What the Click?


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Introducing Insomniac Click

Brian Hastings is Insomniac Games’ Chief Creative Officer, a partner at the studio and one of its first three employees.

Insomniac Games is proud to introduce our newest division: Insomniac Click. It is dedicated to creating new games for web and mobile platforms. Insomniac Click is an expansion of the company rather than a shift. With the exception of myself, everyone working in the group has been newly hired specifically for their expertise in this space. All our existing teams are still 100% dedicated to making unforgettable AAA console experiences with our proprietary blend of double rainbows and awesomesauce.

The New Frontier

So, what’s the deal, really? Are we jumping on the social gaming bandwagon just because it has an unprecedented daily audience in excess of 100 million people? Is this a sell-out business decision or something we are truly passionate about?

This is something we’re passionate about.

It’s also a pragmatic necessity. The gaming landscape is changing faster now than at any time in the industry’s existence. More people are playing games every day than ever before and the kinds of games they are playing are diversifying more rapidly than ever. The whole game industry is in the midst of what appears to be a sea change. But with this change comes some of the most exciting challenges and opportunities we’ve ever had.

We believe there will always be a market for what we call “core” games. These are games specifically made for people like you and me – people who grew up playing games, read gaming blogs, argue about games on message boards, and who care deeply about creating and playing truly transformative interactive experiences. These are the people who believe games can be – in fact are – art. But these games also require a certain amount of expertise to play. You need to be able to simultaneously control two analog sticks and eight to 10 different buttons to clear the first level. Games didn’t used to be that complicated. But the core audience now not only accepts it, we expect it. We want more complex interactions and deeper forms of gameplay. But as core games have become increasingly complex the barrier to entry for everyone else has often become higher and higher. As a result, the games with the highest production values are simply impossible to play for the vast majority of people in the world.

Insomniac Click is dedicated to taking the qualities that define our brand – deep worlds, rich stories, accessible gameplay – and applying them to new game experiences that anyone in the world can play.

But Are These Games?

Right now many people in the game industry think of social games the way dogs think of ticks. Despite their successes, games on Facebook often aren’t seen as “real games” by people who make console games. There are constant debates about what constitutes a game or whether the distinction even matters if a non-game can have 30 million people playing it each day.

But for the record I want to offer my own definition of what a game is:

A game is a set of tools and a problem to solve.

Here are some examples:

Tic-Tac-Toe:

Tools: draw an X (or O) in a square.

Problem: make three of your letter in a line before your opponent does.

Pac-Man:

Tools: move left/right/up/down.

Problem: eat all the dots without getting caught by a ghost.

Donkey Kong:

Tools: move left/right/up/down, jump

Problem: get to top of level without getting hit by a barrel

Tetris:

Tools: rotate block, drop block

Problem: form solid lines of horizontal blocks

Doom:

Tools: turn, move left/right/forward/back, shoot weapon, switch weapons.

Goal: get to end of level without losing all health.

So What About Social Games?

So, do the games on Facebook meet these criteria?

Not entirely.

Many social games out there are more activities than games – that is, a set of tools but no problem. For instance, you plant crops and then harvest them to make more money so you can plant more crops. Your tools are: pick a crop, plant it somewhere, harvest a ripened crop. But what problem are you solving? There really isn’t one. You can’t succeed and you can’t fail and that’s part of the fun. But at the same time, without having a problem to solve, it’s less of an actual game than Tic-Tac-Toe.

Many social games are starting to address this by adding quests and goals. For example “harvest 10 corn bushels” and you complete a quest. In a semantic sense this meets my definition of a game. But most design purists would argue that a “goal” and a “problem” are not the same thing. Clicking a button 10 times is a goal. But it’s not a problem. A problem exists when the set of tools given to the player must be consciously understood and manipulated in a non-trivial way to achieve the solution. If any combination of use of the tools leads to the solution then there really wasn’t a problem. But as the quests get more complex the argument becomes more and more semantic.

Suffice it to say that social games on the whole were fairly shallow a year ago. However, they are getting deeper and more interesting all the time. As more industry veterans enter the social gaming space, the games on Facebook are evolving at a more and more rapid pace. Many of the games available today are in fact real games by any definition a veteran designer wishes to construct.

