Virtually Here

It’s been a while. Hope you had a good time last time we spoke. Two years ago, we spoke about virtual reality.We talked about the concept of what it meant to experience virtual reality through technology, focusing on a particular project called the Oculus Rift. At the time, it was in a developmental stage.Fast foward two more years and virtual reality is now a real reality.

Make Believe

If you remember from the last post about Pokémon GO, one of the lasting impressions was promoting the idea of augmented reality to a wider audience through people playing the game. The augmented reality aspects of the game was that it ‘placed’ pokémon into real-world locations when using a smartphone with GPS. If you happened to be looking at a building through your smartphone, the game would sitatued a pokemon at that location. Think of it this way: computer-generated images (CGI) are clearly not real but made to look or feel as authentic as possible. Think of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and how much CGI and other special effects went into that to make characters and scenes as believable as possible.

One issue I have to raise is that in the last post I’ve used both terms of augmented reality and virtual reality, incorrectly thinking they meant the same thing. They are similar but different, so I apologise if I’ve misled anyone. From now on, this post will refer to the technology as VR. So what is the difference?

In AR, users are able to interact with virtual contents in the real world and tell the difference between the two. In VR everything is virtual (in the sense that the user has no connect with the location they are in virtually). Pokémon GO is a classic example of the former, where virtual pokémon are placed in real-life locations. This is not the case with VR where everything is an illusion. However, let’s not forget that both terms are changing the way we see things from a technological perspective.

The main point of the 2014 post was discussing the Oculus Rift as the case study. This project was born out of a desire to see an affordable and better experience of AR. The Rift was essentially a headset (or head-mounted display) that useshighly-sensitive LEDs and external sensors to create a virtual experience. Since 2013, it was still in development. But now in 2016, we are receiving the first lot VR kits to be available on the market. But first, let’s have a revisit of what the Rift was.

Revisiting the Oculus Rift

Californian Palmer Luckey had a keen interest in virtual reality, stemming from his hobby fiddling around with several electronic projects such as lasers and coil guns in his garage. His interest allowed him to steadily build a collection of many head-mounted displays. The first concept of the Oculus Rift came about due to Luckey being become frustrated with the then-current head-mounted displays in his personal collection. He felt they were generally of poor quality and he could do better. ‘Virtual-world sci-fi like The Matrix and the anime show Yu-Gi-Oh! intensified the desire. Why, he asked himself, can’t we do that yet? His modding and iPhone repair work had left him with a lot of money, so he bought a $400 Vuzix iWear VR920, then the most cutting-edge consumer VR headset – enthusiasts call them HMDs, for head-mounted displays – on the market. Then he moved on to the more expensive eMagin Z800 3DVisor. And he kept looking’ (Rubin, 2014).

In order to realise his project, Luckey started a Kickstarter campaign, although he also supported himself by doing various jobs such as iPhone repair work. He regularly posted his reports on MTBS3D (MTBS standing for ‘meant to be seen’), a forum website that was used by fellow VR enthusiasts. One of those regulars happened to be John Carmack of id Software, creators of the popular Doom games. Carmack read with interest about Luckey’s project, ordered one of the prototypes, and showcased it at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2012 using a modified version of Doom 3 BFG Edition.

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John Carmack demonstrates the early Oculus Rift at E3

The demonstration to a larger, enthusiastic audience was a pivotal moment in Luckey’s project. The Oculus Rift suddenly found a large audience that were as keen as he was, and he dropped out of university. The Kickstarter campaign eventually raised $2.5 million, an outstanding raise from the initial $250,000. This allowed him to start a new company called Oculus VR. Joining him was Brendan Iribe (as CEO), fellow VR enthusiast and former executive of Gaikai and Scaleform, Michael Antonov as Chief Software Archiect, as well as Michael Abrash (Chief Scientist). John Carmack also joined in some capacity.

The Rift itself has gone through numerous development stages through research and development. Initially, the first stages revolved around DIY kits for interested developers from the Kickstarter campaign. The Development Kit 1 (DK1) was given to backers as a ‘thank you’ to those who invested $300+ into the project in its early days. The idea was to give developers a chance to integrate their content in time for the Rift’s release. The current ‘stage’ is called the Crescent Bay.

How did the Rift work?

As the term implies, virtual reality was to create a truly virtual, but immersive, experience that was designed to trick the brain into being immersed, forgetting about the technology that went into creating it. This approach used several key factors to achieve this. As Sophie Charara (2016) explains, these typically included ‘a PC, console or smartphone to run the app or game, a headset which secures a display in front of your eyes (which could be the phone’s display) and some kind of input – head tracking, controllers, hand tracking, voice, on-device buttons or trackpads.’

1. The Headset

The Rift resembes an oversized goggle, referred to as a head-mounted display (HMD). Charara (2016) explains, ‘VR headsets use either two feeds sent to one display or two LCD displays, one per eye. There are also lenses which are placed between your eyes and the pixels. These lenses focus and reshape the picture for each eye and create a stereoscopic 3D image by angling the two 2D images to mimic how each of our two eyes views the world ever-so-slightly differently. One important way VR headsets can increase immersion is to increase the field of view, i.e. how wide the picture is. A 360 degree display would be too expensive and unnecessary. Most high-end headsets make do with 100 or 110 degree field of view which is wide enough to do the trick. And for the resulting picture to be at all convincing, a minimum frame rate of around 60 frames per second is needed to avoid stuttering or users feeling sick. The current crop of VR headsets go way beyond this – Oculus is capable of 90fps, for instance, Sony’s PlayStation VR manages 120fps.’

Let us take a moment to understand what she means by frame rate because it is quite important. On imagining devices like TVs or cameras, the frame rate is the frequencyin which they display consecutive frames (images). This is measured in seconds (frames-per-second or fps).When you watch a TV, how ‘smooth’ the images appear are a direct consequence of the frame rate employed. To put it into perspective, a low frame rate would give you choppy images.

Tarantola (2014) explains, ‘the human eye is capable of differentiating between 10 and 12 still images per second before it starts just seeing it as motion. That is, at an fps of 12 or less, your brain can tell that its just a bunch of still images in rapid succession, not a seamless animation. Once the frame rate gets up to around 18 to 26fps, the motion effect actually takes effect and your brain is fooled into thinking that these individual images are actually a moving scene.’ He further states, ‘so if a frame rate is too slow, motion looks jagged, but if it’s too fast you can have problems too. Live-action movies filmed at 48fps tend to have that certain soap-opera effect people hated in The Hobbit.The Hobbit was criticised for being overly ‘hyper real’ to the points ome critics pointed that they could see the background sets such as make-up on actors and painted sets.

In the human visual system, it is thought that we are able to process 1000 seperate images per second but that would be an extreme to implment. The trick is to find a balance that makes the visuals smooth and not look like they will make people uncomfortable. In current videogames, 60fps seems to be the standard. I’ve seen two comparable videos of games at both 30fps and 60fps. Some people say that can’t see any difference, but I noticed that the 60fps version transistions much smoother and therefore the visual experience is more enjoyable. However, it seems the Rift goes beyond 60fps so the visuals so be that much smoother.

2. Motion Tracking

So you wear the headset but how to you input the data received into something quantifiable? Input is important as much as output is. For example, if you use a computer, you use a keyboard as an input device, which then translates into quantifiable data/responses (i.e. keystrokes). For the Rift, there is a compatible piece of technology called Oculus Touch, which is basically a wireless controller that resembles a gamepad attached to a strap. The idea is that becaase you physically hold something, allowing you to make hand gestures that are translated into the virtual expereince, thus giving you an input response.

