Amy Jo Kim: Designers should listen to super fans, not super haters

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If you’ve worked in games and technology long enough, you have your Super Fans, the people who you can turn to when you’re designing a product that is targeted at a certain group of enthusiasts. They are the high value, early customers. And sadly, with the state of the Internet, you may also have your Super Haters. So who should you listen to when you’re trying to be inspired to create something wonderful?

I talked about this subject with Amy Jo Kim, CEO of Shufflebrain and the leader of a movement that she calls Game Thinking. We spoke to a group of game designers and app creators at the recent Samsung Developers Conference in San Francisco, where the theme focused on Connected Thinking.

Our session was dubbed an Ask Me Anything session, though we asked each other most of the questions. Kim was pretty clear that Super Fans will help you, while Super Haters are a distraction.

I talked about my own experience with Super Haters who didn’t like the way I played Cuphead, which, at least in my book, is a fairly difficult new game for the Xbox One game console. I was a super noob at that game, and it showed in a video I posted. The whole Internet seemed to hate that video, making me wonder whether they had a point. To Kim, it raised questions about just how accessible products should be. For me, it was a kind of therapeutic session.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Above: The Sims will continue under new leadership.

Image Credit: EA

Dean Takahashi: Amy Jo Kim, CEO of Shufflebrain, has been a game designer for decades. She worked on big games like The Sims and Ultima Online for Electronic Arts, Rock Band for Harmonix, and Covet Fashion for Crowdstar. She has applied that knowledge gained from game design and turned it into what she calls Game Thinking. When did you first start thinking about applying your game design knowledge more broadly to all sorts of product designs?

Amy Jo Kim: I had been working in game design. I was, at the time, working with the Ultima Online team. Do you any of you remember Ultima Online? The few, the proud. One of the pivotal experiences of my life. I was working with the Ultima Online team, helping them fix their reputation system. Maybe some of your ran afoul of the reputation system or the housing system or one of those systems. I’m a system designer. I was working on fixing the systems, balancing them, and so on.

At the same time, eBay brought me in and had me working on their reputation system. Also, there was no profile system. The “about me” system, the eBay profiles, did not exist. I helped invent those. The power seller program, where they had rewards for sellers, did not exist. I helped come up with that. Here’s the kicker – eBay’s reputation system, the famous reputation system that led them to success, when I started working with them, it wasn’t tied to transactions at all. Let that sink in for a minute. There were these huge arguments internally about whether we should tie it to transactions. Crazy, right?

But going through that, part of why they hired me to help, and part of the heavy lifting I did, was translating for the execs at eBay why something like a tiered power seller system, as opposed to just you’re behind the velvet rope and you’re not—why that would be a good thing. Why you would create a low tier for people to get into and go to the next one and the next. That’s classic game design psychology. And then for the reputation system, why it was so important to tie it to transactions, how to do that, how to balance it, all of that. A lot of the knowledge I brought to eBay for those systems came out of my experience in games.

Dean Takahashi: Games are engaging. One thing that’s engaging about them is climbing this ladder of achievement. The connection you draw for is product design is, why don’t all products have this?

Kim: What was interesting is the history since then with gamification, how that rose and then there was some disillusionment and now it’s transforming into something else. When gamification started, which was probably eight or nine years ago when the first bubblings came, a lot of people looked at my earlier work and said, “Oh, you’re the godmother of gamification. We’ll follow you.” But my work was really about creating a learning architecture over time.

The way you create a path to mastery, which is what this is, is not through visible mechanics. It’s through architecting your experience so that as your customer gets better, the experience gets better too. You’re not going to get that effect with a bunch of points and badges. That’s like inviting someone to dinner and giving them a plate of frosting. It’s the icing. It’s not the cake.

Takahashi: There has to be substance behind the badges.

Kim: The mistake most people make, and that you guys will never make again now that you’ve heard this, is to mistake the visible signs of progress that you can see in the interface for the thing that makes a game compelling and exciting. They’re not the same thing.

Takahashi: I went to one of your sessions and people were very into it, almost reciting some of the points from your book back to you. What is the point you want them to get to? What do you want them to understand or learn as they go through this Game Thinking?

