"World of Warcraft is officially Casual!"

I am quoting the headline from a friend of mine who droppt this in a chat. And he is right. Considering that you can level from 70 to 80 in days very easily plus you can enter instances/dungeons in normal mode 5 levels before the level requirements and having no difficulties helps the casual player reaching goals he would never be able to earlier.

At level 80 random groups for Naxxramas, the 10 man instance, were running Naxx successfully days after the expansion has been released. Even for the heroic version of Naxx, the first 25 raid you might enter, are being run with success.

Now 2 german players solo'ed Loatheb, a boss in Naxx, in heroic mode! Thats how easy it has become.

The elite guilds hate it, casual players love it as the difficulty is ok for them. Two things start to happen: the elite guilds miss the challenge and casuals are raiding like the pro's have been before. Fun fun fun, but Blizzard has a problem. The pro guilds were the heros of WoW and casuals saw them as their role model. Of course they complained that they never can raid like they do, but still they liked that there is somethign after their level cap to reach, unlikely, but it is there.

Now everyone can raid and the feeling "there is somethign beyond" is missing. That might lead to the problem that pro guilds stop playing or waiting for the next expansion as there isn't an alternative for raiding outside WoW right now (neither WoW nor Lord of the Rings do it "right"). My personal opinion is that Blizzard needs to offer an elite content patch real soon otherwise they are going to loose the role models of the masses.

Check this: the majority of the playerbase never saw the inside of Sratholme before Burning Crusade came out, less than 5% of the players at that time never saw Naxx from the inside. Less than 5% of the playerbase before Wrath of the Lich king saw sunwell from the inside.

Yes, its the right move Blizzard to make things more casual and more fun for everyone, but do not forget what principle (among others) made WoW big: Elite content for the core players.


Fiction Book on Nano Tech

A friend of mine wrote a pretty neat book, it took him serveral years to complete and he offers it as a free download with a donation optional if you like it. Want to check it out?

Item Selling?

The latest craze in online gaming: Free to play and item selling. But this word "item selling" is misunderstood. Casual users think that you can buy anything the game offers in items, that you must spend money in order to succeed. In RPG's itemselling  suggests you can spend real money to buy the best armor or weapons available.

But this doesn't work for RPG's. A fellow gamer looks at you and thinks "hey, he spend money and has better equip, I won't pay so why should I continue playing?".

Some games do allow exactly this but they are designed in a different way. Those games are made to have a stickyness of maybe 3 month (With stickyness I mean how long the player actively plays). In this case it is ok to sell anything you want as the player is merely a bypasser in the game world. The business concepts varies here: some publishers push millions of users through their games and only a fraction stay. Many user in - many users out.

Some games, usually virtual worlds like MMOG's, have a larger stickyness. I heard from games where people play it since years, just like you read from World of Warcraft. Exactly here the word "itemselling" is hurting the user base.

So care must be taken how you implement item selling. I prefer the term "Micropayment" as you pay in small amounts and buy things which aren't usually visible to fellow gamers in the same world. A famous example is the XP scroll, which grants you a temporary boost in experience points you gain for monsters and quests.

However the experimentation goes on and usually the creative teams thinking exactly what their customers would pay for are successful. Here customer bahviour or motivation research is very important.
In one game I have data that seasonal items are the best sellers. Halloween costume anyone? Santa Claus hats? People who spend a lot of time in a virtual world love this. Ask yourself why and you are close to find the grail of itemselling.

Generally there are a lot of good business cases here but what works is hard to research if you are just starting or don't have connections to the industry. Thats one point where I usually get paid for, to tell people which works and what doesn't for their online game.


German Developer Awards 2008

I was attending the German Developer Awards 2008 yesterday and was in for a surprise: one of my last games "Panzer Tactics DS" won the "Best German Console  Game"! The game had a difficult history in all aspects and surely this award will help this game which many strategy fans don't even know about.
The developer Sproing Interactive surely is proud of this award, and rightly so! Many people worked hard on this project and it wasn't easy to bring on the market.


