The Twitch Prime Adpocalypse

Not to be outdone by the stiff competition over at YouTube HQ, Twitch has decided to get in on the fun and launch their own version of the adpocalypse, but with their own special twist. Before we get into the “whys” and “how could yous” of your standard internet op-ed, let’s try and examine what might actually come of this move.

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Twitch prime suddenly not so prime

So by now you should have heard that Twitch (or Amazon) has decided that one of the key benefits of having a Twitch prime subscription, ad free viewing of streams, will be going away as of October the 15th. Current subscribers will get to run out their year subscription with the current ad-free viewing, and anyone who sets up a subscription prior to September 14th will be allowed a full year of ad-free prime, however once the time comes to re-up your subscription, you’ll be pushed outside into the cold cold world of preroll ads with the rest of the twitch user base.  There is a way to avoid this however, and that is the resurfaced emphasis on Twitch Turbo, the product that Twitch themselves had a hand in killing with the introduction of Prime.

Therein, I believe, lies the core issue: a fundamental lack of differentiation between product offerings. On the one hand you had Turbo, which for $8.99 a month gets you ad free viewing, an expanded default emote set, expanded username color options, some streamer specific benefits (longer VoD storage and “priority support access”), and a neat battery shaped chat badge. On the other hand you had Prime, which for $119 a year gets you ad free viewing, Twitch Prime loot, free games monthly, AND a free sub to a channel of your choice each month. If those two product offerings sound extremely imbalanced, it’s because they are. In general the default emote set and chat name colors are perfectly fine for the vast majority of users AND who can turn down free games?

So, in what I can only assume is a hamfisted attempt to make Turbo more appealing, they removed the ad-free viewing feature from Prime, and thus you must now subscribe to both tiers (bringing your monthly payout to twitch up to $21 a month) in order to get what used to be included with Prime.

Just Business

Now it’s understandable how some poor team over at Twitch was probably tasked with “fixing our Turbo subscription problem” and thought that this was the best way to go about it. And it’s equally understandable how it got pitched up the chain and approved. After all, who in the business world would turn down a way to potentially increase their month revenue by 75% at best, and at worst, increase their ad revenue by a significant portion? But Twitch’s potential win here goes even beyond this. As it stands now, the best (and only) way to avoid potentially seeing ads without a Turbo subscription is to subscribe to each channel individually. Only then can you avoid seeing ads for only that one channel, only if the channel has deselected the opt out for subs.  If that sounds like a lot of “only”‘s to you, that’s because it is. So to that end, Twitch still wins on the number of potential subs that will come of this.

It doesn’t just stop there however. Twitch Partners are likely to see an increase to their sub counts as well. With the potential for ads stopping non-subbed users from seeing their favorite content on Twitch, subbing and getting the dozen or so emotes that come with their sub now seems like an extremely easy choice. And if they hold out and refuse to sub, Partners still make a portion of revenue for the ads that are shown on their stream. So in the end, partners still win and have a semblance of deniability about the whole thing. After all, this was a decision made by Twitch, and potentially not by the hands of partners.

Not Quite A Zero Sum Game

Do these benefits cascade down to the Affiliate level? Well there, I’m afraid, things may start to look a little bit bleaker. Ever since Twitch rolled out the Affiliate program, reaching Affiliate has been an extremely desirable, but still easily attainable, goal for most streamers starting out. That said, there is an extremely wide gap between Affiliate and Partner level requirements, and until a stream crosses that gap, this move could be a potential channel killer. Fair warning, we are entering the realm of speculation here now, so take what I write with a grain of salt, things could always turn out differently.

