Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

16 August, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Evaluating your local culture

This week, let’s turn our attention to ourselves for a change. Culture is an important part of games, so let’s take a look at what local cultural aspects are important to game design. This is hard, because it is often difficult to identify what makes your culture unique in the eyes of others.

We have looked at culture issues in other cultures, too. I’d recommend taking a look at another culture in terms of gaming before trying to look at your own. You often lack the perspective to see what’s right in front of your face if you don’t take a look.

You can also take a look at this article about cultural issues with game design and cultural issues by Kelly Heckman. Here she explains how geography can make a huge difference in gameplay. A game that focuses on a very small area, such as a Korean game, can make certain design assumptions that aren’t valid for other cultures.

One of the comments on the other cultural design challenge also shows some of the problems you have in taking a game from one market to another. The way a social atmosphere changes the game, such as being able to yell at each other or the social pressures to smoke, are interesting.

One of the big cultural issues in the U.S. that I have identified is that some U.S. consumers aren’t very savvy when it comes to price. People looking at M59 say that the $10.95 price is “almost” the same price as they pay for other games. Even if you buy your time in 6 month chunks (so that it is only $2 more per month), this ignores the price of having to buy the original box and expansions in the store. Kelly’s article above talks about this, too, when she mentions the “The Pen Problem”:

Take this pen I have for sale. This pen is revolutionary. You will write to the best of your ability at all times when using this pen. It is so incredible that the feel of it in your hand will give you serotonin rushes. I have two price plans for you:

  1. You can have this pen for free. It’s yours. But, it has very little ink. If you decide you like it, you can refill it at any time, with any available color for $1.00 per refill. You can buy multiple refills at once, swap out colors, or simply purchase one at a time when you run out. The pen refills could cost you as little as $1.00 for the entire year! Or as much as you want to spend…I mean, this pen makes you feel good!
  2. You can have this pen in your pocket with refills in whatever colors are available (more to come out as time goes on) for $3.99 per month. However, if you stop paying the $3.99, I’m going to take the pen away. If you don’t use the pen, it will still cost $3.99. But, it will always be available to you.

The simple fact is that the North American consumer will more frequently pick option #2 because the amount is minimal in an overall budget and he/she will greatly overestimate the time the pen will be used.

Part of the problem here is that the customer has been used to paying for option 2, and option 1 is the scary new one. People feel safer budgeting something with a regular cost, even though they may not buy 4 ink refills per month to make up the cost. There’s also an issue of self-control, where some people will be tempted to buy hundreds of ink refills (look at all the colors!) then regret it later. But, these are two major cultural issues in the North American market.

So, what are the issues in your home market (or whatever market you make games for)? How does that impact game design and development?







4 Comments »

  1. The American market is pretty broken. A quick peek at the economy should point that out. Americans have huge entitlement issues, feeling that they “deserve” many things simply for being in the right place at the right time. That’s pretty much the driving factor behind the stock market. It’s scary when gambling and a sense of “I should be able to live off of interest if I invest well” are the driving forces behind the economy.

    Simply, Americans don’t like to work. When they are forced to, they want it short, with ample rewards. Obvious, material rewards, at that. Karma and moral fibre don’t offer enough of a payoff.

    There’s also the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, complete with the derivative herd mentality and shallow surface estimations of worth.

    Bluntly, some of that is what drives the core WoW mechanics. Quick rewards, bragging rights, and huge compensatory shoulderpads. The “investment” mentality is how Blizzard keeps people paying for the game. Once a character has been played for a long time, largely thanks to the “time=progress” design, there’s not only an emotional connection forged but a financial one; that subscription money has been spent, and a return is demanded. That’s where the sense of ownership comes from, which drives the entitlement and kvetching on the forums. It’s also why people keep playing; they don’t want to see their “hard work go to waste”.

    American financial incontinence and rampant consumerism also makes option 2 of the OP’s example “look better”, but that’s only because they lack self-control. Many companies in various industries take advantage of that ignorance and inertia.

    That’s a large part of why design in the “Western world” is so different from the Asian market. The rampant consumerism and “investorism” direct game design through the desire to take economic advantage of the social weaknesses. Investors drive corporate decisions, and the need to pay out dividends puts a short leash on risk and design innovation in the industry. Addictive leveling treadmills have proven to have a decent ROI, even if it’s not in the best interest of the design or the player. The financial needs of the company dictate design choices.

    Designing for this market largely means either swimming with these market trends, trying to carve out a piece of the pie, or consciously bucking the mainstream in an effort to find a counterculture niche market. (Whether or not people buy in because they are conscious objectors or just want “change” is fairly irrelevant to the beancounters.) This might mean self-funding from capital, rather than loans, so as to retain creative control and not be beholden to investors. It might mean a smaller scope of design, or minimalistic tech/art constraints, to keep overhead down. It might mean heavily styled game worlds, to keep Moore’s Law from obsoleting your game in a few years, to allow for a wider target audience, and to keep your artists from burning out. (It can also avoid the Uncanny Valley effect.)

    Americans also love to be “the hero”. Some of that comes from the general impotence they suffer in the real world, some of it is the “wild west” image that has so laboriously been maintained. Epic battles of good vs. evil, with all the overblown effects thereof in storytelling and visuals, are far more interesting to American audiences than anything with literary or visual subtlety. The Asian penchant for abstraction also baffles Americans, who like clear, obvious questions and answers.

    Comment by Tesh — 19 August, 2008 @ 5:03 PM

  2. I think one of the things I like most about RPGs from Asian countries is that they are not designed for the US, and thus are not rehashes of American fables with Hollywood endings.

    Comment by Rik — 20 August, 2008 @ 12:29 AM

  3. Tesh,

    You’ve taken an interesting look at American culture, but you only hit one swath of the field. You describe a primarily baby-boom demographic of middle class Americans.

    You also touched on the “hero” and the “western,” which are parts of culture and story-telling in the US. But you also brush off the literary and intellectual heritage of the country.

    But sadly, that heritage doesn’t really come into play when you are strictly talking about MMO audiences. And again sadly, the audience for MMOs seems to skew towards baby-boomers and their Gen-x/y children.

    So you are right, but maybe for the wrong reasons. If that makes any sense…

    Comment by Black Molly — 20 August, 2008 @ 11:46 AM

  4. It’s not so much a brush off of the literary background as it is not wanting to write more than I did already. You’re right, there’s a lot of background there, and some rich lore to tap. American folk legends, the wild west, Native American lore, or even stories from the Hawaiian or Alaskan natives, reaching out a bit. “National Treasure” tapped into another section of the lore that could be interesting. Even a mostly-historical (or “alternative fictional timeline” historical) MMO built on the Civil War could be interesting, even as it risks overindulgence in navel-gazing.

    And aye, that’s a sweeping generalization of a single “swath” of American culture… but right now, it’s the dominant swath, and the one driving the economy. As such, it’s relevant from both a business perspective and a design perspective. Is it the only culture of Americans? Of course not, and there may well be niche markets for a variety of other swaths of the population. My rant/analysis there is mostly looking at the driving economic factors. From a pure storytelling point of view, there are a whole lot of interesting directions to go.

    Comment by Tesh — 20 August, 2008 @ 3:39 PM

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