This is part two of the four part series on value creation in games. Part 1: Value Creation in Games; Part 2:Engagement and Content Volume; Part 3:Engagement and Personalization; Part 4: The Game Engagement Landscape.
In my last post I talked about how value creation in games falls into two large buckets: access and engagement. This time I want to focus on the engagement portion, and more specifically, how we increase it. I’ll give the usual disclaimer about how there’s many ways to slice this, but in my view there are two ways to increase engagement:
- Increase the volume of content
- Increase the personal meaning of content
Increasing the volume of content – the sheer amount of it that can be consumed – increases the possibility space and therefore the likelihood that the consumer will find something that engages them. That may evolve over time – i.e. initial bits of content may grow dull but, due to the large amount available, new bits are available that may extend interest.
Increasing personalization reduces the possibility space in a way that’s meaningful to the individual player. It does not reduce the possibility space for the game’s audience as a whole. Think of it as the percentage of interactions an individual has in the game (relative to the total interactions they have) that are interesting to them. What’s interesting to one user may not be interesting to another, of course.
In general we use three methods to increase the volume of content:
- Author a lot
- Re-use content
Authoring can come from developers or consumers. In the hands of skilled developers the content is often extremely well-made and balanced, and difficult to pattern match. But it runs out quickly, a lot goes unused, it doesn’t adapt well to varied player interests, and it’s expensive and economically hard to sustain except at very high sales volumes.
Letting consumers author the content (i.e. UGC, or what I like to call the infinite monkeys solution) generates an almost unlimited supply and the cost of creation is very cheap. But it has its own challenges, including a terrible signal-to-noise ratio, difficulty maintaining cohesion and consistency with the overall product, and a dependency on some level of creative or technical expertise to generate interesting content (the burden of creation, at least for some portion of the audience).
Another alternative is to simply re-use content. Far less expensive than developer authoring, it’s also relatively easy to balance. For example, we might use meta-structures like high scores, scenarios or levels, difficulty settings, quests and so forth to package what is essentially the same core game loop in a larger play mechanic. That can generate more long term interest and extend play, but it doesn’t actually solve the pattern matching problem since the core game loop remains the same (potentially leading to boredom fairly quickly). Procedural content generation is another variation on this theme but tends to produce undifferentiated content.
That leads us to emergence. In emergent play, core components are recombined to produce novel new play dynamics (in the MDA sense). In the mid-90s, the colleagues at my first company often mocked my constant preaching about “complex combinations of simple, distinct elements”. Emergence might occur at the systems level, or it might come from adding other people to the game (but not necessarily friends). As with simply re-using content, emergence is inexpensive. And it’s hard to pattern match, making it difficult for players to optimize play and get bored. But it’s terribly difficult to balance.
Next time I’ll talk about the personalization side.