If you buy the argument that there are people who make real video games and there are people who make things that merely pose as video games—and if you are convinced that these fake "games" threaten to undermine real video games—then a game called Outernauts should have filled you with hope.
Outernauts is a science-fiction video game about a spaceman (or spacewoman) and lots of monsters. More importantly, it was made by Insomniac Studios, an American game studio which is not some motion-game-making, Facebook-app-designing creator of games you can't lose. These are the kinds of people who make first-person shooters and action games that are full of jumping and rocket launchers, games you pay $60 for, not the kind of games that permit you to progress only if you wait, pay or spam your online friends with requests to send you some virtual tomatoes.
Insomniac is a studio that makes the Resistance first-person shooters for the PlayStation 3, invented Spyro: The Dragon and has produced a pile of well-regarded, eye-popping, action-packed Ratchet & Clank games. They make games that are controlled with video game controllers. They make games you can lose at. Even the snobbiest of critics would say Insomniac makes "real" video games.
So Insomniac made a Facebook game. That's what Outernauts is. This maker of so-called "real" video games made a Facebook game, and guess what it's like?
Outernauts is, yes, a science-fiction video game about a spaceman and monsters. It lets you explore strange worlds, poke around for treasure and fight lots of enemies in turn-based battles. (You can try it on Facebook yourself.) It plays a lot like Nintendo's pet-monster-battling Pokemon series, and…
This studio that makes $60 PlayStation 3 first-person shooters and true-blue console video games made a Facebook game that does the things that the notorious number-one Facebook game studio in the world—the currently-embattled Zynga—is not exactly loved for:
- The "free" Facebook game has an energy system that limits the amount of moves you can make in the game unless you 1) wait (an hour or two) for the energy meter to refill, 2) ask Facebook friends for more energy or 3) pay for more energy so as not to have the game force you to stop playing right when you're having fun.
- The game requires numerous items for many of its core tasks (training monsters, generating extra fuel, etc), any of which can be found by clicking around in the game (and thereby expending energy) but which the player is encouraged to obtain by asking their Facebook friends to click a message and thereby send the item to your game.
- A generous bounty of in-game coins earned through basic adventuring can be spent on buildings and simple items. But it is trumped by a stingier parallel economy of star gems that are used to do such core things as revive downed monster-battling pets during a tough fight, expand the number of powers any pet can take into battle and even expand the size of the party of pets. These gems can seemingly only be obtained through purchases that involve real money.
To fans of mainstream Facebook games—the FarmVilles and CityVilles of Zynga, the Sim City Socials of EA—all of these things would be familiar and possibly even comforting. But here's the next surprise. Guess who didn't expect Outernauts to do those oh-so-typical Facebook game things?
"When I initially started work on Outernauts over two years ago I was dead-set against doing most of that stuff," Insomniac's chief creative officer, Brian Hastings, told me over e-mail about a week ago. "I didn't want to limit play sessions or require interaction with friends or have any other typical Facebook trappings. And to be honest these features were the subject of many heated debates."
Hastings: "When I initially started work on Outernauts over two years ago I was dead-set against doing most of that stuff."
Insomniac Studios isn't a giant corporation. They're not owned by one. They aren't an arm of a giant like EA or Activision. Some people think they're owned by Sony, because, before Outernauts all they had made for well over a decade were video games that ran exclusively on the PlayStation, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3. The truth is that they're independent. They're therefore a bit scrappier. They're survivors with no one to keep them going but themselves, which is why Hastings' initial hesitance to do those typical Facebook game things in Outernauts led to Insomniac doing those typical Facebook things.
"Ultimately, we're in a tough spot," Hastings said, "in that in order to keep the game running, and to keep making new games like this, we need to be able to make at least enough money to cover our development costs… something that can be really tricky in the play-for-free space." Outernauts, which is published by EA, would be, it should be noted, Insomniac's first free-to-play game. "It's well known a huge majority of our players never pay us, yet they can still play the entire game without ever doing so. Being new to the Facebook space we've tried to use some of the proven techniques employed on the platform based on the data we have available to us, and are still working and debating to find the right balance."
