“It was called Japan Life”, says Kristen Rutherford, as if remembering a former lover. She’s slightly embarrassed and a little wistful, but she has decided to confess: “I loved this game.”
Kristen is a TV producer and a writer and so she is articulate. This is part of the reason we invited her to Casual Connect San Francisco. She is also a mom. But the main reason we asked her along is she that she plays games. She plays a lot of games.
As evidenced at the recent Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas, the fast-growing, highly lucrative global gaming industry continues to expand and evolve, with tremendous creativity on display at every turn.
As our VP of business development Ben Brown observed after his inspiring experience at this major industry expo, “The place was buzzing with so many creative developers! Gameplay, sound, and visuals are all being pushed to the limit and the casino experience is becoming more competitive and exciting with all these new games.” Ben enthusiastically reported that there were signs of “innovation everywhere”, reflecting trends such as binaural sound speakers, more sophisticated game mechanics and advances in game screens.
Taking it a Step Further
One of the great highlights was connected to one of our longtime partners, GTECH, who introduced a re-imagined version of the mega-hit franchise Bejeweled as a 3D casino experience. Our creative team had worked on the sound design and music for the original mobile game, so we were particularly excited about this latest invention.
GTECH Senior Game Producer Peter Post comments that “so far, the game has been presented to focus groups and the industry, and the reaction has been very positive. Everyone for whom I’ve demoed it consistently comes up with the same word: ‘Wow.’ There are so many fans of the (Bejeweled) brand that it’s hard not to be attracted to it when it’s in real-time 3D that doesn’t need clunky glasses.”
When asked what it was like re-imagining this highly popular game with 3D graphics and sound, Peter says, “Our favorite brands are always the ones that have a natural gaming mechanic built in because it makes it so much easier to translate to the casino world, and Bejeweled fits the bill perfectly. The license has so much to work with when it comes to assets, yet there’s so much that’s yet to be explored. No one had ever gone inside the famous Bejeweled castle, for instance. The resulting visuals and audio are completely new, yet fit well into the Bejeweled narrative. PopCap®, which owns the license to Bejeweled, was totally cool with us experimenting with things like that.”
Immersed in Sound
As part of the game’s special features, the speaker set-up in the machine is noteworthy. Peter explains, “the box has two smaller speakers in front facing the player at head-level, then two more behind the player embedded in the chair. We also have a larger woofer in the base of the machine, as well as a rumble pack in the chair. We mix everything in 7.1 surround, so we have control over what goes where. It really helps us enhance the 3D nature of the visuals. Unlike most 3D gaming, which players usually experience with handhelds, we can really complete the audiovisual experience by having sound come from behind you or move past you. The rumble helps us emphasize features, too, but like any new effect, we have to be careful not to overuse it.”
The Bejeweled™ 3D machine serves as a shining example of how advances in technology and creativity can bring multi-sensory effects to deliver a more engrossing gameplay experience.
The Bejeweled™ 3D machine is truly immersive from both a sound and a visual experience—serving as a shining example of how advances in technology and creativity can bring multi-sensory effects to deliver a more engrossing gameplay experience. And working with a beloved brand such as Bejeweled, it’s a BIG win.
Given the phenomenal growth of the overall gaming industry, and particularly the social casino games sector, we’re fascinated by the new opportunities to raise the bar on sound and music for the next generation of casino games. In a future column, we’ll look at the keys to making casino games sound great across multiple platforms, including mobile, online, and hardware-based slot machines.
Look forward to finding out more in the next Game Audio Artistry article!
Adam Levenson‘s career has evolved from performing as a classically trained percussionist to overseeing the busy operations of SomaTone’s creative teams in Emeryville and Vancouver while focusing on leading the company’s growth and expansion into new arenas in his latest role as the COO of SomaTone Interactive. In this latest Game Audio Artistry article, Adam and other members of SomaTone talk about using sound to improve a game.
Great games have great audio. Developers who focus and execute on high quality and attention to detail know that audio adds high production value to the overall experience for a relatively low cost. With a plethora of choices flooding the digital marketplace, great game sound is that “secret sauce” that can make mobile games and apps stand out.
Well-conceived and expertly executed game audio contributes mightily toward delivering an immersive and engaging experience that can feel much bigger than the small mobile device nestled in a player’s hands. The name of the game for us as creative partners is to focus on effectively creating and incorporating original music, sound design, and VO into the mobile experience so that players keep coming back for more.
To this end, here’s what some members of SomaTone’s creative team have to say about using sound to make great games.
1.Understand the importance of game sound, and treat audio production NOT as something that comes last in the pipeline, but rather an important component of game design that should be thought out creatively and technically from the inception of your game.
—Eric Van Amerongen, Senior Sound Designer
2. Establish a clear idea of what the creative style and aesthetic of the audio should be and define important delivery milestones.
—Ollie Glatzer, Audio Producer
3. Pay attention to detail and keeping that in line with an overall, inspired vision.
—Michael Bross, Chief Creative Officer
4. Creative and effective integration – You can have the greatest SFX on the planet, but if they’re not playing back correctly, or mixed just right, the audio experience won’t be good.
—Ben Gabaldon, Sr. Sound Designer
5. Passion! Pre Production! Strive for a cohesive, focused audio experience. The audio should be engaging and captivate the players to want more.
—Ben Brown, VP Business Development
Sound and music truly make visual entertainment come alive. Fun, memorable moments that we experience when playing our favorite games are often tied to a great character line, or a catchy melody, or a sound effect that thrills. Savvy game makers know this, and whether the project is a new slots game or a point-and-click survival horror game, smart developers use sound and music to deliver more entertainment value to the audience.
Adam Levenson‘s career has evolved from performing as a classically trained percussionist, then serving as a composer and sound designer in the burgeoning multimedia industry in the early 90’s—“before anyone knew what a video game sound designer even was,” as he put it—followed by sound and music director positions at Interplay, Electronic Arts, and Shiny Entertainment. During his tenure as Senior Director at Activision from 2006 – 2011, Adam established and managed both the Central Audio and Central Talent teams supporting work on major franchises. In 2011, he launched Levenson Artists Agency, providing representation to clients such as celebrity composers Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe. Now, Adam oversees the busy operations of SomaTone’s creative teams in Emeryville and Vancouver while focusing on leading the company’s growth and expansion into new arenas in his latest role as the COO of SomaTone Interactive.
In this latest Game Audio Artistry article, Adam examines how new sensorial technologies can take the immersive gameplay experience to heightened and even more engaging levels of player fascination and enjoyment.
Immersificationnoun \i-ˈmərs-ə-fə-ˈkā-shən\: the process of creating enhanced involvement in a particular activity
In 1974, the blockbuster disaster film Earthquake wowed movie theater audiences with Sensurround effects. Low frequency sounds were pumped through big Cerwin-Vega subwoofers that sent vibrations through the seats during the film’s tremor scenes. It physically involved theatergoers in the drama and, like an amusement park ride, the result was thrilling. In some theaters, Sensurround effects sent pieces of ceiling plaster falling into the audience and shook seats in neighboring theaters showing The Godfather Part II. Sensurround was audience immersion on an epic scale, a bold experiment in producing a multi-sensorial experience.
Now, 40 years later, consumers of mobile interactive entertainment are also seeking deeper engagement. Giant leaps in display technology have provided intensely vivid visual experiences, but humans have five senses, and with the advent of sophisticated digital devices with built-in functionality to stimulate those sensations, it’s now up to content creators to take full advantage and rock audiences in their virtual theater seats.
The Apple iPad Air features dual microphones, Amazon’s Fire Phone sports dynamic perspective, and Samsung Galaxy smartphones include tactile feedback. These are just a few of the offerings in the development of recent mobile technologies that provide sensory engagement. Although both smell and taste are primary and essential senses, there isn’t much being done with olfactory and gustatory digital transmissions (putting experiments such as Smell-O-Vision and Nokia’s Scentsory Phone aside). Maybe that’s OK. But entertainment technologies and content designed to stimulate hearing and touch are engaging consumers, and a resurgence of virtual reality points to a trend towards greater immersification.
Realizing the potential means being creative with music and sound implementation.
Dolby has always been at the leading edge of sound technologies that improve sound quality and envelope the listener. Even on smartphones, Dolby Digital Plus delivers virtualized surround sound through headphones or even with built-in mobile device speakers. This opens the door for app and video game developers to provide a more engaging experience. Realizing the potential means being creative with music and sound implementation. That starts with developing rich audio environments, including layers of ambient sound, music, voice performances, and specific sound effects to make all the game mechanics come to life.
