2018 Asian Games Esports Games List Includes Some Surprising Choices

Yesterday, the 2018 Asian Games, billed as the largest multi-sport event in the world outside of the Olympics, announced what games will form part of competition at its inaugural esports event. While esports will be a “demonstration,” not a medal event at these games (they will be a medal event for the next games in 2022), this is still a pretty big deal, as it’s the first time esports has formed part of a major traditional sports competition like this. The games forming part of the lineup are: League of Legends, Hearthstone, StarCraft 2, Pro Evolution Soccer, Clash Royale and Arena of Valor (a Chinese mobile MOBA that basically looks like a mobile version of LoL).

I have to say, if I had guess what games would form part of the lineup, these are not the 6 titles I would necessarily have come up with. My thoughts on each of these choices:

League of Legends: Not a huge surprise, as this is by far the most successful of the six games listed. Of course, the other of the world’s two most successful MOBAs, DotA, is not part of the event. I’m wondering if this was intentional, as the organisers felt they had to pick one game or the other in order to prevent “MOBA overload.” You have to wonder if the two games will become mutually exclusive at major multi-esport events in the future for this reason.

Hearthstone: It’s going to be fun seeing how this one turns out, just because of the RNG factor. Yes, every sport involves luck (although with a lot of other e-sports the luck factor is surprisingly small), but given how blatant and in-your-face the luck factor in Hearthstone is, something seems a bit off about having it as an event at a major sporting competition where medals are won, national pride is at stake and *serious sports things* happen. Do you really want the medal winner of your event decided because [insert name of random damage card here] ended up hitting face instead of the opponent’s board?

Also, given that Hearthstone is not necessarily an easy game to pick up by watching, and you basically need to have played the game to understand how it works or what any of the cards do, the game will have pretty much zero accessibility for non-esports fans (or even gamers who aren’t Hearthstone fans).  This means it’s maybe not the best choice if the purpose of this event is to expose esports to a non-gaming audience.

StarCraft 2: The grandaddy of the e-sports scene! While it doesn’t have the audience numbers it once did, given its role in the development of esports it seems fitting that SC2 should be one of the events here. StarCraft is also probably pound-for-pound the most fun to watch out of the six listed here, and also the easiest game understand and digest for a non-esports audience (when non-gamers think video games, a game like StarCraft, with space marines fighting each other, etc. is probably what they think of). Overall, can’t really complain about this one.

Pro Evolution Soccer: Why not FIFA? [Update: as some reddit commenters to this post have pointed out, PES is the soccer game in Asia instead of FIFA, so that solves that mystery.] Also, scratch that comment about StarCraft 2. This is definitely going to be the most easy to understand game for a non-esports audience, although I feel like it shouldn’t really count because it’s the only game that’s simulating a real sport. On an unrelated note, since I’m assuming real soccer will be an event at the games too, how about a “split” event where the soccer players play real soccer for the first half, and the gamers play PES for the second half, then the scores are combined? This could be the esports equivalent of chess boxing.

Clash Royale: Clash Royale is kind of like the quiet overachieving kid of the esports scene. No one really thinks too much about it, but it shows up in these tournaments more than you’d think. This is also the first of two mobile games forming part of the lineup. People who haven’t played Clash before can literally see the event, download the game on their phone, and be playing 30 seconds later. I feel like I should take this opportunity to invest in SuperCell stock or something.

Arena of Valor: I’ve never heard of this game, and while some quick googling tells me it’s huge in China, I have to wonder if it was really the optimal choice here, especially since the game play is so similar to League of Legends, which is already part of the competition.

Overall, there’s a few major omissions that I would have expected to see on this list, including DotA, Overwatch and CS:GO. Even and Smash Brothers or PUBG may have made an interesting addition if the organizers wanted to stray from the beaten path a bit.

In particular, the lack of shooters is a bit puzzling . If this is supposed to be a showcase of esports in general, it seems like you’d want at least one shooter there. Maybe the organisers were concerned about the potential violent nature of these games, and this isn’t really the image they wanted to convey.

Regardless, while this is not necessarily the game lineup I would have gone with, it will be fun to see how this turns out. Hopefully the organizers pick up some pointers about what worked and didn’t this time around, and use those lessons when setting the lineup for future events.