Importantly, the Rift would need additional input devices in order for it to be able to track a user’s postion (as in motion tracking). Sensors would be the best solution as they needn’t be large.On CGI-heavy films like Avatar, actors would wear special suits that were attached with multiple sensors. Sensitive cameras placed around the set would capture their postions (including facial expressions) through the sensors, which would then be mapped into software. The film-makers would then do their special effects to the scene using the data.

The Rift worked in a similar way. On the actual headset, there are a series of infrared LEDs built in. These sensors then communicate with another input device, a wireless sensor. It looks like a small microphone-shaped pole but is designed to speak with the headset. Oculus calls this the Constellation Tracking System. The Rift has LEDs on most of its side, allowing for a full 360 degree rotation.

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Oculus Rift and Constellation sensor

The communication between sensor and LEDs is accurate, pin-pointing precisely the position of the user. This is done by knowing the configuration of the LEDs; the information is then trtansferred with sub0millimeter accuracy and with almost zero lag (or latency). The Constellation can either use a single sensor or multiple ones placed around the area. By employing mutliple sensors at different angles, the system is able to track the entire room.

The VR Future?

In the last post, I talked briefly about what the future holds for this technology and I said only time would tell. Well, time certainly did tell in which the industry is taking off. We not only have Oculus Rift, but other brands on the market with technology heavy-hitters such as Samsung (Gear VR), Sony (Playstation VR/Morpheus), and HTC (Vive) getting in on the act. There was already an enthusiastic response (at least from a techological view) when the Rift was demonstarted at E3 so that should be an indication of its potential.

Even though we are seeing a lot of industry activity, that does not mean the market is ready. In order for VR technology to be truly successful, it would need transition from niche to mainstream markets. It has certainly grown in prominance; as I said earlier there are VR kits now to buy. But I wouldn’t say it has peaked yet. There are several issues at the moment that I think are holding it back.

One of the immediate issues is the high cost for such devices. The Rift is several hundred pounds so already many people will be priced out.This doens’t mean they still can’t experience VR. For people who want to  experience VR on a more affordable level, there exists several cheaper versions ranging from £10-20. Most of these use a smartphone in order to create the experience. Many of the cheaper versions consists of nothing more than a cardboard base and some lenses. You place your smartphone into some holding slots, which you then look through with the lens in the comfrot of your own home. I’ve happened to try one of these cheaper models and I was surprised at how immersive it was. Looking through nothing more than lenses, I was actually turning my head/body around when playing a game. You forget somewhat that you’re in a room and lose yourself in the VR experience, and that’s what this is all about.

Example of cheaper VR kits

Example of cheaper VR kits

Another reason is the high cost in processing power. Not only do you need to have the necessary input devices, you also needed a beefy comptuer system to run the whole thing. ‘Chipset maker Nvidia predicted last December that in 2016 only 13 million PCs will be powerful enough to run VR, meaning that less than 1% of the 1.43 billion PCs in use globally this year are up to scratch. This explains the slow start’ (Rossi, 2016). Recntly, Oculus VR has issued statements about their ‘Asynchronous Spacewarp’. The ASW is a technique that allows VR titles to run at aorund half the processing power by ‘extrapolating frames’; in other words, it is a frame rate smoothing technique halving the CPU/GPU time required to produce nearly the same output from the same content. The idea is that the minimum system specifics of the Rift are lowered, allowing more people with less powerful computer systems to use it.

There’s no doubt that some of these issues will be corrected in the future. But these will most likely take several years at the very least. Remember that it was only three years ago that the project really started yet the potential for rapid growth is projected. ‘When Oculus Rift launched its $2.4 million Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2013, it was billed as the first truly immersive virtual reality headset for video games. Expectations such as this have allowed potential virtual reality to grow quickly, with revenues from both VR hardware and software products projected to be a formidable $5.2 billion USD in 2018. At the same time, the number of users adopting the new tech, predominantly gamers, is expected to reach 171 million. At present, 43 million people worldwide own a VR headset, so ownership could rise more than three fold in just two years, even before the predicted peak in 2021’ (Rossi, 2016).

It is certainly a clearer picture than from 2014. There is a market, there is potential and there is money to be made. I wrote this post because we are seeing VR start to become more available. 2016 was supposed to be when VR really took off; while we’re seeing several companies developing and releasing their own models, I wouldn’t say it has peaked yet. Certainly the technology needs more refining but I think it’s safe to say it’s a question of when, not if, it will become a major thing.

Bibliography

Sophie Charara’s article, ‘Explained: How does VR actually work?’

http://www.wareable.com/vr/how-does-vr-work-explained

Ben Rossi’s article, ‘The Future of Virtual Reality’

http://www.information-age.com/technology-changed-gambling-market-123461988/

Peter Rubin’s article ‘The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality’
http://www.wired.com/2014/05/oculus-rift-4/

Andrew Tarantola’s article, ‘Why Frame Rate matters’

http://gizmodo.com/why-frame-rate-matters-1675153198

Gotta Get ‘em All!

Hello everyone. Did everyone have a good summer? Hope you all did because summer comes only once a year. An interesting thing happened over the summer. No, I’m not talking about the Rio Olympics (although that was exciting), nor was I talking about the Euro 2016 football tournament (England fans, let’s forget that ever happened). Over the summer, a new ‘fad’ took the world by storm in the form of a mobile app. Millions of people were, and still are, playing it, across the globe. In this post, we will look at what is Pokémon GO and how it became so popular.

What is Pokémon

Formed in Japan, Pokémon is originally an anime series about ‘pocket monsters’, which gave the series its name. These pokémon come in various shapes and sizes, although one could tell of their inspiration from real-life animals. In the anime series, people and pokémon exist together. People ‘capture’ and train these pokémon in order to battle other pokémon trainers.

The main plot of the series focuses on the character Ash, following his trials and tribulations as he goes on his way, meeting friends, dealing with problems and onto becoming one of the greats. His most recognisable (and arguably the ‘face’ of Pokémon itself) pokémon is Pikachu; a sort of yellow mouse-like creature with red spots on its cheeks. Even people not into Pokémon may have seen images or features of Pikachu in everyday life, such was the popularity. For anyone who grew up in the early-2000s, like me, Pokémon was a mainstay during this period growing up. Although I hardly remember what happened, I certainly remember watching the series, which is still continuing.

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Pokemon anime series featuring Ash and Pikachu

The success of the anime series led to a number of different merchandise. It was no surprise; given the increasing popularity, it was too irresistible for the creators to not start making more money opportunities considering it was glaring at them in the face. As a result, a series of trading cards came out which were all the range. I look back and think, ‘they were just cards’, but they meant a great deal back then. Building on the success of the anime series were also several videogames, particularly the ones for the old GameBoy. The Pokémon trading cards became such a feature that some schools started banning them because people got into fights over them (true story, that). Looking back, I think the appeal was that people got into the idea that they were pokémon trainers themselves. As people were collecting cards or playing the games, they were following in Ash’s footsteps in the anime. I burned through so many batteries playing Pokémon Gold as I lived out my own pokémon journey. I can see why the cards and games were so successful. They just appealed to kids and young people. Although the cards have died down, the games have not. We have newer titles released on the latest generation of consoles like Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (remasters of the original Gold and Silver).

What is Pokémon GO?

Living off the Pokémon trademark, Pokémon GO is a mobile app released this summer which plays out very similarity to the Pokémon Gameboy games. Admittedly, I have never played it myself, although I’ve seen plenty of people who have. As a sign of the technological age we now live in, instead of a clunky GameBoy, you now use your lighter and flashy smartphone.

Players play the game by creating an in-game avatar. This part isn’t new; many games have a feature for players to create their character. Once done, the next thing is to allow the game to access their GPS information. The neat feature of this app is that it presents the real-world environment as the actual playing environment. It’s a kind of augmented reality (which we will talk about later). In other words, the street you are currently in is used as your playing area until you move somewhere else. Now it’s all about catching pokémon!

