December 11, 2006

New Interactive Drama in the Works (Part 2)

by Andrew Stern · , 9:25 pm

Yikes, I’m over two months late with Part 2 of this post announcing production of The Party. My only excuse is that life is hectic for me these days. As Part 1 described, pre-production, authoring-tool building and prototyping of The Party has been underway for about a year now.

Building next-generation interactive characters and stories has many design, technology, production and fundraising issues. In this post I thought I’d lay out a series of issues we’re grappling with, and give my initial take on each. (I may have subtly different takes than my collaborator Michael.) We’d like to hear any thoughts, opinions and suggestions you have on these, and anything major you think I’ve left out. This helps us think through the issues and figure out solutions.

First, I have two assumptions that I hope won’t require debate in this thread, but can be taken to another thread if requested. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that interactive comedy and drama games are marketable if and when the games are well-made and compelling to play, even though this market is largely unproven to date; and therefore in theory there will be investors interested to fund their production. Two, assume it is theoretically within our current means to build a satisfying interactive story, though this is largely unproven to date. My gut tells me this is true, based on what we’ve learned so far trying to build one (but not yet succeeding) plus my experience building related products.

In these efforts we’re building upon the design techniques and technology gained from creating Façade. But Façade is a mixed bag; it has some successful entertaining elements mixed in with some not so successful elements. I’ll try to unravel these into a set of questions and issues, that get to the heart of what I believe is required to create a compelling interactive story/game that can succeed in the marketplace. In my estimation these are necessary, though perhaps not sufficient, requirements for commercial success; again, if you feel I’ve missed anything important, please say so. (There are obvious requirements I haven’t listed here, such as the need for good writing, animation, etc.)

 
Issue 1) Our approach is to break down and represent a story space as a large collection of small, procedural narrative machines called beats, each of which are composed of a collection of behaviors and lines of dialog. Beats are designed to be able to intermix nicely and be sequenced in many different orders. Can this technique allow for a satisfying richness of non-linear real-time generation of interactive stories, and did this occur in Façade?

Issue 2) Even if there is richly generated story, can the player affect the generation of the story in significant, meaningful ways? I.e., is satisfying agency possible, and did this occur in Façade?

Issue 3) Using an open-ended natural language (NL) interface, Façade attempts to allow the player to speak anything they like to the characters. What succeeded and what failed here?

Issue 4) Of the failures in the NL interface, can they be improved enough in the short-term to justify its use in a commercial product? What would be gained and lost by using a different interface?

Issue 5) Thematically, Façade‘s drama was about a marriage in crisis, which was not much fun for many players, although most said it was at least “interesting”. How endemic is this lack of fun-ness to the form of interactive drama in general?

Issue 6) By rendering its characters in a more illustrative style a la alternative comics such as Optic Nerve and Eightball, Façade attempts to break away from mannequin-ish, stiff-faced polygonal characters, hyperrealism and the uncanny valley. Simultaneously this technique allowed for the faces to be drawn procedurally, and therefore results in them being quite fluid and expressive. Yet, many players and reviewers considered Façade‘s graphics to be crude. What’s the solution here?

Issue 7) How can you fundraise for a product that proclaims to innovate a new genre of interactive entertainment — a market has to be proven before investors will invest, no?

Here I’ll give my brief take on all but issues 3 and 4; I’ll (and hopefully your comments will) save Part 3 for the discussion of NL interface questions.

 
Answer 1) How do you achieve satisfying richness of non-linear real-time generation of interactive stories?

Any richly non-linear interactive story implementation will involve breaking down the narrative into lots of little pieces of some sort. A large number of those pieces will always be needed, because by definition, richness requires a great deal of variety and quantity of content. (In any one play-through of the interactive story, perhaps only a fraction of the total amount of available content is experienced, but the system needs a very large pool of potential story content to choose from.)

Although Façade is comprised of 2500+ behaviors employing 5 total hours of voice-recorded dialog snippets, it didn’t add up to enough beats to achieve a satisfying richness. This was primarily because of how long beat behaviors took to author — not a function of the nature of beats per se, or how the architecture as a whole is designed. Of course we intended to create much more content for Façade, but we got bogged down on how long it took to make good beats, and had to cut many beats we hoped to make.

The solution for The Party and future projects is three-fold. One, create authoring tools to speed up the authoring of beats and their behaviors; we’re doing that now. Two, build as much of the experience as we can in a simplistic text-bubble version, requiring all of the AI and dialog to be implemented but almost none of the animation — roughly equivalent to writing the screenplay for a movie before it’s shot/animated. This should allow for more rapid authoring. Three, put more people on the team than just me and Michael!

Once you have lots more content, your architecture and authoring process need to be able to handle it all, and work with it well; so far, we think our architecture can do this.

A longer-term solution for creating lots of content is to procedurally generate beat and behaviors themselves; that way you can have an order of magnitude more available for the system to choose from. This is long-term R&D work, it could take decades really. (Currently our architecture doesn’t procedurally generate beats, but does procedurally generate sequences and intermixing of beats.)

 
Answer 2) Can the player affect the generation of the story in significant, meaningful ways? I.e., is satisfying agency possible?

This is the most important issue of all; agency is the holy grail of interactive stories. Get this right and it can go a long way towards forgiving any other problems in the system. I’ll spend the most time in this post on this issue.

Agency in Façade was spotty; the level of agency varied throughout the experience. Façade gave more local plus global agency than perhaps any interactive story I’d played in the past, but that’s not saying much. I think many would agree that overall, Façade did not give satisfying agency. There are several reasons for this.

One, an interactive story needs a very rich pool of story content to achieve agency, and Façade didn’t have that. We hope to fix that in The Party, as described in Answer 1 above.

Two, to have agency, the system needs to understand what the player is saying, in order to respond meaningfully. Façade doesn’t always understand the player properly; in Part 3 I’ll discuss those issues (issues 3 and 4 above), and potential solutions.

Three, even if the system understands you perfectly, to achieve agency the player needs to be able to understand what effect they’re having as they act. The system needs to give clear and immediate feedback about how your actions changed the state of the story/game. I agree with my friend Katherine Isbister when in an interview she said Façade doesn’t give clear feedback. (She was too kind to say “that’s not necessarily a bad thing”.) In Façade, too often the player says something to the characters and gets a response, without a good understanding why they said that back. This was most noticeable in the second half of Façade, when Grace and Trip face off on opposite sides of the room (what we call “the therapy game”). Though, overall, it was much better than the status quo of chatterbots.

Why wasn’t feedback better in Façade? (Again, assuming the system understands the player properly.) The subject matter of our drama hampered us here. In a psychological drama, the game state the player is manipulating is a heterogeneous collection of the characters’ attitudes, feelings, awareness, knowledge and so on. These are very difficult to fully and completely express back to the player in a naturalistic way. Naturalistic interactive drama, that we were striving for in Façade, by definition has no sliders, bar graphs, or HUDs to show the player an information display of internal state of the characters’ minds. (One reason The Sims succeeds as a game with decent feedback is that you can see bar graphs of the characters’ state changing as you act; simultaneously, that’s one of the big reasons The Sims fails as compelling interactive drama, IMO.) In Façade we attempted to give feedback of Grace and Trip’s relatively complex cerebral state by way of dialog, facial expression and gesture, but it often was not enough, or not clear enough; it’s difficult to pull off, while avoiding the writing being too “on-the-nose“.

(In real-life as well, it can be very difficult to understand what effect you’ve had on someone’s internal state when you’re speaking with them. But, this is drama, and our characters should have license to communicate in more efficient ways. Good writing, in any dramatic medium, does this without seeming forced or unnatural.)

One solution to the feedback problem, that we’re pursuing with The Party, is to reduce the complexity going on inside the head of any one character, and spread that complexity among a greater number of slightly simpler characters. Also, make the story more action-based in general, and less cerebral; when the player acts upon a character the effect is more noticeable in their physical action, not just a change inside the mind and relatively subtle facial/body expression. In other words, don’t build a purely psychological drama, build a more soap-opera-like comedy-melodrama.

 
Answer 3) How well did the NL interface work?
Answer 4) Can the failures be improved?
Answers postponed till post Part 3.

 
Answer 5) is Façade‘s un-funness endemic to interactive drama?

That’s easy: of course not. A drama about a marriage falling apart is probably bound to be more uncomfortable and less fun to play than a comedy-melodrama about a collection of over-the-top characters partying, seducing and manipulating one another. Next question.

 
Answer 6) can you have non-photorealistic characters that don’t look crude?

First, I don’t think Grace and Trip look crude. Sure they are flat-shaded, and don’t have a lot of detail, but I think they look great, nicely matching the alternative-comic look I was going for, and their faces are more expressive than any I’ve seen in any game (although their body animation is weak; this can be greatly improved with an animation staff).

Ask me right now, I’d say I think it makes sense for The Party and future products to avoid hyperrealism, and to continue rendering the animation in a non-photorealistic style of some sort — though, the hyperreal HD game trailers of late (1 2 3) are very seductive, I have to admit. That said, I want to see more richness and detail in any non-photorealistic look of our future projects. (One nice thing about taking so long on the AI side of things is that more animation tools and technologies become available over time, as well as an increase in the speed of player’s hardware! :-)

 
Answer 7) How can you fundraise for a product that proclaims to innovate a new genre of interactive entertainment — a market has to be proven before investors will invest, no?

It’s tough. (The Atlantic Monthly article suggests we’ve already raised money for the project; we haven’t. The $2MM deal mentioned in the article was actually to a deal to work to fundraise that budget — and, we’ve since moved on from working with those particular producers.)

