It’s no surprise that Ready Player One was constantly being referenced at GDC 2018, especially in VR, AR, and MMO panels. It’s not just because of the movie’s release but because the tech involved is seeing a surge of interest. That doesn’t mean we’re on the cusp, in my opinion, but it may be a thing we should start talking about.
And talking about it we did. As Bill Roper of Improbable and SpatialOS recently told me, “The next generation of online games isn’t going to behave like current-generation MMOs. […] We don’t know what a billion-person game might look like, but it’s likely to include a wide variety of playstyles, to reflect the diversity of its playerbase.” Even if you’re a cynic and don’t think SpatialOS will play any part of this future, Roper’s very much on the mark: Billion-person gaming isn’t going to be like our current MMOs.
GDC isn’t E3. It isn’t PAX. It’s not even what I think stereotypical gamers can appreciate. But I think the Massively OP crowd is a different sort, and because of that, we can give you some content the other guys might not be talking to you about. Like data collection and monetization. They’re necessary evils, in that we armchair devs can generally see past mistakes rolled out again, but know those choices are being made in the pursuit of money.
So how do you make better games and money? Maybe try hiring some data scientists, not just to help with product testing and surveys, but with some awesome, AI-driven, deep learning tools. Like from Yokozuna Data, whose platform predicts individual player behavior. I was lucky enough to sit down with not only Design and Communication Lead Vitor Santos but Chief Data Scientist África Periáñez, whose research on churn prediction inspired me to contact the company about our interview in the first place!
If you’ll be at GDC this week (we will!), you’re in for a treat, as research from MMORPG designer Raph Koster will be on tap.
It’s new design framework aimed at co-op multiplayer game designers, conducted as part of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group under Aaron Cammarata. The team is calling it the Trust Spectrum, and as Koster explains on his blog, the idea was to study how trust impacts games and vice versa, specifically for the purpose of building games that make sense for the level of trust players have for each other – and then building games that actually push people along the trust spectrum in a way that makes sense.
What they found in digging through games and gamers of all stripes was that “virtually all games are actually played at all levels of this spectrum; meaning, you can play competitive games with friends or strangers, a bidding system or supply chain system may exist at any point on the spectrum.” Ultimately, the investigators were able to map features across a trust range to make predictions on everything from audience size to retention.
Before we start, yes, I’m sure many of our readers are feeling a big wave of “duh” at the statement in the headline, but remember that testable results carry more weight than anecdotal evidence and feelings. And these results are solid.
As researchers Simone Kühn, Dimitrij Tycho Kugler, Katharina Schmalen, Markus Weichenberger, Charlotte Witt and Jürgen Gallinat note in Does playing violent video games cause aggression? A longitudinal intervention study, the paper here is the “first to investigate the effects of long-term violent video gameplay using a large battery of tests spanning questionnaires, behavioural measures of aggression, sexist attitudes, empathy and interpersonal competencies, impulsivity-related constructs (such as sensation seeking, boredom proneness, risk-taking, delay discounting), mental health (depressivity, anxiety) as well as executive control functions, before and after 2 months of gameplay.” While two months may not be that long, it’s pretty good when you consider the number of shortcomings we see in game aggression research.
What’s going on in the online video games business this week? Let’s dig in.
Steam, toxicity, and Kartridge
The Center for Investigative Reporting (via Motherboard) has a scathing piece out on Steam toxicity this week. Valve has traditionally maintained a hands-off approach with Steam groups, which means that the groups can easily become a toxic cesspit. The platform is accused of being loaded with hate groups, many of which support racist agendas or promote school shootings. Motherboard notes that Valve has refused to respond to questions on this topic since last October.
Meanwhile, Kongregate is launching Kartridge, a potential Steam competitor that says it will embrace indie “premium” titles and small-fry developers. “Our initial plan is that the first $10,000 in net revenue, one hundred percent will go to the developer,” Kongregate’s CEO says. “We’re not coming in just to build another store. No-one needs that. This is about building a platform that is focused on creating a very fair and supportive environment for indie developers” – as well as on social and community tools.
Researchers and self-regulatory bodies are continuing their denouncement of the World Health Organization’s plan to classify “gaming addiction” as a “gaming disorder.” The Entertainment Software Association sent ’round a press release this past week rattling off trade groups in the US, Canada, Europe, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, all of which stand in opposition to the plan – as you’d expect.
The more interesting part of the PR is the ESA’s promotion of an independent paper – not one the ESA or the trade bodies financially sponsored, mind you – written by three dozen academics from around the globe urging the WHO to “postpone the formalization” of the disorder.
A weak scientific basis for gaming disorder: Let us err on the side of caution by Antonius van Rooij et al. is still in pre-print before it releases in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, but you can grab the draft and its abstract right now if you’re curious. The authors acknowledge that there may be merit in the “gaming disorder” argument and indeed there may be social benefit in recognizing it but that there exists insufficient high-quality research undergirding the WHO’s conclusions.
Germany has added its voice to the anti-lockbox chorus in the US, UK, and Netherlands. According to an article on the German-language Welt (picked up by GIbiz), The German Youth Protection Commission has said it’s examining the lootbox issue as a potential gambling concern and may ban “certain elements in video games” in the region.
The move is apparently based on an as-yet unpublished University of Hamburg study that analyzes video game sales and business models, ultimately determining what most online gamers already know: that such games actively target whales, who are responsible for the majority of their revenue. This, the researchers reportedly conclude, is “a typical feature of gambling markets.”
