Games As A Service: Do You Really Know What It Means?

I was looking at the schedule for Develop Conference 2010 ( @developconf2010 ) to see if there was anything I should pick up on regarding game production and development and I’ve spotted a couple of tasty things that I have experience so I thought I’d jump the gun and share a little before July comes along. Some of the content we’ve seen before from prior conferences and here’s what I’ve learned:

Games As A

Service: Do You Really Know What It Means?

Online games have been around for a while now and we all know the key mantra “It’s a service, not a product.” Or do we? Very often, in the haze of development, teams may lose their focus from this truth; especially as the concept of service is not that clearly defined to begin with. As well as fleshing out the concept of Online Game Service, this lecture will provide a practical overview on how its components should be designed and integrated in the production cycle to form an optimal player experience.

Well, I’ve done a lot of service related game ideas lately and here are a few ideas:

The game is just the start

In a nutshell, the players journey with your game starts before they put the disk in the console, download it from PSN, XBox Live, Wii or download and install via Steam. Your audience already has an expectation based on prior marketing, reviews and many other means of communication they’ve received up to this point. They’ve probably talked about it with their friends.

It’s true to say that the game content delivered up to this point is largely fixed, it was probably made months ago before it went through QA, format submission, mastering, distribution and sitting on the shelves in the store. Or at least some of that process if you’re totally online.

So as a player, you’ve waited months, saved up, bought the game, you’ve played it through. Now what? You’ve had a fantastic time and you need more content now! If this were a book or a film then that would be it, you’d be waiting for the sequel at some point in the future, probably years away.

Thankfully we are blessed with an opportunity to maximise everyone’s enjoyment and if the developer and publisher are clever, then they’ll have a whole slew of things to keep you busy and invested in the game. Downloadable content such as levels, characters, vehicles, maps, whole new features, tracks, music, new season data all keep the game fresh and alive and are all part of the service we offer.

Why is this important?

So, why not just package up your game and move onto something new? Well, I’m sure you’ve slogged your guts out and put a lot of sweat, blood and tears into making this the best game it can be and you hope your audience appreciates it. Why not maximise all of this effort and keep it going for longer, after all you’ve written the tools, have experience of how to get things in the game and your team are probably producing patches anyway to sort out those last-minute niggles.

It’s almost trivial to make this content. I’d also guess that during the late parts of production from Alpha through to Master Approval that you’re creative team have been twiddling their thumbs whilst the bugs are ironed out. Making add-on content can be a fantastic way of focusing the team, stopping them adding stuff to the version that’s shipping and allow them to expand and maximise the experience.

All of these extras help create an attachment with your game and a thirst for more content, it’s up to you if it’s free or paid for; which is a whole other discussion.

Bolting on upgrades and DLC also makes it harder to part company with the game itself when it comes to trade-in time and you’ll see lower trade in figures for games that actively promote a long-term connection with the game.

The ultimate service

The ultimate service is user-generated content, which really binds authors and players to the game, giving them an emotional involvement and volume of content you’ll find hard to surpass as a developer. It’s also self-promoting as authors actively encourage their friends to dive in a try the thing they’ve just made, either by demoing it locally or pointing them at it so they can play at home.

You’ll find UGC authors in forums promoting their content and obviously the game is good too (which is why they’re making content for it). All of this drives long-tail sales of your game. For these reasons, you’ll rarely find a copy of LittleBigPlanet traded in.

Integrate Early

These are all great ideas and you really need to plan these in early as I know from experience that retro-fitting the highly modular requirements of supporting DLC into a hard-baked mess of legacy code is a nightmare and probably one that will just be a barrier to you ever making it happen. I’m sure many of you will have had that same experience and wish to leave it long behind.

From an architecture perspective, everything has to be dynamically queried, validated and loaded into the game. You should treat your game as a tool or framework into which everything plugs-in, nothing should be hard-coded or you’re not going to be modular enough to cope with a future of upgrades and DLC. How can you integrate another character (avatar) if you’re selection screen only supports 8 characters? You’ll need to design expansion into your game from day 1.

Away from the game

The ‘service’ can also expand out beyond the game experience itself and incorporate regular touch points such as social networks like Facebook, mobile phones running OS like Symbian (good luck!), iPhone, iPad, Android or Windows Mobile. Here are some examples of more extensive game amplifiers:

  1. Browser games
  2. public league & competition systems
  3. In-game auction houses reflected onto the ‘net
  4. Training your game character online then playing them on console
  5. Clans, factions, guilds
  6. Managing your team for tonight’s game
  7. News feeds into the game and out again

The list goes on and on and I’m sure there’s some things you could add to the list too.

Summary

There’s a really easy way to remember this - “The game is just the start”. It’s a mantra that suits every occasion and really encapsulates what “game as a service” means.

We want to engage with game players for longer, enabling them to get better value from the games we make, after all they’re not cheap to make or buy. Game players and developers have a symbiotic relationship and we should nurture it over a long period of time for both our sakes.

Further Reading

Develop Conference 2010 - Evolve - Thomas Bidaux will be covering this topic

Gabe Newell on ‘entertainment as a service’ - DICE 2009

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