Kim: Where I want people to get to, and where I guide my clients and my students to, is to understand the process that the best game and product designers use to test and iterate and bring their idea to life. Not to copy the way it looks when it’s finished, the visible element, but to actually understand some key elements of the process. There’s a whole system, but let me give you three ideas to go home and remember and learn more about and experiment with: super fans, a mastery path, and a learning loop.

Super fans is shorthand for high need, high value, early customers. Something that most product designers get wrong, app designers get wrong, but that the best product and app designers – including eBay, including Ultima Online, including the Sims, including Rock Band, including Netflix – get right is, focus on building something that a very small handful of very specific people absolutely love. Don’t try and build something, if you’re innovating, that your target market is going to love. If you test your idea on your target market, which is what people are taught in business school, and you’re innovating, you’ll get the wrong feedback from the wrong people.

The best game designers, and you can do this too, they focus on a very narrow slice of people that are defined not by demographics but by their needs. They’re desperate for this thing you want to build. And then getting to an iterative learning loop with those people so that you’re bringing systems to life not with your target market, not with just your team, friends and family, but with this layer of people in between I call super fans.

Huge, high leverage insight, counterintuitive—a lot of people ask, “Why do I design for a niche? Why do I niche myself down?” Key insight: these people aren’t who you design for eventually. They’re how you get there. That’s a different thing.

Two, mastery path. People say, “I’m just designing an app. What does a mastery path have to do with it? Can’t I just stick a leaderboard in there? Isn’t that how you do it?” A mastery path is where you think about, day one, day seven, day 21, day 40, day 60—what’s the experience you’re developing? What is your onboarding? What is your day 21 typical learning loop, the thing where somebody comes back? They’re not learning your product. They’re just coming back for their fix. What does that look like? How, on day 60, is your customer better and smarter than they were on day one, and how is your product opening up to them to make a better experience as they get better and learn more?

That’s how you design a mastery path. To do that you have to understand, not all those game mechanics, but what your customer cares about getting better at. If you have a product where your business model is tied into ongoing revenue—it’s not a fad, not a quick thing. You have stats. You have microtransactions, a subscription, anything like that. Your bread and butter is sustained engagement. The way to build sustained engagement is to create a mastery path.

The third concept is a learning loop. You’ve probably heard of habit loops or compulsion loops. There’s a lot of people that will show you how to do that. Here’s the thing you need to remember if you want to drive lasting engagement. Learning and mastery and skill-building trump behavior manipulation. If you as a product creator say, “I want to use gamification, use this habit design loop that I’ve heard about, and track behavior and then reward people so that I’m manipulating their behavior and getting them to build habits,” you’re doing operant conditioning. It might work for a few weeks. It won’t work in the long term. Take a look at Zynga’s games to know that operant conditioning, compulsion loops, they don’t work in the long term.

There’s a shift from tracking and manipulating behavior to thinking about—how can I pull, not push, my client with desire and learning and mastery? How can I make this experience more interesting and rewarding for my client over time based on what they care about, not based on how I want to nudge them? That leads to long-term engagement. That’s how every product I’ve worked on that was a hit that was designed. I’ve worked on a lot of products that weren’t hits, and I’m not announcing them because you’ve never heard of them. A lot of them weren’t designed that way, and that’s part of why I’m so passionate about these issues. I can see the difference.

Above: The Forest Follies level in Cuphead.

Image Credit: Studio MDHR/Microsoft

Takahashi: That’s Amy’s shtick, and she does it very well. She does this at her seminars. We thought that the combination of the two of us could be interesting here, because I have an interesting case study that I would like Amy to interpret for me in some way. I’ve encountered these super fans, as you call them, in playing this game called Cuphead.

I don’t know if you guys have heard of my whole episode here, but I played Cuphead at an event in Germany, in a preview event, and I recorded all 26 minutes of my gameplay. I put it up on the internet, and people went bananas. I had more than 800,000 views for this video when maybe 10,000 is typical for our videos. What drove them crazy was, I played the game cold and for about two and a half minutes I struggled to get through the very simple tutorial. All you had to do, really, for this tutorial was do a jump and dash sideways. It’s a platform game.