Despite recent advances, music in games generally plays in a linear manner, just like it did when Edison invented the phonograph cylinder in the 19th century. Amazingly, visionaries in music technology have been working on concepts in “real-time composition” since the 90’s. It has been called many names like computational music and algorithmic composition, and much of this research has been academic. With vastly increased processing power, new devices may soon present an opportunity to implement fully responsive music. Music adds an emotional dimension that makes us laugh out loud at funny scenes, jump out of our seats when surprised, or get choked up during sad dialog. How much more immersive would a Star Wars game experience be if the score could build and sting with each dramatic Jedi lightsaber hit?
On one hand, the virtuality of new smartphone and tablet interfaces promotes a whole new physical language of gestures. We can push, swipe, sweep, and slide. But on the other hand, we lose the satisfaction of getting real world physical feedback when we perform the gesture. We type, press buttons, turn pages, move objects, throw switches, but for the most part, we don’t feel anything. In our mobile entertainment, explosions, cars racing by, or feats of strength that we experience visually lack any sense of physicality. Haptics technology changes all of that. Haptic effects are touch or tactile feedback events produced by actuators (a kind of motor) integrated into our devices. Video game console controllers have used haptic type feedback, or rumble effects, for years. But with newer technologies from companies like Immersion, users feel customized force or resistance as they perform virtual activities. Sensing the impact of a soccer ball kick, the recoil of a gun, or the mechanical click of a button push brings the experience to life, providing a deep level of immersification.
By combining high-resolution imagery with high fidelity sound and haptics feedback, VR has the potential to offer practically total immersion.
Although VR still calls to mind images of disoriented people at 90’s tech conferences stumbling around in bulky headsets, advances in virtual reality technology have reinvigorated consumer interest. Earlier this year, Facebook acquired innovators Oculus VR for $2 billion – imagine simulated social networking, and the motivation for the acquisition becomes clear. By combining high-resolution imagery with high fidelity sound and haptics feedback, VR has the potential to offer practically total immersion. The potential applications for VR range from therapeutic uses, to military training, to entertainment media, and beyond. Although VR doesn’t currently have the portability and accessibility of more mobile technologies, the renewed interest and innovation in the field do reflect growing consumer demand for immersification of our digital experiences.
Contemporary immersion relies on rich creative content like engaging stories, great music, impactful sound, and believable physics. Developers and publishers that incorporate those elements into their entertainment media have already taken the first step towards immersion. New technologies allow for the completed, multi-sensorial experience without the inconvenience of falling ceiling plaster.
The thrilling part is, it all just keeps getting more and more immersive.
In this month’s Game Audio Artistry column, video game industry veteran Nick Thomas, CEO and co-founder of SomaTone, Inc., discusses the importance of a creative audit and what it can do for a game.
Our Creative Audit process was spawned through our involvement with Chartboost University, which brings in eight of the most talented Indie developers from across the globe, with the philanthropic goal of helping these devs learn and grown in a mentorship environment.
SomaTone’s role was to serve as the creative auditor of the audio in these games, and to provide an expert perspective on the tech, creative, and overall experience of the audio within these games—and to do so with zero bias. The response from the indie community at CBU was a combination of gratitude, excitement, and relief that there were creative experts, with hundreds of games to their credit, who could evaluate and constructively critique the quality of this aspect of their games. Questions were answered and the end result was a clear understanding of the “temperatures” of their current audio, with a clear road map on what could and should be done to bring their game from passable to excellent.
Not Only For Indies
It turns out that it is not just the indie community who finds this service useful. In fact, indies arguably have a more advanced sense of how to approach audio in games and what sounds good, what tech to use, and how to make their game sound like an excellent product. Established mobile game developers and publishers have also found that the Creative Audit provides them with an invaluable opportunity to gain a critical, objective perspective on the relatively subjective world of game creativity (including design, art, and audio).
While it’s always helpful to get feedback and fresh eyes and ears on any project at various stages of development, gathering input, insights, and ideas from experts and specialists can make a big difference toward enhancing a game. So here are five key reasons why all game makers should seek out a Creative Audit for their games at some point along the way:
5 Reasons for a Creative Audit
We’re in an age when specialists, not generalists, are key players in the fine-tuning process.
1. The Creative Audit leverages the experience of experts. No single game designer or producer can be an expert an all aspects of game production. While some experience may lean more towards visual design, others have an audio background, and some specialize in analytics. We’re in an age when specialists, not generalists, are key players in the fine-tuning process. Experts often have a highly focused set of expertise, so there is wisdom and benefit derived from seeking creative assessments from a range of seasoned and skilled industry pros representing different disciplines.
2. It’s all in the polish, and a Creative Audit takes you there.Candy Crush is one of the most polished games I have ever seen in the mobile games space. All aspects of the art, programming, design, and even audio have been scrutinized with granular precision. In today’s crowded and highly competitive gaming ecosystem, there is no room for a marginal or even just good product. It must be excellent. The Creative Audit offers an opportunity to bring a product to the next level by offering qualitative assessments that spring from solid experience and expertise, coupled with actionable recommendations for improving and further polishing a game.
Different minds see things differently, and these kinds of divergent viewpoints can really enhance the creative levels of a game, often in unexpected ways.
3. Even experts need an outside perspective. Even if you have hired the most talented art director, composer, artists, level designer, (whatever), there is simply a human limitation to what comes with an inside-only perspective. After 6-12 months of looking at only one product, and doing so intensively, it is practically impossible to avoid tunnel vision. By giving fresh perspective, a creative audit can do a lot to re-inspire and re-invigorate a game and identify key opportunities that may have been missed by those so intimately (and exhaustively) familiar with the game. Different minds see things differently, and these kinds of divergent viewpoints can really enhance the creative levels of a game, often in unexpected ways.
4. Asking the right questions leads to interesting answers. It takes a level of humility to admit that we cannot know what we don’t know. It can be vexing to attempt to evaluate a game’s creativity level without knowing the essential questions to pose in this analytical process. When the right questions are asked, some interesting answers and realizations can be unearthed that will amp up the degree of originality and excellence in a game.
5. No harm, no foul. A Creative Audit is a free, or at most, a very inexpensive way to benefit from an outside perspective from a team of experts. This process can serve as the catalyst for key tweaks, improvements, and embellishments to correct aspects of a game that need some work and catapult good games to a higher level of creative excellence.
Asking questions is widely considered to be the single most important habit of innovative thinkers, so naturally the Creative Audit process is bound to lead to higher levels of creativity and innovation within a game. What do you think?
Check back next month for the next Game Audio Artistry article!
Video game industry veteran, Nick Thomas, and CEO/Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., has been through 10years of creative kick-off meetings, both productive and unproductive. In this month’s Game Audio Artistry column, Nick highlights 10 tips to make the most out of your creative meetings.
One of the most daunting stages in the collaborative process relates to how and where to start with the creative and logistical partnership with a game developer or publisher.
Approaching a new game or, even more so, jumping in on a live product, can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. We have participated in more than a few meetings with game developers, producers, game designers, programmers, and creative directors wherein time was spent in discussions, but at the end of the call, we are no closer to understanding what is needed, or what the vision for the game is. This phenomenon birthed an approach for us that works well for all stakeholders in the project.
Developing a Process
Over the years, we have developed a tried-and-true process in which we lead these creative meetings and drive the conversation forward to a successful launching point for the collaboration— rather then squandering that key opportunity to drill down and get to the core of what is needed. We seize the moment at the outset to ask the key questions, explore the possibilities, and develop ideas that will help us realize the vision.
To this end, here is the SomaTone process for leading a creative kick-off meeting, along with key questions and discussion points that are often forgotten, but should be standard in nearly any creative partnership. These suggestions are outside of the obvious discussions on the scope, technical requirements, and timeline for the partnership, which are (of course) necessary details, but they do little to define the goals for the game or the vision of the game designers and producers.
Creative Kick-Off Playbook
1. No Surprises: It is amazing how rarely meeting agendas or creative summaries are provided from our clients prior to a meeting. So our standard practice is to take the time internally before the kick-off and create a list of all the key questions that need to be addressed in the meeting (many of which I will share with you below). Simply laying these key discussion points out in a format that is easy to edit or notate is a very helpful exercise, and provides structure and clarity to a meeting which can otherwise often feel loose and sloppy. Better yet, send these questions to the meeting partners in advance so they can prepare answers prior to meeting, and not be caught off guard and left thinking on their feet.
Getting inside the developer’s head and establishing the baseline for a collaboration are key to a successful outcome.
2. Creative Mind-Meld: The kick-off meeting is the best opportunity for a creative mind-meld. Getting inside the developer’s head and establishing the baseline for a collaboration are key to a successful outcome. Having access to and reviewing the GDD, concept art, or, best yet, prototype of the game build itself are highly important to clearly understand the vision of a game. Ask for these materials before the meeting, not after, so all questions can be understood inside a clear picture of where the project is heading, not on guess work and assumptions.
