(with thanks to Casper Moller)
I used to hear the word gameplay bandied around by executives a lot. Everyone would say that their game was all about innovative gameplay, and believe it, even though most of their games looked and acted just like every other game. However something has changed.
Nobody in those meetings talks about gameplay any more. It seems to have fallen by the wayside. Now everyone’s talking about engagement. It’s changing the way that games are thought of, and so the kinds of games that are getting funded and developed.
Engagement has, in a sense, killed the ideal of gameplay, how we see games, and certainly how we will develop them in the future.
Why the Gameplay Metaphor Waned
At a literal level, gameplay simply means how a game physically controls, responds, extends its actions and enables wins. And, as I wrote a few weeks ago, to make a great game you need 100 hours of it. However gameplay is also a fuzzy word with ephemeral meanings which loosely translate to quality of experience.
Gameplay used to invoke a sense of noble innovation, a respect of certain traditional aspects of game making as well as just raw coding. It meant something about the character of the game and various game sub-cultures defined themselves by gameplay. They all meant different things, but with a similar overall thrust.
Executives, sharp to realise that many game journalists and fans believed in this aspiration, would often speak of their games in expansive terms of gameplay, innovation, graphics and physics. They would be interested in heritage and quality, and so the games industry had something of a coded language about what a good games was. It was gameplay, whatever that meant.
Outside the walls of retail gaming, it started to prove a slightly weird fit. It was hard to explain the success of World of Warcraft in those terms. Under more traditional (retail-derived) thinking, games were often something to be mastered or completed, but many online games seemed to focus more on achieving an endless steady state that players eventually just gave up on. Some even thought that maybe World of Warcraft wasn’t really a game at all.
It was also hard to explain the appeal of Bejewelled when it seemed less innovative than more 'worthy’ games. A variety of casual games and web games were comparatively crude, but executives started to notice that they were oddly popular. There were some games like Urban Dead that were little more than websites and yet had half a million players. There was the phenomenon of online Poker. There was Brain Training, Animal Crossing, Wii Fit and Nintendogs. They seemed more about activity than challenge.
And then Zynga, Playfish, Bigpoint, Moshi Monsters and a whole host of others arrived with services fundamentally different in every way to the gameplay metaphor. The business community became much more interested in investing in those services than ever it had been in video games, and it was they who started to talk about engagement.
The reason was that the new kind of game service was backed up by numbers. What made engagement so much more attractive was that it could be measured.
A Measured View
The metaphor of gameplay has waned because it is not a number. In the offline era of retail gaming, the pressure had been to increase production values to compete. However most of that money was spent blindly. Production values and quality were emotional indicators, and the publishing side of the industry struggled to find a way to minimise the chaos of their business.
Their frustration came from constantly relying on talent and timing to strike it lucky, and more often than not that didn’t happen. There were no accurate predictors as to whether a game would be a hit or not, and few companies seemed to get their culture right to become hit machines. Everyone else was effectively hoping to win the big prize.
While the literal parts that make a game function are universal, the metric of the emotional indicator has been under pressure for some time. Some publishers have tied bonus payments to Metacritic scores, for example. While short-sighted – the likes and dislikes of reviewers are often very different from ordinary players – what this kind of thinking reflects is the desire from the business to tie numbers to success, so that they can predict it again.
Business people started being interested in games when web gaming people like Zynga started talking about engagement. They told a new marketing story rather than the gameplay story, reasoning that game innovation mattered a lot less than player attention. It was neither an argument for or against the quality of the game, but rather a simple expression of this: If you hold players’ attention then, over time, they are more likely to become paying customers.
Publishers and investors liked that because it sounded grounded and tangible. Engagement didn’t hinge on the need for the users to be having a terrific time while in the game. Adequate could do. What mattered was that players were showing up, sticking around, and buying stuff.
Arguing for gameplay as a part of a game pitch started to sound naive. It was essentially the developer asking for trust, and to the executive or the investor that just sounded like a bet. The shift to engagement from gameplay represented a different focus for game investment away from the unknowable to that which was knowable.
Positive and Negative Engagement
Engagement design thinks of the game as a service, or a world, whereas gameplay design thinks of the game as a stand-alone object. A focus on engagement has allowed for new ways of thinking about games, but also spawned a more conservative attitude to the process of making them. Engagement design is much more about proof than experiment, but what separates positive and negative engagement is often to do with just how much leeway a studio culture will allow in the experimental phase before proof is required.
Engaging players into a world operates along two axes: enchantment and retention.
Enchantment is the game that pulls players back in by virtue of how cool it is. The game has a marketing story aligned to a passionate group of users, who then act as the marketing force for the game. It sucks players in with the promise of a culture and a community, and players choose to beat a path to its door.
Enchanting games form strong cultures and symbiotic relationships between developer and community, with each deriving more than the sum of the transaction of the relationship. It is a positive kind of engagement because it brings players in and is generous to them. And they in turn are generous to it.
