June 6, 2018

Lessons learned from the Paradox podcast

I've found a podcast made by Paradox Interactive, which is a company that's both making and publishing games. They talk about the business of video games, and if you want to listen to it on your own, you should search for The Paradox Podcast on iTunes or wherever you can find popular podcasts. Their games may not be my favorite type of games, even though I've played some Cities: Skylines which was published by Paradox. But the games are so successful that if they release a new game it often ends up as one of the top selling games on Steam, so it can be a good idea to listen to what they have to say:

S01E01
  • As said, Paradox is also publishing games, but they say no to 99 percent of the games pitched to them (they get about 1000 pitches per year). But this is a small amount since a publisher like EA gets 1000 pitches per month. Paradox is also only interested in games that fits their portfolio of games, which is mostly management/strategy/rpg games. So they don't want to publish action games. 
  • Two popular games are Prison Architect and RimWorld, and in the podcast they mentioned the clever idea that some people want to pay a little extra to have their content in the game. In the RimWorld case you can pay $15 to buy a DLC that "gives you the right to enter a name into the game so it shows up in all players' games. Players will recruit, command, and fight you for all time!"
  • It's important to be able to explain your game idea in a simple way. For example, Cities: Skylines said their game is "A modern take on the classic city builder." 
  • Paradox is interested in publishing game that are infinite replayable, hard-core (which I think means you have to use your brain), allows you to create something, and easy to get into. Examples of these games are Kerbal Space Program and Dont Starve, which Paradox wanted to publish but were denied to. 
  • Paradox actually declined to publish World of Tanks, Rocket League, and Psychonauts 2, so if your game is rejected by them, don't feel bad. 
S01E02
  • Ign (a company writing game reviews) bought Humble Bundle (a company selling games). In this podcast they argued that it might be problematic because when Ign write reviews of games they are also selling the games they are reviewing. How can the public reading the review think the review is honest when Ign will make more money by writing good reviews of the games they are selling?
  • Worldwide, steam is just 12-17 percent of the total PC market, even tough this percentage is higher if you look at Europe and America. So if you are an indie developer, it makes sense to focus on the PC market on Steam because you have limited resources, but if you are more popular you should also focus on other publishing platforms and consoles. Paradox has their own publishing platform called Paradox Plaza. 
  • When working with games, it's important to think long-term. For example, when Steam added the refund policy saying that users can get their money back if they played the game for less than 2 hours, the return rates increased. But Paradox were lucky because their games lasts more than 2 hours. So you need to ask yourself, what happens if Steam is changing a policy? Will it kill my game?
S01E03
  • Single-player is dead! No it's not, but it becomes more and more difficult for big game companies to make money from single-player games.
  • To decrease the risk of making a single-player game that's not popular, big game companies have begun to follow the movie industry and produce games similar to the games that have been released before. So not much innovation is happening. 
  • The best game experience is when you have an emergent game experience where anything can happen and the game reacts to you in unexpected ways. Cities: Skylines is included here because you can create you own story. This is also why multiplayer games are popular because if you play against a real human it's impossible to know what will happen. This is also cheaper because the player is creating the content for you. 
  • The PC market is declining slowly. 
  • Paradox has always been trying to go in the opposite direction of the market: they stayed away from consoles, massive multiplayer games like WoW, free-to-play, mobile, and VR. Or as they said in the podcast "We look at what everyone else is doing and then don't do anything."
  • When pitching games to publishers, don't forget to first figure out what will happen after you've launched the game. A game is a marathon and doesn't always end when you have launched the game!
S01E04
  • Loot boxes is a sensitive topic and Paradox has developers saying that they would quit if Paradox forced them to implement loot boxes in their games. 
  • Loot boxes is all about implementation and there is a right way and there's a wrong way to implement them. So the discussion should be how to best implement loot boxes. In one way, a game itself is a loot box because you spend money on it but you don't know if the game will be fun, so it's a gamble. 
  • The problem is that companies have realized that they are making money from micro-transactions (where loot boxes are included) so it's an unstoppable trend because a company needs to make money to satisfy the shareholders and be able to keep making games because the cost of making games has increased.  