Pokémon ‘appear’ at nearby locations that are reflected in the real-world. For example, a pokémon may appear at a street corner near you and you need to go to that corner to get it. The idea of the game, just as it was in the old Gameboy games, is to catch available pokémon using PokéBalls. Once captured, they are added to the player’s inventory. A nice feature included is, depending on the current location, players may find more of one particular pokémon. If a player is in woodland or a forest, they will encounter more plant-based pokémon such as an Oddish. Conversely, should they be near places with water such as a lake or the beach, they would find more water-based pokémon instead to reflect the environment.

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Pokemon Go uses GPS to create the playing environment

Additional features include PokéStops, which are nothing more than virtual shops where players can get supplies such as potions or more PokéBalls. Another feature is Gyms. Not the ones where you pump iron but gyms where players can team up and battle together. If you must know, the gyms in the anime series were places where characters could train their pokémon. It was also where Ash went to battle the gym leader in order to earn their badge. These PokéStops and Gyms are generally located in points-of-interest. These can range from public places like parks, town squares or specific buildings, so often you’d see a mass gathering of players at these places.

The main goal of Pokémon GO is to complete the entire collection of the original 151 pokémon by filling out the ‘Pokédex’ (think of that as an encyclopaedia or catalogue of the 151 pokémon). At the moment, this is almost impossible. To capture all 151 would involve a lot of travel and luck. Rare pokémon like Mew-Two have a tiny chance of appearing. In fact, I’m not even sure all 151 have been released yet given that the game has been around for over a month.

Upon capture of a pokémon, players are given two in-game currencies: candies and stardust. Both can be used to increase a pokémon’s ‘combat power’. The combat power roughly equates to ‘hit points’ in first-person shooters (i.e. the player’s health in the game). Candies are used mainly to ‘evolve’ a pokémon along its evolutionary tree. If that sounded confusing, the majority of pokémon can be evolved into their next stage which is generally more powerful upon reaching certain parameters. Some pokémon have two or three stages. For example, if we talk the plant-based pokémon, Bulbasaur is the base stage. Upon evolution, it becomes Ivysaur, and finally, Venusaur at the top.

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The game uses augmented reality to simulate the appearence of pokemon based on the player’s real-time location in the real world

Players gain experience points (or xp) for various activities. The more xp they have, they higher in levels they go. At level five, players are able to enter the aforementioned gyms as one of three colour-coded teams. Team Valour (Valor in the game) is red, Team Mystic is blue, and Team Instinct is yellow. The choice of red, blue and yellow could be seen as homage to the original Gameboy games, which were those colours. If players enter a gym that is controlled by a player not part of their team, they can challenge the leader to lower the gym’s ‘prestige’. Once the prestige of a gym is lowered to zero, the player will take control of the gym and is able to deposit one pokémon to defend it.

As the player moved about, so did their character in the game in accordance to the GPS. So you could be viewing the street you were in right on your phone. It’s an interesting mechanic that allows people to use their real-world locales as the playing area in which play is continuous so long as you had valid GPS and internet connection.

How Did It Become The Success It Was?

So we are in the meat of the post. How did this seemingly simple app become such a phenomenal success? Well, there are several reasons. Girman (2016) gives five of those reasons comprising brand affiliation, augmented reality, low barrier of entry, compulsion loops, and endorphins.

1) Brand Affiliation

What he means by this is the nostalgia that Pokémon has. ‘Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri’s work spawned a behemoth in gaming, and included card games and television shows – all starting from a simple game for GameBoy. Up until Pokémon, handheld experiences were isolated. Pokémon broke down those barriers by allowing players to face off against or trade with their friends. You could also fully customize the 151 characters, which was brand new at that time. The personal touch enhanced the connection to the brand and established the deep nostalgia we’re seeing in millennials today. Younger kids – true digital natives – are discovering the franchise for the first time on their medium of choice: smartphones. Parents who played the Game Boy version as kids are even playing the new app version with their kids’ (Girdman, 2016).

Pokémon carried such a mark that people of that generation, like me, will remember it fondly. The trading cards and the GameBoy games were such a big deal that I’m not surprised old memories of playing them resurfaced. If you were really into Pokémon back then, Pokémon Go was right up your street. Think of it this way: The Force Awakens was released over ten years since the last Star Wars film, yet the nostalgia and the sheer anticipation/expectation of it was immense. This was because of what Star Wars meant to a lot of people; it still had a lot of fans. The same thing could be applied to Pokémon GO.

2) Augmented Reality

We talked about augmented reality (AR) well over a year ago when discussing the Oculus Rift headset. Pokémon GO is essentially part-AR in the sense that is manipulated real-world surroundings. When capturing a pokémon, the screen switches to an augmented reality setting. This means that the pokémon is actually shown within the current location on-screen. Imagine you were in your living room when a pokémon appears; if you were looking at your sofa, the pokémon would be ‘superimposed’ within your vicinity. Girdman (2016) explains, ‘for years we have been taking things from outside the computer and placing them inside the interface so that we can understand the function. We make a ‘trash can’ look like a trash can in our digital interfaces because that is a metaphor that we can understand. As people spend more time in front of a computer, the reverse is happening. Fantasy, meet reality.’

3) Low Barrier of Entry

Another important point of the app’s appeal is how simple it actually is. It is easy to understand even for people not familiar with Pokémon. ‘This game is simple to play, learn and understand, meaning the audience can be wide and varied. Creating an effective game – one that brings in new players, keeps old ones, and makes money off of some of those who stay – is becoming more difficult. It’s also super accessible: partly because of the brand affiliation, and partly because it doesn’t require a separate console’ (Girdman, 2016). You do not want to create a game that is frustrating or difficult to play as that turns people away. As we’ve mentioned previous in the blog, that’s bad game design. For the most part, Pokémon GO is simple and clean.

4) Compulsion Loop

Pokémon GO follows a certain pattern when playing the game, which Girdman calls the ‘compulsion loop’ (i.e. the main goals of the game). ‘The loop comprises three stages, each enhancing the next, so players keep improving. Pokémon GO’s compulsion loop is simple: collect stuff to catch pokémon, collect pokémon and level pokémon’ (Girdman, 2016). Some would call this player advancement; others would call it a grind. Either way, the compulsion loop is what it is. Essentially, players are catching pokémon and training them to become better. It’s like a series of stages of progression in that players have to do one thing before moving to the next stage. This isn’t a new mechanic by any means, but it helps explain the compulsive appeal of the game for engagement as players strive to the next level. Basically, the longer you go at it, the better your experience will be.

5) Endorphins

Girdman (2016) states, ‘Video games are known for producing mood boosting chemicals (called endorphins) as a reward for a mainly motionless task. You sit down and complete a level, your brain recognizes your achievement, and you get hit with an endorphin rush. Pokémon GO does exactly this with every pokémon catch. But you know what else is good at producing endorphins? Exercise. And when you get gamers off the couch and out chasing pokémon, the brain gets a double hit of the good stuff. There is one more addition to the brain chemical mix that plays into the popularity of Pokémon GO: social interaction. The social interactions from Pokémon GO produce a large rush of endorphins, creating a triple whammy of feel-good chemicals.’

On a chemical level, whenever you achieve something positive or as an accomplishment, you feel good about yourself as the natural reaction. I know I do. So when players successfully capture pokémon, endorphins are released. I’m no biological specialist, but you know what I mean. You just get this feeling that you’re amazing without being arrogant.

One of the interesting perks about its success is that Pokémon GO required players to actually get out and be on the move. In order to get pokémon, players needed to go to them. By using their current GPS locations, players used their smartphones almost like a map. As Girdman (2016) points out, players actively moving and engaging with others increases endorphins for a morale-boost.

