Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to make more money with Rock Band

This will be more constructive than me saying “Most of the downloadable content for Rock Band sucks.”

But let me start by saying that most of the downloadable content for Rock Band sucks.

However, after stewing about it for a while, I’ve realized the problem (and yes, I’m probably about 6 months behind everyone else…)

At 3 songs per week, Harmonix can’t win. Even if they appease me by releasing nothing but my favorite songs for the next 10 years, a huge part of their (real and potential!) audience will be frustrated with what they consider crappy music. There are just too many genres, interests, passions, etc out there for a single company to nail them all.

The solution is to:
  1. Release a tool that lets everyday people create their own songs for Rock Band.
  2. Set up and promote a central community website that lets people reward each other for good work.
  3. Charge a subscription fee to access the site and download songs into your X360/PS3 etc (because MTV or whoever does need to make money.)

The owners must be so concerned that if they release a song-creation tool, they lose control of a property which has such huge potential and which they currently monopolize. The problem is that right now, despite selling however many tracks as DLC, Rock Band is just hinting at its amazing potential. To realize that potential, they need to let the teeming masses start producing content as well.

But MTV can still make money! If they control the community content site, and charge something like $10 a month to download the fan-made songs, they will make a lot of money. I guarantee you I’m not spending $10 a month right now on DLC! But the real difference wouldn't be the spend per customer (though it would probably increase); it's that the number of customers will skyrocket. Indie bands – and even record companies, superstars who own their own distribution rights, etc – could take on the burden of getting their songs converted into Rock Band format instead of Harmonix. Such bands would then encourage all their friends, family and fans to get Rock Band to access their newest tracks.

I'm sure it takes skill to make a song fun to play in Rock Band. Undoubtedly, there would be user-submitted tracks that suck. But by building a community, skilled creators would build a name for themselves, and eventually those folks would get paid by bands like Nine Inch Nails to convert their songs (guaranteeing that the resulting track is fun to play in-game.)

Instead of 3 songs a week, the floodgates would open and we'd have a new medium that’s better than radio or music videos or X for getting songs out to new demographics. And meanwhile, thanks to a monthly subscription with way more participants than they have buying DLC today, MTV collects waayyy more dough than they are today.

Rock Band Stakeholders: it’s not your fault you haven’t done this yet. It would be a huge and costly undertaking, with all sorts of risk (real and imagined.) But stop thinking of Rock Band like just another record store or radio station. Those distribution channels all work the same way, and I know it’s your bread-and-butter and what put you where you are today. But the infrastructure for what you could be doing wasn’t around even 5 years ago, which means that your marketing courses in school didn’t cover an appropriate business model. It just wasn’t there.

So MTV/Harmonix/etc, let me make you a deal: let us take on the burden of content creation for your amazing product, and you just sit back and ride the wave of profits all the way to the bank!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thou Shalt Treat Thine Cardboard Box with Care

The mighty Destructoid had a contest the other day to photoshop (aka shoop) together images from Metal Gear and the Bible.

I couldn't find any inspiring pictures to work with, so I decided instead to write my own 10 Commandments based on some of the funnier quotes from the series. To my surprise, it was included in Rev. Anthony's follow-up article on religious symbolism in the Metal Gear series.

This will probably be a waste of your time unless you really like MGS:

PS: The commandments are all very closely based on actual quotes from the series. And at least on the right-hand stone, I tried to make a few of them echo the original commandments...

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ultra-atheist game is proof of art

Here's a follow-up to my article which examined whether games can be art.

This post on the mighty Destructoid attacks an indie game in which the premise is to cut-off all of the strife caused by religious maniacs by travelling back in time to assassinate Mohammed, Abraham, and the authors of the Bible. The editor, Qais, hadn't made much of an impression on me so far (where's muh Summa and Nex!) but this ignorant post certainly knocks him down to the bottom of the list.

I'm not saying I endorse the fiction of murdering a few guys who (as far as I know) were doing their best to make the world a better place. But to call this concept nothing more than a cry for attention (and much worse) is a reminder of how narrow-minded otherwise intelligent people can be.

My comment in the article's message board (edited to remove a snarky remark that wouldn't work out-of-context):
This is some of the best proof yet that games can be art (provoke an emotional response AND convey a deliberate message.) The author is courageous, not a troll. And the fact that s/he wanted to remain anonymous isn't cowardice - it's a precaution warranted by the sad fact that there are zealous maniacs (of every stripe) in this world. BRAVO!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cooperative Spore

I tend to ramble about the concepts of Cooperation and Competition over on my other blog, Casual CAS.

