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Enhancing the Idea of the Game as an Event

I get to recapture that old binge-gaming spirit, play till my eyes bleed, see how far I can get in the game before I have to return to the real world. These are special, rare times. These few moments are Gaming as an Event.

The older I get: the more money I have, the more games I want to play, and the less time I have to play games. When I was younger – in high school and most of college, I spent most of my free time gaming. I played single player and multiplayer. I played 1st and 3rd person shooters, RPGs, strategy games, sim games, action, adventure, MMOs, those awful dance/rhythm games, and even the occasional sports game. I was a Gamer, with a capital G.

Of course, I graduated, got a job, got responsibilities, blah, blah, blah – you know the story. So nowadays, the free time that I have, I usually spend it reading instead of gaming, since I like that better. It’s easier to pick up and put down a book in just a few minutes and it’s also “useful” free time, as opposed to “pure” free time.

Of course, I still buy games, even though I don’t play them as much. I’m not sure why. Maybe I think that sometime I’m going to have a bunch of free time and get all caught up on all the games I wanted to play months ago. Maybe I’m hoping a new game will capture my attention the way games did when I was younger. But it probably isn’t going to happen. All those games I own will probably just continue to sit on the shelf after I open them and play them for an hour or so before moving on to something else.

But every once in awhile, maybe once or twice a year, a game comes out that I actually rearrange my life to play. I go to the release party, if there is one. I read about it online and participate in online discussion. I talk about it with friends and try to talk them into buying the game to play it with me (or just play it so they can talk about it with me, if it’s single player). I skip a few social engagements. I stay up late, waste my whole weekend, and maybe, just maybe, take a day off work so I can bask in the sweet, sweet gaming awesomeness for an extra day past the weekend. I play the game like it’s going out of style. I play it like it’s the only thing that matters.

These days are magic. I get to recapture that old binge-gaming spirit, play till my eyes bleed, see how far I can get in the game before I have to return to the real world. These are special, rare times. These few moments are Gaming as an Event, and only happen once or twice a year.

However, once I’m back in the real world, I still want to talk and interact with the game, even if sometimes I don’t want to play the game. I know that seems backwards, but please hear me out, because it’s this community aspect that keeps me interested in supporting games with my wallet.

I probably spend more time thinking about games, watching reviews, and talking about games (both online and off) than actually playing games. Strange, right? But I’m not the only one like this. This is one of the hallmarks of the Gaming as an Event crowd. And enhancing the community for the Gaming as an Event crowd is what I want to talk about in this post. Because we still buy games, even if we don’t play them as much as we used to.

Obviously, players like me aren’t the key market anymore. However, players like me are the players who buy games and also like our games to be Events. We want an immersive experience, both inside and outside the game.

So my question is this: what can be done to enhance the idea of a Game as an Event? What can be done to support players like me so we keep buying games?

Obviously, the best thing developers can do it make a great game. This goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. Making a great game is most important thing, and it should trump all other considerations. Most of the budget should be spent here, because gamers are frugal – they pay attention to reviews and a good word of mouth review is the most important thing you can do to sell your game. But after that – how can companies enhance the idea of the game as an event?

Let’s think about this a little. Commonly, these are the types of steps taken to market a game:

  • Game demos.
  • A website with hype, marketing, forums, and trailers.
  • Product tie-ins with soda, chips, and other products.
  • Game reviews, both on major website and minor blogs.
  • Booths at gaming trade shows.
  • Midnight and day-light game release parties.
  • In-game specials for preordering the game.
  • Physical incentives for preordering, like maps, books, soundtracks, and other related merchandise.

These are all fine and good and are the beginning steps that any game hoping to break into the Game as an Event category should have, at the bare minimum. However, since these things are all pretty standard for big games, they aren’t enough anymore. Other steps need to be taken, too. Here are other things that gaming companies should consider if they want to continue driving big sales numbers and attracting the Game as an Event crowd that only plays a few games a year:

More local events – release parties and social events during the release weekend (or week). Aside from a release party at the local Gamestop or Best Buy where gamers can line up and buy the game while chatting with each other or gaming on portable devices while the anticipation builds, there should be other local social events planned for the release weekend. Events at places like coffee shops, comic stores, or other places gamers hang out. These events should be planned by partnering with businesses in the local community. They should be held a few days after the game is released, to give games a few days to play the game before heading out to socialize. They should not be focused on sales, but on meeting local players to build community and relationships, as well as giving gamers a place to talk about the game.

