These gaming industry experts share their perspective on what makes a game great – in terms of game play and financial results – and what new technologies and capabilities will be changing the face of killer games going forward. This is a continuation of our live blogging at the fourth panel from Digital Media Wire’s LA Games Conference 2008.
Matthew Bellows, VP, Consumer Strategy, Vivox
Catherine Herdlick, Dir., Game Production, GameLab/Co-Founder, Come Out & Play
Spencer Hunt, VP, Game Production & Digital Dev., Sony Pictures Television Int’l
Ariella Lehrer, President/CEO, Legacy Interactive
Chris Petrovic, VP, Digital Media, Playboy Media Group
Moderator: Scott Steinberg, Managing Director, Embassy Multimedia Consultants
What does having a successful game mean? Financial return? Set up for follow-up game? Great reviews?
Ariella – Obviously with a small company you have to make money, so number one is generating enough revenue to pay for your marketing and development expenses. Right now we have a number one product, Lost Cases of Sherlock Holmes, so that’s a success.
Spencer – First and foremost it’s about getting deck placement, and it’s about carrier relationships and consumer uptake. We do a lot with licenses, and for us, if the original content creator is excited about the product, that’s a strong indicator for market success. With mobile, if you’re getting 50K downloads a month for a few months, that would be fantastic.
What about retail distribution?
Ariella – For our games retail is now an afterthought. Online with our prentice Los Angeles game we sold 60K online and 20K at retail.
Let’s look at a popular game, Guitar Hero, and discuss what are the common factors that lead to success.
Catherine – Aspirational qualities are important, the desire to be a rock star. The game lets a consumer immediately identify with a role that has broad appeal and gives them the power to be the star.
Matthew – So much of a game developers’ motivation is to make something amazing and exciting, that even if a game is not a success based on revenue but pushes boundaries and finds passionate fans.
Chris – Aspirational is an important element for us (Playboy), on the male side living the good life as Hef does, and on the female side it’s important as well, though we’re still looking for what that element is.
Spencer – Everyone wants to be a rock star, so Guitar Hero nails the aspirational component. Also the core game play mechanic – it’s very easy to play the easy level, but very difficult to master, and it provides encouragement along the way.
Ariella – Also for Guitar Hero, the innovative use of the controller which allows people who have never played games to interact with the content. The interface is a large part of the success.
Matthew – What’s interesting about the controller is that it was not seen as the right thing to do from a business standpoint. It was a financial risk that publishers took, it drove up the SKU price, but it was all about game play.
How important is doing the groundwork, picking a business model?
Spenser – It’s all about following through on a vision. If you are really passionate about a decision, like Nintendo’s controller emphasis rather than graphics, following through is key.
Matthew – Look at Harmonix. They tried for ten years to follow through with the vision of making music accessible, and now they’ve hit the right formula and it’s a big success.
How important is it to be able to turn on a dime when you’re approach isn’t working?
Ariella – Very important. You look at the strengths and weaknesses of your developers to decide how to transform a property into something great. Then the process of refining and developing is a very iterative process. We’ll do the extra month or two at the end of the process to beta test, refine and polish before launching so we get it right. You have to be sure you have enough time to do it right.
How many concepts do you go through and throw out before deciding what to put into production, and whether to design by committee or use one person’s input.
Catherine – We go through dozens of ideas per month, and the decision depends on many factors, what we think will resonate with the market, production capacity, etc. We discuss as a committee but don’t design by a committee, the producer is the filter through which management, developers, etc. can voice their concerns.
How about prototype development?
Catherine – It’s absolutely imperative, you have to put something together almost immediately to have a vision for what the game is. With Fashion Play we iterated for four months, scrapped the product, than started over and created the finished product in five months.
How far into left field should you go with your original concepts?
Spencer – Left field is great for original IP, but for licensed content, you will have a flop if it varies from consumers’ expectations. You can go further out in mechanics, though.
Chris – We’re an evergreen brand so there aren’t a lot of pockets for totally original things. Evergreen is good but it has it’s constraints. Used to be you could reskin existing game engines, but we’re past that now. It’s hard to innovate as an original IP holder without new and different hits to go from.
How important is international?
Chris – For us international is much bigger. Looking at mobile we’re not on deck here but have been from early days globally. Existing and new territories, Asia Pacific and Latin America are very important.
Do review scores actually matter and influence sales?
Ariella – They don’t matter for casual games, but do for hardcore. Casual gamers look at top-sellers. Brands are becoming more important for the casual game market with 20 new games a day. If you as the millennial generation, they don’t believe in experts anymore, they believe in what each other and their friends think. GameRanking.com etc. are important for us when we are looking to find developers and see how they’ve scored with their games; it’s more of a business-to-business use of expert scores versus consumer driven.
