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Interview: Anthony Rosner director of “IRL – In Real Life”

Anthony Rosner - 2011

Anthony Rosner is a softly spoken final year film student at the University of Creative Arts about to graduate and an avid World of Warcraft player. He started playing in February 2005 and built up an impressive list of achievements for his in-game persona, Sevrin, that the average noob could only dream of. Sevrin was a bit of an in-game celebrity and for a while Anthony enjoyed the virtual glory and sense of achievement the game gave him. One crushed heart, a gap year in Norway and six years later he decided enough was enough and pulled the plug on his guild and digital alter-ego. The result is a short film: “IRL – In Real Life”, a cleverly ironic title that deals mostly with the very opposite.

What’s fascinating about this extremely well made project is the obvious nerve it’s struck with gamers and non-gamers alike. In less than 4 weeks it’s already received over 280,000 views and that number will no doubt continue to climb. Several major gaming sites have linked to it and Anthony’s inbox has been lighting up. Reading some of the YouTube comments is as fascinating as the film itself, apart from the usual un-intelligent quips like, ‘why did you quit?’, ‘dude can I have your mount?’. Gamers definitely indentified with the experience and applaud Anthony for making the brave step to share it as openly as he does. Some have had very similar experiences and quit, others say they’ve been playing for 7 years but it’s not an issue for them (denial?), but most just appreciate the story and how well it’s told.

Anthony's virtual alter-ego 'Sevrin'

We’re grateful Anthony took some time out of his schedule to talk to us about his experience. Please be sure to check out his Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/irlmovie , and you can follow him on Twitter: @antronoid

TDM: Anthony, thanks for agreeing to talk to us. Congratulations on the success of your short film “IRL  – In Real Life”, you’ve already received over 285,000 views since it was posted on January 15th. How does it feel? What have some of the reactions been?

AR: Thank You! It seems very surreal, for the first couple of days I had it set to private and only showed a couple of people. Then on the 18th January where I made it public and received over 1000 views within 24 hours, I was quite amazed by how quickly it spread, and then the rest was history! I really am quite speechless about the whole experience, it’s great! The reactions have been very positive and supportive too, although there are some negative comments, they are actually really great to read too as the majority provide interesting topics to discuss. The comments that have had the most impact however are the ones where people have decided to change their own life to some extend from watching my film. Having that effect on some else, is something that I don’t think words can describe.

TDM: It’s quite a personal film that feels extremely honest, what gave you the courage to make it and put yourself out there like that?

AR:  When I first thought of the idea, I wasn’t really sure about making it, it did feel too personal to me it is a large part of my life that I tend to keep hidden, however, I thought this is my chance to tell my story. I wasn’t even sure about releasing it on YouTube either, I’m glad I did however!

TDM: Did you find that MMO gamers have reacted differently to non-gamers that have seen the film, like people on your film-course? I thought you did a great job describing things like raids in layman’s terms (“it was like a team sport, you’d have to play together to defeat the hardest bosses in the game”), was that deliberate to make it more accessible to non-gamers?

AR: Yes, well first and foremost, my film was aimed at people who did not play games or WoW, so the film would be understandable for everyone. I also wanted the film to appeal to gamers too, from all sorts of games that people may have had experience with spending seemingly endless time on. I would say the variety of reactions even between MMO players has been quite diverse. I’ve gotten everything from “Get a life” to “I just un-installed WoW”. Some people being able to relate to the film directly with their own experiences, whilst others have a more objective view. People on my course have reacted very positively, as they are looking at it more from a technical viewpoint alongside the story of course. There is definitely a huge variety of opinions. 

TDM: Although the film could be described as lighthearted in tone it certainly deals with what must have been a difficult time. You tried to quit more than once, how hard was it to finally follow through? What was the turning point?

AR: The turning point really was the need for me to focus on things that could potentially affect my future, whilst I enjoyed playing Warcraft, it is not something I wanted to do forever, although I believed it could have easily become that. The first few times I tried to quit, I found difficult, one time I uninstalled the game before a raid was due to take place and went for a sleep, vowing not to play again, however 2 hours later, I was back on again, I didn’t feel right without it back then, but back then I wasn’t thinking about the future as such so when I finally decided to call it a day, I knew I was doing it for the right reasons and I eased myself away from the game, so I didn’t just cut it off. 

TDM: Why do you think your film has had such resonance within the gaming community? 

AR: I think that the subject matter has hit a hard or a soft spot amongst gamers, this is something that a lot of people enjoy after all . Understandably some people do not like to see the game they play and enjoy be attacked in a film, I should point out, I was not attacking the game in my film, at least that was not my intention, this is a comment that I have seen a lot. But it is a relatable subject, that was my intention with the film, to create something that people could relate to and on the whole a lot of people could see themselves in my film, which is great for me!