As a result of this mechanic, Pokémon GO is very good at encouraging community learning of how to play the game. Even though the premise is simple, there are things that are not immediately obvious and need explanation. What better way in understanding these issues than to engage in communication with others? How we improve ourselves owes much to the efforts of others. For example, if you were unsure of how to evolve a pokémon, numerous information outlets can provide the answer. People have created online guides so there’s always a place to go for information.

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A ‘tpyical’ gathering of Pokemon GO players. Mass gatherings like this were happening across the world. This one took place at Puerta del Sol square in downtown Madrid

Furniss (2016) explains, ‘Sharing tribal knowledge about games makes the experience of playing a game better. When you are ‘in the know’ you’re in the cool kids’ club. You then get to initiate other players into the cool kids’ club, and you feel smart for it…what Pokémon GO is benefitting from right now is an emergent mentorship that almost completely replaces a traditional tutorial. I would argue that this emergent mentorship is even more powerful than an actual tutorial. Mentorship increases engagement through social bonds. You’ve probably experienced this already with Pokémon GO: teaching a confused player something about the game that you’ve figured out already not only makes you feel smart and altruistic, it assuages confusion for the person you’ve mentored in a way that is highly personalised, and therefore more impactful. An in-game tutorial or series of tooltips will never top being able to ask questions of an expert when it comes to learning a game. I’m not convinced that Niantic intentionally obfuscated their UI, but I think it’s actually integral to the experience.’

With so many people playing, it is easy for this to happen. We’ve discussed it time and again about the social interactions aspects between people to facilitate collaboration with each other. Pokémon GO is very good at this in its ability to gather large groups of people. There have been various media documenting large pokémon gatherings across the world. It was safe to assume anyone looking at their smartphone intently as they walked about was playing Pokémon GO.

What Was The Social Impact It Caused?

If you were not keen on pokémon in general, then Pokémon GO will mean little to you. However, one could appreciate the sheer reactions it caused in a very short time. Approximately over 1.1 billion interactions between 231 million people mentioned Pokémon GO on Facebook and Instagram in July. Those figures are staggering in what is described as a ‘social media phenomenon’ further dubbed ‘Pokémania’. It really is a phenomenon at how quickly it took off.

Financially, the game has been a massive success for the parent company, The Pokémon Company (owned partly by Nintendo), and the actual developers of the app, Niantic Labs. ‘Within three days of trading after Pokémon GO burst onto the scene, Nintendo’s shares skyrocketed 53 percent. The viral game is a collaboration between Niantic Labs and The Pokémon Company – the latter of which Nintendo only owns 32 percent of. Accordingly, Niantic Labs’ valuation has now also risen to $3.65 million dollars. But is the game just gathering users or can it actually make money? In short: yes, it can’ (Willis, 2016). The game has been calculated to have more users than Twitter, as well as being the top grossing app on Apple Store. Fortunately for Apple, it stands to make a sizeable profit from Pokémania. From purchases on its Apple Store, Apple takes roughly 30% of the revenue.

The game itself may be free to download, but in-game purchases with real money help drive global sales. Again, not the first time we’ve mentioned in-game purchases as they are vital for survivability of the game, particularly among free-to-play titles. If players wanted more supplies, it will come at a price. These prices may seem innocuous at first, but if you multiply that by everyone playing, then the figures go up and up. As Morrow (2016) says, ‘Pokémon GO has generated approximately $35 million in revenue within its first two weeks. The game brings in approximately $1.6 million each day from iPhone users alone. Indeed, a significant number of players who download the app end up paying for items. The ratio of users spending money on the game to the total number of users is about 10 times that of Candy Crush, another free-to-play game that has in-app purchases.’

To put some of that into perspective, Pokémon GO has, by itself, earned more money than several films of 2016 such as Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence, Angry Birds Movie (based on the successful game) and Star Trek: Beyond, all the while being considerably cheaper to produce and without the benefit of large-scale advertising. Nelson (2016) comments, ‘In less than two months after its July 6 launch in the United States, Pokémon GO has brought in more than $440 million in gross worldwide revenue on the App Store and Google Play. This puts publisher Niantic’s net revenue from the app at more than $308 million so far- a figure that has grown by more than $100 million since we last looked at the game’s earnings back on August 5.’ You do not get figures like that without doing something right. Pokémon GO would appear to be the summer’s blockbuster.

Nelson (2016)  further states, ‘As is common with most mobile game launches driven by viral popularity and early adopters, global installs of Pokémon GO have decreased over time, but it has nevertheless managed to surpass 180 million worldwide downloads in its first two months on the App Store and Google Play. To look at this feat from another perspective, we estimate that Pokémon GO has been installed on more than 12 percent of all active US smartphones at some point. It remains the highest grossing mobile game in the US, and it still occupies a top five spot for mobile game downloads on the App Store and Google Play.’

On an economical level, Pokémon GO has provided lucrative opportunities for revenue and growth. In other words, businesses large and small are taking advantage of Pokémania. The increased numbers of people on the prowl for pokémon brings traffic to places and areas, possible far more than usual. As an example, I read how a pizzeria in the US was riding the wave of Pokémania to great success. Recently, it turns out, L’inizio Pizza Bar in Long Island City, New York had a sudden change in menu; not only are they serving pizza and drinks, but also PokéBalls. The owner, Thomas Blaze Lattanzio, brought one of the in-game items called a ‘lure’ for $10. This lure, as the name suggests, ‘attracts’ pokémon to the vicinity, although it’s probably more accurate to say the frequency of pokémon increases rather than all congregating to a specific area. Players would soon find a multitude of pokémon in the pizzeria. It was not guaranteed that every person visiting would turn out to be paying customers, but L’inizio suddenly saw traffic soar by a significant margin nonetheless. You can be sure they aren’t the only ones cashing in.

Massive gatherings of people were documented across the world, such was the social media phenomenon it was. Across the US, national parks have seen an increase of people visiting the area, as well as other public spaces like museums, shopping malls, town square, etc (presumably where PokéStops and Gyms are located). Some places actively encourage and welcomed players, seeing the potential positive public relations the game brought.

However, it must be noted that there have been some negative effects that have sprung up because of this. For one thing, having a mass gathering of people didn’t sit well with certain groups. Pokémon were also appearing at places such as religious sites, memorials, cemeteries, or even quiet residential areas. This has understandably caused some tension among different communities who did not appreciate large groups of people descending. Problems and issues would occur such as littering, excessive noise, rowdy/inappropriate behaviour and safety concerns. Some concerns were raised that the game could be used for illegal data gathering by foreign bodies; others described the game as ‘demonic’ and ‘corrupting’. Niantic would remove pokémon from these sites and reduce the number of PokéStops and Gyms in an effort to relax the numbers. Law enforcement services in different countries have issued warnings for players about being safe while playing the game. However, there are reports of people having a very lax attitude around dangerous places like rail tracks and roads. Sadly, there have been some casualties mainly through distractions and carelessness, although there was a case where a player was murdered in Guatemala.

One of the lasting impressions it made was to bring the idea of augmented reality to a wider audience. While not the first game to incorporate this feature, Pokémon GO has decidedly popularised augmented reality. Up until the game’s release, most people did not know of the company Unity Technologies. The company created the game engine (Unity Engine) on which Pokémon GO used and is also common in a lot of mobile games as well as being prevalent in augmented/virtual reality. Like Niantic, Unity also saw a boost in its profits from new investors in the wake of Pokémon GO, totalling approximately $181 million. Unity also estimates that its software is used predominantly in the upcoming Gear VR, a virtual technology by Samsung, and the Oculus Rift, which uses smartphones as a screen.