3. Use Existing Samples in Your Discussions and Don’t Forget the Love-Child: Looking to existing games, mechanics, art, animations, and musical scores is a great way to help frame a creative discussion. This is often confused as a process of cloning, which is quite different. It is amazing how often Candy Crush is referenced in a creative meeting (or Hay Day or other hit mobile games). However, 9 times out of 10, these titles are not referenced in an attempt to replicate the creative style, but rather to point to other aspects of the game, such as the mechanics or production values. To say I like ___ aspect of Candy Crush really helps communicate the vision without asking for the aspect of said game to be copied. Another tried-and-true method is the love-child analogy. “I’m looking for Clash of Clans meets World of Tanks” is a very helpful way to communicate the game style, mechanics, and production values, and gives us a very clear idea of where the project is headed.
4. Get the Vision: Who is the visionary of the project, or do they have a “vision” for the gestalt of the game? Often times, we find this is a role that developers are looking to outsource, while their primary concern is on the mechanics and technical execution of the game design. The exact look, feel, or sound of the game is generally a 50/50 split between the internal game producers and designers knowing what they want, or asking for outside assistance and leadership in helping to define the vision. Either way can lead to a successful outcome, but it is best to specifically address this early in the process so if a vision is not being provided, we can create one.
5. Know your Audience: Who is the audience? Sooner or later, all game developers learn that making music/SFX/art for an ultra-wide demographic means you make no one very happy. While it is tempting to say I want 5-80 year-olds to like my game, the reality is that this strategy is rarely successful, and if so, it’s often by mistake rather then by design. So, defining the demographic you are appealing to is key to the approach taken. A Pokémon-style card game is quite different from a slot machine in its demographics, and the creative conversation should leverage that key point, not hide from it.
6. Identify the Game’s “Wow” Moments: What are the key moments of the game? Game design and audio/visual supporting elements often have wow moments, or payoffs for the player at key times within the game play. These can be moments such as level up or quest complete, or are used to support other Free-to-Play elements to encourage the player to pay for features. These key moments are great to identify, so they can be given special attention and help brand the game. Internally, we call these “signature sounds”, which are the key branded SFX in a game that help brand the experience.
7. Factor in Time Expectations: What is the time play-length expectation? Is the game designed to support long play sessions, such as an RTS, or are they usually short and dynamic play sessions, such as Casino? Again, understanding the tempo of the game helps define how to support the game play sessions with impactful or more subtle audio. Long sessions, for example, call for more ambient, less thematic music that is not intrusive, with subtle sound design. Short game play sessions, such as in casino games, tend to really pop.
Assuming this is the case, creating a plan for ongoing support is a good idea to discuss so all parties know how best to support the game post-launch.
8. Think Ahead: What is the plan for new content support? Setting up a pipeline for new content is helpful to discuss up front, while still in the pre-launch production mode. Many game designers have not thought much beyond just hitting a code lock version of their games and successfully launching on the app store. An important comment I have heard many times is: “releasing a game is the easy part, growing your audience and supporting the live product is the real challenge.” Assuming this is the case, creating a plan for ongoing support is a good idea to discuss so all parties know how best to support the game post-launch.
9. Identify the Lead: Who is the ____ Lead, (in our case audio lead)? In AAA/Console gaming, there is almost always an internal lead who is tasked with managing the creative pipeline for whatever is required, such as audio. However, in many small studios, and even in larger mobile publishers, there is often no dedicated person assigned to the audio, or even the art. Many mobile producers wear many hats and as such, they are responsible for overseeing a variety of the creative aspects of the game.
10. Find the Fun: What makes this game fun? That is a tough question to ask flat out— it’s almost like asking on a first date why you should spend your time with someone— but ultimately, that’s what we are all trying to figure out. If you can navigate that key question, and help the game developer identify what is inherently “fun” about their game, that can often be the building block for the vision of the entire collaboration.
Admittedly, this is not such an easy task. As a self-professed Candy Crusher, I have a very hard time communicating exactly why that game is, in fact, so much fun.
However, when I stop and think about it, I realize that the fun is not just the matching of items (after all, there are hundreds of games that do that); the fun has to do with the overall creative experience of the game, with its delightful glossy candies, trippy dreamlike music, and the saga aspect of the game, which compels my curiosity to need to know what is behind curtain #348.
Exploring these fundamental questions and ideas at the beginning of the collaborative journey assures that the process will lead to the best possible outcomes and rewards for all.
Look forward to next month’s installment, when Game Audio Artistry will share lessons learned from an indie collaboration.
Matt Bruun is the Studio Director at SomaTone Interactive. He has worked on hundreds of games, including some of the most successful titles in social and mobile gaming. He shares his ideas on polishing casual game audio in this next installment of the Game Audio Artistry series.
The Circle of Development Trends
Casual and mobile game development tends to be cyclical, with a big hit game leading developers to create games with similar themes and gameplay. In the early and mid-2000’s, we worked on a lot of Match-3 style games that followed in the wake of the success of titles like Bejeweled and Zuma. Then came a period of games with a Time Management theme, riding a wave of popularity that likely had a lot to do with the success of the DinerDash series from Playfirst. After that came a long run of Hidden Object games that were successful in both the downloadable market and in mobile. Now the Match-3 is back, with quite a few popular titles available in the App Store, and many more in development.
It’s just as important that the sounds and music are created from the ground up, with the goal of having these elements work seamlessly and smoothly together.
With any Match-3 game, it is not especially difficult to create serviceable audio that covers the basic events in the game. However, simply adequate sound design in this type of game is not enough to make a gameplay experience that stands out from the crowd of other similar titles. While the sound design and music composition must be the highest quality, of course, it’s just as important that the sounds and music are created from the ground up, with the goal of having these elements work seamlessly and smoothly together. Then, there needs to be excellent communication and coordination between the individual(s) who will be implementing the assets into the game and the audio lead who oversaw the creation of them.
Creating Great Music
On a title in the Match-3 genre with a major publisher last year, we were able to partner with a great composer whom we hadn’t had the chance to work with before, Grant Kirkhope. From the start, we designed our sound effects to work seamlessly with the score that he would be creating, and made sure there was a cohesive overall plan for how the pieces would fit together. I really like what Grant came up with, and it was a lot of fun to create sound design around that music. His score is simultaneously melodic and engaging, while not being distracting or fatiguing if heard on a loop while playing a longer level. This combination is what makes for great casual game music.
For this project, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the development team in Seattle for a few days to assist in the implementation of the assets, once production on our end was complete. This is a luxury that time in a developer’s schedule does not always allow for, but we take the opportunity to conduct on-site work whenever possible, as the polish at that stage of implementation can make a huge difference in the final product.
Simple Steps Leadto Great Results
Until recently, most casual and mobile game developers would have considered audio middleware tools such as Wwise to be out of reach for the budget in a game of this type. Audio Kinetic, the makers of Wwise, have changed that. They now offer a pricing structure that accommodates developers who are producing games with modest budgets (more details on this can be found in this blog post from SomaTone Executive Director Michael Bross). With middleware in place, the audio team is then free to make all of the many small adjustments that are needed to get a polished result. Even without the use of a great tool like Wwise, good coordination between the audio team and the person doing the implementing can assure a good final product.
Good coordination between the audio team and the person doing the implementing can assure a good final product.
For example, at the end of a level in this particular game, there is a bonus sequence that takes over, making matches for you and adding to your score. The length of this sequence depends on the number of moves that you have left when you beat the level. At first, we had the gameplay music loop just continuing during the sequence, but for the player, it was a little confusing. The gameplay music was still playing, but the mouse would no longer respond to input, because the sequence was automated at that point. So we created a second loop just for this sequence, and then a music sting for the score count-up screen that appears as that sequence ends. Once these were implemented with smooth crossfades and sound effects to help cover the transitions between them, the problem of confusion about the automated sequence was solved. The “level complete” experience in general was much improved. These are simple changes to make – a crossfade here, a fade there, adding a sound effect to cover and smooth a transition, etc. – but they go a long way in making a polished game. It’s these many small, simple steps that add up to a quality result.
Balancing Sounds and Music for the Most Polished Effect
The overall mix between the different audio assets (the music, sound effects, and voice effects) is critical. We often need to have audio implemented into the games we work on without being able to go on-site with the developer. In these cases, providing the assets already mixed and ready to drop in the game is helpful. Getting a good balance between the sounds and the music before sending it out is the goal. Our usual process involves us making detailed video captures that demonstrate the way that the sounds and music are meant to work once properly implemented into the game, so that the person handling the integration can refer to them, sure of what was intended by the sound design team. Having the audio lead involved closely at this stage with the person doing the implementation is the difference between an average audio experience in a game, and something polished and compelling.
