Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Featured Feature: Player Investment in Casual Games (Part 1)

 Part 1: Player Investment in the Short Term

So, earlier today while fooling around with Unity 3D, more on that later, and looking for a solution to one of my problems in my current project I stumbled upon someone else's support thread. The query is irrelevant, but regardless I tried to help by playing the demo of the game he'd been working on, Chuck the Adventure Duck. It's a fun little platformer with some unique elements, but that's not really what sparked the post. That was the initial responses to his advertisement of this demo build.

Therein another poster mentioned allowing his young daughter to try the game. She instinctively reached for the spacebar to jump and, failing this, quickly grew frustrated with the game's use of the "up arrow" for jumping.

Now, obviously the solution for such frustrations is to map redundant controls. There's really no reason not to map Jump to Up, W, and spacebar, as well as putting Left, Down, and Up on A,S, and D respectively. The thing that got me thinking, however, was how quickly such a simple and inconsequential thing turned her off of the game.

Earlier in the blog I'd made a few posts about "Player Investment Strategies" (1, 2, 3). These really focused either on the concept as a whole or its application to large AAA titles. I addressed the macro, but never really the micro.

While Player Investment is key to the long term retention of customers for more drawn out games, one may assume that it isn't an issue for "casual games." Games played on web browsers or mobile devices are, after all, not expected to be played in more than short bursts. It is, however, this temporal aspect of the player's experience which makes attention to "player investment" absolutely crucial. The player will only be exposed to the game for a few fleeting minutes and, without such care, it is entirely possible that those will be the only minutes in which they will ever experience the title.

Unlike more traditional PC or console games, most "casual" games do not require any initial investment. Most people's first exposure to Angry Birds or Words With Friends, for example, is likely not even on their own system, but over the shoulder of a friend.
I love that the iPad has basically revived "hot-seat" play. I'd like to think these kids are playing Heroes of Might and Magic III.
You may recall our previous discussions in which I mentioned that the human mind, in its fantastic imperfection, has a tendency to overvalue things in which it has invested. The very fact, then, that a AAA title has already cost the consumer ~$60 makes them more likely to feel that it is a good game. The alternative, after all, is to admit that they have made a foolish decision. Ever gone on a shopping spree and picked up a sackful of games on the cheap? Your experience with any one of those is never quite like it is when your only able to bring home only one title, is it?
There are very few games I wouldn't pay $5.00 for. Many of them are on the Wii.
It is this lack of bias the casual game creator must overcome. Their title is new. The likely lack of promotional fanfare has left the consumer devoid of preconceived notions. They have no initial investment, and thus lose nothing if they drop the title after seconds. This is exactly why those first few seconds are so important.

So how, then, do you consciously design your title to build such investment? It comes in two steps: removing the initial "barrier to investment" and providing "rapid escalation of investment."

That being said, I want to discuss two specific aspects of game design and I can already tell that this post is getting too long. So, we're going to break this up into another 3 parter. Stay tuned for "Part 2: Removing Barriers to Player Investment," and "Part 3: Escalating Player Investment" over the next couple of days.

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