by NorseGamer, HSM Editor-in-Chief
One of the things my elder brother is extremely good at is figuring out asymmetric solutions to complex systems; his mind works so frighteningly quickly that things tend to bore him in short order, and so he’ll always play a video game through twice.
“First I’ll beat the game the way the game wants me to beat it,” he explains. “Then I’ll figure out a much better way to beat it that the game didn’t plan for.”
One notable example of this would be Front Mission 3. I spent hundreds of hours playing through both the Alisa and Emma storylines, meticulously grinding my skill levels up. He just put missile launchers on all his wanzers, trashed everyone from long range, and beat the game in a fraction of the time. Ironically enough, his team turned into mechanized glass cannons, because the game penalized him by not awarding him the same levels of experience since he was beating it too quickly.
Which, ironically, may be the same problem with Home Tycoon.
Before we begin: I like this game. It has some flaws, yes, but it’s very enjoyable and a remarkable technological achievement for Home. If nDreams allows you to build your own personal estate with Blueprint:Home, then Hellfire is allowing you to essentially build your own public space with Home Tycoon. These sorts of sandboxes which allow users to create and demonstrate their own content are a very important step forward for Home. No, the question I have is whether or not Home Tycoon even wants to be “beaten” by spending fifty dollars.
This isn’t an easy question to answer.
I love city-building games, or games which have city-building elements. Games like SimCity, Caesar, Populous and ActRaiser were insane time sinks for me when I was younger. A few years ago I downloaded SimCity on my Nintendo Wii Virtual Console just to build up to Megalopolis again. It’s addictive.
But Home Tycoon is a different animal. It’s making a conscious decision to not be just another city-builder game, although that forms its backbone. For one thing, the ability to be able to wander around your creation at street level is a nifty trick that I can’t recall seeing in other games of this ilk. And, likewise, being able to have friends over to explore your city (and, in return, visiting their cities) is a great touch.
The catch, however, is that Home Tycoon may be a victim of its own largesse. The footprint is so massive — it’s basically using up the maximum amount of square footage allotted to a public space in Home — that there’s no effective way to explore a city except via car (which is quite fun), which means you end up whizzing past all the buildings and their details. And since all the buildings from one city to the next are the same, there isn’t much reason to visit someone else’s city at street level, when the real personal expression lies in your city layout — which can be viewed from the overhead perspective.
The other drawback with such a massively-scaled project is that there’s scant memory left to make your city feel alive. The background scenery is quite plain (which is to be expected), but your city is conspicuously devoid of NPC pedestrians, and there are very few cars on the road. Further, while the buildings themselves are quite remarkable to look at up close (particularly the Zoo, which has some wonderful sound effects), none of them are animated, which only increases the sense of everything feeling rather static when viewing it from overhead.
One has to wonder if Home Tycoon would be more engrossing if it went with a smaller city footprint, fewer building types, and had more memory allocated to making it feel like a more dynamic environment you actively want to explore from street level as it’s being built.
In city-building games, you spend a lot of time watching statistics on a screen as your city grows. The games are designed to give you activities to carry out while this takes place. In ActRaiser, you have to fly around and shoot monsters, protecting your population from being abducted and your buildings from destruction. In Populous, you actively manipulate the terrain and help your side defeat the enemy. In SimCity, you’re given a wealth of metrics to study and monitor, plus random events to deal with, while building up revenue to continue building. And because there’s so much animation built into everything — buildings flashing, traffic on the roads, et cetera — it makes it fun to simply study the city you’re building.
So Home Tycoon, then, is a sort of fusion of SimCity and Grand Theft Auto, albeit one which has to work within the constraints of the Home engine. Considering that Home’s architecture dates all the way back to the PS2, and it was conceived to support a social network for gamers rather than a full-blown gaming platform, it’s pretty remarkable what Home’s third-party developers have been able to squeeze out of it.
Home Tycoon does have some remarkable entertainment built into it, though. What makes this game shine is the snarky, tongue-in-cheek writing that goes with each mission, where somehow you as the mayor must ride to the rescue in a series of increasingly bizarre tasks — everything from firefighting to street racing to shooting sugar at alien infestations. And if you pick up some of the expansion packs, it gets even crazier. Chasing down a talking bear in a stolen vehicle genuinely had me laughing. And it’s in the scripted interactions that you get the sense of an unfolding narrative between rival corporate interests vying for control.
(Some of the characters, by the way, really are funny to read. I swear the fire chief, Cosmo, was modeled after some of the more irascible hair-trigger caps-lock tempers on the Sony forum…)
Yes, there are lower increments at which you can invest; you buy gold coins to translate into in-game currency for acquiring various resources, as well as unlocking expansion packs with additional missions and rewards. But I’ve frankly given up on trying to win the argument over how most (not all, but most) Home games are fairly priced, if one bothers to actually examine their structures; Home gamers seem to be something of a completionist lot, and if they can’t have absolutely everything for more than a few dollars, they tend to scream to the heavens on the Sony forum about price gouging.
