Archive for March 2013


Attention and Emergence

March 19th, 2013 — 4:55pm

This is the second part of a two part series on games and attention.  The first part can be found here.

 

Last week I talked about how games compete for a consumer’s attention, and how existing casual and hardcore products represent flawed solutions to this problem.  We ideally want to enable casual and hardcore play in the same product, but doing so means taking a different approach to game mechanics.

How?  Make better use of emergence in our designs.  To enable emergent play, a small set of core components are recombined to produce an unlimited number of novel play dynamics.  Here’s what we get with this approach:

  • Simple and easy to understand game mechanics (ideal for casual play)
  • A massive possibility space, with complex dynamics (ideal for hardcore play)

Games of this type avoid rule complexity (and burdensome learning curves/commitment) by working with only a few mechanics.  The rich output gives the game legs and enables deep, engaging play.

The classic example is Go, a game with only two rules but an incredibly varied output in terms of games and play styles.  A modern example would be Magic:  The Gathering and other CCGs.  More recent:  Little Big Planet, Minecraft, The Sims.

Examples of games that are minimally emergent, if at all:  Pac-man, Heavy Rain, the board game Life.

Most game designers are already familiar with emergent concepts, and indeed, all games have some degree of emergent play.  But we tend to shy away from designing heavily emergent systems because the large possibility space is difficult to balance (many designs introduce top-down constraints to control this, like classes in RPGs, but that simply reduces the possibility space and undermines the benefits of an emergent system).

It’s also important to recognize that emergence by itself will not help a game attract players interested in both casual and hardcore play.  To be effective:

  • You really have to constrain the number of core elements and their respective functions.  Many games are deeply emergent but they get there with a crazy amount of rules and systems that undermine any potential for casual play.
  • More output doesn’t mean more choice.  Farmville has great emergence in terms of user expression, but it’s functionally meaningless.  Backyard Monsters’ non-orthogonal design elements lead to a relatively small set of strategic choices (a few dominant play strategies).
  • Emergence doesn’t automatically mean accessible and deeply engaging.  You still have to avoid other annoying frictions (like bad UI design), and a large possibility space isn’t much good if it’s boring.

Ultimately, making stronger use of emergence won’t expand the potential audience for your game:  a player still has to like abstract strategy games if they’re going to play Go.  But it will increase how many of those potential players choose your game over all the other media choices they have at their disposal.

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Games Have An Attention Problem

March 11th, 2013 — 6:25pm

Last week I talked about how mid-core games aren’t the answer to consumer engagement issues.  This week I want to take a closer look at some of the underlying design problems with casual and hardcore thinking, and how we might better address them.


It’s been several years since I first talked about games and attention.  At the time, I noted that games compete for our attention with other games, other media, and interruptions from friends, family and work.  Despite all the advances in friction reduction over the past decade, games are hard pressed to thrive — nevermind get noticed — in this noisy media environment.

Looking ahead, the trendline is not positive.  Content creation costs keep dropping, so the amount of content available keeps rising.  Our choices are unlimited but our time is not.

Traditional solutions to the attention problem fall into two buckets:

  • Reduce friction (a.k.a. the casual solution)
  • Add depth (a.k.a. the hardcore solution)

In general, good casual design affects a player’s willingness to play, while good hardcore design affects their desire to play.

 

The Casual Solution

The friction reduction method requires games to:

  • Have few barriers to entry
  • Be commitment friendly
  • Be attention span agnostic
  • Have a short build-try-fail loop

That’s all good.  However, while these characteristics reduce friction and increase a player’s willingness to play, they don’t actually generate a desire to play (or to keep playing).  In an effort to meet the requirements above and make the game more accessible, most designers simplify the game’s mechanics and the way those mechanics combine, effectively reducing the play dynamics as well (in the MDA sense).  The result is a shallow product with a small possibility space and little long term retention.

Casual games succeed by demanding less from the consumer — they don’t ask you to sacrifice attention you might prefer to devote to other things, complementing rather than competing with other media.  The best of these products tend to have large audiences with low unit economics and short user life cycles.

