This was originally posted on 19th September 2011

Round 1

This morning while hanging washing on the clothes horse like the diligent house husband I occasionally am, my 15 month old son pulled excitedly on a sock I’d just hung, causing the whole thing to keel over, knock him on the head and then return to its original position. One minor tear break later and he attempts the exact same thing. This left me in an interesting position, do I step in physically and stop the thing from tipping over or let him learn from his own mistakes? In the end I went with a warning I think he probably understood a little bit of, but more likely he was suddenly distracted by Spiderman, Batman, a picture of an elephant, the idea of lions, or a near infinite variation on one of these themes and off he ran.

Kids learn in a variety of ways, through experience (pulling this=banged head), advice, terror, luck, watching etc. The idea of operant conditioning through negative reinforcement works when the idea of or excitement of a potential reward becomes weak or unattractive enough that it’s not worth the risk of being knocked on the head for. Then as the memory of the physical pain of being hit on the head fades, you might still try again if the allure of the reward or action is weighted appropriately.

With videogames, you’re being knocked on the head constantly during the entire experience. Every long term gamer has taken a lot of punishment over the years, but it’s because of this willingness to get slapped over and over again that they have accessed so many excellent experiences.

Typical Playstation 3 owner

The first punch in the face usually comes with the purchase, whereupon you rely on various sources like reviews, recommendations, box art, title, whatever, to make a decision to purchase. You take this fist to the face and hand over money hoping that you’ll get enough entertainment/enjoyment out of the game to help you forget how much it stings, perhaps even in hindsight make the pain seem like a good deal. When you find a bargain on the shelves you might feel you have already won that stage, as you’re all the more certain that the punch is definitely not going to hurt. 

 With the iOS market, the app store and the increase in popularity of freemium games, this stage of punishment has been turned on its head to such a degree that not only do you know it isn’t going to hurt, but the financial justification level is so low (even free) as to become insignificant to most players. And thus did Apple save gamers from that first cruel blow that the games industry has been brutally administering since videogames began.

Ding ding: Round 2 coming soon.





On how social gaming companies are sniffing out the scent of desire and homing directly in on it.



This was originally posted on 16th September 2011 

It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.

Like Skynet, the fictional self aware network from Terminator 2, social games and the new wave of companies making them are learning at a geometric rate. What we are seeing with social games is games as a business first, trying and testing and refining and exploiting different genres at phenomenal speed with no regard for traditional hangups and legacy cliches of the traditional games industry. Often because they don’t know very much about the traditional videogame industry. They have no problem with providing exactly what is wanted by the audience, regardless of how it’s perceived by ‘gamers’.

In the process, social game makers have struck oil and brought into the public eye huge audiences who like playing games but aren’t traditional gamers. These people are paying lots of money to these companies! In what seems the very definition of consenting adult behaviour, these companies are facilitating the easy transfer of money from these people in exchange for things they want – or at least as easy as possible while bending to the will of the lunch money demanding Facebook and their credit system.

The internet before people went there.

Short, controlled bursts

One indie game designer/maker wrote fairly recently that they don’t make games to monetise the bored, referring instead to some higher ideal (something about fun, ownership, maybe love). A romantic notion, but also almost word for word what all game makers do: monetise bored people. Of course what they meant was their games are better, less mediocre than banal and cynical than freemium crap. Depending on how you measure ‘better’ then sure, but what is the point attempting to be made here? The Wire might be ‘better’ than The X Factor and The Fat Duck might be ‘better’ than KFC. They are different products that co-exist within the same industry.

The urge amongst gamers to dictate what is okay to be seen enjoying isn’t unique to gaming but it does seem to be especially prevalent. Gamers and game makers offhandedly dismiss social/casual games as ‘Skinner boxes’ and feel compelled to tell people they are wrong for playing or liking games like Tiny Tower. “They are pointless.” they say. “A waste of time.”, “Barely even a game.” Gamers are so used to living by arbitrary conventions rather than questioning them that they’ve created a set of complicated rules around their hobby. If you don’t know the secret handshake then you can’t come in. David Sirlin labels people who play by these sorts of self inflicted rules in fighting games as ‘scrubs’.

