The Video Games That Serve Us


Video games are changing. Increasingly, we're seeing a subset of players focus their attention on one single video game instead of many. League of Legends, World of Tanks. Games that change. Games that are constantly evolving. Games that shift and transform according to the needs of their user base. Today we look at this new breed of video games. The video games that serve us.


2014, PAX Australia. I stand on the outskirts of a ponderous crowd. A friend, he also writes about video games for a living, is beside me. We are confused. Ahead of us to our right is -- absolutely -- the largest screen present at the show. It is dozens of metres high. It dwarfs every other screen in the convention hall. Five years ago that screen would have been playing Call of Duty, or Assassin’s Creed. Halo at a push. A group of strangers might have been up on stage playing ‘Hot for Teacher’ on plastic instruments.

But today the screen is playing a different game. Today it is playing League of Legends. To reiterate: we are confused. ‘Things’ are happening on the screen, people are cheering in response but we have no way to parse precisely what they’re cheering at and why.

My friend -- the journalist -- taps me on the shoulder. We’ve both been writing about video games for the better part of a decade.

“Do you have any idea what is going on here?” He asks.

No. No I don’t.

Hours later. I stand on the outskirts of another crowd in the centre of the second-biggest booth at PAX Australia. I’m watching a similarly-sized crowd react to similar things in another video game I don’t understand: World of Tanks. It suddenly occurs to me: the two largest booths at PAX Australia -- Australia’s largest gaming convention -- are dedicated to video games I don’t understand.

Something weird is going on here.


Minutes later I sit in what could only be described as a "war room". A space in the precise centre of the gargantuan Wargaming booth where confused journalists like me can ask questions.

Max Chuvalov awaits, in a suit he is far too young to be wearing. He is a marketing manager at Wargaming and it’s his task to explain to me what the hell is going on. Sergey Vorobyev, deputy director of development on the game itself, is next to him. He doesn’t talk much. He mostly just plays World of Tanks.

But I don’t want to play World of Tanks; I want an explanation. I want to know how and why this product -- a niche video game about a niche interest -- has now topped over 100 million users. I want to know where all this bloody money comes from.

“It’s a secret ingredient,” says Max, laughing.

The story Max tells is the story you might expect. Upon release, World of Tanks was new. It was refreshing. It was, in marketing terms, "sticky". World of Tanks was a reality-based MMO in a market swamped with fantasy clones. It was, in a word, disruptive.

Then Max says something interesting.

“The key thing,” he explains, “is the service approach to gaming.

“That approach is the most crucial factor.”

‘Service’. We’re not used to thinking about video games as a ‘service’. For the most part we think of video games as products. That makes sense because, for the last 40 years, that’s precisely how they’ve been sold to us. But the landscape is changing and, for those of us that play video games more traditionally, it’s a little bewildering. According to online service Raptr, the most played game on PC in 2014 wasn’t a AAA production. It wasn’t Call of Duty or Battlefield. It wasn’t even Minecraft.

It was League of Legends. And it wasn’t even close.


“There’s no magic formula that you can repeat or replicate.”

That’s Mirko Gozzo, country manager for Riot Oceania, the company responsible for taking League of Legends to Australia. Talking to Mirko is eerily similar to talking to Max Chuvalov. In terms of origin stories World of Tanks and League of Legends are worlds (or leagues) apart -- League of Legends was developed in response to Warcraft III; World of Tanks was a game built for history buffs -- but when it comes to growing and retaining dramatically large audiences, both have plenty in common.

“I could talk all day about what a game as a service means but for us it’s a lot about engaging with our community,” says Mirko. I seem to remember Max from Wargaming saying something similar.

Actually Max said something more specific. He said: “this isn’t a product, it’s a culture”. A statement that applies to both World of Tanks and League of Legends.

What does that mean exactly? We are used to the idea of gaming itself as a culture -- but that’s gaming as a monosyllabic ‘thing’. We’re not used to pointing to one solitary video game and saying "this is a culture".

“this isn’t a product, it’s a culture”

Yet, that’s precisely what’s happening and in many ways it makes perfect sense. Games like World of Tanks and League of Legends have a way of ensnaring players; a way of sucking up disposable time to the point where chunks of the audience devote all their time to one single game. One. Single. Video game. Not ‘gaming’ as a catch-all term. One game.

“League of Legends is a lifestyle.”

It really is.

Mirko agrees that a large chunk of its player-base is dedicated solely to League of Legends. “I am one of those people,” he concedes. At Riot Games, this is part of the strategy -- create different avenues for engagement. If players want to remain connected to the game it is Riot’s responsibility to provide those avenues or, at least, help facilitate a community who live, breathe and bleed League of Legends. That means forums, competitions, events, soundtracks. That means listening to feedback, being proactive about how you engage with the community. Allowing developers to speak directly to the players, using their suggestions, implementing them into the game itself.