This enraged people, because I’m supposed to be an expert at playing games. I’m a game journalist. I’ve been writing about games for 20 years, and yet I couldn’t get through this very simple part of the game. I was kind of messing around, but then I went on for 24 more minutes trying to get through the first level of the game, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t proceed through this fairly difficult level to the next point.

Now, if you don’t know anything about this game, it’s an Xbox exclusive. It came out on September 29. It’s designed to be very difficult. It looks very cartoonish and inviting and simple, because it’s done in a sort of 1930s animation style, but the whole point is to have a set of boss fights, a dozen or so boss fights, that are almost impossible to beat. One of my colleagues, he showed me up by finishing the game, but then he noted that in the past few weeks, only about four percent of the people who’d bought the game so far had finished it.

It’s been an interesting experience. I got a whole lot of haters. I had to apologize for putting such a bad video up. I also made a plea, though, that we shouldn’t all be required to be experts at games in order to enjoy them. Anyway, those are all the details of this tweetstorm I had, and I wanted to shove that over you to interpret in some way. What does this mean for product designers?

Above: Cuphead tutorial. It’s different in the final version.

Image Credit: StudioMDHR/Microsoft

Kim: I would love to get you guys involved in this too. This is such a relevant issue for you as app developers. How many of you are building games? How many of you are building apps? How many of you would like your apps to feel a bit game-like?

As developers of games and apps, you know that understanding who you’re designing for is critical. You all know that. This is what’s going on with this conversation with Dean. In gaming, there has been, in the last five or six years, but really over the last 10 years, a huge shift going on to more and more casual games. More and more games that are simple and accessible, games like Gone Home that are just clicking through, not a lot of skill required. But there’s also still very skill-based games – puzzle games, RPGs, combat games – that are super hard as well. Some people like really hard games, but it’s a much bigger audience that likes accessible games. Same is going to be true for you with your products.

What’s going on in Dean’s story has a lot of threads. One is what’s happened to games journalists. How many of you are familiar with the Let’s Play phenomenon on YouTube? If you aren’t, you should figure it out. YouTube and Twitch and platforms like that have exploded. Someone sitting in their room at home wanting to talk about a game, wanting to play through a game, wanting to just say, “Hey, I’m playing this game, come watch me,” is that games journalism? Hard to say. It’s bleeding over into what you do.

Above: Forbes’ list of top influencers. Mari Takahashi (gaming) is top left, Lilly Singh (entertainment) is top middle, King Bach (entertainment) is top right, Markiplier (gaming) is bottom left, Baby Ariel (entertainment) is middle bottom and Brian Kelly (travel) is bottom right.

Image Credit: Forbes

Takahashi: It’s part of what they call “influencers” now. Samsung has talked quite a bit about influencers here.

Kim: Right. So you have influencers who are not critical of a game. Influencers don’t necessarily review games. Influencers are more about spreading the word about games. They’re more like the marketing department. They’re not a separate critical voice. In fact, anybody who pays them can get a nice review. It’s clear what it’s about.

Then you have journalism, which is under attack from other sides right now in our political climate. Journalism is supposed to be dispassionate, honest, doing a service for customers and so on. But it’s changing. You have a journalist being very transparent, making a video that’s not necessarily very polished, but that video could have been made by an influencer on YouTube easily. Would they have gotten the hate? What do you think?

Takahashi: I don’t think they would have done it like I did. They would have played through 30 or 40 times until they got through and they were very good at it, and they would have captured that. High quality gameplay is what they would have posted. Maybe if they were a live streamer they would have taken more of a risk there and said, “Okay, I’ll roll the dice here and see if I can play this game competently while a thousand people watch me.” That’s not something I do. Who would want to watch someone who isn’t skillful?

Kim: That’s the interesting issue. Lots of these YouTubers are very skillful, but many of them are an avatar for the customer. They’ll play through and giggle at themselves – “Oh my God, I can’t believe that happened” – it’s all very entertaining and funny. My 10-year-old daughter watches these and learns a lot from them.

But then you have a journalist. People were attacking Dean and saying, “You’re not a real game journalist because you’re not an expert at this super hard game.” Now, Dean engaged with these people. He waded into Reddit and talked to them. [laughs] Here he is alive, surviving that horrific experience.