 

The Hardcore Solution

The depth approach, on the other hand, means the game:

  • Has extensive and varied play dynamics
  • Has a lot of content to consume
  • Gives the player a reason to make a deep personal investment (often through persistence, identity and relationships).

Again, a good list.  Games of this type tend to create a strong desire to play.  Unfortunately, they also erect a lot of barriers to someone’s willingness to play.  To create a wide range of play dynamics, many designers simply pile on the game mechanics (i.e. they keep layering on the rules and systems).  That’s a lot for someone to learn and then remember from session to session, and with a lot of mechanics to comprehend, 100% focus is required.  The only players willing to do that are the few that will make a large personal investment in the product.   The result is a deep product with a large possibility space and great long term retention, but it bounces most consumers at the start.

Hardcore products succeed by being more compelling than other media — they ask for your undivided attention and tell you it’s better spent on them than competing options.  High quality hardcore products tend to have small audiences with high unit economics and long user life cycles.

 

Hardcore + Casual

There’s nothing inherent to these two approaches that makes them incompatible, but you can see how solving for one can easily lead to problems with the other (it doesn’t help that, as an industry, we’ve set up a false dichotomy that places casual and hardcore products at opposite ends of the same spectrum;  mid-core is the latest iteration along these lines).

Much of the problem starts with the game’s mechanics, where most casual games have simple mechanics and simple dynamics, and most hardcore games have complex mechanics and complex dynamics.  There’s a reason for that:  they’re much easier to design and balance (simple dynamics imply a small possibility space, which presents fewer outcomes to balance;  complex mechanics make it easier to isolate systems for independent tuning, particularly when dealing with the large possibility spaces associated with complex dynamics).

What we really want are games with simple mechanics and complex dynamics, because simple mechanics are easy to learn and remember, while complex dynamics are deep and engaging.  How we do that is the subject of next week’s post.

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Mid-Core Is Bullshit

March 6th, 2013 — 8:15pm

The game industry continues to believe that casual and hardcore players are separate monolithic audiences interested solely in games reflecting their respective play styles.  The latest entry along these lines is the mid-core game, which seeks to claim a middle ground between the two.

The underlying case for mid-core players is genuine enough:  there are many players who would like a deeper, more engaging experience without the burden of a steep learning curve or large time commitment.

But mid-core comes up short for the same reasons traditional casual and hardcore thinking does:

  • It confuses product specific engagement and commitment characteristics (where they are valid) with demographic characteristics (where they are not).  To claim there is an audience of casual players, hardcore players, and now mid-core players outside the scope of a single product is nonsensical.  These are different people for different products, and one game’s hardcore player is another’s casual player.  And remember:  everyone is hardcore about something.
  • It falsely assumes there is a spectrum of play from casual to hardcore where a given product falls, instead of treating casual and hardcore play as separate and compatible in the same game.  To make a game more casual is to make it more accessible;  to make it hardcore is to make it more engaging.  Good casual design increases a player’s willingness to play but does nothing to increase their desire to play.  Good hardcore design improves a player’s desire to play but does nothing to increase their willingness to play.
  • It takes a very narrow view of player behavior:  that an individual seeks the exact same play experience every time they sit down to play.

Of these, the last is most important.  In the busy, chaotic world we all live in, our ability to engage and commit to a product varies from day to day. When you build for mid-core, you haven’t addressed this problem any better than casual or hardcore approaches because you’re still building for a fixed level of player engagement.  Which means you’re still going to lose consumers when they want to engage more and there’s nothing interesting to do, or you require them to engage more and they don’t have the time.

It’s a lot like picking a single price point for your product — it can work, but it’s not terribly efficient compared to free-to-play models.  And it’s a poor strategy for any product hoping to build a long term relationship with the player.

We should enable high levels of casual and hardcore play in the same product, not find a happy medium between the two.  Doing so doesn’t re-align your product with a different demographic or change the level of engagement;  it expands your product’s audience to include a much greater number of players, without sacrificing one group to make room for another.

 

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