Games as a Service – Do you really know what it means?

by danhon

Games as a Service – Do you really know what it means?
Thomas Bidaux

Hello – so I’ll go fast because there’s lots of things to talk about and hopefully some time at the end for Q&A.

Who am I? I’m Thomas Bidaux – I used to work for France Telecom (goa.com), then I worked at NCSoft, one of the founders of the European office, and now a founding partner of ICO partners. I’m French, apologies for the accent, I’ll try to be clear and understandable. You get what I mean.

France Telecom (goa.com) – worked here as a one man team on their MMORPGs. Then I was director at NCSoft Europe, taking games into european territories, now at ICO partners – 5 people, and doing online games in Europe. Games as a service, rather than core gameplay. I’ve been doing this since 1999, and more on the server/service side. There’s lots of things that are more important to me, but service is more important to me.

The first game I worked on was La Quatrieme Prophetie – a Canadian game licensed and taken into France. It was popular, not because it was beautiful – it was ugly – it was ugly and it was bad. It was unblaanced, lots of bugs, lots of security issues, a bad game. But a big success. It was free to play, we had a lot of logistical issues, too many people wanting to play. It was successful, because we had the best service. Lots of tools for the players to share with their friends, good environments, community, events in the game, we didn’t have a choice because it was a bad game.

Back then, it was 2000 when we added the ability to take your character sheet to a web site. Back in 2000, this was new – we have it now with the Armoury etc. We had the ability to push for more things related to the game, one of the things we did to take a bad game and give it great user experience.

Then, Dark Age of Camelot was licensed for the whole of Europe – then I managed a team, to French, German and English and it was also a big challenge. The game was much more beautiful, 3D, good graphics for the time, but we still had a service dimension. It was built around things more than core gameplay. It had realm vs realm rather than jsut pvp, so again, we had a good experience in building a good service because we had these tools the game was built for.

At NCSoft, I worked on lots of different titles, then I worked on bringing in the service. All those games, were American or Korean studios, and we would take them on board and we would build the user experience outside the core gameplay. Now, we consult at Ico, and we focus on service.

La Quatrieme Prophetie – what’s the definition of a service?

Back then, it was easy. Everything Thomas does was a service. But now I think it doesn’t really work out, we have bigger teams and higher quality. It’s improved so much that studios getting into the online space don’t realise how much work is required on the service side.

So: Wikipedia definition? 5 components: intangiable, perishable, insepratable, simultaneous, variable. A service is not a product. All those terms are related to what a service is. Intangible – a service is something you can’t hold. If you are from the console space, you can hold the game, but the game experience, you don’t hold. The game doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist when you stop playing. That’s the perishable aspect. The gameplay experience is perishable. Inseparable – you can’t separate the service from the service provider – that’s good for online games. If you don’t have the access to the service provider, then you confuse it – that’s the core of online games. If you don’t pay the subscription, you can’t play. Simultaneous: the service is consumed at the same time – you can’t separate the moment you use the service and the service. If you stopped using it, it doesn’t exist. Coexistance of playing the game and using the service. Variable: each instance is different, every game station is different.

For those definitions, a lot of normal games have features that fit in there. We don’t really commercialise games as services, but there are good benefits for considering the service offer.

Brand power: a service will be more sustainable and have the long tail effect. Productivity, sustainability, return on investment is not on a one-time sale, and risk mitigation because if you manage as a service you can focus along service points and experience as soon as you know people like that, a service is something more solid and established.

When you think about services applied to games, MMOs come to mind. Every single MMO is promoting itself as a service. ONline games in genereal, including Rock Band Network. That’s a part of the Rock Band experience. But also Team Fortress 2 has a service component. That’s how they’ve sold so many copies – they maintain a strong service, improving the content. You’d think they’d be promoting to only the people already using it, but it’s also word of mouth and ensuring success. Social games – iTunes and Android market. So even the games on those markets are not services per se, but the markets are a service. You will see more and more iTunes games and applications as services as well so that they can leverage that long-tail effect and risk mitigation. Xbox Live, PSn and Wii Channels are services. There’s that question: are all games services? Because the nature of interactive media is that they tick a lot of those five boxes. That’s true for lots of games. The digital nature, the evolutive experience.

But, most games are sold as products, like buying a book. A book is going to have an existence in and of itself. Games are digital, what you buy is the ability to play the digital experience. There’s a discrepancy there. They are sold as products, consumed as services.

The very first videogames, arcade games – they are services. Coins and play. You play, you move on. Core definition of a service.

Service is about experience. So we talk a lot about game experiences. But it’s not just about gameplay. I’m not going to talk about how to make a great game for gameplay – these things are made by developers and experts in the field. But I can talk to you everything around that that’s also part of the game experience. That’s something that’s very important, when you install a game – if the install is going to take 30-60 minutes, and you need to accept a tonne of EULAs, that’s already a negative experience. But if the initial experience is really good, it’s better for the game afterwards.

Some disclaimers: this is my definition of service, but the thing is that a lot of people have been talking about games as services and they might have something else in mind. This is how I see it.

So, account management.

I coem from a background of MMos and online games in general, so I’ll be a bit biased, all of this is true for any game. Account management is about easy account creation. When I say easily, it’s incredibly important. Every time you put up a barrier, any action she has to take, is going to lose some people. This is totally key. Everything has to be thought through. All you need to ask them is username or email. Username vs email? There are pros and cons for both. But email is really efficient. You are using the email anyway to communciate with them. Email as login is going to make it more likely to put in the right one. They are more likely to forget a username. On the other hand, someone’s less likely to guess what a username is.

