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A growing (and very successful) industri in Sweden is the gaming industry. This text is the first in a series about success factors and learnings from that industry. The insights are based on a report produced by researchers from KTH.
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Making really good games
“The success of the industry … depend on the successes of individual companies, and those successes will depend on the creation of video games that consumers want to play.” (Wolf, 2015, Video Games Around the World, p5)
While it is hard to define what makes a game good, it is clear that getting through the market noise with a poor product will not be a feasible way to success. The most famous example of this is Atari’s launch of a terribly bad E.T. game in 1983, severely hurting the performance of the company and the owner Warner Communication. In the current market it is even more unrealistic to expect great sales with a poor or underdeveloped game.
But what makes a game good? What determines the quality of a game? Each game has its own unique combination of attributes that influence its fate. However, the importance of the game experience was mentioned by almost every respondent in this research.
For games, customer delight hence seems to be triggered by pleasant surprises that enhance customer experience. Dissatisfaction, on the other hand occurs, when game attributes fail to deliver on a basic expected level. The Kano model provides a framework that is very useful in the design of products aiming for high customer value. I will introduce it here to analyze and predict customer reactions to performance in different categories of video game attributes.
Even extreme performance on basic attributes will not delight customers, but they must still be tended to for the product to have a chance in the market . Basic attributes are hence hygiene requirements, like for example seat belts in a car. They will not make any product win, but if they are absent or unsatisfactory customers will be upset. A number of possible basic video game attributes were observed during the project:
- Technical functionality: There is little tolerance in the market for games that doesn’t work. Even if the game is for free, bugs or logical conflicts in games tend to irritate players. Rumors about problematic software spread quickly among users and on online forums. Repeated problems are likely to severely harm the developer’s brand.
- Motivator: There has to be a motivator in a game, stimulating the user to engage. It could be following an adventure or mystery, problem solving or different kinds of competition against the computer or other players. Many games mix motivators, for instance puzzle challenges where players compete against one another in quiz games such as Quizboard or Cross Boss.
- Challenge: If games are too easy, they become boring. On the other hand players tend to be rather impatient, so games need to be interesting quickly. The worn-out cliché that games should be easy to learn but difficult to master still holds true.
These basic attributes are valid for all platforms.
The next level of attributes is about performance. These are things customers are highly aware about and will use to compare products. If asked about preference they will most likely refer to the performance attributes, so it is easy for developers to obtain information about expectations on them. It is important to note that there is substantial variation between the platforms about the level of performance that players are willing to accept. For instance, for a premium AAA console game graphics may be expected to be in 3D, highly elaborate and polished, while on the mobile platform the 3D element in itself may still be appreciated in itself. Examples of performance attribute include:
- Price: The willingness to pay is very low on when it comes to mobile games. The willingness to pay for premium console games is staying on a rather high level. For PC games, online distribution channels like GamersGate and Steam has inflated the supply of games leading to lower prices. On the other hand, it allows developers to bypass distributes which may make it easier to launch small indie games.
- Audiovisual aesthetics: Since games are experienced mainly through video and audio information, their quality can have a large impact on customer satisfaction. Generally players prefer technically good graphics and expect it to be free from bugs. It is important that the audiovisuals fit the game experience and support it, like in Gatling Goat Studios adventure game Traverser, rather than obscure it. The color scheme and graphic style needs to be appropriate to support the gameplay experience. Science fiction games require very different, often more sterile, representation of the game world than a dark mystery game. Artistic and beautifully represented worlds are highly appreciated and help draw attention to the game.
- Story and/or narrative: The early video games were very simple consisting mostly of a number of moving graphic objects, with one being controlled by the player. At some point games started to encompass story, to a larger degree. One of the first story based games was Legend of Zelda, released in Japan in 1986 with the classic plot of a hero on a quest to save a princess. Stories help maintain the motivator and let it evolve during the game, sometimes in unexpected directions like reversing who is actually good and bad towards the final showdown. Some modern games have a very high reliance on story and narrative. A Story About My Uncle, by indie developer Gone North Games, is a good example. But while achieving engagement and game experience, the reliance on a story line also has problems. Developer usually has to trade-off between the connection to a story line and player freedom in the game world and. In a story, things may need to come in a certain order and there might be problems if a player skips side quests or dialogues.