I would never have done that myself, and the reason is—my interpretation of this is, why the hell do you care about this tiny shrinking minority of hardcore gamers who want to argue with you about what a real gamer, a real journalist is? You have to be somehow magically expert at playing this ridiculously hard game to be taken seriously? That’s the point of view that got thrown at Dean.

I’m here to tell you that that is a shrinking minority, in the same way that, pardon me, white nationalists are a shrinking minority in our country. They are a minority. The demographics are changing. The overall attitudes are changing. Same thing with the game industry. I’m a woman. I’ve worked in the game industry for 20 years. Believe me, I have my stories about harassment. But mostly I’ve worked with awesome people and made awesome games. That’s most of what my stories are because I steered around those ridiculous idiots.

Above: Clinkle’s “Haters gonna hate” T-shirts, as shown in a 2014 video about a hackathon the company organized.

Image Credit: Screenshot

Takahashi: The devil’s advocate in me asks, well, what if I’m the idiot? You talk about super fans. These people I ran into, they kind of sound like your definition of super fans.

Kim: See, that’s where there’s a razor’s edge. It’s different. Super fans are, by definition, people that have a burning need for the thing that you’re building or that you have to offer, and the ability to give you feedback that can help you make it better. That’s my definition of a super fan.

My answer to you is, they’re made because you’re not representing them. But your job isn’t to represent them. Your job is to represent gamers of all kinds. If there are hundreds of thousands of gamers who would have just as much trouble as Dean would playing through that game, by showing that, Dean is representing all those gamers. He’s representing me. He’s not representing this narrow slice of gamers who want to say who’s a “real gamer” and who’s not based on their ability to play something arcane and hard.

I’ve met those people. I know those people. I’m not focusing my business on those people because, one, there’s a much bigger group of people who aren’t them. Two, they’re assholes. I don’t care what they think a real gamer is.

I had lunch with somebody—she used to be the head of product management at Slack. She told me, “I’m looking at new jobs right now and getting a bunch of people from the gaming industry, the hardcore gaming industry, wanting me to come in and interview for head of product. I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was 15. I was in a D&D group with Stewart Butterfield, the head of Slack. These people still tell me I’m not a real gamer. I don’t even want to talk to them.” Here’s the thing. I don’t feel like you need them.

Rock Band 3 screen

Above: Rock Band

Image Credit: EA

Takahashi: But these super fans–

Kim: Those aren’t super fans. Those are haters. Don’t get confused.

Takahashi: I wonder if you have two sides to something here: super fans and super haters. I remember somebody telling me that Sony’s product lead for the PlayStation in one country got death threats because Sony had to raise the price for the machine there. Those people cared enough about the PlayStation 4 that they would make death threats to someone who did something slightly negative. That’s a weird world we live in.

Kim: That’s so much the gamer world. We talked about Ultima Online earlier, perfect example. In Ultima Online we had super fans and super haters. The super haters were hacking our gold system, exploiting cheats. They were trying to take down our servers. They were posing as newbies, befriending other newbies, and then killing them to take their loot. They did all these things that made it tough for us.

The super fans were the people reporting them, the people saying, “Hey, you want to conscript us into a virtual army and we’ll go get them?” They are two sides of the same coin, but again, I want to give you guys something valuable as developers from this. Don’t be confused between your super haters and your super fans.

The super haters can sometimes be swayed. For example, in Ultima Online, some of our best security experts came from the hacker community. Classic. Not all of our hackers could be dissuaded, but sometimes, when we found somebody exploiting something, instead of going nuclear we would say, “Would you like a job interview?” It worked really well.

But here’s the thing. You and I don’t agree on this, but this is my advice to you. You have a lot of super fans. Your super fans are the people that love what you’re doing, that found it valuable that you were transparent, that jumped to your defense. Many people jumped to your defense, myself included. Your super fans are into what you’re doing and they want you to succeed and they can be, in a sense, your co-creators.

Your super haters want you to be doing something different than what you’re doing. It’s very hard, as a developer, as a creative person, to say, “I’ll listen to this person’s feedback and not that person.” I’m here to tell you, as someone who’s worked on five breakthrough worldwide hits, and then dozens that weren’t—a thing all those hits in common is that they all had haters, first of all. But we didn’t get freaked out by them and focus on them. We managed them, but we really focused on the people that we were serving. It was one of the hardest and one of the most important things in breaking through to a bigger level.