Real life events create fantastic longevity within communities. I used to play World of Warcraft with a guild. Once we met in real life, at a guild meet we organized in Chicago. Years later, even though we no longer play the game, we still hang out online, talking about games and other things. Meeting each other in person cemented those relationships and even kept us playing WoW for much longer than we would have otherwise. Physically meeting is essential to help build communities. This should be encouraged as much as possible.

More community building is needed. Most games have forums, but what about encouraging bloggers who write about the game to cross post on the game’s website? What about adding a place for user-created videos, stories, or flash-animations about the game? I know that major companies are afraid of misuse of their IP, but encouraging an online community needs two things: a place to do it (a website) and content to do it with (the game). With those two things already in place,  companies are poised to continue building community on their website, long after the game is released. There are a huge number of new art forms that have been created on the internet. Aside from just forums, games build communities by encouraging fans to share their love of the game through art. That should be done on a main site, if possible. Rather than just building a site to promote the game and then never touching it again, companies should place a focus on adapting these “hype-sites” into a place for community building and fan-created content.

Online events like webinars and podcasts that give players an in-game incentive for showing up. Having events that give players ingame items, tips, hints, secret unlock codes, or whatever else keeps players coming to your site and looking for new content. Games should be thought of not as a single release, but as building a new community around the IP. This involves sponsoring and supporting a long-lasting relationship between the game and the fans. Maintaining community and connection is key. In-game incentives are a great way to do that. People will always show up for free (digital) brownies.

In-game events like community weekends and specials. Gamers will log back into a game they haven’t played in months for little silly reasons, even for something like free hats for their characters, or the chance to play the game in a slightly different way. In order to encourage this, games should hold in-game events to encourage players to keep playing.

A marketing material package that focuses on taking time away from regular life to play the game – things like fake sick notes, excuse notes, videos you can link to your boss to tell him you’re playing a game, messages to put in your voicemail, prewritten away messages for instant messanger, email signatures that link to a game’s website, and other things like that. Checklists of things that you need for your gaming event weekend – the game, the console, beverages, a junk food supply, and other essentials. These things are cheap to create – they’re jokes, really (you don’t really expect people to use it the excuse notes or anything), but the idea is still put in gamers minds that this game is an event, not just a game. It’s an experience, like going to the cinema. It takes time. It’s something you clear your schedule for. It’s a weekend event. It’s the whole package and the gaming company wants you to enjoy it so much that they thought of everything, even your sick note.

Free game related content - webcomics, free story novelizations released online in e-book format, short youtube movie tie-ins. Not marketing and trailer stuff, but supplemental content that enhances the game experience when outside the game. Gamers like to see their games in other mediums. They like tie-ins on the internet they can check out at work, since they can’t play the game at work. But they could probably read a novelization or a web-comic. Make your game cross multiple media streams. Not just a game, but a book, a comic, a film, a short book of poems, a flash animation, other things that enhance the idea of the game.

A short, episodic, online video series that leads up to the game’s release. This can be something high-budget, with film-quality visuals, or it can be a cast of characters who play your game, like the characters on The Guild. Cheap to make, this shows people playing the game and living your game’s lifestyle. Because that’s what you’re pushing – a lifestyle, an entertainment experience, a part of busy gamer’s lives. Any way to work with internet celebrities like The Guild people, the Legend of Neil guys, Penny Arcade, or Pure Pwnage is a good idea. Use those celebrities now while internet celebrity is still cheap. Once they get bigger, that kind of tie-in won’t be so inexpensive. These people help spread viral marketing. That’s what their businesses are based on, so get their help. Get your game into the gamer culture.

