Recently, I asked the question: “Why do some games, like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Max Payne and others become such winners in the marketplace?” Ever since then I have been trying to unlock the secret to developing and selling winning games. So, the question for today should be pretty obvious. What makes gamers line up at midnight before a release to purchase these games?
Maybe gamers are captivated by pre-release advertising. Let’s face it, we all fall prey to the advertising gimmicks by those clever folks who know how to arouse our interest and stir our desires. Beautiful colors, catchy phrases, incredible graphics, and obviously, what I refer to as the tease. The tease is the appeal to your emotional sensibility, that part of you that says, “Wow, I gotta have it.” And you better know that developers work hard to get a handle on that part of your emotional structure.
Problem with Theory 1
All of the above said, the fact of the matter is there are thousands of games out there that were sold with all the catchy phrases, all the beautiful graphics as well as the tease. Fewer than 2% of those games became outright winners – selling two million units or more – for the developers. I suppose we could argue that it was price! The price of the game is, like it or not, an impediment. The other factor is trust: Do we trust the developer to deliver what is advertised? If all those factors fall into place, we generally go out and buy the game. The statistics tell us that at least 98% of the time, we are disappointed in the game and it dies a quiet death ending up on our shelves along with who knows how many games that didn’t give us that sense of fulfillment.
Theory #2: Careless Whispers
So, now the question becomes, what happens when that game does give us that sense of fulfillment, that sense of accomplishment of having been forced to think, act and deliver the best we have to give? What happens when it is among that fabled 2%? What do we do? The answer is clear, it happened after the first GTA, it happened after the first Half Life, and although it took a bit longer, it happened with Max Payne. What we do, when we can stop playing the game for a moment, is go out into the sunshine, get away from our computers and start telling everyone we know about the game. We start sending out emails advising friends in faraway places to try the game. Maybe that starts the landslide. WORD OF MOUTH!
Problem with Theory 2
The issue now becomes one of trust. How much do we trust the person who is out there shouting for the whole world to hear, “You gotta try this game?” If we trust them, are we willing to invest the time and money? Probably. But if we don’t trust them, we may choose to wait. That might well explain why the first in a series, while often a big seller, simply does not culminate in long lines or piles of advance sales.
So, even the issue of trust if a bit iffy. How else would we explain why Halo started huge, while Max Payne – conceptually and mechanically a far, far better game – took a while to even take hold? It is at this point that Theory 1 and Theory 2 start to meld together. In other words, the gamer may be sold by Theory 1, and after playing it, goes on to tell all his friends about it; thus enter the trust factor, Theory 2. That could easily explain why the follow-up games in a series are those that tend to end up with long lines at retail outlets. If gamers hadn’t loved Halo, would there have been those enormous lines and mounds of advance sales for Halo 2?
Now to the Crux of the Issue
What was it about those games, and other winners, that caused us not only to cave in to the advertising gimmicks; but, having done so, cause us to tell everyone we know about the game, and thus set up a situation that leads to landslide sales for the second or third game in the series? Well, I’ll give you my perception, but what I am really interested in is hearing from those avid gamers out there. Remember, I have admitted in previous postings that I am less a player than a person interested in the psychology and theory of game development.
It is my belief there is something in all of us that yearns for, indeed seeks, a sense of accomplishment. Since that shouldn’t surprise anyone, maybe this will: the average age of the avid gamer is about 35. And, indeed largely because of that, most games have advanced well beyond meaningless blast-a-thons. The fact is, most adults are harder to please, they need to dig deeper, find more nuance, more mystery, or at least more difficult adversaries. While we all may have fun playing the first person shooter, gamers get bored with them pretty quickly unless those gamers are hopelessly shallow or the games themselves innovate. In the case of Unreal Tournament 2004 and Halo, their beauty resides not in the killing, any third grader can do that, their beauty resides in the challenge, the puzzle if you will. Never driven an LAV? You will! Never driven a tank? You will! Never climbed across a ledge high up on a building? You will. Never had to unlock a puzzle to get into a room? You will. And, guess what, those are things the average gamer is unlikely to accomplish without deep dives into the process, and a tenacity that is determined to succeed.
But in the case of Max Payne, of Thief, of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., of The Suffering, of Half Life 2, the beauty resides not just in the challenge, but in the experience. These are games with a richness of storyline, or character, or play innovation, or environment that transcend their competition, even if some may suffer flaws.
So what separated those games from the other 98%? It can be the challenge, the exciting environment, or even the plot line. And it worked for us in part because the games lived up to their promise technically as well… if, in some cases, after a patch or two. Guns fired on command, cars swerved when ordered to avoid a collision, we didn’t get stuck in a room with no exit and on and on and on. The fact of the matter is, a great game is a collision between the game’s challenge, its environment, its plot, and its technical accuracy. The collision of these four elements is what makes a game a two-percenter, but then, that’s just my opinion.