Knowing how much there can be on the game development team’s plate, it’s understandable to us that there is a temptation to have some of these audio implementation details made lower in priority. This is especially true at the end of a production cycle leading up to a release, which is usually when the audio team is most critically involved in the project. Considering the huge improvement in the overall experience for the player, it’s well worth the effort!
Next month’s installment will explore the role of game audio and discuss the creative journey, so look forward to it!
Nick Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., is a video games industry veteran and thought leader with 10+ years of proven executive leadership results with a focus on developing strategic industry partnerships, innovating creative outsourcing solutions and managing talented teams that contribute to more than 100 games annually from nearly all major publishers and developers, as well as independent developers. He discusses the transformation occurring in the industry in this article.
It’s happening again, right before our eyes; we’re in the midst of yet another era of redefinition and reinvention in the ever-evolving gaming industry. While the landscape is changing dramatically, history shows us that something new and good will invariably emerge. After all, (and despite many attempts), you cannot own or control creativity, or predict the future of gaming.
We at SomaTone are ten years deep as a leading provider of creative content for mobile, social, and casual games, working at the forefront of gaming over the last decade’s explosive growth. Having produced audio content on hundreds of games for many of the top publishers as well as for the indies, our vantage point gives us a sweeping perspective across the landscape of the games industry– from AAA console games, to MMO’s, to Social/Mobile, to Casual, and beyond.
We’re seeing the cyclical pendulum swing of innovation, homogenization, and reinvention continuing to keep the publishers of gaming content guessing as the smaller, faster, and more creative start-ups are yet again redefining the gaming industry.
The Ripple Effects of Converting Players into Users in Mobile Gaming
Casual games continue to go through a familiar pattern, and we are currently emerging from a decline of the smaller “Mom and Pop” game developers, who have been squeezed out by the realities of mobile publishing and the dominance of Free-to-Play (F2P) games. This economic model has sought to systematically convert game “users” into a currency that has been hoarded, sold, and traded in an effort to control access to “game players.”
As a consequence, the industry was stratified into large game publishers–who controlled the access to “users” and thus the majority of the market–and new start-ups and Indies, who were either being gobbled up by these same publishers, or self-publishing and hoping for a Flappy Bird-style anomalous hit.
The middle-class of game development–studios of 20-50 working on games that were sold via standard pay-to-play standards with supportive publishing partners–has suffered. With limited access to users, who are carefully controlled by game publishers, it was nearly impossible for mid-sized independent game developers to make and sell their own games and support their teams. The result was a polarized and stratified industry in which a small fraction of game publishers own the vast majority of market, making it extremely difficult for small game developers to independently make and sell their games without yielding to the requirements of the publishers, who will own the IP, take the lion’s share of the revenue, with no clear obligation to bring “users” to their game.
“Every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself.”
Now while all publisher models attempt to control access and distribution to customers (this is in fact what publishers are supposed to do), there is a dramatic new variable at play, with the F2P economy. This “race to the bottom” business model, which has led to disruptive game-play mechanics designed to extract fees from “users”, in their efforts to enjoy a fully featured game-play experience and be “players”, is highly dependent on publishers’ access to users, and their ability to monetize these users. Those “old school” game designers, who sought to develop great games, that offered fully featured immersive game-play experiences at the outrageously expensive price of $.99, never stood a chance against “free” games, which are developed by game publishers and promoted to their “users”, requiring players to pay for the features included in a 1-dollar competing title.
This Latest Cycle Will Induce a Painful Rebirth
This cycle of innovation, homogenization and reinvention is not a new trend. We have seen this same cycle in gaming in the past, with Big Fish Games‘ consolidation of the PC Downloadable market and subsequently, Zynga‘s dominance of browser-based Facebook, and in both cases, there was a painful rebirth of the industry. Those fastest to adapt to the new ecosystems survived, and those who could not evolve, died away.
However, it is also true that every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself. Just after Big Fish unequivocally took control of PC downloadable, Facebook came along and completely disrupted their reign. A few short years later, the kings of Facebook (Zynga, Playdom, Wooga) have been dethroned, only to be replaced by the current leaders of the mobile industry. With each successive attempt to control and “own” the industry, new life has begun.
“You cannot control game players or ‘own’ creativity. A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming.”
This reminds me of Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. In this case, creativity finds a way, and despite the attempts of the current reign of publishers to own and control this inherently creative marketplace, they are discovering, just as all others before them have, that you cannot control game players or “own” creativity.
A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming. One in which King.com, and Kabam, or perhaps even the Apple Store and Google Play store, will soon find themselves trying to catch up, and wondering what happened as the world they felt so sure of has shifted beneath their feet.
“Mom and Pop” developers, take heart. The pendulum swings both ways. And from our vantage point, which reaches from the largest publishers to the smallest indies, the playing field is leveling.
2014 will be a year of reorganization and consolidation, as the bubble of Mobile/Social games refocuses its efforts, and quality will retake its place as the leading factor in a company’s success, rather than simply a publisher’s control of access to users. And developing innovative and high-quality games has always been what the “Mom and Pop” game studios have done best and are continuing to do.
Look forward to the next installment of this series next month, a case study on Zynga’s Puzzle Charms!
Jim Ying is SVP of Publishing at independent developer 6waves. Prior to this, he spent five years at Microsoft as manager in the Xbox division, working on major franchises such as Halo and Age of Empires. Like so many of us, Jim has been carefully monitoring the progress of the forthcoming Ouya console, and his considerable experience in both console and mobile development provides a wide spectrum analysis of the potential challenges in store for the device and its digital services.
Gamesauce: Considering your current position at 6waves and an extensive console background in the Xbox business, you must have a pretty informed perspective on the Ouya. What’s the first question that popped into your head when you saw the Kickstarter console?
Jim: My first question back then was: are they really going to be able to get it out there for $99 bucks?
GS: You know all about the console ecosystem and how tough it can be to introduce new business models.
I saw plenty of models in my past when I worked in the Xbox division at Microsoft for five years, specifically on big first-party titles. I managed games like the Halo and Age of Empires franchises, and was project lead on partner games like Shadowrun and Too Human. So I’ve assembled quite a bit of console experience to compare this to.
GS: Do you think the Ouya needs to look to current consoles, in terms of following an established service model?
I think there are challenges unique to the console space, regardless of console. For the manufacturer, you start by selling the box at a loss, and you make that up through royalties on the games. The idea that the Ouya people will charge $99 for the device, and then take a 30% portion of the games to generate revenue, I kind of understand the choices there.
GS: The public seems to have a handle on the model, if you look at the tens of thousands of folks that have plunked down their cash for a console at launch.
I think generally, among gamers and fanboys, the Ouya has become this compilation of potential. Like, “Wow, it’s ninety-nine dollars. It’s Android, it’s Tegra 3, it looks great …” etcetera. Granted, things like the dual stick controller and touchpad do look pretty great – awesome design. And they’re saying the console could end up being about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, which could be pretty amazing.
They’re saying the console could end up being about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, which could be pretty amazing.
GS: That tiny size should make it easy to move around the house, and these days most households have several screens. But is there room for this console in the market?
My overall impression is still a bit skeptical, but as a player always looking for new experiences, I’d love to see this device happen. Right now, the console space is still fairly exclusionary, which is why to some extent guys like Apple have been able to snag such interest and market share. Anyone can jump right in; there’s some curation and preparation, but you don’t need to go through a rigorous process to get games on there. On the other hand, you have Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo still holding the keys in terms of which games get through to their devices and which don’t.
GS: Not to mention, strict checklists and compliance rules, and all that fun stuff we associate with developing in the console space. Presumably with Ouya, a lot of that baggage is going to disappear.
We’d love to see that happen. The reality is that it comes down to execution: can they get the box made with solid, stable hardware? Can they get a broad enough audience to sign on, and can they curate the games wisely? Even if you look at Apple right now: Hundreds of people are building content for them, but the discovery rate still remains a huge problem.
A lot of people have started to spend a lot of money on user acquisition, instead of relying on all sorts of unproven vendors that are often a little sketchy. So the right developers could jump on Ouya and start pumping out high quality titles, but the question remains: how easy will it be to actually find that content?
A lot of people have started to spend a lot of money on user acquisition, instead of relying on all sorts of unproven vendors that are often a little sketchy.
GS: There’s also a concern that you might see a glut of low-end Android titles rapidly ported to Ouya, as many developers won’t be in a position to risk funding an exclusive title, or dedicating meaningful resources to an Ouya version.
