Thursday, February 17, 2011

Featured Feature: Player Investment in Casual Games (Part 2)

Part 2: Removing Barriers to Investment

A "barrier to investment" is what prevents the consumer from starting the "escalation of investment" program designed into your game, which we will discuss in the following post. In our original example of Andreas_S/Dantus's little web-game, this took the form of the game's control scheme. What seemed sufficient to him, and didn't bother me at all, was a barrier to entry for the little girl. She invested her time and god back frustration. The mental formula became [investment = frustration], which trumped the illogical tendency of [reward - investment = investment*time].

This is why most games you play fall into very similar control schemes. In third person view my hand automatically hits A to jump on my 360. On my PC, the spacebar. WASD make me move. When I play an older PC FPS, I immediately turn on mouselook and set up my strafe buttons. These conditioned comfort zones may seem as if they stifle creativity on occasion, but their existence is merely a byproduct of the need to reduce those initial barriers of entry. The majority of the industry has agreed on some basic guidelines in order to keep the consumer happy.

Continuing in the same title, the father actually making the post pointed out that the game's first "golden feather," an optional vanity item akin to Super Meat Boy's bandages or other such pickups, is way too hard to get. It isn't that it is objectively hard to get, one merely needs to carefully traverse an unstable pile of platforms, but it is relatively hard for it's location in the game and in comparison to the other "golden feathers" on that level. It is also thrust upon the player in such a way as to make it impossible to ignore. This can potentially break up the frustration free flow of those precious first moments, and thus should be addressed.
Example: After investing >100x lives on one $#$@$ bandage, I attach entirely nonexistent value to it.
Long story short, the first moments of a game should be fun - pure and simple. They should be literally anything that will keep the player glued to the screen. The challenge, and thus risk of frustration should only be ramped up once the player has actually decided that they enjoy your game and thus want to invest the time to play it, the effort to overcome these new challenges, and the money that will allow you to provide them with such an experience.

Other major "barriers to investment" are more practical concerns, such as platform compatibility, advertising, or product availability. In an ideal world, you would release and the customer would instantly and automatically have the demo to your game sitting on the desktop of whatever media consumption device they happen to be using at the time. On the consumer's side, this wouldn't even be a bad thing, if every single title released was absolute gold. Such is, however, not the case. These things are "barriers to investment," but there's little subjective editorializing to be done on them. Try to maximize compatibility, make the thing accessible to as many people as possible, and do everything within reason to let all of them know about it. Kinda objective and obvious - if frustrating to execute.

So, you've taken the extra care to remove such "barriers to entry," the player now has your game in their hands, and is enjoying their first few moments with it. Now what? Now you have to bait the hook. For that, stay tuned to the 3rd and final part of our series on Player Investment in the Casual Games Martket, "Part 3: Escalating Player Investment."

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