Ultimate Team, Fantasy Sports and the Sorare Thesis

“Something to aspire too”

Professional sports give us something to aspire too. Players are celebrated as heroes and children grow up wanting to become them. It’s no secret that the internet, and games in particular, have found even more ways to engross us in the world of sports. But the terms of that engrossment are not incidental, they’re crucial. NBA TopShot lets users “own” iconic moments. FIFA Ultimate Team (UT) has players collect star footballers. Fantasy sports gives betters big stakes based on outcomes. These platforms offer us an opportunity to insert ourselves closer to the action. French start-up Sorare fuses these aspects in a way we haven’t seen before; it’s the greatest challenger to UT and fantasy sports in years (sorry PES).

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The Economics of Battle Pass are Broken. Let’s Fix It.

To be fair “dippin dots” hangs around

Monetization’s modern paradigm is defined by a direct store and battle pass (BP). After years (and ongoing) criticism of loot boxes, Fortnite re-wrote the rulebook in a way that seems to make both developers and players happy. However, it’s important to consider that at sufficient scale any monetization scheme looks like a winner. It’s unclear if Fortnite is a winner because of the pass or despite it. For instance, the collapse of Clash Royale’s monetization can be partly traced to the introduction of its own pass.

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Why Do Game Genres Evolve? A Kuhnian Explanation

Yes RTS fans, Dawn of War was killed by popular 1960s academic

Modern live-service games have self-segmented in genres: match-3, 4x, collection RPG, battle royale etc. We know these genres evolve and start to incorporate new mechanics. And overtime, these mechanics become standard fare for the genre. For instance, invest-n-express titles like Gardenscapes are an outgrowth of the match-3 genre that adds collection mechanics on top. In HD, we’ve seen innovations like Apex Legends’ revive mechanic modified in Warzone’s Gulag. But how could we better understand why game genres change rather than observing they simply do? I argue that Thomas Kuhn can help.

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Is There An Actual Case for Cyberpunk’s Delay?

Cyperpunk 2077 launched and it turns out the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game were riddled with bugs. This has lead to an avalanche of omniscient pundits declaring “I told ya so!”. My personally favorite roast in this Miyamoto meme.

A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad."  Shigeru Miyamoto - iFunny :) | Words of wisdom, Super funny memes, Funny  memes
Was Miyamoto around for the Wii U though?

Rushing development feeds into narratives around greedy firms. “If only they didn’t want so much money!” Much of this banter is comprised of cheap shots devoid of making real claims about what CDPR should have done. Should the game have been delayed an additional 4 months? 6 months? And if so, why? If the board really didn’t understand the scope of the bugs then the question turns to the organizational design CDPR. What organizational breakdowns led the lack of information the board had about the bugs in game. Were QA leaders not empowered to speak up or not trusted?

These are much tougher questions to answer. After all, as Pixar is fond of saying, “[Games] don’t get finished, they just get released”. The key question is when to release. There will always be bugs and there will always be new features to add. Ultimately, release timing is a cost/benefit decision. Relative to the additional development cost what increase in sales would we expect from a delay? Do we have ever higher margins from a 4 or 6 month delay? To be clear, Cyberpunk is already outselling all other CDPR games, hardley “one of the most visible disasters in the history of video games“. What further increase would analysts expect with what additional delay?

Why Do Only Product Managers Write About Games?

I recently came across this Tweet:

The article’s writer, Ran Mo, is a Lead Product Manager at EA according to his Linkedin while the quote Tweeter is a fellow product manager. Dive a bit deeper and the retweets are all from fellow VCs or product people (guess there’s something to this).

This isn’t exactly uncommon. The Deconstructor of Fun podcast is hosted by three Product Managers and guests frequently come from a similar ilk.  A scroll through the last 20 DoF blog boosts a breakdown dominated by PMs.

DoF Posts by Job Discipline

Thanks for making it exceeding difficult to order by count Google Sheets!

Games are at the cleavage of art and science, so why are PMs the only ones with something to say about it? The alternative voices we do have, Eric Seufert (UA), Alexandre Macmillan (Analytics), and Javier Barnes (Design), only take a couple of sentences of digestion to realize the dramatically different way they frame and discuss problems. Their pieces tend to have more backbone or a strong theory that underlies an empirical observation. I’m a fan of this approach.

PMs are driven by their social caste, mainly moving up it. Networking is crucial to this, an insight that seems to go over the head of analysts and designers (at our own peril). The PM hierarchy is reflected in the “up or out mentality” re-enforced at tech and gaming firms. A scroll through PM Linkedin and you’ll see the following ladder:

But is a manager or regional director the higher title?

None of these motivations discredit, in any way, the strength of the ideas expressed by PMs. Or the fact they actually take the time to express them. But it does help explain why they can feel hollow at times, trying to fit a socio-political mold rather than a genuine expression. This is reflected in how many game PMs will depart for higher paying tech PM jobs in the Valley or to fellow gaming firms for title bumps. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.

 If I had a plea, it would be for all game disciplines to write vigorously. Write everything you know to be true and let’s hash it out. The game craft is too important to be dominated by one discipline. We should all be thinking hard about these problems.

Why Do FPS Players Like Small Maps?

Not featured in Cold War. Close. But not featured.

It’s the incentives, stupid.

Players want to unlock content and the most efficient way to do so is to maximize how many FPS games control progression speed: SPM or score per minute. Score is usually a formula composed of objectives and kills. The key is that it’s uncapped: there’s not a fixed amount of XP up for grabs in a given match or time played (this would be a better design). The formula implies that the more “action” in a given minute of gameplay then the more score per given unit of time and the faster a player will progress. Small maps excel at encouraging this – there’s a short amount of time before you bump into an enemy or objective.