TDM: Game addiction is at times a somewhat controversial subject. What’s your take on it especially in regard to MMOs?

AR: It is really hard to say, there are so many opinions about it, however, I did feel like I was addicted to Warcraft, I needed to play, I was always thinking about it, I couldn’t live without it. Whether it can be called an addiction I have no idea, but I feel it is up to the individual, if they are aware they have an addiction to the game then that is the first step of realising that something isn’t going quite right for them. I mean, I used the game as a means to escape my real life. Whilst it is dangerous to become absorbed into the game, I do recognise the fact that games can be played in moderation (and for most games I do play in moderation quite casually) however, that isn’t so easy for everyone to do.

TDM: Do you believe developers/publishers can and should do more to protect gamers from playing excessively? Some games have time out warnings, and if you play too long the game will eventually lock you out forcing you to take a break. Of course gamers can overcome this with alts (multiple accounts), but from your perspective where is the line between personal responsibility vs. game design?

AR: I think some developers are aiming to do this, I know Blizzard are doing this with Warcraft currently allowing players to join into raids and such quite easily, without pressures of being in guilds, which offers a wider variety to players and how to manage their time effectively. But there are elements to games, especially MMO’s that require a huge time commitment, especially in the cases where, if you want to be the best you have to play the most. But yes moderation really is the key, I think it comes down to the fact that it is just a game, and players should have a sense of responsibility when deciding to play games, it is after all an entertainment device and should probably be treated accordingly, which is something I can do now, but unfortunately did not do back then.

TDM: Have you played any games since you quit WoW? 

AR: Yeah, I played Minecraft for a little while and dabbled into Skyrim, MW3 and SWTOR (for a little while). Although now I feel I have my priorities all worked out I can enjoy these games in moderation and organise my time effectively to have a balance of my real life and my gaming lifestyle.

TDM: What are you future plans, are you going to keep making films?

AR: Well, firstly I am going to finish University, which will end in June, so not much longer to go. And then after that I hope to become a film director and work in the film industry, I am not sure if I will make another film about games, although who knows!

TDM: Thanks again for your time Anthony it was a real pleasure speaking with you, all the best for the future! For more on Anthony and IRL please check out his official site http://anthonyrosner.com, Facebook and Twitter @antronoid

Don’t Listen to Your Community

January 30, 2012 2 comments

Community has emerged as one of the most critical aspects to successfully maintaining an online game. Even the most backward box publishers have come to realize the importance of community management and have teams that interact with the players on a daily if not hourly basis. If you get community management right you’re setting yourself up for success, get it wrong and it could ring the death knell for your product. A strong community following can sustain a games longevity, and a weak community can end it quicker than you can say /ragequit.

Image Courtesy of Penny-Arcade.com

MMORPG’s lead the way with community management long before there was a Facebook or a Twitter. By their very nature MMORPG’s are social creations (massively multiplayer) and at some point or another the most anti-social gamer will be forced to group up to complete a quest line or an instance. As such community forums were a natural evolution for players to take discussions, complaints, feedback and flame wars outside of the game world. For some developers they remain a critical tool in managing alpha test feedback to fine tune and improve the game-play experience.

Fast forward 10 years from some of the first MMO forums and even big brands like Nike and Coca Cola now employ whole teams of community specialists to manage their social networks and community initiatives. However community and or social media is not the best way forward for every brand, McDonald’s recently learned this the hard way when a twitter hashtag campaign backfired quite spectacularly.

The trick to successful community management is actually not about listening to your community, it’s about knowing what not to listen to. It’s about being selective about what you hear. For most large MMOs it’s estimated that out of the total player base only about 3% – 10% of players actively participate in forum discussions outside of the game. For social media usage and mentions this % probably skews upwards quite a bit. The point is that a small vocal minority usually represents a much larger silent majority. And usually because they are the most vocal they tend to be the most opinionated, but they may be complaining about things that 80% or more of the silent player base are totally happy with. Therefore it’s about weighing up the feedback carefully and reacting to what makes sense. The instinct is often to react to highly critical messages first rather than to look at the full picture. Game data, and internal QA teams can sometimes corroborate what players are seeing. Also seek other data sources to cross reference feedback where you can. Experienced and talented community managers will understand what player feedback to pay attention to and what to disregard. Reacting to the wrong feedback can be as detrimental as ignoring the valid complaints.  It’s about intelligent filtering of the white noise.