When you’re a successful Partnered streamer, more often than not, your streams are quite healthy, both in terms of concurrent viewer counts and in terms of active chatters; Potentially missing out on a couple people here or there wouldn’t represent a major miss. Hell, I doubt Ninja or Summit even notice when their viewer counts drop by 3-5 people. On the other end of the spectrum however, you have Affiliates who are making do with between 7 and 12 concurrent viewers, and a drop of 3-5 would be devastating at those levels. The struggle to grow and retain viewers at this level, regardless of future endeavors, is going to generally be in the back of every growing streamer’s mind (at least any streamer who cares about things like view counts etc). To these users, the sheer concept of a 30 second ad showing before their content potentially driving away users from viewing their channel should be a horrifying thought, and rightfully so. This invalidates things like stream quality, lighting, backdrops, overlays, sound equipment, and keeping things energetic and interactive for your viewers. If the viewer never even makes it into your channel, how can you ever even have a chance to convince them to stay? While it may seem like a 15-30 second ad at the start of each stream is a small price to pay for great content, the well documented and continuous struggle of adblock software providers and platform developers goes to show just how much of a nuisance a significant portion of viewers see the ads to be. And the really bad news for Affiliates? Twitch appears to be winning this fight, at least for now.

Well what about channel specific subs preventing ads from being shown? Well, with only a single free sub each month, and significantly fewer tangible benefits to users subbing to Affiliate channels (a single tier 1 emote vs however many Bahroo has at this point), it is unlikely that users who aren’t already subbed will become a new sub to compensate for the ads, thus thrusting the annoyance of preroll ads on to even your loyal viewers.

Life In The Wasteland

So where does that leave things? Well honestly, it’s difficult to say. There are a number of ways this whole situation can go, and I don’t claim to have all the pieces to say for sure which way it will go. That said however, it is not difficult to imagine a worst case scenario, one where the smallest of Affiliates slowly die off due to disinterest and a lack of new eyes, and where those on the rise begin to stagnate as only their loyal viewers return. On the other hand, Partners are likely to benefit immensely as the increased ad revenue and subscriptions help them out, and, of course, Twitch itself benefits immensely. But of course, there is one major hole to poke in this theory, and that is the number of preroll ads shown prior to streams loading.

In my own research, (and granted I am a Prime subscriber, so I had to do things from an old account), I noticed that the only time I would trigger an ad would be on the first stream I watched during a viewing session over an unknown period of time. That is to say, when I first logged on, the first stream I clicked on displayed a video ad, and any stream I clicked on thereafter did not.  I believe it is this frequency that will ultimately dictate the impact of this change on channels.  If users are only eligible for new preroll ads every hour, then the ultimate overall impact of ads on new channel discovery is potentially significantly reduced. On the other side of this however, Twitch could always increase the frequency or conditions under which they show said ads, potentially to encourage people to subscribe to Turbo or to the channels they wish to view. So as speculative as my worst case scenario is, it could still go in any direction.

The Era of Microtransactions

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Microtransactions: The new forever

So I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The bad news is that we are well and truly in the era of microtransactions. The good news is that the bad news doesn’t have to be all bad news. Confused?  Good.

Before we get into the brunt of this argument, let’s first define what a microtransaction is. Microtransactions are a payment made within a game that unlocks a small amount of content or a feature of some kind. This definition ultimately covers a vast variety of different transactions, from cosmetic items to pay-to-win weapons to entire map packs. This means that, yes, you could make the argument that technically “expansion sets” from days of old (see Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction or Starcraft: Brood War) were microtransactions. However, microtransactions did not truly burst onto the scene until Microsoft introduced the idea of downloadable cosmetic content for Microsoft points back in 2005 (source). In general, the public did not particularly care about this type of thing right up until the infamous Elder Scrolls Oblivion Horse Armor incident (source). Fans lashed back, calling this a move motivated by pure greed, despite the objectively low price point of $2.50 on Xbox (source). But while this new cosmetic based model was still working out the kinks, developers realized quickly that one could extend the longevity, and thus the revenue potential, of their existing games by introducing this concept into their revenue stream. This would make their development cycle just that much more efficient. Enter exclusive paid DLC content.

If you’re old enough to remember back to the days of XBL Microsoft Points, you’ll remember that just about every major game at the time, from Call of Duty to Rock Band had microtransactions implemented in some form. Whether these were map packs (which you had to buy to keep playing with your friends) or song packs (featuring the songs that you liked), paywall locked content was everywhere.  This new revenue stream ultimately proved to be a boon to developers. This meant that they could pump out additional content for relatively little dev work, at least when compared to having to put out an entirely new game. Since then, this model has splintered and fractured into the many different models we have today, spanning across games on all platforms.

