I’ve beaten every single level in Angry Birds Stella. It’s got two episodes, each containing about 70 levels. I’m going to give myself a little time to think it over a bit. I’ve also started playing League of Legends more seriously. I figure I should try to achieve a decent level of skill in at least one competitive game, and League seems to have the largest audience. Expect a return to my usual update schedule soon.
Last week, Rovio released Angry Birds Stella, the latest game in the Angry Birds family. I’m going to be talking about this a lot over the next week, but for today, let’s talk about the first thing that clearly jumps out, the thing that we can’t ignore (nor should we).
The protagonist of Angry Birds Stella is female.
Her identity is core to the game’s identity. Her name, Stella (written in smooth, flowing strokes), dwarfs the Angry Birds logo (written in rough blocky lettering). On the loading/title screen, she takes up nearly a third of the screen space. The game’s icon, which represents the game to all its players, is a confident shot of her face.
Angry Birds is enormous, and using a female protagonist in its latest game is a major step forward in an industry unfortunately dominated by a single gender and where protagonists are male by default. Stella has been placed in the spotlight, but has she been placed there responsibly?
The first thing that’s bound to come up is that she’s got an awful lot of gender signifiers on her. Her name is written in pretty flowing lines. She’s got prominent eyelashes. On the app icon, one of her head-feathers is bent over her face, suggesting long hair. Also, she’s pink. I realize it might be a silly question to ask if this female protagonist is too female, and that’s not really a question I think I can answer. We live in a society where beings are assumed to be male by default. Signifiers have to be added to indicate that these characters are female. We don’t live in a world where Pac-Man needs a mustache so we understand that he’s male. We look at Pac-Man and make a completely arbitrary assumption that he’s male.
On this subject, I feel that it might have been an unfortunate necessity to go heavy on feminine signifiers to communicate without any doubt that Stella is a female bird, or people would assume she was male. However, it may have gone a bit far. One friend assumed that all of the other birds present were males. Stella’s female signifiers were so strong that it ended up overshadowing the female signifiers in the other characters; her pinkness drowns out everyone else’s eyelashes. At least she isn’t wearing a bow.
The second question that comes to mind is this: Is this just Angry Birds For Girls? There’s a lot of “For Girls” versions of things, and I think it’s unnecessarily harmful to assume that toy products are, by default, for boys. I mean, take a look at this thing:
It’s Jenga. “Girl Talk” pink Jenga, advertising itself with phrases like “Solid wood blocks are pretty in pink!” I’m sure the product designers meant well, but when you release a special Jenga for girls, you’re saying that regular Jenga is for boys.
Fortunately, Rovio didn’t intend this. Blanca Juti, Rovio’s Chief Marketing Officer stated, “Just as I hope people don’t think Star Wars is for boys, I hope they don’t say this is just for girls.” In fact, she takes it a step further. “We want to challenge stereotypes, both on girls – that they only play easy games – and on boys, that they don’t like anything pink. We really want to challenge this, and there is already a bit of a movement around it.” I’m pleasantly surprised by this stance. They intend to challenge stereotypes going both ways! From what I’ve played, the game is certainly about as difficult as your regular Angry Birds game, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. Outside of the main character being pink instead of red, it looks just like any other Angry Birds game, albeit with a tropical flair. The map selection uses flowers to represent levels, but I associated them more with the tropical theme than with being girly. It didn’t even occur to me that they could be read as feminine until I was about to hit “Publish”.
Over half of the people who watched the game’s trailer on Facebook are men, so maybe this game will be a force for positive social change. However, I admit I’m not completely certain of that; men and boys are not the same thing. While the trailer has attracted a lot of male attention on Facebook, Facebook’s users are not, primarily, children. I love the pink protagonist, but I’m not sure that a little boy would. If we end up with a scenario where Stella enjoys an adult male audience but not a young male audience, I suppose that would count as an improvement, even though it falls short of my hopes. At the very least, I hope that a boy who isn’t interested in Stella might reconsider if he sees an older relative playing.
In spite of all this ambiguity, there’s one element that I feel is a clear step in the right direction. Stella is a powerful heroine of action.
When the Stella character first debuted in Angry Birds Seasons, her special ability was that she could blow bubbles to trap blocks and pigs. Now, she can change her trajectory in mid-flight at a moment’s notice, turning into a ricocheting meteor that smashes her way through physical and social barriers. She’s an active protagonist with energy to burn, and she feels powerful. Sure, she’s pink and girly, but I think that might ultimately work in her favor. She can be a fun and powerful protagonist without having to abandon feminine traits or adopt masculine ones, and if audiences of all ages and genders can embrace that, that would be fantastic.
