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Come for the ___, Stay for the ___

People won't buy your game just because it has awesome gameplay - sad but true. Here's some pragmatic thoughts on solving this conundrum without having to be inauthentic.

This is expanding a bit on a Twitter discussion, mostly between me and James Lantz... here.

If you care about getting people to actually start playing and keep playing your games, then you have to be able to complete this madlib: "PLAYERS COME FOR THE ____ BUT THEY STAY FOR THE ____."

In my opinion, "HIGH QUALITY GAMEPLAY" is usually only a correct answer in the second column.

I wish this wasn't true but I'm pretty sure it is. "HIGH QUALITY GAMEPLAY" is not a good reason to give people to try your game for the first time.

That first column needs something with a strong and unique appeal; something novel. Basically it's this simple: there needs to be a reason for people to want your game.

Saying "COME FOR THE HIGH QUALITY GAMEPLAY" doesn't work because every developer is saying that... and everyone will assume you're lying, because most developers are. Zynga can afford to tell a thousand lies in the time it takes you to say this truthfully once.

Either way, people won't believe this claim coming from you - and unless you have an easy way to put a demo in their hands, you can't prove it to them.

You have to give them another reason to want your game. This is important, you can't neglect it.

There are exceptions and caveats though:

  1. Some games have sufficiently high-quality gameplay that most people who play the game will be excited enough to share it with others and attest to the quality. However this doesn't take HIGH QUALITY GAMEPLAY, it takes SUPER HIGH QUALITY GAMEPLAY.
  2. People may not believe you saying this about your game - at first. But guess what: "THE BLIZZARD NAME IS ON THE BOX" is all that Blizzard needs to take care of column #1. That's because Blizzard has consistently delivered SUPER HIGH QUALITY GAMEPLAY, and can depend solely on their reputation, without having to worry about novelty. This takes time though.
  3. Giving the player a sample of the gameplay is becoming common (though still not common enough IMO). The fact that every Ouya game is required to provide free gameplay is something I absolutely support - though I feel they're guilty of criminally mis-messaging this aspect of their service. But even when a demo is available, you have to give people a reason to hit that "Try" button.

All this is frustrating for those of us who want our games to sink or swim based solely on the quality of their gameplay. I used to read blogs saying things like these, and they made me feel stressed: did it mean  I needed to shoehorn a weird "hook" into my game just to get people to pay attention to it? It felt inauthentic and even deceptive.

It's actually pretty simple. Just do one (or preferably both) of the following:

  1. When picking a game idea you want to make (or prototype), try to pick ones where the gameplay has a unique appeal that can be communicated easily.
  2. Choose a theme that fits the gameplay, but which has a unique appeal - something that's not quite like what anyone else is doing, and that appeals strongly to you (and, presumably, people like you).

Neither of these is terribly hard (at least not compared to actually building that HIGH QUALITY GAMEPLAY, which you still need for column #2).

Filling in these mad-libs is something worth thinking about throughout your game's development. And just count yourself lucky that we no longer live in the age where the only valid thing to put in the first column is "AWESOME HIGH-POLY GRAPHICS." (Ugh.)

Shay Pierce is a human being who makes video games. He once worked for Blizzard on Hearthstone; he designed/ programmed/launched an iOS puzzle game; and he's that guy who turned down that job with Zynga that one time. He also possesses a great deal of hair.

This is cross-posted from Shay's "Deep Plaid Games" blog.

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