The Commission is due to file its determination this coming March.
. Thanks, Veldan and Fabio!
Remember how the World Health Organization is angling to classify gaming addiction as a “gaming disorder”? Researchers and self-regulatory bodies have been pushing back against the move in the US – and apparently in Europe too, as The Guardian reports this week that UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) has also said it’s concerned about “the inconclusive nature of the research” upon which the classification is based.
The publication spoke to a Ukie rep as well as multiple academics, one of whom was involved in the WHO committee and supports the classification, and one of whom maintains that research is simply incomplete. Both groups admit that the effect of “disordered gaming” isn’t as strong as gambling disorder itself, and scientists have yet to address why more people don’t succumb to its supposed lure (especially given that a third of the planet games). Comorbidity is also an issue: Is the person really addicted to gaming, or is she gaming because she’s suffering from depression or unable to walk?
Probably my favorite screenshot in an MMO is the one I took back in 2003 or so, when my Star Wars Galaxies character was selling handmade spice out of her backpack one by one, before anyone I knew even had factories. After buying a few Neutron Pixies from me, one of my customers whispered to me some advice. “You’re kinda small and adorable for a drug dealer,” he noted. “You may want to get a scar or something for the next transaction with someone.”
That conversation popped into my head this week when I read about the ESRB’s guidelines on the depiction of narcotics in video games, which have apparently been reinforced by a recent study on top-selling console games that found plenty include various drugs as boosters, some in combination with other drugs, some without any associated side-effects. SWG, of course, had really nasty side-effects, a long-lasting downer that often made the spices not worth using outside of critical fights or duels, but still, the whole thing was still very cartoony. With or without my scar.
But what about other MMOs? I can think of only a handful of true MMORPGs that touch this sort of mechanic; most just seem to skirt the question altogether, no doubt to avoid that ESRB M sticker. You guys can probably think of more examples. Which MMOs have “drugs,” did you think they were problematic, and have you ever taken drugs in an MMORPG?
If you have an exceptional memory, you might recall that a couple of months ago, Crowfall and Star Wars Galaxies designer Raph Koster wrote up a blog post on the cost of making games. The MMO expert followed that up this week with a much, much more detailed presentation that attempts to show hard data to back up his claims.
Koster said that he used industry contacts and other research to assemble data from over 250 games made from 1985 to today that shows the development cost minus the money spent on marketing. He even goes so far as to break down the cost of dollars per developed byte of information, which is where he sees costs for game falling. He said that when you look at it this way, players are getting a “deal” for games these days.
“Lots of people have made the observation that in terms of raw purchasing power, players pay around half of what they used to in the ’80s,” he notes.
“It’s as easy as one, two, insert your credit card number here!” So begins the parody at the beginning of the first of two recent Game Theory videos all about 2017’s favorite-and-least-favorite topic, lootboxes. Rather than overtly picking a side, the vloggers attempt to sort out how lockboxes work – whether they’re just annoying business model glitches or deliberately manipulative end-runs around gambling laws, all by examine the science.
Now, contrary to the first video’s claim, lots of people are indeed talking about the science of lockboxes, but it nevertheless contributes a funny and clear-headed angle on the psychology of lockboxes from skinner boxes and dopamine to loss aversion, the sunk cost fallacy, and the illusion of control. The chilling idea is that we actually get our dopamine blast from opening the box – not from getting what we wanted. Lockboxes, like casinos, exploit the crap out of that, adding deadlines and exclusive loot to ramp up the pressure.
At the tail end of last year, we caught wind that the World Health Organization is planning on classifying gaming addiction as a “gaming disorder” its update of the International Classification of Diseases, which caused multiple academics, self-regulatory bodies, and education advocates to preemptively reject the plan, pointing out both the lack of research to justify the classification as well as the potential for harm.
“We do not support WHO in this classification scheme in the strongest possible terms,” the Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA) wrote earlier this week, arguing the WHO is “jumping to premature conclusions” that will scapegoat and stigmatize gaming. The ESA flat-out called it reckless. An academic in games research whom we’ve consulted with in the past suggested to us that the news came off as “moral panic-y.”
But WHO appears to be sticking to its guns. GamesIndustry.biz spoke to a representative for WHO, who reportedly claimed to the publication that “there is increasing and well-documented evidence of clinical relevance of these conditions and increasing demand for treatment in different parts of the world.”
Is gaming addiction a thing worthy of its own classification? The World Health Organization is thinking about saying yes in its update of the International Classification of Diseases. The Electronic Software Association, predictably, says heck no. Now, the Higher Education Video Game Alliance has weighed in with a big no too, expressing “dismay” at the WHO’s stated intentions and suggesting that the classification won’t actually “combat cases of abuse rooted in individual behavior” but will “stigmatize a pastime that billions of players enjoy without issue around the world” and “warp continued research.”
“We do not support WHO in this classification scheme in the strongest possible terms,” the group’s press release says, suggesting classifications amount to “jumping to premature conclusions” and willful “scapegoating.”
“We’ve watched as games are repeatedly blamed in today’s world for violence, childhood obesity, failures in educational policy, and a host of other contemporary issues, despite both a lack of evidence and careful consideration of other, often far more powerful, systemic forces that contribute to societal behavior. Games are commonly referred to as ‘addictive’ despite numerous conflicting studies and a clear lack of consensus from the scientific and medical communities.”