Basically, you have to make a convincing case that your product will sell well, and you have to find investors willing to take a chance. Even though we got incredible press and close to half a million downloads for Façade, as a prototype of a commercial product, Façade is is no slam dunk for proving the viability of The Party, for two reasons. It doesn’t work well enough (issues 1-4) to totally prove this will fly; a case has to be made for how our in-the-works improvements will get us to a solid product-level, and/or build a new prototype actually demonstrating it. Two, the thematic nature of Façade (issue 5) doesn’t give an investor simple proof we can make something fun, although that shouldn’t be too hard to make a good case for (write new sample scripts, make an animated trailer, etc.), and my track record with Petz helps too.

While I hope we’ll be able to raise the full budget up front, it could be we can only raise a small amount at first, with which we’ll use to build a good playable short prototype of the The Party, proving solutions for issues 1-5. With that prototype we’ll then raise the remaining full budget.

(To answer Kenneth’s question from Part 1 whether we’re focused on making stories/games versus licensable technology: we’re primarily focused on making stories/games, but are open to licensing the technology if we can justify the time and expense.)

39 Responses to “New Interactive Drama in the Works (Part 2)”


  1. Ian Wilson Says:

    On the last 2 points;

    6. The characters did not look crude, like you I think they pushed the envelope in terms of expression. This is what is important for drama and as such I think you should stick with it. For me the look did not detract from the experience.

    7. A few thoughts: If your funding target is $2MM then you are probably out of reach for most Angels (unless it is a group) and into Series A VC territory. While selling a ton of units is of course great, a VC wants to know primarily how they are going to get their money back with a nice return within a shortish time frame (perhaps 5 years). This means an exit event, either an IPO or more commonly these days M&A.
    If you are looking for $2MM at Series A then that will likely translate to around 20% of the equity in your Company, assuming standard VC metrics, your investors would be looking to cash out to the tune of $20MM within 5 years or so, valuing the Company at perhaps $100MM. So how to get from $0 to a $100MM exit in 5 years? That is a lot of sales.
    For most VCs scale is a major driver of valuation and with half a million downloads of Facade you have shown that it is possible. That for me would be the key. But while Facade was free an investor will want to know how this scale can be monetized and if it means charging for the product then you are back into not well proven territory (although I think the Sims shows that the market is there, albeit for a somewhat different product). To many investors now scale means online or web based (I notice a new company made up of former Blizzard members just raised $18.5MM for online games). I am not sure what platform you are aiming for but if it was web based, free and monetized then I think that would make for a more attractive investment opportunity. It would include scale, user engagement, interesting monetization capabilities much like TV and would make the Company attractive to a wide range of active acquirers (though I am sure this is not your primary aim).
    Your exposure to date will be your foot in the door and I am sure you will use that to the full. Interestingly I recently saw a VC panel in which almost all of the VCs (except a representative of the Band Of Angels) flatly stated that they make zero investments in companies that are not introduced to them by their own contacts. So it is essential that you know who personally is interested in this sector and that you can network like crazy to get your business ideas in front of them (by being referred by their contacts).
    I am sure you have thought through all of this already but I wanted to throw out a few ideas anyway. Who do you see as your investor targets?

  2. Patrick Says:

    That was a fun interview.

    1) I’m personally interested in exploring emergent models of dramatic interaction, particularly because they can be prototyped more rapidly and produced more cheaply than generative models. I do think you’ve answered your question well here.

    2) I agree that a cognitive mechanic will amplify its recombinance (and therefore affective agency) when disseminated through a social body. Or, Agency = Cognitive x Social.

    3, 4) I’ll wait until you post to comment more thoroughly, but I think theres a real entertainment value in social ambiguity, in awkwardness, in “ice skating”, especially when the social participant lives external to the situation, as in a player of a drama game. Your problem is making that more forgiving, maybe you could take a principle from casual game UI design. More when the time comes.

    5) Lots of folks have been poking around at alterntatives to fun (like Warren Spector, now there’s someone who might be able to spearhead your financing) and I think the framing of this question is problematic in that sense. You’ll likely have more leverage with indie film guys going for a “compelling” experience versus a purely (or puriley) entertianing experience.

    6) You need better light shading, more tone blending, but I think if you leverage 2008 middleware you can achieve a strong stylized look.

    7) I think your odds are much better with angels, or with unconventional publishers. Personally, I stopped hoping out on angels funding wild project ideas three months ago, its just not tenable way to do business. Think of it this way, publishers already have the VC funding to fund you, they’ve done most of the work for you, and they know the market. Have you considered scaling down your budget to below 1MM and then pitching a casual publisher? I’m sure PlayFirst would be warm to at least talking with you, though 2MM is probabably out of their reach. PopCap spent 700K on Bookworm Adventures and just greenlit a 750K budgeted game. There is strong market overlap, and the marketing apparatus is already in place. Plus in the casual space downloads already fit into established metrics of conversion rate: if your game had a 2% conversion rate (which might be expected considering its towering differences from the rest of the market) your 500,000 downloads translate into 10,000 sales. That doesn’t sound like much, but thats coming from a developer website; if Facade were a sell-able product distributed widely through portals it could generate many times the number of downloads and sales. You can make that case.

    Start considering ways to re-factor your production budget. For instance, if your company is virtual, you can modulate all your personelle costs based on materials, rather than on a monthly burn rate. You can cut out a few hundred K by leveraging the singular prestige of this project and recruiting your content creation staff based on royalties. For instance, if you can predict you’ll need 180-200 beats, you can set aside 20% of the royalty share for external content contributors (which you can hand-pick and screen) and give the incentive of 1% of developer royalties for every 10 beats created. This is roughly the way things were done on PwF (which you can read about at Only A Game) and it worked well. You could also work with an offshore outsourcing firm or development house to get your assets produced, cutting down on your art/animation budget by 15-40%, depending on who, where, and what you need.

  3. drdon Says:

    Great thoughts. Some of mine:

    1. Are there any VCs interested in funding content development? Even with a solid business plan backed by good marketing research, it’s really hard to find them. Most are interested in who’s gonna be the next google, youtube, myspace, etc. So it does make sense to go to casual publishers. Although research them well. I doubt if Playfirst would be interested but there are some that might be. Those that are doing well and could take on something they perceive as high risk perhaps.

    2. The characters. The characters didn’t have much character. I’m not trying to be glib. But think of characters in movies, tv, cartoons, games. You don’t have to be realistic but you do have to give characters strong personality in their appearance. That starts with how they look. The Simpsons and King of the Hill come to mind among many many types of relatively non-realistic looking characters that you can identify with and grow to love. I don’t see that possibility with Trip and Grace. Their look is mundane and non-descript. They could be anyone. There’s nothing about their look that says anything about who they are other than a typical youngish couple. Their look doesn’t really have much “character” and it doesn’t make the player care about them. Characters in fiction need to be extraordinary.

    3. Your ideas are awesome. But I think you need someone who has entertainment in their bones as well as in their brains. Funders need to believe that this is gonna knock people’s socks off. Since you are not in the same world as best selling novelists or best selling games, it’s gonna be a tough sell.

    4. Are you using any phrase concatenation techniques in your beats? Or is each beat a complete sentence or thought? With good voice actors, breaking sentences down into phrases that can be concatenated on the fly can create a lot more possibilities.

    5. I don’t think the problem with Facade is necessarily a feedback issue. I think the biggest problem is the lack of a reward system for the player. Once you get past the novelty of the experience, there is no success or failure that compels you to keep playing. It isn’t addictive. Games, novels, tv, and entertainment in general is about being addictive like a book you can’t put down. Facade didn’t have that. There was no feeling of what will happen next (as in a novel or movie, and no feeling of mastering a skill like in a game. Have you checked out Line Rider? That’s addictive.

  4. Patrick Says:

    Trying to do my part.

    I agree that the character design needs to be racheted up for this one, and it needs to have more pop energy. You could learn from some of the cream of the casual, such as GameLab’s titles, or some of the stuff I’ve been producing lately. ;)

  5. Richard Evans Says:

    I really like your proposal for The Party. Here are some comments on the issues you raise:

    Issue #2: Satisfying Agency

    Agency isn’t just about knowing what your choices are, and knowing what the consequences of those choices are. It’s about knowing what long-term goals are available to you, choosing one, and using my short-term choices to drive towards it. The main long-term goals I pursued in Facade were, on different occasions: Trying to get chucked out, trying to go as far as possible with Grace, trying to split up Trip and Grace, trying to get them to reconcile their differences. (There may well be others, I might have missed some). Some local choices I made (e.g. which drink to choose) didn’t contribute to any long-term goal.

    I don’t think that quality of agency = local + global agency. I think that global agency is what should be maximized (which means the number of distinct end-states), and local agency is only interesting in so far as it moves us towards a distinct long-term goal. Local choices which do not move towards a distinct global goal are just froth.

    Maximizing the set of distinct goals the player can achieve is the way to maximize agency. One way to significantly increase the set of distinct goals is to make them have predicate-argument structure, so you can aim to humiliate(x), or get-off-with(y). Now the number of available distinct goals is number-of-predicates * number-of-agents. (If the predicates are two-place, e.g. we can aim to encourage-enmity-between(x,y), then the set of distinct goals increases to number-of-predicates * number-of-agents * number of agents).

    There is an “output-information-symmetry” ideal requirement on interactive agency which Chris Crawford has emphasised. In the listen-think-talk cycle of interactivity, ideally the information size of the player’s communicative output would be the same as the NPC character’s. In Facade, there was a big asymmetry (partly because of the decision to move to first-person perspective): You could see the other character’s facial responses, but couldn’t see your own. But also, you could hear the other characters, but couldn’t hear yourself. They could say a very large variety of things, all of which you understood, but you could only say a few things which they could understand. (This is one of the things The Sims gets right,
    the amount of information sent by player characters is just the same as NPCs).