Agreed, we’ll probably see that, and we’ll probably see a lot of high end phone and tablet games coming over. I know there’s one or two studios committed to exclusive launch titles optimized for Ouya. I’d love to see more of that happen, because it’s really going to need those unique designs that show what the console is all about.
GS: We probably won’t see more than a handful of games on Ouya at first that actually exploit the console. When do you foresee developers putting serious effort into Ouya games, versus, say, simply porting high end iPad and tablet titles?
You could look at it this way: When the Xbox 360 and PS3 came along, the PS3, at least functionally and technically, did have higher capabilities. Other than the first-party side, nobody really exploited that at first because most developers wanted a game that played on both platforms. So if I’m a developer investing my time and money into an exclusive console game, even if it’s a high end game, and the Ouya becomes a viable platform, I’m still going to be looking into the lowest common denominator – the mass market Android player – early on. Some teams won’t have a choice.
GS: That’s a pretty sensible response, but I’ve been asking people: choosing a low risk title, maybe an existing phone or tablet project, and slapping on some gamepad support and 1080p resolution – doesn’t this compromise the purity of making an Ouya game?
It’s where we run into the chicken and egg problem. Imagine if they were launching a brand new console? The barrier would be even greater. At least now, this is for a well known platform in Android. But if I were developing for it, unless I had ridiculous amounts of money or maybe big co-funding from the Ouya backers, I simply can’t bet my studio’s fortunes on an exclusive for an unproven console.
But if I were developing for it, unless I had ridiculous amounts of money or maybe big co-funding from the Ouya backers, I simply can’t bet my studio’s fortunes on an exclusive for an unproven console.
GS: With the potential for so many slipshod conversions of phone and tablet games to Ouya, could “bad ports” become an early stigma associated with the console?
I think the reality is we’re going to see plenty of games early on, and the majority of the ones that succeed will probably be regular Android games. If the console is successful, suddenly a lot of people, and maybe those same established Android developers, will look to really harness the Ouya. On the other hand, if we aren’t seeing a meaningful amount of new, unique content for it near the beginning, right away that’s going to get consumers asking, “Why do I need this in the first place?”
GS: The fact that it will stream Netflix is a nice bonus, but services like OnLive could make a difference. For a gamer, having a bunch of casual and core Android titles is great, but being able to play high end PC games could be the cherry on top.
I think the whole OnLive element brings up a bigger question: if OnLive-type services become really successful and more widespread, do you even need a dedicated console with its own software? In theory, OnLive can provide game content that is far more advanced than what the Ouya can offer – or at this stage, more advanced than the current consoles.
So the people interested in that kind of feature are the hardcore gamers, guys that aren’t satisfied by smaller phone-style games. If they have that experience to compare to on Ouya, the console’s native games might not get as much play.
In theory, OnLive can provide game content that is far more advanced than what the Ouya can offer – or at this stage, more advanced than the current consoles.
GS: Most OnLive users tend to be players who don’t have the computer spec required to play the latest, most sophisticated titles. There’s already that built-in expectation, so I don’t think having OnLive on Ouya will result in a direct comparison to the console’s own capabilities. Not to mention, the PC developers…
…They’re still making money when you stream their game on Ouya.
GS: Right, so it’s not exactly cannibalizing the console’s native games market.
That brings up another question: selling the actual Android console. With current consoles, your goal is to have a major presence in big box stores like Best Buy, and with that you understand you can handle a margin of loss because you know the stores will be stocked with software as well. So you’re making money back right away. Whereas the Ouya, they don’t have all those games to sell with the box and offset the hardware costs.
GS: Right, but unlike a new Xbox or PlayStation, where they’re swallowing huge initial losses on cutting edge hardware, this Android box could drop real fast in terms of manufacturing costs. Heck, it’s dropping as we speak.
Just like the current generation. You can pick up an Xbox 360 today for $99 with an Xbox Live contract, but it’s taken years for us to get here. Even with mainstream parts, realistically it’s going to be another year, year-and-a-half before the Ouya people have their manufacturing situation streamlined and cost-effective.
GS: To your point about software sales at retail: the Ouya will be the first home game console in thirty-plus years that doesn’t use physical media to ship games. No discs, no flash media; it’s just pure download. Could bandwidth for the storefront and services end up becoming a cost issue?
Right now, that figures more into internet service providers and less into actual connected users, numbers of megabytes, or simultaneous downloads. But we’re seeing a major shift there on the mobile side, with proprietary markets, streaming, cloud sharing and storage. If that becomes a dominant model on Ouya, then we may begin to see more costs filtering down to the consumer, and that may be a tough sell.
GS: It needs to be wrapped-up in a high quality user experience, where the service itself is top notch. It’s likely going to be more streamlined than buying digital goods on current consoles. Even the console itself apparently boots up lightning fast.
There’s a lot of cool potential there, like the fact that Ouya is going to be in an Android ecosystem where instant in-app purchases are the norm – unlike the current consoles in this area, where it surprises me how slow they still are in many ways.
GS: Could the Ouya become a champion of smaller, casual, shorter-session games in the living room? Maybe something that appeals to Mom and Dad for quick plays on the big screen?
Just knowing that I would have to come back to my living room to continue a casual game would immediately make it less casual.
In theory, sure it could. I think the wave that they’re maybe fighting against is the rapid adoption of the smartphone, iPad and tablet as gaming platforms. Granted, it’s really nice to play games in the living room on the big screen, but for most casual games you really don’t need that big screen to play. And if I had to trade-off between playing casual games in my living room versus carrying the game wherever I want to go, I would choose portability.
GS: Do you see a trend happening where developers create shorter-session game experiences on Ouya, but they include some form of extended gameplay for mobile devices that people can take with them?
The reason why most casual gamers are more comfortable with their smartphones, to some degree, is the interface.
Overall, for those casual players and games, I have to wonder if the controller will be the right device. The reason why most casual gamers are more comfortable with their smartphones, to some degree, is the interface. Especially for folks that don’t have the deep console background to draw from.
GS: The kind of players, when you put an analog stick controller in their hands, they start waving it around to move their character – even when there’s no motion-based gameplay involved?
[Laughs] Yeah, like: “This is too much! How do I move? What button should I press? Oh forget it, it’s too intimidating. I don’t even want to play now.”
GS: I suppose good developers will find ways to use the controller’s front touchpad. You could figure out some pretty accessible control schemes for casual games that use the touchpad and – let’s say – just a single analog stick, or a couple of buttons.
But I think at the end of the day, instead of fitting into that, what they’re going for with this console is the console demographic and the console business. And despite what the doomsayers talk about, I think there’s always going to be a place for consoles and dedicated console gameplay. There’s always going to be hardcore fans and players who want the latest and cutting edge, in terms of graphics, story, and immersive play.
GS: Do you think it’s that type of player that will speak up and say, “Hey, why should I buy this when I can pick up an Xbox 360 for $99 plus contract, and it’s actually X amount more powerful than the Ouya?”
Right, if the game quality is still that much better on a dedicated console than it is on this, people are probably going to go for the dedicated console option – especially as the price range tips over.
GS: That brings us back to the software scenario. Some people are simply burnt-out on spending big bucks for premium games on traditional consoles. They might be genuinely excited about having another way to get their games.
I agree, and if anything, the Ouya serves as a forcing function: to force Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to get their shit together and do the things that people are clamoring for. Clearly people want in-app purchases and a variety of digitally downloaded games at varying price points.
Obviously we’re moving in that direction, with more free and upgradeable games on Xbox and other console app stores, but it’s only a matter of time before they figure out: look at social, look at mobile, look what’s going on in Asia – all the stuff happening there. You can make a lot of money with in-app purchases, and yet still price your games sensibly.
If anything, the Ouya serves as a forcing function: to force Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to get their shit together and do the things that people are clamoring for.
GS: So if you were working with Ouya developers, you’d be encouraging Freemium across the board?
Oh, definitely. From what I’ve heard, all the games are going to be, at minimum, free to try, or with significant free gameplay. There are so many smart ways to do that without compromising your game.
GS: There’s also open pricing on Ouya. Let’s say studios start doing larger, more premium experiences. It’s console, so people are used to paying fifty dollars for a major game. What becomes the high price point for those premium games on Ouya?
Well, the nice thing about cutting out the physical retailer is that they can also cut out that margin completely. So a totally AAA game could potentially get away with being $30 on Ouya. I think the idea of opening up to in-app purchases could make a huge difference there. By the time it comes out, once some developers are actually building larger games for it, the console’s marketplace will begin to carve out those prices and settle into a model.
