Defining ‘Game as a Service’

Turtles_arcade_cabinetI am a regular speaker at game related events, and there are a lot of topics I am very keen to weigh in on. Last year, I decided to tackle the notion of Game as a Service. It is difficult to convey how important this topic is for me and how much I feel we need, as an industry, to improve on that front, but I went for it and tried to cover it all in the allotted hour.

 

It proved to be impossible to fit everything in, so after the first few iterations of the presentation, I did some pruning and made it leaner (and hopefully better). The first thing I cut was the definition of service. In retrospect, that topic alone could take up a good hour of discussion, and it was overly ambitious to include it with such limited time. So, I renamed the talk to “Your Game As A Service: Designing Beyond Gameplay” and focused it on the practical side of designing the player experience.

 

I do think that the definition of ‘game as a service’ could use some proselytism in the industry, although I have a hard time imagining conference attendees being willing to sit through an hour of theoretical discussion about it. So, here are some of my thoughts on the subject in easily digestible form.

First, let’s look at the semantics. Service can mean different things. From the point of view of economics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_(economics), a service is economically equivalent to a good, with a number of key differences:

  • It is intangible
  • It is simultaneous
  • It is variable
  • It is bound to the service provider
  • It is perishable

 

It seems to me that, by their very nature, most games already incorporate aspects that are inherently service-oriented.

 

  • Intangible. As much as I appreciate nicely designed game boxes, they are not the game. They can be a part of the game, but they are really just a vehicle for it.
  • Simultaneous. This is the most obvious quality to me. Games are meant to be played. It can even be argued that they don’t really exist when you are not playing them, that they go into ‘limbo’ between play sessions (unless they are online games of course).
  • Variable. Hopefully, most games provide a unique experience during each play session, even if the differences are subtle. Only very simple games lack some kind of variety.
  • Bound to the service provider. Although this is not the case with all games, times are changing and even single player games are moving towards this (although the evolution is not always elegantly handled by the publisher, who is also the service provider).
  • Perishable. While it could be argued that the CPU/GPU/RAM allocated disappear once the game is played, making the resource perishable, in all honesty this doesn’t seem appropriate to apply for most games. For online games though, it works. The access to the server (or the P2P hub) is cut once the game session is over.

 

Online games have all these characteristics, and they are really services rather than goods (a term that is easier to oppose than ‘product’, for instance). But, considering the scope of video games through their short but dynamic history, the very first popular video games were commercialized as services: arcade cabinets. These became goods in order to satisfy the commercial need for expansion and wider accessibility.

 

Ultimately I think that while some games will stay ‘goods’, increasing numbers of them will become services. What does this mean for the games industry? To me, it goes back to the basic ways in which we  judge the quality of a service. The smile of the waiter, the polite chatter from the hairdresser, the rudeness of that Parisian taxi driver, the freshly baked cookies in the lobby of the hotel. The quality of the food, the style of the haircut, the arrival at your destination are very important, but you will ultimately judge the whole experience by the quality of the service. I think this still needs to be fully realized in our industry.

 

A number of times I have heard comments to the effect that “good service = good customer support”. I think this is wrong for two reasons. First, Customer Support is not the totality of the service experience — it represents just one part. The service experience also includes the gameplay, the art direction, the communication to the players (both in and out of the game), the accessibility, the virality, the localisation integration, everything! Second, putting the emphasis on CS feels like a way to push the responsibility for service quality away from the development team. Of all the teams, the developers have the biggest influence on service quality, yet traditionally they are the least focused on it beyond making the core gameplay fun. I have seen that mindset change over the years and I really hope it will go further, as committing to better service is a promise to create better games.

 

The whole philosophy of Game as a Service underlines that a game is a holistic experience, and to make a game right means caring about the quality of every element of that experience. This starts from the initial game teaser and proceeds to include everything related to the game – its website, account creation system, monetisation model, forum platform, bug reporting system, harassment reporting tool, friend list manager, everything.

 

It always starts with good gameplay, but it certainly doesn’t end there…

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