Archive for February 2012

Casual Vs. Hardcore Play: Wrong Question

February 27th, 2012 — 4:02pm

I think there’s some acceptance in the industry that the terms “casual” and “hardcore” have been co-opted by historical circumstances and no longer match their functional meaning.  These days most people array casual and hardcore as two ends of an audience spectrum from large (casual) to small (hardcore).   What they’re really talking about is how niche a title is.

This would be merely a semantic debate and beside the point, except that folks in the industry also go on to attribute all kinds of other (arguably more genuine) characteristics to casual and hardcore titles.  For example, casual titles may have short play sessions, simple interfaces and fast learning curves.  Hardcore titles might have deep, complicated rule systems that encourage extended play and long life cycles.  By making the original assertion about audience, however, these characteristics falsely wind up at both ends of a spectrum.

To make something casual is to make it accessible.  There’s not much more to it than that.  Attention friendly, light on commitment, easy to understand, and so forth.  These are product characteristics not audience characteristics.

To make something hardcore is to make it more engaging.  More content to consume, more variety, more personal.

The question isn’t whether you’re making a casual or hardcore game but two separate questions:  does it enable casual play? does it enable hardcore play?  The answer can be yes to both.

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The Culture Of Try And User Generated Content

February 20th, 2012 — 7:25pm

Last week I posted about how the acceleration of personal sharing over the past couple decades has created a “culture of try”, where consumers are much more willing to sample new things and aren’t turned off by poor experiences despite a high signal to noise ratio.

While this is significant for indie games, it’s also very important for any kind of game that depends on user generated content.  A willingness to try and fail, repeatedly, is being baked into our culture and expanding the ranks of those willing to create content in any particular product.

There’s a great blog post by Raph Koster from several years ago in which he observes that “everyone is a creator”:

“…the question is ‘of what.’ Everyone has a sphere where they feel comfortable exerting agency — maybe it’s their work, maybe it’s raising their children, maybe it’s collecting stamps. Outside of that sphere, most people are creators only within carefully limited circumstances; most people cannot draw, but anyone can color inside lines, or trace. If the games require serious commitment and challenging creation tasks equivalent to drawing from scratch, they will have smaller audiences.

This is, of course, the argument that some in the comment threads were making against complex ecologies, cool NPC AI, and so on. The logic goes that too much complexity will overwhelm the casual user. We must not forget that casual users aren’t stupid users, they’re just not adept at, or willing to invest in, that particular system. They are likely heavily invested in creativity in some other aspect of their lives.” (1)

A lot of Raph’s article is about the barriers many games (and products in general) leave in the way of consumers who want to experience it on their own terms.  I agree with his reasoning that improving accessibility enables greater creation and consumption on the part of users, but I think this masks the underlying cultural shift going on.  People have been conditioned by the internet to accept false starts, and this is helping them tolerate less accessible products.

Some rules, perhaps, to go along with this:

  • Rapid feedback is critical.  Failing is ok, so long as they know immediately.
  • Feedback needs to be obvious.  The reason for failure should be explicit so they don’t have to waste time trying to understand why it didn’t work.
  • The build-try-fail loop must be very tight.  You can’t expect a user to spend thirty minutes building something before they can try it, only to have to spend that much time again if it fails.
  • The act of creating itself should be a fun experience, not a means to an end.  Some of that will be intrinsic to the user’s desire to create that got them to the starting line, and some will simply be via the absence of barriers, but if your product is dependent on users making stuff there is no reason not to make this part engaging as well.

There are huge benefits to getting more users across even the most shallow creation line for a product, but the most obvious one is that “creators are the most voracious consumers” (2).  To extend that further:  more creators means greater consumption per user, and greater consumption per user translates to greater revenue per user.



(1)  I’d also recommend reading Dave Edery’s post on the benefits of UGC that Raph links to at the beginning.

(2)  That’s Raph again.  He’s going to think I’m stalking him pretty soon.

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Indie Games And The Culture Of Try

February 13th, 2012 — 6:34pm

I have this theory that consumers are more willing to try unknown and experimental products because they’ve spent the last fifteen years being inundated with email links encouraging them to check out funny videos, shocking pictures, political or religious rants, or whatever.  We’ve been receiving these links for so long that they’re no longer novel or nuisance — they’re part of the very fabric of things.

Since each of these links comes with an implicit recommendation from a friend to take a look — you got it via email, after all (or Facebook and Twitter these days) – it reduces security fears and compels you to proceed.  But you really have no idea what you’re about to encounter.   I believe the sheer volume and variety has broken down resistance to trying new things and set a low bar for results.  You expect it’s probably bad, but you’re willing to try it anyway because it’s new and fresh.

That’s huge for indie games.  Let’s face it:  most of them are crap.  But in a world where folks are at least willing to take a quick look anyway, these games are given a small chance to reach their potential.  Hidden gems are no longer completely buried for lack of attention, and even if the game is bad, consumers are not being turned off to the whole notion of indie games.