  • The majority of growth in the game industry comes from Asia and free-2-play models with micro-transactions. 
  • Most "older" gamers are used to buy a game and get 100 percent of the content which is how the game industry was working. This is why they get upset when new games expects them to buy a game and then spend more money to get the full game. 
  • The easiest way to argue with a game company is to not buy the game. 
  • Paradox's solution to micro-transactions is to release a full game that is fully playable and is priced as a full game ($30-50). But then they also release several dlc updates to the game that people have to pay for (and some free updates). They also say it's important to not experiment too much with your core fans by implementing micro-transactions in different ways. It is after all more difficult to get a new customer than to keep an existing customer. 
S01E05
  • How much does it cost to make a game? It's true that the software used when making games is not expensive. An indie developer doesn't have to spend a single dollar on the software needed to make a game because Unity, Visual Studio, Blender, and Krita are free to use (Unity will cost money if you have a profitable game but it's not expensive). It's also not expensive to publish a game. Several years ago you had to manufacture cds in boxes to be able to sell the game, but today you can just sell it over the Internet. An indie developer can also work from home or from a public space like a cafĂ©. 
  • But big companies need to make their own game engine so they can customize the engine to better fit their game, so they have to invest in research. Because of the research, big companies need to sell more games than the indie developer so they have to invest in marketing the games. Big companies also need big expensive offices. 
  • A Paradox game costs between 2-15 million Euro (both development and marketing costs are included). And it takes 2-3 years to make their games.
  • A Paradox game is not announced until it has reached an "approved alpha." This means that all the features and content is in the game, but the game still has bugs. You should be able to play the game from start to finish.  
  • You could argue that all of the expenses these big companies have are a waste of money. How could Minecraft become one of the best selling games if Minecraft didn't invest millions in research and marketing? The answer according to Paradox is that Minecraft's success wasn't sustainable and if you are a big company that wants to release several successful games you need a bigger budget.
S01E06
  • As said before, Paradox's model is to release a playable game for a full price and then release free updates and dlcs. But it's difficult to achieve this balance between free updates and dlcs because if too much is free people will not buy the dlc, and if too much is dlc people will be upset because they bought the original game. 
  • Paradox employees are allowed to speak (on like Twitter) about their work, as long as they are not "di*ks." This makes it clear that all employees are actually humans and it makes everyone responsible for their work. It's common that gamers argue that game developers are only doing it for the money, but by communicating with individuals in the company, the games become more transparent. 
  • Paradox have actually explored a city-builder (like Cities: Skylines) but in 3d and in space. So while the roads are usually in 2d-space even though tunnels are possible, the "roads" in this game would be in 3d, so you can build these vertical roads. But they couldn't implement it because it became confusing for the player because you have to go into the model and see where you are. Another game they dreamed about was logistics on a larger scale. 
  • Paradox argues it's important to own the intellectual property belonging to your game. 
S02E01
  • What many people forget is that game companies want everyone to be happy because then people will buy their game. 
  • As said before, Paradox is trying to find a balance between free updates and dlc you have to pay for. Free updates includes stuff like tech-systems, improved AI, and new UI that makes it easier to play. Paradox actually made some research to discover what people wanted to pay for: new UI features, things that gives you more power to control things, and "flavor" that makes something unique so you can go to another area in the game you haven't been able to see before. 
  • You can't look 12 years into the future when trying to predict where the game industry will be. 
  • Limited time and money is actually good when making games because it forces you to actually release a game. More time and money will not necessarily make a better game. 
  • Paradox has failed making games. For example, when they realized that the game Runemaster wasn't fun, they stopped developing it. 
S02E02
  • Paradox is trying to release a Linux version of their games. The Linux version is not making money because it costs money to also support Linux and not that many Linux users are buying the game. But they argue it's good to always have your "doors open." By saying that I think they mean that if Linux becomes a big gaming platform in the future, the know how to make games for Linux.  
  • The CEO of Paradox argued that one of the reasons Paradox is successful is because of their relationship with the players. 