    Issue #3: use of natural language

    Natural language creates a huge gap between the player’s expectation and the reality – this inevitably creates disappointment.

    Use of natural language in Facade was (imo) over-ambition which served to lessen the perceived quality of the other areas where Facade really innovated. In an interactive product, you want to innovate in one or two core areas, and be massively risk-averse in the others. Your core areas of innovation are the drama manager and the scripting environment for creating beats. This is enough risk already. If i was an engineer in 1900, trying to create a flying machine i wouldn’t also try and make it waterproof and roomy enough to hold a wedding reception.

    You write “Façade attempts to allow the player to speak anything they like to the characters”. This is strictly speaking untrue – Facade allows you to *type* anything you like to the characters, but most of it isn’t *spoken* to them, because they mostly don’t understand what you are saying. It allows you, for a brief moment, to *think* you can speak anything you like, but when you realize the (inevitable) limitations of the natural-language comprehension, it leaves you feeling disappointed. Psychologically, you want your player’s “Ooo-Wow” feeling to slowly increase over time, not to be unsustainably high for the first 4 minutes, and then tail off.

    Issue #4: replacing natural language with highly contextual menu choices

    I would prefer menu choices to the feeling of being lost in the world of natural language input.

    Menu choices become less limiting when they are massively contextual: the options available should depend on the (various, overlapping social contexts you are in): if you have made a faux-pas, your options include “Apologize”, “Turn it into a joke”.

    (The argument for natural language over menus is: with menu-based interaction options, the player can see the boundaries of the system. This is true, but the player *wants* to see the boundaries, so his next choice can actually be an informed decision!)

    Issue #5: theme and tone

    I really like your plan to change the tone from Facade’s feeling of Unheimlich, to a lighter tone of melodrama and comedy. Comedy is a great way of covering up the (inevitable) limitations of the AI. Interactive fiction is in its infancy, and should use all the tricks that an infant artform needs in order to shuffle about. Silent films used to over-exaggerate every emotion so they could be sure the player would get it, even if that meant the characters seemed slightly foolish and comic. This is a tradeoff you should not be afraid to make.

  6. Nicolas Szilas Says:

    Here are my comments on some of your issues:

    Issue 1:

    “Any richly non-linear interactive story implementation will involve breaking down the narrative into lots of little pieces of some sort”
    –> I agree.
    “A large number of those pieces will always be needed, because by definition, richness requires a great deal of variety and quantity of content”
    –> I don’t agree.

    Because richness can also be created by the combination of a small amount of content. Here comes generativity…

    I find it always unsatisfying, from a conceptual point of view, that you want more and more content with Façade. In a way, you meet the same problem as basic branching hypertext (sorry for the comparison…): imagine the size of the hypertext you could produce with the same authoring effort that you want for The Party… I am not trying to promote simple hypertext (this is more an analogy than a recommendation) but I want to illustrate what I consider one of the main issue in Façade as a generalizable model of Interactive Drama.

    So, with The Party, I would encourage you to think hard of mechanisms to generate more with less content.
    It is more risky, but in the long term, it is the solution… even if you consider this as “long-term R&D work”.

    Issue 2:
    Your answers are ok, but in a way, you do not really answer the issue, certainly because the current beat approach does not allow global agency.

    Global agency would occur if an action of the player would not only be immediately understood, but also explicitely refered to, later in the game. This seems reasonable to try to incorporate such mechanisms in the new architecture.

    A remark about local/global agency: Global agency is our main goal, but global agency without local agency is not compelling. This is clearly one of the problems I have with my current demo.

    Issue 6:
    The crudeness of Façade is only related to the budget you had. People are just comparing Façade with non comparable products. But please keep the non-photorealistic characters!

    Waiting for the part 3…

  7. Ian Wilson Says:

    Perhaps you could also share more details of your overall objectives? What do you want from the business?
    Again, in relation to funding, this can help to narrow or widen options. In particular is your focus on the platform (technology), the content or both?

    As Patrick also mentions if you could reduce your funding requirements to below $1MM then it opens up many more opportunities, or certainly makes them easier to achieve. Depending on your level of desire to retain full control (both creative and IP) you could leverage the talents of the community to help you. This is another strong value you have I think, you have a great deal of goodwill and support behind you. There are many people in the community who would be willing and able to contribute to the overall success of this endevour. As an example, if your focus was on developing the core technology platform and tools then it might make sense to make those widely available to content developers to develop their own content. Conversely if you were more focused on content creation it might make sense to open source, in a managed way, the development of the tools required. both of these approaches would reduce your own burn rate.

    Another option, that the serious games guys will be familiar with, would be to take a more eliptical path to your goals by using your technology platform to build “serious” content such as training and education. While this is not exactly what you would like to work on ideally it can mean you are earning revenue while developing your core platform. I notice Zoesis did the same thing and your technology and content could have many applications for Military training (see DoD SBIR program that pays $50 – 100k over 6 months for a phase I feasability study and then $750k over 2 years for a phase II working system). Again, the funding requirements have to be lowered somewhat here but if you can do that then there are a number of similar options (mainly government sponsored) for a novel technology like yours if it is focus on “serious” applications. Of course you can also then be working on your own chosen content in parallel.

  8. andrew Says:

    Thanks everyone for their comments. At this momemnt I have time to reply to your design and technology comments (mostly Richard and Nicolas’); later today or this weekend I’ll reply to the various business and financial comments (mostly Ian W.’s and Patrick’s). (Richard, I’ll wait till Part 3 of these posts to reply to your comments on the NL interface and “output-information-symmetry”. And Patrick, thanks for all the proselytizing of Façade you do.)

    First, regarding Richard’s point about agency being “about knowing what long-term goals are available to you, choosing one, and using my short-term choices to drive towards it”. True, and the various goals you pursued playing Façade were all ones we supported, minus the going far with Grace one — we ran out of time to implement that. The Party will explicitly support many more player goals, most of which can be applied to any character, to various effects (effectively implementing the predicate-argument method you describe).

    However, like in Façade, with The Party we don’t plan to tell the player the precise list of various supported long-term goals, other than a few hints on a hint page. I prefer the context of the story itself to suggest what goals are pursuable, and as a player, strongly prefer not being told what I’m supposed to do. (Actually, there will be an ostensible goal given to the player at the beginning: keep the party running smoothly, like a good host should — but that’s the goal meant to be broken, of course.)

    Now, some players felt lost playing Façade, didn’t know what to do. I interpreted that as a product of two things: one, primarily, Façade‘s insufficient agency. If agency was better, what goals were supported would have been all the more obvious and clear. Two, Façade was a pretty awkward situation, and while perhaps compelling to some players, was a naturally confusing situation, i.e. what exactly am I supposed to do when people argue in front of my face? Versus, a party with more overt, extroverted, even action-oriented behavior that should be easier to jump into.

    Does anyone think being more explicit in communicating what player goals are supported would improve the player experience? If so, how do you propose to keep the experience naturalistic, or would you sacrifice that a bit?

    On another topic, Nicolas highly recommends more generativity. I totally agree, but, in the short-term (this commercial project), we’ve opted to do little R&D and try to make a product with only incremental improvements in our existing techniques. We do achieve some generativity now when beats intermix with each other; you get some nice combinatorial / emergent effects from that.

    Nicolas suggests that global agency requires that later events refer back to earlier events. Yes; we explicitly tried this in Façade, when near the end Grace or Trip recapitulates some of what’s gone on since the player arrived (I remember Richard particularly appreciated that when he first played Façade). In Façade and with The Party, we keep a running episodic memory of what’s gone on so far, with internal functions to allow beats to do some basic reasoning and summarization of what’s gone on so far. Beats can use these tools to allow the characters to make remarks about what’s gone on so far, to get to this point in the story. For example, if your wife leaves you at the end of the party, a character could say “Well maybe you shouldn’t have flirted with her sister!” (Of course, to pull this off we’d have to pre-record a large array of dialog that match the potential results of this reasoning / summarization; in fact, just knowing what to pre-write for this will probably require a good deal of playtesting, just to best understand what kinds of events tend to lead to what.)

    Nicolas is very correct that players want local agency, to keep them interested and immersed.

    Regarding drdon’s comment about needing stronger characters; sure, the stronger and more distinct the characters, the better. Grace and Trip were somewhat nondescript, but if you think about, that’s partly what their characters called for — they’ve been living this life trying to seem like the perfect yuppie couple. (Nonetheless, they could have been more distinctive.) And, yes, we’re already doing some phrase concentation in their dialog.

    Regarding drdon’s comment “you’re not in the world of best selling games”, actually, before Façade, I was a designer and engineer on several hit games, that sold millions of copies worldwide. Entertainment is in my bones; to the extent Façade was a success was partly the result of that experience. That said, I do think The Party will benefit from working with some professional writers, who have the talent to write exceptional dialog.

    drdon’s comments about Façade lacking a reward system is a good one. That’s correct, in the sense that there were no explicit rewards given in Façade like glowing rotating golden coins, or a score, or annoucements of explicit levels that you’ve reached. Partly that’s because we want interactive drama to be naturalistic in presentation. Yet, of course we do want playing interactive drama to feel rewarding. Interactive drama should implement this by way of the events you cause being very interesting, and requiring a some ingenuity to achieve. The Party will offer players far more explict event outcomes than Façade did — partly the product of its more extroverted nature, and partly because it will have more content, and therefore more rewarding events to offer.

    Does anyone think even more explicit rewards, like prizes or achievement-annoucements of some sort, would improve the player’s experience? If so, just as I asked with explicit goals, how do you propose to keep the experience naturalistic, or would you sacrifice that a bit?

