A wise man once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Concept artists understand this sentiment better than most. With full creative license, concept artists have the unique and enviable ability to make the game world match their vision of what it should be. If this concept hasn’t been fully fleshed out or has mistakes, then that’s all going to end up in the game – rendering useless the work of 3D artists, animation artists, and all those other talented professionals who worked to bring this concept to gaming life. Plarium concept artist Andrey Ivanov has been successfully tackling these challenges on a daily basis over the past four years. Let’s follow along as he takes us through a day in his shoes.
By: Barry O’Brien
Being a game designer is what a lot of gamers would consider to be a dream job; and I would have to agree. Yes, we do get paid to play games but we also manage to get a bit of work done too! Apart from having a lot of fun playing games we are actually working. The idea is this: the more a game designer knows about games, the better the game designer!
By Nick Day, Creative Director at Plarium
Video game developers have fought tirelessly over the years to be considered serious storytellers. While high-end cinematics and live-action cut-scenes are hailed as key achievements in this journey for mature storytelling, gaming has always played a unique role in the formation of narratives. That’s because players have the potential to experience the story and affect the storyline, rather than just view the unfolding of events.
This notion of storytelling in gaming was a major theme at a recent gaming conference, and industry leaders dove into how that role is currently being pursued and offered key elements to consider when telling a story. Here are some of the key takeaways on how it applies to social and mobile gaming.
“It is indeed very hard to keep players entertained while doing the same routine over and over, everyday,” Leonard Frankel said during his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “The average mobile user installs a new game almost every month. The average mobile gamer installs a new game twice a month, so even higher. So the imminent uninstalls lurks around the corner.” He shared insight on improving engagement in games during his session.
Leonard Frankel is head of business development at Plarium, the largest hard-core game developer on Facebook. Closing distribution and IP deals for Plarium are the times when Frankel feels the most productive and valuable in his work. Closing these deals is not easy, and, in fact, Frankel reveals that it requires more work in internal pitching than in external negotiating.
Educating Yourself on the Business
It was 2011 when, through a recruiter, Frankel joined Plarium at the time when the company consisted of 160 people (versus over 500 now). He was their first business development person, so a lot of the job involved research and competitive analysis. As the company evolved, so did its requirements for collaborative relationships, and his responsibilities increased. Today, he actively helps in steering the company’s strategy. Before coming to Plarium, he founded and managed a company developing an AI engine for online real-money poker games. In its last phase, they explored launching social games based on this engine. At that point, Frankel had to educate himself on the games ecosystem of Facebook. This happened to be the exact knowledge needed by Plarium as they took their first steps on the platform.
Frankel believes that the applying of complex collection mechanisms into other game genres is well-accepted by players today. He finds that it adds a significant layer of interest to most games, so he is actively advocating for it with Plarium’s internal studios. He admits this is easier said than done, but says, “When we look into new games being developed, we debate with our internal studios which forms of engagement can be added to their game, and collection mechanisms are often one of the options.”
Telepathic Phones Ahead?
He suggests that the trend which could most affect the games industry would be the switch to telepathic phones. But as this might take a whole decade, another interesting trend he observes is the decline in online platforms which will have a considerable impact. Fewer and fewer people are buying physical PCs, and existing PC owners have drastically reduced their PC usage. They often prefer using their mobile devices to go online. It seems evident to him that web platforms are on the decline, pushing even more developers toward mobile and increasing the overall quality of mobile games, as well as the competition on player’s attention.
Not surprisingly, considering his work, Frankel prefers to do his gaming on mobile because “The quality of games is so high these days, and the length of play fits perfectly into tight schedules”. He has been playing a lot of Hearthstone by Blizzard and recently, he began playing Summoners War by Come2Us, “It is a fun RPG CCG with high production values and great animation”.
While playing F2P games, he doesn’t usually make large single-purchases. In Candy Crush, he spent about $30, a little at a time. But he was glad to pay $70 for the arena and campaign mode in Hearthstone over time. Frankel divides most of his time between work and spending time with his wife and daughters. But he does squeeze in time for a little exercise, a bit for experimental cooking and eating, and a dash of social life.
As a composer, it’s no surprise Jesper Kyd loves music. Even from a young age, when Kyd started playing classic guitar and piano, his passion for melodies and harmonies was evident.