I realize I’ve brought up a lot of points of contention in this post, and I just want to make it clear that I feel that Angry Birds Stella has a lot of positive social potential. It’s a game with a female protagonist who carries power while embracing stereotypical femininity, they’ve created a deliberate link between stereotypical femininity and power, sending a strong message that being a hero is not exclusively a masculine trait. Stella is being welcomed by men, so maybe we’ll see more female protagonists going forward. It’s not perfect; while her signifiers embrace femininity, it might be playing too close to stereotypes, and might also turn off some male gamers. Still, I feel that if a male and female gamers alike can enjoy a popular game with a heroic female protagonist, that’s a great step down the right path.
I mentioned before in my post about advertising that the free to play model would benefit tremendously from new revenue streams. The Extra Credits video series just put up a new video voicing all of my concerns far better than I could.
Summed up, the aggressive targeting of whales is getting out of hand. Whales certainly have their place, but if games cater exclusively to them, there’s going to be a death spiral. This situation isn’t just bad for those games; it’s bad for the entire free to play industry, which is picking up a pretty bad reputation. Things don’t have to be like this. Blizzard, Riot, and Valve are making money through free to play without having to target such a tiny fragment of the population.
I think we should all consider what is necessary for the free to play industry to remain sustainable. There’s a lot of potential for good here, and it’d be a shame to waste it.
I’m a firm believer that in most cases, it’s best for a freemium game to give the hard currency (or items obtainable only through hard currency purchases) away for free every once in a while. At first, this might seem counter-intuitive. Why would players pay money for something they can get for free? Two big reasons off the top of my head:
Reason One: It gives them a taste.
If you’ve been to Costco or a farmer’s market, you see this all the time. A player is much more likely to make a purchase if they know for a fact that they’re going to like it, and nothing sways a decision like first-hand experience. If a player is on the verge of buying something, a positive memory could be the deciding factor.
Reason Two: It creates a mental exchange rate.
This is a little trickier to explain, but here goes. If I’m playing a game and I look at the store, my mind filters the store’s items into two categories: Soft currency items and hard currency items. I separate the game’s items into “Regular items” and “Items for people who pay money.” If there’s no method to gain hard currency for free, and the game has yet to convince me to pay, then those hard currency items don’t even occupy my mindspace as something I could buy.
However, if I do get a slow trickle of hard currency, I can’t really ignore those premium items anymore. Something happens to the way I process that information. The hard currency doesn’t just have a dollar amount tied to it. The hard currency also starts to represent time spent playing the game.
Here’s an example: Clash of Clans is the number one top-grossing iOS game right now. You can build structures, but those structures take time to build, and you can only have as many active construction projects as you have Builder’s Huts.
Buying a third Builder’s Hut costs 500 gems. You can pay $5 for it, but you can also slowly earn those gems over the course of days or weeks. That third Builder’s Hut is no longer something “for paying players.” It’s a thing that anyone can get if they put the time into it. A player starts having to ask themselves if it’s worth spending weeks grinding in order to save $5, and the answer is obvious.
Would as many players convert into paying players if gems couldn’t be earned and they never had that mental exchange rate? I have my doubts.
This week’s game release is going to be a little different. I was sorting through my hard drive and I found an old project of mine, Escape from Midnight Mansion. I’d like to share it with you. I graduated from San Francisco State University’s industrial design department (with a focus in digital media), and for my senior project, I decided to make a board game to help encourage cooperation in children. They’ve got a host of competitive board games, so why not throw some variety at them and maybe make a positive change in their lives?
The basic concept is that you’re a group of kids locked in Midnight Mansion, and you need to get out before midnight. There’s a stack of face-down tiles with numbers and effects on them, and you lay them out, randomly generating the mansion as you explore it. At the end of each turn, you roll a 20-sided die, and ghosts appear on the rooms with numbers that match the roll. The ghosts impede your progress, but if defeated, they vanish and provide bedsheet tokens. Collect enough bedsheets and you can create a rope and Escape From Midnight Mansion.
At the start of the game, you won’t have too many rooms, so you’re less likely to run into ghosts. This is good because it leaves you with more options, but it also means you aren’t getting the resources you need. As time goes on, you’ll get more rooms and the ghosts will appear more frequently. Greater challenge, greater reward. It’s simple, but effect.
Here’s the game in its final form, printed in largely black and white in a nod to the horror films of the silent era, with red used to highlight important facets of the rules, such as valid paths and hours where the challenge ramps up. A quick turn summary has also been added to the components. The tiles were glued to foam core and cut apart.