  • Paradox will soon get a new CEO who has experience from the gambling industry, but no experience from the game industry. The current CEO argues that Paradox will still make the same games but they will try to reorganize the company to make it more efficient to develop those games.   
  • Don't interfere with people in creative industries. When Paradox is buying a game company, they stay away from those companies and let them do their special thing. 
  • Don't forget that you also need to sell your game to someone. Everyone in the organization should understand where the money should come from to be able to make better decisions.
S02E03
  • GDC is more about the meetings and less about the talks. 
  • It's easier to sell a game based on a known intellectual property, like Star Wars, than to invent a new IP. Included in IP are also brands, themes, and code like the Unity game engine. Example of a theme is World War 2, which is not a protected IP so Paradox can use it to help people understand what to expect from a game. It's common in the game industry to license an IP, like using Unreal game engine when making the game or making a game based on the Mad Max movies.
  • It's a challenge to create your own IP. Cities: Skylines is a successful game where you build your own city. But what defines CS? You can argue that the blue bird telling people what's going on in the game is an IP. One test you can use to see if you have an IP is to ask yourself: Can I cosplay my game? You can cosplay as the bird, but you can't really cosplay as a building or a road. 
  • Paradox is generally not licensing IPs because they want to focus on the long-term, and using someones IP is short-term because the other guy might stop you from using the IP. But they published Battletech which is a licensed game based on the MechWarrior universe. 
  • When you have an IP it's important to manage the IP to not destroy it. Each time a bad Star Wars movie is released, the value of the IP is diluted. If you release different games based on an IP where each game is doing its own interpretation of what the IP is, the IP is also diluted. This is also why free fan-games are generally not allowed. The value of the IP might be diluted if you make a Star Wars game even though no money is involved. 
S02E04
  • Even though Paradox has made many games they haven't really figured out how to teach the players how to play the games. For example, the older generation who has played SimCity will think it's easy to play Cities:Skylines, but the younger generation will find it harder because CS doesn't have a real tutorial - only small boxes with text appearing above the buttons you should press when you have just started the game. Also the new game Surviving Mars got criticism for being too hard to learn. 
  • To make sure the game is easy to play you can release it as an "early access" at a lower price so people can buy it and give you feedback before the final release. But Paradox is instead releasing their games with a full price and then give you free updates based on the feedback, which is similar to "early access" because no-one knows what "early access" actually is. 
  • Users who review your game are sometimes doing it for political reasons. So a game can sell well even though it has a low score. 
S02E05
  • Paradox has its own convention called Pdxcon. The con is nearly profitable because you have to pay a ticket to be able to attend, but Paradox has seen that they get a boost to the announcements they are making at the con compared to if they had had the show at E3 where many other games are announced and what you announce is lost in the noise. 
  • Because many games are updated over time, it becomes harder and harder to judge them by looking at reviews. 
  • Good reviews generate more sales if the game is new, but good reviews don't matter if the game is a part of an established series of games. 
  • Newly released games should get a score above 80 to sell well. 
  • Some are giving reviews for political reasons and some are giving "odd" reviews. For example, I read a review where someone gave Pubg a bad review despite having played it for hundreds of hours. If you've played something for hundreds of hours and just paid $30 for it, was that game really bad? Paradox argues that a good idea is to give trusted members a larger part of the final review score. This is not a new idea because many people have earlier trusted larger magazines, but now these magazines have been replaced by individuals like you and me.  
S02E06
  • As said before, intellectual properties are important, and now Paradox has decided to make more money by licensing their ips to physical board game publishers. According to their research, they realized that their fans wanted to give them more money and you can only add so and so much to a computer game, so they needed to come up with something else.  
  • Let your players create the game they want because they will do it for free and you can spend your time doing something else. You accomplish this by giving them the ability to mod the game. Out of the top 5 games on steam, 4 started out as mods. Counter-strike is one of them! 
  • Paradox doesn't encourage people to pirate their games, but they will not chase them. They argue that if people play their games, it will strengthen the eco-system around their games so more people might in the end buy their games.
  • Other medias Paradox might be interested in are movies and television series. But their previous idea to extend their games into books failed.   
