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Making Habbo Hotel a success January 11, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in casual games, game design, games, games 2.0, gaming, virtual worlds.

Sulka Haro’s keynote speech on Habbo Hotel at the AGDC conference in September was well summarized by Gamasutra. For people building social games, it is worth reading the whole thing. His perspective is more from that of a virtual world than a game, but it is useful to hear the history of Habbo’s evolution and some of his examples of emergent play. (see previous post on what makes games fun, in particular sections on Games of Simulation and Games of New Stimulation)

His six summary points are:

1. Create something to play with. “Lego are a good example of what you should be building.”
2. Intuitive interaction. “You need to kill the UI. If the users notice there’s a UI it’s probably too complicated.”
3. Set up a mood for play. “This is maybe the hardest part to explain. In the real world, as I mentioned earlier, it’s increasingly hard to play. Just celebrate the fact that people do stuff and don’t punish for failures.”
4. Support user-created goals. “Players know the best.”
5. Shared social setting. “Even when people create the content, let people walk into the room and [use] the stuff. If you want to play, you need to figure out how to play.”
The bonus sixth point, according to Haro, is safety. “The users need to feel as comfortable as possible.” Habbo bans players for passing personal info. “If you construct the game so that people can screw up what other people do, people won’t bother… it’s too difficult to maintain.”

Widgets now reach 586 million internet users January 10, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in widgets.

As reported by Businessweek:

Considered by many to be the industry standard for audience tracking on the Web, comScore will use a revamped yardstick that could give advertisers, software makers, and investors a better handle on just how many people are using the programs. Under the new method of calculating, almost 586 million individual Internet users viewed a piece of widget software in November, 2007, according to an exclusive look at the data comScore provided to BusinessWeek.com. That’s nearly double comScore’s estimate in July, the last month it measured using an old system. ComScore plans to release the new widget usage data in mid-January.

What makes games fun? Part II January 8, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in casual games, game design, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming.
1 comment so far

As a follow up to my post on what makes games fun, another useful framework from Nicole Lazzaro of XEO Design, first presented at GDC in 2004.:

1. Hard Fun: Players like the opportunities for challenge, strategy, and problem
solving. Their comments focus on the game’s challenge and strategic thinking and
problem solving. This “Hard Fun” frequently generates emotions and experiences of
Frustration, and Fiero.
2. Easy Fun: Players enjoy intrigue and curiosity. Players become immersed in games
when it absorbs their complete attention, or when it takes them on an exciting
adventure. These Immersive game aspects are “Easy Fun” and generate emotions
and experiences of Wonder, Awe, and Mystery.
3. Altered States: Players treasure the enjoyment from their internal experiences in
reaction to the visceral, behavior, cognitive, and social properties. These players
play for internal sensations such as Excitement or Relief from their thoughts and
4. The People Factor: Players use games as mechanisms for social experiences.
These players enjoy the emotions of Amusement, Schadenfreude, and Naches
coming fromthe social experiences of competition, teamwork, as well as opportunity
for social bonding and personal recognition that comes from playing with others.

Abstract from their white paper is available here

More detail about the people factor (very important for Social Games) is available here

Good stuff.

What makes games fun? January 7, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in casual games, game design, game mechanics, games, gaming.

Chris Bateman at Only a Game had a series a while ago on the four elements of play according to Caillois, a noted French sociologist. While somewhat academic in nature, it is still a somewhat useful framework. Bateman notes four styles of (non exclusive) play:

Games of competition

Caillois calls this “agon”. This is the most common type of game, whether the competition is against another player (PvP) or against the environment (PvE), and hinges on the emotion of fiero – personal triumph over adversity. Games of this type appeal the most to hard core gamers. Bateman notes that there is significant room for the level of challenge/competition within a game:

The space that the player ends up within in respect of any given game of agon is determined almost entirely by the strength of the player (determined in part by their own abilities, in part by the game parametrics) relative to the strength of the opposition. Games of hard agon are at the very least evenly matched, and more commonly are biased against the player, so that the player must work even harder to win, and thus achieves an even greater payoff in fiero. Conversely, games of easy agon begin when the player’s strength is weighted higher than the opposition – indeed, these games are arguably at their most fun (and by fun in this case we mean the fun of amusement, not the fun of fiero) when the player is ludicrously overpowered with respect to their opponents. This was surely what made Rampage fun to play when it first came to the arcades, and I assume the recent Hulk game shares something of this feel in its early play.

