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4 major cultural differences between Games people and Web people

Found on YouTube: Mario and Luigi’s insightful commentary on MySpace top friends

Cultural differences are always interesting!
I got interested in the games world first as a consumer of video games, but after I worked on an unsuccessful project to monetize MySpace using ads, I got interested in the monetization potential of virtual items in social products. For the last 2 years, I’ve been wandering around on the edges of the games industry to try to cross-pollinate some of the best ideas with what I knew from the web world.

Early on, after attending the Game Developer Conference and speaking with folks from many of the top publishers and studios, it became clear that there were lots of interesting cultural differences between web folks and games folks. I wrote some of these points down a while back and I thought I’d share them.

I want to caveat that these are purely anecdotal and my own experiences, and I’m sure that I’m overgeneralizing ;-) I also think that people that come from the casual games world (and in particular flash games) are much more similar to web entrepreneurs – the aliens I talk about are mostly big packaged games people. So please share your opinions in the comments if you disagree or have another perspective.

But here are the major ones:

  1. Eyeball worship vs. Game genre worship
  2. Distribution vs. Content
  3. Utility vs. Experience
  4. Open vs. Content gating

Let’s drill into each of these…

Eyeball worship vs. Game genre worship
First off, one of the big surprises for me was that many of the folks working at big games companies like EA have a very specific type of game they want to work on. Many of the folks I talked to wanted to make so-called “hardcore games” – very rich, deep, FPS/RTS/RPG/etc packaged games that sell at Walmart, and were completely uninterested in anything else.

While I excited about building simple Web-distributed games that could be played by millions of people, for many of these folks, if it didn’t look like a game, didn’t have monsters and guns, it was uninteresting. In fact, there was a pretty derisive view of folks who make so-called casual games as lower in the food chain.

This reminds me of a project I worked on a long time ago in the video space, pre-YouTube. I had interviewed a bunch of art students at Unviersity of Washington to talk to them about publishing their videos online, and they were very uninterested. For these art students, they had such a romantic sense of what it would be like to show your work in a theater, at Cannes, that the idea of millions of people watching a 400×415 pixel player seemed completely uninteresting. Perhaps the hardcore games folks I talked to felt the same way about their work.

The analogous concept in the web world is probably that a lot of entrepreneurs only want to work on “cool” startups involving fancy technology. They are less likely to think along the edges for products targeted at different (possibly more mainstream demographics). I also think that web folks get more excited about the eyeballs factor than anything else. The more simple, stupid, and widely used something is, the better!

Distribution vs. Content
Another interesting difference was the perspectives around content. For many of the games people I met, the content is everything. How good your game is perceived to dictate its ultimate success. I think this makes sense in an industry where distribution is essentially commoditized! The big publishers have many of the same relationships, and games developers in general have been outsourcing their distribution expertise out to the publishers for the past couple decades. As a result, it seems clear that the only place to compete is in the content of the game, rather than in the distribution.

Compare this to the web entrepreneurs who have to deal with the constantly changing landscape of distribution. Many of the top Facebook apps were simpler, dumber, and better distributed than their competition, and distribution in itself can be a competitive advantage. Eric Ries recently wrote about the distribution techniques that have recently been found for the iPhone App Store – these techniques include a primitive version of SEO via the App Store search function, as well as folks who constantly release updates to their app to try to get on the New and Hot list.

And of course, ad networks, affiliates, and leadgen companies represent the logical extreme in the distribution equation. Because they are selling other peoples’ products, they focus exclusively on distribution and differentitation via novel techniques and analytics.

It’s clear that both communities have a lot to learn from each other on this one, but because of the fact that distribution is extraordinarily important in the new social network ecosystem, I think this is why we’ve seen the top games coming from Web teams rather than Games teams. (With the possible exception of Playfish!)

Utility vs. Storytelling experience
One of my favorite cultural differences is the way web folks think about the role of their products in peoples’ lives. There’s often talk about making your product as “useful” as possible, or “social utility.” In the world of utility, oftentimes the main factors that are discussed involve terms like:

  • pain points
  • efficiency
  • productivity
  • ROI
  • maximizing
  • etc

These terms are great, and the world is better off for having products that make us all better worker bees!

Compare this to many games discussions, like the ones I sat through at GDC, which involved concepts like:

  • characters
  • plots and storytelling
  • mood
  • music
  • fun
  • etc

Now, I think that the productivity-inclined have their claim to the world, as does the fun/entertainment games people. But the intersection of this, in web media, is where the fun happens. For example, is the fact that Facebook has such an efficient newsfeed system a good thing, or a bad thing? I think it depends on whether or not you feel like the process of exploring peoples’ profiles and clicking through things as a good thing or not? In the MySpace world, given the degree of customization, you might argue that it’s more game-like in the way that it encourages people to click around and explore, whereas Facebook is clearly more efficiency-oriented.

Both approaches have their advantages, of course – and there are times where I use Facebook as a utility and times when I’m using it for time-wasting. The tradeoff between the two approaches are definitely interested to think about as your product is being constructed.

Open vs. Content gating
Related to the efficiency versus experience distinction, web products are very likely to make things very open and give the users all the features upfront. It’s very rare that you constrain what the user can do, and as a result, there’s no concept of leveling or grinding. As a result, oftentimes the experience that you get at the beginning is the same as the experience you have later on.

Games, on the other hand, have a clear concept of advancement and otherwise “content gating” their users. By withholding levels, powerups, weapons, trophies, etc., it creates motivation from the user to keep on playing. They say, “just… one… more… game…!!”

The Wikipedia article on this is instructive:

The most common form of level treadmill is the practice of killing monsters for experience points. The player constantly chases after the next level in order to be able to defeat the next slightly stronger monster. The outcome of MMORPG combat tends to depend more on the character’s numerical statistics than the player’s skill. Thus there is usually little for a player to do beyond clicking an attack button until he or she wins, or is forced to flee when nearing death. So whether fighting small rats or large demons, the player is performing essentially the same actions, the only difference being the larger numbers in his or her character and the monster’s attributes. In the eyes of players, the player is essentially running forward while going nowhere, as on an exercise treadmill.

As a result of this treadmill, there is a constant pressure for players to stay engaged and retained as customers. But the flipside of this is that it’s not enough to build one product – instead you build 70 product variations, and call each one a level!

Other observations?
I’d love to hear other thoughts on this issue, and any places where I’m overgeneralizing :) Comment away!

If you liked this article, check out my other essays here.

UPDATE: Adam Martin (formerly of NCsoft) writes up his views here, from the perspective of a games guy.

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