Fifty-dollar price experiments interest me in Home. They interest me because it appears that the average top-tier Home game is “worth” about fifteen to twenty dollars, if you look at how they’re priced — and when you get into fifty-dollar territory, you’re risking comparisons not only to AAA disc titles, but to cheap gaming alternatives that can be had on other platforms. It’s not that hard to find city-building games and other similarly-themed experiences on Steam, for instance, for around twenty dollars a pop — and those are full-blown, self-contained games which ask for no further investment, as opposed to freemium games.
What the Home consumer fails to realize is that freemium games benefit considerably from offering something at a premium price tag — because a small percentage of people will actually buy it. Here’s some quick (hypothetical) math to demonstrate just how effective this can be:
Home Tycoon development cost: $200,000
Opening fortnight traffic: 300,000 unique users
Revenue conversion percentage: 5% (15,000 users)
Average revenue per user: $7
Percentage of converted users who opt for $50 VIP pack: 20% of overall conversion percentage
Total gross revenue: 12,000 users at $7/user ($84,000) + 3,000 users at $50/user ($150,000) = $234,000
Now, let me preemptively remind everyone that these are hypothetical numbers designed to illustrate a point: that even if 95% of the visitor traffic to Home Tycoon didn’t monetize at all (and let’s remember that freemium games traditionally have very low conversion percentages), that remaining five percent is sufficient to build a business model upon, and one percent — literally, one percent — of the user traffic can be responsible for a disproportionately substantial level of revenue. That’s how freemium gaming power-law distributions (so-called “whale economies”) work.
(Also, before anyone gigs me for building useless numbers just to suit my own point, you might want to do some homework on freemium conversion percentages first. I may not have the specifics on Home Tycoon’s performance, but I’ve also tried to build a realistic scenario that’s based on what actually goes on in this industry.)
Hopefully, you can now see why Home games are starting to offer high-ticket items: because they’ve learned the first rule of sales, which is that if you don’t ask for the order, you don’t get the order. Ninety-nine percent of the users who see that price tag won’t buy it (and will cavil and complain on the forum about it) — but that one percentile of the consumer base will see it, and buy it, and drive a disproportionate level of income that frankly is very important to Home developers when they decide whether or not to sink a lot of money into a gaming experiment. Remember, most of Home’s third-party developers are fairly small operations; sinking the amount of time and cost into a big-budget Home game is a risky endeavor.
Where it gets interesting, however, is that the $50 VIP pack in Home Tycoon doesn’t contain any permanent power-ups, except arguably a special gold car to drive around in. And, to be frank, I disagree with this. When you start getting into those kinds of lump-sum transactions, they really ought to have permanent bonuses attached to them in order to be justifiable in the long run. Whales will spend that kind of money because they enjoy the pay-to-win advantage; if they end up at the end at the same level as a regular user, this will not incline them to spend similar levels of money again on the same game.
One very effective way to generate gaming revenue in Home is to have microtransactions for repetitive gaming experiences. Digital Leisure and Mass Media are the undisputed champions of this in Home, with their chips and tickets respectively. Indeed, it was getting rather embarrassing to see new, high-profile game deployments fail to even crack the top-ten sales lists (by number of units sold) each month, while those two continued to sail atop the charts. The key to this sales strategy is that it’s a death by a thousand paper cuts: you slowly bleed users of their money in small increments, so they never bother to add up how much they’ve cumulatively spent. You still get your whales, but you’re not actively targeting them. This freemium formula in Home relies upon highly-repetitive gaming experiences with quick time-to-reward windows.
Applying this formula to a $50 price tag which offers nothing but consumables is a risky gamble, because the consumer ends up having spent a (comparatively) hefty sum and has nothing to show for it. It’s one of the problems which dogged the original incarnation of Cutthroats, and it potentially poses long-term problems for Home Tycoon. Because here’s what happens: you buy the $50 VIP pack, which allows you to rip through every mission in the game and buy enough workers to build up a huge city in a hurry, featuring every building there is. And then you’re out of money, with no reason to continue.
Game longevity in Home is a major issue, since Home gamers have a tendency to enter a new game and rapidly power through it until they’ve exhausted everything it has to offer, then discard it because the gameplay itself isn’t sufficiently compelling to warrant carrying on if there’s no sense of forward progression. If Home Tycoon is a game which is deliberately calibrated to unfold slowly (as some games are, such as nDreams’ Aurora), then it has gone about it the wrong way, since it’s selling products to defeat that very goal. If you try to “beat” the game the way it wants to be beaten — by upselling you commodities to speed up the city-building pace — then you end up with a finished city a bit sooner than everyone else, and no incentive to build another. If you try to beat the game asymmetrically, by spending seven dollars to buy the briefcase which permanently improves your rate of worker regeneration, you end up getting to the same goal (eventually), but have to stare at other publicly-displayed cities with stats that outstrip what you can produce.
