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Think Big. Move Fast.

Last year I noted how the “performance” aspects of social networks was moving more birthday wishes from private communication channels (e.g. email) to public ones (e.g. Facebook wall posts). This year, the trend is even more pronounced if my own experience is any indication.

The number of wall posts went up dramatically. FB private messages also went up. Email as a mode of communication fell in absolute terms, and far more as a % of communications. The chart below summarizes the differences between 2007 (blue) and 2008 (purple). (Note that the free gift and Facebook gift were both attached to FB wall posts)

The proportion of “private” birthday wishes (email, FB messages, calls, cards and in person) fell from 52% to 41%. “Public” birthday wishes increased from 47% to 59%.

Social networks have changed the dynamic – it isn’t enough to wish someone a happy birthday, but it is also important to be SEEN to wish someone a happy birthday. Equally, it is important to be SEEN to have a lot of people wish you a happy birthday too!

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At AGDC last week Bioware’s Damion Schubert spoke about end-game design in MMOs. Massively notes:

Endgame gameplay, elder gameplay, is a mandatory and compelling part of the genre’s equation. In fact, in Damion’s opinion complex elder gameplay exemplifies what makes the massive genre what it is…

In reality, says Schubert, MMOs are generally really easy to play. Comparing the learning curve of an MMO to a single-player game is ludicrous; MMOs are like ‘popping bubble-wrap’ in comparison. This is because of the challenge of tuning leveling to every class and every build. The result is an experience that’s fairly mundane. The real challenge, the ‘worthy experience’ is the endgame encounter.

While endgame may seem like a strange or meaningless thing, it’s actually really important for every player. Even low level players are aware of powerful guilds and raid progression. Damion references the cutscene that happens when Kael is killed and a quest is turned in; this feels, truly, as though the world is advancing and changing. That’s vital for a vibrant community.

The most thing about elder gameplay is that is one of the few things that is actually massive. Massive gameplay is the one thing that this genre of games has to offer.

IGN reports that Schubert considers there to be two forms of endgame, PvP and PvE:

In order to pull players through the sometimes dull leveling process, Schubert says it’s necessary to give an indication of what’s going on at higher levels. In games where the endgame revolves around player versus player territorial control combat, for instance, a good game will let players view a territorial control map. On World War II Online’s site, for instance, the main page prominently displays the line of contest between the two sides and which side, the Axis or the Allies, are pushing forward. It’s, in effect, an advertisement for the dynamic, high level activity that most new players might not necessarily be aware of.

He went on to talk specifically about the advantages and drawbacks of territorial control PvP and PvE raiding. For territorial control, you need a few basics. You need affiliated teams, either pre-set (World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online) or more freeform. You also need a physical location within the game world that players can fight over. Once that’s established, you need to consider the logistics of battle, like far do players need to run to rejoin the battle after death and how long the battles will last. Schubert says that having some way to actually schedule fights is a solid notion, but you should also have a way to specify when that fight will end. Whatever the structure of the PvP conflict, Schubert says it’s a concept that needs to be slowly introduced to players early on, like with the territorial map, to give a player an idea of what the strongest in the game world are up to…

[PvE] Raid encounters are another major form of endgame content, and center around the idea of players working as a team to essentially solve a puzzle. Raid encounters center on boss fights. The draw, naturally, is the loot, but Schubert says there’s also the draw of solving the puzzle of the boss’ attack patterns. Bosses can have a number of different attack routines, from predictable patterns to randomized attacks to the summoning of minions. These types of actions work to engage players in a number of ways. It requires those in the raid to coordinate their positions and movement on the field of battle, manage their health, and also generates different sub-types of player classes outside of the standard tank, healer, and damage dealers.

Gamasutra notes some specific observations about PvP endgames:

“If your endgame is PVP, you need to think about how PVP is introduced to characters at the low levels,” Schubert cautions. “If players decide along the way to the endgame that they don’t like your PVP, they will decide the endgame is not for them.” Argues that you should protect players more at the lower level, so they have a positive PVP experience.

“People don’t pay money to suck. People do not want to pay $15 a month to be the Washington Generals.” This is something he learned when making Shadowbane – “the winners now had lots of resources and the city could thrive, and the losers had nothing. So what happened is eventually the losers stopped logging on, and the winners eventually had nothing to fight.”

“We had one server where one guild was so in control, that they banned a player class so they’d have somebody to fight,” said Schubert. Players woke up in the morning and found that they were “wanted.”

The solution, he says, is to be able to hit a button, in the game (so to speak) to indicate that one group of players have won, and that they can begin again.

Many of the social games on Facebook and on the web today don’t have any endgame at all. The gameplay more or less stays the same no matter how long you play Texas Hold’em, Owned, Lil Green Patch or Bowling Buddies, to name just a few. This is going to create a challenge for long term retention. Even for free to play games, it is your hard core users who pay you the most money. So it will also create a challenge for long term monetization.

The good news for web based games is that there is no need to develop an endgame at launch. You can afford to wait until you have a critical mass of users before developing an endgame as there is no need to solve this problem until you have “elder players”. And since you are a web based game, you can switch on an endgame at any time without having to worry about updating a client.

Often times, endgame play will emerge organically from the users. For example, Fluff Friends endgame play has become more focused on creating elaborate fluff art. Friends For Sale endgame play has become about collecting “sets” of people and other quest like achievements, often challenges set up the players themselves. These social games have developed endgames that are neither PvP nor PvE, but are instead more social in nature.