Whether you like it or not, we are currently in the midst of a transition period from the traditional one-time-payment game model into something entirely different. But before you decry all microtransactions as “ruining games as we know it”, allow me a moment to try and change your mind. What we are effectively witnessing right now can best be described as growing pains. Microtransactions have introduced an entirely new and disruptive revenue model into the AAA gaming world, and as it stands developers are still scrambling to adapt, especially as it relates to the newest type of microtransaction to hit the market: the Loot Box. Gamers are understandably frustrated with all the different kinds of microtransactions that are currently consuming the game market as a whole. Between the recent Battlefront 2 fiasco and the CS:GO Skin Gambling controversy, gamers are arguably more wary of microtransactions than ever. Conversely, however, gamers as a whole have proven that microtransactions, paid DLC, and subscription based games can still work: just look at Overwatch, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, and Call of Duty (not to mention trading card games like Hearthstone and Eyeball). So in spite of recent outcry, as an entity, we as gamers have basically told the industry that “we might not like it, but we’ll pay in the end if the content is good enough.” This has led to most AAA game releases launching with day one season pass systems already built into their revenue prediction.

Change is Hard

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“Ok but all this sounds terrible!” I hear you screaming at your monitor. Well not necessarily. I believe that we have already started to see glimmers of the future in some existing games. Specifically I’d like to point to League of Legends and Overwatch as two potential games that are effectively leading the way. You only have to look at the monetary success of League of Legends to know that they are on to something. As a game that costs literally nothing up front to play, the idea of breaking $1B in annual sales would have gotten you laughed out of E3 just a couple decades ago, yet we see Riot Games (and subsequently their holding company Tencent) topping the revenue charts each year, beating out veterans of the industry like Sony and Acti-blizzard (source). But beyond just Riot, look at the success of Overwatch (which one could argue popularized Loot Boxes among AAA games, for better or worse) as a paid game with a mictrotransaction model. Reports show that Overwatch in Q1 of 2017 was able to break the $1B mark for only microtransactions from loot box sales (source), and there are few signs of it stopping.

Where do we go now?

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Given these examples, microtransactions are clearly a PROVEN business model, and yes, at the end of the day, game companies are ultimately looking to make money. So back to that bad news: don’t expect microtransactions to go away. But as developers make mistakes and grow from them, the industry as a whole WILL find a way to balance out the “worth/not worth” scale. To that end, I believe there are three forms that pretty much all games will fall into before too long.

Freemium

The Riot games model, release something that costs nothing up front to play, but that will be supported 100% through microtransactions. This is a huge gamble on the part of developers. Releasing a game that costs nothing at all upfront means that they truly have to believe in their product, but also that their success depends heavily on their community. These games will live and die by their players, more so than any other type of game as the community’s continued purchasing of in-game digital items are going to be the only thing keeping the studio afloat. The good news for gamers, though, is that if you take the time to support the devs and give continuous feedback, your collective voices may be heard, as keeping you happy and playing (and subsequently purchasing) is their number one priority. Content for these games will likely be a mix of free and paid, but the core gameplay elements will likely never be locked behind a pay wall. Thus you will never find yourself in a situation where you can’t play with your friends because you haven’t purchased the $5 April gubbins pack.

Traditional

The vast majority of single player focused games will likely be relegated to this model. Understanding that Microtransactions will likely not fit with their vision, the best single player game devs will still devote their time to creating a full, single player, narrative experience to ensure that you feel your $60 initial purchase was well worth the money you put into it. Any additional DLC will have to add significant content to the game in order for said company to subsist off of this DLC content, and as such, may cow developers away from devoting cycles to this concept entirely.  That said, however, the base game will ultimately have to feel like a complete, worthwhile experience, and what with studios like CD Projekt Red setting the bar by which all games must now compete, this will end up being quite the undertaking and profit margins will be considerably slimmer. At some point in the future, only certain studios will have the funding necessary or the reputation built up to produce this kind of game.