    Happy Chanukah!

  9. nick Says:

    Does anyone think even more explicit rewards, like prizes or achievement-annoucements of some sort, would improve the player’s experience?

    You could just keep a running count of how many phone numbers have been collected.

  10. Patrick Says:

    I think I’ve figured out a way you can finance this:

    1) cut costs to the 1.2mm to 1.6mm range, using techniques Ian and I have suggested.

    2) develop a demo you can use to broker a deal with DoubleFusion for dynamic ad-placement of in-game objects (you’re cringing I suspect, but its really possible to make it work for the game, rather than against it, if you sprinkle some post-modernisms into your comedy, which is about where the contemporary audience is at anyway.)

    3) use the same demo to broker a deal with a casual publisher willing to fund you in the high six figures, on the terms that you’ll be covering 50-65% of the budget through ad-placement revenues.

    The “demo” in question could very well be Facade, so if you can stomach potential compromises, your next move is really to get moving on these business deals.

  11. andrew Says:

    Okay, onto the business issues. First of all, as you know we’re looking for a bizdev person to work with us, to help fully flush out the business plan and especially to help with fundraising. They’d have to be willing to put in time unpaid up front, as we are already doing, until funds are raised. Until we find that person, we’re learning a lot about how businesses are started and funds are raised. Admittedly business isn’t our forté, but we’re willing to put in the time, to get this off the ground. Previously I’ve been in the trenches at several startups (always as an employee, not a founder), and have gained some sense of how I would and wouldn’t want things to be structured.

    We’re seeking angel investors first and foremost. Ideally we find project-based funding, meaning that investors profit on their investment based on product revenues and content IP, like how indie film investors do — not so much as a long-term investment in the company itself ultimately profiting years later by some kind of exit strategy as Ian described. We are also talking to VC’s, who would require a long-term company-growth plan, but it’s unclear our business is big enough to interest them, even if it would end up being profitable for them.

    Who would these angels be? It’s interesting; I’ve been trying to understand who are the folks are that invest in indie films. Indie films seem like a bad investment — very risky, probably at best will break even or make very little on the investment, more likely will lose money. I’m guessing the investors do it for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons: maybe they personally believe in the project (e.g. an important documentary), or it’s just fun for them to participate, experience some of the excitement of being in the film industry, hope to sleep with actresses, that kind of thing. Not sure how desirable game developers are, though.

    In our case, we’d need to find wealthy individuals who want to see new forms of interactive story get made. Such people probably exist, but it will take work to find and woo them. It’s probably going to take a while.

    In reality I’m not sure Façade‘s half million downloads really mean much from an investor’s perspective, sadly. They’re certainly not good in terms of the casual game industry’s model: only 1-2% of downloaded casual game free demos get converted into an actual purchase! But I think comparing The Party to casual games like Bejeweled, Diner Dash or Bookworm Adventures is really apples and oranges, even though we’re targeting similar customers, for several reasons:

    – Today’s casual games are lightweight arcade, puzzle and tile-matching games. A game with deep characters, AI and a language-based play mechanic will be perceived to have more value. The Party would be a massively casual game, with about 10 hours of value (a 40-minute game, replayable 10-15 times).

    – We’re not going to create a demo with one hour of free play. Our demo will probably have 3 minutes of replayable free play — the first few minutes of a 40-minute, replayable comedy-melodrama — just enough to hook the player. So we’re already outside the normal casual games model right there.

    – We should get many, many more than only a half-million downloads of The Party, if we get it on to one or more high traffic portals, that doesn’t require BitTorrent, and especially if the demo is far more entertaining to play than Façade is.

    – Because of the nature of the product, I’m guessing our conversion ratio will be higher, more like 5-10%. Let’s say we charge $30 for the product, and manage to find a distributor who takes only $10; we profit $20 per sale. If the production budget were $2MM, we’d have to sell 100K units to break even. For each 100K sold, if the conversion rate is 5%, we’d need 2MM downloads. If the game is really good, I’d hope we could get 10MM downloads; 10MM downloads would mean $8MM profit for the investors.

     
    We have a more aggressive version of the production budget, that is actually closer to $1.25MM. But, I’ve been told it’s actually just as easy to raise $2MM as $1MM. This is why we’ve upped our budget, to the more production-comfortable $2MM. However, if need be I think we can shrink the budget to $1.5MM.

    Our overall objective is to be enabled to produce a bunch of interactive dramas and comedies, while retaining full creative control, or close to it. The technology and tools are a key part of this process and therefore are a very important part of our business plan. We can include long-range plans of how the tools could be leveraged in other ways, e.g. serious games or technology licensing, but at first, entertainment products created in-house is our primary mission. We need to generate enough revenue to make this sustainable, e.g. either to continue attracting investors, and/or become self-sustaining. We must retain the technology IP on all projects, but are willing to give up content IP, at least for the first project and maybe more.

    Based on my experience and work style, the core of the production can’t be virtual. You’re right that the community would be interested to pitch in and help, however, as much as I’d enjoy that, I’m skeptical how well that would work out. This work is too difficult to farm out and expect adequate results; also my authorship style is far closer to auteur than delegator. To ensure the highest quality I need to very closely direct the production, in-house. (A few things can be farmed out, such as environment modelling.)

    We point to The Sims as proof of a huge market for games about people, but really The Sims is something of an anomaly. There haven’t been any successful clones of it; it hasn’t created a new genre, really. It’d be interesting for someone to study why that is.

    I’ve described our Plan A, that we’ll continue to pursue unless we discover it’s not going to work. Here are some alternative plans we may switch to if needed, some of which match your suggestions above.

    – Don’t try to raise the full production budget at once; first try to raise about $300K, from a single angel. Use that to polish the tools and build a solid prototype — a minute or two of robust play. Iterate and focus test that until the test results are good, and then use that to raise the remaining full budget. One drawback I can see here is that if you do two rounds of fundraising, you may give up more equity in your company that if you did one round.

    – Do a scaled-back version of The Party as a lighter-weight casual game — still heavy on the AI and character depth, but light on animation, for a production budget $500K or so. Casual game publishers have already shown interest in us, but our production budgets are currently out of their reach. It is encouraging to hear about the $750K budget for Bookworm Adventures. (But who’d pay $30 for that game, I don’t know — even I, a Scrabble-loving Boggle player, feel I wouldn’t pay more than $20 for it.)

    – Explore a more traditional game publishing deal. Right now we’re not going for this, but we may try it.

    – Explore in-game ads of some sort. There might be a good way to integrate ads; aw hell, let’s just rename it to The Tupperware Party.

    – Do some serious games work, to get some seed funding. This would probably work, but it ultimately delays The Party by several more years I’m guessing.

    – SBIR’s. Worth a shot.

    – Art grants. May be worth a shot.

  12. drdon Says:

    Hey –

    When I said “you are not in the world of best selling games,” I didn’t mean you personally, or questioning your experience in the commercial game world. I was referring to your game concept from a corporate/publisher perspective. You are essentially creating a new genre and that’s always a hard sell. As with the creation of any new genre (and there have been a bunch to learn from), simple and clear is almost mandatory. There have been lots of successes as well as failures in games that have tried to do something different and for the first time. It’s good to know why.

    Also, I was hinting at the need for a bit of non-intellectual levity, and being something of a devil’s advocate (thanks for responding). I think the theory and ideas here are awesome and inspiring (it’s why I’m reading this thread). I also think its important to remember that this is about entertainment – whether its a novel, a movie, a tv show, or a game. What is fun and compelling about the Party? What’s the hook?

    Regarding business stuff, you said, “- Today’s casual games are lightweight arcade, puzzle and tile-matching games. A game with deep characters, AI and a language-based play mechanic will be perceived to have more value.”
    I’m not sure that’s true. Certainly a prevailing thought among casual game publishers is that the vast majority of casual game players prefer quick easy-to-learn mindless and addictive games. The largest audience for casual games is middle aged women playing puzzle games. Even my mom plays solitaire on her computer probably 1-2 hours/day. I have shown her a bunch of other games but she keeps coming back to Solitaire. Why is that?

    “- Do a scaled-back version of The Party as a lighter-weight casual game — still heavy on the AI and character depth, but light on animation, for a production budget $500K or so.”
    This makes a lot of sense.

  13. Ian Wilson Says:

    I think your figures are perhaps optimistic. Like drdon, playing devils advocate, if I were a prospective investor I would want to see comparisons to other downloaded products that scale to that level, charge that amount and convert at that rate. My primary concern would be that, to me, your core audience/user is not one that typically downloads *and pays* for games. They will be playing bejeweled perhaps but nothing much else because they are waiting for something like The Party. do you have demographic data on Facade downloads? My assumption here would be that many of the people who downloaded Facade were gamers interested, to varying degrees, in “kicking the tyres” of the next new thing. I doubt they would pay to play and I doubt they would be the core audience for The Party.

    I would want to know who exactly your audience is, right down to names and contact details of some target ones (yes I am serious, investors will do this). From that we can work backwards and determine if this audience is real or a chimera, define what these people do, what they buy and how. Then we can define a strategy that fits your target audience (as opposed to fitting the consumer to a defined strategy). The reason I mentioned a web based product is because it fits what I believe would be your potential audience. If The Party required a large download to a PC and was heavy that would loose a large potential section of the audience. It would be a very large barrier for the user, not insurmountable of course but it is wise to clearly focus on each and every potential barrier and try and find a way to eliminate them. I have heard this called “frictionless selling” meaning no obstacles between trying and buying.

