The average singleplayer campaign might only last ten hours, but players engage with high-profile games for much longer – more like 10 months. So says Google, which recently published a whitepaper showing the results of how millions of gamers searched for the top 20 titles of 2011.
Although not particularly surprising, what’s interesting about the results is that they reveal what’s most important to potential buyers over the course of the entire lifecycle of a game. From announcement through to release and beyond, Google’s data shows the top five searches gamers are making during these three distinct phases. For developers, these results form an essential checklist of what they should be focusing on to turn a gamer’s initial interest into a deeper form of engagement.
For the modern gamer, this research phase is actually becoming more important and can extend over six months as games are being announced at earlier stages of development than ever. According to the findings, the average gamer compares at least two games before making a purchase; for every game a developer releases, they’ll always have competition, and not necessarily in the same genre. For potential buyers, more games available means more research – they want to feel confident that they’re making the best choice. So what do Google’s findings reveal about how players are making these buying decisions?
The top five search results – for release date, trailer, image, review and demo – clearly show that gamers want tangible assets to inform their decision. Interestingly, although all of these top results are under the control of the developer and publisher, the actual name of the studio or publisher is not in the top searches. Just like in the movie industry, it’s possible that most gamers don’t actually know who makes or publishes the game, but if studios are trying to engage with gamers over longer periods, shouldn’t they be trying to create fans? Fans are loyal – and word of mouth can be a powerful marketing aid – but Google’s results show that the people that actually make the game aren’t considered a priority by gamers.
If the first phase has taught us anything, then, it’s that it’s not about who makes the game, but the quality of the game that matters – according to gamers’ search behaviour, anyway. This is further evidenced during the launch month, when ‘review’ moves from fourth in the search ranking to second. All of the hard effort developers have put in is now assessed and summarised by both professional and hobbyist reviews. Has the game met expectations?
The other top results during launch month are mostly related to gamers who have bought the game and are looking to deepen or extend the experience. Searches for wallpaper, DLC and, above all, tips, are signs that players have connected with a game.
This final phase of a game’s search life is mainly about existing buyers extending their engagement, with the top three searches occupied by tips, DLC and images (wallpaper). However, after two or three months the inevitable price drop will cause a new audience to wonder if the game is worth buying, pushing reviews and videos back up the rankings – to fourth and fifth respectively.
Google’s results aren’t especially surprising, but they certainly provide behavioural data, collated from the search activity of millions of gamers, which supports our instincts. For developers, the top five searches in each phase provide a clear checklist of what gamers are looking for, but what they don’t reveal is how valuable the results are. Do the demos, trailers, and so on successfully convince gamers to purchase the game? It’s not a question search activity can answer.
Developers, meanwhile, can vastly increase the likelihood of these assets resonating with gamers by conducting user research during the long pre-launch phase. Games can be playtested, art and trailers can be assessed by focus groups, and knowledge obtained well in advance to know if the materials are engaging. Why leave it to chance?
Search behaviour shows, then, that gamers are engaging with leading titles far beyond the duration of the game itself. They have needs that must be met, and expectations that need to be managed before, during and after a game’s release – and for long afterwards. Most of the leading titles in this survey are sequels, so another title will always be on the way before long. It’s not just the game that needs managing during development, in other words: gamers do, too.