Retention is the opposite. A retention-focused game does not create a different experience for a passionate audience. It creates an idle experience for a bored audience. It presents an ordinary, non-innovative game that the player can easily understand and then finds a way to reliably contact the player and nudge or cajole them to return at regular intervals.
Retention-focused games are more easily describable with template game designs because the game itself is largely just a part of a process of communication and obligation. The player returns, gets to play a little game before being made to stop, and then is obliged to leave or spend money. After a time they build up something of a compulsive investment in the game and so the game can afford to squeeze them.
The reason I label this negative engagement is that it does not foster a relationship. The player puts up with the developer’s nagging and demands for money, and the transaction is ultimately mean spirited. A player buying virtual energy in a game, only to see it drain away in the face of tasks that require ever more energy, is on a path toward zero. A developer building such an application is going to burn through players and so have to permanently advertise to keep the game going.
Which Works Better?
Financially speaking, negative engagement is easier to model, and developmentally it is easier to make such games. They require little or no experimentation because they are very knowable, and their concepts are quickly proven. A lot of startups work better when their iterations are shorter and their opportunities to get out in front of customers happen earlier rather than later, so sometimes a negative engagement game is one that they are more likely to ship. Retention-led games are also, on the whole, more likely to be profitable early.
The downside is that because negative engagement ultimately squeezes players, these games do not generate sustained virality (I mean true virality, not the spam-publishing kind). If they are novel then they might see a significant early bump, but after that they rely on permanent advertising budgets to nag players back into playing again and again. So while their business process is replicable and expandable, it does not inherently sustain itself. Games based on negative engagement are also very easily copied by competitors.
This means that the biggest problem for negative engagement is that developers need serious scale if they are going to make a success of it. Zynga, for example, has mostly retention-driven games and they advertise as much as humanly possible to keep those fires lit. This makes them virtually ubiquitous on Facebook, and their cross-promotion between games magnifies that effect. As I wrote a couple of days ago, that ubiquity strategy does not scale downward in a linear fashion. The business community often makes the mistake of thinking that it does.
Positive engagement, on the other hand, is harder to build. It requires a marketing story, a strong game idea that looks and acts differently to other games, and sufficient resources and experimentation to get it right. Sometimes it just happens. More often it takes a lot of blind alleys and faith before it does. Building positive engagement requires the worldmaker to have a sense of the artist about them and to just try new things.
Positive engagement is not quickly proven, but it is proven. It is not the same as the old days of developing a complete game in a silo and releasing it upon the world, but its bar for establishing a relationship with players is high. Its tolerance for experimental failure must also be higher. Finally, it is not immediately profitable either, but is more able to hold its profitability in the long term.
On the other hand, positive engagement generates its own virality, and is not easily copied. It does not have the permanent advertising issue that negative engagement has. Instead it has a permanent delivery issue. New stuff, new conversations with the fans and new material are all a part of the requirements for positive engagement, but it can sustain itself for much longer periods than negative engagement could ever hope to.
Its biggest problem is panic. With the wrong developers or investors in the company culture, positive engagement goes awry because of project blackouts (when there’s lots of work done but nothing to see). It simply drives most business-side people crazy to have to wait for things not seen to emerge and they are usually too prone to treating proof that things are not working as proof that they will never work.
As a result, the business community on the whole prefers negative engagement because it can understand it, but players on the whole prefer positive engagement and are more likely to exhibit true loyalty toward it. Business people, it turns out, do not understand the value of cool when it comes to games. Who knew?
Of course, that is a caricature (as is the binary separation of positive and negative). However it is often easier to get funding for games based on negative-style engagement because a process is easier to explain than a vision. The developer says that they will incorporate all the features that nag players back into the game via retention, and a business mind understands this process pretty well.
It’s similar to the reason why television works as an advertising medium, and like television it rewards scale. More money poured into the business model and more exposure to achieve ubiquity results in more opportunities for greater returns.
It requires either exceptional investors who are willing to take visionary risks and see past the initial bump of getting it wrong, or amazing developers who half-chance their way into a genius idea, to make positive engagement happen. Silicon Valley seems to have a number of such people investing in wild projects like Color, but there isn’t a lot of games investing that is so visionary at this stage. At the moment, most positive engagement in games is coming from guys like Markus Persson. Hopefully that shift will come.
Regardless of money, positive engagement is generally much better for small companies if they intend to grow organically and build something to last. Small companies lack the resources to be ubiquitous, so they have to compete in a different way. They have to be deliberately different. Positive engagement is all about making big waves.
Gameplay declined from common usage because it was too subjective. It was a comfortable excuse to spend a lot of money and hope for the best, but nobody really thinks that’s a good idea any more. Designing for engagement is not just about making innovations. It is about crafting worlds. You are making places for players to come and visit again and again to play.
Whether you approach the question in a positive or a negative light, there are numbers now to tell you what’s wrong. There are communities to engage and services to operate. There are worlds to build for the long term and processes to deploy. Players are now long term customers, not one-shot economic ponies.
Like it or loathe it, you’re in the engagement business now, not the gameplay business.