It has to be ubiquitous. If a client based game requires you to go to a website, that’s losing people. You have to be able to create an account anywhere, in a client or the site. The same protocols or whatever, but the user has to find it easy.

Necessary information. What do you really, really need? Do you need to know where they live? Their postcode? Their IP address, you can geolocate. The longer the form, the more people will leave.

Example: age vs birthday. Took this from an SOE Free Realms example. Before they’d ask for birthday, you need to ask for day, month and year. That’s 3 fields in the form. And you’re talking to kid. Kids know how old they are. They all lie, but they know. If you ask their birthday, they’ll think – that month, day, year. If you’re not sure, then maybe you don’t fill it in. But what you really, really need – that’s the age. So why not ask how old are you? The success ratio when they changed it was spectacular.

In the same way, this is me registering to Free Realms, they check my IP, they pre-fill the form to the UK. If you’re not in the UK, then I can change it. But ultimately, it’s easier for me.

IN teh same sense, wheny ou ask for the information, tier it based on your needs. If what you need is a little bit, but you’d like more, then you can tier the information. When you register, the account creation, ask for the first tier. Then, later, if you give me more details, I can serve you better. I can incentivise you to give me the information. If you use LinkedIn, the 100% of profile complete, it’s that kind of thing. That’s how it should be. Huge, long form with 15 fields? No. Ask at different stages and then reward.

Do you need to own the account system and the management? Now there are alternatives. You can use the Facebook social graph and use their system. Have them ask all the questions and do one-button to join the game. There’s good things about owning the information, but if you’re starting, you have to pick your battles and choose what you want to fight. Lose psosibly complex systems that are difficult to make sexy. You can use OpenID or Facebook.

Managing the accounts

This is more important than you can imagine. They want to know what information they share with you, you want them to be able to change it. You want it to be accessible. From a security point of view, being able to make the information up to date is important. Easy to find, and to have good image, having control of information.

Account types

Another thing that’s interesting is tiering the account rights and different types. Normal accounts that can normally play. Internal accounts for support, QA, developers. You need to flag these specifically so you can track and log. You want to be able to comp accounts for journalists, friends, whatever. It’s important to track these specially, separately as well. Even more interestingly, you need to create a definition of trial accounts. If you are planning to have an online game and part of it to be accesible to anyone at any point, then this is an account type that will be abused by people. It can be people farming gold, trading gold, but it can also be people bitching, stalking, harassing. There are features you’ll have to think about – what can people do with a trial account, can they talk to anyone, trade with anyone? You’ll want to give limits and have flexible limits so you can react quickly.

Localisation

This is present for any game. Not new for games as a service. But services as a notion – you provide the game in a language. This is something that for quality it’s important for perception of users. [Fire extinguisher captioned as Hand grenade] Bad translation also happens in French and English. For the user, it’s important. It’s easy for them to spot the mistakes. If it’s easy to avoid, they’ll think it’s low quality. A good localisation is not much more expensive than a bad one. This is Auto Assault – the first German version, made by the develope rin the US, used Google Translate to do the whole game. It was a trial. No one ever saw this, it’s internal. This is the original English – this is Miss – but then it becomes Fraulein. Most fun we had with a localisation ever.

Sometimes localisation is mandatory. Like payment systems, account creation, etc. But it’s always appreciated. You buy a lot of goodwill when you localise and when you go the extra mile. It also defines your service offer. You localise all the text, but you also create an expectation on the service part. When you provide localisation, you don’t just translate the game, you think about everything else that surrounds it and how it’ll be managed in those languages.

Customer support, community management, account management, websites, payment processes, communication etc. All things that need to be localised.

Studio responsibilities

There’s lots of things you can do. You can design for localisation, and not hardcode it. You can consider it and integrate it into the content creation process. Work with vendors so you can tell them what you need. Budget for develop time. One client and multiple languages. Different langugaes and functional compatibility. Talk about the same thing. Localisations have to be playable. It can break a game in ways you don’t expect. Kill a monster 15 times for a localisation bug.

Culturalisation. Seasonal events, things like that. There’s a new playfish game, they’re having a Bastille day/week. But they’re still doing that.

Open Localisation
For all the langauges you can’t do, why not open it to the community to do for you? Why not give the source files to the community?

International service set up
When you design your offer, you need to consider how you can have different instances working with each other, or one giant offer everyone connects to? Or one European one and one US? Can you port from one to the other? All this stuff is very high level, doesn’t seem important at the time, if you think about it ahead, you save a lot of trouble. Different service offers allow for your marketing to have events, content, pricing models.

Payment

More payment systems means more payers. Adding a new payment system is not going to take people away and spread them thin, it will bring more people. True with SMS, pre-paid cards, Paypal, credit card, etc. More systems means better UI. First, be clever. Present something relevant. Present the most common first, or present the most fraduluent one last.

Design can fight fraud
All games have to fight fraud. The first step against fraud is through design of the game. If you look at froud management – Russia, US credit card. Why does someone want to pay from Russia with a foreign card? Probably because they can make money. If you can put security in the design it will be more efficient.

Recovery: after cheating or stealing. Someone will always break your system. When it’s subscription and you block the user, but if you use the frontend account to farm gold. You also want to get where the gold went.

Making payment easy
Have to make it easy to find. Ubiquitous. Support buying from anywhere.

Protecting Games – all about how to make good and safe design decisions for online games. Lots of good advice. It’s not for coders.

Communication
In-game mail. Build good communication systems.

(Skipping)

Achievements are great.

Services are the bit of the iceberg that you can’t see.

Whose job is this?
Can be game designer, creative director, producer, or a service designer. My view? Whole team has to be involved.