Games of chance

Caillois calls this “alea”. This is what makes so many people enjoy lotteries and other forms of gambling. An element of chance can create dramatic tension – think of the rich emotions generated when your football team is close to scoring, or if you’re waiting for the river card to complete your flush in Texas Hold’em. An element of chance is often important for casual games, as Bateman notes:

Personally, I have found alea most useful in designing card games and boardgames. This is because aleatory elements inherently reduce the dominance of agon – and I find that there are many players who are put off by directly agonistic (competitive) play. Games like Texas Hold ’em which strike a balance between agon and alea have a wider appeal because failure can be chalked up to bad luck (and not to personal inadequacy) – plus, of course, anyone can win. Indeed, the fact that pure alea gives everyone an equal chance of winning is the reason that we frequently encounter alea in games designed for small children, such as the card game Beggar My Neighbour, or Snakes/Chutes and Ladders, or the aleatory elements in Kirby Air Ride (which was certainly designed to cover a very wide age range).

The rituals of alea have such universal appeal because they are absolutely fair. In a game of pure agon, whomever is more skilled will win every time (all things being equal), but in a game of pure alea anyone can win, regardless of who they are, or what their skills might be. The greater the reward in a game of alea, the greater the appeal – hence the appeal of state, national and international lotteries, despite the fact that the jackpot of even a modest-sized lottery will set a person up for life. The size of the stake the player could lose may intensify the experience, but it is what can be won that entices, whether that reward is money, a unique gift, a nice chocolate or temporary ownership of the flow of the narrative. I believe that harnessing alea might be yet another way to potentially expand the appeal of video games to a much wider audience.

Games of simulation

Caillois calls this “mimicry”. Most games have some degree of simulation involved. But games where mimicry is the primary form of play have tended to be successful by drawing in players outside of “hardcore” gamers. Examples include The Sims, Nintendogs and Animal Crossing, all of which have appealed to many more women than have other successful games. Bateman believes that, as a mimicry enhancer, graphics are a key driver for mass market success. He notes:

I strongly believe there is a vast untapped market for games which present mimicry as their core play. …such games can invite the player to play in their own way and at their own pace. They need not place frustrations in the player’s path and force the player to overcome them… The worlds of these games do not need to be as large as a GTA world to support play – instead of large but emotionally empty worlds, they can be smaller but more emotionally invested worldby allowing more player customisation, or by having non-player characters with personality.

…Adult play is simply an extention of child play. …At its core, however, much of play is about imagination, and games of mimicry are tools for enhancing imagination and reducing the degree of suspension of disbelief required. Adults may no longer be able to create spontaneous play out of little plastic figures, but place them in a vivid digital world and suddenly they all become like little children, eager to indulge an imagination often desperate to escape from the confines of the mundane world.

Mimicry is a powerful tool for play, but it is one that until now games have often harnessed only tangentially. When we recognise just how powerful mimicry can be, when we get past merely shackling players to repetitive play by designing addictive play systems, or narrowly defining the world of games as those which supply fiero; when we watch how people play, and what they enjoy, perhaps then we will be ready to allow videogames to be all that they can be.

Imagination is unlimited. Games should be too.

Games of new stimulation

Caillois calls this “ilinx”, or “vertigo”, the momentary destruction of perception. Bateman notes:

It can be the vertigo of speed or of spinning, or it can be the intoxicating allure of petty destruction – of stomping on a sandcastle, for instance.

… destructive ilinx, correlates with the reckless abandon that is allowed by a game such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and its many relatives. I contend that one of the reasons the recent Grand Theft Auto games are so successful at tapping into this side of ilinx is that they are not wholly realistic… The tone of the games is realistic in a certain sense, and certainly they are drawing upon mimicry, but there is an unreal quality. This is expressed in part by the shrewd choice of a non-photorealistic art style, and also by the presence of ‘game-like’ elements in the game world, such as “power up” tokens. This is real, but it is also a game. That empowers the player to, for instance, go on a murderous killing rampage, and laugh as they do it. I do not believe there is anything morally wrong with this, and the unreal quality of the game facilitates this freedom to misbehave.

The joy of ilinx is reckless abandon… it can be the vertigo of speed, or of wanton destruction; it need not be violent, but it is always irrepressible – the temporary abolishment of conscious thought. And video games are a wonderful place to explore this category of play, since one can surrender to ilinx in a game, and nobody gets hurt. Well, at the very least, nobody real. I believe we will see more and more ilinx in videogames over the coming years as we continue to explore the limitless domain of play.

