February 28, 2009

Games compete against everything

Lately I've heard a lot of people discussing different pricing models for games. Whether it be frequent sales, microtransactions, free to play, or just very low prices, everybody wants to figure out the sweet spot to attract the most customers.

Let's stop for a second though, and imagine a world where every game is completely free. Better yet, let's say every company pays you 5 dollars an hour to play their game. How do you decide which games to play when money is no object?

Time isn't equal to money - it's more valuable

Gamers always talk about how many great games are out that they want to play, but won't have time to. Everybody has to make choices about how to spend their precious free time, and once life gets busy enough, even really wanting to do something isn't enough.

I used to work at EA when John Riccitiello was first hired back as CEO. One thing he said really stuck with me: games are competing with everything for people's leisure time. Your competition is other games, but it's also Facebook, getting a massage, a night out dancing, sleeping in on Saturday, trash tv, and the new Monet exhibit.

Marketeers work hard to try and convince people that their games are great, but for a busy player with only 3 hours between work and bed, there may be 20 games they think are great, but only time to play one or two. Having a good game isn't enough to get people to play it.

It's ironic that game industry people don't understand this situation better, since we're a prime example of it. For example, I'm spending the few hours between work and bed writing, instead of installing the game I intended to try.

Short play sessions should be satisfying

I have a friend who only plays casual games, but doesn't actually prefer them. I referred to him as a casual gamer one day, and was surprised when he told me he only plays those games because he doesn't have time for a game that requires more commitment.

Casual games allow busy people to have a little bit of fun and satisfaction in a very small amount of time. Whether the game has very short rounds, a limited number of actions per day, or just an infinite pause button, people who like gaming but have other priorities can enjoy these games on their own terms.

There are lots of bigger games that let people have fun in a half hour to an hour, but not many that feel satisfying for fifteen minutes or less. A very fast Counterstrike round may take 15 minutes, and it's about 15 minutes between save points in Sands of Time, or learning and winning a race in Burnout. I used to leave Spiderman 2 in my console, so I could aimlessly swing around the city whenever I had a spare moment.

There aren't many MMOs that let players feel like they can do something useful in a short period of time. EVE lets players log in and select some new skills to begin learning, and The Agency is going to let players receive text messages from in-game henchmen and assign them jobs. Some people enjoy logging into WoW to quickly check their auctions. All in all, though, games seem to be much more interested in advertising hundreds of hours of gameplay, which are more likely to discourage a busy player than to entice them.

No player likes feeling indimidated

You don't have to assume that people will only ever play your game in very small chunks, but a busy person has to think of your game and consider it a viable option for a short play session, even if they decide to stick around longer after that. People watch tv for 6 hours straight all the time, but not on purpose. They intend to sit down for a half hour, but the time just flies by.

Imagine a tv show that had episodes that were 6 hours long instead of half an hour. Even people who regularly watch 6 hours of tv wouldn't watch it, because it'd sound too intimidating. Because half hour episodes let people opt out much more easily, they ironically let their guard down and stop worrying about how much time they're spending.

Wikipedia, Youtube, and Hulu are also great examples of this effect. All of those sites have smallish chunks of content that can be consumed very quickly, and yet any time people visit one of those sites, they seem to get sucked in for much longer than they intended. Or at least I do.

I'm trying to learn this lesson a little better as well. These posts are still probably too long, but I'm trying to get away from the terrifying walls of text I started out with.


Tesh said...

Nicely stated. This is one area of design consideration that MMOs really don't pay heed to. At all.

In a bit of counterkarma, this article cemented a thought or three that I've been meaning to write about. Maybe tomorrow. Thanks!

Mike Darga said...

Ha! Excellent.