    Angels would be good if you could get them. In this case I would define a strategy of targeting strategic investors, that is around 5 angels who can contribute their expertize, network, contacts and prestige in addition to between $250 – $500k each. Look at what areas the business is weak and target an angel for that area. Connections to publishers, Industry recognition, large finance network for further rounds, wealthy friends, legal expertize, marketing genius in this area. A lot of potential investors already know (about) you. I am sure everyone reading is already thinking about at least one potential.

    You probably noticed that in the first post I wrote I linked to Susan Wu of Charles River Ventures (WP eat the link though) and a couple of days after that I see that they invested in Raph Kosters new virtual world company. So VCs are looking too, but again, you would have to change your outlook to go this route and think in much bigger terms conceptually. you are right about funding size, above $1MM it is probably just as *easy* to raise $3MM (a typical VC A series is between $1 and $3MM currently).

    Clearly there are a number of exciting potential avenues to explore in terms of revenue opportunities and you need not settle on one, in fact a diverse stream of opportunities makes for a more compelling opportunity. Build a social community around the episodes and keep users involved by allowing them to share their experiences with other players, then monetize that.

    On playing:

    Some thoughts on playing, at the risk of sounding like a drama novice, you mention that some players felt “lost” and that some did not. I think this points to the need to have options for different players, like game settings, that could be as simple (though not in terms of the extra work involved) as guided/ non guided, with hints/no hints. Cater for different personality types.
    I think you always need to give the player rewards in order for them to stay engaged, this is basic human behavior (I am sure Richard can tell you all about reward and learning) It is the context and manner of reward that is important here, clearly gold coins don’t really work ;) but in a social context what does count for reward, if like me you are socially challenged you will consult your wife and she might tell you acknowledgment from other characters, perceived increase in status, learning new social skills, appreciation from others etc are all types of social reward. These types of element would be very much at home and break new ground (although I think the Sims has them too).

    Finally, The Sims, 25 million sales and no real market segment opened or clones, can someone please tell me also?

  14. andrew Says:

    What is fun and compelling about The Party? What’s the hook?

    The hook is agency plus great characters in a scenario fertile for raucous entertainment. But in simple marketing terms, a way to describe this hook could be something like: “Wine, cheese, adultery, murder… with friends like these, who needs enemies?” But all interactive drama products claim this kind of thing; see my latest post. The devil is always in the details, and that’s where any piece of entertainment like this will succeed or fail. You could give me yet another story about a group of guys trying to pull off a crime, or a boy meets girl love story — the kind of stories we’ve seen over and over — yet, they continue to be compelling if told well (in our case, played well), with something special about it. (This is true as well in the traditional gaming world; even the tired genre of shooters can be made to feel fresh.)

    The details about The Party — what will make it excel where other interactive stories fall short — are partly described in my posts here, partly kept under wraps by us, and partly in the process of being developed as we speak.

    the vast majority of casual game players prefer quick easy-to-learn mindless and addictive games. The largest audience for casual games is middle aged women playing puzzle games. Even my mom plays solitaire on her computer probably 1-2 hours/day. I have shown her a bunch of other games but she keeps coming back to Solitaire. Why is that?

    Great question. My instinct is that an interactive story along the lines of Desperate Housewives (a hit TV show that appeals to middle aged women) made “casual” — where each play-through is short, the interface is very easy to pick up, the game itself is easy to play, the characters and dialog are very good — would be something new, yet appealing. Your mom and others like her will keep coming back to Solitaire because it’s a fun simple game, and that’s totally fine; many people like something simple and fun like that from time to time. But in theory, there could be something fresh and new that she’d enjoy in addition.

    (Hey, when playing The Party, if you need a little quiet time, you can go off into a room and play Solitaire! Actually having card games or other party games in The Party are features we’re considering — true mini-games.)

    On the topic of making the interface very easy, and responding to Ian W.’s suggestion of game settings, and inspired by some suggestions others have made to us: we may want a mode of the game where navigation is very simple, perhaps Myst-like, where you single-click to travel from room to room, to avoid requiring you to use the arrow keys to navigate in 3D space (even though it’s pretty easy to do).

    Ian W. writes, I think your figures are perhaps optimistic. … My primary concern would be that, to me, your core audience/user is not one that typically downloads *and pays* for games.

    True, out of every 100 downloads casual game players make, only 1 or 2 purchase. But maybe it’s because they’re downloading Bejewkanoid 6: Bookworm’s Revenge, and are not sure this puzzle game is worth another $20? Or is it because casual game players just like to sample, and never buy?

    Again, my instinct that something fresh, compelling and, the key here, a game with real substance and agency, will raise the conversion ratio to 5%. The bet here is that quality mixed with novelty will make all the difference; that’s the risk an investor would be taking. Knowing exactly who the audience is makes sense; I think to really understand that, we’d have to focus test a solid prototype and learn who our consumers will be.

    Truth is, if the product is high quality, it’s going to include both casual players and traditional gamers. You’re right that many Façade downloaders were traditional gamers. If our audience is a mix of both, that does suggest we’ll need gameplay settings for both, as alluded to above. This is a cross-over product.

    Ian W.’s suggestion about web-based delivery is a very good one. It’s something I’ve never seriously considered, because of the technology issues involved in delivering realtime 3D in a browser, i.e., it’s not possible yet. However, I could imagine making a simplified web version of The Party (sort of like how Masq does it), yet still retaining the natural language interface. It could be the same core AI as the full realtime 3D version, with the interface webbified. In fact that theoretically could align with the lower budgets that casual game publishers could enable. It’s an interesting alternative, although now we start to chip away at the high quality bar that I believe is required to achieve significant sales… But what we lose in fidelity of the experience we may greatly open up the market, and perhaps the tradeoff is worth it, at least in terms of starting a business…

    That said, I’m not sure how much of a barrier a download and install really is for players; many casual games require a download. We got the Façade download to 167MB; The Party download would probably be more like 750MB, but we’re talking 3 years from now, when that might seem less of an issue. Also, we could potentially do something fancy where you only download the first 100-200 MB at first, and the rest is loaded in the background as you play the demo.

    VCs are looking too, but again, you would have to change your outlook to go this route and think in much bigger terms conceptually.

    It seems less likely VCs will end up being our funders, but we’ll still try pitching to them and see what happens.

  15. Richard Evans Says:

    “Does anyone think being more explicit in communicating what player goals are supported would improve the player experience? ”

    It’s great that you are putting lots more distinct goals in The Party. I myself, like you, would prefer not to be told explicitly what the goals are. Ideally, the player looks at the situation, uses his real-world knowledge to figure out the available goals, chooses one, tries it out, and, if it works, achieves that rare sense of elation that computer games are, on occasion, capable of eliciting. (Facade was certainly capable of eliciting it).

    But I wouldn’t want to be *rewarded* for achieving one of these (self-imposed) goals – I would like to be *recognized*, but recognition is different from reward. I don’t want the system to give me some lame prize, I just want to feel that someone is watching, someone is noticing, someone cares. I want to feel that the system (or ideally the other characters) are treating my character as a person, and *noticing* what he does. Reward is patronizing, schoolmarmish, and implies a difference of maturity or status between the rewarder and the rewardee. Recognition, by contrast, is a relation between equals. [c.f. the master/slave passage in the Phenomenology of Spirit, etc etc]

  16. Patrick Says:

    In brief:

    I think your instinct about conversion rates is on point, in fact other business models and audience segments – the rate of free2play game users who buy in-game items, indie hardcore gamers at Manifesto, console digital distribution channel consumers – already show conversion rates much higher than casual download-able titles.

    I think you’re being too dismissive of ad-placement. Ads are part of contemporary culture, so including them in a game with a contemporary cultural setting can certianly be conducive to your autuerism. Actually, its possible a lack of ads might detract from the impact of the game. Its up to you to balance the budget with your primary investor and negotiate a deal where you get enough money and enough creative control, a tricky balance but do-able.

    I think re-factoring your pre-production work to suite a 500-700k “casual drama” with a shorter development cycle is the best of all worlds, and would enable you to capitalize on your technoloy as middleware, and seek bigger funding for an more autuer-ish project, before the end of the decade. Faust should have had such a good option.

  17. Grand Text Auto » Haxan’s Indie Hell Says:

    [...]
    Haxan’s Indie Hell
    by andrew @ 2:21 am

    As we’re talking about the challenges of getting a commercial indie production off [...]

  18. Ian Bogost Says:

    I’ve been meaning to get around to commenting on this thread for some time, but I’ve been busy, and distracted, and to be honest a bit unsure about exactly what I wanted to say in response. Rather than comment on Andrew’s answers above, I’ve decided to pose a number of rather strong devil’s advocate-style questions. Some of them are probably unfair, but I think some unfair questions would benefir this discussion. So here they are.

    (1) The rhetoric of your pitch focuses on making a Façade-like interactive drama, but a bigger one. More characters, more agency, more interaction, more generativity, more animation, “massively casual.” Why bigger? Why not make a smaller interactive drama, having more in common with the short film, the sketch act, the prose poem, or a similar form? The answers already provided make it seem like the justification is a commercial one, but I think that it’s really a decision driven primarily by aesthetics, not by business. I’d like to see you admit this so we can stop pretending that the aesthetic decisions have business motivations at their foundation.

    (2) One of your questions asked what options there are for financing projects like this. However, the responses seem to make it clear that your minds are really set on independent, project-based financing in the $1 to 2MM range. The “concession” in this thread was the possibility of a “lighter weight” $500k option. I think even this figure might be irrationally large. There are a lot of comparisons and justifications made here in relation to the casual games market, but $500k in that space is an ENORMOUS budget. The largest-ever $700k budget mentioned above for Bookworm Adventures was put up by a very large casual games publisher for a new version of a proven title. Even those folks having success at project-based indie financing for casual games have a much more proven track record.