A lot of the new social games are being built by people who do not have a background in game design. Bateman’s work is a useful framework for these new game designers to “check their work” against as they build apps on the Facebook platform and others.

Social Media: Influence and the Psychology of Persuasion January 4, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in social games, social media, social networks.

In the past I’ve recommended Cialdini’s book, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion as a “must read” for people designing social media sites. I recently had dinner with the CEO of a major social media company who shared with me his summarized notes from the book and allowed me to publish them here. This is a great summary, but no substitute for reading the book.

Anyone thinking about how to get viral growth, user generated content or user to user interaction should see if there are any interaction lessons to be learned from this book.


Asking for a favor has a much higher probability of positive response if you provide a reason. The reason does not even have to make sense. e.g. “Can I use the copier because I need to make copies” has a similar acceptance rate to “Can I use the copier because I am in a hurry.”

Contrast principle

People are more likely to react when they have something with which to compare. E.g. When a $5000 suit is placed next to $800 suit, the $800 suit seems inexpensive although on an absolute basis it may not be.

Giving things to others triggers a need for reciprocation. This also applies to a large request which after being denied is turned into a smaller request (as the person feels obligated to give in due to the fact that you gave them a concession).

You are more likely to do something after you’ve already aligned yourself. E.g. before placing a bet you are unsure of who will win, but after placing a bet you feel your team has a better chance of winning.

You are much more likely to head more strongly in a particular direction if you have made a public commitment. This holds (though less strongly) even if the commitment is not public but written or spoken.

If a great effort is required to obtain something, this enhances commitment (hazing rituals etc.).

People are less inclined to follow a rule if they are told they must under duress. It is much more effective to simply convey the rule. They then feel they are in control and own the rule.

Social Proof
People think that if others are doing something, then it is probably right. This has a greater impact in times of uncertainty; you look to others to see what to do. E.g if a person is injured on the street sometimes no one checks to see if she is okay. Why? Because on a crowded city street everyone looks to everyone else to see if there is a problem. Since no one reacts, everyone assumes it is fine.

The more someone likes you the more persuasive power you hold. The elements of liking are
o Similarity
o Physical attractiveness
o Compliments

Familiarity and working together also foster liking, as does close association with something positive. The converse is also true – e.g. weathermen suffer when they have to deliver bad news – recipients of death threats and the like.

Authority figures are extremely powerful. People have innate deference to authority and are willing violate common sense to carry out orders from perceived authorities.

Rareness naturally makes something more desirable. However, accelerating rarity makes things even more desirable. This explains psychological reactance. When freedoms that previously existed are suddenly taken away we react very strongly. Revolutionary wars provide evidence for this theory – often begun after period of rising freedoms followed by pull back of freedoms.

Need for Affiliation (this is a bit controversial)

• “Unless I miss my guess, they are not merely great sports aficionados; they are individuals with a hidden personality flaw – a poor self-concept. Deep inside is a sense of low personal worth that directs them to seek prestige not from the generation or promotion of their own attainments, but from the generation or promotion of their associations with others of attainment.”
• “There are several varieties of this species that bloom throughout our culture. The persistent name-dropper is a classic example. So, too, is the rock-music groupie, who trades sexual favors for the right tell girlfriends that she was ”with” a famous musician for a time. No matter which form it takes, the behavior of such individuals shares a similar theme – the rather tragic view of accomplishment as deriving from outside the self.”

KZero projects Virtual Worlds to be mainstream in 2008 January 3, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in virtual worlds.

A few days ago the NY Times noted that big media companies are driving virtual worlds for kids. KZero, a virtual world consulting firm, projects 2008 to be a breakout year for virtual worlds, with at least five million new registered users for each of Second Life, There, HiPiHi, Whyville and Club Penguin.

A compelling visual representation of growth of specific virtual worlds is available on their website.

An in depth breakdown of the game dynamics of an MMORPG making more than $50m/quarter January 2, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in business models, game design, game mechanics, games, gaming, mmorpg.

ZT Online is one of the most popular MMORPGs in China. It uses a free to play model and relies on the sale of premium digital goods to players for its business model. It is doing incredibly well, with revenues over $50m/qtr and EBITDA margins of over 70%. But it does so with a somewhat controversial game dynamic, focused on PvP (player vs. player) play (appealing mostly to Bartle’s “killer” player type), building animosity between players, and using this as a lever to sell increasingly powerful and expensive digital goods via a lottery like system of opening chests. Danwei posts an English translation of a Southern News (chinese language newspaper) story on ZT Online:

Good equipment means money. Unlike other games, in this game there are no items dropped when killing monsters or completing missions. “We all want the best,” said Lu Yang. “You have to go to the system’s shops to buy materials, and then use the system smith to make them. Or, you could go gambling.”