So, Insomniac metered their game with an energy system. Same as FarmVille, basically.
In Defense of Energy
It might be argued that a Facebook game's energy system is no more limiting than any classic arcade machine's requirement for you to plunk down another quarter before playing again. But at least arcade games required you to lose before paying to continue. The Facebook game developer might retort: well, the arcade game wasn't free in the first place; ours is. You paid first to play an arcade game, and you usually pay first to play a traditional console or PC game. You pay $50 or $60 and then can play for as long a sitting as you'd like. No energy system stops your fun in its tracks.
"Energy usage has been a big issue brought up by core gamers, who are traditionally used to paying up front for their gaming experience," Hastings said. "It's something that we are still tuning and looking at ways to balance. I don't feel that energy is fundamentally a bad thing. To look at it from our point of view, any time people are playing the game it's costing us money in server costs. The more people play the more it costs us. Some developers have even been forced to shut off whole countries to mitigate this issue—something we don't plan on doing. We have to balance that out to some degree since it's a free to play game, and thus we need to have some form of cap where you can play X minutes a day for free but if you pay a little money or visit friends you can essentially have unlimited play."
Imagine that. People who make video games actually want to be paid for their work. That seems like a simple concept, but getting paid to make games isn't easy, even if people are actually playing your games. It's tough enough if the game costs $60 but someone may have pirated it or bought it used or borrowed it from a friend. Today, the rise in popularity of Facebook games or 99-cent iPhone games has made it likely that someone will play a video game without paying anything or at least without paying anything close to an amount of money that enables a video game maker to also make a living. A large number of players of Insomniac's previous games paid to play them. They paid for a disc or a download. The majority of Outernauts players, as Hastings said, won't pay a thing (FarmVille-maker Zynga boasts that it has 250 million "monthly active users"; the number of them who pay anything: 4.1 million, at last count, according to Zynga's own public data).
"Our server costs are directly proportional to the number of people who play the game," Hastings told me. "So any time someone is logged in [to Outernauts] it increases our server costs. The longer people play or the more they log in, the more it costs us." Through an energy system, Insomniac figures they've found a way to get paid for their Outernauts work. "We'll keep looking at feedback and trying to improve the experience, but ultimately there are real costs that we have to pay for and energy is one of the ways to balance things."
Hastings: "We'll keep looking at feedback and trying to improve the experience, but ultimately there are real costs that we have to pay for and energy is one of the ways to balance things."
Hastings did not offer nearly as thorough an explanation for why Outernauts requires players to request so many baubles and trinkets from friends. This element can make any Facebook game feel social, but superficially so, as the game becomes a meta-game of determining which friends to ask for cosmic dust from and which seem reliable enough that they'll answer a plea for space eggs or rare elements or whatever. Every request is a peck of the friend's list. Each is a wager on who will be least annoyed and most responsive to messages in their Facebook app notifications (or in Outernauts itself) to click a window and thereby send the needed item over. This kind of system works best if you have a lot of friends playing, of course, and the way to ensure a lot of friends playing is to encourage them to play the game. The player's attempts to expand their fun and to progress coincide with the act of marketing the game for Insomniac—the customer is encouraged to hype Outernauts on Facebook, basically, in order to better enjoy Outernauts. Again, same as FarmVille.
Rapid Improvements - Game studios such as Insomniac are trying to make free-to-play games because that just might be where gaming's future lies. Away from consoles, they have more control. They can get people to sample their games; they can spread them across multiple platforms (any browser, for starters; maybe a phone or tablet or who knows what else); and they can tweak things…briskly. I had posed my questions to Hastings late last month. I had included a remark that it was annoying for a game that encourages players to ask each other for help to exclude a filtering option that would allow me to only badger Facebook friends who were already playing Outernauts. Such a feature is standard on popular Facebook games such as the ones from Zynga. Hastings said a filter would be added. Within a week, seamlessly, it was in the game.