While it is great when endgame emerges on its own, social game designers can be more proactive in developing endgames to keep their best players engaged, and give their new players something to aspire to.

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Some interesting tidbits about both free to play and subscription MMOGs coming out of the talks at Austin GDC. Min Kim of Nexon says:

Not just a Korean thing:

“South Korea is still a big market for us,” Kim admits, “but the split is now 50/50 with overseas markets,” which includes the Asian and U.S. markets.

On growth in North America:

In 2005, Nexon America’s revenues were around $650,000. In 2006, when they added Paypal as a payment option, sales rose to $8.457 million, based on item sales. In 2007, once Nexon released its Nexon Cash cards to retail stores, revenue jumped to $29.334 million.

On localization of games:

While many of the free to play games currently come from Korea, Kim feels that the market will eventually be dominated by Western titles. “We’ve seen this happen in other places like China,” he posed. “The big games now are from Chinese developers. I think the same thing will happen in the West, with Western-developed titles.”

On how game design interacts with business model design:

Focus on fun, not just on what items you can sell. “Have an idea about what your business model is,” he advises, but don’t go overboard laying out your business plan completely from the beginning. “Don’t have all your items and categories pegged out. Make sure you have a fun game, first.” 9 times out of 10 the ideas you’ll have at the beginning will be wrong. The players will tell you what they want to buy.”

From a panel on evolving business models in MMOs, CCP’s (Eve Online) Petursson notes that subscription MMOs mostly reward time spent playing (which is consistent with the business model):

All subscription-based MMOs are merit economies – those with most time, win. But the only thing you can’t buy is social merit. To be a purely subscription-based game, you should aim for social merit as it’s the only merit economy defensible against outside influences.

On when Free to play works and when it does not (a function of demographics, geography/ cultural norms and genre):

* Robert: The demographics in LOTRO etc are a lot older: 20-35, male. F2P games tend to be younger, more females, casual, less hardcore. 30 year old males are not playing a lot of F2P and have no problem paying monthly subscription. Younger people and kids are playing lots of games and want F2P for that flexibility. However, F2P microtransaction games can pull in more ARPU than subscriptions.
* Helmar – In CHina, it is illegal to have an automatic debit for sub based game – user always has to choose. For game operator it’s important to realize that most biz models will be implemented by user… better to implement them yourself and tune appropriately.
* Min – also based on genre…not many ppl shell out $15/month to play FPS. There are some F2P FPSs now in Asia. Biz model based on genre as well.

Turbine’s Ferrari notes that F2P games need low barriers to play

What we’re seeing is a shift that a lot of the f2p games are so much lighter than traditional MMOs. Heavy MMOs are beautiful, but that puts a barrier to entry based on min spec – younger demographics don’t have these systems. Global expansion doesn’t support those specs either. Our games are above 5gb in size, whereas Maple Story is close to 1gb now.

Nexon’s Min Kim has a contrarian view:

In S Korea, people have no problem downloading big client products as the web is so fast. I often wonder if browser-based gaming is an interim step until web speeds creep up and people can return to client download.

And multiple comments on the importance of letting your customers pay you how they can and want to pay you (including prepaid cards at retail):

* Min: Offering payment methods relevant to your target demographic is important. Over 20 years old, credit cards are viable. In the teen demographic, prepaid cards are still the dominant form of payment. Maybe SMS payments will come, but it is all about accessibility and convenience. In demographics such as Club Penguin’s, credit cards are a big part of their payment methods as parents are paying.
* Nicolay: I think Habbo has 140 different payment methods. The ability to pay has to be the lowest barrier to entry, otherwise you aren’t getting any money.
* Robert: SMS charges surrender so much margin to carrier, but retail cards may be more expensive just to get into channel.
* Hilmar: It’s puzzling why carriers aren’t lowering their surcharges. People would switch to it immediately, resolving credit card issues.
* Min: There is no access for our consumers to use credit cards. In 2006, we did $8.5M in the US in virtual item sales – in 2007 we did $29.3M in virtual items. Virtually all of that growth came from enabling people to pay.
* Robert: Companies like Turbine are looking at the console to expand their playerbase. Potentially we can use an xbox payment system, so we don’t need to do it ourselves. It’s about expanding access for players.

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Many websites default to the 728×90 (leaderboard) ad size when designing their site. This is a reasonably good option as it has the second highest click through rate of the various standard ad units. But it is possible to do …

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This is a guest post by John Bautista. John is a partner in Orrick‘s Emerging Companies Group in Silicon Valley. John specializes in representing early stage companies.

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When entrepreneurs start a company, there are four things they …

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Cooley is one of the largest and most respected law firms in Silicon Valley. It recently released its Private Company Financings Report for Q1 2008, based on the 66 completed deals that the firm worked on in that quarter. …

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Recently I posted about how to interview key hires, focusing on the three areas to test a potential hire on:

1. Technical Skills
2. Cultural Fit
3. Performance Skills

Technical skills and cultural fit are relatively easy to interview …

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The NY Times is often considered the US newspaper of record, and it lives up to its reputation with an excellent article in today’s Sunday NY Times Magazine about the ambient awareness enabled by Facebook status updates, Twitter and …

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Great post today from Sim Simeonov about being wise vs being smart that I’ll quote in its entirety since it is so short:

There is a set of interrelated concepts I’m fond of reminding entrepreneurs about but I’ve never found

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It has often been said that good games are easy to learn and hard to master. At this years Penny Arcade Expo, Jamie Cheng (CEO of Klei Entertainment, who are the developers for Sugar Rush, Nexon’s first

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