Subscription based/episodic

I’m lumping these two together because they are really just two sides of the same coin, and that is consistent, low payments. Subscription models are changing consumerism as we know it. Everything from television to film to music to food has some sort of subscription model associated with it. Similarly, with the success of several story-based series like Life is Strange or anything by Telltale Games, episodic purchasing schedules are a known model. The advantages of this model are the relatively low cost to entry for one month’s subscription/purchasing episode one, and as such, people are likely more willing to give a game a shot. However, it does mean that the game must be good enough to get people to stick around. I believe this is where episodic games shine, and where MMOs generally fall. Since their development cycle is split out over time, the studio will be able to adjust between content releases to better align to consumer expectations, as the overall sales success of the game does not hinge upon a single purchase anymore.

 

The Pillars of Design

Last week, I went on a long and poorly edited rambling about the high level definition of game design.  I concluded that the core of all game design revolves around shaping the decisions presented to a player and that game design is the practice of building this out in a manner that is compelling.  Today, I’m going to break down exactly what the compelling factors are that are that design should be mindful of, and how to understand what exactly different games try to appeal to in their playerbase.

One of the most evident things we have learned from the growth of internet culture and forums is that people tend to disagree on pretty much everything.  Gaming cultures can be incredibly toxic and some games have insanely divisive communities on the internet stage.  But why is this the case?  Wouldn’t a well designed game generally be considered arbitrarily good?  Unfortunately, games are not simple and player preferences can shape the reception of a game, both on an individual and community level.  Different players look for different elements in a game, and if your game doesn’t have the correct set of factors that appeal to a wide enough audience, it is unlikely to succeed.  Understanding the motivating aspects of decision making is the crux of good design.  In this post, I’ll outline the 4 core pillars of design, which outline the most abstract elements that draw in players.  While I do call these the “pillars” of design, it is important to note that not every one of these applies to every player.  Everyone is unique in what appeals to them, and most preferences can change as frequently as a player’s mood.  Furthermore, these are not concrete rules that must be strictly adhered to, or else all is lost.  For the most part, the pillars act as concepts to help understand a game’s targeted audience and determine what drives the decisions the game presents.

Pillar 1: Strategic

The Strategic Pillar is probably the simplest one, so I’ll start here.  And, as you’ve probably guessed by now, this pillar deals with all the complicated decision making elements of a game.  Decisions that support this pillar deal primarily with complex tactics and strategy behind them.  Chess, for example, is a game that is based almost entirely upon the Strategic Pillar.  Games make use of this pillar through large macro scale decisions and big numbers.  A typical example of a strategic decision would be choosing what skills to level up in an RPG.  Choosing a set of talents and abilities that work well together in the best ways to overcome the challenges you face later is the pinnacle of the Strategic Pillar.  This is the element that min-max players tend to value highest, and games with a high emphasis on the strategic element can have players building huge spreadsheets and theorycrafting long after they’ve stopped playing.  However, the Strategic Pillar does not always need to be some massively complex decision tree that only the truly dedicated will ever master.  Even small tactical decisions appeal to this side of design.  Choosing to swap to a less powerful weapon with more ammunition, for example, uses this pillar as well.  Maybe you decide to tough out a few more fights without using your healing items and save them for a harder fight down the road.  Each of these choices appeals to the same part of the player, and gauging what emphasis to place on the elements to support this set the stage for the strategic appeal of your game.

Pillar 2: Skill

The Skill Pillar is distinct from the Strategic Pillar in a number of ways, but they are both incredibly similar.  There is not a clear distinct line between the two, as it is arguable that being a strong strategic player is a skill, and a player with a lot of skill must have a good amount of strategy as well.  However, in terms of design, the two are a separate elements to design for.  The Skill Pillar focuses primarily on elements that require twitchy reflexes, or precise timing.  In game such as Starcraft, for example, your ability to micro-control your units would be considered a skill decision.  This is separate from the Strategic decisions, which would generally be things such as which units you build and in what order.  Most shooter or platforming games typically have a heavy emphasis on the Skill Pillar, relying primarily on the player’s talents and reflexes to succeed.  While a strategic decision would be the ability to form a plan to succeed, the respective skill decision would be the ability to execute said plan correctly.

