18 March, 2013
What makes a game successful? Well, if I had the answer to that, I'd be bottling it and selling it and buying a gold-plated sports car. The reality is that there are a ton of little parts and pieces that contribute to the whole. You have to figure out each of those little elements (and have a healthy dose of luck) to succeed
Let's take a look at one particular aspect: how much of the game should be new, compared to how much should be familiar to your players.
Mixing the old and the new
It's been a rule of thumb that you generally want to mix the old and the new together when creating a new work. The old is tired and boring, but the new can be too alienating to players.
Recent I read an excerpt from a book on junk food that drove home why a mix of old and new tends to work:
"So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring," Moskowitz said. The answers he got were inconsistent. "They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough."
This contradiction is known as "sensory-specific satiety." In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more.
The interesting lesson for game design is that while people are much more likely to pick up something novel, they are likely to get tired of it faster. On the other hand, people tend to be able to continue with something that doesn't overload the senses. In food, this is the preference turkey tetrazzini but being able to eat white bread endlessly. In games, this means that innovative indie title will probably grate on you after a short period of time, while you can keep playing the latest clone or sequel until 4 AM in the morning, if you decide to play it in the first place.
(As an aside, I realize the pitfalls of pointing to a book about how junk food manufacturers manipulate tastes when discussing game design. Armchair Designer has already covered the comparison between the two in some depth. But, to repeat what I said in a comment on that site: game developers are generally more interested in developing a fun experience than trying to "addict" you. And while I'll agree that play is as basic a need as eating, I think modern games and modern (junk) food have a LOT of vital differences to take into consideration before trying to damn the game industry by association. This is largely beyond the scope of this article, although that quote does really illustrate the point.)
But, with "sensory-specific satiety" in mind, let's think about what the right mix is for a game.
Too much new
Time to revisit our old friend, innovation. What happens if you focus too much on the new? You fail. As I wrote in that post, innovation and polish are diametrically opposed to each other, so you can't create a game that is mostly new gameplay mechanics and perfect them. That intriguing new mechanic attracts people, but it can't retain them. And, you want that retention to spread good word-of-mouth recommendations to other people. This is especially true for MMOs, where you also need people to stick around and build your critical mass of users.
It can be tricky to determine what's really "new", though. There's a danger where someone immersed in a field (like game designers tend to be for games) forgets that not everyone has the same depth of experience. What can seem like old hat for us can be a bolt from the blue to someone else. We designers can get bogged down and feel jaded when our experiences set us too far apart from the average person. Sometimes even recombining existing elements can feel like a whole new thing that is greater than the sum of the parts. But, this newness can overwhelm the player, making them feel "sated" and tired of the game quicker.
Of course, not everyone reacts the same way. Some people will be interested in sticking with a product that is truly "innovative', creating a core audience. But, if you're relying on having a large audience for your game, you're going to be limited if you focus purely on new elements to the exclusion of old, familiar elements.
From a business point of view, thought, you want the new parts to offer should be something that isn't easily duplicated by others. Larger companies tend to be terrible at true innovation, but they will be only too happy to copy what you're doing and throw more resources behind it if you're doing something interesting. Again, innovating carries risk, and proving that your innovation works is the hard part.
Too much old
If you rely too heavily on just copying older works, then you're just cloning rather than designing a game. Depending on how recently your "inspiration" was created, you might at best be tagged as unoriginal or at worst get accused as ripping off another game developer.
The value of the old is that you have something that you can polish, because you can analyze what has come before. Further, this is the comforting part that keeps people coming back. Players know what to expect, and they will keep playing in order to master it or just to "pop virtual bubble wrap" in a way that feels comfortable to them. The old is established for a reason, and trying to compete directly with another company at something they're already doing is probably not a great way to attract people; existing fans will stay with your competitor, while people bored with the old will give your work a pass.
Again, these reactions aren't universal to every person. Some people might have their curiosity piqued by the old familiar; nostalgia has a certain lasting appeal (especially, it seems, on Kickstarter). And, as I wrote in the linked post, cloning works for many reasons, so sometimes people don't need the allure of the new.
Getting the mix right
So, you're a designer and you realize that you need some of the old when you're doing something new. This makes sense since Everything is a Remix, meaning that every work tends to have a bit of what came before it incorporated into the work. You start with the old, then hopefully express something new as well.
Keep in mind that presentation matters. There is the risk of what feels like "bait and switch" if you focus so much on the new that the old is a surprise. Let's take a look at Guild Wars 2 (GW2), and some of the current feeling about the game. The original Guild Wars was a rather innovative game. It was easy to get to max level, and players spent most of their time getting small upgrades or earning titles. GW2 had an infamous "manifesto" where they talked about how they were going to do bold things and not follow in the footsteps of other MMOs. This is the novel taste that piqued the audience's interest.
However, even though they were excited about the game, some people aren't happy with the new focus. Having to "grind" for new tier of gear doesn't feel like it's keeping with the original promises from GW2's manifesto. Other fans are beginning to question the entire direction the game is heading, arguing that the game seems to be painting itself into a corner in how it can continue to develop and still pretend to be unique.
Yet, for all the cautious pessimism, these two fans are still playing. I think at least one small part of it is that there's still some intriguing tastes to sample yet in the game. Or, perhaps the old familiar patterns are establishing themselves in a game that is more optimized and streamlined, and people are secretly happy to fall into those patterns once again.
We could also look at the example of WoW to see a game that got the balance just right. Take the old, established formula from EverQuest and other DIKU-derived games, build upon an established and beloved franchise like Warcraft, but then add in a focus on the ability to play solo and streamlined questing. You can perhaps see why the game did so well; they offered something a little different and appealing while sticking to a familiar core.
No single right answer
In the end, there's no universal measure of what mix you need. You can't easily determine that X% needs to be original and Y% should feel familiar without being derivative. It's hard to draw the line where the familiar becomes derivative, as that tends to be a matter of personal taste.
What do you think? How much new do you want to see, and how much do you like the old, comfortable, familiar at the core of the new experience? Do you think you have more tolerance or less patience for novelty than others do?