Gamers are bored. That's according to Ubisoft’s Alain Corre, who says that gamers are tired of ‘me-too’ sequels and want new experiences. Those new experiences just won't come, says Steve Ellis, former MD of Timesplitters developer Free Radical Software, because in the FPS genre, no one wants to do anything that’s different from the CoD template as it’s just too risky.
Those claims are backed up by the figures, which suggest that gamers are growing weary of this widespread risk aversion. In the UK, sales of boxed products are down 33% year on year; many gamers, it seems, are refusing to buy titles which offer the same experiences over and over again. On the subject of innovation in games, Corre says: “You need to be unique, original and to surprise people – take a risk on your products and gamers will take a risk on you”. But do original gameplay features really have a positive impact on the player experience?
When we run playtests, we almost always use biometric sensors which are attached to the player’s body. These sensors allow us to pinpoint moments during gameplay when the player was excited, and by interviewing them afterwards, we can identify what sparked that feeling. There are several recurring results: in horror games it might be shock or tension, an obvious example admittedly, but there are surprises when other types of game are being played. Players often react to things they haven’t seen before, so it seems that unique gameplay elements – some incredibly minor – are having a significant affect on the player’s body, and therefore their experience.
Ultimately, what we see in the biometrics reflects Corre’s comments: players are indeed reacting to original gameplay features and not engaging with ‘me-too’ content. So how can designers learn to take intelligent risks, to unleash their full creative potential while ensuring that the resulting design is going to be enjoyed by gamers?
Sid Meier, one of the world’s most respected game designers, took this approach for during development of his Facebook game Civilization World. To obtain fresh ideas, he involved his target audience continually throughout development, openly inviting players to comment on it. “The more ideas and the more possibilities we consider," he said, "the stronger the game will be.” Of course, the final say is always his. Meier says that a game design is just hypothetical until it’s actually been played by your target audience; only then will you know if your idea works.
This is not traditional playtesting, though: it's directly asking for design ideas from players. Meier says he does this because incorporating feedback into design is fundamental to his design process, and involving players earlier means they come up with more ideas.
What Meier is doing, in other words, is understanding players – the importance of which I've explained before. After all, how can it be possible to create new and engaging experiences if you don't make any effort to understand what players actually find engaging?
Meier, though, is the exception that proves the rule; players are involved in playtesting, of course, but rarely in the design process. Is it not possible that it is this very lack of player involvement, of user understanding, which has led to these ‘me-too’ games in the first place?
In the absence of accurate information on how real players feel about the game experience, designers are likely to resort to their own decision-making abilities. But our ability to make good decisions is often affected by a number of cognitive biases. There’s belief bias, where we tend to rely on information which we think is believable rather than logically correct; omission bias, where risky information tends to get ignored; and confirmation bias, where developers see what they want to see. Add to this the fact that people generally seek to repeat proven successes and it’s no wonder that there is an abundance of similar games. If a game becomes a best seller once, then it would seem reasonable to believe that a similar successor might sell well also.
Fresh ideas, fresh approach
Managing risk and making decisions is a complex task with many factors. Studios would be well served in building a process that supports generating new ideas, evaluating these ideas, and deciding on which to take forward based on tangible evidence, rather than being influenced by cognitive biases and previous knowledge. It's not just the psychology of players that studios need to know more about, but also the psychology of game development.