One of my favourite passages from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the description of the Shoe Event Horizon. The idea is that as certain economies stall and people start to feel depressed, they start to buy more shoes. This leads to more demand for shoes of differing types, combined with a plummet in quality, leading to everyone having sore feet and buying yet more shoes. This brings about more and more shoe shops, and inevitably society can only produce shoes. And so it collapses. It's a hilarious illustration of the effects of lowest common denominators.
Games, like any business really, are also prone to those same factors. Particularly since behaviourist design returned to prominence (via social games and now gamification) on the promise of metrics, monetisation and new markets, a lot of the same sort of thinking has taken hold. Behaviourists tend to be bottom line thinkers and conservative game designers. They don't care about emergence or unintended dynamics as those things often get in the way. They want their games to be predictable, marketable to the broadest audience possible and fully understandable.
This inevitably leads to bingo, slots, roulette, blackjack, game shows, coupons and bet-driven casual games. In otherwords: extrinsic prize gaming. My thesis is, like the shoes, when a platform starts to become overly filled with these kinds of game it is basically finished.
A Very Short History of the New Behaviourism
The above image was the last slide of a talk I gave at the Social Developers London garage earlier this month about The Four Lenses of Game Making. The full set of slides are available here:
The talk covered two subjects. Firstly: outlining my quadrant-graph system of classifying games and game makers. Secondly: relating that concept to the audience present: social developers. The vast majority of social game development falls into the behaviourist camp, and so I talked about the strengths of behaviourism and how in some ways it is the oldest of all lenses. But in others it is the youngest.
Behaviourism's big surge happened when hosting became cheap enough, microtransactions liberalised and distribution through social networks proved incredibly viral. At a time when the world was economically falling apart, along came companies with a nearly-free product with low barriers to entry and unlimited customers who would pay endlessly to play. And here's the bonus prize: you could measure how they played and paid.
The only problem was the games themselves. Creating a great game dynamic is really hard (ask Rovio, they had 50 tries before they hit on one) so behaviourist studios took to adopting or copying from pre-existing games as much as possible. Starting with a few examples such as the basics of roleplaying, Poker, Harvest Moon and city simulators, these new free games spread like wildfire. They were all based on the same sorts of creative/compulsive loop with notifications, mostly asynchronous play and cheap methods to leverage social graphs for more virality. In essence they turned around 5% of players into the marketing channel for the game.
Later some equally smart people looked at the resulting growth engine and thought maybe they could ditch the game part entirely. This is where gamification got its start, coming from the often-loose sphere of meta-games like ARGs combined with reward systems. Between the two the business community woke up to the the possibilities, forgot virtual worlds (let's be honest, they just weren't working out) and wanted in on this hot new thing instead. Everybody learned about levels, appointment mechanics and virtual goods and everyone wanted someone to develop a cheap social game for them. Good times.
However all good things come to an end, and with behaviourist games this ending had several causes. Firstly: Facebook itself took steps to shut down the gold rush that was polluting its notifications and request systems, killing growth overnight. Secondly: the games all started to look the same and so growth patterns seen in the likes of FarmVille became a thing of distant memory. Players rarely want to play the same kind of game again and again unless they are passionate fans of a genre, and most social games are simply way too thin to inspire that kind of loyalty. Few studios outside of Zynga really had the leverage at that point to sustain and so they started to get bought out instead.
Thirdly, however, many of those same business community people who were really enthusiastic at first realised that they still couldn't afford to make 'proper' social games. They also wondered whether the freemium system wasn't leaving a lot of money on the table, and this reasoning opened the door for gaming companies. For you see, aside from freemium/social and gamification games there is a third type of behaviourist game design that we don't often talk about:
Bingo: The Perfect Game
While new behaviourists like Jane McGonigal prefer to talk up socialising, positive psychology and connection, old behaviourists talk about money. They create games which are pure revenue engines, use all of those same sorts of tricks that the new behaviourists re-discovered to get attention, and they know their business very well. A company like William Hill or Jackpot Joy knows exactly who their customer is, how much they cost to acquire, what their lifetime value will be and so on. And, just like their newer counterparts, they love metrics.
In the gambling space there are very rarely any new games. Every once in a while there might be a game show (like Deal or No Deal) or an innovation of an older game (like tote betting or Texas Hold'Em) but the games otherwise remain entirely static. It's slots, poker and betting, prize gaming on simple casual games, roulette, quizzes and bingo. Rather that compete on innovation in their games, which their audience doesn't really care about, gambling providers compete on brand, on production values and on price. They either want to be cool, to look expensive or to be the best value. But Poker is Poker. Slots are Slots. Bingo is Bingo.
In fact old behaviourists like it that way because a really well-known game is a game which can be mathematically mapped, evaluated statistically and so its margins can be well understood. This is music to an investor's ears because it basically says money-in/money-out. It means that for a studio or a whole company that thinks in a behaviourist sense, all roads eventually lead to bingo.
Why bingo? Well in truth I mean a number of games, but bingo is a great canary in the coalmine: There is no gameplay involved other than the picking of cards. Everything else, all the production values and culture and 'two fat ladies' showmanship conceals that the game is just a series of dice rolls. It is the ultimate in low rent game design, which would be fine (after all, lots of people like bingo) except that it is so easily copied that literally everyone can make their own.
And, inevitably, they do.
What happens in any game market where the product is all identical (or any market at all) is that bigger players spend more money on adver-dollars to pull in more users. Meanwhile smaller players, in order to stay relevant, start cutting prices or offering incentives. So Zynga's spending of a ridiculous amount of money on Draw Something makes a sort-of-sense bar the fact that Draw Something has subsequently tanked.
Inevitably the market starts to thin out but, like the shoes, product choice and availability continues to rise while quality continues to fall. I don't mean the surface qualities like production values (again, like the shoes) but rather the intrinsic stuff. Like is the game actually fun to play? Does the story actually enchant you? Is it sufficiently emergent to allow for powerful player self-expression.
In my talk I asserted that these are the sorts of qualities with which tetrist, narrativist and simulationist games all have strong histories. Behaviourist games, on the other hand, do not. And yet behaviourist sectors of the industry find it very difficult to think that way because no matter which way you explain it to them they only ever hear this:
Innovation means letting profit margins drop.
The idea, for example, to create a farming game whose various crops are properly interdependent on one another in a simulation may provide much value for players in the longer term. However in the shorter term it means you probably can't sell them as many units of hard currency. So the margins drop. The idea to socialise horse racing so that users can help each other make better bets? That's letting the margin drop. Adding more of a skill element to roulette so that players experience success more often? Letting the margin drop. Introducing a sense of story to your gamification solution which might well end? Letting the margin drop.
So it seems like suicide. However outside the studio walls users make their own minds up. They talk, find out where the best deal is, or the most fun, and that drives the behaviourist market downward. They surface games which are much more substantial (Angry Birds, for example, which is a tetrist game not a behaviourist one) and give those all of their loyalty. They sometimes even walk away from platforms entirely, such as in the great videogame crash of 1983.
That is the Bingo Event Horizon. It is when the conventional thinking of an industry becomes trapped in such a way as to convince itself that there is no other path. That the only way out is to lose, and so the only way to win is to hang on until everyone else loses. And that is where the new behaviourism is headed.
The logic behind it is both fatalist and inescapable, and the only way past it is to make the cognitive leap over the metrics to see what happens next. The question for many of you working in that sector of the market is therefore this: Are you able to get past the numbers and the margins, from the local maximum of pessimism that both engender, and try scary new things instead? One way or another you're eventually going to have to, you know?