Maybe his visual acuity is based on movement.

While traditional game makers are wondering what all of it means for them and whether or not the bad men will force him to put some horrible things in his game, something is happening. Social casual gaming is getting closer to traditional gaming, but only where it makes sense to. It will inevitably get closer, but only where it makes sense to. The worry for traditional game makers isn’t that the current wave of social games are stealing their audience. Their worry should be that if social gaming companies start encroaching on ‘real’ games territory, how much they’ll decide is worth taking.

Like that other post but better.
One day several years ago I sat in a meeting with my boss and two guys. I’m not sure who out of the visitors was larger and who was smaller, they were both fat. They had come to preach that day to us about the promised land, the carrier deck. They told us all about this thing, which it turns out was the barren wasteland that used to be the app store equivalent for mobile gaming. This was before the iPhone and the app store. A horrible time. If you can remember how mobile operators’ downloadable game ‘storefronts’ used to be, well I do too so let’s try and forget them again.

Mobile gaming was like this for ages

So anyway these fat guys are talking and talking about this thing and ‘the money’ and hinting and grunting as though they’re letting us in on this huge secret which boiled down to “If you get on the carrier deck, you make money”. I don’t remember them mentioning games, they almost certainly did not care about games at all except purely from a ‘will this make me money’ perspective. These people though, thanks to the grubby nature of things at the time, had or claimed to have some strong influence on what made it onto the ‘carrier deck’ and what would grab the gold. Then there was another meeting where a lot of people who probably had ‘executive’ in their job title were talking about WAP gaming and the only person who understood the actual games being discussed was obviously embarrassed by them when asked to explain them. These were the bad old days and then everything changed. Like Jurassic Park, nature found a way. Games didn’t die. Mobile gaming in the past couple of years has gone from being basically a scam to an embarrassment of riches. Games didn’t die.

Games didn’t die!

Now we have a new set of fat guys, except they’re not fat, they’re ruthlessly efficient young smart people who are tapping into an untapped market and pumping cash out of other people’s pockets and into theirs. A lot of them probably don’t even really like or care about games.

Some of them don't even care about games

And you have ‘real game makers’ getting all worried and some of them are putting things into their games that they don’t really want to thinking that’s what they should do. Then there’s a wave of altogether too sensitive game makers who are doing it for the art or some other higher purpose. Definitely not money though, according to some recent figures. These game makers are or tend to be whiny horrible high pitched complaining idiots who think that social gaming is going to kill gaming. Thanks to a six thousand page essay cum stream of consciousness slash fan fiction, these terribly annoying people have a new messiah for the day, a man famous online for winning first and second place in somethingawful’s ‘The Five Worst Gaming Articles of 2005’.

During this horrifically bloated article, Rogers paints a bleak scene featuring a larger and a smaller man and asks ‘who killed videogames’, clumsily concluding that it’s all the fault of videogames themselves. There’s another theory however, and I say theory but I mean theory like evolution is a theory, i.e. deal with it: Videogames aren’t dead. They aren’t going to die and despite the gross financial incompetence displayed by the traditional games industry, videogames are in awesome shape.

Extra Pandas cost 25 credits each

In social/casual/mobile gaming right now, it appears that a huge amount of the money being made right now is going to a very small percentage of game makers. There also seems to be a huge chasm between game makers that are astute in a business sense and the ones in it for the ‘love of gaming’. There’s also an overwhelming amount of posturing and drawing lines in the sand for some imaginary battle with the men in suits that is never going to happen.What will happen is that the less whiny indies will tread tentatively (as they already have been, take a bow Nimblebit’s twin brothers and the ever affable Andrew John Smith of Spilt Milk Studios and perhaps some others) into this brave new world where money and monetisation and revenue and such terms don’t send them into a teeth baring, foot stomping cacophony. This will happen because the brave ones at the front of the group will go into the wild, some will return victorious with money but also their humble indie credibility still in tact. The rest of the group will then amble forward into a new world where they might actually make enough money off their wacky indie 2D platformers (this one is only in black and red, monochrome is old news) to be able to buy massively expensive clothes from hip boutiques which have ironic holes in to replace their genuine moth bitten cardigans.The lesson in this ironically (not ironically) overly long post is that all sorts of crazy shit happens when a new opportunity for making money appears in any industry. It doesn’t mean the death of anything but rather the birth of a whole bunch of new stuff. Just as there may not seem much point in a billion people mindlessly planting pickled onion farms over and over again on Facebook, there is even less value in a genuinely wonderful, captivating, emotional, beautiful, original game which will never be played by anyone because the creator has named it in Cyrillic and it can only be purchased during a waning crescent moon ‘for art’s sake’.