S02E07
  • Paradox is not only developing games, they are also publishing games. One of the games they published is BattleTech, and now Paradox has decided to acquire the studio behind the game: Harebrained Schemes. 
  • This was not the first game company Paradox bought. Other recent acquisitions/investments include White Wolf, Triumph Studios, and Hardsuit Labs.
  • Today you not only need to be able to make a game, you also need to be able to market the game because so many games are released each day. Yes, most games are not worth playing but it's still difficult to show the players that your game is worth playing. This is why Harebrained Schemes decided to sell the company so they can focus on making games and Paradox can focus on marketing their games. 
  • Acquisitions in the game industry have a bad reputation. One of my favorite games was Command & Conquer developed by Westwood Studios. When Electronic Arts acquired Westwood Studios the game series went downhill and now Westwood Studios doesn't exist anymore. 
  • Paradox is acquiring companies to grow and they want to grow by adding more IPs, which has been discussed before. Since it's difficult to come up with your own IP, it's easier to acquire someone else's IP. Harebrained Schemes's IPs are the BattleTech universe and Shadowrun. 
S02E08
  • The focus of E3 is mainly on AAA games, so if you are making a smaller game it will fall between the cracks. But E3 gives you a good chance to meet other people, and you don't have to meet them at the main event - you can meet them at the hotel.
  • When you announce a new game it's also important to tell people what they can expect from the game. This is why game companies show gameplay and not a movie when they announce a new game because it's easier to show what people can expect from a game by showing gameplay. But there are exceptions to this rule, such as Cyberpunk 2077, which doesn't show any gameplay. 
  • Even though prices are discounted when the Steam summer and Christmas sales are happening, game companies make a lot of money from the sales. But Paradox also has other sales during the year, such as when their convention is happening and when they release a new expansion pack for an existing game. 
  • Yes, profit per sold game during a discount will be lower but more people will play their games and Paradox will thus get more long-term customers. These customers will buy new games from them at full price and new expansion packs for the game they bought at discount. So you have to think long-term and not focus on a single game.  
  • Some argue that discounts are a bad idea because people will see the product as something bad because it's always so cheap to buy it. 
  • If your game is selling, then why should you lower the price of the game? For example, the game Pubg ignored the Steam summer sale the first year because it was the top-selling game on Steam, so why should they lower the price? The next year, Pubg participated in the summer sale because it was no-longer a top-selling game. 
  • When Paradox during a weekend decided to give away a six year old game for free, it ended up on the top-ten list on Steam. What they could see was that more people also bought the expansion packs for the game they got for free. 
S03E01
  • Strategy/simulation/management games are not that common on consoles like Playstation. But Paradox has released their city-builder Cities: Skylines on the Xbox and now they release the Stellaris game. But you will most likely have to redesign the game's UI. 
  • Paradox is working with an external developer to transform the game from PC to console. This is also what they did with Cities: Skylines. 
  • Paradox believes in function over form, meaning that the backend is more important than the frontend. Some developers spend too much time developing cool graphics but their games are boring. Paradox argues that a fun game is more playable than a game with better graphics. 
  • Going to an event like E3 or Gamescom has some value even though it's difficult to quantify this value. How many people will buy the game because you showed it at E3? It's impossible to tell! Reaching out to potential customers at these events takes time and money (400,000 people visit Gamescom over 4 days), so if you are small you should work with someone who has resources, like Paradox has. 
  • People have different motivations why they want to play a game. Some want to explore the world and others want to have a realistic experience, etc. You should focus on why a player wants to play your game, which needs does the player have? This is more important than making a game for a certain age group or a certain group with a specific education. Someone who is 16 and someone else who is 64 may have the same reason why they want to play your game. But when you start marketing the game you might focus on a specific age group - younger people tend to watch YouTube and older people tend to watch television.  
S03E02
  • All games released by Paradox has a product team. Each team has a product manager who can best be described as the CEO of the product and takes care of the overall direction of the product. The game is NOT the product, but is included in the product together with how the game is sold, the price of the game, etc. In the product team, you can also find a producer, who makes sure the game is released on time and within budget, and a product marketing manager, who takes care of the selling and marketing of the game. 