    I think of gameLab, for example, which is raising much, much less than you are talking about ($100-200k) via this method based largely on their proven record selling literaly millions of copies of casual games. Diner Dash sells for $20, 1/3 less than the retail price you suggested above for The Party. “Standard” downloadable royalty rates start at 20%, and don’t get better than 60% under the best of circumstances, still short of your 100k break-even estimate. You’re also estimating a 5x average conversion rate on downloads with no real justification for it.

    What makes you think the numbers you’re talking about are even remotely reasonable from a business perspective, for anyone save the idealistic or “hobbyist” arts benefactor?

    (3) I don’t think you really answered the question about what Procedural Arts’ principle goal is. Is it to make consistent money as a business to provide a first income for you, and a supplementary income for Michael? Is it to provide an idealistic antedote to games innovation, even if that means a more informal, on-and-off development strategy? Is it a creative outlet for otherwise occupied professionals? You seem to reject the strategies I would first think of for developing a business (consulting or fore-hire work, in-game ads), which makes me think that idealism is the primary goal. But you also have a budget that accounts for full-time work, which makes me think income is the primary goal. What makes you think you can have both (or all) of these things at once, right out of the gate?

    I might point out that my indie studio, Persuasive Games, has spent over three years getting to the point where we’re doing more of our own work than other people’s work. And we still do for-hire work to put money in our pockets and to fund independent titles (I sometimes call it the “Robin Hood business model”). We can cite the same numbers you can for free downloads (Disaffected! has also had at least 500k), and something probably approaching 10 million plays for our recent “Arcade Wire” newsgames, which make money for us through the preplay ads.

    From this perspective, why don’t you consider doing something fast for cash (serious games, a P&G style for-hire soap opera game, etc.) to raise $100k of no strings in-the-clear money and challenge yourselves to make a compelling, commercializable interactive drama within that budget.

  19. andrew Says:

    Good devil’s advocate questions. Before I respond, can you tell us, to your knowledge, for comparison’s sake, what the typical business model is for a standard game (hardcore) production — e.g. let’s say a $2MM budgeted game sells for $X, loses $Y to the distributor, and there for needs to sell Z number of units to break even for the publisher (investor)?

  20. Ian Bogost Says:

    Andrew — I can’t tell if you’re referring to casual/downloadable games or in-a-box PC games. I’ll try to answer for both.

    For casual games, the current baseline deal would be a publisher advancing 100-200k for development, selling the game for $20 on a 1-2% conversion rate with a 20% royalty rate. According to the casual games lore, a “A” d/l title sells ~80k copies. A “AA” title sells ~130k copies. And a “AAA” title sells ~190k copies. One complexity here is that individual portals sometimes take out different costs, but if you ignore that for now, a “AA” title might generate 520k in total royalty revenue, minus the advance, so figure 300-400k in profit best case. Of course, if a developer their own development funding to the table, then they can negotiate a higher royalty rate. However, many portals use the advance as a way of insuring that they can influence the development to insure perceived success (not always a bad thing, or a good thing). So it’s always give and take. If you assumed a 50% royalty rate on “AAA” numbers, that’s what… $2MM or so, which is the number you started with. So the way I see it, d/l break even on a $2MM investment requires “AAA” success with a consistently higher negotiated royalty, or roughly double those sales at a more modest royalty rate (say 30%). I’m not sure how easy it would be to negotiate the higher royalties. I think the main advantage bringing one’s own development cash to the table would provide is the ability to keep all the IP — the portals usually make developers hand all that over to get the advance.

    However, all told a d/l games portal might convert 1% of their monthly visitors across all their games. As a developer, the trick is getting well featured at a portal so your game(s) are more frequenly sold when a game is sold. For reference, I pulled the following monthly unique visitor traffic (approx) from the top five portals (via the IGDA casual games listserv)

    Yahoo! Games: 20.9 million
    EA Online: 14.6 million
    AOL Games: 11.5 million
    MSN Games: 10.7 million
    Real Arcade: 6.7 million

    So, if you add all those up, that’s around 65 million people. There’s probably some significant overlap, but we’ll ignore that for now and assume that 65 million people a month visit these sites, and if 1% convert then that’s 650k purchases from the top five portals, which means that a “AA” or “AAA” d/l title is the equivalent of around one week of top portal sales (of course, they don’t all happen in a week, but that’s an interesting way to think about it). So, really being a standout title is harder than it looks. The d/l market is super noisy. Of course, as you argue, your games have a much better chance of standing out.

    Ok, on to PC numbers. We’re only going to talk about PC figures, since they don’t have the complexity of console license fees. Again according to IGDA sources, developers usually get 20-25% royalty on net receipts, but the trick is what counts as net receipts. For the purposes of this response, we’ll assume the best case scenario. Ok, so assume a $2MM budget, as you suggest. I’ll treat that as an advance. The best way to negotiate royalties is based on the wholesale price, which is typically 50% of the retail price. Most publishers will also deduct cost of goods from the wholesale price (the cost of replicating CDs, printing boxes, etc.), usually $1-2. So, assume a $30 retail price for a boxed PC game, and a 25% royalty rate, and a $1.50 COGS. That’s $3.38 net per unit sold. At that rate, you’d have to sell almost 600k units to make back the $2MM. However, it’s common to negotiate a sliding scale royalty rate, which means that the royalty increases at certain sale thresholds, usually 150k and 300k. So, if you slide to 30% at 150k units, and to 40% at 300k units, then … let’s see… that’s roughly 450k units to break even. That’s a pretty damn favorable sliding scale though.

    So, those are my answers. These figures are all off the top of my head here, but I think they’re not entirely fictional either.

  21. andrew Says:

    Ian, first I’ll reply to your financials, then the other questions in a subsequent comment.

    I think we need to distinguish between a publishing deal and distribution deal. Your numbers above are for publishing+distribution deals — with the aside that if you bring your own development money, it changes the deal.

    In my estimate above, I imagined a distribution deal, not a publishing deal: “I’m guessing our conversion ratio will be higher, more like 5-10%. Let’s say we charge $30 for the product, and manage to find a distributor who takes only $10; we profit $20 per sale. If the production budget were $2MM, we’d have to sell 100K units to break even [for the investor]. For each 100K sold, if the conversion rate is 5%, we’d need 2MM downloads. If the game is really good, I’d hope we could get 10MM downloads; 10MM downloads [i.e. 500K units sold] would mean $8MM profit for the investors.

    In that estimate I’m imagining a private investor who funds development, not a publisher (not a game company); technically I suppose this is self-publishing. I’m imagining a distributor who takes 33% of $30 per sale ($10). The remaining 66% gets divvied up between the investor and us, Procedural Arts (PA); let’s assume the investor needs to fully break even before PA even sees any revenue royalties. When I said we’d have to sell 100K units to break even, I mean for the investor to break even. Let’s imagine PA gets, oh, 15% royalties computed after the distributor’s share is taken out (ie, 15% of $20 per unit). That means that for every 100K units sold beyond the initial 100K to allow the investors to break even, PA gets $300K.

    I’m going to assume digital distribution only — a reasonable assumption I think, especially since I’m imagining we’d release The Party 2-3 years from now. Therefore your boxed PC retail numbers above, in which royalties are taken from the wholesale price (50% of the retail price) isn’t a scenario I was imagining. Maybe there aren’t many cases so far of digitially-distributed non-low budget PC games (Half Life 2 being an odd exception?). That said, I could imagine an additional retail distribution deal, beyond the digital deal, which generates much less profit for PA per sale.

    In your phrase “d/l break even on a $2MM investment requires “AAA” success with a consistently higher negotiated royalty“, are you meaning break even for the publisher/distributor (the investor)? Regardless, due to the rich content, unusual nature and press-generating nature of our products e.g. The Party, I have confidence that each product would sell more than 200K units out of a pool of 65 million customers (effectively a AAAA title). This is the gamble investors/publishers would be betting on. (Again, Façade‘s modest 500K downloads isn’t a good predictor of this.)

    Do you think publishers-as-investors would give us a worse deal, in the end, than conservative private investors would?

    (AAAA — isn’t that a type of French sausage?)

  22. Ian Bogost Says:

    Actually, I don’t think we need to distinguish between publishing and distribution deals. No matter, someone has to pay for development, someone has to pay for marketing, someone has to pay for distribution (even digital distributon costs something, and just getting visitors on a site to consider downloading has considerable value).

    So, let’s say you get a private investor to front the $2mm. You still need to market and distribute the game, and for that you need the portals. They’re bringing their marketing and distribution system, as well as maybe DRM and the point of purchase, not to mention the millions of people who come to those sites. So, let’s say you negotiate up from the 20% royalty rate on account of having self-funded the development. Let’s say you negotiate up to 50% royalty. The $30 price you’re talking about is probably not going to fly for downloadables … it’s just 50% more than the average cost. So, I’m going to assume $20. That means $10 per sale, or 200k units to recoup the $2mm investment (or double your numbers). 200k, as I said before, is a “AAA” level success, and that success only seems to recoup the investment … it doesn’t profit you or the investor. That sounds like a pretty risky investment to me: basically you have to have a home run to break even. Just to be clear: when I talk about break even, I’m referring to whomever fronts the development costs.

    A true distribution deal would be something like what Manifesto Games is offering right now — they’re offering 60% royalty and you set the price, but they’re also not really marketing yet (they’re just getting started; this will change), and they don’t have nearly the traffic of the other portals (yet). They do offer nonexclusive deals though. Still, to get the numbers you’re talking about, you need serious traffic, and I don’t know if the promise of press and richness is enough to hook investors at that level of commitment. You’d also need the distribution/marketing plan to get the investors on board in the first place, so there’s a potential chicken/egg problem.

