(Last December I started to write a series of posts about a concept called ‘the engagement hierarchy’. My thesis is that players engage with games in five distinctive manners, and that while all games get users who engage at all levels, there are clear clusters around one rung or another on the hierarchy that define largely what that game can be.)
Investment is what happens when players fantasize. Characters come to life, music is hummed-along-to, and the possibilities of the game world feel as though they extend beyond the boundaries of what the player sees on screen. Players imagine scenarios, moments, what-ifs, winning strategies, infer qualities of the game that the developers never actually included, and otherwise find the game magical in a way that they can’t quite express.
More than enjoying the experience, invested players participate in it. They resonate with it, become the influencers who connect other players and want to know its creators. An invested game is one that is important, and invested players feel as though they are a part of something.
The Art Brain
The play brain wants to learn, extend and master a game. It sees the frame of the game and comprehends the levers that permit it to take simple, fair and empowering action, and it wants to win. It is purely action driven. However a play brain is not the sum total of who a player is. Not by a long shot.
There is the part of the mind that wants to be amused, to feel special and to be engrossed. It’s the part that notices details, finds the richness of the game fascinating, responds to storysense and likes to be swept away on a journey. It wants to believe, to discover numina and to become thoroughly soaked in the magic of possibility.
Whether that’s a fascination with the patterns of play and how they produce a beautiful symmetry (as Tetris and Chess might be said to have), the richness of detail in a complex world such as the Fallout series, or the participatory character drama that a sport like soccer seems to engender, there is a part of the mind that wants emotion, revelation and inspiration. And when it discovers these things, it basically falls in love.
I call it the art brain. It is passionate, loyal and irrational. It needs symbols, experiences and moments that transcend the normal. It listens to voices, follows leaders and both uplifts and expands our understanding of the world. Expanded consciousness, elevated states, flow and religious ecstasies are all terms that describe the art brain in operation.
Player investment is all about setting the art brain alight. The best game worlds have a quality that inspires the art brain to imagine what is going on outside the frame of the game engine and the player’s actions, and it is in that space that thaumatic things can happen. The art brain fills in the gaps with imagination, and participates in the game rather than just playing it.
The game becomes more than it literally is, and some degree of fantasy takes hold. The player does not become an actor, but instead projects herself into the experience.
The Authentic Journey
The journey of the art brain is meaningful and important to the player, like a relationship. And, like a relationship, the thing the art brain hates more than anything is monotony. That’s why slot machines are depressing. They seem to be the preserve of players whose interest in anything has descended into compulsion rather than engagement. They help to pass the time, but at a cost: their art brains are starved and so they really are just cranking a handle in the hope of winning.
Games, even those that seem to exist in fairly specific niches, always have to keep pushing boundaries if they want to become more than just a slot machine. The art brain recognises dullness, repetitiveness and a lack of effort. It is comfortable with genres (so a football gamer will still buy football games) but within those boundaries it still wants revelation. It is not interested in just doing the same thing over and over.
Influential players who spread the word about new games (and especially people who work in or review games for a living) tend to be jaded. They categorise games along the lines of those that they’ve seen before, and that in turn colours their impressions of the new. They know what the highs, lows and disappointments already feel like, and like someone who has had more bad relationships than good they are often wary of being disappointed again.
So, rather than allowing themselves to become spellbound, the influencer only gradually notices that there is more to this game than the usual. Their inner jadedness falls away piece by piece until they eventually realise that what they are playing is not just another game.
This all means one thing: For the influential player to become excited, she needs a sustained trigger. She needs to experience the marketing story continuously, and it needs to be authentic. She needs to see it in the game, in the passion of the developers, in the community surrounding the game and in the recommendations from their friends.
In the iPhone game Hard Lines, Spilt Milk Studios introduced a wonderful small touch to the experience: Each of the lines that appears on screen does so with a tiny piece of alongside dialogue. These momentary numina have no effect on the physical gameplay, and yet they imbue the game with emotional colour.
While a game may be intellectually or physically engaging, the art brain wants more. It wants reward sequences, richness of sound, physicality to the experience and ceremony. At a simple level this means lights, baubles and trumpets. It is cheering in the stadium, blowing of vuvuzelas and the satisfaction of a Finish Him! moment. The game needs to talk to the art brain in a language that it understands rather than rely on it to infer for itself.
Many players cannot become invested in a game that lacks colour, character and attention to emotional detail. Games that lack flourish can seem impressive but cold, or interesting yet stereotypical. The colour of your game is its voice and the quality that helps it stand apart from the competition. Humour, observation, music and other richness matter. Ceremony, in-jokes, and an overall sense of personality also matter.