Pillar 3: Emotional

The Emotional Pillar is a very broad category of design, as there are a lot of different avenues to approach emotional decisions.  Games with a strong story and characters push a lot of emphasis on this side of design, attempting to make the player care about the fictional elements of the game.  A game could consider itself successful on this front if it manages to have a player make a suboptimal strategic decision for the sake of the plot, or the characters in it.  Games with morality based decisions (such as Bioshock, for instance) tend to use these to promote more emotional decision-making.  However, there are many more emotions that games can tap into to try to fill this area.  Horror games are a great example of exploring the emotional design space in new ways.  Players who are actively scared have to act off of different criteria than pure strategy or execution.  Furthermore, even something such as excitement and tension can appeal to this pillar.  One recent example that comes to mind is DOOM (2017).  The game, at its core, was a standard shooter-campaign, but also wove a very intricate narrative of the player being a badass, demon-killing, murder machine.  The heavy metal soundtrack, combined with brutal execution moves, and even the health and ammo mechanics all pushed for the one unified feeling of “FUCK YEAH”.  Pushing for some level of base emotional response appeals to players, and is the fundamental element of the Emotional Pillar

Pillar 4: Creative

If you had asked me to enumerate the core pillars of design a decade ago, I would likely have not included this one.  The Creative Pillar has only recently really come into the spotlight as a core drawing factor to a lot of players, and you can see this in almost all recent games.  As expected, the Creative Pillar revolves around a player’s ability to express themselves in the game in creative or constructive ways.  Character customization has become an increasingly mainstream part of games.  There are even entire subcultures in games dedicated to finding and designing cool combinations of aesthetically pleasing customizations.  In some cases, this is done even to the detriment of ideal strategies, which even has its own term for the phenomenon (Fashion Souls, after the game Dark Souls).  What’s more, there has also been recent rise in the amount of construction and base-building elements in games.  While this has been met with some mixed reception in recent releases, it’s clear that adding in creative elements appeals to a substantial portion of players.  There is even an entire genre of games dedicated primarily to constructing and creating with little to no other elements involved.  Allowing players to express themselves and portray themselves as unique entities clearly appeals to a subset of players.  As a result, I would certainly consider there to be a Creative Pillar involved in design, and organically including these elements is key in attracting these players.

Each of these 4 categories of elements compose the core of design.  Although none of these is required for any game, every game uses at least one.  And as a player, it’s equally important to be able to identify what pillars appeal most to you.  Understanding why you play games also helps determine what games you will like or dislike, and create the most enjoyable gaming experience possible.  As an exercise, try to identify the top two pillars of your favorite games, and see what they all have in common.  Determining the target audience of games is important for all aspects of design, and making the proper trade-offs can either broaden your playerbase, or strengthen an existing one.  In the next series of posts, I’m going to dive into these pillars and give a much more detailed analysis of each one.  I hope to see you there!

What is Game Design?

Hello all and welcome to our new blog segment!  In this series, I will be discussing and explaining the various principles and practices behind designing games and how developers create the amazing (and sometimes terrible) experiences we all have while gaming.

So, what is game design?  If you ask 10 different people, you’d probably get 10 different answers.  Some people would say that design is how you create the mechanics and controls of a game.  Others would say every level you play through is designed, and making them is the crux of design.  Even more still would say that it’s the content of a game that is central to the its design.  Every character you interact with, or ability that your hero uses is designed and defines the game.  And all of these are correct!  But let’s distill this down a bit and try to find a common thread of what all of these mean for both a designer and a player.

