Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Club Penguin Is Now the Second Most Profitable MMOG

Via Keane Ng over at The Escapist, a new report by Screen Digest listing the Top Ten revenue generating MMOGs of 2008. And as Keane writes, "No big surprise: World of Warcraft takes the top spot." But amazingly enough, the list also includes Club Penguin, coming in at number 2, and Runescape, which ranked third. It seems the MMOG market is definitely shifting younger - not only in terms of projects and development plans, or even in terms of numbers, but in terms of profitability as well. The figures also show that the MMOG market in general is continuing to expand at an impressive rate. According to the Screen Digest press release:
"The report entitled 'Subscription MMOGs: Life beyond World of Warcraft' reveals that the subscription-based MMOG market grew by 22% in 2008 and reached consumer spending levels of $1.4 billion in North America and Europe. Screen Digest expects the subscription market to continue growing at a good pace for at least the next five years..."

Of course, the market is still largely defined/dominated by the incomparable success of WoW, which Screen Digest argues is further driving the market by inspiring so many attempts to emulate its popularity/model/playability:
With a 58% share of Western consumer spending on subscription MMOGs and over $2.2 billion in cumulative spending on subscriptions since the beginning of 2005, World of Warcraft remains dominant in the market. However, growth in consumer spending on other subscription titles was robust during 2008 at 27%, confirming continuing adoption of the business model across other games and services as well.

As described by the BBC News Online, the findings also show that MMOGs markets in Europe and North America grew by 22% last year, and are now worth $1.4 billion (USD). They also list "at least 220 active MMOGs," though many of these remain exclusive to South East Asian markets.

In an interview with the BBC, Piers Harding-Rolls, a senior analyst with Screen Digest, claims that MMOG subscribers are surprisingly loyal:
"Once you're a subscriber you're likely to stay a subscriber...Some games are eroding World of Warcraft's (WoW) position - Warhammer Online and Age of Conan being the two most significant - but that's more down to their growth rather than any decline on WoW's part. WoW's market share was 60% in 2007 and 58% in 2008, but in terms of revenue, it went up year-on-year and is still going big guns."

Harding-Rolls describes that the growth is due to several factors, including the release of new titles and introduction of different payment systems, as well as the expansion of MMOGs into new demographic groups...a.k.a. kids and younger teens.
"If you look at the example of RuneScape, this is a game pitched at a teenage audience. You can play it for free or you can pay a premium and get a better service without advertising. It's an effective way to build a subscription base, rather than the traditional routes that involve PR, hype and having a service that has to be almost perfect from day one."

Sounds like the exact opposite scenario from the one described by Pixar covered in yesterday's post - expanding markets, recognition of the need to have an "almost perfect" service from day one, etc. etc. And big kudos to Club Penguin for making it to the number 2 slot (and big kudos to Screen Digest for finally revealing the status of Disney's big investment).

Anyway, here's the complete list - unfortunately devoid of actual $$$ figures.
1) World of Warcraft
2) Club Penguin
3) RuneScape
4) Eve Online
5) Final Fantasy XI
6) The Lord of the Rings Online
7) Dofus
8) Age of Conan
9) City of Heroes
10) EverQuest II
Source: Screen Digest

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pixar's Tie-In Games Not (Doing) So Good

Via a recent Gamasutra article written by Leigh Alexander, it seems that Pixar's CG movie tie-in videogames having been doing all that well in recent years. But according to THQ President and CEO Brian Farrell, this has nothing to do with quality or the contents of the games themselves, but rather an overly saturated kids' games market. As Farrell stated in his recent interview with Alexander:
"The kids' business, as you know, has been a huge focus of THQ for many years," said Farrell. "But there has been a trend away from licensed TV and movie games, and it's become much more competitive for all participants."

Citing examples such as the 2007's Ratatouille tie-in game, which "performed disappointingly" (as did the film, which despite becoming a box office hit, nonetheless had one of the worst openings in Disney-Pixar history), and the more recent Wall-E tie-in, which did even worse, Farrell proposes that it's not that the games themselves that are substandard, but rather that the market is more competitive now than it was back in the days of Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

But did Pixar tie-in games really ever do all that well? Apart from the occasional hit with their Gameboy titles, I just can't seem to remember there being a big smash hit Pixar tie-in within the kids' games market (a little help?). Anyway, Farrell also seems to think that the continued failure of their games to attract players also has to do with the fact that just as there are now more CG animated films released every year, there are more CG animated film-based videogames to compete with. And that as a result, the kids market is getting sliced up into smaller and smaller pieces, with less to go around. Hmmmm...that seems...wrong. Do kids really care about CG or not CG? What about CG television titles? And although box office receipts may very well impact the ultimate success of a tie-in game, it isn't THE deciding factor, seeing as the Wall-E game did worse than the Ratatouille game. Besides which, the kids' market is a market that continues to grow, expanding into younger age groups, into girls' culture, and across multiple platforms. Sounds more like a series of excuses than a real explanation.

