get over sticker shock. Seeing a $100 option makes a $5 one for all you really care about seem sensible. And otherwise, your price cap might have been $3.

    2. It's a logical but incorrect conclusion Danny. When Microtransactions began that was indeed the theory. What they didn't count on is someone who is a fan of a game is willing to spend nearly unlimited amounts of money. Basically we as an industry mistook the value our products hold to people. What we found out is there's a significant percent of people willing to spend great sums on a single game, significant to be about equal to the sum of all the smaller transactions. A little less, but not nearly as small as you'd think.

      For instance I would estimate that of paying players, 20% of them purchased a tank in World of Tanks that cost 30 dollars or more on top of their other transactions. While the other 80 % purchase smaller items or just premium time (10 dollars a month).

      It's just a guess, but it's a well educated one. For larger transactions, say, $60-100 or more you'd see that % drop to maybe 5%... if it is indeed 100 dollars then that 5% group is worth catering to for sure.

      Finally, for the record, all of this phenomena dates back to studies done on Doom (the original) when a researcher noticed that people, in the same breath as complaining about the price of the game, were paying 200-1,000 dollars to upgrade their PC to play it. ;)

      -Joe L. PR Guy for Spiderweb & Other Inides (Also the guy who set up Jeff's talk at Casual Connect).

  3. Thanks for posting this Jeff, I enjoy all of your posts and follow your career steps with interest. Congrats on the success of your latest game and I wish you all the best with your future games!

  4. Nowadays there's a new thing in between full priced games up front and free to play but cash shop: I'm talking about the "cheaply priced but what a lot of dlc!" model.

    This can be seen at its worst in games like Dungeon Defenders. They start with a kind of "budget price" but then they milk the heck out of you with DLC.

    Of course even the big AAA games milk you with their dlc these days, even from day one in some cases. I wonder if it's a reaction to the fact that pc games haven't actually gone up in price with inflation, and that sales are expected to be sooner and harder now, because of steam?

    Let me know what you think anyway!

    Love and hugs.

  5. Great presentation (so far, I'm still watching).

    I was just wondering though, did you know that you really should have given attribution for that XKCD comic?

  6. Jeff, I know you like making with the self-deprecating humor, but that was a damn good presentation.

    I liked the characterization of story in games as a tool of engagement (along with graphics, etc). I am an avid reader and so I harbor a default assumption that the story is the main product, which tends to be an inappropriate standard for games.

  7. Very interesting points you make in your presentation, Jeff. In a few months' time, I'll be writing my own RPG, and these tips are helpful -- thank you. =]

  8. Hello Mr. Vogal. I enjoyed your direct, funny, and informative presentation. However, there is one point that I must disagree with you on. I feel that Planescape: Torment is the gold standard of writing in a game :).

  9. Well worth a watch, cheers for that. :-)

  10. Oh, me! me! I've got a question!

    What do yo do for marketing? How do you find your niche players?

  11. Thanks a lot for this presentation, it was great! I find very insightful your approach to creating a game and a story. Thanks again, you're a great guy!

  12. Nice presentation Jeff..:) Glad to hear that Avadon and Steam has been a success for your company..That is awesome..:)

  13. Just listened to your talk - very interesting. I love knowing more about how folks work in the small company end of the game industry.

    However, can you let the video folks know that they induced a nasty headache after only 6 minutes? The blasted flipping back and forth from slides to video was killing me. I had to put it down and go back later after the headache passed - on the second attempt I didn't look at the video, I just listened to the talk.

  14. Nice presentation (and wit). I can't help but feel both that it's a bit obvious to say that good stories are ones that work for audiences (though kudos on the focus on world building), as well as that it's probably wasted at a convention like Casual Connect.

  15. Great discussion. I know that it might not have fit the venue (or the time allotted), but I would have loved to have heard a few of your thoughts on the relationship (tension?) between linearity of storytelling (i.e. authorial/programmer voice) vs open world player choice. Specifically in regard to the Geneforge series which I've always seen as the best masterclass examination of this issue that we currently have in gaming, given how you approach the problem from basically every given direction at one point or another in that series.

    The G1 and G2 are more "sandbox" and thus "story" mostly just comes from interacting with characters in the world and choosing a faction.

    G3 is more linear with a more defined overarching plot (and the welcome edition of re-occuring characters who grow and change through the rest of the series), but as a consequence has fewer choices. I know some fans hate that it's so linear, but personally (as someone who plays games primarily for story) I actually think G3 is when the series gets interesting. The quality in writing took a HUGE leap forward from G2 to G3 (not to slag G2, or anything, it just feels like G3 is much more plot/character focused and has a much more complex and nuanced take on morality--which is a good thing. Because there are only 2 very imperfect factions the player is forced to make some very tough moral decisions at times, often weighing some very grey pros and cons---which I kind of loved as that sort of moral ambiguity is so rare in video games).