Jail Time and Fines For Hackers Show Video Games Have Finally Made It

It’s been a tough few weeks for video game hackers. Yesterday in Los Angeles, a hacker responsible for a number of DDoS attacks against World of Warcraft’s servers  was sentenced to one year in jail, as well as being ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution to Blizzard for the cost of responding to the attacks. This news comes on the heels of reports last week that South Korea has sentenced two of thirteen hackers recently arrested for making cheats for Overwatch, with one receiving a $10,000 fine, and the other receiving probation. Similarly, China has recently arrested 15 individuals charged with making PUBG cheats, levying a whopping $4.5 million USD in fines against them.

One notable thing about all these cases is that the perpetrators were charged criminally. While game companies have been suing hackers in civil court for years (see for instance Epic’s recent crusade against a 14-year-old Fortnite cheat maker), this is the actual government coming after people, often expending considerable resources to do so. For example, the WoW hacker above was caught after an international investigation spearheaded by the FBI, which took 8 years to conclude (the attacks actually occurred in 2010, the hacker was indicted in 2011, then the US government spent spent the intervening time, and what I assume are considerable resources, fighting to extradite him from his native Romania).

Cue 8-bit version of the “Cops” theme.

These kind of stories show how far the perception of video games has changed in mainstream society. I think it’s pretty safe to say that if a game company had gone to a law enforcement agency 20 years ago and asked for their help catching someone making CounterStrike hacks, they would have been politely told to mind their own business. After all, video games were still seen as kids stuff back then. The government wasn’t going to divert resources they could be spending on catching drug dealers to trying stop people from being able to see through walls on de_dust.

Nowadays that’s not the case. Video games are big business, and when Blizzard calls, the FBI apparently listens. Some countries, like Korea, have even passed legislation explicitly making it illegal to make video game hacks, with violations of the law punishable by up to 5 years in jail.  And crucially, all this is seen is perfectly fine by society at large, with no one really raising any eyebrows when any of this stuff happens, even outside gaming circles.

While I think it’s still an open question whether this kind of behavior really deserves the kind of serious criminal sanctions we’re talking about here  – after all, you could argue all these people are really doing is mildly interfering with others’ enjoyment of an entertainment product – it’s still good to see video games being taken seriously this way.

Going Viral By Accident: Stories of Unconventional Indie Marketing Success

I’ve already spent a lot of time on this blog talking about how difficult marketing can be for indie devs, and how  with 30+ new indie games coming out on Steam every day, generating any media coverage and making your game stand out for the crowd can be extremely hard.

While some indies manage to accomplish that through standard methods (writing to journalists, dev blogs, getting covered by streamers, social media etc.), it’s clear that marketing is not an exact science, and sometimes the things that result in the most exposure for games are the things you never expect. After spending some time reading postmortems for various indie games, a few of these random, unintended-consequence marketing stories stuck out for me, so I thought I’d share them here. So without further ado, here’s some the more unconventional ways that some devs have managed to “accidentally” get some exposure for their games:

  • Write an Angry Forum Post to One Of Your Fans. Hugh Monahan, developer of indie isometric shooter Brigador, was having a rough day. After seeing a spike of initial sales at release, sales for his game had faded to “next-to-nothing” levels (that would be the stretch labeled “Pit of Despair” in the chart below). When a couple of his fans started complaining on the game’s forums about the $20 price tag for the game he had sunk 5 years of his life into, instead of letting it go, he wrote sarcastic blog post tearing into them. The post went viral, and was eventually picked up by Kotaku and other game publications. The resulting exposure resulted in the  biggest sales spike in the game’s life cycle, as seen in the handy chart below:

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    The result of getting covered by Kotaku.
  • Put a Gif Maker Into Your Game. Patrick Corriery, the developer of PolyBridge, a hugely successful bridge building simulator, credits a lot of his success to one simple decision: creating a built-in GIF generator for his game. He did this on the suggestion of a developer friend, not expecting it to be a major game feature. However, once the game came out, the GIF generator ended up being the key driving force behind the game’s success. Players started sharing little snippets of his game on reddit and other social media, a few of them hit the front page, and from that point on the snowball kept rolling creating massive buzz and sales for the game.
  • Go Viral On Reddit With a Cute Infographic. The devs of the indie bullet-hell shooter Starlicker put a lot of work into making their game, and by the time it came to release and market it, they were by their own estimation tapped out. Luckily, a friend of the devs, wanting to help them out, made a cute info graphic asking people to check out the game. The post managed to tap into the sensibilities of the reddit hive mind, shooting up to the top of /r/gaming and even ending up on the front page for a while. It was viewed at least 400,000 times, resulting in 10,000 downloads,  which accounted for more than 90% of the game’s total lifetime sales.
  • Create a “Twitch-Plays” for Your Game. Ok this one wasn’t really accidental, and isn’t something that’s going to work again, but TinyBuild Games, publisher of the boxing-themed-tamagochi-like-life-simulator Punch Club came up with a pretty brilliant strategy for generating coverage for their game. Before putting it out, they created a “Twitch plays” for it, in the same spirit as Twitch plays Pokemon. The catch was that the game would not be released until the Twitch community beat it. The novelty resulted in a lot of media coverage both relating to the stunt itself and the practicalities surrounding it (after all, some people had pre-ordered it seeking a fixed launch date). As a result of the coverage the game made it to no. 5 on the overall Steam sales charts on the weekend it was released, a pretty impressive feat for an indie.

Terrifying Twitter Account Shows How Saturated the Indie Market Is

Further to my recent post on the importance of indie game marketing, if any indie dev wants some perspective about how hard it will be to have their stand out from the crowd, they should have a look at the Steam Trailers in 6s twitter account.

Like its name suggests, every time a game goes up on Steam, the account auto-posts a 6 second trailer of it. This allows you to see, in real time, the fire-hose like rate at which these games are cranked out. A new game is posted every 45 minutes to an hour or so. For instance, at the time of the time of this post, the account had put out 33 trailers in the past 24 hours.

If I was an indie dev, scrolling through this feed would scare the living crap out of me. It’s one thing to read stats on paper about how 7,000 games were released on Steam last year and so forth; it’s another thing to see it happen right in front of you like this, and to know that somehow your game is going to have to differentiate itself from all of these to see any sales.

Marketing: The Indie Dev’s Achilles Heel

I’ve been having a lot of fun recently reading game post-mortems from indie game devs. Like the name suggests, post-mortems are basically articles by game devs looking back after their game is released,  going over what went wrong and what went right.  A few collections of them can be found here and here.

As I started reading through these I was going to write one of those “5 mistakes every first time indie dev makes” lists, but going through more and more stories, one problem stuck out more than any other: marketing. A depressing number of the post-mortems went essentially like this:

  1. Small indie dev gets an idea for a game;
  2. Dev + a few friends work for months or years on said game, sometimes at great cost to their personal health and finances;
  3. Game is finished and goes up on Steam, no one finds out about it, game fails.

Part of this seems to arise out of the fact that many devs treat marketing as a bit of an afterthought, believing that making a quality game will automatically result in press coverage and sales. When their game finally hits the market many of them seem to have an “Oh shit!” moment, realizing that’s not the case, and that marketing the game is a job in and of itself and a far bigger time-sink than they thought it would be. Atillo Caroteuento, the developer of bullet-hell game An Oath to the Stars puts it pretty bluntly in his post-mortem:

Most importantly, what you really need to understand and always keep in mind, is that nobody cares about your game. I thought that, having worked in famous game studios and having a lot of cool promo art would ensure coverage, and I was wrong.

You’ll need to chase people and journalists, create an amazing presskit and a lot of social media work just to get them to look at your page for 10 seconds. It’s exhausting…

Many indie devs find essentially beholden to media coverage and twitch streams to get any traction in the marketplace. Without those, their game is essentially dead. This is neatly summarized by game dev Hugh Monahan in the post-mortem for his game Brigador:

This is what selling an indie game is like … Media coverage, both press and YouTube/Twitch, largely determines both how high your sales peaks are, as well as how quickly they decay. When all mention of you or your game disappears from the internet within a few days, you don’t have momentum so much as a flatline.

Making games takes a toll. Brigardor dev Hugh Monahan before and after his game was completed.

It’s kind of sad to see this kind of thing, especially because many of these were quality games with good reviews, and just seemed to fail because they couldn’t rise above the noise and get any exposure.