In a post back in October 2014, we discussed augmented reality (which I called at the time virtual reality) and how the idea of the Oculus Rift took off. What was presumed to be a niche idea turned out to be a very mainstream one. To re-use an old quote, Martin (2013) said, ‘The excitement surrounding the Oculus was palpable at the Eurogamer Expo, the games show where I tried out its second-generation prototype. This is understandable: to many enthusiasts, the prospect of stepping wholesale into a virtual fantasy world fulfils one of the oldest promises of the medium.’  This has no doubt brought about much of its success and enduring popularity. By blending both real and digital worlds, Pokémon GO has struck a fine balance in bringing people together using a digital interface.

We are at that technological stage where we are bringing the virtual into reality in interesting fashion. Almost two years down the line, people are able to experience this on affordable levels. The augmented reality in Pokémon GO may not be as sophisticated as say the Oculus Rift, but having people interact with something which is, by extension, not even there physically is still effective, and still without being overly nauseating. A simple game, with some augmented reality trickery, has become a global success.

Will There Be Lasting Impressions?

The best measure for these things is time. What is has done is raise some very good points about a multitude of things. For such a simple idea, Pokémon GO took the world by storm, probably surpassing all expectations by Niantic. I would end this by arguing that one of the biggest points it raised is the idea of augmented reality is no longer a niche one. The first sets of augmented reality technology are already on sale in fact.

Has Pokémon GO changed the way we play? I would say not fundamentally, but it has another door, one where fantasy merges with reality. Wait, no, that’s not strictly correct. That door was already open to begin with. Pokémon GO simply drew a long chain of people through it.

The game has been described as being ‘flavour of the month’; the next new fad that will last a few weeks or months. That is definitely a possibility; playing figures have seen a drop since release day. Yet I’ve no doubt that, as of September, I believe it is still going strong. There’s still a big enough community to keep it going; certainly enough for Niantic to keep updating it. Besides, people have to catch ‘em all.

Bibliography

Chris Furniss’ article, ‘Pokémon GO and the good things that can come from a bad UI’: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ChrisFurniss/20160722/277631/Pokemon_GO_and_the_good_things_that_can_come_from_a_bad_UI.php

Jordan Girdam’s article, ‘5 Reasons Pokémon GO’Is So Popular’: https://www.mobify.com/insights/pokemon-go-popular/

Tim Martin’s article ‘The Oculus Rift: Virtual Reality Is No Longer A Joke’

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/10540341/The-Oculus-Rift-virtual-reality-is-no-longer-a-joke.html

Brendan Morrow’s article, ‘Pokémon Go Revenue: How Much Money Has the Game Made?’:

‘Pokemon Go’ Revenue: How Much Money Has the Game Made?

Randy Nelson’s article, ‘Pokémon GO Has Grossed More Than $440 Million, Out-Earning Some of 2016’s Biggest Films’:

https://sensortower.com/blog/pokemon-go-month-two

Chris Willis’ article, ‘Pokénomics: The Secret to the Success of Pokémon GO’:

http://europe.newsweek.com/pokenomics-explaining-success-pokemon-go-phenomenon-financial-nintendo-484951?rm=eu

THE (LATE) ‘THIRD YEAR’ ANNIVERSARY MESSAGE

Hello everyone. I hope you are enjoying the summer; make the most of the sunny weather while you can!

It’s really bad when you’re late to someone’s birthday. I’d say it’s even worse when it’s your own! So here’s a very late birthday to the blog! I think it’s called ‘fashionably late’. Can’t believe it has been three years already. While there is not much in the way of content lately, over three years time, we have steadily added to the blog. I’m pleased ultimately where this is going.

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Looking forward to the 4th one.

Easy As D-L-C

Easy As D-L-C

Hello people of the internet. It’s not usual to have a leap year (since they only have the courtesy of coming every 4 years), so hope you are making the most of February 29th. Aren’t we lucky people? I think it might be a sign of the times…

Following on from the last post where we discussed about microtransactions, the theme of downloadable content was mentioned. It’s a relatable topic, so this post will be a sort of sequel post as we delve into a business practice within the gaming industry going back the years.

Bit-by-Bit

Whenever you pay for something, you expect to get what you paid for. It’s a standard consumer right, right? So when you pay for a loaf, you expect the whole loaf and not one slice. If you pay for a three-course meal, you expect the three-courses. In that respect, when you pay for a videogame, you expect the full game to play. Isn’t that common sense?

But where games differ with loaves is the scope. The nature of games, especially long-running or popular series, allows the opportunity for more content to be added in. For example, Skyrim exists as a regular game, but its fantasy setting and ‘lore’ allows more content to be built around the regular game, essentially expanding its in-game universe. Because all this extra material was created after the regular game came out, it therefore becomes what is known in the videogame industry as ‘downloadable content’.

Downloadable content (DLC) are basically extra add-ons that expands the original game in a multitude of ways (i.e. continuation of the game’s story). Some carry significant content while others are innocuous, such as additional cosmetic items that are more like gimmicks. There generally is no limit to how many DLCs a game can have, but as you can imagine, games falling under the role-playing genre have the biggest scope of how much content can be added as they can be as ridiculous or creative as possible.

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Skyrim’s downloadable content. Each one adds something specifically new to the game.

DLCs are becoming increasingly common in the gaming industry as they take less time to make then a full game, and are therefore less expensive to design and to buy. Even DLCs that contain the smallest of additions can be considered a continuation of the main game. They are a good way of keeping the overall game fresh and continuous, allowing players to carry on playing with variety and interest. The industry rule is that once the main game is out, the developers wait roughly a few months before shipping the first downloadable content. Depending on the game, several months is generally the average of when players start to have exhausted all that the game offers and move onto newer things. Games companies obviously want to keep their players for as long as possible.

Expansionist

Let’s look back in time to where it appeared to have started. Before we had things like Steam making things easy over the web, games had to be brought at the shops. They still are nowadays, but with the capabilities of the internet allowing many of us to do our shopping online, it’s not as it once was. Back then, games – almost exclusively PC ones – were utilising the precusor to DLCs: expansion packs. As the name suggested, expansion packs were extra add-ons to the base game. The way in which PC games were created and designed (all the programming, etc) allowed expansion packs to be readily accessed and built upon. It was easier since the base game was already there and all they needed was to build upon the existing code. Since they were additional content, the price of expansion packs was much less than the regular game. If the full game was £20, generally the expansion pack was around £10, give or take. No-one could not get away with selling the add-on at full price.

In many cases, because the expansion pack was an add-on, you would have had to have the original game to begin with in order to use it. It makes sense because the add-on wouldn’t work without an existing platform to use. A very good example is The Sims series. Where you had the original game, the developers subsequently added more expansion packs that added to what The Sims first brought in. For instance, there was The Sims: Livin’ Large, The Sims: Hot Date, The Sims: Vacation, and many others, all of which added more and more content for the player but still needed the original game as a reference. The more one person had, the more content they could access and play with.

sims expansion packs

The Sims and all its featured expansion packs. Each one adds something new to the base game.

When enough time has passed, often developers would package the games together, labelling them anything from ‘deluxe, gold or game-of-the-year’ editions. These are common industry bywords to denote that players can buy the entire collection: original game and applicable expansion packs, all in one. It usually is a few months later that these editions come out, which is a nice way to ‘rounding up’ the series. It can be expected, given how much time has passed, that buying these editions is a saving to the player.

As time went on, developers started releasing stand-alone expansion packs. These are still expansion packs, only this time they did not need the original game to play. As such, they were still priced less than a full game. However, should one start on these stand-alone packs, they may miss out on a lot of the main content afforded by the original game. Often, this means they don’t have access to certain capabilities or options, but it does allow the game to be more accessible for players who have a slight interest. By not having to have the main game, players can try out stand-alone packs and then branch into the main content if they like what they see. Think of them as a sample.