    I think I agree that a retail PC distribution deal might not make sense, but you should consider talking to the folks at, say Activision Value Publishing. They do a good job with the titles in this range and they get them into Wal-Mart and stuff.

    I’m not trying to discourage you, but I just think the leap you’re assuming investors will be willing to take is a much larger one than you seem to think it is.

  23. Ian Bogost Says:

    I failed to answer this question:

    Do you think publishers-as-investors would give us a worse deal, in the end, than conservative private investors would?

    I guess my thought is that you can’t avoid dealing with publishers even if you also deal with conservative private investors. You could literally self-publish — this is what gameLab is planning to do, cos they’re tired of losing all the money to the portals — but that’s a whole business unto itself, and not a trivial one. And conservative private investors typically want 5-10x return, as Ian W. mentioned early in the thread… rough stuff.

  24. andrew Says:

    I agree the numbers don’t work if you can only charge $20 for the product. It’s true I’m imagining charging $30, which is more than almost all casual downloadable games cost (although Bookworm Adventures is going for $30), and yes I’m banking it’ll sell more units than most casual downloadable games do. Therefore it is a riskier investment than a typical casual game, but with potentially bigger rewards too. So we’re going to need to find an investor interested/willing to go for that.

    Essentially, we’re seeking a middle ground between today’s typical $100-200K budget AAA casual game sold for $20, and the $10-20M AAA hardcore game sold for $60. Surely there’s a sweet spot in there.

    Also, from your first comment, I agree that $500K is still an enormous budget for a casual publisher; as I mentioned above, while I found it encouraging to hear about Bookworm Adventures‘s case, it still seems the rare exception.

    Now on to your other devil’s advocate points! :-)

    Why bigger? Well, really richer is the term I’m using. To get people to pay for a product in large numbers, I do believe we need a richer experience than Façade was, not just a better-executed one, for the reasons I described in the post above. My view is, the intersection between business goals and aesthetic goals is in product quality. We need to make high quality products; the aesthetics need to be very good in order to sell copies.

    Still, regarding “bigger”, The Party I think would still be in the domain of a “short” story, at least compared to the length of time players expect from $30 games; I’m estimating it’ll have 10 hours of entertainment in it (12-15 runs, 30-40 minutes per run). Note those 10 hours will be of a different nature — denser, tighter, less repetitive — than 10 hours of 50 of grinding through levels in a typical $60 game. In fact, we think a game that takes a short amount of time to play will be good for sales, as we describe in the Atlantic piece.

    More characters than just two actually makes the design easier in some ways; each character can be a bit simpler, spreading the complexity around. (But because of the increase in richness in total, the overall content-creation will require many more person-hours.)

    From a purely aesthetic take, do I want to make “bigger” products than Façade? Generally speaking, no; I like the “short” form, right now I’m personally not interested in making dramas that are feature-length per run-through.

    I don’t think you really answered the question about what Procedural Arts’ principle goal is. Is it to make consistent money as a business to provide a first income for you, and a supplementary income for Michael?

    I do want to make this a full-time job, for at least The Party, and therefore my primary income, yes. For me personally, it doesn’t have to be consistent over the long-term; I’d be okay if the project ended after The Party was over, took a break, then tried to get another one of the ground. (However the quality of the products and ease of their production may be enhanced in the long-run if we try to keep production going continuously, to keep a production team together.)

    Is it to provide an idealistic antedote to games innovation, even if that means a more informal, on-and-off development strategy? Is it a creative outlet for otherwise occupied professionals?

    My primary goal is to work full-time on projects that interest me, and make a living doing so. Interesting products, to me, are innovative ones. Michael may have different personal goals (probably does, since he’s committed to being an academic full-time).

    You seem to reject the strategies I would first think of for developing a business (consulting or for-hire work, in-game ads)

    Actually, if you think of Procedural Arts having started in 2000 when Façade first began, my income over that period has been from for-hire work; Zoesis, USC/ICT and some freelance gigs. On average, I do part-time for-hire work, part-time interactive drama work.

    What makes you think you can have both (or all) of these things at once, right out of the gate?

    Based on the above, we’re not right out of the gate at all.

    Also I haven’t rejected in-game ads, it’s just not Plan A.

    why don’t you consider doing something fast for cash

    Did that; the for-hire gigs above essentially funded Façade; now we’re ready to raise more money. :-)

    challenge yourselves to make a compelling, commercializable interactive drama within [$100K].

    That’s Plan C or D; it may get to that, we’ll see…

  25. scott Says:

    I’ll write some dialog for free. It’ll be snappy.

    I think you just need to keep working on the project however you can.

    You need an agent of some kind, or one of those Guggenheim-type investors who will believe in the project as an art form, or for a research lab to shell out some funding for the advancement of narrative. You need to meet a visionary with deep pockets who will do the business end of it for you. You could move to LA and meet somebody at a party. I think it’s absurd to expect commercial gaming numbers for the type of project you envision, yet I also think that you could find funders who would support your work on the project for several years, and would support necessary development costs. Dreamworks. Why not? I shouldn’t be commenting at this hour, but frankly, I just think that you should be clear in your mind that what you’re primarily doing is the project. If you do something as interesting as Façade, and you release your work incrementally and consistently, I think you’ll eventually have someone picking up the phone for you to take and reject deals. But don’t bet your farm on what the street thinks of it until then. Doesn’t matter. I know a parachute of money would help the project but the project isn’t the parachute of money. The project is the project.

  26. Ian Bogost Says:

    Ok, so this has been a useful conversation I think. Essentially it confirms that at $2mm you’d need downloadable distribution/publishing at a minimum 50% royalty rate and a minimum $30 retail price, and you need to achieve casual/downloadable “AAA” success. I still have serious reservations about this plan, but if you really want to follow it, if I were you I’d start confirming that you can find downloadable distribution with those conditions in parallel with your attempts to find investors.

    All of my comments here are motivated by the fact that I’d really like to see more interactive dramas, more Procedural Arts products of any kind really. And I worry that it we may not see those works under the conditions you’re putting on them. The sweet spot between $200k and $10mm you mention is really the domain of small-budget console games, like licenced property games, heck even Wii games and big hits like Guitar Hero fall into that category. I’d really challenge you guys to think about what you could legitimately do with $150 or $200k, not as a Plan C or D, not as a crippled version of The Party, but just in general, as a constraint. Because I know you could get that kind of money easily, tomorrow.

  27. Patrick Says:

    “You could move to LA and meet somebody at a party.”

    Waaaaay ahead of you.

  28. andrew Says:

    Ian, you temptress!

    A very visually-simplified version of The Party, yet retaining all the AI and voice of the original plan, perhaps could be pulled off for around $300K, if the team members worked for below-industry wages (which is okay by me, personally). If the product was commercially successful enough, it could become the be-all-end-all of the The Party — but if we wish, it could also serve as a super-polished prototype of the gameplay, with which we could seek further funding to make a fully 3D animated version afterwards. This approach makes a lot of business sense…

    … if we can come up with compelling simplified visuals, and the interface within those visuals. First-person POV with real-time navigation, and expressive animated faces with voice, are features I don’t think we can give up. That doesn’t mean the product has to be fully 3D, but I don’t want to revert to a LucasArts style interface, or even a (better) TellTale interface.

    Façade‘s rendering technique was an approach, but it has some serious technical constraints that make that exact technique not quite feasible for The Party, which requires more physical action. Perhaps Façade‘s technique could be adapted into something more feasible though… especially the faces.

    Not that I found it a solution I’d want to use, but The Last Express had a innovative approach to this problem. You couldn’t move freely enough, it used cutscenes, etc. But a technique worth studying.

    So is South Park, really.

    Anyhow…

    Scott, yes, I’ll keep working on the project however I can, thanks for the sentiment; my current mode of working self-funded while my baby daughter naps is case in point, I think. (She turns one year old a week from today!) But there’s probably a way to get paid, without overly selling out. We’re doing more schmoozing these days, so, we’ll see what happens over time.

    We’ll try to get the ear of media moguls and “post-economic” types… Dreamworks? Actually my idol is the other Steven — Steven Soderbergh. He broke big with the low budget indie sex, lies and videotape — my favorite film, btw — and now does a mixture of commercially viable work (Ocean’s 11/12/13, Erin Brokovich) to fund his personal work (Traffic, Full Frontal, The Good German which I can’t wait to see).

    Also, I never plan to bet the farm on any one thing; I’ve seen too many cases of people starting companies, putting all their eggs in that basket, and all the work gets lost if the company dies.

  29. andrew Says:

    Patrick started a new thread on his blog, reacting to this one.

    Johnny Pi at Design Synthesis has a few answers of his own to the questions posed here.

    Looks like Gamasutra, which occasionally reports on interesting blog discussions, linked to this post about 2 weeks ago.

  30. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    Andrew said:

    More characters than just two actually makes the design easier in some ways; each character can be a bit simpler, spreading the complexity around.

    If, by “complexity”, you mean “computational complexity”, then I disagree with your statement. You can think of a given story as communicating a certain amount of information about a certain sequence of events. A writer can tell what is “basically the same” story, using some variance in the number of characters which act out the events (this works in parallel with adjusting the style of presentation, but we’ll ignore that here, focusing only on the number of characters). And try as you might, if you increase you story’s personnel, while holding all other parameters (i.e. the amount of “the rest of the information”) straight, you’ll always increase its complexity (one way of limiting this growth in complexity is by creative use of a type system, but that won’t prevent it). Any agent/actor/character you add to an interactive story will always add complexity.

