1. Elden Ring: breaking boundary
On February 25, 2022, the gaming world is enjoying the feast of a new game, Elden Ring.
The most anticipated game for the second year in a row, reached as high as 97 in media rating before the official release, all making this game become the biggest gift that many gamers are expecting in 2022. And the quality of it after the launch also lived up to most expectations, despite the problems need to be optimized, after just a few days, the number of online players on Steam reached the seventh in history, with a peak concurrent player of nearly 900,000, far more than its predecessor Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Dark Souls 3.
As of March 7, 2022, the peak number of online players of Dark Soul series games on Steam. Source: SteamDB
The recent popularity of Elden Ring is even greater than that of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice at that time.
The concept of breaking the boundary was originally used in the entertainment industry, generally referring to a person or artwork breaking through their own audience group and being accepted and recognized by greater groups of people. And now the meaning of the breaking-boundary effect of Elden Ring is the same: the original Dark Soul series players are often from a certain group, especially the players of the Demon's Souls, Dark Souls 1, Dark Souls 2 are very few. Even Dark Souls 3, which made the highest sales later in the series, is an obscure but excellent work in the eyes of the public, due to the ban on some domestic streaming platforms in China. In this context, the Dark Soul series lovers gathered in their own unique small group and developed a culture of their own. But such an insularity in recent years is gradually being broken by live streaming and short videos. A large number of people who watched others playing and new players made the Dark Soul series games gradually go to a bigger stage. And Elden Ring, with no doubt, becomes the most typical and successful one.
There are certainly many reasons for the boundary-breaking popularity of Elden Ring, including the great design of the game itself, the long-term marketing news, and the background of homogenization in the games industry, and we could also pay attention to the long-term, short-term, favorable and unfavorable effects brought by the success of Elden Ring. However, out of my habit of working in UX research-related fields, I am more curious about the new players brought by the popularity of Elden Ring. They had never touched or at least never played a Dark Soul series game before, and their knowledge of the genre was largely based on the impression that it was "hard," "dark," and "suffering". The reason they buy the game is either to follow the trend, taste the new thing, or be overconfident in their own control ability so they decided to challenge those difficult games of the series.
In the following context, I want to name this group of players as players out of their zones--although they are essentially new players, this time the number of new players has exceeded the normal players that a new game usually attracts, a large number of MMO players, MOBA players, or even casual game players, and even those who may have never played the game before all gathered in this feast, making the whole game's player base a mixed group. It's hard to really know the characteristic of this player group, as everyone joins for different reasons, and preferences vary from person to person.
However, more or less, we can always find some commonalities in some cases, as it just so happens that I have some such new players around me. Take them as examples, we may be able to see the current situation of players out of their zones in the Elden Ring, so that we could have a clearer picture of this unique player group.
2. Case 1: A friend "Spider-Man" who can't really defeat the boss
"Spider-Man" gave me my first taste of being a streamer when I was battling Isshin Ashina in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. He watched me complete the playthrough of Sekiro, and I was not shy to share my real-time thinking and understanding of the game in the process of playing - although these did not seem to play a big role, my experience sharing did not help him to get better, he still had his hands full when facing the first boss, and after being defeated by the boss for several times he helplessly put down the game controller, chooses to watch others playing on Tiktok.
But I completely understand "Spider-Man". As a full-time teacher in the online education industry, he has to prepare lesson plans every weekday and teach the kids in the weekend. His free time is scarce and scattered, even on New Year's Eve, he is still preparing lesson plans: while we are chatting through video calls, he is wearing pajamas with a wild hair, and working hard as if he just woke up, if not for the recognizable voice of a comedian from TV, I would even think that it is still early in the morning.
Video games are not a necessity for "Spider-Man", nor is it his only recreational activity, but more like a theme for him to have fun - it is not a must to play by himself, the memes and gossips of the e-sport players, the excellent live streaming, and the exciting video clips of games in Tiktok are what really attracts him. He has never played LOL, but he can accurately tell the skills of the heroes in each game; he has never played Sekiro, but he is familiar with the skills of bosses; the number of games in his own library on Steam is less than 30, and his total gaming time is no more than 100 hours, but he seems to be a seasoned game master.
My friend "Spider-Man" is clearly aware of the reasons why he can not play the game: "I am a little slow on the draw, can not judge how to move. I can only run around in the game, and my attack is not efficient." He has tried to read the walkthrough in the past, but it is "of no use, it can not skip the work". But knowing that, he is still happy to buy games that he can not playthrough, such as Sekiro, such as Monster Hunter series, and Elden Ring this time.
He still seemed to have confidence in his own gaming level, as if he has forgotten the "painful" experience he once had in Sekiro, "It is an open-world game, you can decide to fight the BOSS after skilling up."
"And I can get my money back if it is too difficult."
Then the prophecy has unfortunately come true, from buying to refunding, "Spider-Man" spent a total of 0.8 hours.
In the playing list of "Spider-Man", he spent 0.8 hours on Elden Ring
What's interesting is that even though he was discouraged time and time again, "Spider-Man" did not show a strong sense of resistance to the Dark Soul series games, and he has always retained a considerable degree of good feeling for the game, which came from the game's fragmented narratives, enigmatic plot and bizarre world-setting.
He was outspoken in saying that he would still consider pre-ordering the next game in the Dark Soul series when it comes out in the future:
"I always feel like I am capable. I bought Sekiro before, I sort of collect these games, maybe without playing."