Here's a link to a post with a Will Wright interview in which he talks about Spore, and how it illustrates the way in which competition forces individuals to cooperate in order to out-compete mutual enemies.

Competitive pressure drives organizational structures towards ever-greater complexity, as previously unrelated entities are forced to either stand together or fall apart. My favorite book "Nonzero" calls this the "logic of human destiny": the reason why sentient life, societies, and world wars were inevitable from the time the first single-celled organisms appeared.

I previously wrote my own little app called the Rise of Cooperation which attempts to show some of the logic of cooperation in a very simple scenario. Let me know if you check it out! :)

Monday, March 31, 2008

I Have Found the Red Diamond

If you know what this means, we can now respect each other.
If you don't, it's better that you don't click the image.
PS: It's all my beloved Destructoid's fault.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Economy of Actions

wotc_Rodney put up an amazing post about a concept he calls the "Economy of Actions". This goes immediately into my collection of soundbites for game development.

"it seems like one of the most important commodities any player can have is simply the ability to take an action.
...By taking an action, you are expending a resource...every [game] that limits the number of actions you can take on your turn has an underlying economy that assigns value to these actions."

That's a really eye-opening observation (for me, anyway.) It hits very close to home for a prototype I'm working on right now, where players compete for the abilityto take various actions, and the win condition is basically "be able to take more actions than the other players."

Rodney follows through on the idea a bit:
" a real economy, if you manage your resources and spend them on appropriate actions and at appropriate times, you gain advantage.
...action denial or action hoarding not only tips the balance on the economy of actions, it can lead to a game just not being any fun. One of the worst feelings is sitting there with a hand full of cards (or whatever) and not getting any actions..."

This last remark about how un-fun it is to watch other people take a ton of actions is good because it reminds me I have to be really careful about my aforementioned win condition...

Monday, March 3, 2008

Teaching Magic

MaRo posted an article today on bringing new players into Magic. It was a decent article, but there is tons more to say on how to introduce the game. So here are my thoughts on teaching Magic - I’ve taught about 25 people to play and they’ve all stuck with it. Most have gone on to drafting, and some attend pre-releases.

Deck Building
Building the training decks is hugely important. Sadly, your trainees will never appreciate the effort you put into it, but if you get it wrong they’ll have zero chance of learning and enjoying the game.

Always start with mono-white versus mono-red. Magic is so deep, and there is so much flavor in the mechanics of most cards – but most of it fails the “KISS” rule. The absolute simplest setup for a new player to parse is:
Red cards hurt the other player.
White cards help you.

Keep the cards as vanilla as possible. Choose sorceries instead of instants; avoid keywords other than maybe flying, first strike, and vigilance. (Remember, the rookie has no frame of reference, so they won’t care that card X is strictly better than card Y. If Y is simpler, go with Y.) If you pick the most boring cards in your collection, you’re probably doing well.

Keep the cards as vanilla as possible (part II). No spells with X in the mana cost or any sort of alternate/additional casting cost!!! No artifacts – they’re meaningless until you’re using a multicolor deck.

The Intro Speech
“In Magic, each player represents a wizard casting magical spells. You’re trying to defeat the other wizard by reducing them from 20 hit points to 0. Each player has a deck of cards that represents magic spells. In the game, there are different “colors” of magic spells but for now we’re only using two – this deck is full of red cards that damage the other player; while this deck is full of white cards that heal you, with a few that hurt the other player. We each get one deck – which would you like to use first?”
(They usually pick red.)

The First Game
After drawing starting hands, reveal both and briefly describe the difference between “Lands” and “Everything else”. Make sure they have some lands in their own opening hand.
If you need them to mulligan, gloss over why and don’t even think about making them drop to 6 cards!!!

Write down the turn order for them. In fact, start off with just “Draw; Play a land; Play spells; End”
Then at the start of their 2nd turn, put “Untap” before “Draw”. Continue to fill in phases on their little cheat sheet as they become needed.

Don’t talk about strategy. Well, talk about strategy, but not what you – the expert – would consider strategy.
This is good: “You should try to attack me every turn because you want to reduce my hit points to 0.”
This is ok: “If you attack me while I have a stronger creature, my creature will block yours and kill it.”
This is not ok: “Hold on to your instants until as late as possible in the combat phase.”