GS: A lot of mobile guys have told me that they think the Ouya’s controller has the potential to be a big seller as a general purpose Android gaming accessory. With Google pushing controller-based gaming now, and the controller’s slick design and approachable price, why not?
Yeah, why not? If you’re going to spend that much effort on the design and making a beautiful controller that works well, and if I’m going to use the controller for some of my favorite Android games, then yeah, I’d definitely go ahead and pick one up.
GS: But how convenient is it, spatially speaking, to prop up your tablet and find a way to comfortably play a game with a controller?
Granted, it would be kind of strange to be playing a tablet or phone game using a controller. In that case, I’d probably just boot up the Xbox 360 or PS3 instead.
GS: Or you might just go ahead and connect your tablet or phone to the TV via HDMI, and off you go. Where’s the Ouya in that equation?
That makes me think of the Phantom console. At first it was meant to be this whole set top box thing, and then bit by bit it was reduced, until all of a sudden it was just narrowed down to this keyboard accessory.
GS: Hopefully a year from now the Ouya console hasn’t been reduced to the Ouya controller. Realistically, I think the Ouya has more going for it than the Phantom ever did – not to mention great timing.
It has multiple elements going for it.
The fact that it’s a new digital-only console and they embrace in-app purchases already opens the doors for new possibilities.
The big question about Kickstarter campaigns is that they tend to build a ton of excitement early on, but the actual follow-through hasn’t performed. There are no guarantees. You’re often asking, “OK, what happened to all this money?”
Eight million dollars is a lot of money, and while it seems to be going forward, if they’re not able to produce the console for whatever reason, it’s going to raise a lot of questions about Kickstarter.
GS: I guess they’re legitimized by high-profile early backers and board members, but even the Phantom had some of that. Big name investment is no guarantee.
Yeah, just look at 38 Studios. A lot of big money there, and unfortunately we see what can happen.
GS: This type of venture is all about early adopters and pre-sales. Do you see yourself as one of the early guys taking an Ouya home as soon as it’s available?
Me, personally? Yeah. It’s because of my background in console, and I’m also interested in in-app purchase games and where that’s taking us. Also, I’m just a fan of interesting gadgets like this. My bigger question, though: The current audience that’s interested in console, will they be on board?
GS: Regardless, is it going to come too late? I think if something like this, a very cheap new game console and media streaming box, was available right now –
— If it was out right now, I’d probably buy it in a second. I’m not sure it’s going to be too late, though. Right now there are a lot of transitions and trends happening that could help push its adoption. We’re pushing the adoption of smartphones and tablets for gaming, shifting away from a sharp console focus with the traditional hardware vendors.
I think a lot of the Ouya’s functionality, by the time it comes out, will have been adopted by a lot of other mediums – whether it’s new Smart TVs, OnLive, or progressive digital sales on console. So people are currently being exposed to the kind of trends that Ouya is pushing, which absolutely benefits them.
People are currently being exposed to the kind of trends that Ouya is pushing, which absolutely benefits them.
GS: It’s interesting because it gives developers time to work on an Android game for a designated spec. You look at the fragmentation on Android today, and it’s difficult to tell what device can run a particular title. The Ouya is sort of like a unified Android spec in a sea of fragmentation.
That’s very true. As a player, it could be interesting to experience the full range of Android games out there, but also have those games that were built primarily to exploit the console.
GS: Plus, how many of us own multiple consoles? A lot of people. An inexpensive Android console might find a place by the TV alongside your “main” game console.
But is it ever going to replace my full console experience? Like, I’m probably going to want to play Call of Duty and Halo on whatever the latest platform is. Not just because I’m a gamer, but because it’s going to provide the superior overall experience for those types of games.
GS: Something that seems to be trending in consoles is the second screen device. It’s obviously a key feature for the Wii U, Sony’s been poking around with it on portables, and Microsoft has the Glass technology. Do you see any pressure to mimic such features on Ouya?
Potentially, I could see maybe a handful of games being able to really, truly take advantage of that. Fundamentally, I wouldn’t be playing a console game just because it has two screens going. It’s one of those things, at the end of the day, it adds to the experience, but it doesn’t crucially alter it. Not yet.
Compared to – let’s say – motion control like Kinect: that can fundamentally change the experience and expand the console’s demographic of players. I think the kind of people that would be nerding-out on a second screen – “Wow, I’m pressing buttons on my phone and it’s doing stuff on the other screen, but I’m still using my controller, cool!” – are still the same demographic happy to play with a controller.
GS: Let’s suppose the Ouya really explodes, and one of the major firms in the industry looks to acquire it. Who do you think would be an ideal suitor for the Ouya?
That’s funny, I was talking about this with some folks recently. We were thinking Google and Amazon.
GS: My first pick was Google as well. How about Nvidia? It might be surprising, but the console could be a vessel for them to propagate the Tegra 3 chipset – or possibly Tegra 4 – into the TV console market.
That might be a cool idea, and probably great on a tech level, but from my experience it seems Nvidia is more about driving their technology, whether it’s physical tech or engineering, into other devices. If they really needed a more key product to help push the rest of their line-up, then maybe, but the PC essentially serves as that function.
GS: It’s a stretch, but the Ouya would sort of be a way to showcase their mobile chipset on a very inexpensive, download-only game console.
I’m sure there are already plenty of mobile devices being made and largely targeted towards core gamers out there looking for a deeper, richer experience on their phone or tablet. So I think it’s a bit of a reach for Nvidia.
GS: You’re probably right, and Nvidia already gains from the exposure their hardware is receiving without betting the farm on the device. Google is a safer bet, and Amazon seems to be jumping into the gaming space significantly on Kindle. That Amazon model could work just as well on Ouya.
Absolutely; this could represent – similar to Microsoft’s play with the Xbox – a way for Amazon to get into the living room. Amazon has all these media delivery services, whether its books, music, or games, so this type of device could only benefit them. I think everyone agrees at this point that the strategy Microsoft took with the Xbox, especially with Live and getting so many people to subscribe, it’s been very effective for them. It’s especially true now, with being able to have all these channels and streaming services on the TV. So if that’s a strategy that Google and Amazon are aiming for…
GS: And if they don’t want to start from scratch –
— Right, here’s a real opportunity for them to do something. Especially if they have an OnLive-type service rolled up into the product, here’s an opportunity to play the latest and greatest PC and console games, plus all of Amazon’s other services, with a sophisticated in-app purchase system.
GS: It may be pretty compelling for families: a simple little box with high-definition capabilities and large quantities of media available for every person in the household, plus games you can’t get elsewhere.
If nothing else, I think it could push the big console players to act faster and do what people are asking for.
If nothing else, I think it could push the big console players to act faster and do what people are asking for. Things like comprehensive in-app purchases, opening up the console demographic and environment so there’s not so many hoops to jump through, tweaking and re-balancing the way revenue shares work, and taking a fundamentally different approach to developer relations.
GS: For the old school gamers, you hear a lot of excitement about emulation on Ouya. Besides all the other content, the idea that people could run retro console emulators on an open console is pretty compelling.
The first time I heard that, it started to make sense pretty fast. You know there are companies in China that sell these all-in-one boxes equipped with emulators and games? Apparently there’s a big fan base, globally, that wants that.
GS: If you look at how well retro re-releases do on iOS and Android, it makes sense. People seem to accept playing smaller, retro-style games on their phones and tablets, even when elements like the control scheme are inferior to a console experience.
Often on phones and tablets, the reason why people are willing to accept a lower quality bar is because they assume, hey, I’m not playing a full-on console so I need to make compromises when I’m on the go. But if there’s an option to play sitting in front of my TV in high-fidelity on an Xbox 720, is that acceptance for compromise still going to be there?
GS: I think expectations scale with the games. If you’re expecting a smaller, simpler experience, you aren’t necessarily shopping for the next Gears of War, and nothing less.
True – but again, there’s nothing stopping a Microsoft or Sony from also opening that up on a larger scale, with larger collections of smaller, free games and expanded services.
GS: The idea of a low-cost HD console with cheap downloadable games might be well-suited to regions of the world that lag behind more industrialized nations. Look at South America: up to a few years ago, the PS2 was still considered a leading console.
If bandwidth is an issue in the US for a download-only console, it might be even tougher for that model to work in developing nations with limited broadband reach and speeds. At this point in a lot of the developing world, mobile penetration is now increasing at a faster rate than PC or console penetration – and so is the support. So a lot of games that here, in North America, may still be aimed at PCs, you find they’re actually being targeted to mobile now in those other nations.
GS: It’s certainly moving with mobile infrastructure. Look at India: they recently jumped from basically 2G speeds to 4G speeds overnight in several urban sectors, and it’s spreading quickly. Other rising nations are in the process of similar, country-wide mobile infrastructure upgrades.