“We are constantly connected with players,” explains Mirko. “It’s a fluid, two way communication and that’s the best source of ideas for a company like Riot.”


But when it comes to promoting its video game as a service or a ‘culture’, Wargaming operates on a different plane. Not only is World of Tanks its own culture, it’s a service that attempts to infiltrate and support the broader culture it has become a part of.

“We’re moving into things outside the game,” says Max.

What does that mean? Specifically, it means working with museums on military exhibits. It means supporting historical research on military vehicles. It means literally helping teams of experts extract and restore old tanks. It means working with schools and universities. There are institutions using World of Tanks as a virtual handbook. Wargaming has its own internal researchers publishing books with new information in the field of military history.

Quite literally Wargaming is making World of Tanks -- the product -- an indispensable part of military history itself. It has become an inextricable section of that culture. World of Tanks is pushing the boundaries of gaming as a ‘service’. You get the sense that Wargaming will not rest until every single person with even the vaguest interest in military vehicles is playing World of Tanks.

But with 100 million people across the globe current playing the game, Wargaming may have already succeeded in that task. World of Tanks is, obviously, an astronomical success, yet the concept is niche. It’s niche by definition. World of Tanks is a hobbyist’s video game. 20 years ago its audience would have been building scale models, they might not necessarily have been playing other video games.

This is World of Tanks. A niche video game on a grand global scale; efficiently targeted, efficiently marketed. A game as a service, managed by a company that is truly committed to its customer base in a way that most traditional publishers couldn’t even imagine.

In that regard World of Tanks is truly unique.

Or is it?


“This community is everything. Look around this room. It’s amazing to be part of this thing.”

Blizzcon 2014. The opening address. Chris Metzen controls the stage like a bearded techno-pastor. He is preaching to the choir. This is his church and the 10,000-strong congregation is in the palm of his hand. 20 rows back I sit entranced. I don’t consider myself a fan of Blizzard -- I’ve barely played any of their games -- but if Metzen were to drag me onto the stage I’m certain he’d have me speaking in tongues. The collective enthusiasm and energy of this crowd is palpable. Also: contagious.

Hours later I try and explain this feeling to Paul Sams, the COO of Blizzard; the feeling of being an outsider swept away in the religious fervour of the Blizzard community. He finds it hilarious.

“We were ministering to you,” he laughs.

If World of Tanks is the new master of speaking to broad niche audiences, then World of Warcraft is the progenitor of that mantle. Max Chuvalov from Wargaming all but admitted World of Tanks was created in response to the house that Blizzard built. Blizzard are the inventors of the service game on a grand scale. 10,000 people, bums on seats in the Anaheim Convention Centre is proof of that fact.

To hear Sams tell it, community is the source of all that is good at Blizzard. The line dividing Blizzard and its fanbase is razor-thin and, at Blizzcon, it disappears completely. “Don’t forget,” he tells us, “these are our brothers and sisters. This is our family.”

“Don’t forget,” he tells us, “these are our brothers and sisters. This is our family.”

Blizzcon is the literal heart of the swarm. It’s the reflection of a company built on the idea of games as service, a company that places its community at a premium. This is the blueprint that Wargaming and Riot follow: build your games, grow your community, support that community. Support the games you create at all costs. The audience will come in droves and -- more importantly -- that audience will stay put.

“We support our games,” explains Sams, “even games that don’t have an ongoing pay structure.”

Take Starcraft, for example, a game released in 1998. Blizzard, says Sams, was still putting out patches for Starcraft in 2010, 12 years after its release. Starcraft: a game with no subscription model, a game built when micro-transactions weren’t a blip on any kind of horizon. “These players are our family," says Sams. "If there’s something broken in our house we still have to go and fix it. Most publishers would be like, “it’s 10 years old, we’re not supporting that crap any more!””

That’s the kind of service that inspires loyalty in consumers or a community: the kind of loyalty that pays dividends when it comes time to release a game that is dependent on support. A game like, say, World of Warcraft.

It’s a long-term strategy, and one that’s extremely common in today’s marketplace. Almost all mobile games fall into this category, particularly in the free-to-play realm. The idea of your consumer-base operating as a continual source of income is a potent one. Blizzard has mastered the model. In many ways it invented the model. But Sams hesitates to define Blizzard's process as ‘ground-breaking’. On the contrary, Blizzard has always taken pride in its ability to take existing models to broader mainstream audiences.

