以Hearthstone爲例談大型企業如何出品創新型遊戲產品

以Hearthstone爲例談大型企業如何出品創新型遊戲產品

本文原作者:Rob Fahey(特約編輯) 譯者ciel chen

在過去的幾十年裏,遊戲產業經歷了一系列的重大轉變——主流平臺的變遷、玩家支付方式以及與遊戲之間的交互方式的改變、甚至玩遊戲的用戶羣都在變化。這一個個變化都給遊戲產業帶來了一系列需要克服與跨越的挑戰;這裏大概沒有一個是可以一下子就被完美解決的問題。然而與此同時,還有一些默默在幕後的挑戰——那些對遊戲業本質來說更基礎的一致性問題,這些問題也許不比最新的偉大轉變來的鼓舞人心,激情四射,但同樣需要有機智的解決方法。比如說教育和技能培訓;再比如說稅收體系以及行業與政府的關係。

也許這些問題裏首當其衝的就是那些在各種行業中都存在的共同的問題——創意類的問題。這是與創新有關的問題,或者再具體一點來說——是有關如何讓創新在大公司依舊發揮其效力的問題。現代資本主義的傳統智慧這樣認爲:創新主要源自於小型初創企業;由於不受大型成熟企業掌控下制度、結構和企業文化的約束,它們能夠自由地按照最初的理念去執行方案來達到創造新事物。然而隨着這樣的公司壯大起來,他們失去了原來的敏捷性和靈活度——項目因爲內部政策夭折——開發者被要求去處理令人窒息的和股東之間的關係,以及更常見的是情況:創新者的窘境——他們不再願意追求鮮活的創新作品,因爲會害怕自己做的不夠好以至於讓他們曾經的輝煌毀於一旦。

Hearthstone(from us.battle.net)

Hearthstone(from us.battle.net)

於是,我們就見到了這樣一種結構:小型創新企業出創新型產品;而大型企業介入來併購這些小型企業。這種結構同樣存在於遊戲產業中——發行商巨頭對創新型的成功遊戲工作室進行收購。這樣的收購往往意味着同時可以將那些傑出的開發人才收入旗下,要求他們爲新的僱主工作一段時間——然後他們就可以離開去再次投入到小型創新作品的創作中去了(除此之外,他們現在口袋裏可是揣了幾百萬英鎊的資金了)。這就形成了一種循環,一班子的持續創新者重複地創立新小型公司,取得一定成就後再賣給那些渴求創新產品的大型企業。

對於很多大型企業而言,這並不是完全令人滿意的境況。他們肯定會想:肯定有什麼方法讓公司的擴大規模的同時又不失去創新能力的吧?然而大部分公司的境況都依舊是如此;大公司確實是能創造好產品的,不過這些產品大多是過去成功作品的迭代品和衍生物,只有極少數公司擴大規模後還能開發出成爲主流顛覆過去的產品。主要還是因爲遊戲產品有太多阻礙要克服;有太多的政策阻礙着研發航路;然而層層管理者他們因爲擔憂害怕投資者無法理解遊戲產品概念,就把產品描述成“跟《使命召喚》玩法很像的GTA”、或者什麼“它就是一把像素超好的iphone”之類的噱頭博人眼球,讓新思路新點子根本無處施展拳腳。

大企業這種想讓小型創業團隊能夠在自己的控制下繼續發光發熱的願望在愈發強烈,而這也讓很多受歡迎的舉措得以出現。也許這其中最火爆有名的話題應該就是Eric Ries的《The Lean Star-Up》這本書了,書中指導人們如何有效地在創業型企業中進行商業實踐,它所倡議的方法就是趁早發行、趁快迭代。儘管這本書在創業型團隊中有一定的影響,但它最大的作用似乎在於讓大型企業找到了如何在企業內部營造構建適宜小型創業團隊發展環境的法子——好讓這大企業能像孵化器一樣,爲那些家養型創業團隊提供跟野生創業團隊一樣自由革新和快速迭代的環境。

但上文所述的那些努力沒有幾個結果是成功的。現實情況是這樣的:一家大型公司內部的創業團隊終究跟在原生市場環境下的創業團隊不一樣——他們沒有了相同的環境限制因素也就失去了相對的可能性;其成員終究屬於大型企業中的一名職員,所以即不能奢求有着跟原生創業團隊一樣的回報,也沒法奢望能有跟他們相同的決策環境,甚至不能以同樣的衡量方法來判斷其基本意義上的成功與失敗,在大型公司裏,有企業投資人、企業顧問——這些有經驗的風險投資家們一生致力於在精密的企業體系下執行決策,現在卻聲稱要顛覆性地給創業團隊以自由,然而這些企業內部的創業團隊只能感覺到被控制被審視被評判。所以這種努力沒有產生效果讓人絲毫不感到驚訝——這無論是對遊戲行業而言還是對其他行業而言都是如此。

