Monday, September 29, 2008

Does High Production Value Matter?

If you talk to the CEO of any well-funded games company (and I have talked to all of them), he will tell you that social games are moving in the phase where high production values will be necessary if you want a hit game.

What are high production values? Generally, pretty graphics, some animations, custom music, and an overall polished feel. In the case of the new social games, this all will be delivered via Flash.

I've been hearing this high production value (HPV) argument since the arrival of Playfish onto the social gaming scene, about 6 months ago, give or take. However, I have not seen any evidence of its truth.

Taking a look at the top ten games on Facebook, five of them are HPV, and five are not. I've been tracking recent games that are gaining traffic, most of not HPV games. In fact, some of the most beautiful HPV games have failed to get any traction at all.

So if the data doesn't suppor this conclusion, then why are people saying it, and worse why are other people believing it?

1. To explain why Playfish has been so successful. Playfish came out of nowhere and dominated Facebook, with hit after hit. Playfish games were graphically superior and delivered via Flash. It seems reasonable to suggest that graphics + Flash equalled success. The real reason for Playfish's success is they understand the audience and makes fun games with 3-5 minute playing sessions.

2. It's the graphics fallacy at work again. For some reason, games companies traditionally have believed that better graphics=better games. It's been showed repeatedly to be false by a high number of beautiful and expensive flops. Meanwhile, games with poor (relatively) graphics are incredibly popular: World of Warcraft, Habbo Hotel, Desktop Tower Defense, Mob Wars. I suspect it's because number of pixels is a measurable quantity, but fun (the real reason games succeed) is not. Executives are much more comfortable using a metric that can be quantified, where's the fun column in the spreadsheet?

3. It's a self-serving argument for well-funded companies. If you have a lot of money and a lot of employees you can afford to spend money making a game pretty. Bedroom developers can't. If you can get everyone to believe that HPV matters then you get them to play a game that only you (the well-funded company) can win.

My point: if you're an indie developer, worry about getting the gameplay right and you'll get an audience. Don't drop $50,000 of making a beautiful Flash game that sucks. Let the guys with money do that. They can afford to (try to) fix bad games. You can't.

And please don't let the graphics fallacy infect social games. Thanks.

I'm sure there will be many that disagree and will argue until they're blue in the face that HPV matters. That's cool, make your case in the comments.

Oh, and I am aware that HPV has another meaning.