This guy doesn't give a shit about games

This post was originally written and posted on 13th September 2011. 

On drawing lines in the sand and why indie game makers are stupid.

According to wikipedia, the official term for a Skinner box is Operant Conditioning Chamber, which is a much cooler name. It’s a place that they (scientists probably, like from Half Life) put rats in and make them learn how to pull levers to get stuff. It’s also used to describe social casual games on iOS and Facebook, generally in a derogatory way by ‘real’ or traditional gamers and game makers. 

Free me and weep

The majority of iOS game revenue comes from freemium now. The split between traditional ‘pay up front’ and the newer ‘get hooked and perhaps some people will buy something in game’ model was about 40/60 last year and it’s about 60/40 now. I’d imagine it’d settle at around the same percentage ratio as there are iOS platform owners to iOS platform owners that are traditional gamers. What I’m saying is that traditional game makers making traditional games aren’t in immediate danger of losing sales to casual freemium gamers because those people want to play Smurfs and Sims social, and always have done, except you never paid any attention to them because they were playing plastic Tetris games and handheld crossword consoles and completing puzzles in Take a Break magazines and maybe even playing PC games rather than actually being in the same (app) store as you.It seems to be a fairly commonly held stance amongst traditional indie game developers that they don’t want to include IAPs, (in app purchases). Wait, no, they don’t want to include bad IAPs and cheapen their pure creative vision through shortcuts and other cynical money grabbing efforts which are in fact likely to turn off the audience they are trying to reach. Good for them, I mean it. Getting that breakout hit on the iOS marketplace is hard, like a lottery. In order to have a successful game release on iOS you perhaps don’t even need a ‘good’ game, but if you do have a good game it may well be not enough, it probably isn’t. I bet there are a several dozen very good iOS games that you have never played or heard of. That’s a risk inherent to the platform unfortunately and it’s up to indie game designers to be a bit more savvy about how they approach making and releasing games.

Our Tune

I will tell you a sad story: A talented designer really wanted to make a game of his own. He hired a developer with his own money and together they worked long and hard making a neat little puzzle game (which happened to have an excellent original chiptune soundtrack). He released the game on iOS at the base price and sat back and waited. Time passed. A handful of copies were sold mostly to friends and the power of social networking didn’t reach all that far. Defeated, the designer cursed his luck and walked off into the sunset, his dream of iOS success shattered. However, that guy had: no update plan, no Plan B, had given no thought to monetising the game in other ways. He wasn’t a stupid person, just unprepared for the iOS market. He’d given himself one shot at success, one roll of the dice. He’d minimised his chances to be successful and to make money. By the way that game is called Trainer Drop and is now free.

Good/good Good/Bad Bad/Good Bad/Bad

An inferior product from an inferior producer/creator can make more money than a superior one, it happens all the time across many industries. Unless you’re in a Miyamoto type position where you can dedicate your time and effort purely into the game and not worry at all about how you package and deliver and market and inform people about your product, then you need to worry about it. Even some of the makers who follow all the ‘rules’ and good practice are still finding they don’t get the coverage they hope for or expect. The marketplace on iOS is tough, but people are there, (a lot of people!) the potential upside is huge and that’s one of the main reasons so many people have been and are flocking to create games for iOS devices.
Take it how you wanna take it