As he grew, so did his musical expertise. He started messing with music in an electronic medium when he got his first computer, a Commodore 64, at age 13. At 15, he got his first keyboard, a Roland D-20, and began composing music with that as well. “I’ve always loved experimenting with electronics and creating unique sounds,” he says.
Once More, With Feeling
Some of Kyd’s favorite bands and influences include The Knife and Royksopp, as well as classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Ottorino Respighi. For him, music is all about the feeling. “Music can take you far away and make you feel something different,” he notes. “I’m drawn to the emotion of music.”
This fundamental trait of music is what makes it so enjoyable to work with and is a component of the music-making process for Kyd — allowing him to find inspiration in whatever the focus of his latest project is. “There is always a lot of inspiration when working on games, film, and TV as your music needs to fit into a certain world so that world should always be able to inspire ideas.”
Regardless of the platform or genre, music has the same purpose in a game. “Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world,” Kyd says. “Music can also make you play a game longer. For example, if some music comes on that you feel like listening to, then you might stay in the game world longer and that might be all it took for you to find something new and now you end up playing the game for another hour or more.”
The process is also the same no matter the game. Kyd will generally work alongside the creative director, audio director, or game director, discussing what the music needs to do along with the wider game story and its characters. At times, he will be directly involved with how the music is applied in the game, and other times everything has already been sorted before he’s even brought in. He loves being involved as much as possible in the process though. A score can take anywhere from three to nine months to put together, depending on how early he is brought in to the process and how much music is required — and it’s not unusual for him to write around three hours of music on a single project.
Reflections and Pushing Forward
There’s no such thing as a crowning accomplishment for Kyd and each project brings more knowledge and new ways of thinking to the table. “I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music. I develop my music all the time and so when I go back to listen to a score after I have grown in other areas of music making, I feel I can go back to that style and add something new.”
Even though he won’t call it a crowning achievement, his scores on the first four Assassin’s Creed games were certainly a milestone, and it makes him happy to know the Assassin’s Creed community still enjoys the “Ezio’s Family” theme and connects to it, noting it was intended to go beyond gameplay. He is also proud to have established the sound of Assassin’s Creed, saying “It seems there now are very high expectations from the music in the Assassin’s Creed series, and I feel good about having planted that seed.”
In keeping with his theme of pushing forward, Kyd has recently made the jump to social games. He was approached by Plarium, who were looking to create interesting and unique music for their games. “Plarium gave me full creative reign and that’s (one thing) I look for when working on a project. I liked their ideas and they were very open to mine, so we connected on a creative level and started working together.”
Whatever projects may come in the future, for Kyd, “It’s always about working in a fun environment with creative people who share the same kind of enthusiasm and passion.”
Headquartered in the global technology hub of Herzliya, Israel, Plarium employs over 400 individuals across its three offices and animation studios. With 90 million registered users, Plarium is considered one of the top hardcore game developers on Facebook. Nicholas Day is the Creative Director for Plarium’s portfolio of hardcore games (Total Domination, Soldiers Inc., Pirates: Tides of Fortune, Stormfall: Age of War), and shares the story of Total Domination.
Over the past few months, there’s been an increasing amount of reports on the death of social gaming. Plarium’s hit hardcore title Total Domination: Nuclear Strategy proves that these reports have been greatly exaggerated.
Plarium’s Total Domination has been growing and evolving steadily since its launch in late 2011. In terms of numbers, Total Domination’s registered players have increased by 55 percent in the last year alone, with players logging in an average of three sessions a day on Facebook alone. As part of Plarium’s ongoing work with their core players, they’ve been consistently updating the game with new content, new mechanics, in-game characters, and extended storyline events that take the gameplay experience to the next level.
A few of Total Domination’s most notable new features include the immersive Global Missions, Live Chat, and the introduction of Clan Warfare, all of which increased the overall game engagement factor, while allowing Plarium to fully maximize the “social” aspect of gameplay.
With Global Missions, the game offers a break from competitive gameplay to allow players to work collectively against a universal non-player enemy – success or failure is up to the community as a whole, and players can earn free units, bonuses, and special content while unlocking key plot developments and shaping the course of the game storyline.
