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The Circle of Life: An Analysis of the Game Product Lifecycle
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The Circle of Life: An Analysis of the Game Product Lifecycle


May 15, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

  Using the genre life cycle to understand changes in customer needs over time

Customer demand rises and then declines over time. Some of this has to do with the general competition of new markets. However, the reliance on game mechanics as the primary source of value for the player also has strong ramifications. As players gain more experience with specific game mechanics, they go through a predictable sequence of engagement, pleasure and burnout.

  • Initial learning. The player encounters the game mechanics for the first time and become engaged in attempting to master them. Various game mechanics can misfire at this stage if the player ignores a mechanic or finds it too difficult or arbitrary.
  • Mastery. The player figures out how to manipulate the game mechanics to their own ends. They experience joy. This is the root of ‘fun’ in most games.
  • Use as a tool. Players use their mastery of the game mechanics as a conceptual or functional tool to manipulate and attempt mastery of higher level game systems. In other words, players gain ‘mad skillz.’
  • Burnout. Players see no further use in the game mechanics. Typically this occurs when the player decides that the mechanics is no longer viable as a tool in a higher level challenge.

This sequence plays out as well in the dynamics of broader market. Individual games, as collections of game mechanics, witness their players running through this sequence as well. Most players will tire of a single game given time. Genres, as collections of games that share similar game mechanics, also exhibit this sequence. Populations of players will tire of playing similar games given time. The micro-design level interaction between games and their players has a profound affect on the larger market for a game genre.

By understanding how burnout progresses, we can explain how player expectations evolve over the various stages of the genre lifecycle. In order to deliver value, you need to understand what your players want and what they can handle. This model helps us target the right level of game mechanics at the most dominant segment of the market. Let’s look at the three distinct stages of mastery that are evident throughout the lifecycle.

  • New player skills
  • Mature player skills
  • Niche player skills

New players

When first encountering a new game, players find everything in it surprising. Players lack the most basic skills of playing the game so the opportunities for both learning and misfires are high.

In Donkey Kong, for example, the act of jumping over barrels for the first time was a huge learning experience for most players. Though modern players might consider this game mechanic not much more than a ‘mini-game’, new players found the freshness of the mastery task was more than enough to justify a purchase. When a genre is new, it is common to witness relatively ‘shallow’ game mechanics achieving surprising successes. Even today, you can see this pattern repeat with titles like Wii Sports. For new players, the product’s value resides in their initial mastery of the new experience, not in the honing of old skills.

Mature players (aka genre addicts)

As the game mechanics standardizes, a core audience of experienced players coalesces around the genre. They’ve mastered the basics and demand that new games both honor their existing skills and offer them greater challenges to master. These passionate fans, called genre addicts, are very willing to pay for more titles that allow them to extend their existing skill set. They are also willing to promote the game. Informal networks of ‘expert’ players drive impressive sales through word of mouth. Many happily teach new players and bring them up to speed through both encouragement and social pressure.

The emergence of a cash rich, well defined, homogeneous audience is highly attractive to many developers in our failure-prone business. It is not going too far to suggest that the majority of the professional game developer industry is constructed to serve maturity stage audiences. Large teams are assembled with the goal of creating products that have a shot at becoming first or second in an established genre. In light of this business strategy, it makes sense that companies tend to value craftsmen designers and developers who are passionate about building incremental improvements within proven genres.

Unfortunately for many, genre addicts, and their practice of clustering around a small number of genre kings, create a winner-take-all environment. Second tier clones are to be expected, as are also their inevitable corpses.


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