Keeping It Interesting

Because of the way we use the internet and how significant it is in our lives, it’s no surprise that the gaming industry are also using the internet to its advantage. The internet means the ability to download vast quantities of information and data, making it the preferred way of purchasing games. It’s less likely that someone would go to the shops when they could just do it at the click of a button at home. That’s understandable and I’ve done it myself. You do things to make it easier on yourself, right?

As was said earlier in the post, downloadable content are essentially expansion packs, only they are downloaded instead of being stacked on shop shelves. They still serve the same purpose of adding to existing content which they do by the bucket loads. Because everything is done online, people can buy several DLCs in one sitting and have them all to play later.

Increasingly, with online services like Xbox Live, console gamers are also utilising DLCs that they never could before, including stand-alone packs. Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath required the original Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars to play on the PC, but Xbox 360 versions of both games are available and not mutually exclusive. With these online services, there is a dedicated online store where players can buy things using online payment – think similar to microtransactions before. It’s like having a shop on your games console that you can browse form the comfort of your own home

One of the biggest problems for developers, especially those MMORPG-type games, is keeping a large enough player base to offset the costs of making and running the game. In other words, keeping the interest of the player is critical to ensuring profitability and longetivity not just to the game, but to the companies themselves. Developers are keen to take advantage of that fact by the retention of users. In other words, by periodically releasing DLCs to provide extra content, developers hope to continue to keep the players playing.

This long paragraph gives an insight into the retention of players. ‘A recent study by Juho Hamari –Helsinki Institute for Information Technology– and Aki Järvinen – Digital Chocolate, Inc – shows the importance of DLC for the acquisition, monetization, but more importantly, for the retention of users in social games. Games as a service has established in the industry as a viable model. It’s now possible to acquire users more easily and engage them with good gameplay and then offer virtual goods through in-app purchases that enhance the game’s original experience. This one-two punch is something to have in mind if you want games to last longer: a larger influx of casual players thanks to free-to-play, plus better retention of hard-core gamers who are more likely to spend on DLCs. Greater game longevity can be achieved with a constant stream of DLC releases that help players get a sense of continuing support for the game. It keeps player interest alive thus reducing the drop out. Plus, it can make players who stopped playing to come back and check the new content for the game’ (David Xicota, 2014).

This situation is a concern for many developers, especially small-scale ones, where players are money. As Xicota (2014) stated, DLCs are an excellent way of retaining people to use your products.Many free-to-play games see this as the vaiable way to stay in business. By releasing more content (usually through updates or patches) can they keep things varied. The free-to-play game World of Warships recently added new features to the game, such as dynamic weather effects, as a way of doing something different.

One way in which developers do this is to promote what is known in the games industry as a ‘season pass’. Season passes allows the player to have a yearly privilege of having first access to the upcoming DLCs before anyone else. In better words, it is ‘a system that allows players to pay upfront and receive all of the DLC for a game, including DLC that has not yet been released. This lets players receive a discount compared to buying DLC individually’ (GiantBomb, 2015). These are popular for a dedicated community, such as Borderlands or Skyrim, where DLCs are numerous and extensive. Developers usually announce a series of upcoming DLCs and players can then pay for the season pass, providing access to those DLCs at a discounted price. The idea is to create an incentive to buy not just one, but many DLCs for longer retention of players.

As GiantBomb (2015) writes, ‘for publishers, this bundling together with a discount may influence players who were going to only buy a small amount of DLC to purchase more of it to take advantage of the discount. Additionally, by offering pre-orders of future DLC they can collect revenue before the DLC is officially released. For players, those who were already planning to buy all of a title’s DLC are able to receive a somewhat significant discount.’ Cameron Koch (2015) also argues that ‘videogames are no longer released, purchased, played and put on the shelf. With rising costs, game developers and publishers have looked for ways to bring in more revenue after a game’s release, while also keeping their game in the headlines for longer. The solution they appeared to have settled on is the season pass. For one price, a player can get access to all the additional content that comes out for a game post-release, oftentimes including new missions, multiplayer maps, skins and more. No matter what kind of game it is, nearly every major AAA game released this year will have one. From Batman: Arkham Knight to Star Wars Battlefront, season passes are here to stay.’

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Example of a season pass for Borderlands 2. Players pay a fee to have access to upcoming add-ons and other features.

The idea of the season pass can provide benefits to developers and players alike. For one thing, season pass (and DLCs in general) give that extra bit of income by providing that extra bit of content that does not necessary ask the developers to break the bank. For players, purchasing DLCs doesn’t mean having to spend big for extra content and there are often discounts involved. For developers, DLCs are often much cheaper to produce, but if done right, can pay itself off with a dedicated following to that game. ‘Videogames are not a cheap hobby, but fans who enjoy what a developer is doing don’t appear to have a problem paying more money for more content. Developers wouldn’t spend time making extra DLCs and season passes if players didn’t buy them, and by all accounts, it looks like players most definitely do buy them. Players want more content for their favourite games’ (Koch, 2015).

But Why Pay For More?

While DLCs can be beneficial, they are not without its criticisms, and it comes under some scathing ones. The biggest issue, no surprises, is about money. Just like with microtransactions, there is a sense that developers are far more interested in making as much money as possible by releasing as much extra content as possible. I don’t think anyone begrudges companies making money because they are still a business.

The demanding nature of the gaming industry, coupled with rising costs to developing games, means that companies have to make that money back quickly. As Koch (2015) says, triple-A games are going down the seasons pass route because the developers know that there is a demand for extra content in their games, no matter how trivial these content are. The very popular games like The Sims means they could bring out many DLCs and still sell well. The combined sales figures of the orignal game and all the DLCs could be substantial.

But with DLCs and seasons passes, it just seems more ways to milk the cash cow and fleece people for money. They are willing to pay  but not if they feel if developers are becoming greedy, espceially for content that those not appear to add much back into the main game. As a result, there is the perception that the quality of games in general is lacklustre because of the saturation of DLCs and the desire for companies to make profit. Why would people pay for sub-standard material?

I can only speak for myself here, but I certainly know what it’s like. I get the sense that DLCs are coming out thick and fast. Sometimes they don’t add much to the game; things like cosmetic items don’t seem worth my money. It will pander to the dedicated players but, for the most part, is it really worth it? I guess that is a chioce for each individual person.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant DLCs and add-ons out there that actually do enhance the original game and are worth the money. The game Oblivion had an amazing expansion pack called Shivering Isles which added a whole new area to have fun in. But it seems to me that with DLC after DLC (and mirotransactions thrown in), the focus appears to be about making money fast by throwing things in. I’m not against that so much, but at the expense of quality is an issue I have.

This is where we are at. It’s a demanding industry is the games one. There is a great deal of pressure to deliver on time and companies are under scrunity for their titles. Negative feedback  can be a disaster. The demands and the pressure often mean games are rushed, leading to lesser quality. I can understand the need for profit. But are we getting to a sitatuon where they are so concerned about keeping players that they will churn out DLCs just for the sake of retention?

Or have we got there long ago?

Bibliography

Giantbomb’s article, ‘DLC Season Pass’:

http://www.giantbomb.com/dlc-season-pass/3015-7186/

Cameron Kock’s article, ‘If Video Game Season Passes Are Going To Work, We Need To Know What’s In Them’:

http://www.techtimes.com/articles/96272/20151017/if-video-game-season-passes-are-going-to-work-we-need-to-know-whats-in-them.htm#sthash.N6SCOhxJ.dpuf

David Xicota’s article, ‘What Does DLC Mean for Your Games’:

http://www.gamedonia.com/blog/what-does-dlc-mean-your-games

 

More Than Your Fair Share

Hello people, hope you had a great New Year’s party. I’m sure you kept the drinking to a minimum….