Above: Dean Takahashi and Amy Jo Kim.

Image Credit: Samsung

I’m not saying we ignored them completely. I’ll give you a good example. Ultima Online, for those of you who don’t know, was like a precursor to World of Warcraft. When we launched it we had done beta testing with all these super fans, people that loved it, people that loved Richard Garriott’s previous RPG games and their very interesting moral universe, blah blah blah. We had all these people that had gone to ren faires, people who would role-play. “Oh, milady, thou lookst beautiful this evening.” Stuff like that. We called them the “men in tights.”

Then we launched the game, and this was right around when Doom and Quake were big, with this reputation system we had tested with our super fans. Guess who came into the game? All the Doom and Quake people, 13 years old pretending to be older. The rule in Doom and Quake is shoot anything that moves. They came in wearing those same goggles to our beautiful thee-and-thou men-in-tights world. Boom. Big time problems. Maybe some of you were there.

What did we do? Did we kick out those people? No. But they were asking us for things. “You should do this. You should build this feature. You should add more blood.” That’s what they were asking for. We didn’t give it to them, though, because those weren’t the people we wanted to please.

That’s my message to you. I think it’s the same thing with these, my word, idiots who want to tell Dean that simply posting, “Hey, this was hard for me, this really weird arcane game”—people who think that makes him not a real game journalist, I believe, are living in the past. They wish they were living in a present where people like them were the majority. They’re not, and they’re pissed.

Above: Zoe Quinn’s book Crash Override chronicles her Gamergate experience and how she is fighting back.

Image Credit: Zoe Quinn

Question: What do you think about the trend toward more and more vocal negativity around games on the internet and social networks? We saw, a couple of years ago, women receiving death threats over their comments about women in games.

Takahashi: It’s been encapsulated by this phrase “Gamergate.” That’s been going on for a couple of years and been fairly relentless in the games industry.

Kim: It’s a cyclic thing. I agree that it is a trend, but it’s not new, any more than VR is new. It cycles back and forth. What’s happened with Gamergate is it got a name. It got a meme. Let’s talk about Milo, Dean, Milo and Gamergate. How many of you know about Milo Yiannopoulos? There’s a very weird, interesting confluence between Milo and Gamergate and these trends.

GamesBeat: Milo was an unknown journalist at Breitbart for a while. He wrote a story about a conspiracy among game journalists who would talk to each other and try to influence review scores or talk about problem people in the industry or show their biases against other people. I was part of this network of game journalists. It was a network of game journalists talking about freelance assignments and things like that.

Somebody gave Milo copies of the history of this networking group and he pulled out stuff that had to do with Gamergate and Zoe Quinn and all that. There were some very unguarded comments that journalists made about that, and so he wrote a story as a big expose of this conspiracy. Which, having been on the inside of it, I didn’t think was much of a conspiracy.

He became more famous because of that, and you can tell from the Buzzfeed story that ran just a week or so ago that went into all of Milo’s emails—he parlayed this into helping create the alt-right and doing their best to get Donald Trump elected president. It’s an interesting connection between—it’s Milo and Gamergate, Milo and the alt-right, Milo and Donald Trump. Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s chairman, was Donald Trump’s chief strategist.

Kim: My hope is that this trend is the death cry of nasty old racists, who see that they’re a dying breed, and that women and minorities and people of color are the future. Who cares if you’re a man or a woman or what color you are? Can you make a game? Can you write code? Can you make art? This trend, and it is a trend, is rising concurrently with power shifting in the gaming world and in the political world away from these men, and they’re grabbing it back.

Takahashi: You see it as a death knell, then?

Kim: I see it as a death knell. That’s my hopeful vision.

Question: Aside from the conflict between super haters and super fans, what do you think about this question of, what kind of gamer should a game journalist be? A game like Cuphead is hard because it was made to be hard. Shouldn’t a journalist covering that kind of game be the more hardcore kind of gamer, someone who plays that kind of game?

Takahashi: The phrase “game journalist” just isn’t very precise. I haven’t been, say, reviewing games day in and day out for 20 years. I’ve been writing business stories and technology stories about games. I’ve been going to preview events and playing games at some of them, but my pattern is to play something for a few days and move on. There are games that I get into and I play and I review, but that’s less frequent. I just did Middle-Earth: Shadow of War for about 60 hours and finished it.