FPS players like small maps because they function as costless XP boosts. Nuketown will be making its 5th appearance in the CoD title with Cold War.

Game Companies Are Not Tech Companies Part IV: MB = MC

Part I
Part II
Part III

“It’s a me-a!” Mr.Utility himself. This was in his will actually.

A Quick Refresher

Pricing is tough to get right. Ideally, we’d like to select a price that maximizes profit, holding all else constant.

Slopes not drawn to scale
In the above example, we consider a single price \( P \) but we can expand this to consider the set of prices or price set that define a game or service \(P_s:{\{P_1, P_2…P_x}\}\).Again, we want to pick the set of prices that maximize revenue.

Many goods or services operate under a single fixed price. For instance, a book might cost $18—everyone who values the book $18 and above purchases it. \( revenue = n * P \) where \(n\) is the number of readers who value it $18 and above and PP is price. Simple enough, right?

Let’s add consumer surplus to the story. In the example below, this is the shaded yellow area. Some readers value the book at $30 and thus are the most profitable in the transaction ($30 – $18 = $12 economic profit). The other readers made out, but perhaps not as well.

Consumer Surplus | Intelligent Economist

Imagine, however, that we could charge two different prices to two different segments of readers. Say one reader valued the book at $18 and another who valued the book at $30. The trick is to ensure that the good is non-tradeable; otherwise, the customer who faces a lower price could resell to the higher-priced customer and pocket the difference.

While we could raise the book’s price to $30, we’d lose out on the $18 reader. The problem of price discrimination, the one described above, is fundamental to understanding entertainment business models.

Our Case

The consumer surplus model struggles to capture time. After paying a fixed price for the book, the reader chooses to consume it (is anyone surprised?). The reader continues to accrue utility from this consumption – the enjoyment of reading the book outweighs other activities. At some point (but not always), the accumulated utility outweighs the initial cost.

Standard Utility Curve (Reading a Book)

Let’s pretend utility accrues linearly.

It’s important to note: the reader is not “in the hole” when we see red in the above graph. The book is a sunk cost; the reader should only consume it better when it’s better than engaging in other activities. But if we extend this graph to include more Time, the curve kinks immensely.

Utility Curves: Books

There are incredibly steep diminishing returns to reading a book a second time. It’s boring. Deep diminishing returns explain why book rentals (libraries) and book reselling are so popular. Why pay a fixed price for what is usually a single-use item? Steep diminishing returns ring true for movies as well. Of all films you’ve watched, what percent have you seen a second or third time? 1%? 5%? Subscriptions and rentals make sense for this form of entertainment. But what if, instead of flattening, the utility curve grew? Enter gaming.

Utility Curves: Games & Books/Movies

Games have a unique resistance to diminishing returns. As described in Part III:

The genius of PvP (Player v Player) environments is how they necessitate the emergence of a meta-game. PvP environments resemble game theory models where it has been shown strategies evolve in an evolutionary process. In mathematics, Player vs. Environment (PvE) resembles optimization where strategies are static – one and done. Each balance change reshuffles Equilibrium in PvP environments; the search for dominant strategies in an ever-shifting equilibrium is the game itself.

The strategic evolutionary process is a near limitless piece of content to consume.

MB = MC

The efficiency of any monetization or pricing system is the degree to which it can correlate marginal cost (MC) to marginal benefit (MB). In the above examples, we fixed the price. Fixing the price makes sense, given that the utility curves flattened out. But the more the curve refuses to flatten, the most decorrelated MC to MB becomes as Time continues.

The above gets us to the emergence of DLC and MTX. Players were playing PvP titles for hundreds, if not thousands of hours. MC failed to catch up. DLC map packs like those in Call of Duty and Battlefield helped MC catch up (and grow MB!) in fixed intervals, but the correlation was still weak as Time persisted.

MTX solved for the explosion in the marginal benefit multiplayer games were providing. Unlimited or greatly exaggerated spend caps allowed players to spend closer to their MB curves than they were previously able to do so.

Utility/Price Curve: MTX & F2P Games

Price = Accrued Revenue

Software as a service (Saas) can generate similar growing utility, but they only charged a fixed price in recurring intervals. Again, this suggests that subscriptions might make sense for games. Subscriptions are better than fixed prices in correlating MB and MC, given that SaaS generates recurring homogenous LTU returns. Games, however, generate heterogeneous LTU (lifetime utility) than do many SaaS products.

We can model the heterogeneity as such:

As we consider the total Lifetime Utility generated by a standard good or game, we add up an individual’s LTU from lowest to highest LTU. If everyone valued a standard good the same, LTU would be linear. If a few players valued a game at a relativity extreme LTU, you would see a bowed curve – the high LTUs skyrocket total LTU upon addition. Look familiar? A bowed LTU curve correlates to observed LTVs in F2P games.

Does Tech leave too much LTU on the Table?

But that’s not to say all non-video games have a linear Total LTU curve. Some users value, say, Zoom more than others. As Zoom usage increases, LTU does as well, but the price does not. Zoom, therefore, fails to capture a great deal of LTU from high usage customers. MTX theory could offer a hand.

Zoom does offer tiered pricing for organizations with a higher price charged for additional features, but this doesn’t capture the high LTU users within an organization. Perhaps Zoom should get in the cosmetics business – backgrounds were a fantastic opportunity that never capitalized on.

Even at the organizational offering level, Zoom could create an additional tier that offered other features to high usage customers in the tier. Multi-track cloud recording, for instance, generates incredible value for Podcasters but costs nothing further.

The dramatically different value propositions of standard goods and games necessitate other monetization schemes. Different content economics make applying the monetization of tech companies less applicable to gaming. Instead, SaaS firms have something to learn from games.

Gaming Companies Are Not Tech Companies!