(with thanks to Dan Brady)
Most retail games end up in the second hand sales bin almost as quickly as they are bought. Most iPhone games get played only a couple of times and are then uninstalled. Most Facebook games only manage 5-10% engagement. However some games sustain players long after their initial purchase, invite continued engagement and even spawning wildly enthusiastic fans.
Of course the reasons for this are many. Differences of execution, idea, marketing story and other factors all contribute to fandom, but there is also an interesting commonality across successful games that goes ignored by developers. Great games deliver tonnes of interesting gameplay.
How much? 100 hours worth.
Many games are built with content in mind, and their developers think in terms of level geometry as an equivalent to ‘hours’. Others (especially social games) are built with appointment-based structures, obliging the player to go away and come back later. Both are deceptive indicators of time, however, and convince developers that players really only want a few hours of actual entertainment.
Both are a case of developers fooling themselves.
100 hours is the amount of time, give or take, that it takes for a customer of your game to turn into a fan of your franchise. In order for your customer to engage with you for life, you need to make a game that they will find fun for a long time. And not just idle fun either. Appointment-based trickery (as social games often use) will not get the job done, for example. If you are serious about gathering fans to your standard, you need solid, extensible, engaging entertainment.
100 hours is a pretty arbitrary number, but I think it’s a good benchmark. 100 hours at 2-3 hours a night, works out to about 3 months of calendar time. 3 months is the length of time that it takes for any good relationship to form, and so for a player to really get into a game such that they fall in love with it and can’t wait for the sequel, 3 months is the goal.
Setting the bar at 100 hours strips all delusions away. There is physically no way that any game developer can actually create 100 hours worth of level geometry (ok, maybe World of Warcraft can) and so it obliges the developer to think in terms of how they will make their game world function on multiple layers. Liberty City is a pretty big place but you can actually drive across it in around 15 minutes. So what are you going to do with all that space to get the player to their 100 hours?
100 hours basically forces a developer to think about game depth.
How To Make 100 Hours of Gameplay
100 hours of gameplay does not automatically mean 100 hours of game world to walk around in. It does not mean 100 hours of dialogue, nor 100 hours of levels. It can include those things, depending on your game, but it doesn’t have to. Here are some examples:
- Poker has 100 hours of gameplay
- Tetris has 100 hours of gameplay
- Angry Birds has 100 hours of gameplay
- Sim City has 100 hours of gameplay
- Starcraft has 100 hours of gameplay
- Portal has 100 hours of gameplay
- Sensible Soccer has 100 hours of gameplay
- Left 4 Dead has 100 hours of gameplay
To get there, you need four coders. Secondly, you need to think about the following factors that might get you to the magic 100 mark:
- replays and retries as well as first-play time
- multi-player and single-player activity
- bonus levels
- reusable game world content
- creative opportunities
Not all games look or act the same, but a big problem with modern game design (and especially gamification and social game design) is that designers have somehow got it into their heads that the ideal game state (or ‘flow’) consists of a balance somewhere between being not particularly bored and yet also not anxious. Whoever coined that notion is talking out of their posterior, because all that actually results is poor amusements.
Pressure is a key aspect of why games are interesting. If games are empowering, simplified and fairer than real life, they still need pressure to create thaumatic situations. Such pressure does not have to be violent - it can just as easily be creative or puzzle solving - but it does need to be persistent. Its absence is why many a failed game is just dull.
If you want to get to 100 hours of gameplay, you need to incorporate pressure. You also need to incorporate extensibility. Extensible game actions can be built in several ways, such as through speed or level length, or cool powers. Extensibility changes the scenario of the game over time and empowers players with more exciting things to do as they progress, so rather than the game becoming repetitive, it invites repeated yet expanded play.
You also need to incorporate the seven steps to the epic win. Your game needs little doses of winning pleasure from actions and loops, but also needs to build up to something significant. Players need to fail a lot, but feel good about it, and so be encouraged to keep trying, learning and experimenting. They need to find larger achievements worth attempting in the game.
Who Actually Plays For 100 Hours?
The majority of your game’s players will never actually get to 100 hours of gameplay. They will top out at around 20-25 and move onto another game. So why think in terms of another 75 hours for a minority?
Because the objective of your game is not to make a game. It is to make a franchise. Single franchise publishing is about attracting and converting fans to your cause, not feeding consumer mouths, and by short changing the gameplay to only what the majority actually plays, you ensure that nobody becomes your fan. So nobody continues the conversation about your game, and you’ve fallen into the conversation gap.
100 hours of gameplay is what you need to build a real connection with your players and get them invested. Whether through content or game dynamics, what they need is to fall in love with your game world. They want to play within in, fail within it, and yet feel positive about it and themselves as a result of playing it. This only happens if your game gives them the hours to do so.
You need 100 hours of gameplay.