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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Why Interactive Storytelling Will Have More Than One Answer

July 16th, 2012 — 7:24pm

A few weeks ago I attended Chris Crawford’s interactive storytelling gathering in southern Oregon.  It was a small group, less than a dozen, but the composition was fairly diverse and included game designers, industry execs, interactive fiction authors, academics, writers and even one venture capitalist.

There’s a lot of debate about what interactive storytelling is and how to solve the “interactive storytelling problem”.  I think this is a bit misguided as it tends to treat interactive storytelling as a singular technological hurdle to be overcome (like 3D rendering).   But interactive storytelling isn’t a problem or a technology, it’s a category, one that will likely have multiple viable product types that each have their own set of challenges to be solved.

I base this on the simple observation that if you’re going to create a category called “interactive storytelling”, there must also be a category of everything else called “non-interactive storytelling” which includes such wide ranging possibilities as “novels”, “music”, “movies”, “comics”, “poetry” and so forth.  While it doesn’t logically follow that interactive storytelling must likewise have more than one form of expression, it does seem more than probable given the diverse range of methods for non-interactive storytelling and the really broad macro level categorization (interactive vs. non-interactive, neither of which is actually descriptive of what someone might experience).

In other words, I think it’s a mistake to think of interactive storytelling as one more means to tell a story the way a novel or movie does.  It’s really a massive grouping of expressive forms, some of which may be mirrors from the non-interactive side of the fence (e.g. “interactive novels”) and some of which may be new things entirely.

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What Is The Game About: Dodgeball

July 9th, 2012 — 5:16pm

This is part four of a multi-part series on focus in game design, using examples primarily from Knockabout Games.  The first post can be found here.

In 2005 my company Knockabout Games built a mobile game for Superscape based on a license to the movie Dodgeball.   We did our homework — that is, we played all the old console and pc implementations of dodgeball and watched the movie — but none of us thought this was a very hard question to answer.  After all, the thematic answer is driven by the license (“it’s a tongue-in-cheek view of niche sports, specifically dodgeball”).  And it’s dodgeball.  Which means that functionally it must be about dodging.

Except, not really.  We designed all our features to support the core concept of dodging, only to find that wasn’t particularly fun (and was quite difficult on a handset with a “team” of 4 or 5 characters).  What was far more enjoyable, once we had the first playable in hand, was hitting opponents with the ball.

So midstream we changed the focus and modified (or dropped) all the game’s features accordingly.  “Dodging” was now a supporting feature, one that you had to pay much less attention to.  And we added things like a unique throw per team (e.g. a curveball or one that bounced off the back wall) and a method for moving your team in lockstep and throwing multiple balls at once.  These were simple changes, but overnight the game went from “crappy licensed movie game” to “hey, this is a lot of fun”.  Indeed, one reviewer later observed they couldn’t think of a specific reason to like the game, except that they couldn’t put the damn thing down.


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