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More thoughts on hobbyist gaming

Further thoughts on Daniel Cook's article on single games as a hobby.

Last week, I started thinking about how the most important division in gaming these days may not be between casual and hardcore gamers, or PC/Console/Mobile gamers, or any of the ways of dividing up players that are often talked about endlessly on gaming sites across the internet. So I started writing up an explanation of the new division that I had in mind, that of what I called ‘experiential gamers’ and ‘hobbyist gamers’.

And then Daniel Cook wrote this, which basically said the whole thing for me, and probably more eloquently. So instead I’ll invite you to read that, then offer some further thoughts of my own. Go on, I’ll wait here until you’re done.

An interesting example 

As I started thinking about this, I realised that the trend could perhaps most easily be seen in two different games, both of which ship in the same box. The Call of Duty brand represents one of the most popular franchises in the last decade, and it has evolved in ways that attempt to better serve both of these gamer types.

On the campaign side, we see the evolution of the design of the linear single-player FPS. The keyword is ‘spectacle’. The player is constantly lead from one scripted event to the next, with no concern for padding out the play-length, leading to a 4-6 hour blockbuster interactive war-movie.

Shift over to the multiplayer side, and you see a completely different focus. This mode has evolved to include extensive player progression, stat tracking, player customisation, clans, regular content updates, etc. Multiplayer games tend to be inherently replayable by nature, but this one has clearly embraced the idea that a large number of people will be playing it for a long time.

In retrospect, the idea that modern shooters straddle both sides of this spectrum may go a long way towards explaining why shooters have been so dominant in the past decade. 

Taking another look at Free-to-Play 

This new division offers a new perspective on what has happened in the F2P space. F2P games, by their very nature, need to be more towards the ‘games as a hobby’ end of the spectrum, due to a need to monetise over a long period of time. Which is interesting because these titles make up almost the entirety of today’s mobile market leaders, yet a couple of years earlier, the market consisted far more of short, experiential titles, as thousands of developers learned what worked and what didn’t on a touchscreen/accelerometer device. As a result, we see a great opposition to the transition to F2P from the gamers that were previously attracted to this market, and likely not just because of allegations of unethical monetisation practices. Even in a situation where the monetisation isn’t seen as hostile in any way, an experiential gamer is still likely to intuit that a F2P game - a successful one at least - wasn’t designed for them. 

Some more takeaways 

  • This division concept explains why Battlefield players thought it was unnecessary to add a single-player campaign to Battlefield 3 and why adding token multiplayer modes to traditionally experiential games rarely works.

  • I'm guessing that media-centric games are much more likely to be traded in shortly after launch, but adding those token multiplayer modes probably isn’t going to help much. Publishers of these games can take some solace in the fact that the people who play these types of games probably buy more games overall than hobbyist gamers.

  • Game length isn’t necessarily a measure of where on the spectrum a game lies. While a game like Skyrim may contain many dozens of hours of gameplay, its world, characters, quests, etc., are all authored content, not necessarily intended to be replayed multiple times.

  • Energy mechanics in social gaming seem like a fairly genius move in this context. Along with that fact that many impatient people will pay to skip wait periods, the idea of forcing a player to leave and return (and return at a specific time to optimise productivity) helps to drive this idea of ‘the game as your hobby’. Anything that people do on a regular basis for fun will naturally seem that way.

  • EA have announced recently that some of their upcoming games (FIFA, Madden and maybe Battlefield 4) will allow some player progression to be transferred from previous games. Short of making these games available as an update for the previous version (something Capcom have been doing with Street Fighter 4), this seems like a logical move for hobby games. Who wants to choose between losing all your progress and not having the latest game?

  • Those who say that ultimately all games will be F2P may be ignoring this divide in gamers. Unless we can find a way to make The Last Of Us in a F2P model, there will undoubtedly be a section of gamers who aren’t being satisfied. On the other hand though, it’s unknown whether that kind of game can be successful in a market flooded with free games.

  • Think about your audience when designing a sequel - players are much more likely to be excited about a refined, graphically updated version of Starcraft than Bioshock, because the latter traded a lot more on novelty. 

As a F2P developer, this whole idea has gotten me thinking that perhaps I’ve been approaching development from the wrong angle. Maybe, instead of starting with a game mechanic and trying to add elements to keep people playing, I should be thinking about starting with something that could inherently last a very long time, and work backwards from there. It's not something I'm used to doing, but I'm finding it a very interesting thought exercise.

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