Browser Games Forum 2008

I was visiting the BGF 2008 last weekend and boy, I was in for a surprise. The conference started 2 years ago and was merely a hobbyist show. Browser games (or BG for short) were considered not being real games, they were undervalued by game developers and publishers alike until recently.
This time some big news overshadowed the conference. Not only did Bigpoint, one of the biggest BG publishers, sold their majority for 100 Million US$ to NBC Universal, but also Gameforge, the other "biggie" announced a planned turnover of 100 million euro ... per year.
The result: many investors and high class business angels flocked the show floor to find the next big thing. BG's did seem to have grown up, but it was confirmed later on in the individual sessions. Let me summarize some of them.

Heiko Hubertz,founder and Ceo of BigPoint showed some market data which showed impressive numbers and business models. They are a lot more open about numbers now since the sale, as it seems they now can proof that the BG market is serious and growing fast. Reaching over 40 million players and doing millions of Euros revenue with micropayments seemed far away a couple of years ago. Heiko pointed out that the market seem get saturated so that budgets of games rise and games need to be found to distinguish yourself.

One of the starters of the BG market started off with a big “nono”. Siegfried Müller, founder and Ceo of Travian GmbH showed details how their first attempt to work with a publisher failed and listed some facts how the legal case was going because of this. And they showed names as well, not something you want to do unless you are a player --- which they are, but still not something I would do.
Travian is their main game which has been launched impressively into 48 countries in 40 different languages (!). Their company has grown to 70 people, all without any investors or banks. This shows how organically a BG company can grow with their customers. Travian is running on 850 Linux servers in various hosting locations and is one of the rare products also launched in China and Asia. They didn’t tell any revenue though but I know it’s up to several millions per year.
If you check one of their Travian sites you can see the number of players and click through each of the 40 countries to add them up. Calculate 3-7% paying users and you might get an impression of their monthly revenue.
Tung Nguyen from Nexxter showed some examples from China were the market grew over night to extradimensional proportions. Within 2 years the market for BG’s grew to millions of players and revenue. The market seem to copycat the German model and the opinion about the German companies are high due to this. The market data he showed was sure impressive. Entering the market however is still difficult and just a few publishers managed to do so.

Not really a BG publisher but they run the oldest client based MMO from germany: over 12 years in operation their Tibia RPG is still running healthy and well and generating over 6 million Euros revenue per year with 135.000 users per day. They have a mix of subscription and micropayment model and it seems to work for them: they boast over 40 employees and are preparing their next game launch.Their mobile version of the game is also working quite well and seems to be the first real mmo on mobile devices.

Just a recent announced company to have several Web 2.0 companies underneath, among them BG’s. It wouldn’t interest me a bit but the founders are some of the high end web 2.0 investors on the German market, having exited half a dozen times successfully and are invested in over 50 internet companies. They play with the idea to get the reach to the customer by combining several internet companies under one roof.
Lukasz Gadowski showed the audience how to found, finance, grow and exit an internet company. The talk was very investor specific and might be too much for young BG student teams, but nevertheless showed very well the investor perspective behind their plans.

Smaller Ventures
There were a lot of very small teams on the conference. I talked to a couple and was very impressed. One student has a game out there with over 100.000 players, but only in Germany. He is living from his venture and wasn’t really planning to internationalize it although a lot more money would be there. He is having fun with his community and game, "why wasting it for going big".
Another team has an online soccer BG in Germany with more than 100.000 regular customers and do plan to go international, but don’t want to loose their focus on their home community.
Check this: two examples of very small teams having reached millions of players and boasting 100k online, playing customers. Now extrapolate this to the big players in Germany and you might have over 100 games just being operated in Germany, some of them international, but most of them profitable.
The big players once announced that Germany has a 60% market share in Browsergames … Worldwide! I do believe them because just adding up the numbers and comparing to other countries does show this.
However: other countries don’t sleep. I noted a lot of new BG’s in the eastern states, Benelux and other countries as BG’s allow one thing: to publish worldwide without the need of a publisher. Did you notice that the big top game publishers seem to ignore that market?

