The bulk of games exist at the amusement level in the engagement hierarchy. They may be great fun, but they have difficulty standing out and being remembered unless they are founderworks or a part of a platform story. Connections are games that speak to players on a more substantive level, and the resulting bond makes the game memorable. Connections are not necessarily life-changing or deep and meaningful, but the player will stop and listen to what they have to say.
Like any kind of engagement design, designing for connection is complicated. There are many things that are best practise in creating distractions or amusements which you absolutely should not do in designing for connection. And vice versa. Connections are trying to reach out to players, acquiring not just their momentary attention but something that is more lasting, which means they have to treat the player differently.
What’s The News?
Connection starts with a marketing story that becomes news.
That story might be seeded in a number of venues, but most commonly it comes through influential bloggers and tweeters (influencers) that either stumble across the game or are introduced to it. They talk about it to their fans, even if just in passing, and so interest sparks. It sparks because the influencer is a leader among his fans, and there is leverage to be found in that social recommendation. Then the flames of the spark are fanned. They are retweeted, posted in forums and discussed. And so the story starts to spread.
This all sounds a little like the PR organs of old seeding previews in magazines, and it is. But there are three key differences:
- An influencer is only as strong as his reputation. So they have to be authentic, which in turns means that the marketing story for a game needs to be authentic, or else they won’t bite.
- An influencer is an individual voice. There are many of them springing up all the time, and so the landscape is not at all predictable. This makes establishing a PR process difficult amid relative anarchy.
- Seeds do not last. The old magazine days would seed a story for a whole month. These days, seeds last for hours, or maybe a couple of days at most unless the influencer really falls head over heels in love with your game.
The character of the story matters a great deal because different markets are not interested in the same things. Conventionally the games industry likes to talk in terms of hardcore and casual (and lately social) gamers as though they are uniform blocks. However in reality the market is a series of sometimes only tangentially connected sub-groups (I call them newcores) who have many tastes. PC gamers’ love of Minecraft, for example, means nothing to the players of Gran Turismo 5, and GT5 means nothing to players of Full Tilt Poker.
So to establish a connection means understanding who the market are and then aligning your game toward them in a way that is authentic and pushes the envelope in some way.
The First Five Minute Trap
One of the most common mistakes that producers make is to obsess about the first-five-minute factor. It is a common belief in the industry that players are so fickle that if they are not immediately having fun as soon as they load up a game, they will walk away. This leads to ideas of getting the player straight into the action with immediate challenges, explosions and cinematic cut scenes. The game seeks to hypnotise the player immediately and root them to the spot.
The urge to focus on the first five minutes is usually driven by two things:
- A need to impress the boss, who won’t play the game
- An over-familiarity with games because as a professional you’ve already played thousands of games.
So it’s hard to justify a learning phase in a game both for external and internal reasons. However what actually happens if you go down this path is that you end up turning your game into an amusement.
The perceived need for immediacy reduces the game down to something that can be conveyed quickly, and that means that you end up taking the approach of one simple and natural dynamic. The irony is that because many games do this, each then tries to impress with flashy trailers and explosions to generate more hypnosis.
It almost never works, and after a while all those would-be hypnosis-inducing games start to look the same. In the process the game design has been completely gutted, and the shell of what remains is no longer fun as a connection, and usually not a well-designed amusement either. This is why many big budget videogames end up being so unremarkable to actually play.
Where distractions need immediacy and amusements need one simple and natural dynamic, connections form more readily if they have something to teach the player. By teaching him how to play the game, the connection is also teaching him the world, and a soft emotional bond forms.
In order for a game to connect with a player, it needs to get him used to the idea of being in the world and playing with the newfound toys at his disposal. Many successful connections do this by starting the player off in an unchallenging location with basic tasks, and then extending his actions out the point that they are natural. Only then does the business of playing really get underway.
Ico starts with some very simple and unexciting puzzles before moving onto the more challenging stuff. Shadow of the Colossus makes the player ride a horse and navigate a map for nearly ten minutes before anything really exciting starts to happen. Halo teaches the player to walk and aim his crosshairs, and the first mission involves simply walking to the bridge of the Pillar of Autumn (past a frenetic scene) before he get his hands anywhere near a gun. Fallout 3 goes through the player’s childhood to teach him walking, talking, fighting, using menus and shooting for 20-30 minutes.
What all these (and many other) connecting games have in common is the idea of training wheels. Like learning to ride a bicycle, a game trying to build a connection should take a bit of time to get the player used to how they play, what they do, and why that is new and interesting.