While a simple addition, adding live chat has given all in-game teams a powerful new tool to coordinate in real-time without leaving the game or sending messages. Coupled with new improvements to the game’s team gameplay interfaces, Live Chat has made it even easier to play with old friends and meet new ones without missing the action.
Over the past 12 months, Plarium has brought Clan Warfare to the center of the Total Domination player experience and put a stronger emphasis on team cooperation and social gameplay. This feature allows players to team up with live allies from around the world to battle for control of the game map, upgrade and defend powerful map objectives, and engage in complex team gameplay within the game world. Clans have their own player-determined internal command hierarchies, achievements, and access to special resources and units.
Artifacts have also been introduced to the game – advanced ancient technological components players can use to improve their fighting units, increase their resource production, and reduce unit production times. Artifacts can either be recovered randomly during battles, or by controlling and searching archeological sites across the wasteland map.
“We’ve introduced eight new units as exclusive bonus content within the game’s Black Market,” shares Gabi Shalel, Plarium’s VP of Marketing. “Each unit boasts serious firepower, and grants special collective attributes when fielded with weapon systems within its class.”
More recently, Plarium launched the latest installment of the Total Domination franchise, titled Total Domination: Reborn, for iOS devices. The mobile title features all new groundbreaking graphics and gameplay. Upon launch, TD: Reborn reached the #1 spot on the US App Store for Strategy Games and Top 50 spot overall.
The Total Domination team has a lot more in store for their players. With so many existing game features and mechanics, the next major step for TD is developing more story-driven multimedia content; including new fully-voiced game characters, an entirely new musical score, playable side missions, and a massive new storyline for new global missions that will uncover more of the world’s history and shape the narrative act of the game worldwide leading into 2014.
Launching a hardcore title is only the start of a game’s journey. To maximize the success of any title, whether it is on social or mobile, requires listening to user feedback in order to implement the right updates swiftly and efficiently. Additionally, community feedback can have a direct impact on your game’s long term engagement and monetization factors, so keeping an open channel of communication between
core players and the development team is essential.
Leonard Frankel, Head of Business Development at Plarium, describes himself as a “solver.” When speaking at Casual Connect USA in July, he said, “When done right, the business development department can be the most efficient engine of growth for the company. You get to generate a lot of traction and be very influential. It can be very satisfying.”
Plarium works to sustain focus on their operations, self-improving along the way. An example of the company’s dedication to focus is Stormfall, the third game in the strategy series that brought the developer into the limelight.
The success of Stormfall was a pleasant surprise, Leonard explained, “With the optimized engine and a perfectly timed theme, the studio proved that significant potential can still be fulfilled.” Plarium’s upcoming unannounced title integrates all they have learned, as well as implementing lessons from mobile.
Before coming to Plarium, Leonard was building an artificial intelligence system for online real-money poker games. After two years and a substantial budget, he realized it was time to end the work. “I learned a lot from the experience and now know that when you do all you can to succeed, it is okay if you don’t,” he said. “It is part of your path.”
Finding a Place at Plarium
When he came to Plarium, it took some trial and error to find the right path where he could contribute most significantly. This included mergers and acquisitions, collaborations, finding service providers and industry intelligence. “Your work is not measurable in ROI in the beginning, and I had to learn, together with the entire system around me, what our needs are and how we should grow,” he said “It feels very good to know you are on that path eventually.”
After Leonard closed down the previous operation, he brought up a partnership that was supposed to create social games off the AI poker engine. To do this, he had to research the economy of games on Facebook and create a full business plan. This experience was very useful in his work at Plarium, which he joined not long after they launched Total Domination on Facebook. He continues to have insights as a result of having managed a company of 22 people and is able to see the greater scale of things in Plarium’s organization.
The Vanishing PC
Leonard believes the next challenge for the game industry will materialize when people will stop buying personal computers in a couple of years. He says, “You will come to work, place your cell phone on your desk, and it will attach itself to your screen and keyboard to become your work computer. In a short time, there will no longer be social, web, and mobile, only variant uses of mobile software. This means we will have to serve games that work on your mobile device, regardless of what it is plugged in to.” Plarium sees mobile as one of the biggest opportunity for growth, making significant efforts to create the perfect experience on the platform. Leonard claims, “As I know us, once we get it right, we will spread quickly.”