Engagement is a commonly accepted term in the web and online games industry to talk about how often a player is coming back into a game. It is regarded as the most essential sort of metric (also called retention, in fact just this afternoon by Nicholas Lovell in his latest post on Gamesbrief) to really know whether a game has long term legs, or whether it is flash-in-the-pan. Online game companies measure and track engagement obsessively, and worry greatly when the figure dips.
While the concept is less regularly used in console and PC games, the principle of how and why players play is much the same. There are games that players play for months or years, and others that they ditch within a day.
In the world of console gaming, a number of studies over the years have established that as many as 50-75% of players never finish most of their games' single player modes. You can also infer a lot from how often and how quickly games start to become second hand games, or discount items, or what price points they sell at, to build up a general impression of just how impact-ful a game truly is.
Engagement is a very complicated topic, and not one that a single blog post can cover, so I wanted to start talking about it with an image:
The Engagement Hierarchy tries to graphically capture the idea that engagement is far more than a number. You can (and should) measure the retention of your game as best you can. But you also need to qualitatively understand what kind of engagement your game is generating, or trying to generate. Otherwise you might do stupid things, like try and sell poorly thought-out virtual goods to an audience that is so engaged that it finds such things cheapen their experience. Conversely, you might make the mistake of trying to charge subscription for a game that is really not valuable enough to warrant that kind of model.
The five levels are:
- Distraction: Your game is simply something that users do because they are bored. They can take it or leave it at any time. Very low lifetime value, often worthless creatively, but might be the sort of game that players would play repeatedly if motivated with a prize or something similar.
- Amusement: There's something charming or fun about your game that keeps players coming back. It might not be particularly sophisticated, but with the right mechanics you could spin up a decent rate of daily return.
- Connection: The game strikes some kind of emotional nerve with the player, enough that they would like to dig deep into it. That nerve might be a fantasy that the player wants to play, a game world that he finds interesting, or a game that generates social recommendation and encourages the player to get interested.
- Investment: The player develops emotional investment with the game. There is something about the game that chimes with something in the player, and the so the game comes to have meaning to them. Investment does not necessarily mean creative or artistic significance. It could be an urge to master, to become the best and satisfy the student within.
- Culture: The game becomes a social experience. When a game becomes a culture, it has embedded itself deep into the substrate of players such that it becomes a conversation topic, a language and an obsession. Cultures are sometimes lifelong, and they are most often the games that change the world. This means everything from Halo to soccer.
Players move up and down.
With online games this could be expressed as the likelihood to purchase game goods, whereas with retail customers it reflects itself in sales between franchise releases (with some exceptions) and blog media interest. As game franchises become more mechanised by publishers, for example, their players will often travel down the Hierarchy. Sonic is an example of a franchise that many UK players loved 15 years ago, but for whom is barely interesting today. Mario, on the other hand, has retained his best-of-breed status because Nintendo look after the franchise and always find a new way to redefine and expand upon it.
Typically games move up or down within a 3-block range. It would be almost unheard of for players of a cheap Facebook quiz app (a Distraction) to vault all the way up the Hierarchy to become a Culture. And likewise it's almost impossible to conceive of a formerly loved MMO to sink so far down that users really can't even remember its name.
Players also don't move as one block. There are outlier players who find deep meaning and culture in games that the bulk of us find quite tepid. An example is that of virtual good 'whales' who play some social games and spend hundreds of dollars within them. These people might actually only be 0.01% of the audience of the game, but they are clearly motivated to the point of a Culture when maybe the bulk of players are there only for Amusement.
What Engagement Affects
I hope to talk about these in more detail in the next few days, but in very broad stroke:
- Importance: Are players going to queue up at midnight to buy your game as a matter of cultural significance? Or do they care so little that they can't even remember your games' name? (This is more common than most developers would like to admit by the way).
- Return: Does this game generate revenue across the decades, release after release, to passionate fans? Does it only do so as a result of a significant or constant marketing push? Or does it really only earn some advertising revenue and nothing else?
- Self Worth: As a developer, is it something that your passion can get behind, or is it preferably the sort of work that you'll just do for pay? Fulfilment is a significant factor in why developers get into games in the first place, and it's depressing watching many developers settle into game making as a day job, cranking out uninspired assets and code.
- Wider Culture: Sure, games of all stripes appear in the news, but which ones become the lodestones of love and hate that define a generation? There are so many games out there that the vast majority are forgotten in the collective memory. Only a few are ever remembered, and engagement plays a part (not the only part) in that.
- Business Plan: The kind of engagement that a game creates dictates many choices about how the publisher then proceeds. There are levels of success to be had at every rung on the Hierarchy, but an Amusement-focused business is probably completely different from a Culture-focused one. As the (arbitrary) size of the blocks in the diagram reflect, there is more volume at the bottom than the top, but how you earn your keep there is a fundamentally different business to one that exists in the stratosphere.
- Product: Development approaches such as the lean startup method of the minimum viable product approach are not applicable at each level of the Hierarchy in the same way. Players on higher levels are inherently expecting more substance than a quick test-feature-for-clicks strategy can usually capture, so you need to be wary of accidentally racing to the bottom while reaching for the stars.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.