Keep Telling Yourself…
Don’t try to win. There are all sorts of theories about whether you do harm or good by letting beginners win - but with 100% certainty you do harm by intimidating the rookie into quitting. Believe me, the rules of the game alone are already doing a good job of that. Furthermore, as a player gets close to losing, they start to panic and will stop retaining new concepts. Whatever "bad habits" you encourage in the player by taking it easy on them in their first few games are easily changed once they have a mental framework upon which to hang some strategy.

Avoid or gloss over as much as you can on every card. Don’t try to explain sorcery vs. instant until you have to; don’t show off and use instants at the end of the rookie’s turn before you untap.

Everything boils down to this: new players have no frame of reference. They don’t know that 3 damage for 1 mana would be good while 1 damage for 3 mana would be bad; they don’t know what creatures are; they don’t know what blocking is -- and once they do, it will be confusing that their creature can’t attack yours directly but yours can block theirs.

Try to introduce the smallest amount of “stuff” you can on every card. Don’t try to crush them. Regretfully acknowledge throughout the first game that it’s really hard to learn; as they start getting concepts down, start mentioning how much more fun it is once you start using other colors in the same deck.

Deleted Scene – Theme Decks instead of Deck-Building?
MaRo suggested in his article that you use 10th Edition theme decks for training. I’d never looked at them before so I took a quick glance at the red one. It looks pretty safe, but Incinerate should not be in a training deck. This leads me to a little section I like to call…

Why Incinerate should not be in a training deck:
It’s an instant.
In the rules text alone, Incinerate introduces four new effects to the poor beginner:
direct damage
direct damage to a creature or player
a means of circumventing regeneration

This is four cards worth of new material for the new player to parse - ideally, you’d introduce these one deck at a time. #2 is only cool after you’ve seen a spell that can only damage a creature and a spell that can only damage a player. Don’t even put a regeneration card into a deck until they’ve seen a few creatures die from combat and direct damage (let alone a card that circumvents regeneration!)

In fact, pondering why Incinerate was a bad choice for a training deck has led me to this idea: choose each card for a training deck the same way you would choose cards for a combo deck. If the card doesn’t directly serve the purpose of the combo, then try not to include it. Now, substitute “teaching exactly one new concept” for “the combo” and you have a good philosophy for training deck-building.

Friday, January 4, 2008


WotC has started previewing cards from Morningtide, the expansion set for Lorwyn.

It looks like Morningtide is going to play very well with my set - some very similar mechanics and themes being explored. THIS IS FANTASTIC NEWS FOR ME BECAUSE IT VALIDATES THE WORK I'VE BEEN DOING; THERE IS NO CHANCE THAT WotC "STOLE" ANY OF THE IDEAS!!! Of course, my set has no focus on "Tribal", but other than that there are several areas of commonality.

Both sets have:
  • "+1/+1 counters" sub-theme.
  • "creature tokens" theme (much bigger in my set than in Morningtide.)
  • "top card of your library matters" sub-theme (WotC's "Kinship" mechanic did a much better job of this than my "Mindfly" mechanic - see below)
  • "converted mana cost matters" sub-theme (I did a much better job of this than WotC did - see below. Note that I'm stretching clash pretty thin to say that Morningtide has a "converted mana cost matters" theme.)
  • I'm going to stretch the comparison almost to breaking here and suggest that there's also a shared theme of "alternate uses for cards" as well thanks to their "Reinforce" and my "Debris" concepts.
I'm going to talk a bit about how Lorwyn block and my set explored these themes.

Converted mana cost matters
You're probably thinking that I must have looked at different Lorwyn/Morningtide cards than you did if I think there's a "CMC-matters" theme in there. But there is, because of Clash. What baffles me is that they didn't build more of the block around "CMC-matters" to create some synergy with Clash. There's nothing about the Lorwyn block that says "this set would suffer if we took clash out"; by contrast, think about what would happen to Odyseey block if they took out Threshold.

Top card of your library matters
Clash and Kinship both care about the top card of your library. I have a similar theme in that there are a) many effects that reveal the top card of your library, and b) several effects that trigger when they are revealed from the top of your library.

