One of the major changes that’s informed game development in the past few years has been the rise of the the games as a service model, which has steamrolled the industry on the back of Fortnite’s successful battle pass. While it might seem like an overwhelming trend, it’s not a foregone conclusion for game development, especially as games increasingly demand more ongoing investment from consumers, forcing them to make difficult choices between both where they spend their money and their time.
Looking at 2020 and beyond, success isn’t just going to be about having a game that offers a never-ending service – it’s going to be about making good on the promise of a deep relationship with games that unlocks even more potent emotional benefits to play.
The idea of games as a service (GaaS) is far from new – MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) like World of Warcraft and F2P (free-to-play) mobile games like Puzzle and Dragons have been doing this for years – but what’s important is how pervasive this model has become.
A good example of how this model is taking over is with the recent shift of Destiny 2 from a boxed $60 AAA release to a “relationship model” F2P game. Instead of front-loading all of their story-based content into a massive expansion, and then relying on holiday or occasional special events to keep players engaged over time, they’ve distributed their new content (such as the recent Corridors of Time puzzle) over their season pass – giving players who in the past may have just played through the expansion and then put it down a reason to keep checking in.
Going beyond this, not only are players spending lots of time consuming new content, they’re also using play as a pillar in their social interactions – with running the weekly Nightfall and chatting serving the same function as an after-work basketball game. Communities are developing online where players discuss strategies or work to solve puzzles. Jokes and memes shared on social media are becoming part of players’ wardrobes, leading to off-platform interactions.
This means more than just increasing the amount of money that players put into a game though – it means that their relationship with the game moves beyond just being a transaction and instead into a central part of their lives, both inside and outside of playing. As a result, Destiny 2 has begun to offer up deep and potent on-going emotional benefits that extend far beyond the time that players are sitting at their console or PC.
Destiny 2 is far from the only game to do this – look at how Fortnite has shifted from a game to social and event platform for another example of what it can mean for a game when they look beyond just monetizing users for an example of how a relationship approach can be successful.
It’s these kinds of relationships that catapult a game from something people just fill the time with to something that is an integral part of their lives – something that makes the calculus of “which games as a service should I invest in?” a lot easier to figure out.
Getting your audience to swipe right – and commit
While this all sounds well and good, there’s one major issue with this shift: you can only have so many deep relationships at once. Accessing those powerful emotional benefits demands time and investment and when every game you’re playing is fighting to be “the one” it can be tough to carve out your spot. Make your offering more attractive by creating consistent, engaging, and relevant content. Attracting and retaining audiences is more important than ever as we head into the next console generation.
One important part of this is understanding players as more than just consumers of your game – for them your game is just another piece of the complex puzzle that makes up their lives. Knowing where your game fits – perhaps as a platform for social interactions or as something they use to unwind – is important not only to help maximize how players use it but also what competition you face.
Beyond understanding your players, it’s also important to keep your the relationship players have with your game as exciting and fresh as possible. Three potential avenues can help keep your game feeling evergreen:
- Encouraging and incentivizing user generated content (UGC)
- Outside-of-game content like fan media or streaming
- Smart transmedia brand extensions
UGC isn’t anything new – if you were playing games like the original Doom or Warcraft III you remember the days of extending your engagement with Total Conversion packs or playing elaborate custom games (the genesis of the MOBA genre was a popular user-created map/mod in Warcraft III for example). Today, it’s just as important as evidenced by the success of evergreen games like Skyrim, with nearly 30,000 mods available for it on the Steam Workshop that range from small graphics tweaks to entirely new campaigns that rival the original in size. Roblox is another great example of this, boasting more 100 million monthly active users (9 million more than uber-hit Minecraft) almost entirely on the backs of scenarios and missions created by users, some of which have concurrence numbers that rival major Steam games like Rust or Rocket League.
One big challenge facing developers who leverage UGC to help extend engagement with their game is incentivizing creators. Especially as content becomes more complex to create (modeling new weapons or skins demands far more than pixel art and limited animation frames), content creators are going to need some motivation to create the kind of quality content that keeps a game feeling evergreen. Experiments with having players directly pay creators have been mixed, but some sort of recognition (financial or otherwise) will be a lynchpin in the link between UGC and engagement.
The benefits of UGC aren’t limited to in-game content. League of Legends or Overwatch are great examples of what fan-generated content outside of a game can do to extend engagement. Cosplay, fan fiction, fan art, and fan media (particularly live streaming) are all ways that players keep interacting with League of Legends without having to actually play it – not only deepening relationships, but opening it up to people who aren’t competitive. While the idea of extending brand engagement beyond play is a given in today’s multimodal media landscape, the level of importance placed on these off-platform engagements has never been higher, especially when it comes to developing a variety of emotional hooks to elevate the role of the property in the lives of consumers.
Of course you don’t have to rely on your community to do all of your content generation. As we’ve seen lately with the release of The Witcher on Netflix and its positive impact on engagement with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, smart brand extensions can also spark emotional hooks and re-engagement with a game – whether it’s transmedia content, merchandising, or brand collaborations and events.
All of these tactics, combined with putting a holistic understanding of the entire consumer (not just the player) at the center of your thinking, can help a game transition beyond something just another service to a vital and evolving relationship that can compete to earn the limited time, energy, and most importantly, the emotional engagement of today’s players.