Our Journey So Far

Almost exactly one year ago I set out to start programming a game for Facebook. At the time I wanted to make a story where you inherit an old-fashioned and run down Las Vegas called the “Gold Flamingo.” It was supposed to look straight out of 1950s Vegas, back when the cheesiness was more… pure. All the 21st century mega-casinos would be trying to put you out of business. And so you build it up and fend off the fat cats and win money in their casinos one by one until the Gold Flamingo is the richest and most ostentatious joint on The Strip. Woohoo!

(Before I go any farther I should mention that we’re not doing this game. If someone else wants to make Gold Flamingo, go for it. I’d really like to play it someday.)

But back to the journey thing… when we started I was the only person on the team and I had never even made a web game before. So after a little Google searching I discovered that to make the simplest game I could imagine on Facebook I would need to learn the following:

HTML, XML, CSS, Javascript, AJAX, JQuery, Flash, ActionScript 3, PHP, MySQL, phpMyAdmin, AMFPHP…

…and the whole Facebook API.

(Yes, that’s right smarty pants, I didn’t even know HTML. But my daughter is learning it in kindergarten so she helped me out.)

I dusted off the left side of my brain, started learning the above stuff, and began building a code base for the casino game. We hired an artist and the two of us had barely gotten our first slot machine working in the game when all of a sudden… yep, two other casino games popped up on Facebook. C’est la vie. (That’s French for “welcome to the web, dude.”)

We doubled down our bets and started working on a new and much more complex game. Instead of trying to make something quick to “test the waters” we decided to make something much deeper and more involved than what was available in the social space. We wanted to make a game that had all the depth and content of a console game, but playable for free on Facebook.

Fast forward to the present and we have a grand total of five people on the project. That’s small even by social game standards, but really small when your stated goal is to create more gameplay depth than anything else currently out there. (Did I mention we’re hiring?)

Our Promises to You

Even though we can’t talk about the details of our current game just yet, I do want to share some of our philosophies. Not to get all Newt Gingrichian, but let’s call it a “Contract With the Audience”. These are the values we hold in making games and the promises we intend to keep for our players.

Contract With The Audience

1. Social interaction must be mutually enjoyable. Imagine you had a friend who left five voice mails on your phone each day asking you to join his time share in Alaska. This would seem like pretty anti-social behavior, even downright pathological. But in the current social gaming landscape this is often the norm. Many games outright require you to ask for gifts from friends to complete even the most basic goals and tasks. And the underlying problem is that neither the asking or the responding is inherently fun. If you’ve played these games you’ve seen the popup windows where you send a “request” to any or all of your friends so that they send you a peppermint stick to help build your gingerbread house. But clicking that window isn’t fun. And being the recipient of the request isn’t really fun either. If the gifts were rare and unique it would be fine – just like getting a gift in real life. But when the giving and asking for gifts becomes the central gameplay experience it is no longer fun for either party. We promise to create social interactions that are fun for both players.

2. Game tuning must benefit the player experience. It’s no secret that social games are actively tuned to what are commonly known as “The Three Rs”. These are Reach (the number of people playing the game), Retention (the number of people who come back), and Revenue (money earned per day.) It’s standard procedure right now to carefully test every decision to see which one increases one of these three factors. This often results in things like “hiding” the button that chooses not to spam all your friends. Or making the default payment transaction be the highest possible amount so if you’re not paying attention to the radio buttons you’ll end up forking over 100 dollars in a single click. Or displaying a series of five pop-up promotion windows each time a player starts the game. Each of these things must have had a positive effect on one of the Three R’s, but each one also detracts at least a little bit from the overall player experience. In console development, since the revenue is mostly paid up front, developers are free to focus solely on player experience. Maybe this is idealism talking, but I think it’s possible to create social games that focus on improving the player experience first and foremost and that the Reach, Retention and Revenue will naturally go up when people are enjoying the game itself.

3. Gameplay Depth. We want to create worlds to explore, challenges to master and a continuing story to discover. We promise to deliver the richness of gameplay content that you would expect from a console game, but freely playable online.

4. Easy to Learn, Hard to Master. We promise to make a game that anyone can learn and play within a few minutes, but that takes months or years of practice in order to become one of the top players in the world.

5. Make It Fun First. Our strategy is to first create core game mechanics that are fun to play independent of any social framework. We then integrate the social aspects of the game in ways that people naturally enjoy playing together.

See You Online!

We’ll have more to announce and show off in the coming months. We look forward to hearing what you would like to see in the social gaming space and we hope you’ll join us online when we launch!

  • Nick Stamiris

    Good news there Insomniac.I will be amazing to see a Ratchet and clank on a facebook game,