- Gameplay: When discussing quality developers and critics often refer to gameplay, a concept that appears broad and hard-to-define. One aspect of gameplay is the game design. This refers to the specification of systems for set-up, game mechanics, level architecture, design of objects and interactions etc. These form governing structures that frame game goals and objectives and the means available for players to reach them. Game design also includes specifying the user interface and controls, as well as the “physical” and visual effects connected to player actions. Cause and effect is central to gameplay and players get frustrated when it is lacking. But gameplay is broader than design; it only occurs when a player actually engages in the systems of game world. Optimally the interaction of user and game is flawless and smooth. Moreover, to maintain an engaging balance between anxiety and boredom the level of challenge needs to increase in pace with players’ skill development. Experience shows that gameplay is more important than audiovisuals, as proven for instance by the enormously popular but crude-looking sandbox game Minecraft.
In order to delight customers, the experience needs to exceed expectations. Unfortunately expectations increase over time, as previous delights become expected features in the next generation of products. In an area with much innovation and fast technical progress, such as video games, any static definition of quality is bound to become obsolete verythird attribute category in the Kano model, excitement, occurs by surprising a customer by exceeding his or her expectations thus triggering delight and appreciation (Serder & Alhazza, 2014). Attribute categories include:
- Emotional connection: Under sufficient synergy between the motivator, game design, challenge levels, audiovisual aesthetics, and a compelling story or adventure, players may form an emotional bond to the game. Video games allow for many levers to stimulate emotional response.
- Nintendo found out that players liked playing a character rather than just steering a gun or a spaceship. So Mario, originally a part of Donkey Kong, was given his own platform game and a some personality. Since then, many games have been centered on player controlled and enemy characters, making the user feel more for the game by caring what happens to the personalities in it.
- Examples of other levers are thrill and sympathy, which are often used in combination. This is the case in in the forthcoming title Hunger by Tarsier Studios. The plot of Hunger is to help a little girl named Six escape a labyrinth full of monsters. Artistic and original audiovisuals enhance the impression of vulnerability and the threatening world is consistently portrayed from small person’s point of view.
- Humor can be a powerful driver of game experience as well. It appears to become more commonly incorporated in games. Maybe it was not seen as very serious in the past, possibly because it was sometimes used to compensate for a mediocre production or story line.
- Engagement and immersion may also be stimulated by social functions in the game. These enable sharing of performance (e.g. finishing Candy Crash Sagalevels, or the trophies linked to accomplishments in PlayStation games) or creations (e.g. Stardoll). Sometimes it is more a question of hanging out and solving quests together, like in Star Stable Online. Games with social elements tend to have a high use frequency, meaning that players enter the game relatively often.
- Some players are also very engaged when there are allowed to be creative. Games that tend to have among the longest session times exploit this lever. For instance, in “sandbox” games users can play around and combine world elements to make their own creations with little limitations. An advantage with such open world games, and to some extent strategy games, is that they have a long lifespan. Story-based games, in contrast, tend to be played through only once.
It is possible to combine the levers of emotional response. Minecraft, for example, is a sandbox game that also includes social online interaction in massive online multiplay.
- Uniqueness: As specific attributes that trigger delight gets incorporated in customer expectation, they are moved into the performance and basic categories over time. In line with this pattern gamers love when developers come up with something new, and they love telling their peers about it. Conversely it is hard to get a word-of-mouth “buzz” around a game that isn’t innovative in some way. All the previously mentioned attributes can be utilized for uniqueness, but they need to be new or combined in a new way. A very illustrative example is Coffe Stain Stuido’s hyped game Goat Simulator. It is hysterically fun in its insaneness and creativity, packed with completely bizarre and unexpected goat-to-world interactions. It is, from traditional industry criteria’s point of view, an awful game. The plot is, in lack of a better word, rather stupid and the animations crude with graphic bugs. But CEO Anton Westberg reveals that to some extent they kept the buggy graphics because it looked so funny. Lots of humor, craziness and anti-polished animations were key to Goat Simulator’s successful differentiation.
In conclusion, there are a number of areas to work in for developers who want make a game good. Some of them can be renewed by technical development and all can be contribute to uniqueness by being employed in new combinations. The examples, like Minecraft and Goat Simulator, proves that uniqueness, emotional appeal and game play are the most important attributes. Extraordinary games benefit from good audiovisuals but do not rely in it, and the value of game play and emotional affinity is so high that they can compensate for technical shortcomings under the right circumstances.
Seder, A. & Alhazza, M. (2014). Review of the Theory of Attractive Quality Kano Model. Journal of Advanced Science and Engineering Research, 4, 2, 88-102.
Wolf, M. (2015). Video Games Around the World, MIT Press.
This text was originally publicized playinginthegameindustry.com