"Of course, it's better with adjustable difficulty level."
3. Case 2: "Captain Marvel" who makes me marvel
Through "Spider-Man", I feel that I have somehow understood this group of players who are out of their traditional zones, but the case of "Captain Marvel" (another player I met) has given me some new insights.
For "Captain Marvel", the Elden Ring attarcts her actually from some very accidental factors. According to her own words, mainly from three aspects. The first is that all her friends are sharing Elden Ring, the second is the positive comment by game media ("I feel like that's my loss if I don't play it"), and the third is the game pictures seen by chance, in which the sun is shining and the scenery is beautiful, looking like a paradise. If the first reason represents the sense of following the trend, the second reason represents the quality of the game and publicity, and the third one is a real personal preference - "I don't really like the dark style of Dark Souls, but this time the graphics of Elden Ring is not so dark, and the above-ground world looks quite 'sunny'."
But "getting into the zone" is one thing, whether you can stay is another. After all, I have the impression that she is not a fan of the Dark Soul series games. Her most played games before is actually MMORPGs, based on my observation, I can reasonably say, she is among those who "can't cope with action game".
And her real game experience really proved it.
"After a day of being punched in Elden Ring, I quit the game only to find out that there is beauty in the world." This is her comment, on the first day of starting Elden Ring.
On the first day, she was completely afraid to fight the boss, just running around to explore the world, after unlocking 8 maps, still carrying the shield and sword for beginners. And, finally, after watching the relevant videos and walkthrough on the internet, she decided to give up the current character and chose the stronger and easier wizard. What she experienced is a series of decisions that old players of Dark Soul series can not understand, but actually shows her path in the game as the representative of the new players out of their traditional game zones.
However, after restarting the game as a wizard, her path in Elden Ring went a bit smoother, with the help of a walkthrough, she not only managed to get out of the dungeon, but also defeated one or two small bosses, and tentatively survived in this game.
The survival of "Captain Marvel" in the Elden Ring, largely due to her own "alternative" gameplay in the game. In the previous game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, she was addicted to exploring the world, unlocking the temples one by one(but not fighting the dragon), and then running to the next temple. In Naraka Bladepoint, she also rarely goes into rank mode, instead, she was crazy about dressing up for the role. This "alternative" is reflected in the Elden Ring: she does not like to fight bosses like ordinary players but prefers to collect various equipment, weapons, and items.
Playing with expectations of those content, "Captain Marvel" has somewhat overcome those uncomfortable experiences (ghastly dungeons, dangerous monsters) to become a Elden Ring player who stayed.
4. Some thoughts about breaking the zones and players out of their zones
"Following the trend" is often the main reason why this group of players chooses to try the game. But different players may observe the trend in a different way, for example, "Spider-Man" was influenced by their daily communication with classmates and colleagues, while "Captain Marvel" got information from the social platform. We can also imagine that there will be players coming from the chatting group of other games, such as a Naraka Bladepoint player who suddenly asks for help in their own small group: I can't defeat the BOSS, can someone tell me what should I do?
Elden Ring's success can also be attributed to the good publishing activities. Some of these promotions are deliberately done by the publisher or producer, such as the first trial of the game, cooperation with the famous writer George R.R. Martin, the advertisement of the epic CG effect, etc., while others are voluntarily from the media and player, which is a chain reaction brought about by its high quality. As high as 97 rating in recent years is rare, and it forms a feeling of "It is a loss to miss it". Finally, the spread of livestream and short videos has also made the game reach those who are not gamers of difficult games and even those who usually pay no attention to game information at all. One of the more conspicuous pieces of evidence is that some of my friends who never play games and only watch Tiktok occasionally ask me what kind of game this is.
From the case of "Spider-Man" and "Captain Marvel", we can actually also see another tip that makes games break the zones, that is, the game itself is releasing some signals to welcome new players, such as the concern about the difficulty is dispelled by the setting of level-up, more bright open world provides a buffer for those "claustrophobic" players, the open-world design also attracts more players who like to explore the world, and the cooperation with George R.R. Martin also appeals to the fan group of Western fantasy story to a certain extent.
Behind the popularity of Elden Ring, we also have to admit that a large part of the new players is just like my friend "Spider-Man", blindly following the tide to find a game that is not suitable for them.
The game completion rate of Elden Ring on Steam reveals, that about one-third players didn't get through from the first boss.
The retention of new players is always a big problem for those games that break their zones. Because it involves two problems at the same time, one refers to "Are there any goals or not?", the other one is "is there enough goals or not?".
We can't hope all players to be the target audience of a game, and after trying the game they are surprised to find that it is exactly what they want and become addicted to it. Those who managed to stay in the game are more like "Captain Marvel", who found their unique preferences and set their goals in the game, regardless of whether these goals are the core gameplay of the game or not. The existence of these preferences motivates them to accept or actively look for alternative ways to overcome the negative experience of the game to a certain extent. The presence or absence of goals and preferences is a matter of "stay or not".
The retention of players depends on the struggle between attraction and discouragement of the game to them. Whether the attraction is strong enough is the question of "leave or stay". "Spider-Man" left because he could not solve the problem of being incapable to fight the boss, and the attraction point of the world view and plot for him was distracted by the short video and livestream; "Captain Marvel" chose to stay because her goal in the game was strong enough (collection and beautiful graphics), but also very good to find a way to solve the difficult problem (referring to the walkthrough).