For the regions that don’t necessarily have the experience of moving through several cycles and generations of consoles, and their first experience with something resembling a core game experience is on mobile, it’s going to be difficult for them to go back, or to the side. Especially as they become accustomed to gaming on those widespread devices and services.
GS: I suppose in that regard, the mobile gaming experience – stuff like smaller downloads, in-app purchases – may help to groom those users for similar features on new consoles.
Yeah, but it’s mainly the console guys that are tracking the Ouya at this point. The reason it isn’t on the mobile radar just yet? It’s probably because so many people are moving with this shift to social and mobile gaming.
People are stepping out of the console world, not because they think that market is going to disappear, but because it’s definitely going to get smaller.
As the mobile devices get more sophisticated and gaming experiences get more complex, the subset of people looking elsewhere for a more core gaming experience is dwindling.
GS: I’ll bring up the hobbyist argument there: when somebody takes an interest in a hobby or past-time, you’ll always find a subset of people for whom casual interaction eventually isn’t enough. It’s the graduation effect. When people recognize that their hobby provides richer, more complex options, a portion of those users will seek a way to graduate to a deeper experience.
That’s an interesting one that everybody likes to talk about. So let’s look at Zynga games: say you’re starting out with something like Farmville, and you move to Cityville, then you work your way into Empires & Allies. There’s an increase there in gaming complexity, a path you can measure. You could envision eventually graduating to a StarCraft complexity, let’s say. Now take your typical mid-West mom. She’s playing Farmville and Cityville, maybe she’s trying out Empires & Allies. Do you think that interest level is ever going to leap to something like a StarCraft? There’s a hurdle there.
GS: I’m thinking about the massive wave of younger users that make up the majority of casual game players right now. Users in their teens and twenties are more likely to seek greater complexity or challenges, and are more interested in developing their skills.
But that’s kind of assuming that right now the younger generation in their teens and twenties all play games. Right now there are young people who just don’t play games. Granted, it’s pretty tough to find people in that age group that didn’t grow up playing video games in some capacity, like with an Xbox or PlayStation in the house.
But I think in this case it’s more about the older generation of gamers, the folks who grew up with Atari, the ones who have been through that whole spectrum of increased interest. I think the people in our generation that were raised on that, we’ll probably still be playing hardcore console games when we’re 60 or 70.
GS: You’re right. It’s kind of what we love playing, and we can’t necessarily go backwards.
And there’s this huge potential audience out there that didn’t grow up with games like we did.
GS: Think about walking into a store back then: we had very little knowledge of the consoles, but a fondness for the idea of playing video games. We didn’t obsess over specs; it was often games in their simplest form that attracted us. Isn’t that analogous to the current situation – not for the mid-West mom, but an influx of younger players?
Potentially, yes, but if they’ve moved on to graduate to the next step, they’re likely to choose the dedicated console out there. The devices made for those types of more advanced experiences. At the end of the day, if you look at the Ouya and its capabilities, a lot of it is really catering to the existing hardcore fanboys and gamers who are maybe looking for another community or a new, different library.
GS: Certainly if you look at the Ouya demos, you see a dashboard loaded with stuff like Minecraft, Madden, Torchlight 2, shooters. Obviously the initial pitch is a shout-out to hardcore gamers.
But if you think about it from the perspective of a more hardcore, mass-market gamer, are they going to want to deal with things like constant downloads? If there’s the alternative to use an easier-to-play console, something you can optionally just drop a game into, it might be a preferred choice.
GS: That loops back into the concept of owning multiple consoles. It may be more prevalent than any other generation: today you find so many gamers that own both a PS3 and Xbox 360, or more likely a Wii and one of the HD consoles.
That’s a credit to the consoles themselves this generation, and people seeking fundamentally different experiences offered by each console. Someone with a PS3 and 360, usually it’s because they want the killer exclusive or a type of gameplay unique to the console. Someone with a Wii and an Xbox, it’s because they wanted to experience the Wii’s unique type of content.
Whereas with the Ouya, what’s going to be the fundamental differentiator there, compared to – let’s say – an Xbox 720? Especially when, presuming they get their shit together, the big console guys move into in-app purchases more aggressively and intelligently.
GS: Until the Ouya really establishes those key differentiators, it may have to rely on a low cost of entry and optional services – like getting consumers to buy the box as an extra streaming device for a TV in the house. The games will have to sort themselves out, right?
You need people – users, developers – to ask: does it make sense for this Android game to be played on the TV?
You need people – users, developers – to ask: does it make sense for this Android game to be played on the TV? If anything, the control schemes will have their basis in touch gameplay. The majority of mobile games that I play which use a touch joystick, honestly I’m left feeling that clearly they didn’t think this one through. If developers really spend the time to come up with something that plays properly, naturally, using actual control sticks, it’s going to feel a lot better than those experiences. That’s what it’s going to take.
GS: Right, you don’t want to see a dozen games built for something like a high end tablet, where they’ve tacked-on substandard gamepad support at the end of production, and presto: It’s an Ouya game, but with merely average gameplay.
That’s a good point. The reality of porting over to Ouya is that you’ll have to consider dedicated peripheral support from the start, with a completely different control mechanism from the mobile version.
GS: To be fair, some developers have come up with pretty tight control schemes on phones and tablets for hardcore genres. You can even find shooters with fairly decent interfaces. Ideally, these are the studios that will know how to work with the Ouya’s spec.
But would I want to play that ported game on my big screen TV, when I can play a major Halo or Call of Duty title – games fully optimized for the console space? I’ll play those hardcore games on my phone when I want to check out something on the go, but when it comes to spending ten, fifteen, twenty hours of my time to sit down with an experience, I’m probably looking to my dedicated console.
GS: Maybe what’s needed is the “medium-session” game? No multi-gigabyte, 100-hour beasts, and no mobile-style two minute time-killers, but instead, a happy medium. There’s a fertile middle-ground on console between monolithic Skyrim epics and accessible PopCap-style experiences.
With the quality levels in smaller games today, and you can see where we are right now with XBLA and PSN games, I really think there’s an opportunity on Ouya similar to Xbox Live.
Why can’t the Ouya free up some of those developers and maybe welcome them with more open opportunities?
The advantage of the Ouya spec is that you could potentially see indies and smaller teams making games for both dedicated console digital storefronts and the Ouya.
GS: I think the OnLive element is going to play a role there. It sort of allows the Ouya people to say, look, obviously we’re not Xbox 720 or PS4, but here’s access to the latest AAA masterpiece, and here’s a proper controller to play it. Even basic consumer knowledge tells the average buyer that a $99 console couldn’t possibly be as powerful as the new Xbox or PlayStation.
Yeah, and if it’s able to smoothly stream the latest high end multi-platform releases, it could provide a similar gameplay environment and still satisfy those users.
GS: It’s interesting, as you mentioned earlier, how that plays into the popular notion that all gaming will be done by proxy or via the cloud going forward.Funny how the Ouya loops back into so many hot topics, huh?
I like how it gets us talking about the game industry as a whole. As I said earlier, it has become this big compilation of features and trends that everyone is talking about. Whether Ouya manages to find an audience or goes on to fade away, it’s getting people to talk about stuff that matters.
Whether Ouya manages to find an audience or goes on to fade away, it’s getting people to talk about stuff that matters.
GS: Agreed, and I’d say it’s the most tangible piece of vaporware we’ve seen in a long time. Thanks so much for a great round of observations, Jim.
In our three part series on the Ouya console, we ask industry leaders in social, casual and mobile gaming if the surprising Kickstarter console can bridge the gap between core and casual, and successfully transition the Android OS to a living room entertainment device.
Part 1: Anil Dharni – SVP of Studio Operations, GREE
What GREE does well: Given the company’s enormous reach and user base, it would be an understatement to simply say that GREE is a leader in the mobile social gaming space. With a sprawling global network of over 230 million users and a truly open-minded company culture, where all genres, preferences and devices are welcomed, GREE’s world domination continues through an impressive push to bring developers and players together on its recently launched GREE Platform.
Why OUYA could matter to GREE: In a nutshell, GREE is wide open to any platform or device that develops a healthy audience of gamers in the social gaming space. Unlike the trepidation expressed by some social mobile gaming network operators, GREE appears to see a truly viable and untapped potential Android marketplace on Ouya: The inevitable transition to the connected TV and living room. GREE will continue to gauge the Ouya’s momentum and observe how its owners cope with console-related challenges, but if the TV space becomes as fertile as they predict, and if the games and services make sense, it would only be a positive to offer the GREE Platform to Ouya users and developers.