“I tend to shy away from the idea of calling ourselves pioneers,” says Sams. “It feels kind of egotistical. But did we do certain things first, did we try and make things better? Yes, but a lot of companies have tried to do the same thing.

“One of the things we love to do is take something we love -- genres and products we love -- and find a way to amplify them."


Interestingly, Paul Sams doesn’t see new video games like League of Legends and World of Tanks as a threat. Crucially, he talks a different game. Compared to Max and Mirko, Sams is easily the least likely to refer to his game as a ‘service’. Max Chuvalov from Wargaming uses the term frequently, Mirko Gozzo from Riot Games agrees that League of Legends falls into that category. Paul Sams is far more disciplined in his ability to avoid commercial buzzwords. The closest Sams comes is referring to Blizzard fandom as a ‘lifestyle’. When he discusses Blizzard Sams mostly communicates in familial terms. Users are his “brothers and sisters”. Blizzcon is a "family gathering". When players play Blizzard games they are coming “home”.

“They’re doing their thing but I don’t think they’re stealing our thing,” he explains.

He’s not worried about losing a portion of the fanbase to newer ‘service’ games.

“There is a trend of people starting to play one game. But we have a lot of confidence that we’ll be the creator of that one game.

“We’re not so naive to think our fans don’t try other games, but I have confidence that they will come home. People leave home, but they always come back to visit. It doesn’t worry me when other companies make great games because we’re always going to be bringing something new to the table. They’ll come home.”

In this extended metaphor "home" could be Blizzard. "Home" could be Blizzcon itself, where users converge to share stories and engage in a common obsession. "Home" could refer to the games themselves: to Starcraft, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone. More likely it refers to the worlds fans inhabit. Worlds that evolve, shift and morph according to player wants and needs.

Paul Sams shares a story. During a panel for the upcoming World of Warcraft movie director Duncan Jones asked for some help. He hung a boom mic above the crowd. First he asked them to scream “for the Horde” then the catch call for the opposing side: “for the Alliance”. The crowd screamed with all their collective might. Jones then made an announcement: the recording made by the 5000-strong crowd would be used in the actual World of Warcraft movie. Everyone who attended the panel that day would be part of the Warcraft movie. That, says Sams, is reflective of Blizzard's attitude towards its games and the relationship it has with its audience.

"This isn’t a world that we created that’s ours alone," says Sams. "This is a world that belongs to our players.”


Comments

    It's a return on investment scenario. With games, the time you put in gives you return on your investment. With most games that don't constantly evolve/centered around multiplayer, that return on investment is good gameplay and/or pleasing graphics and/or good story etc.

    With games like LOL, DoTA, WoW, BF, CoD, CS, TF2 - that return is in (essentially) upgrades to your game, be it cosmetic, weapon based, level based...you get a return on your investment for that game, that makes it easier/better to spend more time in the game, which gives you a return to you for spending that time, that makes it easier/better...

    (side note: isn't it interesting that these games are so popular that I can just write out the acronyms and most people would know what games I'm talking about??)

    It isn't a magic formula.

    It is a good business formula.

    In saying that: If the game is good enough, who cares if you only play that? You're playing because you love it damnit. Or you're suffering Stockholm Syndrome.

    Curious as to why there is never any coverage of Ingress on this site. Fits into this story pretty well and there have been events in Australia (and another one coming up).

    Not a fan of it? @markserrels ?

    Last edited 19/01/15 1:40 pm

      Agreed. Ingress is an interesting concept and a pretty fun game once you get into it, yet it's almost never discussed in gaming media.

      Is it because it's a mobile game, and hence considered "casual"?

        Ingress is a good one to mention. It's pretty much a casual mobile game yes. But then I've also met fanatics who play this bit more than just casually. And by fanatics I mean some real crazies.

          I wouldn't really call it a casual game. Sure, you can play it casual, but then you are missing a lot.

          It's at it's best when your playing with some friends (real or met via the game), running around on some secret mission or playing at an anomaly.

          Great community. I've gone on road trips with people I've only met hours before on the other side of the globe while on holiday.

        Possibly that none of the editors play it. Listen to a conversation between players and disengage your knowledge of the game. "What they hell are these people talking about?"

        I see a fair few bits and pieces about casual games but it's usually something the editor has been playing or something that's suddenly gotten 'big' like Flappy Bird or Game Dev Story.

      I'd guess because at the height of its success, it was Android-only and that's a hard sell for journalists, because most of the interesting stories are iOS developers.

      This isn't a statement about the relative qualities of the platforms, mind.

      It's understandable, to me. This comment is literally the first time I have ever heard of it.

