Making games last: Social Cost

As a player, I want games that give me a reason to keep them.

Games seem to have a problem.  Certain genres sell VERY well.  But others, not so much.  Even if they do similar numbers out of the gate, they just do badly.  And that’s a problem because at these budgets, those games need to sell millions to make money.  Mr. Game-ism clued me in.  Why did EA’s new IP do so poorly last season?  It doesn’t seem to be because they were new IP.  It seems like it’s because they were single player short games, that play around 10 hours or less.  These short games just don’t seem to have the sales staying power that other games do.  Why is that?

I have a theory.  I’ve asked marketing and finance and design, and everyone seems to have factored the results into their figures (just make multiplayer!), but nobody seems to have thought about why.  I think it’s because games have a “social cost”.

I define social cost as the cost to the player of losing/returning/selling the game.  Social cost is what keeps Johnny from beating your game in one day and selling it again.  That’s a big deal, because for these 10 hour games Johnny can easily beat them in a weekend.  That’s kinda the point.  And then what’s he supposed to do with it?  Why not sell it to a place like Gamestop and pick up another game used?  That sale never shows up, and the developer never makes any money on it.  To make matters worse, if there’s no social cost to the game it’s easy for Johnny to just wait until the price drops before picking it up.  Raising social cost doesn’t just prevent resale, it also sells copies sooner, which means at a higher price point.  When less then 10% of games make their money back, and most games sell most of their copies in the first few weeks…

We have a player with an intent.  We have a game with a problem.  This can be designed against.

Let’s take an example.  Multiplayer is a known feature that gets people to keep their games.  Let people play with each other, make the game heavily repeatable and mastery-based, and voila, people not only have much lower incentive, they have incentive to sell new copies for you.  That’s a big deal, and it might be why for so long everyone insisted every game had to have multiplayer.  The one problem:  that multiplayer was expensive and only the top sellers seemed to be seeing this effect, could be attributed to the fact that only the top sellers were doing well anyways, so it must be a market quirk.  But if we think about it, it’s self-reinforcing the other way.  If we design multiplayer that doesn’t take off – even if it’s good – we haven’t raised the social cost of returning the game since no one’s playing multiplayer.  And we’ve lost a lot of dev time that could have made the game better in some other way.  So in this case the multiplayer slightly lowers the game’s social cost, and hurts sales.

As a player, I want games that give me a reason to keep them.

With the help of a friend,  I’ve come up with 3 different categories of factors that seem to raise social cost:

1) Things that give games longer playing times

2) Things that increase word of mouth

3) Things that encourage early sales

For example, some games have high social cost because of their length, such as Fallout 3, or their breadth, like Civilization, or their long-term commitments, like Nile Online and its daily player trades or WoW and its regular guild raiding.  This isn’t about quality.  These games don’t get returned because, well, people aren’t done with them yet.  That means there aren’t many used copies for others to buy.  On top of that, longer played games are more likely to get recommended in conversation, which helps sales too.  We had Fallout 3 conversations at work for months because it’s so large, and that meant there was always a social benefit to keep playing.  But we designers can also dream up features that specifically encourage those conversations.  Games like Medal of Honor, Halo 2 (eg I love Bees), or The Sims have big moments, deep backstory diving, or player stories that get people talking, raising the social cost for not playing, and encouraging sales.  Word of mouth is a classically hard-to-measure sales driver that is closely tied to social cost – and some features are more “must-talk-about” then others.  Lastly, there’s designs that encourages people to pick the game up at right away launch day, things MMOs are grand at – social play, leaderboards, lots of things to find and discover, and level-bound group play.  These designs punish you for showing up late to the party, so you end up buying early at full price.   There’s tons of features in each of these categories that cross over, but they all drive people to keep their copies and convince others to buy as well, all raising the social price people are willing to pay for your game.

The more we can design and target these sorts of creative features in our game, the more we can raise our social cost, and ultimately improve our play experiences through social fun and, of course, our sales.  Pick targets that support your business plan.  Are you a slow burner or a flash-in-the-pan campaign?  Will you make your money through word of mouth or through player competition?  Try thinking about your plan in terms of social cost and let me know how it goes.  I think it might be an invisible sales multiplier that could deliver a lot of bang for your design buck.

(P.S. I tried to find good numbers to back this up, but most of them are guarded.  I was able to do the research myself, but unfortunately can’t link to the numbers.  Of course, these are trendline averages anyway.  But if someone can call out more specifics that would be awesome.)

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8 thoughts on “Making games last: Social Cost

  1. But what about Portal for example? I mean, it was precisely that: 4-8 hours of gameplay, single player. And still I think it sold pretty well, because of that. Everyone who played it played it till the end, so they could talk about it. It is very difficult to talk to someone about Final Fantasy while playing it, because you don’t want to spoil it for him, or you don’t want it spoiled…

  2. Sorry for the double post. But now that I think about it – yes, you are right, cases like Portal are mostly “Early sales” case. If you are making games that are more like movies/books – short, remarkable (worth talking about), cheaper, it probably makes sense selling them like movies. Thus you want to make a game so that everyone would want to “have seen it” so he could “talk about it”, making “having the game *now*” a lot more important than saving ten dollars.

  3. I think you touched on the replayability factor when you mentioned Civ. Anything where the content and game experience changes enough to make it worthwhile to go through it again is going to have an edge.

    Scripted events and AI and interminable cutscenes are a bane to replayability. If we can have truly dynamic AI and a truly dynamic experience, we step away from the notion of “Gee… I’ve done this before.”

  4. There’s another way make sure your games don’t get resold. I work on download games and they have the nice feature that you can’t sell them to GameStop or even give your copy to your friend. You have to activate the game on your computer and that activation is non-transferable. Our games have a purchase spike at the beginning, but they still sell well after the initial release.

    Spore got a lot of flack for activation, but maybe that helped their sales a lot because it’s unresellable.

    So are non-transferable games like PC download, activated, XBox Live Arcade, and MMOs are the way of the future?

  5. @ Tod:
    “Spore got a lot of flack for activation, but maybe that helped their sales a lot because it’s unresellable.”

    Uh… Spore got hacked and copied all over the bloody place specifically BECAUSE people were upset with their scheme.

  6. @Ignas: Yes, this is specifically a problem for retail games, and I should have clarified that up front. Download games like Portal still have the marketing problem, but social cost seems less critical because there is no used market. That said, social cost also improve sales, and in Portal’s case I point to it’s quality and innovation. Quality and innovation increase word of mouth, get critics talking about it, get bloggers writing about it (ahem…), and that increases social cost, yes.

    @Dave Mark: While you know I’m a big fan of replayability, replayability is specifically not a feature of many short story games. It’s more common in mastery games, but when the focus is on narrative and experience, replayability has less significance. It’s a great feature to improve #1 (depth) and I love those games, but many games need other design solutions.

  7. Interestingly, Left 4 Dead seemed to pull off both narrative (albeit shallow) and replayability due to dynamic environment. It was an experiment that may yield fruit later on.

  8. Portal is emphatically not a good example of a short game that sold well. Portal was bundled with Team Fortress 2 (highly anticipated, all multiplayer game that doesn’t end) and Half-Life 2: EP 2 (also highly anticipated). I’d be shocked if Portal’s sales for the first month or so weren’t a tiny fraction of Orange Box sales. If Portal was only available by itself, there’s no way it would have been as popular or generated the buzz it did anywhere near as quickly.

    Word of mouth then generated interest and allowed for more sales of Portal by itself to folks who otherwise aren’t interested in HL2/TF2.

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