Gamesauce: After talking to you and some of the other GREE representatives at Casual Connect, it sounds like there’s already an internal discussion regarding the Ouya console. Is that just general buzz talk, like everyone, reacting to the record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, or is there a real opportunity there for GREE?
Anil: I think a lot of our excitement is for the project itself, and we’re hoping the developers of Ouya can find a way to succeed, and of course make a great product, at the end of the day. Obviously there are a lot of challenges there. The Kickstarter campaign is definitely impressive – not just the numbers, but the enthusiasm around it. One thing we were trying to figure out: Is that a lot of game developers putting their money in initially, or the backers, or primarily consumers? Wherever [the money] is coming from, I think it says a bunch of people are kind of fed up with the traditional console model.
Wherever [the money] is coming from, I think it says a bunch of people are kind of fed up with the traditional console model.
GS: That’s a fairly common sentiment whenever we get close to a console generation transition, but you’re right, there seems to be a real movement for some kind of shake up in the console space. It’s hard to extrapolate whether that movement is consumer or developer driven…
Yeah, it’s hard to say without some hard data down the road. That will be enlightening, when we see how the backers and interest break down. That being said, regardless, they are going after the right market. TV connectivity is going to be an active space; we already know who a lot of the big players are going to be, and it’s absolutely coming. The timing, at least, could work out very well for Ouya.
The second big factor: I think they picked a good platform in Android. More and more games are launching on Android now. It’s a very fast rising platform, so we’re very bullish on Android. You see what Amazon has been able to do, taking the Android source code and then modifying it to their needs and their ecosystem. It can be done. So I think they picked a good platform.
GS: You might say Android is the most neutral gaming platform out there, so it fits the Ouya’s goals rather well as an open game console – as opposed to, let’s say, using their own proprietary OS.
Yes, they picked the right market and the right platform, but it’s still a kind of chicken and egg scenario. Will the developers come, given the model of the console? Can they succeed on the system, and what kind of games will do well? It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time: The TV question, and what kind of games we’ll see from Android developers for a TV experience.
GS: A huge slice of the active Android development community is made up of talented casual games studios. Do you think the Ouya could become a casual-friendly device with a mobile-style ecosystem of freemium titles, or will there be an expectation for larger, more expansive console-style experiences?
That’s another challenge, just finding out what people want out of an Android console. From our perspective, we are free-to-play champions. We love free-to-play with great value. It’s really hard to know what can thrive on Ouya, but for us, we just make sure the content itself is great, and that’s for all players. The more people you can bring to the platform, the better it is in the long run. That’s how we look at it. And it won’t take long to figure out a really tight design that’s ideal for the console.
GS: So it’s going to be about existing and new Android developers incorporating features that support – specifically – the Ouya’s hardware specifications. That can be risky or costly, early on.
But the hardware itself can help to keep game prices low, since you can also charge for things like extra controllers. It’s hard to say if developers will choose Ouya exclusively, or add console features to their existing tablet projects. If you look at developers right now, with a ton of studios working on iOS and Android, there’s a lot of movement towards iOS – but a lot of people are placing long term bets on Android.
GS: For smaller indie teams, short term returns might trump long term bets. But the prospect of being an early title on a new platform – especially one generating so much buzz – could be just as lucrative.
You basically have to prioritize as an indie developer. You only have ten, twenty, thirty people – max? – on your team, and running on a limited budget? Indie developers have to prioritize a platform, risks and all. But I think that’s where the chicken and egg issue comes in again, and it’s going to become important for developers to see successful business models emerge on Ouya. Is it going to be freemium, subscription, or free-to-play? We have to see.
GS: Let’s say you’re a tiny indie team: Six or seven guys working your butts off to produce polished games and carve a niche. Your collective dream is to make a cool console game, but XBLA and PSN are too cost-prohibitive to absorb. Does Ouya become the gateway device for a bunch of console dreamers, and can those guys charge XBLA and PSN-like prices?
Well, we do know that paid apps perform significantly lower on Android than they do on iOS. Having said that, they’re getting more and more used to it, and when they associate it with TV there’s a different kind of value perception there. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it could work; I think it’s an OK bet for people, especially those coming from the console side. I think we’ll see more trends from the console side than the social gaming side. For us, we want our games everywhere, on devices everywhere, so we think TV is going to be a great area.
GS: If you look at some of the Smart TV models coming soon, there’s going to be a renewed push towards all-in-one multimedia TVs. And that includes TVs with integrated game chipsets. Can the Ouya wiggle into that space as a game and media streaming device, maybe for consumers that bought their HDTVs three or four years ago and don’t plan on upgrading to newer connected TVs?
I think in that case, it may come down to how Google and Android actually propagates in the TV space and how people enjoy that experience. I don’t know all the technical details, but I know in the Ouya’s case they already have a prototype of the service; we just don’t know how it will compare to other Android experiences coming to TV.
GS: Let’s say the Ouya suddenly takes off and really validates itself a year from now, what’s stopping TV giants like Samsung from releasing their own spin on the Android console? They’re already entrenched in the Android device space, and dominant in connected TVs.
I think it’s true, they might do it if the model proved to be successful. My one caveat is that start-ups tend to be much faster, and a start-up with a real gaming background should have an edge there. We always thought Google could tap a lot of markets with Android, and Samsung is a great company with a ton of resources, but it helps to have a gaming DNA from the beginning like the Ouya people.
GS: Agreed, it helps to have that focus for a device. If you look at how the Kindle Fire is becoming its own Android-based ecosystem, you see the potential for specific game services on the OS.
Exactly – here’s Amazon making a big move into the gaming side, because they know how to operate, without really being tied to the gaming space. So I think the Ouya might have that advantage of background and know-how in the console gaming space, and I hope they can build on that.
GS: It will be good to see games like Minecraft on Ouya, but it needs a few impressive exclusives to really define itself. The issue for developers is risk: Are you prepared to place all bets on an intangible gaming device? So I think we’re going to see a lot of tablet ports with tacked-on Ouya features.
Without a doubt, that’s going to happen early on.
GS: Do you think this kind of compromises the “purity” of designing an Ouya game, in terms of the console’s features being a secondary consideration in design?
Yes it does, and that’s not really what you want to see developers doing. You want them to build for a particular console and context, and that’s when you really produce the stand-outs. Think of the first wave of Android games, where it was largely just porting titles: Besides a few exceptions, it just wasn’t working. Until developers decided: OK, we’re going to have a dedicated team and really understand the platform. Those are the teams that are thriving now. But it’s taken a while to reach this point.
GS: Do you think the Ouya’s price could have the ancillary effect of welcoming lower income families into the console gaming world, and thus expand Android’s presence in that demographic?
I don’t think it’s necessarily tied to how much a person wants to spend, although it’s certainly an interesting price option for a new console that people haven’t seen before. I think it’s more about the user and providing them the kind of games that belong on TV, and letting that content drive interest to the kind of users that would buy this type of console. It will be more a function of that, and less about a specific spender.
I think it’s more about the user and providing them the kind of games that belong on TV, and letting that content drive interest to the kind of users that would buy this type of console.
GS: There’s also this contention, and I don’t know if it’s due to mobile propagation or technologies like Microsoft’s SmartGlass, that Ouya games need to include post-Ouya gameplay on phones and tablets, so the user can resume gameplay on a mobile device. Wouldn’t this also compromise the design of an Ouya game, by attempting to satisfy both player types?
That’s a good question. I think the perfect example I can point to is the study that PopCap presented in their session at Casual Connect. They said that most people, when they actually get into a mobile game, they’re sitting at home playing on the couch. I just think it’s interesting that someone finally did a real survey, and it actually points to that fact.
GS: That kind of tells us that short-session games may have a place anywhere, but medium-to-core level experiences have always had a place in the living room, regardless of device. That’s built into our home entertainment culture. And those are the players more likely to put in that extra hour, buy that extra level pack, and so on.
Right, the longer-session players. From a console developer’s point of view, the Ouya is an opportunity to find a middle ground. A lot of these guys, when they’re looking from console, to social, to mobile – they’re going directly to mobile, and bypassing Facebook completely. So for a lot of these developers getting ready to push great mobile titles next year, they’re already prepared for Ouya. Whether it becomes a good marketplace for them, this remains the question. An [eight million] dollar Kickstarter is great, but will it require a twenty million selling console, or one hundred million, to really carve out a market?
A lot of these guys, when they’re looking from console, to social, to mobile – they’re going directly to mobile, and bypassing Facebook completely.
GS: That’s the big question. It’s the type of console shake-up we welcome, but there’s no way to tell if it’s the definitive disruption or merely a foundation. Thanks very much for your perspectives, Anil.