The Industry’s Toughest Competition

The Industry’s Toughest Competition

It’s an easy mistake to make, assuming that the biggest outlay that we as game developers and publishers are asking fans to make is a financial one when they commit to buying one of our titles. However, the truth is that the real investment that we as game makers are asking our audience to make when taking the plunge is not monetary in nature, but actually one of their precious off-hours. In other words, as game creators, we’re increasingly competing more for a share of players’ free time than a share of their wallet. Gamers have aged, and their lives have changed. Free time is limited, attention spans are shorter and the tolerance for anything less than a polished entertainment experience is small. Successful game makers going forward will embrace these changes and watch out for the pitfalls.

Consider that gamers today are older than ever before. Many of us who started playing games in our teens in the ‘80s or ‘90s are still playing actively. The kind of fun and emotional impact that interactive games can provide is unmatched by passive entertainment experiences. Consoles are also drawing in parents as much as they are kids in the family living room. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s latest survey, the average age of gamers is 35. Broadly speaking, most 30 year-old individuals should enjoy more disposable income than they did in high school, but unfortunately significantly less free time. Obligations due to family and work mean that these are busy people with limited time to kill.

As our audience’s lifestyle shifts, the way we game developers cater to them also needs to change. Playing games competes for eyeball time against surfing the Internet, YouTube viewing sessions and passive entertainment such as TV and films. Our audience has a wide choice of “low effort” entertainment options to choose from and increasingly less time to enjoy it. The barrier to entry for games should also be as low – and offer equal or better forms of entertainment and engagement.

Mind you, accessible games need not equate to smaller games. True – sometimes people get carried away with the whole social media boom. Terms such as “convergence,” “revolutionary” and “paradigm shift” get thrown around. These days there has even been some talk about how Facebook games, iPhone games or free to play browser games will replace console gaming. But this is about as likely as home movies replacing Hollywood films. The idea is absurd, as anyone who plays these games knows that they serve a very different need and often take up a different slot from our busy lives. They are not mutually exclusive (think milk vs. beer). At best they can be complimentary (think gin and tonic) via meaningful cross-platform play. However, this is easier said than done.

Clearly, the one genre of games that gets many to invest a plethora of time is massively multiplayer online (MMO) outings, sometimes known as “digital crack” to industry insiders. The time committed and stickiness of these titles is unbeatable. The strength of such outings lies not so much in their clever gameplay mechanics and novel methods of character progression. Rather, their true strength lies in a design that fuels the need to collaborate. In other words, these games effectively serve as a means of communication and social interaction among people. Some play golf on Sundays with their buddies while others choose to play World of Warcraft (WoW).We all know how far some people are willing to get 18 holes of golf with friends into their schedules, and at its heart, WoW is no different. These titles are not so much a game with conflict and victory conditions as they are a means of communication and interaction around a shared goal and activity.

Often, a good designer will assume that his or her audience suffers from ADHD. Or, to put it more bluntly, you can build up to something large, but you’d better have fun on the road there. Today, games need to be accessible by design and rewarding quicker. Equally important, they also need to be easier to come back to. “Easy to learn and hard to master” – it’s a guiding principle for game design that has never been more true than today. Modern mainstream gamers want to have fun, and they want to have fun fast. If a game’s design revolves around complex controller acrobatics and learning complicated rules or mechanics, it just won’t fly in 2010. Unsurprisingly enough, it turns out players don’t have the time or appetite to be punished and tautened by the titles they plunked down their hard-earned cash for.

Games that can be played in piecemeal chunks are much more likely to get time from busy gamers. Playing a few online multiplayer matches in Call of Duty or Battlefield is something gamers can do if they have an hour to kill. These hours will eventually pile up to billions spent online. Our own game, Alan Wake, was built in a TV series format, divided into episodes just as a season of your favorite primetime show would be. The “previously on…” refreshers of relevant plot points in Alan Wake also serve gamers who like to play games in chunks in a more rewarding way.

Keep in mind: At this point, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are fairly mature platforms, and game developers no longer need to worry about technological basics and pipelines. We can now focus on what matters: Games themselves. Better technology and a more mature audiences means that we can also embrace different themes. An interesting development is how games move stories and areas of fiction ahead. Today’s plots and characters can be more complex. The stories they tell can be less self-explanatory and increasingly subtle in tone – but they also need to do this in a way that is accessible.

Our audiences are used to faster storytelling. Music videos, TV series and film have all become faster, with audiences moved quicker into their fictions, and viewers therefore expect to see more action, drama and comedy ever faster.  The best games have realized this (see: the tutorial in Fallout 3, which makes an often mundane part of the game awesome fun and helps to suck the player in). Alan Wake opens with a nightmare sequence, which gave us more leeway to give the player a glimpse of the action and escalation ahead. For a thriller, you need to foreshadow the action, but we did not want gamers to play through for too long before taking part in the action.

An ample supply of ways to kill time vs. having less time to kill means that gamers in 2010 have a very low threshold for slow moments. What we as gamers would tolerate a few years back just won’t fly today. Let’s face it – the disc is coming out of the machine if you can’t find a suitable low ping multiplayer game in 60 seconds or less. Difficulty and threat escalation, user interface design, control schemes all need to have a solid flow to them as well.

We all know that a good game designer has empathy for the player. However, this empathy needs to start by understanding your game’s fans and their lifestyles and how they play their games in the real-world. Good design and professional craftsmanship stems from not only following your integrity and creative vision, but also understanding and looking after your audience.

Creating entertainment that is easy to get into yet deep and rewarding over the long term is not easy. Evoking emotion, drawing people in and leaving them with a lasting sense of intrigue is a tall order as well. However, it’s a noble goal that we believe that games today can live up to. Game developers are a bright, creative and diverse set of people. Execution and design keep on improving. On the whole, games today are smoother with higher production values than ever. And we believe that we truly are reaching for new heights. But to keep pace with industry developments alone is not enough. We also have to keep pace with players and their changing lifestyles as well.

About Matias Myllyrinne
Matias is the CEO of Remedy and a father of two who’s worked on Max Payne and Max Payne 2. To focus on Alan Wake and sleep sufficiently, he had to temporarily cancel his Xbox Live Gold subscription to stop himself from playing. Follow him on twitter: @MausRMD.

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