  • As a product marketing manager, you will study who's writing about the game, is what they are writing positive, and have they understood the message from the marketing manager? For example, have they understood that Paradox is bringing strategy games to console? 
  • It's more difficult to market a game for console than for PC. In the console case, you have to do in-store advertising, such as in the PlayStation store. 
S03E03
  • Cities: Skylines is out on Nintendo Switch! What Paradox didn't do was that they didn't announce they would release the game on the Switch until the day it was released. The reason was that CS is a well-known game and if they had announced it before it was released they wouldn't have had anything to talk about when it was released. 
  • What is the job of a product manager? As said in the last episode, the product manager is the CEO of the product so the CEO of the company can focus on the overall direction of the company and not micromanage the products. The product manager is responsible for the financial results, budget control, and the product team to make sure everyone has the same vision, ideas, and goals. 
  • A product manager at Paradox can also be responsible for a segment. Segments at Paradox are strategy, management, and rpg, and each segment includes one or more games. 
  • It often happens that Paradox is cancelling a game they have been working on - they are killing 50 percent of the games before they are announced. The main reason is that the vision of the game is no longer shared by everyone and the game doesn't have any meaningful choices. Even though you have experienced game developers it's still impossible to know if the game idea is going to work before you have a playable version of the game. And if it doesn't work it is important to kill it as soon as possible because it will be more difficult the longer you work on the game.   
  • The game development process at Paradox can be divided into the following steps: signing, proof-of-concept (this is where most games a cancelled), alpha, launch. 
S03E04
  • What's the job of a community manager? The basic idea is that the community manager should represent the company among the players and represent the players within the company. 10 percent of the job is social media, they come up with strategies for creating communities, how to make the game appealing for people who have never heard of it before, and how to bring the community back into the game to make the game better. 
  • Players love to talk about games on social media. But should you listen to them or should you listen to the people who are not talking about the game because the spend all time playing it? You should listen to everyone but you should also try to find trends among the feedback you are given. If you can't solve the problem (maybe it's not technically possible) then you should tell them why and they will most likely accept the answer and be happy. 
  • You can measure how good a community manager is by looking at the engagement rate: how many people interact with the content, how big are the discussions on services like Reddit. An engaged community will buy mores stuff. 
S03E05
  • When you have a big company you need an Event Manager who is responsible for organizing events such as PDXCON. 
  • Paradox is preferring to organize their own events instead of attending major events, such as E3, even though they are doing that as well. The reason is that they have realized it's easier to reach out to the media when organizing their own events because your own news tends to get lost among the noise at major events. 
  • There's a saying that it's a waste of time (if you are a small developer) to attend major events because it will not help you to sell more games. A better way is to instead of spending money on aircraft tickets, invest the money in your game. But what events can do is to create a long-term relationship with your players because they will like you more when you meet them face-to-face. But then you need a finished game so you should attend these events when the game is released. One of the first Minecraft events was when Notch met some players in a park, so it doesn't have to be expensive. 
  • One new type of event is role-playing where people are pretending they are in your game. 
  • Some time ago when Paradox was less successful, Paradox pretended they were in Los Angeles for E3 by changing the name on the press releases from Stockholm to Los Angeles. This got them coverage on news sites who were doing roundups about what was going on at E3. If someone wanted to meet them in Los Angeles, they pretended their schedule was full. 
S03E06
  • Paradox has a Twitch channel and their employees are streaming their games for 20 hours each week. They are also streaming other stuff such as when the company is releasing a new quarterly report. But they say it's difficult to measure if people who watch the stream is buying the game they stream. Most people tend to open a new tab and google the game and this is impossible to measure. 
  • People have stopped trusting game trailers because they know a trailer is picking only the best parts of a game - so they want to see actual gameplay so they watch someone streaming the game. 
  • The problem with streaming is that you have to be entertaining all the time while you are streaming. When you make a YouTube video you can edit the bad parts - but streaming is live. 

This article will be updated as they release new episodes!

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