Quite honestly, the more I play Home Tycoon, the more I feel like — and this is going to sound far more harsh than I intend it to — Hellfire missed the point of its own game. The goal of the game is not to race everyone else to the finish line, which is what all of its for-sale commodities are geared to do; the goal is to offer Home users a long-term canvas to creatively express themselves with one city design after another, because it’s that creative expression which will drive users to visit each others’ cities. But the way Hellfire set up their economy actually works against long-term play.
By way of analogy: imagine if you were given nDreams’ Blueprint:Home for free, and when you purchased the (expensive) style packs, rather than having permanent and unlimited access to them, you could only decorate so many rooms with that pack before it ran out of uses and you had to re-buy the pack. Oh, and if you wanted to gain access to the other four save slots, you had to buy those, too. Would this not effectively deter you from the whole point of playing Blueprint?
Well, that’s how Hellfire set things up with Home Tycoon.
Now, it’s HSM tradition to bring a solution if you bring a problem, and the good news is that there are permanent bonuses which can be added to increase long-term replayability:
- The $50 VIP pack should award the player a regular stipend of gold coins, not just a one-time payout. There’s already a revenue collection system built into the game, so this shouldn’t be too hard to implement. If someone’s willing to plunk down fifty bucks on a Home game in one shot, then they really do deserve some permanent bonuses.
- The worker regeneration briefcase should be included with the $50 VIP pack, as should the GloboSyn Enforcer coat. Or, barring that, the $50 VIP pack should confer substantially shorter worker recovery times: one minute per worker instead of ten minutes per worker.
- Standard revenue collection amounts per building should be effectively doubled for anyone who buys the VIP pack.
- Remove the price for buying a new map, and cap the number of maps any one user can have. Or, if this is not feasible due to technological limitations, then alter the parameters of building destruction so that whatever it cost the user to build (either gold coins or dollars), it’s a 100% recovery of the resources used — at least for those users who bought the $50 VIP pack. This removes any penalty for creative expression; users can re-use the same map over and over again for as much creative expression as they want, which adds considerably to the long-term replayability of the game.
- If someone bought the VIP pack, changing the time of day should be free.
There is a sixth suggestion I’d like to make, but it may not be possible to alter the game’s mechanics to make it happen: rather than requiring X-number of workers to finish a building site, adding workers should simply speed up the process. So, if I have thirty workers, I can have thirty construction projects progressing very slowly, or one project completed almost instantly. This gives me, as the user, far more direct control over how to spend such a precious resource — and it gives me a sense of forward progress to see buildings being completed while I wait and stare at the screen, or drive around town.
Now, it’s entirely possible that the economy behind Home Tycoon is structured the way it is specifically because of the Home environment. This isn’t Q1 2010 any more, when Lockwood’s SodiumOne was the only real game in town and had months to monetize practically unchallenged. Home 2012 is the Year of the Game (with not much of a slowdown in sight), and it’s gotten to the point where game releases are like movie releases: all the pressure is on to recover as much of the invested capital as fast as possible during that opening fortnight, before consumer attention is drawn to the Next Big Thing. This is one of the reasons why I’ve geared my improvement suggestions specifically to the VIP pack, in order to drive as much revenue as possible. In short, the idea is to unlock true long-term replayability with no penalties for any user willing to fork over fifty dollars.
Just like with Cutthroats 1.0, I find myself in the odd position of being in favor of a game and simultaneously against its freemium economy model. I like Home Tycoon, and for all I know the Hellfire guys are laughing all the way to the bank right now (and they deserve to, because they’re a great group of talented people), but I just can’t get past how the freemium pricing structure they’re using isn’t the most efficient for long-term revenue gain.
Do I recommend you check out Home Tycoon? Absolutely. As for me, I’ve spent my fifty dollars, built my (mostly complete) city, driven around a few racetracks, and now have no incentive to pick it up again. Were the economic penalties removed for creating new cityscapes and endlessly tinkering with the one I start out with, I could see myself playing this game intermittently for quite a while. But when I can buy full city-building games for a fraction of the price, or fire up Grand Theft Auto games that give me a lot more to do at street level (with an environment that feels a lot less static), I see no logic in investing additional money required to build yet another city with consumable power-ups that don’t last, or grinding out a new city instead just to save a few bucks. I want to create, and after a fifty-dollar investment, I have no interest in (or patience for) artificial conditions designed to slow down the act of creation and letting my imagination run wild.
Home Tycoon was fun while it lasted.