Can good marketing sell a bad game?
Matthew – Marketing can definitely get the first launch 50% or 100% above what you ‘should have been’, but good games last. Here reviews do have an influence. I love the consumer reviews of the title, not so much expert reviews but people who have played games, love them, and think of themselves as expert. They set an incredibly important tone.
Let’s learn from common mistakes by players in the game space…
Chris – I’ll use ourselves as an example, though it preceded me. We had an online game aggregator come to us, suggest we slap our brand on an existing arcade, and we had about two consumers come to that URL. The web has a long memory about bad experiences. Reskinning without advancing the brand is disastrous.
Catherine – I’ll add perspective about thinking through the use of the controller. Most of our games use the mouse. We’ve launched games that can hurt your arm if you play too forcefully. In one example, we promised a game that we couldn’t make because it was technically impossible with the control mechanism, and kept bumping against the wall and eventually had to abandon the effort.
If you haven’t played a GameLab game, audience, download one now. They are top notch.
Ariella – We produced a game for a wonderful charity, Starlight / Starbright. We were given a script with celebrity participation. The only game we could come up with that fit the script was a side-scrolling platform game, and this type of game is not very successful as a downloadable PC game. It was actually well reviewed, but it didn’t do well in terms of sales. It was the wrong game for us as a developer and for the audience. Nothing was good about the result.
Spencer – It’s very easy for the team to follow in love with pieces of the game but they can’t pull away from the closeness to see how it relates to the brand or how playable it really is. Pulling away is an emotional rather than technical problem. You always have to build in the time to make adjustments.
Matthew – We had a concept game for MoPets and bring it out for mobile phones. It was original content, we had a great partner (Sony BMG), but it’s so hard to break original IP on mobile versus on downloadable PC where you can get cat, dog, etc. lovers engaged.
Are there any trends improving chances of success across the board?
Catherine – There has been discussion about franchising, licensing, etc. One of the exciting things now is original IP starting with games and moving to other media
Ariella – There are huge opportunities thinking about innovative controllers, look at the Wii Fit and other titles. We’ve really just touched the surface of what’s possible here.
Matthew – I’m so excited right now to be in the video games industry. You can do things so many ways – Flash, browser, mobile, etc. – we’re seeing a lot more creative things being developed.
Spencer – The reality of multiple platforms is finally being realized. Everyone in media is recognizing the power of this.
Chris – Building on that, the concept of synchronous game play through multiple platforms is finally coming to fruition.
Matthew – For example look at PMOG, Justin Hall’s passively multiplayer game. It’s a browser plug-in that tracks you as you go through the web, and you acquire your points, levels, badges, and so forth just as you browse the web.
Catherine – The whole definition of what’s a game is evolving, turning every day activities like buying groceries into a game – it’s pretty amazing.
There’s a lot of discussion about innovate controllers. How do we do this without having to acquire another set of plastic toys that fill our rooms?
Spencer – Are you talking about the same plastic working across multiple publishers?
Maybe getting rid of the plastic altogether.
Spencer – I’ve wondered why noone has created a Guitar Hero controller that connects to an actual guitar
Catherine – I think we’re actually streamlining it more than we were 15-20 years ago.
What new innovate technology is on your radar screen as the next big thing for gaming – haptic interfaces, 3D, etc.?
Spencer – I’m really interested in location based games, and game design that takes advantage of that information. Use of GPS, photos for scavenger hunt, community, etc.
Catherine – I definitely think that GPS will become huge and change the way we play.
Ariella – I saw a presentation from an Israeli company that has to do with how your body interacts with the PC – there’s some camera that tracks your movement and allows you to physically interact with what you see in the screen
Matthew – I’m very interested in the integration of speech into games, facilitating a much more natural interface
Scott – We also haven’t talked about UGC, such as with the SIMS, which is important.
Chris – Having a tactile interaction with a virtual experience. I’ll leave that to your imagination regarding the implications for our world (Playboy).
What is your development cycle, and how does new technology impact that?
Chris – For Playboy, because games are not a core part of our business, we are strategically opportunistic about pursuing opportunities. We’ll sit back and analyze the financial benefit to us, with the partner taking the majority of the risk. We see a lot of pitches and don’t execute on 99.9% of them because it doesn’t make sense.
With respect to Matthew’s comments about voice in games … I was reading an article that discusses the advantages of using a third party voice provider like Ventrillo is that you can still talk to your guild when the game crashes. What do you think about this?
Matthew – It’s a good point, though there’s not much for the guild to do when the game crashes. But we’re working on a project to make that capability possible, keeping the voice independent of the game.
[tags]LA Games Conference 2008, game design, videogames[/tags]