      Geocaching/augmented reality games have never been my thing, always seeming a bit of a limited gimmick, and the half-mil population seems pretty low by comparison to the 'wait, you're still playing just that one game?' multi-million-player titles that fit the 'lifestyle' angle. An angle which seems incredibly alien to someone who's chasing the latest and hottest entries in gaming's endlessly-refreshed smorgasbord.

        Yeah, I agree it's not terribly well known. It's spread mostly via word of mouth. I started playing and have gotten a bunch of friends to start as well, they've all gotten other people playing etc.

        The best thing is, you can play it just about anywhere you are unless you are way out in the sticks for the day. It certainly can become part of your daily routine and is great whenever you are on holiday or somewhere new.

        It's the only video game I've gone on road trips and camped on an island for. Also questioned by the federal police once!

          Shrug. Sounds like a good pitch, I'm game. *downloads app*
          Embrace mind-control or fight for freedom? Seems like an obvious choice. FOR THE RESISTANCE!

          Now to become a daily irritant to the existing opposing faction in my workplace and along my commute. That's how this stuff works, right?

            GO RES!

            Best thing to do when you start, reach out to the local community and meet up and play with someone else. They can explain the basics and help you up the first few levels.

    WoT - The Niche video game, with 100 million users. Interesting take.
    Barely played any Blizzard games, hasn't played either of the 2 "biggest" games at PAX.
    LoL was developed to emulate a mod from WC3, it is hardly recognizable from the original game.
    Raptr stats for most of the year had Dota and LoL neck and neck. It was close.

    What do you play?
    Does a game have to be sent to you for you to play it?

    I apologize for the aggression, but this whole article just reads like "I don't know what is happening"

      Hey no probs. That was kind of the point of the article though: an attempt to understand some games that I don't understand if you get my meaning.

        I came here to ask the same question. I've been visiting this site for years and reading your great articles but the more I thought about it the more I recalled that you quite often mention how little you play.
        Sure you get caught up in Dark Souls or Trials but I would have thought that your job description would pretty much require "play every big/news worthy game at least once".
        I would think this would be especially true for free-to-play ones like the two mentioned here.

        I'll admit that I only tried WoT after PAX, although I had heard of their franchise before. League I played a little bit with friends in the past but the format never really interested me too much.

        I understand that everything else probably depends on agreements with publishers and whoever sends you promo/demo copies, and I have no idea how much of that Allure media would pay for, however overall, I'm a bit surprised how little gaming a gaming journalist actually does.
        Is it just a time thing? With work and a kid etc?
        For example, WoW has been around for like 9 years and it's been a pretty massive deal for most of that time, yet you've only just recently tried it out (awesome articles about that btw!)

        Guess I'm just curious as to how this gaming journalist world works =)

          I think the difference is that games like LoL and WoT are not really something a person can 'dabble' in, at least not without the sort of time commitment that is probably beyond a journalist. Also, like the article said, these games are as much a culture as anything else, and looking into a culture from the outside isn't easy.

          I think games such as LoL are some of the most true realisations of video games as a sport, in that competitors specialise and compete in a specific discipline to the exclusion of all others. Just like how Roger Federer competes in tennis, not badminton or squash, there are players out there who will dedicate themselves to League and League alone, not other games, not even other MOBAs, but this one game, period.

          Also, Mark's an editor, which is in most places a more managerial/curatorial position than content-creation, so his reviewing demands are probably a fair bit lower than the writers. Though he'd probably get pretty good second-hand exposure on what everyone else is writing about.

        Thanks for the reply.
        I guess I'm just jealous. If you can subsist on the games you currently have, and still have such good titles on the horizon.. it is a blessing :)

    Seriously. It's been out 6 years now, any many journo's don't know the lingo, or the game.

    If you need elaboration on anything League related, I will seriously offer you my services for free....

    Last edited 19/01/15 3:26 pm

    I get the confusion. Personally, I'm more of a gaming 'sampler', with probably the longest commitment made being to WoW.
    I know what I like but am willing to be surprised, so I try LOTS of games, but usually for maybe only a couple hours. After a certain point, I'm pretty sure I know what I'm in for with the game. It's very rare that any ONE will hold my attention for all that long. Seriously, my Steam library's nearly up to 1000 now.

    It's funny because when friends have tried to converse about which game they're playing at the moment, the concept seems alien to me. Game, singular? It's a rare day that I don't switch which game I'm playing at least twice.

    Huh. ...I am just now realizing that this is very similar to relationships. When family ask, "Are you seeing anyone?" the implication is they mean one person, not an ongoing process of fact-finding/fun-having sampling encounters in the search for that elusive time-sink person that you actually enjoy enough to stop sampling.

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