I guess the lesson is that if you’re going to take the plunge and spend months or years of your life making a game, make sure you spend some time planning out how you’re going to sell said game as well.

Lawsuit Filed Against PUBG Mobile Clones

PUBG’s publisher has filed a suit in California for copyright and trademark infringement against Chinese gaming behemoth NetEase, developers of “Knives Out” and “Rules of Survival,” two popular PUBG mobile clones. The move comes only a few days after the release of a mobile version of PUBG, and after its publishers attempted to remove the clones from the app store without success.

Hmmmmmm.

It will be interesting to see how this one turns out. While PUBG essentially created its own genere, things like game concepts and ideas are not protectable IP. Any developer can make their own battle-royale style game, copying things like the airplane drop, last-man-standing format, shrinking play area, etc. without worrying about a lawsuit.

However, it’s still possible for PUBG’s publishers to succeed if they can establish NetEase’s games copied the “look and feel” of PUBG . This is a pretty nebulous legal concept that basically means that, even if NetEase didn’t directly copy any actual code or art assets from PUBG, if the two games are substantially similar in terms of both visuals and overall functionality, NetEase will have infringed the PUBG’s publishers’ copyright.

Generally these kind of infringement claims have been successful in regard to less complex games with easy-to-define rule sets like Tetris or simple tile-matching games. PUBG is of course a far more complicated beast, and its publishers will probably have an uphill struggle on their hands showing there are enough similarities between it and NetEase’s two clones to establish infringement. If this claim succeeds it will probably be the first time the a court will have found this kind of infringement between games of this level of complexity.

Pokemon GO Lawsuit Settles for $83,000

Remember that Pokemon GO lawsuit I posted about a few months ago?  It turns out that Pokemon GO probably is protected by the right to free speech, as the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has agreed to settle the case for the sum of $83,000, with the entire amount reportedly going to the plaintiff’s legal fees. The park board will also agree not to enforce the ordinance at issue, which creates an awkward permitting process for any augmented reality games to be played in Milwaukee public parks.

This settlement comes after a July court ruling holding that it was likely that the plaintiff would succeed in establishing that the park board ordinance banning augmented reality games from public parks violated their right to free expression under the first amendment, and granting an injunction preventing the park board from enforcing the injunction.

This is as close to a 100% win as you get in law, with the board agreeing to give the plaintiffs everything their were asking for, and pay their legal fees. Score one for the forces of justice and freedom.

Is EA Greedy?

ea_money

In a rare misstep for an otherwise much beloved game company (OK I’ll stop), it looks that EA has gotten itself into a bit of a hot water over the microtransactions in Star Wars Battlefront 2.

While it was probably a matter of time until some company went too far and something like this happened, it’s sill surprising to see how far this scandal has gone – from the most downvoted reddit comment of all time, to even making CNN.

I have to say, though, while I’ve been as entertained as the next person by seeing the Reddit snowball of hate roll down and crush everything in its’ path this past week, I’m kind of of two minds about the way everything has unfolded.

I’m usually a bit turned off by all the moralizing that happens when companies are accused of being “greedy.” My question whenever the issue of “greed” comes up is this: how much money is someone allowed to try to make before they’re considered too “greedy”? Is there a specific line that needs to be crossed? If someone tries to make a 20% profit margin on a product they sell is that too greedy? How about 10%? Is that morally acceptable? Who gets to decide these things?

Greed is when there’s 10 kids and 10 pieces of cake at a birthday party, and some kid takes two. Greed isn’t the baker charging the parents for he cake. He made the cake, and he’s free to charge as much as he wants for it. He doesn’t owe the parents cake, and if they don’t like what he’s charging they don’t have to buy it.

EA doesn’t owe anyone a game any more than the baker owes those parents cake. They sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into making a Star Wars Battlefront, and if they feel the best way they can make that money plus a profit back is charging players 5 cents every time their character ties their shoes, then they have every right to try that. That decision may be stupid and counterproductive, it may turn off players and end up sinking the game, but it’s not “ethically” wrong and not really a basis for any kind of moral outrage.