Something that is becoming increasingly commonplace in videogames (among other things) is the topic for this next blog entry, the first of 2016. Picture this scenario: you are playing a game; however, there is in-game content that potentially is beneficial to you. Yet it is not given to you just like that. In order for you to use it, you have to buy it with real money. Sound familiar? Welcome to the prevalent world of microtransactions.

What Are Microtransactions?

Perk (2014) gives a definition: ‘Microtransactions (or micro-transactions or micro transactions) are a term that applies to small value financial transactions that happen within digital games and apps.’ Essentially, microtransactions are all about generating extra money. This business model has been increasingly used as a popular method for companies to do just this. The way it works is that within a game, there are additional (and optional) ‘extras’ people can buy using online payment that provides additional benefits or bonuses to their game, although the reason varies from game to game. In order to purchase in-game content, the player needs to enter their card details just like you’d normally do for online payment (e.g. Amazon purchases).

It must be stressed that microtransactions are not mutually exclusive to videogames. In fact, many other businesses implement them. It’s the same for certain software such as antivirus protection. If you downloaded it from the web, you can pick from the basic version (no charge), or for a fee, the premium version which gives more functions and services. In a way, paying to use a premium account is like giving you ‘preferred customer’ status, allowing you to use more of the service. Other websites such as LinkedIn also uses some form of micropayment, allowing users to ‘upgrade’ to the premium version.

There are a number of reasons why this business model is used. Perk (2014) lists some reasons below:

• 1. Small purchases add up very quickly: Some of today’s highest-revenue apps (games in particular) are free for users to obtain, but earn money with microtransactions. These success stories are evidence that users spend quite a lot of money even when individual purchases are small.
• 2. Free-to-play is growing fast: The trend in digital is decidedly towards a free-to-play app market, in which users expect to download or acquire an app/game for free. In 2013, 90% of the Trillion (yes, that’s a T) dollar app market is free to download.
• 3. Implementing microtranscations is easy: Our SuperRewards platform allows any developer to have microtransactions up and running in a few minutes. This means you can accept payments today for the goods or content that increase engagement and make users happy.

It’s an interesting dynamic in regards to the first point. Imagine an in-game content costing 5p, which doesn’t sound a lot admittedly. But if you have an audience of one million players (perfectly feasible) who all spend that 5p, then you are looking at a profit of £50,000. But then you can have people spending loads more, leading to a greater profit. Sometimes, it’s not question of how much it is, rather how often they spend. That is just an example of the potential profitability of microtransactions.

This business model is increasingly relevant to games colloquially known as ‘free-to-play’. Free-to-play games generally means there is no charge to play the game in its base form, but in order to take advantage of the bonuses or specials, one needs to cough up for the benefit. So in the strictest sense, they are not free-to-play unless you plan on not paying for any benefits. A lot of mobile phone apps fall under this category. There are some pretty big examples such as Farmville, Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja that are free-to-play with optional micropayments.

As Perk (2014) explained, this trend is on the rise. Team Fortress 2 is a very popular game on Steam, which used to be a full game but has since converted to a free-to-play model in order to take advantage of microtransactions, of which there are many. And while I’m on it, Steam itself is a walking billboard for online payments. I’ve been banging on about the Steam Market and all about the collaborations and transactions between the players (insert post link here).

Lori Bray agrees (2013), stating: ‘Keeping the title free means fewer barriers to entry and a more efficient cost-per-install. Micro-transactions also mean that far more granular price points can be developed, converting a wider base of users who might not be willing to maintain a €12/month subscription or purchase a retail box for €30-40.’ Because of this, players are not hit in the pocket quite so much and can spend more on the game as a whole.

How Are They Implemented?

As stated above, microtransations/micropayments are popular within free-to-play games. Let’s face it, game designers have to make money somehow otherwise they’d go bust; same with any other business. Microtransactions are a way of providing an incentive for players to make in-game purchases and keep the game running as a free-to-play model.

The idea of going free-to-play in the first place is to entice players, to get as many people into the game who may otherwise have been put off by the (sometimes) extortionate price tag of retail games. Come on, have you ever seen a game you wanted but bulked at the asking price? Think of the poor people who play on consoles when they have to shell out £40-50 for new games. Free-to-play games offer a different alternative for people who are reserved with their money. The player doesn’t lose out financially if they don’t like the game so it’s less hassle about getting money back.

Many successful free-to-play games are massively multiplayer online role-playing games. This is not surprising given that these MMORPGs can have huge scope in their content. Often the size of the in-game world is vast, allowing players to explore to their heart’s content and therefore allowing developers to maximise micropayments. World of Warcraft is a big player in this genre. When you have as many people as World of Warcraft does, it presents a very good opportunity to rake in the money.

The game introduces in-game items that are extremely valuable, such as extra damage or health boost, but of course, you can’t give it to everyone otherwise that would devalue it. Instead, the developers use micropayments: players wanting the items must pay for it to have the right to use. For these types of games, the ‘money’ is usually called whatever in-game currency the game uses. In World of Warcraft, the terms ‘coin’ or ‘gold’ are used in place of real money in keeping with the game’s fantasy setting. The conversion rate from real money to whatever in-game currency is used varies. For instance, £10 real money equates to ‘£10’ of coin, but not necessary the same value.

Case Study: World of Warships

Let’s look at an example of a free-to-play game, subsuewntly one I have been playing recently. It is called World of Warships, which is part of the Wargaming series. I quite like the cool explosions of battleship guns, but that’s another story.

World of Warships has a loyal and popular following, but that doesn’t mean they can operate completely free. Everyone who creates an account and downloads the game initially does not pay any price to play it. This creates an opportunity for the player to experience what the game offers.

As with many games, there is a system of ‘levelling’. Basically, as the player accumulates more experience and credits in the game, the higher their level goes. Everyone starts at Rank 1, with progression to Rank 11. With more experience gained, players can spend it on better ships.

However, it is a slow process to rank up. As an added incentive, the player may instead purchase what is called in-game as a ‘premium account’ to speed things up a little. There are certain versions to purchase such as 1 Day accounts all the way to 1 Year; it depends how much the player wants to spend. I think the rate for 1 Day is 80p, which is not a lot but can add up with continual use it.

The bonus of having a premium account is 50% extra experience gained in battle. So if I earned 100 experience points, having a premium account would then give me 50% more so I’d end up having 150. It may not seem much but it goes a long way to getting that next best ship. For a while I didn’t spend any money but I eventually did out of curiosity, and I must admit, I have spent more than I’d like to (but still not a lot to make a massive dent in my bank account). That’s the thing with free-to-play games, you spend what seems an innocent amount at first, but it slowly spirals into more as you spend more time in the game. It’s almost like gambling.

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A screenshot of World of Warships ‘Premium Store’ listing various deals on doubloons

There is an in-game currency called ‘doubloons’. Their role is to create a monetary system in the game. A dedicated website ‘store’ allows players to add funds in exchange for doubloons to use in-game. As I said before, real money and in-game money are not necessary the same value. I think 1000 doubloons is £3.60 of real money, which is quite expensive actually. That could buy you a decent lunch. Doubloons can be used to purchase special camouflage, signals, ships or flags to use. Of course, the better the extra, the more it costs.

Paying-To-Win

While microtransactions are beneficial to developers of free-to-play games, the practice has drawn criticisms amide what is perceived as an obvious attempt to fleece more money. No-one denies that companies have to make money anyway, but what is disliked is that with the myriad of microtransactions, it gives the impression that the biggest concern for designers is how to make as much money as possible. According to PCGamer (2013:1), “Free-to-play” and “microtransactions” are dirty terms to some. That’s understandable. Famous Facebook Skinner boxes like Farmville have clouded attitudes toward today’s free-to-play games, and there’s an assumption all microtransaction-driven game design is handicapped by the need to create ways to charge players.’

