Oscar Clark analyses the core pillars that make up the world's biggest game franchises

The billion dollar game

[[Oscar Clark is Evangelist for Everyplay. To find out more about what Oscar is evangelising about visit the Everyplay blog.]

On the last day (for me) of GDC sitting in the bar of the ‘W’ a friend at a large not-to-be named publisher challenged me to think about how to make the next billion dollar game.

Now although this might seem strange it’s not something I’ve really given much thought to. Most of the studios I talk to are only really in a position to make some indie hit or perhaps a mid-range title and it’s with that in mind that most of my writing focuses.

Intellectually, and having worked on some fairly significant sized projects (although not the same scale), I know the essentials should be the same; but what makes the billion dollar game interesting, at least as a thought exercise, is to think what you might do if funding and resource wasn’t the limiting factor.

We have to have ambition. Aiming just to be the next Clash of Clans or Candy Crush is not good enough. You have to carve out a new niche which you can own. Otherwise you are left to feed on the scraps these great games leave on the table. If we are to become the next $1bn game we have to lead, not follow.

To take a sporting analogy we have to be the ‘b’ of the bang, not the ‘g’. Established console companies often have trouble innovating in the mobile and cross-platform market partly as they also have to adjust their whole design, delivery and distribution strategy on top of changing the way they measure success. Even teams who managed to get initial success by being early movers are often too focused on recreating what they did first time rather than making something that can stand for itself. Let’s not forget this is a highly speculative industry and failure often appears to be statistically inevitable.

Ambition is nothing without delivery and our game has to become object of desire; something which players can become totally absorbed in. We are usually told that when we pitch games to publishers or investors we have to keep this simple and easily explained, but we should not forget that the supporting details really matter too. We might describe Skyrm as a simple idea of playing a warrior in a fantasy world where you get to fight Dragons. That’s cool idea, but it’s not really a good explanation of the passions it creates. It’s a sandbox that lets players explore huge areas.

Sure, the game advances your character’s abilities based on what you actually do. Of course, it has a unique world that many of us know from the history of Elder Scrolls, and this version allows us to explore new territory. All of which is great. But what do I do in the game that makes it special for me? It’s not the fighting or the epic narrative (which I also love) it’s walking through beautiful countryside picking flowers. That’s magical. That makes the game something that goes beyond expectations which totally absorbs my attention. Of course that’s not new, it was the same with Oblivion, but knowing it’s there and I get to kill dragons really grabs my attention.

Every truly great game has something ‘New’ which speaks to us as people, not just as virtual heroes. That comes from the vision of the project and to build the next $bn game I think you need that kind of vision. However, anything ‘new’ can be challenging to audiences and the $1bn game has to also be sufficiently accessible to attract a broad and active userbase. We don’t want to innovate too far. If we are ahead of the bang we may get shot in the process. Our billion dollar game has to have something that a large audience can immediately accept as well as deliver some innovation.

Scott Rogers in his book ‘Level-up’ discuses the ‘Triangle of Weirdness’ which talks about how as designers we can change any two of the world, characters or interactions; but not all three. The foundation of this idea is that we need something that feels fresh, but also familiar, or at least comfortable if we are to accept change easily. That’s going to be essential in our $1bn game idea.

For clarity, when I talk about a broad user-base here, I don’t necessarily mean mass-market like Candy Crush (although that is a good strategy); games like GTAV and COD are still niche, but their brand status makes them an essential purchase. A better strategy for me is to learn from why we still see uncompromising indie titles succeed.

Barry Meade from Fireproof studios talked at a recent conference about how they work to have a strong understanding of who their core audience is and what they want from a game. That makes it easier to make them something that their players will enjoy. Behind that comment was a really vital point which many designers miss. Barry and his team also make sure that as well as making the best game they can for that audience, they also make sure that the experience is as accessible as possible. That way the experience can delight, it can create advocates and then your audience become promotional channel for your game.

If we create advocates, that makes it easier to get people to make the download and, if we are lucky, to start playing. This often is hard to do with the first version of a game delivered as a product. How many GTA V players ever played the original (much simpler and arguably more fun) game? Building advocates and audience for a new game is challenging; no wonder there are so many successful sequels. The alternative is to sustain your audience over a longer period. That means creating a service which can engage users over time rather than acquiring them only to lose them long before the next game is available.

If we want to build services we really have to pay attention to the rhythm of play and can create positive habitual behaviours. I don’t mean that we have to create addiction (a highly arguable concept) or that we should treat players like Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s Pigeons. However, we can help players aspire to come back and play again (and again… and again).

To do this well we take time to understand what motivates players and we have to realise that very few are actually of any one ‘Type’. Instead we need to recognise that players’ needs evolve over time as they play and engage with your game. Like any game there is an attention to detail required and we especially need to think through the user journey from discovery to learning to engagement and finally churning. How at each stage do deliver on the promise offered by our vision for those players at those stages. If we satisfy their needs we may find more players interested in spending not just once, but many times. That’s what makes a service scalable; happy players and happy payers.

If they are happy then we also have the chance that they will tell their friends and that will help bring new users if we enable those connections. However, again we can’t be lazy in our designs; we need to consider whether our players’ friends will value what is shared. We also have to consider how each purchase affects their friends too. Social factors have a disproportionate impact on the willingness to spend in a game. We must avoid the sense of paying to win; but still offer real gameplay value in the goods we sell. According to Park and Lee, players don’t spend money because they are happy; but because they expect future value.

Now the business model matters too. There is a reason I’ve not bought into Elder Scrolls Online yet; despite my obvious passion for the world. The business model doesn’t suit me. I won’t get passed the paywall. It’s not about the money, it’s about how my expectations have changed as a result of a rapidly changing market.

We don’t always have to go free-to-play but this does offer a more scalable business model and one where we can see the value from free-players; allowing us to build desire for our virtual goods inside our game – not via an app store listing. Services also have the potential for scale and longer term engagement which means we continue to have a chance to gain repeating revenues, assuming they are designed to delight.

We still have to spend money on acquiring customers. Let’s not pretend otherwise. If we want scale we have to be prepare to use all of the channels available to us and acquire them. This takes a full mix of press, advertising and social community building. It means measuring what’s successful, testing and adjusting our message all the time building profile, credibility and most importantly an aspiration quality to the game we are creating. A $1bn game has to be a brand and one which grabs the attention of the games playing public; and delivers delight. It requires inspirational design, mass-market accessibility, impeccable support, perfect delivery and I would suggest it takes a willingness to engage with all users over an extended period.

There is a missing factor here and secret ingredient and it’s a hard one to bottle. As I was recently reminded by Halli Thor Bjornsson of Lockwood, the billion dollar game isn’t just a game. It’s about creating a cultural phenomena. There is a personal cultural validation when we buy COD or GTA; even with Candy Crush or Clash of Clans.

As social animals we ‘need’ to be part of these kind of cultural memes. We flock around ‘Cool’ concepts and like a schools of sardines audiences coalesce; appearing to move almost like a single organism. As much as I like to think altruistically that we are individuals, there is power in the lure of being seen to be part of the crowd. This idea of cultural phenomena can’t be bought; not entirely. It needs room to grow as well as large scale awareness. 

So why aren’t I making the next $1bn game? Apart from the fact that I’m enjoying writing about game design and monetisation, even with the team and the backers and the investment; you need still reach. You need scale. It’s something which either takes a lucky break or which perhaps only a handful of publishers can still deliver and most of them are still learning to adapt to the new world.

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