At the same time, though, I’m sure if people playing Battlefront after launch and getting destroyed by a Darth Vader character that someone spent $1,000 to unlock wouldn’t really comforted by the idea that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is working in the background making all right with the world. They just want to have a good time with the game they spent $60 on, without having to shell out next month’s rent to be competitive. Are they “wrong” to be angry at whatever executive at EA decided to try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the player base at the expense of everyone’s good time? In theory, based  my little rant above, I guess you could argue that are.

But then again…I mean…Fuck that guy.

MLB to File Trademark Dispute Regarding Overwatch League Logo

From the “this is why people hate lawyers” file, it appears that Major League Baseball has filed a notice with the US Patent and Trademark Office stating it intends to dispute Blizzard’s registration of the logo for its upcoming Overwatch league, on the grounds that it may be confusing with its own logo. Here’s the two logos side by side for comparison:

Logo ComparisonConfused? Me either. The main similarity between the two appears to be the image of a white silhouette bordered by a two tone background. Hmm, why does that sound familiar? Oh right.

                    NBA Logo

So watch out NBA. After the MLB’s inevitable crushing victory against Blizzard, you’re next.

My favorite thing about this story though? Technically this isn’t really news. The MLB actually filed the notice at the heart of this story almost three months ago, in late April. No one reported on it at the time, and since then there’s actually been no new developments on this (the MLB has until July 26 to file their legal argument in the dispute).

As far as I can tell, the only reason this has become a story now is that New York entertainment law firm Morrison Lee posted an item about it on their firm blog and everyone else just ran with it, with the story even ending up in non-gaming publications such as Deadspin, and CBS Sports. This probably says a lot of things about how the media works that I’m not smart enough to encapsulate in writing here. In any event, it looks like one little law firm blog can change the world after all. In keeping with that, if anyone out there has any sweet, sweet industry gossip they’d like to leak, please know that I am available.

Who Owns Your Steam Games? (Hint: It’s Not You)

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Now that game sales are moving more and more into the digital realm, a question I sometimes hear is whether this changes anything in regard to game ownership, and whether users really “own” the games they buy through services like Steam.

The short answer to that question is no, users don’t really “own” their Steam games. However, they never owned games they bought on CDs either. When someone buys a game, all they get is a license to use the game, usually for personal, non-commercial purposes. The game company still owns all the intellectual property related to the game, all the buyer gets is essentially a right to play it. This has been true since the beginning of the industry, and the shift from selling physical copies of games to electronic copies has done nothing to change this from a legal perspective.

From a practical standpoint, however, things have changed considerably. Electronic delivery of games has made it far, far easier for companies to actually enforce the terms of their game licenses. For example, while in the days of CDs game companies had essentially zero chance of enforcing prohibitions on making copies of games or sharing them with others, nowadays that’s not the case. Services like Steam can keep far closer track of what you do with your copy of a game, and make it far harder for users to “circumvent” any such restrictions.

Moreover, if someone breaches the terms of a game license, it’s a lot easier for for companies to terminate that license (i.e. cut off that person’s access to the game). For instance, Valve regularly bans Steam users caught cheating by their software.

While Counterstrike cheaters aren’t too high on anyone’s pity list, other Steam users have also been banned for other, more vague transgressions against Valve’s terms of service, losing access to copies of all games in their library. For instance, this story highlights the story of a who was banned by Valve for vague violations of its terms of service, without any clear explanation for what he did wrong. The user lost access to a game library containing approximately $1,500 worth of games, with no refund, which appears to be Valve’s policy in the case of these bans. The ban was eventually lifted after the story made the rounds on some game publications, however the user was never provided with an explanation for what his alleged transgression was.

Admittedly stories like the one above are few and far between at the moment, however as electronic sales become more established, and other companies become more involved in online game sales *cough* Origin *cough* they’re bound to become more common.

Right now the only legal recourse someone who feels they were unfairly banned by Valve or another company from their service would be taking that company to court or arbitration, which makes no financial sense, even for $1,500 worth of games. At the same time, this is still real money that people have spent on their games (not to mention what can be hundreds or thousands of hours of progress, which must have some value), and allowing companies to essentially act as judge, jury and executioner in cutting off their access to their game library, without giving the these persons some practical recourse to dispute their ban (beyond the pipe dream of a lawsuit) seems entirely unfair. What the practical solution to this problem is I don’t know, but it’s something to think about as the era of physical game copies winds down.