How to Kill Your Favorite Game
Winning at the cost of a healthy community
We’ve all been there. The latest and greatest drops and flocks of players come out of the woodwork to the game store on release day. Veterans and newbies alike meet, play, stay out late, and have a great time. Then, a week later in the same place, at the same scheduled time, you arrive and wonder if it was all a dream. Week after week you are left with a tiny core group; the stalwart, the passionate, and the ones who have nothing better to do. What happened? What went wrong?
Unfortunately due to the pay and play nature of physical games, the onus of player engagement does not fall to the game store or the game’s creators. Once they market and sell their product, it is frequently left to the players themselves to keep a consistent game night. So if it is going to be our responsibility, how can we do it well?
The video game development industry serves as an interesting case study in building lasting gaming communities.In recent years in video game development there has been a shift in mentality as the market for online connection has grown. The focus has shifted from creating an experience that categorizes you by skill and performance to one of player retention and positive experience. Games designers have taken great steps to capture players and keep them. You can see this in the patented algorithms that are being created and the shift from skill based matchmaking to matchmaking that tries to offer the most positive experience for all players (Engagement Based Matchmaking). In the games industry, you can find a great example of early adoption in MTG Arena. If you play MTG arena, you may have been asked after a match if you had fun. Depending on your experience, Arena takes the data from your game and uses it to fine-tune their matchmaking algorithms, using machine learning to maximize player’s enjoyment during matches.
Whether or not they are going about that retention correctly is up in the air. I would argue that good game design is the core of capturing and keeping a good group of players. But, once the game is done and the content is in the players hands, I wonder if it’s our focus and habits that keep great games from having great communities.
When you look at a large portion of consistent game nights for some of the most popular games, you realize that almost every planned event is based on a tournament structure where the best performing player receives the biggest prize. You may be surprised to learn that those events only tailor to a portion of the people who play those games. Not everyone likes playing intensely competitive games and there is a good amount of disappointment to those who would love to win cool prizes but do not yet have the skill or resources to compete with the “best,” and don’t have any interest in working to achieve that level.
Years ago I had the pleasure to stumble across the My Little Pony CCG with my core group of gaming friends. We played it out of curiosity (almost in jest at first) and quickly found out that it was far more fun than we thought it had any right to be. We started attending the game store on a weekly basis at a dedicated time and started recruiting other players. We pulled other gamers from our store, the local Brony scene, and other stores to get a good group going. It didn’t take very many weeks of my core group topping each and every weekly tournament and sweeping the good prizes for people to start disappearing from the group. At the time we were having a blast, but I know there were several others who weren’t. Before long, the community was back to just me and my two best friends, and we had lost something. The diversity and community that surrounded the game in our shop had died because we had built it on the premise that the most competitive players deserved all the prizes.
Is there a way that we can change our view about our player bases? Do we not care to grow and expand our circles to be inclusive to those who are not competitive? I think instead there should be movement towards game events that reward players for showing up and playing the game, and group dynamics that develop a community of tight knit players. Players who try to bring each other up instead of beat them down.Maybe we can pave the path for player engagement without resorting to science founded algorithms. How can we incentivise competition for competitive players without poisoning the well for the casual friends that we need to make our game whole. What do you think?