At the same time, a video game is not a board game. The constraint of naturalism still applies. If the player has to absorb a lecture on how to play, then you are committing a cardinal sin. One of the big differences between video games and board games is that the player’s perspective and his actions are lensed through the controller and screen. There is less available information, a narrowed perspective, and actions are often instinctive and in real time. So they need to be much more directly understandable than a board game’s formal rules.
Likewise, a video game is not a film. Extended cut-scenes intended to get a player in the mood are commonly a turn-off because the player has his joypad in hand and is ready to learn. Mood-setting and general imparting of the idea of a game are not bad things, and introductory cut-scenes can be great for doing this, but only to a point. As a rule of thumb, no more than five minutes should be allowed, and often considerably less.
Games that confuse storytelling for worldmaking tend to use long-winded introductions for narratives in a ham-fisted way, trying to connect to the player and make him care. You can’t make players care. It’s something that they do by themselves. Your job is to set the scene, give them their training wheels and start showing them how to play.
Finally, it is a mistake to make the training wheels section difficult to complete. Driver famously opened with the player in a garage having to prove his skills before being allowed into the main game world. The game set a series of specific manoeuvres that the player had to complete, but the problem was that several of them were actually rock hard for a beginning player to get to grips with. Many players never got out of that garage. Don’t make that mistake.
An important part of connection is that you need to own the player’s attention. Think of connection as the difference between listening to a band in a club versus walking around Oxford Street with your iPod. One has more of your attention than the other simply because the sources of distraction are reduced. Therefore you are more open to connection. Console and PC games are currently much better at owning attention than social or web-based casual games for one incredibly simple reason: They operate in full screen mode.
It may sound silly, even ridiculous, but owning the whole screen is important. It is not always essential but opportunities for the player to become visually or auditorily (is that a word?) distracted considerably reduce the chances of them having the attention span to connect to a game.
One of the reasons why Facebook games use timers, reminders and requests so often is that they naturally exist in a distractible environment (Facebook). It’s a constant battle to remind players to return, and even when they do the games are only 760 pixels wide, surrounded by advertising, and notifiers. Messages, responses to comments and chats constantly vie for attention with a Facebook game and so it is much harder to make a connection.
Many casual gaming portals have the same problem, and they worsen it by including lots of rich-media advertising around or in their games. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, does not have that issue. World of Goo does not have that issue either. They are full screen.
Animal Crossing on the DS might have that problem, and Angry Birds also. Mobile games have to fight for attention because the player is often stealing a quick game between bus stops rather than sat in the relative quiet to play. iPads, on the other hand, are likely to be more like PCs than mobiles in their ability to grab attention, simply because they are bigger.
Owning the whole screen is not a guarantee of connection. Plenty of games that operate in full screen environments are still amusements, but for other reasons.
Connections need depth. The player realises that there is more to the experience, more that will surprise him, and that the entire game isn’t immediately a category product which they can predict from end to end. Whole genres of games, like arcade beat ‘em ups and racers, have huge difficulty in forming connections these days because their presentation is so formulaic that the player is rarely surprised.
There are several kinds of depth:
Dynamic depth comes from extension, exploration opportunities, the capacity to develop strategy and a recognisable path to maximum mastery.
Especially good is if the game dynamic is unique to the game. Unique in this context does not have to mean unique actions or loops, but something softer. Some more reductionist people (tetrists especially) are inclined to point out that Halo and Quake are very similar, for example, and are essentially the same game.
This is not true. While the games have similar functions and features, the dynamics of the two are distinctive, and the way that they develop is likewise. That capacity to feel the difference and then extend upon it breeds a feeling of depth unique to each game.
Language is often completely ignored by developers, but it is often the aspect of the game that establishes a long term empathy with the player. Language features in such areas as the game interface, character dialogue, game terminology and some game items.
It conveys character, not just of individual personas in the world, but of the world itself. Language establishes for the player that the game has a voice, and that voice indicates to them, on a subtle level, that it has its own identity.
Attention to language signifies the presence of a creative mind behind the game, and that the game is not just a factory product. Whether that voice lasts or not, and to what extent, is a significant aspect of whether the game actually achieves meaning or culture (the top two levels of the engagement hierarchy).
Visual richness and style are also significant ways that a game can achieve connection. Visual style often acts as a cultural cue that serves as the point of introduction for the market for which the game is intended. A Tim Schafer game has a certain visual (and linguistic) flare, and Geometry Wars has a distinctive style that speaks to a certain market. Even something as apparently simple as Super PSTW can have a visual style that transcends its humble origins.
