Thursday, April 27, 2006

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ARCADE GAMES

Arcadia

Walker Spaight of 3pointD has a nice write-up of Arcadia, the Linden Lab-sponsored game developer contest featuring eight entries (Linden's descriptions with direct portals to each game here) focusing on Tech Warfare.  That's the robotic RTS pictured above; the mummy is actually lead developer Eckhart Dillon; Walker also covers the siege combat game Castle Wars, and SLictionary, sort of Pictionary using SL's building tools.

Arcadia's winners will be the games that collect the most Linden Dollars from players, as counted by a Linden-created "cashbox" players pay to get a game token or item(s) that lets them get into the game.  Walker ends his post pondering:  "Why Linden Lab has taken this EA-like approach to judging its game contest is baffling."   But I can say that the reasoning behind this approach is actually more complicated than "The game that makes the most money wins", because as it happens, Arcadia is one of the side projects I consulted on when I was still a Linden contractor, so I can speak to my personal perspective on that decision.  My attempt to de-baffle after the break.

In addition to writing New World Notes, I helped Linden Lab develop the rules and judging mechanisms for their annual game developer contests.  First in 2004, when I brought Deus Ex lead designer Harvey Smith to judge; the overall winner then was Deus Via, a casual puzzle game with a beautiful interface created by Tiger Crossing, who in real life is a developer on the acclaimed Oblivion RPG.  In 2005,I brought the deeply influential and quietly brilliant Doug Church (lead creator of Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief) to be that year's veteran judge-- the overall winner then was Primmies, sort of a 3D, multiplayer Lemmings, that was polished and coded brilliantly.  (Doug's write-up here; Linden's press release here.) There were a lot of other cool games and potentially cool games in those first two contests; personally, for example, I have great affection for 2005's Eva (lead developer Gary Bukowski), an ambitiously conceived alternate-reality game that to this day I believe would make an awesome, professional-level title-- hell, it could be turned into a movie.

There was just one tiny problem to all of them, though.  Nobody played them.

Oh, there'd be a flurry of interest, when these games were unveiled, but for the most part, Residents tried them once or twice, and then went on to other things.  As a sometime game designer and game journalist, this was personally heartbreaking and frustrating to me, watching all the developers' toil and stress culminate into such a passing blip of attention.  (And from Linden Lab's point of view, I have to speculate it seemed like a lot of wasted effort fostering user-created content when other users didn't spend much time enjoying that content.)  But as great as these top games were, I came to realize that the developers spent little or no effort promoting them in Events, or creating mechanisms like web-enabled score cards or tournaments or regular cash prizes, or perhaps most important of all, a community of players, to keep interest focused on a single game.  And with so many other games to play and experiences to have in SL, Residents would try it out once and just keep moving.

Meantime, games like Tringo, which did have a gambling mechanism and a marketing/distribution plan that seemed architected to generate and sustain a community around daily matches, ruled Second Life.  (My write-up of Tring's success here.)

All this led to my advice (seconded by other LL staffers, but I'll let them speak for themselves) to create the cash mechanic for keeping score, this time around.  Developers who wanted to win would need to think just as hard about promoting their game, holding regular events, and creating a community of regular players-- do things, in other words, that led to more and more Residents paying their cashboxes to keep playing.  (And the prize this time is just free land for a year-- with the proviso that the developers keep running their winning games on them.)

So really, instead of thinking about the contest having a "The game that makes the most money wins" standard of success, I prefer to think of it as "The game that creates the biggest subculture in SL wins" metric.

Whether this theory plays out in practice is for each Resident to decide for themselves, after they've played Arcadia's games, and the winners are chosen in mid-May.  And while I covered one of the entrants last month, in the next couple weeks, I'll be making my best effort to cover them all before the contest's final days.

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Mark Wallace

> instead of thinking about the contest having a "The game that makes the most money wins" standard of success, I prefer to think of it as "The game that creates the biggest subculture in SL wins" metric.

You may prefer to think of it this way, but the fact it, the game that makes the most money does indeed win.

I think a better measure of cultural impact might have been traffic, although this has its problems too. As noted in my OP, we spent the most time and probably had the most fun at a game where we spent the least money. Traffic would have captured that.

Although it wouldn't have captured usage of games like The Collective, which you play on an ongoing basis across the entire Grid.

The problem here is one of apples and oranges (and Walkers and Wallace -- 3pointD is by Mark Wallace). You can't really compare SLictionary, which is a parlor game, with Tech Warfare, which is an RTS, or The Collective, which is like an ongoing version of Magic, The Gathering, apparently. They're three different things, and picking one as "best" seems nearly impossible to me.

Hamlet Au

> apples and oranges

I take your point there, though that also speaks to not putting them up for any kind of critical evaluation. It's possible, though difficult, to judge very different genres. Leaving it to a "vote with your wallet" metric where every Resident potentially has a say seems better than a panel coming in and saying what's "best". Also, since all the developers get to keep the L$ they make during the contest, even those who don't get to keep their land in Arcadia still get compensated for their time and effort, and have a chance to build up an audience.

> I think a better measure of cultural impact
> might have been traffic

Of course, that can easily be gamed so that the developer with the most friends in-world wins ("Hey, come hang out on my plot of land!") More key, while there's a lot of things Residents enjoy doing for fun for free, it demands more creativity to come up with a game that's *so* fun people pay to play.

Ben Linden

There have been a few complaints that the system does not reward the more casual "parlor" games like SLictionary as much. You claim that personally, SLictionary was the most fun - and so I would expect that you would be willing to pay more to play it, so the creator could charge more. That the creator is not charging more is their decision - not imposed by the contest.

Now, I am not arguing that money is the *best* way to judge games - but as observed, the structure of the contest meant that all the games were designed to work well in SL, finished, fun, and are being played - which is what we want.

Of course, there is probably a better way to judge - I would love to hear any suggestions!

Rifkin Habsburg

I'd say that, given the goal of creating popular, well-promoted games, the Expo is a success.

Participating in the Expo has been hugely educational for me. When I first built Danger Zone, I naively assumed a "If you build it, they will come" attitude. I knew I had a great game. I thought people would just find it.

A week or so of no traffic disabused me of that notion. I've learned that promotion is hard. Building a community is hard. Just getting people to read the rules is hard! I've spent as much effort promoting my game as I have building it in the first place.

The Expo has forced me to learn, fast, how to sell a game to the public. How to fix interface issues and make it as easy as possible to play. How to get people excited about playing. Without the Expo, I probably would have just set the game up somewhere, and waited... and waited...

Thanks for setting this up, Hamlet. It's been a lot of fun.

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