The figures in the iOS market show that freemium gamers are willing to spend money on stuff, and far more than they would up front. I believe as a game developer on iOS it’s crucial you take this into account. I completely understand that you don’t want to ‘cheapen’ your game, and that’s cool, it’s up to you to make it work well. Look at Angry Birds, that has an excellent example of IAP in the Mighty Eagle. It doesn’t affect people who don’t purchase it, it does serve as a shortcut but also functions as an entirely new way of playing through the game. Now look at Let’s Golf 3, which requires you to pay money to play after you’ve used up your ‘power’ which equates to playing a few holes a day. This is currently seen as a very negative thing, so the reaction has naturally been pretty critical This is a shame because Let’s Golf is a pretty decent traditional videogame experience that people in the past have liked and this may have turned off their audience. I don’t know their figures but I’d say that’s a pretty poor example of IAP. There are many poor examples of IAP out there, although it is interesting that paying for credits to play mobile games in Japan has been pretty popular, perhaps it has more of a link with playing arcade games?

Why you suck:

By dismissing all forms of IAP you are potentially taking away opportunities for your players to express their pleasure with and allegiance to the game and refusing to provide something that may be wanted and even expected by your audience. It’s up to you as a game designer and maker to judge how you’ll monetise your game and what you’ll offer. The chance of releasing something and hoping to make money purely from sales at the base price point are getting smaller. I think there will be a market for the slightly more expensive, higher quality ‘purer’ type game on iOS (look at Kairosoft and Cave games). Selling a game at 69p/79c/99c makes it very difficult for you to make money in a crowded marketplace. Allowing your audience to give you more money in return for stuff they want is important. It’s about pitching your proposition just right so that there’s a mutual understanding where your players see your IAP as fair (ideally great value and highly appealing) rather than a poor value, forced or underhand purchase. That has to be done with a good understanding of your own game and the people buying it.

I prefer the term ‘videogame auteur’

I don’t think small indies are finding it hard to make money because Skinner boxes are ‘stealing their lootz’, I think it’s because there is a combination of tough to penetrate, crowded market, inability to deal with and understand monetising their game through other methods than one time purchase, insular thinking regarding games and the game market in general and a misunderstanding of what the role of indie games developer is. You need to be an entrepreneur, not just a craftsman. If you aren’t prepared to accept the business reality and prefer to imagine that if you build something special enough the somehow people will come and you’ll get lots of money and adulation and critical acclaim then you’re probably going to struggle and you are minimising your chances of success. You are a chef that has created the most fantastic dish, but insists that people travel down a long country road for miles and miles in order to experience it. This kind of approach does occasionally work and is romanticised when it is, but it does require a great deal of good fortune, not to mention the walk to back up the talk. If you’re making or intending to make a living from indie games then it’s up to you how much you choose to leave in the lap of lady luck. There are already quite a few factors out of your control.

This is a breakdown of the very successful free to play game Tiny Tower, currently only available on iOS. This post was originally written on 22nd July 2011. If you want to know why Tiny Tower works, read on. 



Tiny Tower is a free to play app on iOS. You’ve probably heard of it, it made headlines for racking up a million downloads in 4 days. I’m going to try and break down the main reasons behind why it works. 

Pixel graphics. The Tiny Tower world is rendered in genuinely likeable pixel art. It is instantly recognisable to gamers as a videogame. The characters, or bitizens, sport a variety of hairstyles, hats and hipster glasses while the different stores and floors are easily recognisable and clearly differentiated. Compare this briefly with the leader of the pack in terms of casual social gaming: Zynga’s Cityville. With its dated looking popups and dead eyed, joylessly animated inhabitants, it looks more like a Microsoft Office Assistant reunion than a full blown ‘real videogame’. It’s very easy for gamers to reject a lot of these type of games on a visual basis alone. Tiny Tower however, eschews the common 3D isometric viewpoint and absolutely resembles a traditional, retro style videogame.