Of course, the causal link could be weak and there may be some other underlying factor (e.g. the internet has reduced the friction to communicate with others substantially, and the quantity of content itself has boomed thanks to new tools and technology;  either of those may be a sufficient explanation by themselves).  But it’s worth considering that, as much as the internet has balkanized different groups around specific subjects or opinions, people seem remarkably open to trying new things.

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Friction Innovation Vs. Engagement Innovation

February 7th, 2012 — 8:06pm

I’ve been posting a lot of recently about value creation in games.  Most of my attention has been on the engagement side of this equation, but for today’s post I’d like to talk about the relationship between friction reduction and engagement.

First, friction reduction (a.k.a. accessibility) is not in an inverse relationship with engagement.  In fact, they’re highly complementary, since advances in friction reduction reduce the barrier to entry, increasing the viability of more experimental products.

Second, I’d argue there’s been an amazing amount of innovation on the friction side the past 20 years.  So much that there’s been little incentive to innovate on the engagement side.  I’m not saying engagement innovation has slowed – it has probably increased as well, just not at the same pace as advancements in friction reduction.  But when reducing friction is improving product value so dramatically, why bother taking any risks in engagement?

Looking for evidence?  I give you the last decade’s increase in cloning as exhibit A.  The friction reduction benefits are so strong that companies won’t even risk changing the numerical values in the game (see the Yeti Town clone of Triple Town).

I expect this is cyclical.  Friction reduction will eventually run out of steam in our current ecosystem and likely commoditize to the point where it’s simply not a differentiating factor, at which point more attention will shift back to engagement innovation.  But in the meantime I think the engagement piece is underserved, and there’s an opportunity there.

I do have some concern that over the long haul we, as an industry, will lose some of our expertise in engagement innovation if an entire generation of game designers grows up in a world based largely on friction innovation.  We’re not there yet, but I find it striking how many folks don’t know there difference between the two.

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The Game Engagement Landscape

February 1st, 2012 — 8:43pm

If you buy into my notion that engagement is primarily driven by two forces, content volume and personalization, then it’s worth taking a look at the game engagement landscape today:



I don’t want to quibble over the details of where each game really falls – there’s a lot of subjectivity built into this assessment, and it’s ultimately going to be different for each individual.  Here’s how I approached it:

  • Since content volume is mostly about the amount and variety of content one can consume (the possibility space), games like Heavy Rain and Half Life that appear to be content rich at first glance are actually very limited in the choices one can make.  On the other end of the spectrum, you can see how games with more distinct moving parts (including other people) absolutely explode the possibility space.
  • I took a fairly crude approach in assessing personalization.  I simply moved the games one third to the right for how strong they were in each of three domains:  persistence, playing with friends, and differentiation (such as how you can make a character match your own play preferences in an RPG).  I then knocked them back half that distance if it was necessary to spend a lot of time on mundane things in order to make any of these personalization attributes possible.  So products like Second Life and Little Big Planet, which are very strong in all three areas, have huge signal/noise problems that require the player to consume a lot of uninteresting content.

Whether or not each game is in the right spot, I do believe the overall pattern is correct.

There are three interesting holes in this chart:

  • The upper left corner is empty.  In theory it doesn’t have to be, but it’s hard to generate a lot of content without relying on user generated content or adding other players, both of which will push products more to the right.  One could speculate on a game that made heavy use of non-player emergent systems to generate a Second Life level of content variety, always played with/against anonymous opponents, and started fresh each play session.  There’s not much incentive to make such a game though, since it’s likely even more difficult to produce than the same product with more personalization.
  • Likewise, the lower right corner is empty.  A game here would have few choices but be hand authored for the individual player or group of players.  Perhaps a homemade version of a board game like Life, but never ending.  Or a perpetual slot machine that increased one of several progress bars based on the result.  The real problem with potential games here is that the unique content is exhausted so rapidly it’s not worth the time investment necessary to build them.
  • Lastly, while not a hole, things are certainly a bit sparse in the upper right, where content volume and personalization are at their peak.  The only game that really nails it is the well run paper RPG.  Electronic games have been trying to move in this direction for decades, but the technical hurdles are huge and we’re not even close to narrowing the gap.  I suspect true interactive storytelling lies in this direction as well.

Remember that this is just the engagement piece of creating value.  The popularity of some of these products is additionally dependent on their accessibility (e.g. Solitaire is highly accessible, whereas Second Life is not).  That’s not shown in this chart, although some of the factors that make games inaccessible pull them to the left.

That wraps up my series on value creation in games.  Here’s the entire list of posts on the subject:

Value Creation in Games

Engagement and Content Volume

Engagement and Personalization

The Game Engagement Landscape


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