Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – oddly, since I don’t play it – is World Of Warcraft. Blizzard’s 10-year-old MMO behemoth has outlasted pretty much every expensively funded competitor, at least in the ‘pay a monthly subscription’ category. (Although I’ve heard reports that some of its ‘failed’ rivals in a galaxy far far away are surprisingly profitable on a monthly basis.)
Anyway, current profit/loss numbers for rivals aren’t really that relevant. What’s clear is that the dream of creating multiple $1 billion ‘hardcore’ MMOs, before the rise of F2P on mobile, was doomed to failure. World Of Warcraft was the first to get multiple millions of subscribers, and there it pretty much stayed, as the sole mega-success.
But why was that? Besides the fact it’s a beautifully crafted game, of course! Well, I think VCs, funders (& developers!) failed to understand that WoW players were a large percentage of the total market for ‘super hardcore’ games. Not only that, but the social networks built up with guilds and multi-hour raids meant that in order to tear someone away from WoW, you literally had to uproot their entire social network (and Leeroy!) en masse and get them to switch games simultaneously. That’s a high barrier.
It’s hardly a ‘duh’ mistake, though. I think it was reasonable to presume that, just as World Of Warcraft overtook EverQuest or Ultima Online, someone could make a game that would be ‘the next World Of Warcraft’. But in all the research I presume was done ahead of these investments, did anyone grok what I’d like to call ‘the Share Of Voice problem’ that games – and hardly any other creative medium – have?
By this I mean, simply, the following – you’re unlikely to consume just one movie over the course of 12 months (unless you’re a _serious_ Caddyshack obsessive!) And it’s not that conventional for you to only listen to one music album.
But you can play a video game (the same game!) continuously for years, and that game can absolutely take up the large majority (50 to 90%) of your play time. In fact, it doesn’t have to be World Of Warcraft – it could be Minesweeper, or Candy Crush, or Clash Of Clans, or even Spelunky. For me right now, for example, it’s Geometry Wars 3. The replayability of games set them aside from any other medium, and I think sometimes we forget to take that into account when thinking about consumer habits.
How many people in each category (F2P cellphone game player, PC Steam player, console game player) are in the ‘I just play one game almost all, or all of the time’ boat? Given we know that most cellphone users download 0 new games per month, who are game creators on iOS and Android even chasing when they decide to release a game?
This is a particularly important question because this trend is exacerbated by the move to ‘games as a service’, online-connected titles, and games with competitive high scores or multiplayer. How so? Let’s contrast to ‘days of yore’, if you’ll permit me.
In many ways, the NES video game market of 25+ years ago was designed to act like the movie industry. You bought (or rented, like films!) a game that was generally linear, single-player and fairly expensive. You played through it until you couldn’t get any further or you completed it, and you rotated out fairly swiftly. Games absolutely weren’t built as much for replayability.
But fast forward to 2015, and even the most ‘oldschool’, arcade-y titles like Geometry Wars (not super replayable in its first two incarnations) have added a load of replayability. As I said when picking it as one of my Top 5 games of 2014: “There’s lots more diversity compared to previous titles in the franchise, and lots of high scores to improve for extra stars/against friends at all times.”
So, does competing against these ‘replayable feasts’ seems ever more difficult if you have a ‘one and done’ single-player platformer or action game? The ability to noodle around improving high scores in Geometry Wars 3 is meaning that, yes, 90% of my gaming time is spent wandering back to that game for an hour at a time, even months after I bought it. And that’s rough to compete with.
Many people have noted the same for Spelunky, thanks to its procedural nature (*wave*, Darkest Dungeon & many others!) and daily challenge levels. And Minecraft is obviously the ultimate ‘different every time’ sandbox delight – more freeform, but just as varied – another distinctive and yummy flavor of the replayable ice-cream cone.
And that’s not even taking into account those F2P mobile games that give you a constantly varying new experience, or those games build social ties and/or competitiveness with others so integrally into the experience (Game Of War: Fire Age, lots of ‘survive or die’-alikes on Steam!) that the human interaction has you stuck on the game.
(Heck if you want the biggest contrast from zombies you can possibly imagine, try Words With Friends – another ‘social interaction is replayability and gameplay’-fest which is the only video game my parents play, and has been for years.)
So the question for you – if you make games – is simple. Do you understand who your potential audience is and what their ‘Share Of Voice’ for playing individual games in any given month/year is? (I’d love to see public research on this at some point for different platforms and core/casual player sets, btw – do median casual players play the same game for weeks? Months? Years?)
In any case, depending on who you’re trying to reach, what game or games are you trying to tempt them away from? What tools of replayability do you have in your arsenal? And how can you become their ‘90% Share Of Voice’ game for the next 6 months?
Or do you shy away from that entirely and say ‘no, I have a unique story/single-player experience and people will react to that and they’ll play straight through it linearly and love it’? That can certainly work – see Journey, The Stanley Parable, and more. But you have to _grab_ people conceptually, ahead of them buying the damn game. (A subject for another thinkpiece!)
But the majority of the successful games out there nowadays are so much more complex than that. Ironically, by upping the replayability for themselves, these top games are cutting out the opportunity for other titles to get noticed or make money.
And there-in lies the conundrum. The compulsive, replayable wonder of today’s top games is filling this ‘Share Of Voice’ to overflowing & starving the creators of other games, especially as the amount of top-quality titles from small teams multiply.
It’d be like a movie magically expanding to fill the next ten cinema viewings, or a single book from JK Rowling dynamically re-arranging itself to create the entire saga if you enjoyed the first once. It’s amazing, and it’s also terrifying, and it’s right now in the game biz. And you ignore how to get _your_ share of voice at your peril.