Archive for January 2012

Engagement and Personalization

January 24th, 2012 — 8:49pm

This is part three 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.


So increasing the amount of content we can consume increases the possibility some of that content will be interesting to the player.  But that’s not much good if we can’t sort out the meaningful bits (in the Hitchcock sense), or make a higher portion of the content more interesting.

How do we do that?  Once again, three possible ways:

  • Tailor the content to individual interests
  • Share the experience with friends
  • Increase personal investment

At its extreme, hand-tailoring content to each individual would be far too expensive to be practical.  Some games do get close, like extremely well run pen-and-paper RPGs (i.e. where the GM is able to adapt the game on the fly to the group’s interest).  But even little things can bring a game closer to an individual’s personal interests:  specific themes (e.g. sci fi, fantasy, western) mechanics (e.g. strategy, action, puzzle), play style (e.g. exploration, competition, achievement), audiovisual style, and so forth.

You lose audience the deeper you go down this path since you’re adding something that will have no interest to (or possibly a negative impact on) a portion of your potential players, but you’ll likely increase the length of play from those you do capture.

Some games have attempted to introduce more asymmetric play to capture a broader range of interests, where the same game is being played differently by different players.  The best successful example of this lies with MMOs, where one can focus more on, say, exploration, or combat, or crafting, or trading.

Speaking of MMOs, simply sharing the experience with friends is another way to make it more personally meaningful.  Note that I’m not talking about telling others what you’re doing (in the Facebook viral sense), but sharing the play experience itself with others who are also playing.  Friends might be those you knew before you started playing or those you met through the course of play;  the important part is that they appreciate and validate your experience.

Lastly, increasing a user’s personal investment goes a long way toward making it more important to them.  Yes, that sounds a bit circular, but it’s more of a positive feedback loop:  the more I invest, the more meaning it has;  the more meaning it has, the more I’ll invest.

Persistence is the easiest form of this.  It captures the unique changes and additions the player has made, and reflects the unique history – the story – of the player’s personal involvement in the game so far.  That includes player relationships, assuming the game is structured to remember them over time.

Anything the player authors falls under the personal investment heading too:  I made it, so it has value to me (indeed, it likely has far more value to me than anyone else).  Not everyone wants to create, however, and the act of creation itself has numerous friction barriers to overcome.

It’s worth noting that what’s personally interesting to a player one day may not be what’s interesting the next.  Part of that’s the pattern matching problem, but it’s also a function of many external forces outside our control:  how distracted are they, how much time do they have today, are they in a good mood or bad mood, and so on.  Having the flexibility to adapt to a player’s personal situation over time would go a long way toward increasing their engagement.

Next time, a quick conclusion to this series.

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Engagement and Content Volume

January 16th, 2012 — 7:02pm

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
  • Emergence

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.


Value Creation in Games

January 9th, 2012 — 6:16pm

This is part one 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.


I’ve been stewing a lot lately on how we create value in the games industry.  Given that there’s no explicit utility case to be made for our products, everything we do appears to fall into two buckets:

  • Increasing Access
  • Increasing Engagement

Increasing access is about friction reduction.  The electronic game value chain is filled with friction – everything from problems of discovery and delivery of product to basic commerce issues (payment types, price points and whatnot).  Even existence has friction when you consider the barriers to creation:  technical expertise, difficult of the platform, access to tools and development resources, and so forth.  Within the game itself, simply the demands of play – learning curve, short and long term time commitments – create friction for the user.

Reducing friction can often enable otherwise average titles to succeed.  A great example of this was consumer reaction to mobile games before the iPhone came along (2002 – 2006).  Multiple studies (from the tail end of that era) showed consumers reaching for their phones to play games in their homes despite the presence of superior products on consoles, handhelds and computers.

On the other hand, increasing engagement is about creating desire.  No matter how much friction we eliminate from the system, there still needs to be something on the other end that engages a consumer’s attention and pulls them to the product.  In fact, just as low friction can enable weakly engaging products, strong engagement can overcome absolutely ludicrous frictions (witness Minecraft).  It’s stating the obvious, but as long as engagement exceeds friction, you’ve got your customer.

Both methods of value creation are key to a successful product, but it’s important to understand the difference.  Early entrants to a new market segment might succeed by making mediocre products highly accessible, only to fail in the long haul if they don’t know how to increase the engagement side (or more telling, recognize the importance of doing so).

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There Are Only Two Parts Of The Content Value Chain You Cannot Remove

January 2nd, 2012 — 9:03pm

There are only two parts of the content value chain you cannot remove:  the content creator and content consumer.  That’s a paraphrase of an unknown journalist from the June 5, 2008 issue of the Economist who said:

“Publishing has only two indispensable participants:  authors and readers.  As with music, any technology that brings these two groups closer makes the whole industry more efficient– but hurts those who benefit from the distance between them.”

So if you want to play in the space between, you need to provide some value in reducing one or more of the following four barriers:

  • Existence.  How difficult is it to actually create the product?  Am I coding in assembly or can I just use Flash?
  • Discovery.  How does a consumer find out about the product?  Banner ads, google keywords or the social graph?
  • Delivery.  How does the consumer get the product?  Do I have to drive down to the mall or can I just download it?
  • Commercialization.  How does the content creator monetize the product?  Do I have to pay $20 or can I try it for free and pay for stuff in smaller chunks later?

We use talent and money to overcome these barriers.  In recent years, there’s been a tremendous decline across the board in all of them.  Modern development tools and increased hardware power have put a huge dent in the existence barrier.  Delivery friction is virtually zero given modern bandwidth costs.   Commercialization is almost plug-n-play.  Even discovery has been dramatically improved with the advent of Facebook’s viral channels.

As these barriers drop, a number of interesting things happen:

  • Lower barriers mean lower capital requirements to bring a product to fruition.
  • Lower capital requirements mean the volume of product that makes it over these hurdles increases substantially.
  • More product means more competition, driving down prices.
  • More product also means more niche products that address previously underserved interests.  These products can charge a premium over mainstream content.
  • The closer these value chain barriers get to zero, the more they commoditize and become hyper-efficient.
  • The more they commoditize, the more the costs start to backload, further reducing capital requirements for the content creator.
  • As capital requirements drop, the sources of capital change and their influence over the content creation process falls.

There’s a bit of a feedback loop here.  If more products make it over the transom the discovery barrier goes up, for example.  And when a company has an effective monopoly over one solution (e.g. Facebook’s discovery advantage) they can intentionally raise barriers in other parts of the value chain, so long as the net gain is still positive for content creators.

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