4. Game Modes
Alternative game modes are a popular way to increase or sustain interest in a game and help them connect. Game modes are a mixed bag though. When built well, alternative game modes can really help a game connect. when built badly, they have the opposite effect.
Multiplayer modes are a great example of this. In games like Call of Duty or Left 4 Dead there are many variations of the multiplayer mode that extend the game through objects, environment and pressure. These extensions keep the experience special and above the usual humdrum. Not all game designs are as easily remixed, but there’s often some way in the game to toy with different modes and see how they might get players connecting.
However avoid including crappy modes that don’t work very well. One of the quickest ways to get players to disconnect from your game is to ship buggy or half-assed game modes. They feel cheap, and in turn the player will feel cheapened by them. Either do the job properly or not at all.
Not all games become connections for the same reason. In a piece that I’ll be writing soon about The Play Brain I’ll be discussing this in greater depth, but suffice it to say there are three very general paths through which connections form.
1. Student Connections
A student connection appeals to the player on its rational qualities, most commonly the central game dynamic. The setting or artistry of the game are less interesting, but there is something in how the game is played that proves fascinating. The student connection is not just intellectual interest, it also covers tests of skill, creativity and other forms of aptitude. The world of the game is probably quite functional, like a sport, a game of Poker, the Sims or many casual games, but the challenge seems compelling.
2. Artist Connections
An artist connection appeals to the player on its irrational qualities. The art style, voice, language, cultural associations, sense of legitimacy or authenticity of the game make it stand apart from everything else. The artistic connection is interested in being immersed in the game. The world of the game promises to enchant, whether that means it is full to the brim with content (like an RPG) or just attractive for the sound and style (like Rez).
3. Social Connections
A social connection appeals to the player on its communicative qualities. The game is a conduit for a social activity, whether the game is actually played or simply watched. Popular sports fit in this mode, as to play or watch them counts as a form of participation. Social connection is most commonly found in party games or online games, whether to bring your family together at Christmas, or to go WoW raiding with your old friends who now live in cities all around the world.
Connections can support a wide variety of business models but one of the important aspects of them is keeping money out of the conversation. Asking for money has the side effect of making customers aware of the fact that there is a transaction involved in playing a game, which unavoidably brings them back to the present and away from the fantasy. And that creates a negative sensation.
Remember, connections are only really a foot in the door in terms of building a relationship with players. They don’t really have the legitimacy that a meaningful or cultural game has because they haven’t really earned it. A connection is the equivalent of an musician just starting out playing gigs in pubs and clubs. They charge an entrance fee and maybe sell some merchandise, but the entrance fee feels like a donation and the merchandise is not a requirement.
The most important thing for connection is to keep the negative associations to do with money to a minimum. Unless the game is completely free, you cannot totally avoid that sensation, but you can minimise it.
For retail that’s easy enough. You sell a copy of the game once, so you’re only asking for money once. But you must be careful to ensure that the downloadable content strategy for the game doesn’t then place arbitrary blocks in the road (as Oblivion did by charging for horse armour) because that’s a negative. Your players will happily pay for DLC, but only if they feel that the initial play experience justified it.
For subscription, the hurdle is that payment happens every month. Subscription to a game service is a serious choice that the player must think about. Introducing different bands of subscription doesn’t really help because it inadvertently makes the game’s marketing story all to do with features, and players don’t buy entertainment for features. Subscription propositions need to work hard to acquire customers, meaning free trial periods, over-delivery of game content, or an association with an existing game that will bring a strong emotional connection. Even then, subscription most commonly does not work.
For virtual goods, the secret is that the player never feels that they have to buy the virtual good in order to proceed. Virtual goods in most games amount to the purchase of a special currency that lets the player take a shortcut. Positive implementations of virtual goods sit in the background of the game, so the player is aware of them but at the same time not bothered. This makes it a choice on their part whether they want to buy or not.
Negative virtual goods, on the other hand, interrupt the player, sometimes frequently, and ask them to buy buy buy. They insist that the player makes a purchase, or the game creates tasks that involve difficult choices for the player to proceed. Negative goods are like a busker in the street who stops between songs until the crowd puts another $5 in his hat, and then he plays the next song. He might be very good, but the crowd are all too aware that he’s just in it for the money. No connection is possible in those circumstances.
Without the right tone to the financial question, it’s very likely that the player will regard your game as an amusement. There is nothing wrong with that, but you might have spent a lot of time and money trying to build a connection to your players, only for the money question to scupper everything.