The article continues to say, ‘a lot of the distrust toward microtransaction-driven games comes down to the way they habitually obfuscate both what exactly you’ll be paying for, and how much you’ll be paying for it. This starts with the standard practice of exchanging of standard currency for fake fun-bucks equivalents. In Rift, it’s “Credits”, in The Old Republic, it’s “Cartel Coins”, in War Thunder, it’s “Golden Eagles”, to name just a few. The deliberately awkward exchange rates are of course designed to hide the actual value of the items you’re buying, but hiding the value of every transaction at this fundamental level appears dishonest. There’s a widespread lack of clarity around the payment systems attached to free-to-play games. The price and payment method of engaging with a game should be quickly apparent, and expressed in a way that lets players know exactly what they’re getting for their money’ (PCGamer, 2013:1).

This point is important, as it can be confusing for players to know exactly what they are potentially buying, and more significantly, whether is it worth it. Here is a screenshot of the store of World of Warships. The in-game currency is doubloons, but you can see the different rates, so for 500 doubloons, you need to pay £1.69. For 30,500 doubloons, the price is £75.50. These are actually very expensive for, to be honest, not that much. You can easily use that many doubloons very quickly and end up spending more real money even quicker. It seems insane to spend that much but people do it.

This environment that free-to-play games promote has lead to the term ‘pay-to-win’ which is not complimentary by any means. Pay-to-win is the idea that in order for you to have success in the game, you need to spend real money for those special bonuses and abilities. For balancing purposes, these extras are mainly cosmetic items such as clothes or costumes so as not to give too much of a disadvantage to those who have not paid. However, depending on the game, it doesn’t work like that. Some games clearly have a competitive edge so players who spent have an advantage to possessing powerful items like weapons which can’t be obtained any other way.

So I guess what the real reason as to why pay-to-win exists as a term is the principle behind micropayments. As Phil Hartup (2015) writes, ‘Principles, even in something as wretched as the videogames industry, matter. What Konami and other companies are up to represents a very real problem in videogames. The wanton, gratuitous monetisation of any aspect of any game that a developer thinks they can squeeze a dollar out of is a sickness within the industry and it’s not without consequences. Games are built to accommodate pay-to-win mechanics.’

He goes on to say, ‘The greed of the games industry manifests itself in other ways too. The pre-order culture that now employs glorified pyramid schemes to secure early sales. Paid-for mods, a concept roundly rejected by players that may yet resurface with the release of Fallout 4. The pre-order DLC (downloadable content) packs where developers place chunks of content behind unnecessary pay walls or tied to specific sellers, preventing players from owning the whole game on launch day’ (Hartup, 2015).

I have to agree somewhat with what he’s saying. Sadly, it is increasingly becoming the standard industry practice. We looked at paid-for-mods in a previous post regarding Skyrim and that idea did not go down well with the players. They feel mods should be accessible so by slapping a price tag on them it restricts access. Again, it’s not about so much the money, it’s about the principle being implemented that it’s just another way to gain it.

For free-to-play games, nobody denies the developers shouldn’t make money from them. Yet with the myriad of potential in-game content, it seems that to get anywhere in the game, you have to spend, and spend lots. World of Warships has a levelling system where you’d have to raise enough points to get the next best ship. The process gets exponentially longer the higher you go, so it almost feels ‘obliged’ or even ‘necessary’ to upgrade to a premium account to get there faster.

This Is This Reality?

It would certainly seem so. In a world where we spend so much, so fast online, it was only a matter of time before the idea of micropayments caught on in games. In fact, the free-to-play model has expanded the games industry to accessible levels, allowing even the smallest of companies to grow that wouldn’t have been possible if they sold their titles in retail. Ethan Levy (2014) makes this point, summarising, ‘meanwhile, the influence of free-to-play has only grown over time. Not only was it the dominant business model on social network and mobile phone games, but its influence could be felt on console and PC, too. Struggling subscription-based MMOs found sustainable success in microtransactions (MTX), Team Fortress 2 went free-to-play and League of Legends conquered the world while selling champions and skins. F2P juggernaut World of Tanks was ported to the 360.’

Levy (2014) adds, ‘last month I ran a survey about gamers’ DLC and MTX purchasing habits. Over 2,700 gamers answered questions about how they have spent their money in the past 3 months. The results may surprise you. 1 in 10 gamers have purchased MTX in a premium AAA game in the past 3 months. 6 in 10 gamers have played a free-to-play mobile game in the past three months and 1 in 10 have made a MTX purchase in those games…these are, on average, 25 to 34-year-old men with full-time jobs making microtransactions inside premium console and free-to-play mobile games.’

Of course, this is not without its criticisms as we’ve had a look at. I’m not suggesting that companies shouldn’t make money, of course they do. But some of the practices do seem like fleecing people for extra money and the games industry is a lucrative business. The fact that there are so many microtransactions in-game accessible only by paying seems to reinforce this. Some of these micropayments may seem small at first, but continual usage will begin to dent the wallet.

Even AAA games have taken this route with what is called a ‘season pass’. It basically means that the player has paid for all the upcoming downloadable content (DLC) for a season. I think what we’ll begin to expect is that people will have to buy the game ‘in pieces’. As Perk (2014) said before, small payments add up big-time. If you have enough people paying then companies can bank a tidy sum, far more than they could if sold in shops.

I try not be against micropayments because I know they are vital for smaller companies to get recognition and profit. It’s hard enough in an already-congested industry to make a name for yourself as it is. But with free-to-play on the rise, as a gamer myself, I certainly  understand the criticisms of microtransactions and what they represent. It’s not nice to pay for something only to have to pay for something else just to get anywhere in the game. Before you know it you spend far more than you wanted. It’s easy to do that at the click of a button.

Bibliography

Lori Bray’s article ‘Microtransactions: 3 Common Mis-conceptions’

 http://www.gamesparks.com/blog/micro-transactions/

Phil Hartup’s article ‘Pay-Win, How Videogame Companies Exploit Players Deliberatrely’

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/games/2015/10/pay-win-how-videogame-companies-exploit-players-deliberately-poor-design

Ethan Levy’s article ‘Why microtransactions aren’t going away anytime soon’

http://kotaku.com/why-microtransactions-arent-going-away-any-time-soon-1674260827

PCGamer’s article ‘Microtransactions: the good, the bad and the ugly’

http://www.pcgamer.com/microtransactions-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/

Perk’s article ‘What are micro transactions and how do developers use them?’

http://www.superrewards.com/micro-transactions

 

 

Welcome 2016

Hello everyone. Hope you all had a lovely Christmas and are enjoying the festivities. Who ate all the mincepies?

So we come to the end of 2015. It surely must not just be me to feel it has flown by. One minute I was saying hello to 2015, next I’m saying goodbye. In fact, we’ll be saying hello to 2017 in no time at all.

What are your resolutions for 2016, the same as before? Whatever they are (or if you don’t have any), have a great New Year, and I’ll see you then!

 

 

Happy Christmas, Everybody!

So the year is almost at an end, but before it is, there’s a little thing called Christmas. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I hope you will have a fantastic Christmas with the family as it only comes once a year. Hope you’ve done your shopping and your presents all wrapped up.

I realise it has been since May I last posted, but something called life has been getting in the way. Sorry about that. There are ideas and topics I want to discuss, but perhaps they should be something for 2016. In fact, it won’t be long before we are waving goodbye to 2015. What are your plans for the New Year?

So there it is, have a wonderful time. Just make sure to wear those Christmas jumpers!