It also reproduces a lot of old stereotypes about the kids market - for example, that all you need to do to sell a product is stamp a beloved media character on it, and you're all set. Perhaps Farrell and other media giants should take a closer look at the products themselves - Pixar might win yearly Oscars for their films, but they're not exactly winning Game Developer Choice Awards. And reviews of their games consistently point to some serious design flaws...or at least, the lack of child user-friendliness in their game designs. For example, the difficulty levels climb too high too quickly, there's aren't enough save points (a serious problem among an age group where the average gaming session lasts less than 30 minutes), the written on-screen instructions don't match up with the reading skills (and speed!) of younger kids, etc., etc. The industry - and especially the tie-in/cross-media component of it - really does need to start taking kids' game design more seriously. According to some of the comments included under Alexander's article, the games fall short in other ways as well. As Rob Lazenby writes,
There are multiple reasons why THQ has been failing in this genre, and much of it directly translates to why the company overall has had so many problems:
1). Poor media marketing
2). Lack solid tie-ins with movie based titles
3). Low quality games
One can only hope that Mr. Farrell's team can assemble a new talent that will learn from their paast mistakes.
But I doubt it.

And I really like this other comment, posted by Joshua McDonald:
I'm not surprised to see these games making less money. In fact, I've expected it to start for a while. These work because non-gamer parents buy them for their gamer kids. Now, the number of gamer parents is increasing, and these parents know that most of these games are a cheap experience designed to cash in on a big name. [...] With enough parents in the know, it may actually become necessary for movie tie-ins to be good games before they can succeed.

There's no question that "transmedia intertextuality" - tie-ins, cross-promotion, licensing - are an enormous part of kids' media culture. Enormous. And too often, cross-promotion and branding take way too much priority off of the individual products involved. Certainly, licensed or tie-in games for kids have been a key area where the presence of a tie-in film/TV show/book/toy has become a blanket excuse for phoning it in design-wise. It's strange that so few of these games appear to have employed child-centered design practices. Those that do -- such as some of the Harry Potter games -- seem to be so much more successful at addressing the interests and limitations of their target audience.

I've been thinking a little bit about tie-in games lately, their odd position within gaming culture, the successes, the failures, and the larger role these games can play within transmedia/cross-promotion, intertextuality and branding, as well as within kids' own patterns of cultural appropriation. It seems to me that these tie-in games could easily be used to give kids an opportunity to co-create the story and characters, to make changes and to do things gain a sense of co-ownership over their (shared) cultural texts. There's a lot of potential here - if brand management wasn't such a stifling priority - to enable kids to explore the vast flexibility and fluidity of narrative, to redefine and make sense of their media heroes and cultural icons in original and more personal ways. Sadly, it's a potential that is very rarely realized.

That said, I'm hopeful that some of the newer or emerging standards within children's game design will eventually trickle down to licensed games as well. Particularly since more and more game developers are now expanding their efforts and expertise into the kids market, which until now was dominated primarily by Nintendo (who generally makes pretty excellent kids games) and the children's television, toy and film industries (whose combined record can be generously described as "hit-or-miss"). For instance, one of the designers behind the immensely popular EverQuest is in the process of launching a child-oriented MMOG (entitled Free Realms, which you can read more about here) that's got a lot of gamers and kids' media critics pretty excited. Not to mention the various innovative titles I've highlighted in past posts, and the growing movement within the game industry to raise the overall quality of kids' game design. My advice to Pixar at this point would be to overhaul its strategy and get in on this movement at the ground level...see if they can't earn themselves a bigger piece of that pie.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

CCFC Takes On The Good Night Show

The Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is in the midst of a new initiative, calling attention to PBS Kids Sprout's The Good Night Show, a television show that (despite massive evidence to the contrary) promotes itself as a sleeping aid for toddlers. I posted about this same show last December when they held their Christmas Eve "Snooze-a-thon", and many of the same arguments I outlined then can be directly applied to the regular nightly program as well. Anyway, here's an excerpt from the CCFC press release
The Good Night Show which airs every evening from six to nine on Sprout, consists of popular cartoons like Thomas the Tank Engine and The Berenstain Bears, interspersed with original sleep-themed content. The original segments feature Nina, the host, and a puppet named Star, who take on the role of parent and child respectively. Sprout claims The Good Night Show "helps preschoolers wind down after a busy day."