I managed to find a perfectly-sized shoebox to store all of the components. I’m amazed at how lucky I was that it all worked out. I just had to repaint it to match the theme, and it was good to go.
Here are the game’s rules and other bits for print and play, along with some pictures. The folder contains the full report I made for the class, weighing in at a total of 123 pages. The rules and print-and-play assets begin on page 100.
Someday, I’d like to revisit Escape from Midnight Mansion. It’s probably one of my proudest achievements, but it’s been about five years since I made it. I think I could improve on it, and I think looking back, there are lessons I’m still learning thinking back on the experience.
You’ve been playing a game for a while, and you see something that you really want. You go to buy it, and you have a look at the price. Odds are good that the price isn’t going to be in dollars or your country’s local currency. Instead, it’s going to cost you an in-game currency. There are two general types of in-game currency; Soft currency and hard currency.
Soft currency is the type of money you might expect to be in games. This is the money you win after RPG battles. You get a constant steady flow of soft currency as you play through the game.
Hard currency, on the other hand, is tough to get. In fact, in many games, you only start with a limited supply and can’t earn any more through play. The fastest way (or only) way to get hard currency is by spending real life money. These are things like Riot Points in League of Legends or Gold in Candy Crush Saga. The best items in the game are going to cost hard currency, and this is how the game makes money.
So why use hard currency? I’ll get the cynical answer out of the way first. Converting dollars (or your local currency) into hard currency obscures the value of the real currency. $5 American gets you 650 Riot Points. That’s 130 points per dollar. The Forecast Janna skin costs 1820 Riot Points. That’s $14, but it’s not a calculation people can intuitively perform. It works, though it’s cynical, and to me, it’s the least interesting part of hard currency.
When a game has a hard currency, it opens up a lot of interesting design spaces. If you have a hard currency, you can start the players with some. It’s awkward to tell a user “We’re giving you a 60-cent credit toward in-game purchases”, but it’s natural to say “We’re giving you 100 gold.” You can also have sales and discounts on hard currency, encouraging players to fill up their account instead of making purchases as they go. You can allow players to slowly earn hard currency through gameplay without worrying about them feeling insulted at the hard currency to real currency exchange rate.
I’ll go further in depth on these things you can do with hard currency (and possibly speculate on why Valve and Blizzard don’t use hard currency in their freemium games), but for now, I hope this serves as an introduction to the possible uses of hard currency.
What do you like or dislike about hard currency?
As a designer, your job is to shape human experiences. You need to keep an eye out for design lessons everywhere. It can be hard to figure out what you can learn while waiting in line at the DMV, but there’s an easy source of design influence that many people overlook: Board games.
I’ve seen a few people roll their eyes at the thought that tabletop games could teach them anything, but even if you don’t like to play board games, you can’t ignore them. Game design wasn’t invented after the transistor. Game design has existed alongside human civilization for thousands of years. If you take game design seriously at all, you need to at least consider sports and board games.
Anyway, let’s talk about practical stuff. As a designer, you need to see a lot of different games. If you stick with video games, there’s only so much of the game that you, as the player, can see. In almost every case, there’ll be some part of the game that’s hidden away in the source code, like enemy AI or exactly how random numbers are weighted. Don’t get me wrong; you should still play as many video games as you can, but recognize that there are many layers of the game that you’ll never be able to peel back.
This is not true of board games. Board games, by necessity, make all of the rules known to players. If you own a board game, you can see all of the rules. They’re all laid out for you in plain text. On top of that, board games don’t have the luxury of cutscenes or voiceovers. The art and the mechanics have to carry the the game’s themes.
There are a lot of board games out there, but I’ll give you a few for starters:
Love Letter is a card game with only 16 cards. It plays lightning-fast, so even if your friends aren’t normally into tabletop games, you can probably convince them to spend five minutes of their time. It’s seriously impressive what the game can achieve with so little.
Dominion is a card game where you can earn cards to put in your deck during play. The goal is to end the game with the most Victory Point cards in your deck. However, those VP cards don’t do anything to help you otherwise, and if you load up on them, your hand is going to be full of cards that don’t do anything. It’s about developing an intuition for powerful card combinations and knowing when to push for victory.
Poker really doesn’t need much of an introduction, but here’s the important stuff to pay attention to, design-wise: Poker is heavily dependent on luck, but it’s considered a sport, some players are clearly better than others, and there are actual tournaments with huge prize pools. If you want to take a good hard look at how random chance coexists with skill, look at Poker.