There were talks from BG operators from UK, Korea, USA and Russia. Basically they said all the same: Large market, huge growth, but they are all in awe of the German publishers.
So there it is. One gaming market in the hands of Germany and no one knows it. It reminded me what I was saying to the German development community 4 years ago: The single player market will be niche in a few years, you need to go online.

How many of those developers showed up on the BGF conference? Less than 4 …
So I am looking forward to the BGF 2009, I be tit will be a lot larger, with a lot of new big players out there, and the investors and business angels will flock around the rising stars and talking real money.


How Game Interface Comforts can destroy MMO's

Community is about communication, that’s obvious right? Richard Bartle in his book "Designing Online Worlds" clearly defines the stages of communities and one of them stands out: community of interest. The members share a common interest and hook up together.

In a MMO it is important that players get connected real soon as they meet people and start friendships. This will be the major reason why they stick to the game later on. If you fail designing your game to support this people will leave with less resistance compared to players who already met friends.

Now lets see what starting players communicate most: questions either about the game mechanics or the game content. The first is quickly resolved when they learned the game and its functions, the second however never stops unless they played through the game's content.

Players ask where a mob is, how a quest is being solved or simply if people want to help them for particular content. Other players will gladly help or players with the same quests team up as they share the same interest. And quickly bonds are forged and friends are met. To design your game to enhance meeting people is key to build up a strong bonded community so people won't leave the game behind easily.

Now game designers think in game mechanics, not in community mechanics. That’s the first mistake they do and unfortunately the negative feedback is coming very late to correct it.

Wrong game mechanics get immediate feedback and correction is mostly easy. Community building mistakes are much harder to read and to analyze.


Lets look at an example. Warhammer Online (WAR) has the tome of knowledge and an intelligent map. Both will tell you where to go for each quest and what to do exactly. In fact the map marks the areas of quests you accepted and also tells you which quest to finish in that region. That eliminates most of the community connecting questions people will ask. That is the number one reason why the chat is so silent in WAR besides the chat interface design.

The consequence: people will not find online friends as easily as in other games. In other words the user interface comforts is limiting the community growth of the game.

Note that World of Warcraft does not support any kind of that feature but there are add ons who do that. But their use is entirely optional and you need to install an Add On to make it work, a major obstacle for starting players. As soon as those players have advanced knowledge they are fit to use it, but at that point they met enough people online to have connected and stay.

So listen designers: carefully consider your game design what it does to community growth and stickiness, not only in term of game mechanics.


Gstar Coverage

I can't read Korean but their coverage of the GStar KGC Konference is up for most talks, among them mine:

Some of the slides are pictured too


Future Interfaces

Minority report sparked the new generation of touch interfaces, based on research art various US universities and research sites. The prototypes usually were slow, even the windows tablet Bill Gates showed wasn't really up to the performance. This new one however showed how far they progressed so that they are close for us to experience:

g-speak overview 1828121108 from john underkoffler on Vimeo.


Gstar Seoul - Korea

I am being invited to the GStar show in Seoul next week to talk about the European MMO market and its differences to the Asian. I nearly canceled it but was too intrigued to travel to the future of online gaming. The Korean market seems years ahead of us and their experiments in online games, social networks and online advertising are too interesting for me to pass.

Imagine: Korea has over 3500 development companies doing online games. I guess that’s more than all games development companies combined in USA and Europe. Their problem is market saturation and they need expansion space.

Until today they haven’t learned how to enter foreign markets, as we haven’t learned to enter the Asian markets. Now what would happen if they learn how to do successful games in their market and ours? With their experience, development power and money they would swamp and conquer the online market here. Blizzard beware, there is a huge attack incoming!

I try to get as many impression as I can and share them with you. If you know any specific game you heard about but isn’t well known here let me know and I check it out over there.


PC Gaming is Dead - NOT -

Console sales are up, console game sales are up, they will brake world records this christmas as over 90% of them are sold during this period. From history I know that in the last 2 years of a console life cycle the hardware will sell as many units as they sold in the first 3 years. 

