I was sitting in my car, taking a phone interview with the VP of Marketing from a big mobile games studio.
“What’s the most important KPI… in your opinion?” he asked.
The question sounded open-ended, but I was pretty sure that there was only one right answer.
KPI, for those who don’t follow the alphabet soup of the games business, means “key performance indicator”.
“Um, LTV?” I answered (which is short for “life time value”).
“No, no…” the voice in my handset clucked. Without giving me a chance to explain my answer, he continued. “Retention is the most important KPI. Do you know why?”
“Because customers who continue to play are more likely to spend?”
“No, because customers that come back are happy customers. Great retention numbers prove that we are making products that people love.”
Hmmmm… that didn’t sound right.
The truth is, there is no metric for fun, and retention is not a good proxy. If you’ve ever played a game with a heavy grind, you’ll know that there is a difference between playing long term to rank up/collect prizes etc., and playing because you love the game. Yes, there’s often an overlap. But when you’re being routed through the same set of events over and over again to the point where the activity is rote, you’re probably playing for extrinsic rewards (gear, xp), instead of intrinsic rewards (fun).
I experienced this recently with Splatoon 2. As I was mastering the controls, and getting progressively better, I was having a lot of fun. But at a certain point, I understood the nooks and crannies of every stage, and I had gotten good enough at my main weapon that I usually came in first on my team. At that point, my focus shifted from improving to leveling. I wanted the ‘gold’ version of my favorite weapon, which wouldn’t unlock until I reached level 28. I started listening to podcasts while I was playing, or watching TV out of the corner of my eye. I’d play in quick spurts throughout the day, and then have marathon sessions at night. It was constantly on in the background, all so I could slowly earn a digital prize.
After 80 hours of total game time, I finally got the gun I sought. And about two hours after that, I stopped playing altogether. I looked at the time spent, and felt that maybe thirty of those hours were what I’d call fun… the rest was just a grind. I felt unsatisfied… but how could that be, when the game had successfully ‘retained’ me every day for multiple weeks?
By contrast, I loved every one of the 420 minutes I put into Uncharted: Lost Legacy. The game was constantly showing me something new and exciting. There was no leveling. I wasn’t made to go through the same environments over and over again. Uncharted sought to make every minute of its screen time golden. All muscle, no fat. Certainly, Uncharted was more expensive on a per-hour basis than Splatoon 2, but by giving me something new at every step, the time spent in Uncharted was more satisfying and worthwhile. I ‘retained’ in Uncharted for less than two days, but I had an A+ level of fun.
This week, I also played through Sonic Mania and Undertale. Both are less than six hours long, and both deliver unique and surprising gameplay beats every couple of minutes.
Tightly crafted moment-to-moment gameplay will always be the exclusive domain of what I call “games-as-a-product” (GAAP). GAAP games are the type you’d compare to great books, or movies. You can always feel the presence of an author. Games-as-a-service (GAAS) games, by contrast, have to stretch their content over hundreds (or thousands) of hours, so they simply can’t promise that every step will be novel. For every legendary fire fight you have in Overwatch, you’ll inevitably have a lot more mundane sessions, running through the same scenarios you’ve seen for months on end. The most financially successful GAAS games do deliver high retention rates…. But they also serve up a whole lot of grind.
I understand why many players love games-as-a-service. They are truer to the culturally understood definition of a ‘game’ than GAAP experiences are, typically offering multiplayer PVP scenarios with specific rules. GAAS is to GAAP what the NFL is to Game of Thrones. As popular as HBO’s dramas are, none get anywhere near the viewership that the Super Bowl does.
Maybe it’s the film major in me, but I find myself gravitating a lot more to the type of games you can put on a bookshelf, and pick and play a decade later… just like my favorite Blu-Rays. I generally don’t want to deal with other players. I want to be the only hero. I’m a GAAP fan all the way.
It’s a bit scary to read that companies like Platinum, who developed some of the best GAAP games of our generation, are struggling to survive. It was a shock to see Dishonored 2 fail at retail. I’m happy for friends who have found their catnip in Destiny, but I hope that the popularity of that and similar AAA service titles don’t crash the market for solo adventures. Would Uncharted be viable if it wasn’t a first-party game? Could Rise of the Tomb Raider be profitable without Microsoft footing part of the bill for exclusivity?
Certainly, indies will always be on-hand to deliver new GAAP games. Product games are easier to maintain than service titles, and they’re cut from the same cloth as the games that inspired indie devs to jump into the market in the first place. And given that GAAP games typically don’t require an internet connection, they can be stockpiled and played long after the market for new releases goes away.
Bet let’s not apply a bunker mentality quite yet. Let’s do what we can now to support GAAP games, which generously shower us in exciting new experiences every step of the way. Let’s chase novelty and cleverness. Let’s value our time, and pay for fun instead of external rewards. In doing this, we’ll help publishers understand that customer satisfaction and retention are not one-and-the-same, and we’ll get more expressions of joy, and less expectations of grind.