    G4 seems a bit of a compromise between G1/G2 and G3 and maintains an overarching plot/interesting characters (albeit with fewer factions and less freedom). However, I think it solves this by making the choices you do have mean more and be much more interesting via a healthy dose of political maneuvering and intrigue.

    And finally G5, in my view, somewhat impossibly succeeds at basically everything--a strong overarching story, interesting and well written characters, scores of player choices that matter, 5 factions, and a massive game world to boot (in fact, I'd argue that G5 is one of very few open world RPGs games to balance player freedom of choice with an interesting and compelling overarching story almost perfectly. It's definitely the best game spiderweb has ever made, if you don't mind my gushing for a bit).

    So I'm rambling a bit here, but it seems like spiderweb spent an entire series of games wrestling with the issue of player choice vs authorial control in storytelling and, ultimatly, in G5 they seemed to sort of "crack" the problem and ended up making one of the best RPGs ever (it certainly rivals any of the classics from the late 1990s--Baldur's Gate, Fallout 2, etc, etc).

    Which is maybe why some people were a bit confused by Avadon as it seems to go back to a more "G3" model in a lot of ways.

    I actually love Avadon (voiced party members are definite plus and its boss encounters and battles are the best of any spiderweb game to date), but in terms of the "player freedom" vs "authorial control" tension that the Geneforge series wrestled with so brilliantly, it very much seemed to side almost totally with "authorial control" with only a few choices present which ultimately mattered much. Which was a bit disappointing after the brilliant way that G5 handled this issue.

    Anyhow, I'm rambling on, but I'd love to hear Vogel's thoughts on how his views of play choice in story telling grew and changed over the course of his making the geneforge games. . Perhaps someone needs to organize a more academic type conference on narrative in video games. That'd be awesome.

  16. And as another note, I think it's currently in vogue to trash Bioware, so I don't really want to pile on. I think they have their flaws (first and foremost being that they very much have a formula and very rarely do they break out of that formula to innovate), but I do think they do the basics of character design/creation/world building very well.

    Maybe with only the exception of DA2, they know how to creative interesting worlds with interesting characters who draw you in. But terms of truly "innovative" storytelling in video games, except maybe for the ending of ME3 (which I think was failed brilliance in its original form), I wouldn't look to Bioware.

    Currently I'd keep an eye out for:

    CDProjekt Red: In "The Witcher" series I think these guys might be making the first video games truly for adults (especially the second. The first was good, but had flaws at times). And by that I don't mean "adult content" (although there is plenty of that too), but rather in the way they tell their stories. They create a massive, politically alive world, with scores of interesting characters (each with their own fascinating backstories, motives, and agendas), then they just dump the player into it en media res with a minimal amount of hand holding or exposition and leave it up to the player to make of things what they will. The result is that if you don't pay attention you will be confused as hell. But if you do pay attention it's bloody thrilling as everything just feels so lived in--like the world has been going on for centuries before. Not everything is underlined or highlighted 1,000 times, so it takes some mental work on the part of the player to piece things together, which is nice. It's the closet thing a video game has ever come to something like HBO's "The Wire" or even the most obvious comparison "Game of Thrones."

    Of course, they also have the benefit of a whole series of popular Polish novels to draw from (which probably contributes to the "lived in" feeling of the world as it allows the creators to allude to very detailed histories covered in the novels off hand without having to go through the work of creating those back stories or spelling them out fully in the games, creating the illusion of depth)--so perhaps it's not entirely fair to compare The Witcher series to Dragon Age or something like that, but they also get a whole host of things right just in terms of the basics of good writing that video games usually fail at (e.g. stuff like allowing ambiguity, nuance, showing rather than telling, minimal exposition,....I could go on and on).

    Obsidian: These guys go all the way back to Planescape: Torment, obviously. But while many of their games are kind of buggy and rushed, their writing and general game/world design are usually top notch. Alpha Protocol, for example, had terrible combat, but it was almost entirely redeemed by its awesome dialogue system, which turned talking to other players into a form of combat all its own. Plus, Fallout New Vegas is a modern classic and KOTOR2 (especially with the restored content mod) is about as interesting, character wise, as the Star Wars universe ever got.

  17. You remind me a bit of George from Seinfeld.

  18. It was nice to hear you, Jeff! Great talk, but maybe just a little to fast paced. Alas there was a lot of data, a lot of "good story" :)
    Thank you.

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