"Parents trust that programming on PBS and its affiliated networks will be beneficial to children," said CCFC's Director Dr. Susan Linn. "Sprout is exploiting that trust by implying that its programming will ease children into sleep when research suggests that screen time before bed undermines healthy sleep habits."

For children three years and younger, television viewing is associated with irregular sleep patterns. Studies have also found that older children who watched TV at bedtime were more likely to have difficulty sleeping. The Good Night Show may also have the unfortunate consequence of encouraging parents to put televisions in children's bedrooms, a practice which has been linked childhood obesity and poor academic performance. The National Sleep Foundation calls television a "sleep stealer"and urges parents to avoid making television a part of their bedtime routine.

The CCFC also highlights the importance of "bedtime" as a nightly bonding ritual between parents and children, and that television is a poor substitute for the interpersonal contact, storytelling, songs and conversations that would/could otherwise take place while putting children to bed. I especially like the quote they include by Robert Kesten, Executive Director for the Center for SCREEN-TIME Awareness, who aptly states: "When television programmers and marketers assume that they know more than doctors and educators about what is best for our nation's children, we all lose." The initiative is just now gaining momentum, but has already received a bit of backlash press coverage (for example, Friedman's MediaPost article uses a sarcastic tone and claims the CCFC is criticizing the show because it "lulls kids to sleep" about missing the point completely, yikes!).

You can get more info about this initiative and other projects over at the CCFC website.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Teen Girls Take On TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras"

By way of Strollerderby, a very cool story about some intrepid Canadian teens who are trying to have Toddlers and Tiaras, a disturbing TLC reality television show about - you guessed it - toddler beauty pageants and the deeply troubling parents and industries involved in putting them on. High school students Karrin Huynh and Lesley Cornelius, of St. Catharines Ontario, were so disturbed by the show and its underlying messages about girls/children they decided to launch a campaign to have it banned from (Canadian? North American?) television, by way of a Facebook group called "Help to ban the show Toddlers and Tiaras". Here's an excerpt from Hannah Tennant-Moore's Strollerderby post:
"The high school seniors started a Facebook campaign to ban the show, arguing that it sexualises children as young as two and encourages paedophilia. The group quickly attracted close to 5,000 members.

TLC has defended the show, saying they are simply depicting—“from an objective and unfiltered perspective”—something that 100,000 kids take place in each year. For someone like me, who watches the show knowing that toddler beauty pageants are disgusting, the show may appear objective in that it succeeds only in making me even more disturbed by them."

Tennant-Moore also provides a link to an actual clip of the show, featured on Jezebel, which is not only disturbing but pretty infuriating. I'm feeling more and more that the UN's needs to broaden and formalize its condemnation of using children for reality television programming, unless strict guidelines are followed in ensuring the shows respect children's rights and dignity. For example, last fall, a UN report on child welfare in the UK warned that the use of "distressed" children in reality shows such as Supernanny could harm their rights, and that these shows "may "constitute an unlawful interference with their privacy" and that the media had to act further to protect children in such shows" (as quoted in the October 4, 2008 edition of The Herald).

A big kudos(!) to Huynh and Cornelius for bringing this show and important issue to public attention.

If you want to learn more about their efforts, you can check out (or join) their Facebook Group, or read some of the original news coverage of the campaign over at the Niagara Falls Review.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Flower and the Rise of Paidia Gaming

A few weeks ago, the PlayStation Network made a new addition to its growing collection of alternative, indie, creation-focused games -- thatgamecompany's innovative, ode to natural beauty, Flower. thatgamecompany, which was co-founded by Jenova Chen (the creator of fl0w) and Kellee Santiago (Chen's co-designer on multi-award winning student game Cloud), is proving itself to be a true pioneer in the current UGC/sandbox/experiential play movement in gaming (which I've discussed in previous posts that you can read here and here), and I'm looking forward to seeing first hand what kind of unique gameplay experience Flower has to offer. So far, the reviews have been incredibly positive. For example, as Ryan Clements writes over at IGN:
"thatgamecompany has depicted something that I never once imagined: what would a flower's dream look like if we could see it? Flower, a PS3 downloadable that comes as a spiritual successor to flOw, is one of the most beautiful games that I've ever played. Not just because the visuals are entirely breathtaking, but also because the experience of playing it offers more enjoyment, emotion and enlightenment than any game I've tried in years."

You'll find a similar celebrations over at Slate. For a more nuanced critique -- aimed primarily at all the surrounding hype and hyperbole -- check out Leigh Alexander's posts over at Sexy Videogameland (or click here and here). I particularly like her comment that the overwhelmingly positive reaction to this game reflects an underlying hope that "As if by lionizing titles with the subtlest signs of promise, we could combat the mainstream's failure to appreciate the dignity of games." Nice.

