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Guiding Gamer Expectations

Many great games have failed because of misplaced expectations. How can we help gamers form accurate expectations?

As I was playing two very different indie games over the course of this week, I was reminded of just how important expectations are in determining whether or not people enjoy a particular game.

Exhibit One, the PC indie title, Capsized. Gorgeous graphics, but I didn't particularly care for the gameplay. However, I have to wonder how much of my dislike for the game from the game itself and how much of it came from me expecting to get a Metroid style action/exploration game and instead getting a run & gun shooter with a complex control scheme.

Exhibit Two, the PC indie title, Dwarfs!? I've put in a couple hours into this game and so far, I'm really enjoying it. However, going online, I discovered that many people hated it because it's not a complex simulation like Dwarf Fortress. Instead, it's a fast-paced, score-focused arcade game that's kind of like an out of control top-down Lemmings. Oh and it's got a well done tower defense game as one of its bonus modes.

When people's expectations don't match the reality of a product, disappointment almost inevitably sets in regardless of the quality therein. You could have the best orange in the world – it still makes for a crummy apple.

With both Capsized and Dwarfs!?, much of the confusion came because of the setting. Capsized is a 2D platformer with a setting similar to Metroid so I expected similar gameplay as well. Dwarfs!? and Dwarf Fortress both feature dwarf colonies digging out tunnels as their basic premise so some players expected they would play similarly as well.

However, there are other ways that player expectations can become misguided. Consider Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Dragon Quarter is one of the most brilliant RPGs of all time, a true piece of gaming art. However, it did horribly at retail. Why? Because the fans were expecting another Breath of Fire III, a fun, colorful, and fairly stereotypical fantasy RPG, and instead got a very dark sci-fi/fantasy blend with several experimental gameplay systems.

Shadow of the Colossus is considered one of the finest games ever created. And yet, I bet you if you had taken the exact same game and all you did was change the name to The Legend of Zelda: Shadow of the Colossus and replaced the two leads with Link and Zelda that the game's reception would have been drastically worse due to failed expectations.

Or take pricing. Players have different expectations for $60 games than they do for $15 games than they do for $1 games. This can be either advantageous (great value!) or disadvantageous (overpriced!) to the developer. To use a personal example, I purchased Bioshock 2 for $5 in a recent Steam sale and so far, I've been loving it. Would I have had the same reaction if I had paid $60 for it? Maybe not.

Or consider Mirror's Edge. It's a great and unique game, but had underwhelming sales. Had the game been designed & marketed first and foremost as a unique take on the racing genre, I daresay it would have sold drastically better than it did. As it is, people played it expecting a FPS/platformer, finished the short story mode, were unimpressed and set the game aside, not realizing that the story mode was basically just an extended tutorial for the really fun stuff – becoming totally awesome while doing time trials & speed runs.

With expectations being so critical to a game's success, both critically and commercially, what are some things that can be done to help gamers to have the proper expectations for our games?

1. Price your game appropriately. My simple rule for game pricing is "What is the highest price we can charge for this game while still making the game an incredible deal?"

2. If your game has superficial similarities to a popular game but the gameplay is very different, you need to make these differences very obvious in any and all marketing you do for the game.

3. If your game is a sequel to a highly respected franchise but features major differences from previous titles, consider releasing it as a spin-off instead of a main game entry. This advice is less applicable if the series is widely considered past its prime and in need of a reboot.

4. Long held expectations can take time to change so start your marketing early. If I've been hearing details about your game for months, then I'm probably going to have a good idea of what to expect when I finally get to play it. If the first I hear of it is when it shows up on Steam's New Arrival list, I have much less to base my expectations on and so there's a much higher chance of inaccurate expectations forming.

5. Take care when describing your game that you don't inadvertently overemphasize less important aspects. For example, with Capsized, one of the features listed in their Steam description was "massive non-linear environments" which combined with the sci-fi setting, naturally made me think of Metroid.

6. Name your games with care. I feel this is something we did successfully with our first RPG, Breath of Death VII: The Beginning. Just from reading the title, the average fan of RPGs should be able to correctly guess that our game is 1) an RPG. 2) a parody, and 3) undead-themed.

7. Make sure that the player knows how hard your game is. Some people love hard games and others prefer easy games so you want to make sure your game gets matched up with its correct audience. Super Meat Boy did a great job of this. Its Steam description contains phrases like "tough as nails", "old school difficulty of classic NES titles," and "difficulty from hard to soul crushing." Its difficulty is a selling point, not a surprise. Conversely, the excellent PS2 horror game, Siren, failed to emphasize its extremely high level of difficulty (seriously, it's one of the hardest story-based games of all time) in its marketing and so much of the backlash towards game was a result of people finding it overly frustrating.

Too many great games have underperformed because of misguided expectations. By keeping gamer expectations in mind when we design and market our games, we can help our games to be appreciated for what they actually are and avoid being disliked for what they are not.

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