Silverlight Opportunity: Challenging the game concept model (Spore)
In this article, I am going to go over the latest hot game from EA: Spore. I plan to discuss how the value provided by the game can largely be replicated by next-gen RIA technologies into profitable business opportunities.
If you are a gamer (like myself), you probably are aware of the release of one of the most anticipated games for the PC. Before I splurge some money on a game, I like to check it out reviews and see what the game is all about. Spore for the most part has gotten pretty decent reviews from critics. There has been some backlash about the DRM, but overall the game is very popular. For those who do not know, the game essentially allows you to create a creature and watch it evolve from a simple organism to a complex animal. The game has 5 phases and as your organism evolves, you play different genres of video games (2D action, 3D action, real time strategy). However, the core feature (as well as the neatest feature) of the game is the ability to share your creature/world in the Sporepedia with other Spore creatures/environments created by other players. Revolutionay concept, right?
This has been done before several times! However, most people have a short-term memory. It is kind of like Puff Daddy releasing a remix or a sample of a song from the 80's and for the current generation. Spore is exactly that; a remix of a concept already done with some glitz. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Spore's main difference is that it is packaged with nice graphics with social networking capabilities (sharing your creature, upload videos directly to YouTube). Guess what? It is incredibly popular and doing very well so far in sales as well as BitTorrent downloads (which I think in the next few months will actually become a valid gauge for PC distribution, even though it's illegal).
For those who have been playing with .NET since 1.x remember .NET Terrarium (since 2001, now in version 2). It actually allowed you to learn .NET programming, by using .NET to program your creatures "DNA" and upload them to different environments and see how they interact with other creatures created by other programmers. As of July 2008, the Terrarium 2.0 code is free and available on CodePlex. Terrarium is geared for programmers, so it actually had much deeper/more open capabilities. Spore is geared for the masses, so it has to be simpler and essentially "dumbed down" for the average user. For example, in Spore if your creature eats a lot of meat, it will become a carnivore and dependent on meat as its food source. Obviously, terrarium was not released as a game so that example is not 100% fair.
The Spore video game has been released under the traditional model. Most of the revenue is coming from the sales of the product itself and it includes ridiculous DRM protection (limiting the user to install the game on up to three computers). As I mentioned above, this concept has been done before. What value has Spore added to the game?
- Includes a very cool & easy to use creature creator
- Allows you to upload your creatures/buildings and share it with other players (as of now, there are over 17 million objects uploaded)
- Allows you to share videos of your creature and upload them to YouTube
Where the game exposes its weakness is the "campaign/evolution" stages of the game itself. Each stage is a very basic implementation of some kind of video game genre. For example, stage 1 is a simple 2D action game where your organism tries to avoid being eaten by bigger animals while looking for food.
This is where I think Silverlight (and other RIA technologies) can compete in this kind of video game (where the value is NOT in the graphics/immersive experience, etc). As I mentioned above, Spore adds a lot of value on the server and services side. The back end is essentially presentation agnostic. It doesn't matter whether this is an XBOX game or a basic web game. Furthermore, the social networking aspect of the game is completely abstracted from the gameplay other than translating the results of the gameplay into stored data that is presented on the web or YouTube. Obviously, if your UI presentation is Silverlight or a fantastic looking DirectX 10 game, the back end services could all be the same.
Let's look at the gameplay and presentation. Spore's core "action gameplay" is actually pretty simple. It is nothing that can't be decently reproduced inside Silverlight. Don't believe me? For example, one of Spore's more complex 5 stages is the RTS stage. Even that is a VERY basic RTS (RTS games in the last 10+ years have had more features). These guys recreated StarCraft (one of the most popular RTS games ever) inside Flash! If you played Spore, it might not look as pretty; however, the RTS action is actually a lot deeper than Spore's Tribal Stage! Silverlight already has a particle engine, physics engine, multithreading support, etc., that allow you to create rich gameplay environments easily. The environments are not going to rival what you can do with DirectX or even the XNA game studio but they can provide a VERY decent gameplay experience. EA asserts that you create a character, you watch it evolve and your decisions affect how it behaves in later stages. What does that really mean? A couple of properties transfer over? We are not talking about a massively complex AI here. Like I mentioned before, this has been done successfully in Terrarium in .NET 1.0 in 2001!
Spore's busines model achieves a high value through its concept and social networking services. The loosely tied basic game genres are largely secondary here. Spore isn't Call of Duty 4 or Crysis, where the value in the game is in the gameplay and ultra high graphics. This is the exact place I think Silverlight can compete in....Because a lot of Spore's core and value features can be done verbatim inside Silverlight!!! Since Silverlight is a web technology, this lends itself perfect for a lot of Web 2.0+ revenue channels and reduces distribution further. Combining RIA technology with web advantages and using their respective advantages properly is the key in finding games that can be ported to RIA technology and will be successful.
If you need further proof, let's look at other gaming environments. For example, let's look at console games. The current generation of games for the XBOX 360 release "second tier" games through XBOX Arcade. You are not going to find games like Madden 2009 for $14.99 there; however, you will find a lot of games that go beyond the graphics and are very successful through novel concepts. One of the highest rated games on the XBOX 360 is Braid. It is currently rated #4 out of all XBOX 360 games and an Editor's Choice on Gamespot! Another recent release, Bionic Commando is another platform game that does some cool stuff with the bionic arm and adds value not normally seen in platformers. You are not going to re-create Madden or GTA IV inside Silverlight. However, as you can see from the two examples mentioned, graphics aren't everything. Providing a great gameplay experience can be as simple as creating a concept that hasn't been created before or can be improved.
In this article I focused on Spore's gameplay architecture; however, this applies to other games where the graphics/presentation are not the primary value in the game. RIA technologies have a chance to expand beyond simple casual gaming (i.e., www.flashgames247.com) into genres that deliver additional value through integrated services, social networking and deep concepts (i.e., RPG). With more advertising money pouring into the web and more users spending their entertainment dollar on the web, developing serious, free or cheaper web game alternatives can become lucrative opportunities. With next-gen RIA technologies becoming richer on all fronts, you WILL see dedicated efforts to bring some successful games from consoles/PCs/handhelds into the RIA. That is EXACTLY what RIA technology can bring. It's not about just random "RIA glitz" but using the "RIA glitz" to make the UI better, simpler, easier or more intuative that can rival some professional projects. Remember, the Spore concept has been done before. It's packaged better, simpler and prettier. If you want a piece of the action, you should be asking yourself what concept can I bring into RIA successfully.
In my next few articles, I will expand on this idea with other detailed examples of games where RIA technology can take a piece of the pie of the web entertainment dollar.