Native design. There is a simple reason Tiny Tower’s portrait orientation suits the iOS platform so well – it was built specifically for it. Ian Marsh (one half of twin brother coding team Nimblebit – Tiny Tower’s creators) mentions in an interview that they chose a tower as it was a perfect fit for users “right at home with vertical scrolling”. As a game designed solely for iOS, it sidesteps navigational irritations which may be unavoidable in ports from other systems. Kairosoft’s Pocket Academy, a game in which the aim is to build up a successful school, is ported from the PC – a primarily mouse controlled platform. Using a finger to both scroll and place objects on a small map on a small screen can prove frustrating. Any game that doesn’t use the fluid tactile language which users are fluent in risks a degree of separation between user and game.

Task tempo. Tiny Tower is not an overly demanding experience, quickly settling into an unhurried routine. Especially earlier on, after restocking duties are completed/in progress, there’s actually very little to do beyond ferry people (slowly) to the floor they wish to go. Unlike many other casual social games, it doesn’t overwhelm you with a ton of popup boxes and messages. The feeling is relaxed; no pressure, no scrabble for clicks and rapid expansion. It doesn’t agressively encourage you to stay and play, but it doesn’t mind if you do, and will gently reward you with tower bux here and there. Game Dev Story, another title by Kairosoft, operates on the border of overwhelming you with messages and progress. It’s a very addictive, relatively short lived experience which demands your attention constantly. Tiny Tower is in it for the long haul, providing steady, plodding, constant progress over time.

Depth. Ok, so Tiny Tower is an extremely simple game with minimal strategy, but micromangement does exist for gamers who want to play the game efficiently or ‘well’. VIPs serve to speed up your in-game progress, the celebrity shopper will increase custom in the store they are placed in, or even buy out all remaining stock of one item. Others reduce the time it takes to restock an item or to build a floor. Different types of VIPs seem to appear randomly, but the longer you play the more you will be exposed to. Early on in the game, each floor will have fairly low value goods, so a VIP that buys out every item in your shop will have a similar effect on each of them. As your tower expands, the goods on higher floors become worth more and you can hold more stock of each one, so the choice of where to send the VIP becomes a little more complex. In order to play the game most efficiently, you will have one floor with a long restocking wait, one with a high value item fully in stock, a floor under construction, other floors fully stocked and 3 employees in each store. Delving deeper, you don’t actually need 3 employees in each store all the time, but rather you need 3 to achieve a fully stocked floor (which naturally gives a bonus), at which point you can shuffle them into another job to achieve the same thing. Then there are employee skill levels. Putting employees in their dream job doubles their productivity, but having a set of well suited employees on a given floor is also important for revenue generation and overall progress. Most players will not play Tiny Tower with a drive for maximum efficiency, but the option is there for people who do. These people are generally core gamers, and this is an important feature of the game.

Monetisation, what monetisation? Tiny Tower is very gentle with its in app purchasing persuasion. There are two types of in game currency – Coins and Tower Bux. Tower Bux can be bought for real money and can  be exchanged for Coins in game. The game’s demands for Bux are low and the game seems generous, awarding a steady stream of Bux as you play. It is quickly established that you never need to make a purchase involving real money to enjoy the game. This apparent lack of pressure and the ability to anything in the game without having to pay is appealing to traditional gamers and is important in persuading them that this is a ‘real game’ that’s ok for them to play. Because of this, the question that plays at the player is do you want to buy Bux? The pressure to buy Bux comes from two significant sources, the first is linked to the slow pace of the game vs player impatience. Almost every action in the game can be sped up with Bux, more Bux means faster progress. The second is through competition with other players. Tower comparision comes via a really smart, really neat implementation of a leaderboard. Not only can you check at any time where you stand in relation to your friends’ towers, but you can actually go inside them and look around! For the leader, the guy with the tallest tower amongst his friends, this provides a sense of pride. He gets to look down on his chums from the heady heights of the 47th floor. For the beginner: a wide eyed look into what’s possible if they put their head down and work hard on their tower. For all players it provides an option to have a look at the different sorts of stores and services their friends have inside their towers and how rich they are. As long as you have friends playing the game, there is a constant low level pressure (think boat on the horizon rather than T-Rex in the wing mirror) to overtake the tower in front and to stay ahead of the tower behind.

