Thursday 18 April 2013

How to prolong your game experience?

As a designer, you spend hours, days, months or even years creating games. Gamers on the other hand finish those games in a fraction of that time. It is amazing how much effort is needed to create even the most fleeting of experiences, let alone a whole new game. That is why it's sometimes better to prolong your game experience: users will be able to enjoy your game a little longer, and you might be able to generate some extra revenue. But there are many different ways to do so, which is what we'll talk about today.

Super Mario Bros (NES) - What if you don't want the game to end?

Playing new content…
The easiest way to prolong the players’ experience is by adding new content on top of the old. This way, players can continue their adventures with the same character, without going through the same old content a second time. There are two types of content, and I call them parallel and additive content. Parallel content is something that can be played at any time during the game. Additive content is something that is only playable after you’ve finished the original game.

With parallel content you need to ensure that it really adds something new or exciting to the game experience. For example, in story-based games such content usually deals with some minor side-story that doesn’t have an impact on the main story (as the game should be complete without this additional content). It’s important to make it memorable if you want players to buy and play your new content.

Dungeon Defenders (Steam screenshot) - New content can really keep your game community alive and kicking

The problem with additive content is that people have a massive backlog of games, and they aren’t tempted to stick around for too long; it isn’t unthinkable that a majority of your players hasn’t actually finished the game. This means that only a small group will be interested in this kind of content, and it’s a shame to waste hours on content that most people might not even see.

Fallout 3 Broken Steel - Usually there are many unresolved issues after you finish a game, additive content is a great way to focus on those story elements. 

Playing the old content in a new light…
What if by going through the game once, players have not yet seen and experienced all there is? To make this happen, designers use a concept called branching. There are multiple types of branching that you can use within your game and they generally have to do with different paths, story perspectives, and gameplay mechanics.

All roads lead to Rome. By creating a more expansive game world, players will have a greater sense of freedom, as they are able to choose which direction they want to take. Do you go through a dark mysterious forest, or do you take the safe, but boring, route through the open landscape. This usually involves new graphical content, and will eat up a lot of time of your artists.

Bit Trip Runner 2 - Multiple exits allow the user to select whether they want to take the 'easy' path, or a 'difficult' path

What if you could play a bad guy, instead of a good guy? What if you could save a character, or leave him to die? These are just two examples of a branching story. Such branching offers the player multiple options to interact with the characters in the game. This generally requires a greater effort from your writers, as they have to write new lines, and ensure that the story is still coherent as a whole.

Bioshock Infinite - Sometimes even the most simple choice can generate interest to play again...

Gameplay mechanics are the bread and butter of each game, and are thus one of the more obvious choices to generate new content. They can involve new user actions, such as the ‘bow and arrows’ in the Legend of Zelda, or new enemies or challenges to tackle, such as some of the later levels in Portal. Since they generally require a lot of balancing, this will keep your designers occupied for a while.

Divinity 2 Ego Draconis - Playing with a sword is very different from playing with a bow and arrows. 

Replaying the same ol’ content…
If you have no new content, and don’t use any form of branching, you’re left with the same old content. But, there’s still good news, as there are some ways to keep your players coming back to the exact same game. Leader boards and achievements are an obvious choice for single-player games, and by adding a multi-player component you can make your game into a nice social activity.

You do need to be careful that your leader boards and your achievements actually target your entire audience. For example, most leader boards are quite static, because they only feature the top X players. Usually only a few people actively compete in such leader boards; most people tend to avoid them because the scores are too high for the average player. This is the same for achievements, as you can see in one of my previous blog posts.

Orcs Must Die 2 - How many points? What is this, I don't even...

We ain't got no time...
When we were young, we didn’t have a lot of money, so we played whatever games we could get. Sometimes we even played the same games over and over again. Now that we’re all grown up (according to society), we have a new issue: what we have gained in money, we have lost in time. This is something that many designers keep forgetting; most players just don’t have the time anymore to replay a 50 hour game (if they even have the time to finish it at all!). That is why it is so important to keep things small and fresh. Always try to offer something new, something that truly adds to the experience. And don’t forget, talk to your audience, they usually know quite well what they like, and what they’d like to see more of.

Do you have any interesting ideas to prolong game play? Let us know in the comments below!

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