Thats worrying a lof of PC games developers who didn't get their foot in the console door as the unitsales of console games are millions instead of hundres of thousands as on the PC.

But do not worry. For one console games are a bitch to develop, its very expensive. Thats the key to PC games: dvelopment is much easier and flexible, but of course the PC platform sucks as its a moving platform compared to the stable hardware of consoles.

But don't fret, the discussion that PC games are dead is repeating itself every 5-6 years when the console lifecycle is at its height. It never happened though and it won't change as far as my 20 years experience goes. And I heard this discussion 3 times already.

First: the console will show its age end of 2009 and too much software on the shelf will limit sales of the multi million dollar budget games. Additionally the hit games of 2005-2008 will be on the shelf for half the price hurting sales of new developments. And as the platform doesn't change the games are still in perfect shape to be sold.

At that time the PC will be more advanced than the console generation and offers more power to experiment with game content. The consoles will be pretty much limited at that point.

Additionally the new console generation will be anounced to developers and publishers and to be the first on the platform at launch they have to start 2 years ahead ... that means 2009. As the investment in those launch titles is very high the key teams will abandon the current generation of the consoles or move the development to "cheap" locations, lessening the quality. During that time the risk of publishing a new multi million dollar game is so high that experienced publishers will stick to sequels. As we know sequels never sell better than the original on the same platform. All this together will drop the console market to its knees and will put the kiss of death on them as soon as the new generation launches.

What happens to the PC meanwhile? We will see new games, genres, and indy development taking place which makes the PC ideal for a lot fo game types. When the console shelf space is flooded with budget software and sequels the PC shows where the impulses comes from.

So the PC never dies. The trap you can enter is if you do what everyone else does. No one is interested in a RTS when you can't beat Blizzard or EA's frenchises. If you can't don't do it. Online is key and a lot of niches are still open. Think different, look at the large picture of the games market, not on genres and games which are already on the shelf. Think counter intuitive. If you currently see a large wave of good shooters don't develop them. Look at what is missing on the shelfs but sold in the past 5 years. Thats key to your product strategy.

For more information check out the talk I did years ago on the industry life cycle on www.teut.net


Game Settings that don't sell

I have been teaching a lot of students recently and one topic came up again which I think should be common knowledge, but unfortunately it isn't: Which themes or settings in games do not sell? Which settings do sell well?

I am a big fan of "CNN" compatible  settings, in other words all settings people are used to from watching big TV are fine for games usually, but remember that popularity varies from continent to continent. As settings are very broad it is easier to tell developers which do NOT sell. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule...

If you have access to sales data reaching back for years you can verify this easily:

Underwater doesn't sell
It is a common misconception that underwater sells. It usually doesn't with the exception of submarine simulations, and even the simulation genre is pretty dead (Flight sims aside). It is a sexy setting, feels like space sims but with more interesting possibilities. But somehow people do not feel well underwater. It is a surounding not many of us are comfortable or experienced with. If we dive we usually have our eyes closed or the view range is limited. We mostly know underwater from TV documentaries.
Not feeling comfortable is key here to the setting. People simply like their natural habitat more than underwater. So my recommendation is if you plan to place your game underwater: don't.

Wild West doesn't sell
The classic western theme either from hollywood or the european vision of it doesn't work. I don't know exactly why but somehow it seems the wild west is a part of american history the americans tend to forget as it wasn't very civilized during those times. The romantic view we europeans have due to books or movies is very misleading. Hint for germans: Karl May educated a whole generation about the Wild West which doesn't work for americans.
I think the setting is also pretty old. In my younger times Wild West was cool, as were pirate films. Nowadays a younger generation of  kids like the setting but pretty fast loose interest when Bruce Willis, Batman or Spiderman replaces their picture of heroes. 
Pirate settings did fall into the same category but the recent hits of pirate movies did push sales in this setting a bit. But putting the movie license aside a pure pirate settings is a bad idea if not taken into the correct historical setting.

