Added on 3 November 2016
By Felipe Lara
What is a successful game?
Defining game success in terms of profits is the easiest and simplest. If game profits are higher than our investment, the game is successful. However this view does not help us know how to make a successful game: what ingredients to use and what processes to follow. How to be profitable depends on your game’s business model, which can vary widely from a free-to-play casual game to a premium VR experience. Furthermore, in some cases success might not even be about profit, but about teaching something or about creating a change in behavior like in the case of many educational games.
If you are trying to make a successful game it is much more useful to define success in terms of player engagement. In most cases there is a strong correlation between player long-term engagement and profitability. But more importantly, if you understand more clearly how player engagement works, you can map the engagement sequence to the ingredients you need to add to your game and the decisions you need to make during game development.
How Does a Successful Game Look Like In Terms of Player Engagement?
- STAND OUT: First the game needs to stand out or be noticed, if nobody is aware of your game nobody will play it. Standing out is about the first impression, it is mostly about looks, no time to explain new game mechanics and stories. The challenge is finding a balance between familiarity and novelty, something the player understands but different enough from all the other apps that crowd the app store to stand out.
- CONNECT: Second, the game needs to connect with players and make them interested in finding out more. Somebody yelling in the middle of the street will get noticed, but the act of yelling itself won’t get people interested, people will only respond if they connect or resonate with what they hear. The same happens with games that get your attention in the app store. Or in the first couple of minutes of free-to-play game.
- ENGAGE: Third, the game needs to engage players and keep them playing for a while. Maybe not the case for all games, but in most cases the longer players stick around, the more profitable the game is. More chances to monetize, more chances to get subscriptions, more chances to get recommended to friends, etc.
- GROW: Finally, the game needs to find a way to scale or grow its player base. The best way to do that is by doing two things: keeping your existing players, and adding features that make them want to invite their friends and promote your game.
Knowing that you need your game to go through the sequence above will help you choose the right ingredients to fulfill each of the steps. For example, one of the best ingredients for standing out in the crowd is having unique art; and one of the best ingredients for growing your game organically is by adding social mechanics that form a community around your game. There are in fact a few key ingredients that can be combined to fulfill the sequence above and create long-term engagement. I will talk more about them in a following post.
But First Clarify the Why and the Who
Of course none of the previous stuff matters if you are not reaching the goals you were trying to achieve with your game in the first place. You might be attracting players and keeping them around, but if you are trying to make an educational game and your game fails to educate, you are not succeeding even if you have tons of players sticking around. The same goes about monetization: if you have hundreds of thousands of players but you are not monetizing or reaching the profit you were looking to make, you are failing. You need to make sure that as your game connects and engages it is also teaching and/or monetizing. That is a big part of the trick, but I’ll save that discussion for a few posts down the road, for now let’s stick to the basics: you need to have a very clear idea of what are your goals and make sure that everything revolves around that.
Your Target Players
Just as important is to have a clear idea of who is your target player. The things that I need to do to stand out and connect to kids are very different from the things I need to do to stand out and connect to young adults. One of the main mistakes I’ve seen in my years developing games is trying to make something that is appealing to everybody, or to a very wide range of people. Trying to please all usually ends with not really pleasing or connecting with anyone.
A good first step towards creating a successful game or a successful VR experience is defining how does it look like in terms of player engagement. Player engagement usually follows a specific path with specific steps: stand out and be noticed by your target audience, connect with them, engage them to continue playing for a while, and finally make them want to share your game with their friends so they stick around and help you grow.
Once you have a clear idea of what the game needs to do, you can look for the right combination of ingredients – art, game mechanics, story, and community building- that can take the players through the engagement sequence. In another article I will talk more about how these ingredients relate to the engagement sequence.