到此爲止我們都還沒提到開頭標題就出現的《爐石傳說(Hearthstone)》。現在我們可以對此展開討論了。

Hearthstone是暴雪遊戲公司旗下的可多平臺運行的一款卡牌對弈遊。它其實是《魔獸爭霸(Warcraft)》的變身,就在去年這款遊戲創收3.5億美金(該數據由SuperData所估算)。這禮拜其獨立用戶量達到了7000萬,儘管沒有發佈其現有用戶數據,但暴雪在4月份發佈的最新資料片中聲稱它在用戶量方面創下了新的記錄。這款世界上最受歡迎的主流遊戲之一實在真他丫的是一則有關成功的故事,同時,它從本質上爲反駁“大型企業做不出小型創新產品”提供了一個論據。Hearthstone是標準地由暴雪公司(大型企業)內部的創業型小團隊所開發的作品,自從它發行以後所使用的都是典型創業型小團隊會採取的方法——快速地進行迭代並通過類似於“Barroom Brawl”這樣一個允許開發者測試新遊戲機制和新想法的沙盒(如果測試結果良好就能投用於到遊戲中)來對這類遊戲特性進行測試。
鑑於Hearthstone算得上是暴雪最賺錢的遊戲,而且它所獲得的商業成功的背後是一支相對小型的基礎團隊(相對小型是指跟開發《魔獸世界》這樣龐然大物的團隊相比而言的)。因此我們就想問了——其他發行商和開發者能從暴雪的這個成功案例中學習怎樣的經驗呢?有人傾向於把這個暴雪的成功故事歸結於一種無形不可定義的“暴雪式奇蹟”,就好像那些閃閃發亮、代表着奇蹟的精靈粉塵在空氣中自由散落,最後都播散在了暴雪公司的爾灣校區。儘管事實上,暴雪公司只不過一家非常有創意並且管理良好的公司——只不過這家公司無論是在對公司本身的構造方式上還是對公司自身的定義上,(作爲大型企業)都保持着一顆創新精神的心。

遊戲行業中人們對於暴雪公司最深的印象應該是它扼殺那些不符合自己標準項目時展現的“殘忍暴虐”。《星際爭霸:幽靈(StarCraft:Gohst)》經過多年的開發依舊不可見天日;《泰坦(Titan)》,本應該是一款《魔獸世界》的後續MMO遊戲一樣也被封殺了(後來團隊的核心幾個成員快速地繼續對後來的成功鉅作《守望先鋒(Overwatch)》進行開發來作爲其“反彈項目”)。這些都意味着暴雪公司在開發遊戲時所秉承的內部文化是很多其他公司所缺失的;所擁有的能力足以冷靜理智地進行判斷決策,而不會過於被公司內部政策、沉沒成本謬誤或者其他類似的顧慮所牽制。

在暴雪公司的員工們、甚至高管們,都知道聽取建議把項目取消雖然會是有益的,因爲從事後來看給建議的人的決定都是完全無誤的,但無疑地,這種中途放棄項目的舉措會讓人受到情感上的煎熬。公司會拋開對負責項目人員的個人看法,只看從項目的可行性上進行判斷,這似乎已經成爲了一種公司文化;我當然不否認這種系統流程存在瑕疵,並且在決策是存在大量的摩擦,但總體上來說,它依舊是有所效果的。

這一系統爲公司創造了環境讓小型初創風格內部團隊得以存活——這些小型創新的團隊可以致力於開發創新型遊戲、快速建模以及在開發的同時進行高效的品質鑑定。於是經過幾次內部項目砍殺和重啓的循環,存活下來的項目最後就會以“迷你型試用版”推入市場;這裏可不是那種乾巴巴的僞裝模型,而是可以有資格稱爲暴雪遊戲的迷你型遊戲試用版——經過打磨後有趣好玩,不過這並不是昂貴的完整版遊戲,而只是用來作爲團隊可以根據真實玩家的反饋進行迭代和創新的跳板的一個版本。

不是每家遊戲公司都能做到這種程度的;這種程度也不僅僅是倚靠暴雪公司嚴格的質量控制標準,還有很重要的因素就是公司對投資人的不透明性(這也讓開發者能做出符合市場趨勢的產品而不用去投股東所好)以及其根據現有IP系列爲引導開發新遊戲的能力(像任天堂模式就是一個很基本的例子)。然而這裏根本沒有什麼所謂的魔法經歷粉末成就了像《爐石傳說》這樣的成功遊戲(或者就此而言的《守望先鋒》)。只要有正確的方法與能做出正確決策的角色,是可以形成一種可複製模仿的模式的。而這種模式其實也存在於別處——比如說,這跟Supercell公司的運營結構沒有什麼不同,這也是Supercell公司爲什麼可以成爲唯一一家能把“電光石火的創意儲存起來”並不斷開發出超火爆遊戲的原因。另外它跟任天堂也很像(儘管在結構上有些許不同)——任天堂近年來在進行轉型,Splatoon正是在這樣的轉型中應運而生的遊戲產品。