7 Basics for Games Business Development

Image Courtesy of Fireflyseo.com

This months contribution comes from a biz dev professional who has worked both on the agency, developer and publishing side of the industry:

1) The most critical thing for me is that you need to understand who you are talking to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people wasting my time trying to sell me something that’s totally irrelevant to my business and being really pushy about it at the same time. For example I was at a MMORPG company and someone was trying to sell me advertising in baseball stadiums for 175,000 USD spouting off how many million eyeballs they have. My point to him being, only 0.1% of those millions (if I am lucky) may be relevant to me. So do research on the company you’re approaching, understand what they do and be sure that what you offer is a really good fit for them. Demonstrate your understanding when you email them or when you speak to them on the phone. Get a good grip on their product line-up and understand what markets they operate in and how they monetize.

2) It’s better to reach out to 5 companies with the above approach vs spamming 50 with a generic cut and pasted letter that doesn’t speak directly to their needs.

3) Understand who the decision maker is, before you go to deep into any discussions try and understand the hierarchy of the business and who the relevant person is to pitch to, as well as the ultimate decision maker. Sometimes the person you’re talking to is the right contact but doesn’t have the authority to sign off. However you could create a internal win for them, making his or her life easier if they bring a great new technology to the table that helps the business. Understand from them what they need from you to get things pushed through internally. Enable them to become an internal advocate for your business.

4) If you can create mock-ups or examples of the companies logo or games integrated with your system, sometimes visualizing something goes a long way to explain what it is you can offer. It can be as simple as including a screenshot of their product within your UI when you’re presenting to them.

5) LinkedIN is great tool for reaching out to potential partners, if you don’t already be sure to use it to build your contact base and research companies you might want to work with. Keep your links on your profile up to date and join groups that deal with your business genre.

6) In your first contact be direct but not pushy. Time is valuable to everyone these days and not everyone wants to commit to lunch or dinner, or even an hour phone call over something they know nothing about. Ask for a 10mins or 15mins window to give a brief intro on what you’re all about. If you’re less demanding in what you’re pushing for you’re more likely to get a response. Provide documentation or emails that can shared easily internally, don’t send 10mb 55 slide powerpoint decks. The easier you make it to share, the more likely it will get shared.

7) Check out conferences that may be relevant for your business, go through the attendee list, most conference websites list this publicly. Find out who’s going and work on setting up meetings in advance. Failing that you can try go around to the booths and see if you can grab 5mins with the relevant person. Although it does really help if you know who you should be talking to in advance. Some companies are more receptive to walk-ups than others.

Why There is no WoW Killer

Image from an article @ Massively.com

The term WoW Killer seems to rear its head with every new MMORPG release, most recently Rift had the honor partly fueled by their marketing approach and partly due to the similarities in the gameplay with WoW. Star Wars: The Old Republic is also getting similar treatment as the industry and fans alike have high hopes for such a large franchise and respected developer.

The term itself is obviously flawed as nothing will ‘kill’ WoW outright but I think the term is supposed to allude to a product that can compete or even get close to WoW. Not something that will kill it.

There will never be a WoW Killer, too much has changed in market since WoW was released.

When World of Warcraft launched in 2004 not even the Blizzard team knew how big they were going to be, it took everyone by surprise. The game changed the entire lanscape of the MMO industry almost overnight. If you look at a chart of MMO subs the usual trend is for a the game to peak post launch, trend downwards and then level off. With WoW it was a straight line up and it never stopped going.

The latest numbers for WoW have surpassed 12m. When WoW launched the market was ripe for an MMO and there were several factors why it exploded the way it did:

  • PCs technology was getting cheaper and more powerful
  • Broadband penetration was exploding across Europe and the US
  • Games like, Ultima, Planetside, Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot had paved the way and educated consumers and retail on MMOs
  • WoW had the strength of the Warcraft brand behind it
  • Blizzard built a kick ass, extremely well designed and polished persistant world
  • WoW was one of the only products that had appeal in Europe, North America and Asia in equal measure
  • They did an excellent job marketing this title, starting with the hardcore and as the product grew went more and more mainstream
  • It become a cultural phenomenon: not just any game gets an entire South Park episode dedicated to it

It was like a Dark Knight or Titanic at the box office, the timing was right, it was a great product and once is snowballed there was no stopping it.

Now the market has changed and evolved in such a way that to surpass this success is no longer viable with a client based box sale subscription MMO. It may be done in other forms with slightly different genres or business models but there is always going to a Pre and Post-WoW era. It’s become the benchmark by which all MMO are judged and defined. But it’s an anomaly, it’s the exception to the trend, not the rule.  And no, you can’t kill it.

The Irony of Innovation

Gamers often shout; ‘We want innovation, do something different!’ The irony is, actually they really don’t. They say they do but ultimately they vote with their wallets. And over the last five years or so the vote has clearly gone against innovation.