We have other people who tend to be the experts in particular areas. We had one of those guys, Mike Minotti, finish Cuphead and then write the review. That’s the way it should be. If you’re doing a formal review and giving it a score, definitely, you want someone who’s skillful enough to see the whole game to review it. There’s no question about that. We abide by that.

I was making a self-deprecating video as a preview of Cuphead, right? We didn’t apply that some rigor to whether I should do that or not. There’s always some value in showing people what a game is like before it comes out. In fact, if you look at game marketing campaigns, they’ve stretched out for years now. Assassin’s Creed: Origins will probably have a dozen trailers go up before the game ships on October 27. It’s part of the landscape. But there is a very big difference in being able to just play a game in a preview and finish the whole thing.

Some games are more difficult. We review a lot fewer MMOs than we do single-player campaigns. In that case we would say, “We played this MMO for 30 hours. Here’s what the experience was like.” We wouldn’t necessarily give it a score. We’d give our opinion of it, whether we think it’s worth your time or not, but the score element is very hard to give to MMOs. I imagine that you ran into this in creating MMOs as well.

Above: Amy Jo Kim says listen to your Super Fans, not Super Haters.

Image Credit: Samsung

Kim: Oh, yes. But it’s an interesting question as far as, what is the job of a game journalist? You look at it in the context of the YouTube and Twitch era—I think it goes back to, well, who is your audience? As a product designer, because that’s what I am in part, I always go back to that. If people want to attack me I can say, “You know what, this isn’t for you.” If people want to spend their time attacking Dean for making a lighthearted video, you want to say, “Really? Why is that worth your time?” You could go online and find 50 YouTubers who could review it who are nerd experts.

What’s happened in journalism now is that there are so many channels. There are so many different reviews. There are reviews for kids, reviews for adults, professional journalists, YouTubers at home. The people who decide they’re going to attack somebody, as opposed to just finding something else that’s more interesting to them—my point is that there’s something going on with that person. It’s not just “ethics in journalism,” the thing they used to talk about. It’s about being an asshole and wanting to attack someone. You could just go look somewhere else. It’s not like there’s three channels and you have to pick one.

Question: Should there be higher expectations of journalists? When I go to someone’s YouTube channel, I just expect to see someone playing a game. I don’t assume that’s their job. A journalist is trained. Maybe you went to school to do that kind of job. Should there be more expected of someone like that?

Takahashi: We probably didn’t put enough context into our video on YouTube. We just had a couple of lines describing it: “This is shameful gameplay.” We embedded the video into a story that explained it more. But the story was also missing some of that context as well. That might have calmed everybody down. But most people came into the video through someone who tweeted about it and cut out two minutes of it, just focusing on those two minutes. That was their context for getting into this issue. Very few people actually came in through the story I’d written.

So yes, there is a responsibility. Yes, we should provide context. Yes, we should explain exactly what we’re doing. We were sort of naïve about posting this, not realizing that someone else with their own agenda could come in to try to draw attention to themselves by taking it out of context.

Kim: There’s a larger moral to the story, though, that’s relevant for all of you. If you find yourself with haters, you’re probably doing something interesting. They’re not going to bother unless they want a little bit of your juice.

Question: How do you respond to these kinds of haters? Do you post another video showing yourself finishing the game?

Takahashi: The very next stories that I wrote, I talked about finishing a couple of games, popular games. I finished Shadow of War. Cuphead is probably not a game I can finish. [laughs] I think everyone has different tastes. There’s nothing—my reason for posting something like I did was that I think there’s nothing invalid about taking a fresh look at something. It exposes you to things that might be problems, things that people with jaded eyes wouldn’t see.

If you’re a jaded product designer who knows exactly who they’re designing for — these people are jaded consumers as well – you miss the opportunity to reach people outside of that realm. You miss the opportunity to get newcomers or people who had never had an idea that this product might be useful to them. Looking at something with a fresh eye is very instructive. That’s one thing we do regularly. Your fresh look with no prior knowledge—whether it’s a game that you have no idea how to play, and you analyze the onboarding—how good was that tutorial for Cuphead? I don’t think it was outstanding. [laughs]

That’s the product design lesson. I’m not going to blame a product designer for problems I had, but they should be aware that it’s possible to make this mistake as you go into the product. The people who make that mistake might not stick with that product for very long.

