Extend Any Game’s Shelf Life

Extend Any Game’s Shelf Life

In the fire-and-forget world of retail antiquity, we have traditionally excused game developers and publishers from putting real long-term thought into their games’ online features. But times have changed: The idea of “games as a service” carries more weight with each release cycle, as consumers (thanks in part to a drawn-out recession and to now-ubiquitous broadband) demand both online connectivity and extended value from the games for which they have plunked down their $60. Moreover, the accelerating market for used games (hello again, recession!) – which once had many publishers spewing venom and wringing hands – seems less threatening now that they’ve glimpsed the opportunities for monetization via  the service-oriented model vs. the “pay for everything up-front” schemes of the good ol’ days.

Succeeding in this new era means more than simply trying to capitalize on the buzzwords of the day (“freemium,” “social,” etc.). As the phenomenal success of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and Red Dead Redemption have proven this year, the market for “core” video games remains strong, defying some analysts’ premature obituaries for the segment. Not coincidentally, both games delivered robust online services (Blizzard’s Battle.net and Rockstar’s Social Club, respectively) that will keep players engaged with the games long after initial hype dies down.

Not every publisher can afford this level of online investment, it’s true. But you can win big by thinking small – starting with basic, but innovative building blocks that still extend player engagement, establishing a real service for your players and, potentially, giving you something to monetize downstream, beyond the initial plastic and bits paid for up front.

Want to keep your 3+ year, $50 million game from hitting the used market within a week of release? It’s time to get serious about planning for post-release online content. THQ gets it for sure. The company’s latest mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting game title, UFC 2010: Undisputed, is changing the landscape of team-based play in video games. UFC 2010’s innovative “fight camps” feature (developed in part with off-the-shelf team management services from GameSpy Technology) puts sophisticated team organization tools into players’ hands.

Teams are the new black

You know these guys. Call them clans, guilds, or squads: They may give your community manager an ulcer, but their importance to the “long tail” of your title’s success has become undeniable over the last decade. Influential and fanatically loyal, these gamers pump lifeblood into communities by playing, evangelizing and paying monthly service fees years after your game first hits retail. But until recently, a lack of technology solutions has stymied developer’s attempts to tap into the raw community-building power of teams.

THQ and Yukes (the publisher and studio behind the highly successful WWE and UFC franchises) have put those days behind them. THQ’s bet? That support for clans will amplify the loyalty of UFC’s fan base and will ultimately boost the publisher’s efforts to tap into new and ongoing revenue from the used game market.

What Held Us Back?

If teams and communities are so important to building a total gaming experience, then why haven’t we seen a stronger effort to directly engage our player base through the game? The reason is that deep online features that seem essential during design may often look exotic and expendable when we awaken to the harsh daylight of tight development timelines and stretched budgets. And let’s be frank: The temperamental and contentious nature of clans and guilds often makes them feel too squirrely to wrestle, making the effort required to support seem to outweigh the reward. Given these constraints, clan tags and auto-reporting stats are about as much as most developers have been willing to commit themselves to so far.

GameSpy Technology witnessed this first hand a few years ago when we helped build some baseline team features for games like Battlefield 2142 and Command & Conquer 3. On several projects, we watched the desires of developers and player communities wither under the harsh realities of shipping a title. “Not enough time, not enough dollars” is a recurrent rallying cry on even the biggest of budget games.

Those experiences led us to develop GameSpy Brigades, an off-the-shelf “team management service” for integrating organized team-based gaming into games and community websites. Using SDKs for in-game integration on any platform and APIs for Web-based deployment, developers can quickly empower their players to create and manage teams that tightly involve them in a title or franchise.

The New Standard: Fight Camps in UFC 2010 Undisputed

UFC 2010 Undisputed will be the first game to use Brigades to offer its players a compelling level of persistent team play via the game’s “Fight Camps” feature. Unique among developers, THQ has not only integrated teams into UFC, but also made the feature an central part of the game’s online experience. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone, as Yukes and THQ have pushed online innovation in the last several iterations of the WWE and UFC franchises, integrating not just online play, but also features like custom video editing and sharing.

With Fight Camps, players can create invite-only teams and recruit up to 40 friends. Player managers have the ability to organize these camps, assigning roles and crafting a custom identity for the camp both in-game and at the game’s official community site. All Fight Camp activity is connected to GameSpy’s ATLAS stats tracking system, which reports on thousands of player and team performance stats to help players evaluate their fighting skills. Players can check their stats while in the game as well as through the UFC 2010 website, which helps keep players thinking about and interacting with the “service” even while outside the game. Bonus stickiness!

Once on a team, a player can play one of three roles. As “Recruits,” they play as provisional rookies fighting for respect. As “Members,” they’ve earned enough respect to fight for glory for their team. Finally, team “Trainers” enjoy a special status that is uniquely connected to gameplay rewards: Trainers can engage in non-ranked sparring matches that help Members and Recruits improve their fighting proficiency. And, as camp members spar within their camp, they carry the skill-ups they earn into ranked, live online matches elsewhere in the game. The fastest route to avoid becoming someone’s knuckle fodder? Join a Fight Camp, and spar until you don’t mind the pain anymore.

About Sean Flinn
Sean Flinn is Sr. Product Manager for GameSpy Technology, where he’s been playing games and drinking free beer for over a decade. Over 1000 titles on every major gaming platform have used the company’s products to provide players with compelling online experiences.

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