Last time I really played video games was as a teenager: games on Apple II (Loadrunner comes to mind), and early versions of IBM PCs (CGA, then VGA...) with games such as Moctezuma's revenge, digger, Asteroid, Zork...
In the past 25 years, I've occasionally played some Tetris, Deminer, Solitaire, Poker, Sudoku, but nothing serious. I did try the Wii a few years ago, but must have played less than 10 times.
Earlier this year, I thought it was time to start looking into this segment of the digital economy I had no clue about, the video game market estimated at about $80 billion, more or less the size of the movie industry. (see this Ibis Capital presentation, slide 7).
My first move was to decide which platform to go for :
- computer (Mac has no real games, PC: I have an old machine, linux) ?
- mobile device (phone, smartphone, tablet)
- console (Wii, XBox, PS3) ?
I'll maybe write a post about that first decision, because it's absolutely not obvious for a non-gamer. I eventually got a PS3 after asking a few friends and checking a few titles, exclusive to the PS3 (such as Heavy Rain).
In the past 6 months, I've played (or tried to ;) a number of games, including :
- bought: Unchartered, Unchartered 2, Assassin's Creed, Assassin's Creed 2, Prince Of Persia (sands), Modern Warfare 2 Call of Duty 4, A crack in Time, Little Big Planet 2, Red Dead Redemption, Heavy Rain, GTA IV, etc.
- demos : Skate 3, Dante's Inferno, etc.
My main interest after spending a few hundred hours playing all these games is actually not the game, but the game mechanics used in these games, and try to understand :
- what makes a game sticky, making people spend so much time on them
- how these mechanics can be applied to other environments.
Of all the games so far, I've enjoyed most Assassin's Creed 2, and Red Dead Redemption and they seem to share the same mechanics. Below I'll discuss a top-level hierarchy, and some elements that make these games stand out (that's for another post).
1) in all games, there's a simple task to achieve. With that you either finish the task, or get rewards such as points, get experience points, or unlock new features. This is where most casual games fall into.
2) more complicated games use a more complex reward system (character improvement) : the more points you get, or money, or enemies killes, etc. the more your character gets experience points : you can then get a better weapon, better armour, more speed, more wealth, etc. It is not necessary to have a story line just to max out all potential rewards in the game.
3) In terms of contineous interest, it seems there's a continuum of techniques to make the player stick to a game : Firstly of course, there's a story line. It has to be powerful enough to last many hours. After playing all these games, it feels like an interactive movie, as most of the games have long narratives (video segments of several minutes), giving control back to the player for fight or investigation scenes. Sometimes I also got the impression of watching a comic book with video segments. Most titles take their names, theme and universe from the story line. Which along with the game type (shoot 'em up, first person shooter, sport simulator, etc.), this is one of the main reasons making you buy a game ...
Once you've completed the game's story line, it would be a shame to stop the interaction with the player, not re-use the world and universe built, nor add extra features. Most games have added indeed mechanics beyond the storyline that make the game last longer
4) side quests. In Red Dead Redemption (RDR) for example, there are 18 stranger missions to complete, that are not necessary to complete the game;in Assassin's Creed 2 (AC2) there are for example Runs around town, Codex quests, feather quests, paintings, weapons...
5) mini-games : in RDR, there's the possibility to play casino games (poker, dice games, backjack...).
6) in-game awards : in RDR, there are a number of awards you can start collecting involving side-quests: outfits, challenges...This is exactly what Foursquare is doing with the badges mechanisms.
7) game publisher awards related to the game: in RDR, you can sign up for the Rockstar Games Social Club where you are presented with new challenges, usually associated with a leaderboard, where your performance (timing, etc.) is compared to all users. This makes it the first mechanism to really enhance the game with social features : a mission (a segment of the game) you've already completed now has to be replayed with performance in mind. These Awards usually unlock new features in the game. In AC2, after a number of Uplay points, you get an exclusive access to a maze beneath the Assassin's house.
8) game publisher awards : in addition to the mechanics in 5), the game publisher can create cross-game awards. Rockstar games is going that way, Ubisoft as well with Uplay. For example, you can unlock an Ezio di Firenze (AC2) attire to play for your character in Prince of Persia (same publisher for both games). But most publishers are currently just allowing players to add points from different games to their accounts and spend it on any game.
9) console awards: these are more commonly known as Achievements (Xbox) or Trophies (PS3). When I got my console, I had no clue what these were, nor why they would pop up. I actually had to google the words to figure it out. And google online guides for how to get them some of the time (but that's for another post). I've found getting trophies is a very addictive mechanism, asking the player to do a number of things including storyline (1), side quests (2), mini-games (3), in-game awards (4), game-related awards (5) such as performance. I haven't seen the Xbox implementation, but it's pretty well implemented on the PS3 : you can compare trophies with ohter players, trophies between games; there's a mechanism to add up all trophies and put the player on a global leaderboard, putting the player on a quest for even more trophies to reach the next "player" level on the console platform.
10) add-ons: AC2 sells 2 add-ons as chapter 12 and 13 of the 14 chapter story. They are not indispensable for the storyline, hence fell into (2); they allow to make the experience longer; in RDR, you can buy additional packs such as the Liars and Cheat pack, or the Zombie pack to use the same environment with new features, quests, etc. Not only does the player extend his time playing the game, but pays additional money (up-selling).
11) multiplayer mode : this is the 3rd and extremely powerful way to enhance the gaming experience. You basically either start the game all over (doubling the playing time) in multi-player mode (although limited usually to about a dozen players), or go into mini-games (free for all, team 1 vs team 2, 2 player mode...). This makes the game much more interesting, because you are testing yourself against real people.
12) real-life mode : this is an extension of the game's universe into real-life, with events such as fan encounters, exhibitions, etc. The excellent marketing used by game publishers (podcasts, mini-sites, ads, billboards, figurines, magazines, contests, etc.) owuld fall into this category. I might explore this in another post.
13) sequels : one a character finds its universe, it can be reused for sequels, becoming a franchise. Mario for example is a well known character franchise. Castlevania seems to have the world record though.
My final comment is that a game costs between 15 euros (used) to 60 euros (new), sometimes more for a special edition. In terms of entertainment value, it lasts much longer (between 50 to 100 hours) that a hardcover book (several hours, ~20 euros), a movie theater screening (2 hours, ~10 euros). Hence it makes sense to enhance the intrinsic value of a game to justify the higher cost of it, versus of other forms of entertainment.
Game mechanics are being explored by a number of sectors (foursquare et al., magazines, social shopping...), but unless we understand the whole range of game mechanics in play, these implementations might just not work. I'll come back in a future post on other aspects developed by modern console games.