所以說大公司也能夠變得富有新意與創造力、有勇有謀甚至成就顛覆過去開創未來之舉。《爐石傳說》就是暴雪公司給我們的很好例子——它讓其他遊戲公司知道,“將培養創新精神作爲首要任務、把良好品味和卓越創造力看做高於一切”的企業文化是多麼精緻而與衆不同。對於很多遊戲公司來說,這都會是一個翻天覆地的轉型——這些公司必須因此在優先項目、結構甚至員工組成上進行大換血——但從長期上來看,這種轉變會讓公司在將來省下一大筆錢,因爲這樣你就不再需要每隔幾年就花大價錢買下一個能開發出你意想不到遊戲的新型創新小團隊爲你工作了。

本文由遊戲邦編譯,轉載請註明來源,或諮詢微信zhengjintiao

The games industry has gone through a series of major transitions and changes over the past couple of decades – changes to the platforms people play on, the way they pay for and interact with games and even to the audiences that are actually playing. Each of those has brought along a series of challenges which the industry has had to surmount or circumvent; none of them, arguably, is a perfectly solved problem. Meanwhile, though, there have also been a handful of challenges running in the background – consistent issues that are even more fundamental to the nature of the games business, less exciting and sexy than the latest great transition but no less in need of clever solutions. Education and skills is one example; tax regimes and the industry’s relationship with governments is another.

Perhaps chief among those issues, though, is one which ties in to a common problem across a wide variety of industries, creative and otherwise. It’s the problem of innovation; specifically, the question of how to make innovation work in the context of a large corporation. The conventional wisdom of modern capitalism is that innovation bubbles up from small start-ups; unencumbered by the institutional, structural and cultural constraints that large, established companies operate within, they’re free to create new things and execute original ideas. As firms grow bigger, they lose that nimbleness and flexibility. Projects become wrapped up in internal politics, in the stifling requirements of handling shareholder relationships, and all too often, in the innovator’s dilemma – the unwillingness to pursue fresh innovation for fear that it’ll disrupt one of your proven cash cows.

As a result, we see a structure in which innovation happens at small start-ups, which large companies tap into through acquisitions. We see this in the games industry too, in the form of big publishers acquiring innovative and successful developers. Such acquisitions usually come with golden handcuffs for the key talent, requiring them to work for their firm’s new owners for a certain amount of time – after which they’re free to go off and create something new, small and innovative again (with a few million quid in their back pocket, to boot). This creates a cycle, and a class of serial innovators who repeatedly build up new, successful small companies to sell to larger, innovation-starved firms.

“The reality is that a start-up inside a company isn’t the same as a start-up in the wild. It doesn’t have the same constraints or the same possibilities available to it”
For many large companies, this isn’t an entirely satisfactory situation. Surely, they reason, there must be some way for a company to scale up without losing the capacity to innovate? Yet for the most part, the situation holds; big companies can create great products, but they are generally iterative and derivative, only very rarely being major, disruptive breaks from what was offered before. There are just too many barriers a game or a product needs to get through; too much politics to navigate, too many layers of management stumped by new ideas or worried about how something hard to explain will play to investors who only want to hear descriptions like “it’s like GTA, but with elements of Call of Duty”, or “it’s like an iPhone, but with a better camera”.

The desire to find some way to bottle the start-up lightning and deploy it within existing corporations runs deep, though, and it’s resulted in a number of popular initiatives over the years. Perhaps the most famous of recent years is the buzz around Eric Ries’ book The Lean Start-Up, a guide to effective business practices for start-up companies which extolled a launch-early, iterate-fast approach. Though it had some impact in the start-up world, The Lean Start-Up seemed to find its most receptive audience among executives at large corporations keen to find some way to create “internal start-ups” – silos within their companies which would function like incubators, replicating the conditions which allowed start-ups in the wild to innovate and iterate rapidly.

For the most part, those efforts didn’t work. The reality is that a start-up inside a company isn’t the same as a start-up in the wild. It doesn’t have the same constraints or the same possibilities available to it; its staff remain employees of a large corporation and thus cannot expect the same rewards, or be exposed to the same decision-making environment, as staff at a start-up. Even something as basic as success or failure can’t be measured in the same way, and in place of experienced venture capitalists (often the final-stage Pokémon evolution of the serial innovators described above) as investors and advisors, an internal start-up finds itself being steered and judged by executives who have often spent a lifetime working within precisely the corporate structure they now claim to wish to subvert. It’s hardly surprising that this doesn’t work very often, either within games or in any other sector.