The cards in my group "a" are fine, but the cards in group "b" are weak because they require that you also have a card from group "a" to use them! I solved this by putting a lot of group "a" cards into the set, but the real solution would have been to replace "b" with a mechanic that is self-contained.

To be fair to myself, you can look at a ton of official cards and see that they're only good if surrounded by related cards (ex: any Tribal card.) But now that I've noticed this, I'm irritated that I designed something like it into my set - it feels like it's just one step above the cards in the Star Wars and Star Trek games that say something like "play this only if you have Luke Skywalker at the Death Star" or "if you have Data on the Enterprise then X..." etc.

Finally (I as I mentioned above), I'm surprised at how isolated Clash is from the rest of the set in terms of "CMC-matters"; well I'm equally surprised that both Clash and Kinship live without a mechanic that manipulates the top card of your library (ex: Scry).

Click the following links to see some Morningtide cards alongside related ones of mine:

+1/+1 counters become creatures

Reveal top card of library to create a creature token

Blue manipulating +1/+1 counters

Blue creates X creature tokens

(There are links to my set's "spoiler" cardlists in the bar on the right-side of your screen.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Context matters

Once again, I'm very impressed with Devin Low (Magic's Lead Developer).

He just put up an article that directly mirrors a constant inner dialogue I have while working on my cards:
If somebody sees this one card but not the rest of the set, they'll think it sucks.

And I suppose there's no getting around that. But hopefully they've read Low's article about how you need Context before you can evaluate a card.

Because my set is super-fun (and appears to be) balanced right now!!!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

New Set v4

Hi there, I just realized I haven't put up a spoiler and devnotes since before my very first playtest!

Here is the Oracle-style text spoiler.
Here is the HTML version which includes all of my Developer Notes, chronicling how the set has changed over time. If you're familiar with the WotC design articles, you'll find these similar to their Multiverse excerpts (except that mine is the sole, lonely voice to be heard in these Notes...)

I'm also putting permanent links to the most-current spoilers on the side of the blog page.

Playtest 4 with a Sweet Combo

Hi there, just wanted to describe a very cool moment from printrun #4. My brother Gord was in town, so along with brother Ali and the infamous MN we drafted the set.

It felt much more like a real set this time around. I'd put alot of work into moving cards around within the rarities to more closely match official cards, and also tuned the number of enchantments, sorceries, instants, etc in accordance with their color. The draft made it apparent that there were still some issues (a few annoying rares, a few unplayable commons) but overall it drafted/played very well.

Anyway, the best part of it for me was a wicked combo Gord put together during our game. I'm not sure if he drafted it intentionally, but it rocked. I learned about it thus:
Turn 3: Gord played Shepherd of Decay. No problem - I had the higher life total, and some token generation in hand to boot.
Turn 5: Gord played Skyshield Squadron. Hrm, frustrating because I was still holding a mitt full of token generation, but I figured I would win the race if he didn't drop a ton of tokens.
Turn 6: Gord played Suspended Howlers :(
Turn 7: Suspended Howlers triggered; Gord gained his 6 life and Shepherd's 2nd ability came online.

Gord started Shepherding for 4 damage a turn along with ground assault and the game ended miserably for me :)

But it was awesome because I'd never thought about this combo before. I was mainly thinking of the Shepherd in mono-black Husk generating decks...But at the same time, if you read the developer notes for the set, you'll see an awful lot of comments saying "Token Related"...Meaning that there are an awful lot of cards that should fit together without being explicitly planned as such. It was really exciting to see the set-building philosophy pay off!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Lowdown

Also wanted to make a quick note: Devin Low (the Magic Director of Development) has been putting up some articles that totally kick my ass.

In the past, I never found the Development articles to contain enough technical nitty-gritty to help me out. But Devin's articles have really been an eye-opener. Especially this one - I have been waiting a long time for that article.

These articles gave me the nudge to figure out the problem I described in the last couple posts (why weren't my mechanics showing up in draft??)

Thanks Devin!

Planning Mechanics

I love it when a good plan comes together; I just wish I'd had one a few months ago!

I'm going to reiterate a bit of previous stuff to show why seeding mechanics is so difficult if you don’t have a deliberate strategy.

Previously, I mentioned that I had a ridiculously low quantity of common cards that play into the “token” theme, yet thought I was right on the money. How could I have been so off-track??