“Gambling” means “opening the treasure chest.” Gamers can buy keys and chests from the system for cheap: one yuan per set. When the key is applied to the chest, the screen will display a glittering chest opening. All kinds of materials and equipment spin inside the chest like the drums on a slot machine as the wheel of light spins. Where it stops indicates what you’ve won. Chests will frequently contain the high-class equipment that gamers desire, but the spinning light wheel always passes over them.

Lu Yang recalls that during her craziest period she was like a gambler in a casino. She would shout at the screen the name of the item she wanted, like “ebony, ebony,” or some high-class material, but ultimately she would obtain nothing but a pittance of experience. Ebony, or that powerful “ring of the nether world,” remained in the chest, gleaming seductively.

There is a “treasure chest” ranking in this world. Each day, the person who opens the most chests can obtain a power-multiplying “Sacred Stone for Mending Heaven.”

Via Raph, I saw Play No Evil’s breakdown of the ZT Online game dynamic summarized as

Gold Farming + RMT + Power-Leveling + PvP + Gambling = The Most Popular Game in China – ZT Online

Duels looks like it has taken a game design leaf out or ZT Online’s book, although it hasn’t yet introduced RMT(real money trade). Anyone building social games should read both the original story and Play No Evil’s analysis of game mechanics.

NY Times notes that many media companies are launching vitual worlds for kids January 1, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in mmorpg, virtual worlds.

I noted earlier this year that big companies have led the latest surges in virtual worlds, with many of these virtual worlds targeting kids and teens. Today’s New York Times concurs in an article about web playgrounds for the very young, which focuses on Club Penguin and Webkinz but also namechecks a number of newer or upcoming virtual worlds aimed at kids:

…Now the likes of the Walt Disney Company, which owns Club Penguin, are working at warp speed to pump out sister sites.

“Get ready for total inundation,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at the research firm eMarketer, who estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today.

… Disney last month introduced a “Pirates of the Caribbean” world aimed at children 10 and older, and it has worlds on the way for “Cars” and Tinker Bell, among others. Nickelodeon, already home to Neopets, is spending $100 million to develop a string of worlds. Coming soon from Warner Brothers Entertainment, part of Time Warner: a cluster of worlds based on its Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and D. C. comics properties.

Add to the mix similar offerings from toy manufacturers like Lego and Mattel. Upstart technology companies, particularly from overseas, are also elbowing for market share. Mind Candy, a British company that last month introduced a world called Moshi Monsters, and Stardoll, a site from Sweden, sign up thousands of members in the United States each day.

Disney, and likely the other big media comapnies, are taking a “lifetime value” approach to virtual worlds for kids:

Still, one world [Club Penguin], even a very successful one, does not alter the financial landscape at a $35.5 billion company like Disney. So Disney is pursuing a portfolio approach, investing $5 million to $10 million per world to develop a string of as many as 10 virtual properties, people familiar with Disney’s plans said.

Tinker Bell’s world, called Pixie Hollow, illustrates the company’s game plan. Disney is developing the site internally — creative executives who help design new theme park attractions are working on it — and will introduce it this summer to help build buzz for “Tinker Bell,” a big-budget feature film set for a fall 2008 release.

Visitors to a rudimentary version of Pixie Hollow, reachable through Disney.com, have already created four million fairy avatars, or online alter egos, according to Disney. The site will ultimately allow users to play games (“help create the seasons”) and interact with other “fairies.” When avatars move across the screen, they leave a sparkling trail of pixie dust, a carefully designed part of the experience.

“We wanted to come up with a way to make flying around the site feel really good,” said Paul Yanover, executive vice president and managing director of Disney Online.

Disney’s goal is to develop a network of worlds that appeal to various age groups, much like the company’s model. Preschool children might start with Pixie Hollow or Toon Town, another of Disney’s worlds, grow into Club Penguin and the one for “Cars” and graduate to “Pirates of the Caribbean” and beyond, perhaps to fantasy football at ESPN.com.

As these big companies spend real money against virtual worlds, it will create a more crowded landscape for startups targeting kids, while simultaneously vindicating the space.