Friday, 26 June 2015

Seeing what's really there

I remember as a choreographer at dance school showing my choreography teacher my first dance piece. I'd spent a term making this dance, working with three dancers who were studying with me. This was extra-curricular activity but I wanted to make this dance and I felt good about it. So in search of praise I asked my choreography teacher, Ingegerd Lonnroth, to look at it.

We gathered in a dance studio. I started the music and the dancers danced. I watched the dance and I watched my choreography teacher, my gaze flicking between the two. Then, unexpectedly, my chest tightened and my stomach flipped. This dance was not good. Specifically, the section I was watching was not good. And I was acutely embarrassed. How had I not seen this before? I looked across at Ingegerd but she was impassive. Had she noticed?

When the dancers finished Ingegerd said something supportive and encouraging, to them and to me. Then she said "Show me again the section about a third of the way through, starting from the upstage right corner." Yes, she'd noticed.

I learnt two things that day.
1. That Ingegerd is a very perceptive critic, a skill I made full use of during my time at dance school.
2. That it is very difficult to see what you have made the way the audience will see it.

When I look at a dance I've choreographed or a game I've designed the tendency is to see what I want to see, to see the work as I intend it to be not as it is. Faults are ignored as my imagination smooths them over and delivers to me the experience that I expect, because I expect it.

My tool for overcoming this hazard is in that early experience with Ingegerd. Show it to someone whose opinion matters to you. Watch it with them. Imagine what it looks like for them. Imagine what they are thinking. Don't wait for them to tell you, don't rely on their feedback. Empathise and feel it for yourself.

In theory you can do this without the other person there but it is hard. I find that their presence, watching the dance or playing the game, and my anxiety over their reaction helps me to empathise, to see the work as it really is.

With my current game I have shown it to numerous people. Family, friends, other developers. In many cases I watch the screen over their shoulder, imagining what they are thinking and feeling, and I smile as my chest tightens, my stomach flips, and I add another issue to my to-do list. It's not traditional user testing and for you it may not work, but it helps me a lot.

Richard Lord's session 'Lessons I learnt as a Choreographer and Apply as a Game Designer' takes place on Thursday 16 July at 4pm. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

Simple Complexity - how foreign games can help us better serve our players

The number of people playing games has never been higher.  Three main things have happened to facilitate this:
  • Mobile has put a high-end gaming device into the hands of over a billion users, many in countries such as China that haven’t had access to gaming before
  • Free-to-play has encouraged those who wouldn't normally pay to download a game to give them a go
  • Digital distribution has allowed developers to access consumers all around the world, rather than relying on those retail channels they may have been connected to before 

While, twenty years ago, we would be delighted to make a game that reached half a million players, and ecstatic to hit a million, nowadays we can realistically reach ten or even one hundred times as many – and often need to, if we’re to make a profit. So what do we need to do differently to appeal to this broader, wider market?

It’s easy for us to make assumptions about what our players will understand and enjoy – after all, if we love it, so should they, right?

What I've found from working with Japanese and Asian developers and publishers over the years is that, although we may be converging into a global market, players may have taken a completely different gaming journey from us.  Take China – now a huge mobile games market, but a country that had no gaming systems for decades. All the expectations and knowledge we, and many of our players, have built up over those years are not there. I recently heard from someone who’d watched Chinese players on a well-known mobile platform game.  He was amazed to see them studiously avoid the gold coins in the environment, in the belief they’d be killed if they touched them. It’s easy for us to assume that players will understand what they’re supposed to do, but that’s a dangerous assumption.

This isn't a one-way street. A lot of my time is spent playing Japanese games – it’s fascinated me why the Japanese mobile market is so lucrative, but why the biggest titles there often fail to make an impact in the west. Beyond the obvious issues of western and Japanese graphic styles being different, there are many things that Japanese games assume their audience will understand that western gamers generally don’t.  Whether it’s turn-based combat, buddy systems, live events or gacha mechanics, Japanese games throw players into these systems with no explanation – they don’t need one, everyone already knows how to play.  When those games are localised and launched in the west, many players are lost forever in the first few minutes of play, dropping out due to sheer confusion and frustration.  Those that persevere often go on to love the games, matching the high retention and spending levels of their Japanese counterparts, but so much opportunity is lost because players are not introduced gently into the mechanics.

Even if you’re not targeting those markets yourselves, I’d advise readers to play the English versions of the biggest Japanese and Asian titles. To do so will you give some insight as to how confused you might be making some of your own players, not just those abroad, but also those newer gamers closer to.  It will also expose you to game systems that maybe don’t make sense to us at first glance – ‘auto battle’ being a great example.  To many western gamers and developers, the idea of a game that plays itself seems ludicrous. Auto battle only makes sense when you play a game for a long time. What drew you into a game in the first place – probably a fun, tactile, interactive experience, is really only the window dressing on the game that really engages people. What sits underneath that seemingly simple action title or puzzler is likely a deep and engaging game about collection, team building, social interaction and strategic planning. In that context, where the real fun is to be had once you've mastered the game underneath, auto-play makes more sense – removing the need to grind and allowing you to focus on what really matters.

The most successful mobile games tend to be those that are easy for people to understand, enjoyable in the first minute of play but which offer an ever-deeper and more compelling experience for those players who keep going. The challenge for developers is marrying the accessibility needed to attract global or inexperienced players with the depth needed to keep everyone engaged long term. It’s not easy but, as the top grossing charts prove, when you get it right, you can get it very, very right.

Harry Holmwood  - European CEO of Marvelous, a Japanese mobile and console publisher, and also a Director of The Secret Police, a London-based mobile gaming startup.