  31. scott Says:

    Andrew — if you’re interested in the in-game advertising/product placement stuff you might be interested in Massive which was recently bought up by Microsoft. In a practical way, I doubt that something like that would work for your project, but it’s interesting to see how they manage to accomplish introducing advertising into games in a comparatively subtle and non-intrusive way that doesn’t break the fourth wall illusion of realism within the gameworld.

  32. andrew Says:

    Scott, I think we should start a new thread about in-game ads, maybe Part 4 of this series, after Part 3 talking about the NL interface. (Geez, when you start planning your blog posts in advance, you know you’re in trouble.)

    Dirk, of course you’re right that more characters will mean more combinations of actions and events to manage.

    However I’m not thinking in terms of “communicating a certain amount of information about a certain sequence of events”, i.e. storytelling. Rather, I’m thinking in terms of reactivity and narrative play, and letting a story emerge from the play. (Most approaches to emergent story end up falling short, because the reactions of characters in them aren’t fertile for narrative, and nothing much emerges.)

    Instead of creating a 2-3 very deep characters, I’m suggesting creating 8-10 slightly shallower characters. It’s true that overall, more behavior and dialog will need to be authored in the 8-10 character case. But the overall complexity has been broken apart and organized in a different way; each character itself is simpler, and therefore easier to implement. The overall workload increase pays off in overall increased richness.

    Another way to think about this is, an array of characters will share the burden, and work in coordinated ways, to entertain the player, instead of relying on just 2-3 characters to shoulder the burden and manage to stay fresh and interesting. More characters makes fresh and interesting reactions easier to create. Also, by spreading the work across more characters, you can get away with more inconsistency in reaction, which makes authoring easier. Again, it’s key that the reactions be narratively fertile and synergistic with one another.

    This gets to why the question posed by the Gamasutra blurb about this discussion is off-base; they said “Stern’s solution to the problems outlined by Façade is to create a large number of pieces of content with which to make up the behaviours. But is that how the problem should be tackled, or is this exactly the kind of place where generative approaches are required to create more from a few simple systems?

    They’re confused about what “content” means here. When content is a large number of very small pieces, such as individual sentences performed in different ways to allow them to be spoken in multiple contexts (varying tension, varying mood, varying status levels, etc.), and when these pieces are annotated with information about how they can be used these different ways, and the system has some basic narrative intelligence to reason about how to coherently assemble the pieces together in real-time, then we are in fact talking about generativity. The Gamasutra blurb is wrong to think that an interesting narrative can emerge from “a few simple systems”; good stories need content — lots and lots of content. In fact, as the content pieces become small enough and well-annotated for reasoning about them, they become knowledge.

  33. michael Says:

    Regarding our approach to how more characters allows us to distribute the complexity, it’s exactly related to Richard’s comment earlier in this thread:

    One way to significantly increase the set of distinct goals is to make them have predicate-argument structure, so you can aim to humiliate(x), or get-off-with(y). Now the number of available distinct goals is number-of-predicates * number-of-agents. (If the predicates are two-place, e.g. we can aim to encourage-enmity-between(x,y), then the set of distinct goals increases to number-of-predicates * number-of-agents * number of agents).

    In Facade, with only two characters, there was no need to develop generalized beats that can be applied to a number of different characters – Trip and Grace both participated in all beats (except for the one-on-ones). With 8-10 characters in the party, we now have the opportunity to develop generalized beats. A beat that structures the response of the player humiliating character x in front of character y can now be a generalized humiliate(x,y) beat, giving us a richer combinatorial space for almost the same authoring cost as authoring humiliate(trip, grace).

  34. Ian Wilson Says:

    Bearing in mind my comments about using the power of your reputation (achievements so far) and the community here, this thread (and its spin offs) has evolved into something resembling an interesting foray into community driven open sauce business strategy development.

    To further the business strategy discussion then a few more thoughts:

    “This is the gamble investors/publishers would be betting on.”

    Investors are not gamblers, they are investors. Investors make money (thats why they are rich ;), gamblers lose money, big difference. Investors are looking for opportunities at a risk/reward profile that suits their personal strategy. As an “opportunity” you need to do everything you can to reduce the risk side of the equation while increasing the potential rewards side (scale and diversification).

    “My primary goal is to work full-time on projects that interest me, and make a living doing so.”

    I am sure most of us can relate to this but it would scare an investor (again, my context here is typical angel/vc types), unless you are happy to relinquish control of leading the business. Earning a good living while doing what we love (and do without making a living anyway) is what many here strive for but it does not align well with investors who want to see big returns. Perhaps better to slightly adjust your message from “make a living” to “become market leader”…

    “Michael may have different personal goals (probably does, since he’s committed to being an academic full-time).”

    As Michael has been such an integral part of the story to date, as an investor I would want to have this clarified. Investors like 200% commitment or outside advisers. Better to clarify this sooner rather than later and what it means to the business, if you have not already done this. Friendships are best served by deciding roles and rewards before money gets involved.

    “3D in a browser, i.e., it’s not possible yet” Disagree here, it can. I have seen it in Java and I am hoping it can be done with Action Script and Flash.

    Which “segways” nicely into my thoughts on a web based delivery model. I see a number of very interesting possibilities for TP in the current context of web businesses. One is its intrinsic social nature, ideal for showing and sharing with your friends. The other is its nature as not only participation “sport” but as viewable content. TP meets YouTube meets MySpace.

    Taking a freely playable flash based TP, users visit the (heavily trafficed) TP site to participate in a episode (are you planning on having more than one human character at any one time btw?), this episode can be saved and for example embedded on your MySpace page for your friends to watch and comment on. TP becomes TV, me tv. Monetization then naturally fits the in game ad, product placement, cut ads format of TV but in a much more compelling delivery format.

    Sharing episodes creates a degree of “network effect” which could be further compounded by releasing content creation tools for creators to create content, then hosted on your site.

    Possible problems; network latency issues, web service infrastructure required (not your area?), increased development overhead

    On another track, while I am not an expert in this area, I have been thinking about Movie project financing. This seems on the surface to have an unacceptably high risk profile as an investment so I was thinking about what other intangible benefits can be gained from doing this? I would like to hear ideas about this but to me (shows how my thought process works) a big part would be status, parties and girls? The chance to get all 3 that is. That being said, and its probably wrong anyway, but TP would not be the kind of content that could offer a high “return” here, prestige perhaps but I dont think there is much of a party/groupie scene around Interactive Drama is there?

  35. Patrick Says:

    ‘“3D in a browser, i.e., it’s not possible yet” Disagree here, it can. I have seen it in Java and I am hoping it can be done with Action Script and Flash.’

    He’s right, to a limited extend. You can do vector-based 3d in Flash 9 (which also has a really comprehensive IDE, almost like Java or C#) and convert “true” 3d models done in Maya or Max to vector using 3rd party middleware. You won’t be seeing Halo on the net, but I do believe expressive, 2.5D character animation is possible.

    “That being said, and its probably wrong anyway, but TP would not be the kind of content that could offer a high “return” here, prestige perhaps but I dont think there is much of a party/groupie scene around Interactive Drama is there?”

    Indeed, this is a big pull, and why getting film producers to invest in games, even really humanistic ones, is an uphill battle. I’m moving to LA, probably rooming with an indie filmaker buddy of mine and staying tight with my musician friends, so I’ll be reveling in that scene and trying to extend the medial branch, if you will. In the meantime, you really need a strong monetary case, which is why a free-to-play, ad-supported model is more lucrative.

    I think you need to decide whether The Party is a serious, literary work, or a measured commercial endeavor to promulgate interactive drama to the masses. It might be useful for you to post on your pre-production work to this point and open it to evaluation.

    My experience is that open-source game design works to a degree.

  36. andrew Says:

    Ian W., Patrick, you’re right that “risk” is a better term to use when speaking to investors than “gamble”, although I meant the same thing. In such conversations in general, I use more optimistic language; I’ve even been known to utter the somewhat over-the-top phrase “market leader”.

    We (Procedural Arts) are also already clear on some of the things you ask about, even if they’re not perfectly articulated here — Michael’s role (key team member, part-time), the nature of the project (a commercial venture, not a “serious, literary work” per se — although I think it is possible to make a commercial product that has real artistic merit; it happens with regularity in the best movies, TV shows, novels, music, what have you.)

    Regarding the sex appeal of investing in game development, I addressed that already in my comment above (this thread is getting long, I realize it’s hard to keep track of all that’s been said…)

    Finally, regarding 3D in a browser — since Ian B.’s instigation, I have in fact spent some of my time brainstorming about this, including educating myself about what’s possible with Flash. Note all of my past projects have had 2.5D elements (Petz, Façade), so I’m very amenable to it, and I’ve got some ideas about what could work for The Party and the like. I’ll be better developing what I’ve called Plan B, probably resulting in it being presented alternately / alongside Plan A, graduating to Plan A-on-the-cheap.

    Ian W., you’re talking some pretty radical web delivery solutions there; possibly too much to load on our plate in the near-term.

    Note a few interesting quotes from a Gamasutra interview with Cake Mania developer Daniel Bernstein:
    “advertising is back “in”. As a result lots of portals are retooling their game offering to re-focus back on advertising. As a result, downloadable try-before-you-buy games have been significantly minimized in prominence on those portals.”

    “I believe the term “Casual Games” will soon be antiquated, as more people will play casual games than ever before. Casual games will be redefined as mainstream games while hardcore games will be delegated to a small subset of that audience. … [A] casual gamer is anyone who does not consider gaming as their #1 leisure activity. That’s a lot of people. It’s not the soccer mom demographic. It’s pretty much everyone except a select group of hardcore gamers.”

    “[P]roduction value is not the magic bullet, so you cannot overspend your competitors to insure a AAA title. There are plenty of opportunities for 1-2 person teams to make lots of money in this business. All it takes is some innovation and guts.”

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