Reality is a Game

Thoughts on the game world around us.

Whales in Free to Play Games

For many free to play (freemium) games their revenue relies on whales. Whales are players that spend a disproportionate amount of money on a game relative to other players, and they make up a very small percentage of players.

Wero Creative's freemium game AstroDoge

Wero Creative’s freemium game AstroDoge

This approach to game revenue can be rather problematic if you’re game doesn’t get thousands or millions of players. And as the mobile app stores get more and more saturated reaching that critical number of players becomes a bigger and bigger challenge.

Encouraging these players to play for freemium upgrades can be a challenge and game designers need to design for free to play from the start of the design process. Still, what can game companies do to attract these whale players and is it a good idea?

Michael Lewis at the Toronto Star takes a look into how game companies hunt elusive whales to stay afloat. He even interviewed me about whales and how game companies make their business plans.

Whales, moreover, are not likely to admit they are such, according to Adam Clare, who teaches games design at George Brown College and develops games at Wero Creative.
The vast majority of gamers who play free games never spend on them regardless of how many in-app purchases they offer, he said.

“So the business model has boiled down to getting as many players as possible, then hoping that someone out there will love the game so much they spend a tonne of money on it.”

Game developers have always assumed that this random approach is logical, he said, even though developers also assumed that the people spending $50 or more a month on a game for extra time or virtual prizes must be misguided.

Some research on whales suggests in fact that they are not impulsive but more rational in a kind of hedonistic way — long-term thinkers, cool-headed and methodical who see expenditure on gaming as part of their entertainment budget.

Now go get Wero’s free to play game AstroDoge.

Stardoz! My Game Which Uses Heartbeats To Spawn Enemies

Stardoz

First version of Stardoz

Stardoz is a crazy experimental biometric-driven game I built at TOJam a few weeks back. In the game you fly around in a spaceship shooting at giant floating heads and hands. It’s similar to many flying in space combat games.

The catch is that your heartbeat controls the spawn rate of enemies. The pulsing red border on the screen shows the player’s heart at work.

If floating heads seems familiar to you, it’s because you may remember the movie Zardoz starring Sean Connery. Just watch the trailer to see how zany the movie is.

Really, the gameplay is similar in play insofar that “the gun is good” and that one survives by ‘killing’. It’s very simple gameplay with a neat twist. I made Stardoz to test out some space-based game mechanics and to incorporate some biometric data into a game.

Playtesters have liked the heartbeat spawn mechanic and only one player took issue that the game is hard for people with high resting heart rates. I’m still tweaking the spawn rate but it’s alright for the most part.

Stardom being played

The art confuses players and that’s a design goal of mine. I wanted it to cross between the ridiculous and the overly-symbolic. Thus, instead of a score it lists how many egos you’ve destroyed and how many emotions you have. .

You are flying through space (or is mindspace?) destroying representations of human forms. In some cases it’s heavy handed and in some ways quite subtle (only one person has figured out the symbolic placement of the TOJam goat).

Getting the Heartbeat

Pulse Sensor

With the excellent help of J Lee, I was able to get an Arduino Uno board to work with a pulse sensor which meant that heartbeats could be tracked using Unity. The heartbeat is tracked using this pulse sensor which was really easy to connect to the Arduino and to configure it into Unity.

“Fun fact”: for Windows use COM4 and /dev/cu.usbmodem1421 for Macs as the port for Unity to talk to the Arduino. At least this is what worked for my setup. Results may vary.

The pulse sensor goes around the player’s finger and surprisingly doesn’t interfere with gameplay controls. It can be attached to the player’s ear but it just feels weird.

Here it is in action around the left index finger of a player:

Heartbeat sensor with game controller

Next Steps

For this game will be to see if I can get it working with the Apple Watch (or Android Wear), if it works maybe I’ll release it for anyone to play. In the meantime I’m hoping to show it at upcoming events.

Stardoz restart

Game Praxis: A Game Competition About Philosophy

Game Praxis

Game Praxis is a game competition and a journal exploring the intersection between games, philosophy, and practice.

The goal is simple: generate more interesting content about how games can be used to explore bigger questions. For the first run of Game Praxis pre-existing games can be submitted so if you’ve already made a game that you think should be considered you can do so.

The Game Praxis mission:

Should you choose to accept it? Marx observed philosophers have interpreted the world when the point is to change it. Much the same could be said for the game industry. We need to build more than better worlds, we need to build a better world. We see crunch, the precarious careers of late capital, and a troubled and troubling apprehension of gender in game and the game industry as symptoms of an underlying pathology of the spirit. In the game industry, the measure of success is money. With all due respect to our invocation of Marx, we aren’t against the production of surplus value but we believe there are more creative ways to evaluate games, game industries and our lives in game.

The theme of the competition is ALEA JACTA EST. Any game or writing about around the theme can be submitted from now until June 1st.

We want to encourage more discourse and thoughtful analysis through the use off gaming. I say ‘we’ because I’m on of the founding editors of Game Praxis.

There is a fantastic list of people who will be reviewing the submitted games too. They are:

GOLBOO AMANI
GABRIELA AVEIRO OJEDA
TRUDY BARBER
VASS BEDNAR
SANDRA DANILOVIC
MANAF FAKHRO
EMMA WESTECOTT

For the last few months I’ve been working on getting this going with Nicholas Packwood. It’s fun to finally announce it to the world!

Submit your game now!

Does Morality In Video Games Matter?

There are games out there that claim to have the player make moral decisions – and that the decisions will change the game in dramatic ways. I’ve always been let down by these games because they promise so much and don’t fully deliver. It’s very rare to find a game that brings moral issues to the forefront of the player’s experience.

Walking Dead Game

It’s too easy to put the moral aspects of play in a cutscene and that does very little. This may have something to do with how some game makers learn about morals and ethics in games.

Take a look at this tutorial on karma and moral decision making. The way that moral decisions are discussed is to frame them in the context of what moral decision system to use (relating to interface and not ideology) instead of what makes for a good moral question.

Too often the moral decisions are made for the players by the virtue of the design of the game. It’s not about what’s morally “correct” but what’s best to “win”. I’ve done horrible things in video games because they get me to win, but these horrible things are actions I’ll never consider outside of game play.

By crafting moral decisions into our game a priori the played experience we are not giving the player a decision.

As designers, if we focus on crafting good questions we can get good moral exploration in games. It’s of the utmost importance that we embody this in the gameplay and not just in a single character or a cutscene.

The moral quandary must transcend the game!

How do we create this feeling that transcends the game? We can do so by invoking aspects of the player’s life or by incorporating an open question around meta-ethics. By looking at meta-ethics we can start thinking about really good questions that will get players thinking in new ways. Philosophy Now has a good podcast episode on meta-ethics.

A recent Guardian article on guilt in video games touched on getting the player to feel moral issues. In fact, the article is a good summary with issues around morals in games today.

Which is why guilt is so fascinating as a game component – it can exist both inside and outside of the mechanics, and it can permeate the whole experience. In the sci-fi strategy game XCOM, players can name the characters themselves, and many of us choose to use the names of friends and relatives. Almost by accident, this brings to the game an almost unconscious guilt mechanic – you feel bad about endangering the character named after your boyfriend, or pet dog, or mum; maybe you even protect that character, placing them at the back of the pack.

If you find all of this too heavy, take a break and listen to this interview on morality and humour with Noël Carroll.

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