Monday, March 18, 2013

Food for Thought - the design of micro-communities

I recently watched a livestream of Colin Johanson, lead designer for Guild Wars 2 on the topic of creating communities within games. Understandably he mainly cited the design process of Guild Wars 2, so this weekend I sat down and put together my thoughts on one topic which has been playing around in my head - micro communities.

Before we get there, let us briefly cover the basis on Colin’s talk. Four pillars were central to the design of Guild Wars 2. Pillars is a great word as it conceptualises their meaning: the foundations of what was being built so that every aspect of the game reflects those things. 
I would like a micro-transaction with this lady.

These foundations were:
  1. A community driven game.
  2. Action oriented combat.
  3. Your character has a story.
  4. Living world; the world you play in feels alive.
The closest parallel I can draw this to is the ‘core values’ businesses create when designing or restructuring their business. Every decision the game designers or business make should reflect these pillars or values, notwithstanding marketing and PR strategy (Colin's words not mine). This ensures continuity throughout, while reflecting genuine reliability which consequently creates trust in the game or business. “Change your pillars at your own risk” Colin warned, as this may undermine every decision taken up until then.

The Pillar of A Community Driven Game

Having played Guild Wars 2 I can certainly say that this pillar shines through, and the second M from MMO (massively multiplayer online) is truly present. Through a subtle reward structure you cannot help but rush to aid a stranger if he looks like he is in a tough spot, and gone is fighting over resources but rather fighting together for common goals.

The only thing I find missing is what I call ‘micro-communities’. This is a term I coined a while back when trying to describe some differences I found within some organisations. A normal community would be a group of people who are bound together due to an existing structure, may this be geographical or organisational. In an MMO for example the most common of communities would be those who group together into Guilds. In the workplace your community may well be your department. The problem which such communities is that they are bound by the very structure which creates them. By being in a guild, you might find that you do not chat with any of the other players outside of this structure. Likewise at work you may never talk to anyone outside your department.

So what are micro-communities? These are relationships between a small number of individuals which develop and exist outside the normal communities. For example I recently starting chatting to a stranger in Guild Wars 2 (an unfortunately rare occurrence) after we helped each other out, which led to playing together for sometime after. If I met a colleague from another department during a coffee break, that colleague might then later be someone I can contact if I need information otherwise unavailable to me. In different types of ‘power’, one of the most important types is that of social networking. Having shared a few jump puzzles with this stranger in Guild Wars 2, I might later be able to invite him into a dungeon when my friends when we are missing a player.

The problem with Guild Wars 2 and many organisations is that there is little consideration for how these micro-communities are created. The game design of Guild Wars 2 focuses so much on openness and ease-of-use, this creates an unintended consequence that players rarely need to talk to each other in PvE (Player vs Environment) resulting in a lack of micro-community development. Indeed in the first Guild Wars players would barter over items in buying-and-selling; now you just list your items on a large database and you never interact with the buyer. Equally, for organisations if the workplace has no shared facilities, then employees from different departments will never meet and so you will find your company with a lot of separate communities with little communicate in between.

How do you create micro-communities?

The very nature of micro-communities means that they are dependent on the individuals involved. However it is the responsibility of the game/workplace design to allow those individuals to meet and interact in the first place. One company I worked in had one beautiful solution: a games room which had a table tennis table, a PlayStation and table-football. By using this room in your break, you could meet anyone from the company and thus micro-communities are born. As micro-communities slowly grow, new communities may even rise up: a monthly table-tennis tournament for example. Back to Guild Wars 2 a design to give players reasons to communicate would also be sorely welcome. To keep to the same example, allowing players to trade face-to-face as well as using the database would be one step in the right direction.

So what?

What is so important about micro-communities anyway? Two of these I have touched upon. Firstly that of social networking - this is a powerful tool which empowers people. Secondly, this can rise in new stable communities as micro-communities gradually merge together. Thirdly and ultimately - engagement. By engaging people within the workplace and within a game, this engages the individuals to the greater whole. Regardless of whether it is at work or playing a video-game, having bonds with others will inevitably improve retention rates, happiness and fun!

That’s it from me. As always I would be interested in your thoughts, so please drop your comments below or share. Have a good week!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Forward thinking - 9 points the Vita II needs to win

My blog is back! Since my last blog entries back in the sands of time I have been thrown into the world of post-university real-life work, and so other interests took a back seat. But here we are on that same old road again and I hope you enjoy my scriptures on the video-game industry. Let's start today with a large issue at the moment - handhelds and the Vita.