And what about that stingy economy of star games that are so useful for improving one's pet monsters' fighting abilities? "As for star gems, we've tuned the game so that you can get 100% of the full experience without paying anything, you just need to wait a bit longer or interact with friends," Hastings told me. "That said, we also want to reward our paying players so we want to make sure that anything sold for star gems is satisfying and rewarding. So, yes, the experience is necessarily going to be better if you buy star gems because we can't possibly pay for development and server costs if the rewards for star gems weren't satisfying and desirable. But we also have a lot of people who are enjoying the game and have never paid, which is good. We'll keep working to try to make it better for everyone, but fundamentally a free to play game always needs to be better for paying players or else it's not worth paying."
If any of this seems like Insomniac, in its need to figure out how to make money on a Facebook game is resorting to nickel-and-diming its players, here's a pleasantly discordant fact: Insomniac has long been one of the most player-friendly studios out there. It's games are usually stuffed with content, demonstrating a studio-wide instinct to over-provide for its customers. Ratchet & Clank games are loaded with alternate second play-throughs and even hidden interactive museums. The company's recent Resistance games have been loaded up with myriad multiplayer options. The studio does extensive community outreach on message boards, company blogs and podcasts. They've always seemed eager to deliver a lot of value.
Pikachu, Is That You?
Here's another discordant fact: Outernauts, as mentioned above, is like Pokémon. It's very much like Pokémon, what with the player collecting a team of little monsters to train and bring into turn-based battles… what with the player being able to toss a sphere into a battle in the hopes of capturing any enemy monster that is weakened…what with the monsters' assortment of abilities being aligned to various elements, which are strong, weak or neutral against monsters and powers aligned to other elements…what with the monsters' ability to learn new moves as they level up and maybe to evolve.
I had asked Hastings if he considered the game to be a "Pokémon clone." And, if so, was that a good thing? A bad thing?"
"Monster collecting and combat games have become an entire genre at this point and we're trying to evolve the genre in cool new ways," he said. "There are tons of things in Outernauts that don't exist in games like Pokémon as well as a lot of differences to the core experience that we think are innovative and we hope players appreciate. Just a few examples are: quest chains, co-op dungeons, tournaments, PVP characters in the worlds, beasts visible in the world rather than random encounters, crafting, abilities that upgrade through use, customizable characters, gear that gives strategic gameplay benefits, and a home world that you can build out and customize. Because it's a game designed for a social platform there are lots of ways to interact with your friends, both via combat, cooperative dungeons and just helping each other with quests. Plus, we are adding new content and new features all the time in order to make it a more entertaining experience for players."
The fact is that Facebook doesn't have a great Pokémon-type game, and Nintendo, still resistant to making games on any platforms other than their own, isn't likely to make one. The fact also is that Outernauts' implementation of the Pokémon formula is impressively slick and easy to use. The game presents its complexity of strategic options—listings of power sets and of monsters; menus of elemental advantages and disadvantages; inventories of items and building options—with the elegance that comes from people who have designed more than a few complex video games before.
If it is to be condemned as a clone, it's the best kind of clone. It's fun and goes somewhere new with a familiar template. Maybe clone is the wrong word. Perhaps... "offspring"?
Outernauts is colorful. It has a peppy soundtrack. It's well-animated. In the short bursts it allows for freeloaders, it is at least as fun to play as most any other Facebook game and a whole lot deeper and more interestingly strategic than the average ‘Ville.
It is the first major Facebook game from any game studio that published big, exclusive first-person shooters and action games on a home console. It is one of the only Facebook games that can be said to have been made by a crew of people who are good at making traditional $60 games.
There is a game here. There are interesting decisions to be made. But there is also energy. There is also the enticement to spam friends and pay for an upgrade.
This is how it's done on Facebook? For now, it seems, yes.
This is the best way to get a talented team of game makers to get paid? We'll figure that one out together.