The mechanics of a game are definitely the easiest starting point.  For reference, I’ll use the conventionally defined term of mechanics to describe the elements of interactivity in a game (see this lovely wiki page).  Every game imaginable is defined by it’s mechanics.  Mechanics dictate what you as a player can do to influence the game you are seeing, and how to do so.  These are carefully and deliberately constructed by the developers at the very beginning of every game’s lifecycle.  And for good reason!  Mechanics also happen to be the most relevant technical requirement of a game, since the actual developers need to have these concretely defined in order to build anything!  But more than the actual technical challenge of building the game, mechanics are absolutely a facet of game design because they are WHAT you do.  You as a gamer primarily interact with the game in any way through these mechanics, and so designing these is most certainly central to game design.

However, there is a lot more to any game than just the mechanics!  Anyone who is familiar with Candy Crush knows that players can play games for a hundred hours with some of the simplest mechanics known to mankind.  So, clearly there’s more to a game than just the mechanics of how you play.  Level design (convenient wiki page) is another huge element of any game that cannot be overlooked.  Even games that do not have a curated experience or conventional levels still utilize level design to some extent.  Take Starcraft, for example.  While, yes, it does have a single player campaign and conventional levels, the core part of the game lies in the multiplayer.  And while there is certainly no developer say in how the multiplayer game plays beyond the mechanics, each match still takes place in a map that was explicitly created for the match to take place.  And so, despite the developer having no say in what either player in a match does, they can still influence how the match plays by making the level interact with mechanics.  Maybe there are a lot of cliffs near base locations, so defensive ranged units are favored.  Perhaps the base locations are very close together, so players are more likely to fight over common resource locations early on.  This experience, while not necessarily consistent, is still designed and created by developers at some point to help shape HOW the player utilizes the mechanics set forth.  Even procedural generation, which can be considered random, at some level, is still influenced by designers and built out in way that shapes the experience.

Woof, thats’s a lot.  But we’re not done yet!  There’s even more to consider!  What about the game’s story?  The characters, setting, plot, and even aesthetics are constantly present, completely exposing you to the game’s universe.  For some games, this may seem completely minimal.  Take Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, for instance.  There is not one semblance of a plot or story behind that game.  And yet, it still has some character.  Each map has a central theme, whether it be odd, Chernobyl-esque Russian sprawls or vast, empty Mexican desert, there’s still some consistent feel to the world you are playing in.  In contrast, the setting of the game can also be a massively central element that is the primary focus (such as Bioshock, or DOOM).  And you can be damn sure this part of a game is meticulously written, acted, and drawn.  Arguably, this is one the biggest parts of a game, since it pulls in so many different talents and weaves a tapestry that brings all the other elements together in a way that appeals to the player.  But does this really fall under game design?  It affects the experience of playing the game itself, and so it most certainly does!  At its core, context and aesthetics enhance the experience of utilizing mechanics and give emotional backing to the levels themselves, helping promote WHY you play the game.  You get pulled into playing the game by the backdrop and small things that you may not even consciously notice.  And this facilitates your enjoyment of everything else.

So…what does this all mean?  All I’ve basically done is said, “Yes, EVERYTHING is design”.  And as far as I can tell, there’s no unifying theme here!  It’s just all things that affect the experience of playing the game!  And that’s it!  But here’s the thing: that is the common theme.  You, the player, are the only unifying thing that every element of design affects.  And what is it that you even contribute to all this?  What makes your experience different than any others?  The answer lies in your choices.  The only difference between a story-heavy game and an engrossing movie is that you, as the player, can affect the game.  Every tiny action that you make is a choice, somewhere that you can do many things and choose to do the one that appeals to you, for whatever reason.  And every one of these design elements is built to help present these choices to you in a way that makes you enjoy that choice.  The agency of the player is what every game designer must create around, and is always in the back of their minds while creating (or at least should be).  Because in the end, it is the players that walk the path.  The only thing a designer can do is try to make it the best journey they can.

In this blog series, I will dive further into all the various pillars of design and player choices.  The next few segments will focus on the different motivating factors that players bring to the table, and examples on how these have been implemented well, and not so much.  I hope to see you all there!