Outside mini-games that effect progress in the real game, but are playable through a web portal or on a smartphone. I don’t mean separate games that tie into the IP. I mean a mini-games that effect progress in the actual game. Tie-ins with facebook mini-games or an iPhone app that effected stats, character growth, or other in-game assets could be huge. It keeps gamers playing your game even when they aren’t at home playing your game.

There are other ideas, too, but those are the major ones. So how does this all tie together? I imagine a Game as an Event release being something like this:

Before the game is released I’ve already gotten game content into my hands. I’ve watched trailers and played the demo. I’ve read a short webcomic or short story that relates to the game. I’ve been watching an online series that gets me introduced to the IP and interested in playing the game. I’ve begun building community relationships on forums and a website.

Once the game comes out, I go to a local game release party. On the way, I’m listening to free released game music or a podcast about the game on my iPod. At the release party I buy the game, talk with other gamers, and then head home to play.

Over the release weekend there’s at least one more local event planned for my area. The focus of this second event shouldn’t be about buying the game, I’ve already done that, but about getting local players together to build communities, start guilds and leagues, and talk about the game. These secondary events should be held at internet cafes, coffee-shops, comic stores, or local hangouts, not just Gamestop or Best Buy. Partnerships with those companies should be created to have some copies of the game available for purchase, but that shouldn’t be the focus of the event. These secondary events should be about connecting gamers and building community.

These secondary events should occur sometime during the first week, preferably in the first 48 hours after the game’s release, so the people who just bought the game, are playing it hardcore, but need to take a break have a place to go to interact more with the game. Maybe I’ll meet some people, exchange usernames if it’s an online game, and begin to forge relationships with them, keeping me tied to the community and interested in playing the game longer.

In the next few days, I enjoy playing the game. I take a day off work, or just play throughout the weekend. But when I head back into my life, or when I’m not playing the game proper, I should be able to log in through a web portal or a smartphone application and make progress in the game. Instead of being a stand-alone side project, these sub-games should be mini-games that provide me with special items or in game rewards for playing the game on my smart-phone.

After playing the game for awhile, maybe I want to write a story, draw a picture, or create a video. There should be a place on the game’s website for me to upload these things and share them with other gamers. In game rewards could also be considered for contribution to the online community surrounding the game. I could get special items, upgrades, or tips for participating.

See the idea? The way to capture “Game as an Event” type audiences is to get them to adopt the game into their lifestyles, both as setting up the game as the important thing, but also integrating the game into their lives through local events, culture, and access outside the game. Giving them multiple avenues for this will make it more likely that busy “Game as an Event” gamers will integrate into the fold and do more with your game. This leads to evangelizing fans, more game sales, and add-on sales. It also leads to brand loyalty and loyalty to the IP itself. It creates lifetime fans instead of gamers who just buy a game from your company once.

For busy people like me, Games are an Event. They are something that can only be undertaken a few times a year, when time allows, unless the release is so big, interesting, and provocative that I will take time from my life to play the game. In all ways, the game should be made as big an event as possible, even in other parts of my life. For older gamers, sitting in front of a screen and just playing the game isn’t enough. We enjoy the community and the socialization almost as much as the game itself, sometimes even more. I like reading reviews, talking with other people, and discussing the game over lunch with my buddies. That aspect should be encouraged – there should be more content and more places for those types of things. Not only does it encourage us to rearrange things to view the game as a bigger event, it keeps us around longer to buy DLC, expansion packs, add-ons, and sequels – the things that are viewed as easy money in the gaming world because the major assets and expensive engine are already created.

Even with all the focus on casual games in the last year, there is still a place for Gaming as an Event, both as a subsection of the gaming community and as a market that should be encouraged. In fact, the casual gaming crowd could be swayed into more “hardcore” (read – they’ll spend money on games) gaming crowd by integrating casual web-portal and smart-phone mini-games with the main game.

So in order to get your game to be one of the few games that gamers like me decide to focus on this year, pushing your release as an Event, not just as a game, is a good idea. Because I’m only going play a few games this year. If you want yours to be one of them, help build a community and give me ways to interact with your game and IP outside the game.

This article is cross-posted on gamasutra. I originally appeared on my site, mispeled.net – a place to talk about games, writing, and creative ideas of all sorts.

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