Interestingly, yet in line with many other free to play casual games, Tiny Tower has recently added pop up messages offering a small amount of Bux in exchange for something other than money, e.g. downloading a free episode of a news program. This provides a middle way for players who are reluctant to purchase virtual goods.

Emotional Connection. Stephanie Kaiser, Product Lead on Wooga’s Monster World Facebook game delivered a presentation which touched upon this recently that is well worth watching or reading a summary of. Tiny Tower is thin, but does encourage some emotional connection within its open walled world. The game’s in game ‘social network’ BitBook is a simple pixel reimagining of a Facebook wall that presents the bitizens’ thoughts as posts. It’s a cute feature which perhaps suffers from too much repetition, but does also provide some positive feedback and encourages player imagined narratives of their bitizens’ lives. Move a worker into their dream job and you’ll see a celebratory BitBook post illustrating their happiness. Sometimes a special character will appear and request that a specific bitizen be located, whether to deliver a special parcel, take them on a date, or other personalised request. This encourages you to be able to put your bitizens’ names to faces – or rather, it helps you gradually learn who’s who within your tower. There are basic customisation options; renaming and changing the colour scheme of each individual floor and changing the appearance of each individual bitizen.

Lack of negativity. Tiny Tower provides an experience where very little negative feedback is given to the player. No one goes on strike, no one quits their job or trashes their apartment if you choose to evict them. Visitors waiting to use the lobby lift can be left standing there and will never complain. Stores run out of stock and close, but there are no angry customers. When you do return to the game, the first thing you see isn’t a bunch of stores with their lights off (that’s the second thing you see) – it’s a pop up message saying “Welcome Back! You earned a bunch of money while you were away!”. If you were away long enough you get another message indicating the construction of the next floor has been completed, and that you collected yet more money from your bitizens. On your bitizens’ birthdays, it’s you that gets given Bux. You’ll never be told you’re a bad player, your tower can never fail.

Task/Reward. Short term tasks such as stocking and ferrying people in the lift provide the expected instant rewards. As with many successful casual social games, you receive several rewards for longer term tasks. The significant example in Tiny Tower is dream jobs. In order to get your bitizens into their dream jobs, you need to have built the store they want to work in. Store construction is chosen by the player from several categories (food, service, retail etc) but the selection of the actual store is chosen by the game. Let’s take example bitizen Gary Moreno:

He’s pretty skilled in the service industry, so right now he enjoys his job at the Day-Spa. His ultimate goal is to score a job in the Tea House – but you don’t have one and the only way to get one is to keep building Food floors until you do. However, a successful tower needs a balance of floor categories, so it may be a while before Gary gets to realise his ambition. Moving bitizens into their dream jobs is something that happens slowly and over time, but when you do manage to, you get multiple rewards:

 – Tower Bux

– Revenue of the store and tower is increased (more coins)

– Gary Moreno is happy and will post on BitBook about it

– You matched up numbers in a list and earned a green smiley face in your bitizen list

Dream jobs are important because they provide a long term goal for players to keep them motivated through the grind of repeating smaller tasks over and over again. The rewards from moving someone into their dream job award both of the in game currencies, increase the player’s emotional connection with the game and helps fulfill the endless human desire to put things in order.

Summary. Tiny Tower is a solid example of a casual game with social elements and a monetisation model that works (for now at least). It doesn’t have a strong viral presence or in-game progression/variety to keep players engaged in the longer term and neither does it appear to have an aggressive iteration/update schedule. The single most significant thing about this game is how many traditional gamers appear to playing it. If you were to ask a core gamer who plays Tiny Tower whether they consider it a ‘real videogame’, I have no doubt that you’ll find a lot of hesitation and a lot of quick dismissals (regardless of how much they themselves play it). This is a significant step forwards from the vehement denials you’d be likely to encounter asking the same question of Farmville, Cityville and other well known free to play casual titles. Games like Tiny Tower are blurring the distinction between casual social games and ‘real videogames’, not by being a traditional videogame that appeals to the mainstream, but by being a casual game that has attracted ‘real’ gamers.

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