If you work in the videogame industry, your goal should be to entertain and delight as many people as possible, and everything you do should be measured against it. The logical consequence of this is that players are the constituency you should really care about: everything you do should be aimed at making them happy, as they can make your life really difficult if they decide that they’re not being catered to properly, and reward you handsomely if they are satisfied.
Doesn’t this sound just like an impatient, fickle boss? Precisely, and that’s why, if you work in the industry, you’re not really working for your manager, your CEO or your shareholders: you are working for your players.
While by itself this is a vague concept, I’d like to use this column to offer my view of what it means in practice, and why it’s important to always keep it in mind. First of all, players as a group aren’t necessarily skilled in any of the disciplines that contribute to a great game: they don’t know how to design and balance it, they don’t know how to improve on it after it goes live, they don’t know how to market it and they don’t know how to make it fun. As such, you don’t want to “outsource” any of those decisions to them – you should be fully responsible for those decisions.
What are players good at?
But what players are really good at is having fun, and understanding pretty quickly if something is designed for them or not. But their skills don’t stop at this. It turns out that players are also pretty good at understanding when they are being pandered to, deceived, misused or otherwise treated unfairly. Overall, players are skilled economists, and very good at estimating how much value they are deriving from playing a game, and how much value they are contributing in terms of time, emotional involvement or money.
Traditionally, this equation was pretty straightforward: there was a very high barrier of entry (price) to convince a player to buy a game, a barrier which could be lowered with a mix of brand equity, marketing, press coverage and availability of demos. Once a player had taken the plunge and spent hard-earned money on a title, financial and emotional investment would have been significant enough to guarantee a certain level of effort in mastering and enjoying the game itself. If a game took its time to reveal its appeal and become a great, unforgettable experience that was perfectly fine, and even expected for some genres.
All of this was true for a long time, but we all know that we live in a different era now: an era in which players have ready access to a plethora of games on platforms with which they’re constantly interacting, and in which a lot of those games offer free access to at least part of their content. If before players expected to pay and then be entertained, now they expect to be entertained first, and then decide if it’s worth paying for it. Additionally, players’ attention spans are definitely getting shorter and capturing their attention is becoming more difficult, unless you can rely on an established brand and a large reservoir of goodwill. In any case, it has become critical to make an impact, and to convey clearly the quality and “fun factor” of your game from the very first interaction. This is particularly true on mobile devices, where the first minute of play is crucial to engage and retain players.
Making the initial game experience fun for your players therefore becomes extremely important, and it’s something that PopCap has been focusing on for many years. You could point to the classic casual gaming “try before you buy” model as being responsible for this, as players have a limited time to form a positive impression about a game and make a purchase decision, but it’s really about something else: recognising that players have a lot of choice and that, if they decide to give you a chance, they deserve a great, immediate experience from the very first minute of gameplay.
The realisation that providing the best possible experience from the very start is paramount should permeate everything you do and be immediately visible in your product, in your marketing messaging and in the overall attitude you display towards your players. If you always remember that you work for your players, it’s only logical that you will try to provide them with a great product, delivered in the way that’s most convenient to them, communicated clearly and supported properly. It’s as simple as that, and reminding yourself of it at every stage makes for a more accessible, easy to understand and ultimately fun product. And remember: if the game sucks it’s your fault, not the fault of the audience for “not getting it”, as they should not be expected and required to.
A big role in this process is played by distribution platforms such as Facebook or app stores, which should be seen as a way to reach a larger number of players, and also as the epicentres of strong and crowded competitive landscapes, where capturing players’ attention for the short and long term is harder. At the same time, those platforms also allow for the collection and analysis of gameplay data which, if used correctly, can give you an objective view of what players are doing and how they prefer to interact with the game, which in turn can be used to improve and optimise the overall experience. However, even before you get to that, the game needs to be incredibly fun and compelling and have unique appeal, or everything else becomes pointless.
Once a player decides to spend time with your game, building a long-term relationship becomes of paramount importance for a lot of different reasons, from the fact that loyal players will start telling all their friends about your game and become your best cheerleaders, to the realisation that gaining customers is pretty expensive and that, once you have succeeded, you stand to gain from keeping them around. Most importantly, cultivating your reputation is absolutely crucial to the success of your business, as is building strong brands and goodwill over time. Looking at this from the player’s perspective, what people hate more than anything else is to be deceived or to be treated unfairly, and that’s something you should absolutely strive to avoid in every aspect of your games. Not only you will sleep better at night, but you will also build a more sustainable long-term business.
So, to recap, a player-centric view requires your game to be immediately fun, to capture attention from the first minute of play, to be easy to understand (even if challenging to master) and to offer real value to players. It also requires you to focus all your efforts on satisfying a demanding boss, whose tastes are difficult to predict and about whom you know very little to start with. Sounds difficult? For sure, but who said that making great games is easy?
Giordano Bruno Contestabile is senior director of mobile product and business strategy at PopCap, having previously lead business development at PopCap’s Shanghai office. In a previous life, Giordano was a DJ, VJ and videogame journalist in his native Italy. Follow him on Twitter @giordanobc, and see and follow all his columns on his topic page.