When Sony released the Vita I practically drooled looking at it. For any self-confessed geek there is no denying it looks beautiful. I mean, look at it.

I've looked at envy at all 3 guys I've seen using it

I raged against websites such as CNet who slammed it. I won't go into detail but in a nut shell they stated that the iPod Touch was better for gaming. Supposedly they thought that Angry Birds and swiping represents the peak of games. Rather than go into a hulk-esk rant, the nice little blog here (come back after!) will give you a run down as to why smartphones are unable to replace handhelds.

This close.
You should know, I was that close to buying one. And by close I mean the picture to the right. Given the lack of game developers I am now sadly glad I didn't buy one. This is a huge shame because I know I would enjoy holding this on the many train journeys I seem to take.

In my infinite wisdom Sony made some serious design omissions. Try working for a huge multinational company and the reasons quickly become apparent. Big companies are HARD to change. We live in a time when change is happening increasingly quickly. If you try and break a freight train at 30 miles per hour, and change is 30 yards ahead of you, you're going to have a bad time. And probably get fired.

So without further ado, here is what Sony need if they are ever going to make a Vita II. I say need because, given the rate of change, these are now requirements and not options.

NO 1. Akin to Apple's store on the iPhone, open up the indie platform to make it easy for anyone to develop a game for the Vita. Why? Such games are the sort that are ideal when waiting 5 minutes at the train station and can be resumed at a moment's notice without lengthy loading times. Avoid the trash by make it superior to Apple's platform by having stricter checks, thereby maintaining the image of a quality gaming device. This platform would also speed up the number of games available at or soon after launch.

Note: this is to complement the high-spec games of the Vita, not to replace them. The more people who buy and use the Vita for whatever reason will attract the major game developers.

NO 2. Create a very intuitive online marketplace so that you can easily discover and download content. This cannot be stressed enough. We live in an age where for the majority of people User Experience is prime. Don't simply copy Apple though, we want a trailered gaming experience from the moment we turn on the device. 

NO 3. A very good battery. This goes without saying really. A key advantage over smartphones.

NO 4. Fit it within the next-gen PS4 ecosystem. Sony's recent PS4 announcement has hinted at this, and good for them. The possibilities are limitless but I personally love the idea of watching a friend play a game on your Vita screen and then joining in through the power of streaming. Needless to say using the Vita as an extra controller would be a middle finger to Nintendo's efforts to the Wii U.

NO 5. Also play media and include streaming from your computer or Playstation. I would happily also use the Vita for on-the-go music and film; although I use my smartphone for these the battery is always an issue. This links nicely to my next point...

NO 6. Create a platform to allow third-party media developers. Microsoft's Xbox hit the nail on the head with this and everyone I know who regularly plays games on their 360 also uses the likes of Netflix, Lovefilm or Sky. I can almost hear 'pure' gamers angrily arguing that this in turning the Vita into a glorified smartphone, but if I could use Spotify on my Vita while playing games then I would be a very happy bunny. By limiting yourself to your own closed platform then in consequence you are limiting how your customers use your product. It stands to reason that the more customers use your product, the more developers you attract.

NO 7. A great 'friends' platform. This is closely linked to No 4's eco-system but it deserves a point of its own. Gaming has and always been social and we live in a time where you expect the same experience online with your friends as actually going over to their house for a gaming session. I am convinced that Xbox Live's excellent social features is what ultimately drove the Xbox to success.

NO 8. Make a financial loss on the Vita when you release it. Why? If you want something to sell well then it must be affordable. Everyone reads reviews before they buy, but if said review states a product is great yet overpriced then this will no doubt sway potential buyers away. Successful gaming devices will make their money through games (and let's not forget third party media apps where Sony would get a nice cut). 

NO 9. Understand your market when advertising. I am almost cringing writing this. The Vita's advertisements were awful. In summary they represented their target audience as anti-social and sexually repressed teenagers. Comparing the Vita to a woman with four breasts is just one example of many. I risk coming off as a Microsoft fanboy, but here is one of the greatest gaming adverts I have ever seen. Smart, funny and underlines Live's social features.

Having 10 points would be nice, but this concludes my weekend musings. Are there any other points you think this blog has missed?

Until next week!