Above: A man and his troll.

Image Credit: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Question: I had a question about economics in the industry, since you mentioned Shadow of War. I’ve seen a lot of reviews talking about how part of the single-player game involves putting more money in to get past this long slog in part of it. I’ve noticed a trend toward single-player games that get to a point where you have to put in more money over the $60 that you initially paid.

Takahashi: And that goes hand in hand with the news from yesterday that Electronic Arts closed down Visceral Games. They were making a Star Wars game by Amy Hennig, the creator of Uncharted. She was creating a single-player linear campaign game, and they felt like, in deciding to shut it down, that’s not where the market is right now.

They have, in the past, praised a lot of games with live operations, things like loot crates, things you can monetize over a long time. FIFA has its Ultimate Team mode. Battlefield has ongoing downloadable content. Those games are making billions of dollars for Electronic Arts. And then they make this opportunity cost decision: here’s a team working on a game that’s going to sell so many copies in a week and then never be played again. It just declines from there. The choice for them is, do you want this team to continue doing that or not?

Shadow of War gets into this question of, do they force people to buy loot crates by putting a key part of the ending of the story behind 20 missions that were really difficult and grindy? You could get through those missions more easily if you bought some things, but you could also just play all the way through. Shadow of War has a campaign that stretches across 60-something missions or so, but yes, 20 of them have nothing to do with the story.

It was also an artifact of the way Shadow of War was designed. Those 20 missions might be viewed as a grind, but they’re actually very dynamic and fluid missions. The orcs you capture and take control of, their personalities change over time. If you kill them once they might come back as an undead orc and they’ll say something like, “You killed me that first time, but now I’m gonna get you.” As you replay these kinds of missions, you get a different result, a different story out of the orc captains you’re fighting against.

They felt like, for people who really love this gameplay system, what they call their nemesis system, it isn’t a grind. It’s a key part of what makes the game different and entertaining. So it wasn’t, to them, a big deal to put an extra ending behind these nemesis missions. I don’t know. It’s an interesting choice that they made. But it did force players to, say, appreciate what you could get out of those 20 missions and that nemesis system.

Kim: This is touching on a larger question. The much larger-scale trend going on in games and in software is software as a service as opposed to packaged software, one-time sales. Not everyone does that. You can still buy one-shot packaged software. But more and more what you’re seeing is experiments with a service-based model. Often it involves some sort of community or multiplayer environment, or not always. On a larger scale, that’s what people want because of recurring revenue versus one-time revenue. It’s a business decision.

When it’s done well it benefits both the customer, the player, and the company. When it’s poorly done people don’t buy into it and it doesn’t succeed. When I look at the clients that come to me and the business models they’re developing all over the world, they’re all service-based. That’s in part because it’s my specialty, multiplayer game design. But if you’re a developer it’s something you should absolutely be looking at. I don’t see that trend stopping or slowing down in the games industry. I see it accelerating.

Above: Covet Fashion’s model line-up is multiracial. Amy Jo Kim worked on the game.

Image Credit: CrowdStar/Glu

Takahashi: I am worried about something I would call management by analyzing opportunity costs. Hollywood, for a while, they realized that they were spending $90 million to make a movie and getting $100 million back. This isn’t a good business. They looked at games and thought, “Hey, we can make a game for $10 million and get that same $100 million. Let’s go make games.” All the Hollywood companies started making games.

Then mobile games come along and they see that some of these mobile games can make a billion dollar. Supercell is a good example, a company that’s made more than a billion dollars from games like Clash of Clans or Clash Royale. You can make something like that for all of $2 million. So the Hollywood guys think, “Let’s quit making console games and go do mobile games.” You see this unending search for the next opportunity, not realizing that the most entertaining thing was what they were originally doing, making original intellectual properties for the movies. Mobile games aren’t necessarily going to be more fun than the movies they were making in the first place.

Kim: There’s another punch line, which is that it’s not very hard to make a game, but it’s really hard to make a good game.

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