Nope, I’m not just making this up let’s look at some of the most successful multi-player games of 2010:

  1. Call of Duty Black Ops – 18.88m
  2. Wii Sports – 16.60m
  3. New Super Mario Bros. Wii – 11.31m
  4. Wii Sports Resort – 11.29m
  5. Wii Fit Plus – 8.87m
  6. Fifa Soccer 11 – 8.44m
  7. Halo: Reach – 7.55m
  8. Red Dead Redemption – 7.21m
  9. Kinect Adventures – 7.17m
  10. Pokemon Heart Gold/ Soul Silver – 6.39m

[Sales are cross platform Worldwide. Figures from VGChartz]

Out of all those products Kinect Adventures is the only new franchise that was launched in 2010, along with the widely promoted Kinect hardware. Every other product has had another iteration pre-2010. If you look at the top 20 there’s still only 1 new franchise launched in 2010, and looking at the top 30 there’s a total of 2 new products launched:  that’s 6%. Of course every few years or so you get a break-out success with something new like a Guitar Hero, Kinect or a new franchise launched like Assasin’s Creed. But these are increasingly rare.

Arguably World of Warcraft did so well because it was part of an existing franchise, in terms of innovation it was the most successful MMO of its generation but it wasn’t the first. It was an established brand visually and by name with the Warcraft franchise. Even the world of Azeroth was known to loyal Blizzardians. Much of the look and feel of the original RTS games was put into WoW, even down to certain icons and sound effect. So to a Warcraft fan everything had a very familiar feel. And even though every  Wow-fanboy now shouts that every MMO since WoW is a WoW Clone you don’t need to look too far back to see that WoW borrowed a great deal from the  MMOs that preceded it. The big difference being that WoW just did it way better than any MMO ever had before. On top of this WoW is firmly rooted in the Fantasy MMO genre.

Which brings us to another interesting aspect with innovation or lack of in MMOs; the only ones that have enjoyed substantial success have all been in a Fantasy setting, by this I mean, Elves, Orcs, Crossbows, Swords, etc… you get the idea. Eve has been the only exception to the rule here, the guys at CCP have done a tremendous job with persistent and slow but steady growth. You could maybe list City of Heroes and a couple of others that have done okay, but nowhere near on the scale of industry leaders. Every other MMO that’s tried to do something a little different has failed faster than you can say ‘server shut down’. Remember The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies, APB, Auto Assault? Tabula Rasa? All games that tried to break out from the fantasy umbrella and do something a little different. Now, were they all amazing games? Probably not and the genre alone is not the root cause of their failure but my point is that the rest of the industry looks at these failures and takes note. No one is going to be developing another driving MMO in a hurry, so if gamers really want innovation they need to broaden their tastes a little and give more niche products the time of day. Otherwise publishers and developers will continue to play it safe, which in an increasingly competitive and fractured market you can’t really blame them for.

5 Steps to Consider for a Successful Open Beta

Following on from the previous post here are 5 things to consider when planning for an open beta as part of a product launch campaign:

1) Limit the number of keys: The basics of supply and demand do apply in this case, and the velvet rope effect really does work. Especially with a well-hyped product. Don’t flood the channel with 300,000 keys, getting critical mass for a beta does not equal good marketing. Getting a smaller number of keys to the right people is way more effective. Work closely with your community teams to distribute them to well established guilds and opinion informers. Deal with websites that will support you and your product. Build long term relationships as opposed to giving keys away indiscriminately.

2) Treat your loyal consumers right: If you have a retail product and you”re doing pre-order and collectors editions: reward those that show the most dedicated interest. So CE and pre-order customers should get priority in betas. You don’t want to annoy the people that are putting money down by giving priority to folks that got a key for free. Also give preference to users of existing products or subscribers of your newsletters.

3) Show off your best side: Only show specific areas of the game, don’t allow un-limited access to everything at once. Ensure your dev team is confident in what your showing and that those parts are polished and of launch ready quality. This has several benefits; it ensures the areas that you’re showing are populated and feel like a living world, and it keeps the players wanting and guessing for more. It also allows you to prepare press assets and marketing materials around each specific area you are showing.

4) Timing is everything: Do not leave your beta open for a 3 or 4 week window, and  certainly never longer than that. Again this is something that is was common back in the day but is no longer advisable. Players may see enough to decide not to buy the product, or others will simply glean as much free game time as possible and move on. Instead, bearing in mind point 3 above pick specific areas of the game you want to highlight and then set 2 or 3 day windows in which you reveal this content. This allows players to set time aside to focus on checking out your product, but it is also an excellent way to show the games best side. You can show high level content by letting everyone play characters from a higher level as a starting point. Even though overall you’re giving less playtime than a old school 4 week beta might have given players, you’re actually able to show way more content.

5) Do listen: A lot of rules in how to run a OBT have changed but one that hasn’t is that the betas are still great opportunities to listen to player feedback. Admittedly it may be a little close to launch to make any major development changes but players might discover something you’ve missed or give you a great idea for a marketing angle. Listen to your community teams and set process and time aside for reviewing player feedback.

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