We haven’t talked about Hearthstone yet, even though it’s right up there in the opening lines. Let’s talk about Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is Blizzard’s card battling game, available across a variety of platforms. It’s a spin-off from the Warcraft franchise, and last year it made somewhere in the region of $350 million (according to estimates from SuperData). This week it topped 70 million unique users, and though the company doesn’t release concurrent user figures, it claims to have set a new record for those following the release of its latest expansion pack in April. It also remains one of the most popular games in the world for streaming. It’s a hell of a success story, and it’s also, in essence, a counterpoint to the notion that big companies can’t do small, innovative things. Hearthstone was prototyped and built by a small team within Blizzard, and ever since its launch it has embraced a distinctly start-up approach – iterating quickly and doing its experimentation in public through features like the “Barroom Brawl”, a sandbox that allows developers to test new mechanics and ideas that might make their way into the main game if they work well.

“Blizzard has developed something within its internal culture that a lot of other firms in the industry lack; a capacity to coolly, rationally judge its own work on a purely creative and qualitative level”

Given Hearthstone’s commercial success and the relatively small team and infrastructure behind it (relative, that is, to a behemoth like World of Warcraft), it’s probably Blizzard’s most profitable game. The question is, can other publishers and developers learn from what Blizzard did here? There’s a tendency with Blizzard success stories to simply attribute them to some intangible, indefinable “Blizzard Magic”, some sparkling pixie dust which is sprinkled liberally on all of their games but which can only be mined from the secret goblin tunnels under the company’s Irvine campus. In reality, though, Blizzard is simply a very creative and phenomenally well-managed company – one which has, in many respects, placed the solving of the whole question of how to innovate within a large company environment at the very heart of how it structures and defines itself.

One of the most famous things that people in the industry know about Blizzard is that the company is ruthless in its willingness to take an axe to projects that don’t live up to its standards. StarCraft: Ghost never saw the light of day after years in development; Titan, the planned MMO follow-up to World of Warcraft, was similarly ditched (with a core part of its team going on to rapidly develop the enormously successful Overwatch as their “rebound project”). What that means is that Blizzard has developed something within its internal culture that a lot of other firms in the industry lack; a capacity to coolly, rationally judge its own work on a purely creative and qualitative level, and to make very tough decisions without being overly swayed by internal politics, sunk-cost fallacies or other such calculations.

It’s instructive to listen to comments from people who worked on cancelled projects at Blizzard, even at a high level; while it was no doubt an emotional and difficult experience for them, their comments in hindsight usually express genuine agreement with the decision. There appears to be a culture that allows the company to judge projects without extending that judgment to the individuals who worked on them; I don’t doubt that this is an imperfect system and that there’s still plenty of friction around these decisions, but by and large, it seems to work.

That creates an environment in which a start-up style approach can actually thrive. Small, creative teams can work on innovative games, rapidly prototyping and being effectively judged for their quality along the way. After only a couple of cycles of internal culling and restarting, surviving projects can be pushed out to the market as a kind of “minimum viable product”; not a thinly disguised prototype, but the minimum required to be a viable Blizzard game. Polished, fun and interesting, but designed as a springboard from which the team can go on to iterate and innovate in a way that’s informed by feedback from a real audience, rather than as an expensively developed, monolithic product.

Not every company can accomplish this; it’s not just Blizzard’s exacting standards of quality that permit it, there are also important factors like the company’s opaqueness to investors (which allows it to make products for the market rather than making products for shareholders) and its ability to bootstrap new games with IP from existing franchises (the Nintendo model, in essence) to consider. There is, however, no magic pixie dust involved in the success of games like Hearthstone (or Overwatch, for that matter). This is a model that can be replicated elsewhere, given the right approach and the right people in decision-making roles. In fact, it’s a model that does exist elsewhere; it’s not dissimilar to the structure of a company like Supercell, for example, which helps to explain why Supercell is one of the only mobile developers that’s been able to “bottle its lightning” and consistently develop hit titles. It’s also close, though slightly different in structure, to the way Nintendo has shifted towards working in recent years, which has resulted in titles like Splatoon.

Big companies can be creative; they can be innovative, daring, clever and even disruptive. Hearthstone shows this at work within Blizzard, and it’s also present in a select but distinguished line-up of other game companies that have made it a priority to nurture innovation and to create a culture where good taste and creative excellence are celebrated above all else. For many companies, this would be a radical shift – requiring a change in priorities, in structure and even in staffing – but in the long run, such a shift might end up a lot cheaper than having to pull out your wallet every couple of years to buy the next innovative start-up that came up with an idea your own firm couldn’t conceive of.(source:gamesindustry.biz