Before you pull out the pitchforks, hear me out; Monopoly’s box says the game takes 60-90 minutes. Have you ever played a game of Monopoly that lasted 60-90 minutes? That’s because you’ve probably never played it as written. I could dedicate an entire post to this (and I probably will at some point in the future), but I’m just going to highlight a couple points.
- When you land on a space, you can either buy it for its listed price or auction it off.
- No money ever gets put on the Free Parking Space, ever.
Think about what that does to the game’s length (remember: It ends when people get bankrupted), and you’ll start to scratch the surface of what the house rules variants do to the game.
You know, I like these recommendations, and I think I’ll highlight more in the future.
When I talked about energy mechanics, I briefly mentioned that energy refilling with time was an example of an appointment mechanic. What is an appointment mechanic? It’s something that just tells a player “Hey, come back and play again later!”
The purpose of appointment mechanics is to make make playing the game into a habit, a routine part of your day. Remember that a free to play game lives or dies based on its ability to retain paying players, and a player is really only likely to become a paying player if they stick with the game for longer periods of time. It’s impossible to emphasize this enough. Retention, retention, retention. This isn’t limited to free to play games, either. If you’ve ever played an MMORPG, you’ve probably seen daily quests. Games with a focus on multiplayer or social elements may also have these, such as Animal Crossing’s fruit, Pokemon’s berry plants, and Nintendogs’ contests.
Come to think of it, all of those examples are from portable Nintendo games. I’ll have to examine this more closely in a future article.
Anyway, let’s look at some examples of appointment mechanics in games. I’m going to use Marvel: Avengers Alliance as an example here because it’s managed to retain me as a player for over two years, and I just hit the level cap this morning.
The game, like most free to play games, has an energy system. It costs 10 energy to initiate the core game loop (fight a battle), and it caps at 60 energy. Energy replenishes at a rate of one point per six minutes. This all boils down to a player being able to fight one battle per hour. A player gets up in the morning, burns through a few fights, goes to work, burns through some fights over lunch, returns to work, goes home, then players some more. That’s habituation right there.
Specialized Energy Systems
In addition to the regular gameplay, ranked PvP battles and puzzle-like simulator challenges also require the expenditure of energy. However, this is a specialized form of energy that does not take away from the regular energy pool, so a player that engages in PvP or simulator challenges loses nothing by engaging in the normal mission structure. I should note that “practice” PvP matches do not cost energy, but also provide no experience.
Players can use the flight deck to send their collected heroes off on remote ops missions. The heroes are unusable for a while, but when they come back, they’ll get a little experience and currency for your trouble. The experience your heroes gain might seem to break the “No experience without an energy cost” rule, but hero experience and player experience are different things. The real point here is that they bring back silver, M:AA’s soft currency. It’s like an invest/express game where you plant a crop, wait for some time, then collect your money. The real benefit here is that players get to choose their own timer and set their own appointment and expectation of when they’ll play the game again.
When heroes get enough experience to reach their next level, they need to train before they can gain more experience. While training, a hero can’t be used, but once you’re done, you can unlock new skills or equipment slots. This gets people looking forward to coming back. The higher a hero is in level, the longer it takes to train them. A hero that’s been used a lot is going to be missed more, and the player is going to be even more invested in seeing that hero come back from training.
Once per day per Facebook friend, you can go visit their cities and collect rewards. This is especially valuable when special events are running that require a special resource called Unstable ISO-8 to participate.
There’s a limit on how many gifts you can claim from friends each day. This is separate from the friend-visiting mechanic. I’ll go into this in more detail when it comes to social mechanics, but the general point here is that if you see a lot of a resource that you want (especially Unstable ISO-8!), you want to claim the gifts as often as you can.
Random Daily Login Reward
Daily PvP Quest
While a PvP tournament is running, players can earn a random daily prize if they manage to win five battles. The player isn’t just being asked to come back to the game. The player’s being asked to participate and really get involved.
Daily Consecutive Login Rewards
Not only do you get a random reward for logging in, you also get a daily reward that improves in quality based on how many consecutive days you’ve logged in. This is an extremely powerful appointment mechanic that really deserves its own article.
Whew! I covered a lot. I hope this was educational. Still, that’s ten different types of things a player is waiting for, and that’s just in this one game. On top of that, only four of those things are tied to daily resets. Everything else is on a visible timer that ticks down while players watch and wait (Or break out their wallets to fast-forward). Like with energy mechanics, these can be monetized, but their real purpose is to make a game into a habit.