Sci Fi usually doesn't work
Thats a suprise for many but hard core Sci Fi usually doesn't work. Strangely Sci Fi has many facettes where some of them work quite well. If your setting is close to current living but with a touch of future technology it works very well. If you reach far out into the future the likelyhood that your game works is lessened considerably.
Some years ago Fantasy would have been listed here as well, but Lord of the Rings educated a world what classic fantasy is all about followed by the recent hits of books like Harry Potter or Eragon did their job as  well. Even my mom now knows what an Elf is.
With Sci Fi there hasn't been a major hit recently to educate the masses. Star Wars is long time ago and Clone Wars is aimed at a young audience. But even Star Wars is merely a shakespeare story in another setting, so it works. 
This setting is the only one which you can use if you follow some rules that you aren't too far off from human experience. 

Many readers might not agree with Sci Fi being a bad choice but think about it: why does Call of Duty outsell Unreal or Prey?


Teut's Trivia

Teut Weidemann appears in a classic game of the 80's. Can you name it? Win a prize! (and no it's not MUDS, where is he appearing too)


In case you missed it ...

Some weeks ago I was invited to be interviewed by Chaos Radio Express, a podcast, to talk about the game industtry in general. So if you missed it here it is: (german language)


WAR Patch 1.01 - Fix and Break

If you ever wanted to know how complicated it is to operate a MMO you just touched the surface. Its a huge task to operate the servers, the customers, the billing, and the development.

The development has to service at least 3 versions of the game at once. The current live version might need emergency patches (exploits, crashes). The current patch you are working on is another and is very near the live version. And there is the future large patch you are working on, new features and expansions. Can you imagine how complex it is to merge those versions to make a stable patch? Its tough and to be honest if there wasn't Perforce I wouldn't know how this can be done.

But developing a new version is one side. The other side is worse: Testing is a nightmare. A MMO is a complex game, so if you change fundamental things how do you test the beast? It's nearly impossible to test all sides of a live MMO and it gets worse the older the game gets: complexity is added nearly every month.

So it is natural that bugs slip by, some hidden ones and some obvious ones where you ask yourself: why did they overlook this one?

A blog has some aspects listed of the recent Warhamemr Online Patch 1.01, and if you don't know this blog check it out, its pretty nifty: Keen & Graev's Gaming Blog

Holy Warriors Guild Meeting

Holy Warriors is my World of Warcraft guild. One of our members organized a guild meeting some time ago. I thought not many people would go but as it turned out over 40 people showed up. We definately want to repeat this! We had fun, lots of fun (and drinks ...)

If you look at the mix of members in our guild we have everything: Young, middle aged, short, tall, male, female.

Check some pictures of the meeting in my picasa album: Holy Warrios Guild Meeting

Before we met I had  predicted that a guild meeting usually causes "Guild Drama" and one or more members will quit shortly after it. At first it didn't look that way. Many online friends became real friends, it bonded us together. But shortly after that some people did leave the guild, for various reasons. Strangely enough most of the members who quit did NOT attend the guild meeting. Coincidence?

Shutting down MMO's

Usually MMO's aren't shut down within the first years. I was surprised to see news about Codemasters shutting down one of theirs. Its all due to license problems. But how shortsighted is this to license a MMO for just a short period of time? Some business guy didn't pay attention and mixed up retail games with MMO's.

Note: Ultima Online is still running after 12 years of operation, with profits I might say. Sometimes if a game shows its age (like Meridian did) it might get shut down, but a game only online for two years? (RF Online was launched november 2007)


Western View on MMO Population

There are serveral statements from important people among the MMO creators that a launch of a new MMO doesn't hurt their player base. There is Age of Conan which didn't hurt World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings was unimpressed too. Now Warhammer Online shipped and neither games seem to be impressed or are loosing players, still WAR claims to have 500.000 players only weeks after launch.

