Part 1: The what and why of Player Investment Rewards
As the blog goes on, I’ll be establishing various ongoing features. Individual game analysis, developer profiles, etc. in some regular format. We’ll begin with a “Featured Feature,” in each entry of which I will analyze a particular game mechanic, its history, place in the industry, how it works, why it works, what’s wrong with it, how it can be better utilized, etc.
Over the next few days, we’ll be focusing in Player Investment.
Lately players may have noticed a trend towards greater degrees of character customization in their online games. Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, they’re all doing it. In the past it was the standard that all players began games as complete equals, with an even and thus fair footing. Now the emphasis has been placed, instead, on individuality and deep character customization. So deep has this gotten in some games that is borders on being considered an RPG element.
What players might not have discerned, however, is the cause of this trend. While it is easy enough to simply wright it off as stolen ideas, arguing that developers are simply trying to duplicate the success generated by either Halo’s visual customization or Modern Warfare’s tactical customization, this is an oversimplification. In truth, such features are a very wise business decision.
You see, these character customization options almost always have another common feature. Rarely are all of these options available to every player immediately. They are generally unclockables, options requiring the completion of some predetermined qualification before access to them may be granted. This effectively makes these customization options merely a small part of the industry’s larger trend towards rewarding player investment.
Player investment reward systems provide players with benefits in direct proportion to the time and effort they spend with the game. The simplest form of these can be seen in the MMMORPG genre, in which players gain quantified levels of power as they put more time into the game. The term “experience points” was originally intended to reflect an abstract measurement of a character’s life experience and earned knowledge. In this market, however, it could as easily be seen as an absolute measurement of the amount of investment a player has put into a particular title. It is no mistake, then, that even more complex player investment reward systems, such as those seen in Halo 3 and Modern Warfare, still retain the term “levels” and “xp.” They firmly establish a system of progression in terms which gamers know.
This sense of progress lies at the heart of any player investment system. Rewards be they new character model options, abilities, or even simple numerical values are not handed out in bulk. They are evenly distributed over a long trail, always giving the player one more reward to work for. This creates a “carrot on a stick” scenario, compelling the player to continue playing. Progress requires commitment.
Such strategies simply make good business sense. The MMO genre, again, provides the simplest form of this. Due to subscription fees, the longer a player plays, the more money the developer will earn from them. In non-subscription based genres, however, developers still reap great benefits from invested players.
Online games, for example, are particularly dependent player investment. on the existence of an online community to function. Many games with some simple, tacked on multiplayer component soon have this feature rendered essentially non-existent by the fact that there are simply not enough players available to reliably establish game lobbies. By encouraging player investment, however, a developer encourages players to return time and again to the same matchmaking system, populating their multiplayer lobbies.
Beyond simply providing functionality, however, a well executed player investment system has been shown to increase the overall sustained population of online communities. This is desirable as more people playing more regularly is good for the bottom line. It provides a title with a good reputation and a greater likelihood that any given consumer will purchase the title. “Surely thousands of gamers can’t be wrong,” thinks the consumer. Every time your game is ranked on the top X most played online games on console Y during time period Z, that’s free advertisement. Most importantly, every player committed to your title is another mouth to spread the word. If they play your game for a week, you get word of mouth for a week. If they play it for a year, they’ll sell everyone they know on it.
On the marketing side, player investment can help provide a title with market control. It can help you not only be successful, but WIN. It's not secret that Modern Warfare and World of Warcraft are huge right now, enormous market titans with incredible player bases. What you might hear less about, however, is that they've done so well they've hurt other company's bottom lines. Many people are playing these games with such devotion that they simply do not have much time for other games. It is, for more time than is conventional, enough game for them. While this doesn't particularly help a non-subscription based game, it's a tremendous benefit for a series. A large portion Modern Warfare 2's success can be attributed to the fact that there was a large audience of Modern Warfare 1 players who had never stopped regularly playing the previous game, and the same will be true for Black Ops (though I'm skeptical of the series' continued dominance post-Infinity Ward debacle). The series did not leave its competitors any room to scoop up members of its player base, giving the sequel very little competition. It's not the nicest marketing strategy, but it moves units - short term and long.
Player investment works on even the most basic level. These systems actually make games seem more valuable to players. Biologically, human beings are predisposed to an "escalation of commitment," meaning that the more resources you spend on something, the more valuable you think it is. If you've spent several years in your house, for example, thousands of dollars on bills and upkeep and it catches on fire - you will likely be stuck in a conundrum. Even though it may be cheaper to move, buy a new house in a different location with the same features as your old house, your brain may compel you to spend more money on repairing your old house anyway. The $59.99 initial price tag, the hours of invested time, and any associated fees or accessories all build up to make the player value their investment more and more each day.
Don't be confused or frightened though. While all of these issues are from a developers perspective, they are by no means bad for players. The escalation of commitment, for example, contributes to a player's enjoyment of the game. The more they play, the more they like what they're playing. Player investment rewards can really drive a gameplay experience, keeping a game fresh long after it's no longer new.
That being said, however, no current implemented player investment strategies are perfect. Over the next few days I'll be going over some key problems with the most prominent such strategies, and ways in which they could be improved for the benefit of both developers and gamers.
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