If you look at the roadmap for mechanics I gave in the last article, you’ll see that my new target is 38 cards that are part of the “tokens” theme. I also said that I figure roughly 60% of the cards in a theme should be at common. (In this case, I’m actually going with 55% at common.)
Tokens: 38 cards
Target: 55% of these at common
Total target for common cards in theme: 21 cards

How many did I actually have at common?
18 cards.

18 cards instead of 21 – not bad for having worked without a plan, right? And yet something went wrong – we never had enough tokens in our games to use the cool effects that relate to tokens…And I had to dig a bit deeper to find out why:
Tokens theme: 18 cards (yay!)
Cards that generate tokens: 5 (doh!)
Cards that punish tokens: 8 (double-doh!)
Cards that leverage/reward tokens: 5

So my roadmap has to contain more detail than just “qty of cards with mechanic X”. I actually have to identify – for each mechanic – how many cards have the mechanic; how many punish/prevent it; and how many reward/leverage it. And figure out (through trial and error) what makes for a good balance in these categories (generate/punish/reward).

And that’s the real subtlety (or at least it was too subtle for me to realize intuitively):It isn't good enough to say "There are 18 cards in the token theme at common", because it matters what those cards are doing with the theme.

Instead of having 13 common cards that generate tokens, I had only 5! Not only that: instead of a mere 3 that punish (i.e. destroy) tokens, I had 8! Ouch!

I hope this is of some use to somebody out there. I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into my set already, and now I have a bunch more ahead of me to shape it into what I really want it to be. If I’d planned better up front, I would be much further along now.

(Having said all that, I had to go through a certain amount of brainstorming-type design simply to hit on mechanics/themes that I liked enough to build a set around. But I should have switched to “planning” mode way earlier on…)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Seeding Mechanics

In the previous post, I showed how poorly I planned the "seeding" of my mechanics throughout the set. To resolve this problem, I did some Gathering and came up with the following list of "card counts by mechanic" from a few sets:

Bushido (CHK 17/291)
Splice (CHK 15/291)
Arcane (CHK 53/291) (It's actually 68 but I subtracted the number of Splice cards)
Soulshift (CHK 12/291)
Flip cards (CHK 10/291)

Morph (ONS 47/335)
Cycling (ONS 31/335)
"creature type" (ONS 34/335)
Zombie (ONS 25/335)
Soldier (ONS 24/335)
Cleric (ONS 30/335)
Goblin (ONS 23/335)
Elf (ONS 20/335)
Beast (ONS 36/335)

Threshold (OD 44/335)
Flashback (OD 30/335)
Discard (OD 47/335)
Sacrifice (OD 61/335)

Summarizing and percent-izing:
Morph 14%
Cycling 9%
"creature type" 10%
Zombie or Elf or Goblin or etc ~7%
Threshold 13%
Flashback 9%

(I think the CHK counts are so low because a ton of space in that set went to Legend stuff, but it would be a little more time consuming to come up with useful numbers there. In any case, I'm ignoring them as a result.)

I've come up with the following guidelines for myself:
  1. Most of the cards that have or cause a particular mechanic will be in common; say 60%
  2. Most of the cards the punish or leverage a mechanic will be in uncommon; say 25%
  3. Any cards that push the envelope on power level and/or are relatively complex will be in rare; say 15%

And here is my order of importance for the mechanics in my set.
  1. Resonate
  2. Tokens
  3. "CMC matters" (CMC = Converted Mana Cost)
  4. Debris (lands as a resource beyond mana generation...)
  5. Mindfly (if this is revealed from the top of your library...)
  6. +1/+1 Counters

Putting the above together with the fact that I want a 289-card set, I've come up with the following roadmap for "seeding" mechanics:

...And off we go!!!

Theme, or lack thereof

So despite the debacle of the last playtest (organizationally speaking), the guys had fun and generated a ton of useful feedback.

One thing that was interesting to me is that (despite my claiming to have solved this problem) there still were nowhere near enough cards at common to allow players to really use the different themes at work in the set...

So I did some counting...

Cards that generate Tokens
Common: 5/115
Uncommon: 15/85
Rare: 11/65

Cards that punish Tokens
Common: 8/115
Uncommon: 6/85
Rare: 6/65


So, 4% of my commons generate tokens (the 2nd most important "mechanic" in the set), and yet I walked into the playtest thinking the idea was well-represented!!!

Suffice to say, I'm about to count up the other themes as well, and have some major work to do before print #4...