Why are people worried about players moving? Because they see their own view playing their favourite MMO and maybe switching with their friends. What they seem to forget is how many MMO's are out there. We see our western created MMO's as the prime of the market, but to be honest they aren't. Measured on population there are MMO's in Asia which are far bigger than World of Warcaft. If you count non fantasy MMO's too the population of Warcraft seem to be small compared against the playerbase of for example Neopets Online.

There are many fantasy MMO's free to play out there too. And every week I am stumbling over more. Many of them are localised versions of Korean MMO's, some aren't. Still there are so many free massive online games out there that you might wonder why they didn't hurt the population of WoW, WAR or AoC. 

The answer is simple: target audience. Casual Gamers vs. Hardcore vs. "Hey I am new here, what is a MMO?". I heard once a statement from Blizzard that many of their WoW gamers claim that WoW is their first game they have played. Thats a big statement and worth considering why WoW attracts those people. Some hints: WoW runs on old machines, its very easy to use and explains everything you need to play it. At level 1 you need 3 buttons and a mouse, thats all. Compare that to the complexity in WAR or AoC.

Anyway, my summary is simple: no new MMO launch will hurt the player base of an existing MMO much. If a playerbase is diminishing look for other reasons.


WAR(hammer) Online, MMO in silence

As some of you know I am a WoW addict. Yes, I admit it. As my main character is level 70 with full T6 epic I got really nothing much to do in the current edition of WoW. You don't know what I am talking about? Then this article might be not for you.

Anyway, after having reached my goals of all important  items for my level 70 priest (healer)  I got interested for a while in my old character, a hunter. After some "twink runs" and other instances he got decent equip. My raid invited him once as we had too many healers and I reached top spots in the damage meter. So he isn't quite as bad as twinks used to be.

So its natural that I needed some small distraction from WoW. One weekend my girlfriend and I got bored from playing WoW  (yes she plays MMO's, what a woman! And yes she looks good :). So I rushed to a local game store before it closed and bought two copies or Warhammer Online (WAR for short) just to test the 30 day free trial.

Yes, WAR is good, but it is very different from WoW. The first thing you'll notice is that its not as deep as WoW. Less details, a lot of shortcuts. For example when you accept a quest your map will show you exactly where to go. You can even click on the quest marking of the map and a tome will open explaining you the quest. Its questing for noobs. In WoW there is always a lot of talk in the chat about "where can I find XYZ" or "Anyone want to help with quest ABC?". The intelligent map in WAR got rid of that. 

Result: Silence. Utter silence. No one talks. Its strange. 

Yes, if you group or raid there is talk but even then less than in WoW. As many things got "noobyfied" in WAR there isn't a lot to talk about, not even boss tactics. Tank and spank, thats it most of the time. No special talents needed, strategies etc.

Silence. Thats strange for a MMO isn't it. Don't get me wrong, WAR is a good game but appeals to a different crowd. If you like a complex MMO with deep story, tons of stuff and tactics to discover and lots of things to do go for WoW. If you love PvP, large scale castle sieges and tons of stuff to kill go for WAR. Its hard to compare these two but luckily WAR isn't competing with WoW.

The major concern I havewith WAR  is questing. Its boring as hell, all quests are identical: go A, kill B, collect C. Yes, in WoW many quests are like that but looking into the expansion Wrath of the Lich King the quality of questing has risen tenfold. Even compared to questing in Burning Crusade the WAR experience is lacking.

Additionally my major concern is that questing isn't necessary at ALL in WAR. You don't need to. Go PvP instead, you get more experience for loosing battlefields than for 3 quests! "But the drops and equipment ..." you say. Well, more PvP means more faction level which grants you access to equipment far superior to all quest items or drops. Believe me, don't quest, go PvP, its faster in levelling too.

So WAR is a PvP levelling experience and it does it well. Go for it if you love PvP and specially open PvP or castle sieges. They rock.

Want an experience like a single player RPG but the added social component and end game raids? Go for WoW.


Blogging on iPhone

I am trying blog software for my iPhone and finally found one which works. This means I can update ms blog when I am on travel which is the only time I can actually write here.
So watch this space for more frequent updates.