A game, as I’ve often said, is a world into which a player projects herself. So it does your cause no good if that world is bland, dry or just a poor copy of someone else’s. The art brain is wired to look for the original and the wondrous, even if that means text jokes as in Hard Lines. Not to deliver on that is to remove a key way for players to invest in your game.
Machines Get No Love
If fantasy is what separates connection from investment then fandom is what separates a connected customer from an invested customer. A sustained effort to build, interact with and engage with fans reaps rewards: They become your ambassadors to the world, the influencers that tell your marketing story and – ultimately – the people who determine whether your game can be a franchise.
Studios that engender long term loyalty both listen to and direct the conversation. When id decided to leave an accidental bug that enabled players to leap half way across a level in Quake it was because, intentional or otherwise, it had become an important part of the community’s strategic play. When Bethesda took on the Fallout franchise, they used their Oblivion engine to remake the old as new. Fallout 3 is a very different game from its predecessors but has been a great success because Bethesda directed the conversation. Neither case was the result of mechanistic product-making.
Perhaps the biggest mistake that you can make is to treat fandom as a given. Loyalty is earned through a continuous process of reinvention and re-engagement with fans, but when game making becomes a product rather than a passion then fans start to feel that the developer is fooling them.
Mechanisation is what happens when a publisher decides that they are going to pump out annual releases regardless of whether they are running out of ideas or not, or that they are going to start running Groupon schemes on the front page of their game. It’s what happens when the company forgets just who they are making their games for, and it is the principle cause of franchise death.
The history of games is stuffed with brilliant franchises that were bought, mechanised and subsequently destroyed. They lost touch with that crucial investment from their fans, becoming ordinary, or worse, and were then relegated to nostalgia. When the artistry and the individual style of the game is replaced by a style guide and a roadmap to churn out content, franchise death is on its way.
The Personal Touch
Game makers want to create franchises, and that’s what leads them to stories, cinematics, pre-release hype and so forth. They understand that players need to be wooed, and that younger players in particular are the market that is most easily captured by spectacle. So the industry has a Hollywood-esque strain of trailers, PR and benevolent media to help spread the word.
But it often doesn’t work and makers are surprised, even hurt, when the market responds with apathy. It is hard to convert fans because, in addition to avoiding first five minute traps, dominating attention and using training wheels as an active part of the game, a game asking for the art brain to fall in love needs something more: Humanity.
A game that does a good but uninspired job will only ever find good but uninspired players. A genre-busting game that doesn’t take the time to build a conversation will similarly only ever be well regarded rather than loved. Many games have great production values and engines, and yet they are damp squibs while some other more rudimentary games (Minecraft is a great example) ignite flames of passion that run riot across the Internet. It’s because the former feel like products but the latter feels like a cause.
Game studios are too often merely practical. They have no big ideas that bind them together and make for great marketing stories. They have great talent, good processes, solid tools and so on but the games that they make are products rather than passions. They want to be Valve, but they want to get there by thinking like shopkeepers and plumbers, and of course that never works. The missing ingredient is attitude.
The vast majority of studios are not able to allow themselves to commit to doing something like creating the colourful sequences in Portal 2 where the player enters or exit elevators. They worry too much about the cost, the down side, the player who might not get it, the market fit and whether their publisher will get the joke. So they can only ever choose to make anaemic games that nobody can care about.
Fans sense the personal touch, sometimes even within one franchise. To the outsider, a Treyarch Call of Duty is identical to an Infinity Ward Call of Duty, but to fans there is something about the Infinity Ward versions that they like more than the Treyarch versions. That something is a sense of pace, perhaps, or some specific moments that happened in one game but not the other. It may in fact be imaginary. What matters is that the influencers who popularise the game believe it.
The art brain wants to invest in art and artists. There is no visual style, music, management philosophy, engineering solution or game design trick that can be faithfully replicated to ensure that investment happens again and again. It comes down to the contribution of people – both individuals and groups – to deliberately choose to believe in the project that they are making and put everything into it. Or not.
Unlike connected players, invested players are more than willing to buy items associated with your franchise. They actively want to.
Invested players will buy premium editions, action figures and soundtracks because they are in love with the game and tangible objects help them feel more connected to the franchise creators. The invested player is a fan and his use of commerce is an expression of his fandom. He has less interest in deals, value bundles or price and more interest in meaning, association and self identification.
Invested players can be relied on to transact multiple times. They will buy downloadable content packs, sequels, virtual goods, subscriptions and so on. Like any relationship, they do not want to feel as though they are actually being taken advantage of, but they will commit to being a part of it. Through commerce they feel like they are participants, not customers.
Remember this however: You have a permanent responsibility to look after your invested players and make sure that they are always feeling that sense of specialness. It is not about how you will profit from them. It’s about how you will serve them.
The profit will come from treating them as they deserve to be treated.