But I think that whatever the blogosphere's reaction, the game itself represents an important addition to the growing challenge that game designers (esp. indie designers) have posed to the maintream or traditional games market, and against our prevailing ideas and assumptions about digital gaming, and about play more generally. There's a strong and widely accepted notion within Western culture that play should be purposive and rational - structured around rules and parameters, aimed at achieving certain aims and goals, producing points or other measurable outcomes, and resulting in a clearly defined win (or lose). Until quite recently, play and games that didn't meet these criteria tended to be understudied and undervalued, despite their continued presence, prevalence and importance within the play practices of various groups. Today, however, there's a broad and growing interest in things like emergent play, role-play, virtual doll play, etc., which is resulting in an expansion of our understanding(s) and approach(es) to play...particularly within the (programmed/programmable) context of digital games.

So far the most prominent locus for discussions (and observations) of non-rational gameplay has been MMORPGs, where semi-structured role-play unfolds within what are otherwise pretty traditionally-structured game environments. Sandbox games are another example, and I would also predict that quite a few papers at this year's DiGRA are going to look at UGC games like LittleBigPlanet (the call for papers has been extended to April 17th, btw). But games like Flower or PixelJunk's Eden are taking things much further...not only allowing for "non-rational" (experiential, qualitative, non-linear) play to occur within an otherwise rational game structure, but actually making it the central focus of the game itself.

I'm thinking about how we can approach these types of games, and start theorizing on their combined contribution...despite the enormous differences they present in terms of thematic content, levels of player agency, boundaries, etc. My proposal is that if traditional digital games -- and modern, rule-bound games more generally - can be understood or defined using Caillois' concept of "ludus", perhaps a good way to think about these "alternative" models is by using his reverse concept of "paidia". Here's what I mean.

Caillois' theory presents a differentiated conception of play that celebrates the evolution of games into increasingly rational forms of activity, which mirrors modern transformations in terms of play (practice, idealizations, thoughts about...) within modern western societies. He classifies different types of gameplay into four broad categories (agon, alea, mimicry and ilinx), which he then places in a "rank order of progression"...positioning the different types of play along a continuum between two opposite poles. On one end we have paidia, which describes forms of play that feature open-ended fantasy and role-play, free-form diversions and unscripted amusements. On the other end, games with a high degree of ludus are disciplined by rule systems. Because they better reflect the dominant ideology, they are also more likely to be seen and understood as functional, rational and pro-social.

Caillois describes that as a society modernizes, the "frolicsome and impulsive exuberance" of paidia is "almost entirely absorbed or disciplined by a complementary, and in some respects inverse, tendency…to bind it with arbitrary, imperative, and purposely tedious conventions." He argues that in the contemporary era, free-from imaginative play serves a subordinate function to the rational systems of ludus. Caillois describes paidia and ludus in terms of a "natural" progression, reflecting the modern tendency to view structured, rational (i.e. ludus) games as inevitable, desirable and ultimately beneficial...not only in terms of their "civilizing" influence, but also in terms of their ability to produce and reflect modern culture. Needless to say, various play theorists have disputed this idea - reminding us that both paidia and ludus remain important features of contemporary play, and that our privileging of ludus within play studies, within social discourses, and within game design, is socially constructed and hegemonic...a reflection of larger ideas and ideals we have about the role of play in society.

All this to say (whew!), that by putting outdated hierarchies aside and reclaiming the notion and importance of paidia, we can potentially start to theorize and even "name" this new form of innovative, free-form, imaginative game design..and its associated, emerging forms of gameplay. I think that the concept of "paidia gaming" offers an inclusive and timely paradigm. Any thoughts? Is it time to revisit paidia and Caillois?

I've uncovered a few older references applying "paidia" to digital games, a number of which appear to stem from an article by Gonzalo Frasca that appeared in Michael P. Wolf's (ed.) 2003 The Video Game Theory Reader, along with some preliminary "ponderings" by Raph Koster. Frasca uses the term in reference to games like SimCity, which are arguably the likely antecedents of the current crop of open-ended games, albeit still highly structured by rules, parameters and measurable outcomes. I'm not quite sure that these older/previous games really exemplify "paidia" or paidia gaming, which would involve more than simply having "no predesignated goal" or clear winner...although they would contain some of the same qualities, and fall somewhere closer to the "paidia" end of the continuum. It will be interesting to see how this notion has been used over the years and how it's been developed, and to see how my suggestion about this new crop/development in digital gaming fits in with the previous arguments made.