The craze began like a wildfire. There was no warning before we began seeing people walking around like zombies. At the zoo crowds resembled the enemies from ToeJam and Earl, running to and fro haphazardly. There was an imaginary world that only those in the know could see.  Pokemon Go set off a craze when released July 2016. Hundreds of millions downloaded it and played feverishly. It caused accidents and resulted in dead bodies found. Players even had companies pay to fly them around the world to catch the final ones.

pokemon-goAs time went on the craze slowly began to dwindle. Fewer and fewer people booted it up each day. While it is still wildly successful for Niantic and the Pokemon Company, it is no longer where it once was. It will likely never get back to its peak, but can it bring players back at all? They have already begun doing events and updates to try and reclaim players such as a Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas events. A new Pokemon, Ditto, and other Generation 2 Pokemon were recently released. Overall, it feels like these updates are met with apathetic “yaaaay” that reminds this gamer of Monty Python minstrels.

This case presents an interesting question facing gaming, can a game reclaim its players? Do players go back to check it out after they left, or are they done for good? There are many games where this question is becoming more and more crucial, Starcraft 2, World of Warcraft, and Destiny. Other games will face this question eventually, like Pokemon Go and even the great League of Legends.

Video game studios try many different tactics to lure players back in. Where TV shows go for new characters and surprises (weddings/babies), the video game industry tends to use expansions. Expansions use a massive update to lure a player back to a game they enjoyed with new stories, missions, items, and challenges. For an Esport style game, developers use changes to units and strategies to bring players back. With each expansion the bounce in players have dwindling returns as more gamers check out and move on.

 

The Video Game Relationship:

I have had the pleasure of joining a group that would nightly play Starcraft 2. Each evening at 9pm, they would gather on skype before linking up for a 4v4 game. They would chat about life, strategies, and enjoy every great game played. For over two years the group gathered for this nightly ritual. It was the chosen vehicle for their bonding.

stacraft-2After the final expansion, Legacy of the Void, came out and the group enjoyed its last hurrah before moving to a new outlet. Rest easy Blizzard, they chose Overwatch. As a sporadic player, I continued StarCraft with the new Co-op mode. To my surprise when I invite one member to come back for a night, he said no. He had moved on and no longer plays Starcraft 2.

Another buddy of mine played Pokemon Go. He had his phone on constantly to catch anything that came by. I recently shared my catching of a Ditto, only to hear he had not turned it on for months. He doesn’t want to see the game any longer and deleted it.

These encounters felt like the groups had been in a relationship. It was exciting at first. Each new date was a thrill, an adventure of exploration and satisfaction.  They couldn’t wait for more. Then the passion slowly died. Some broke off the relationship quickly as they were never that attracted. Others, like my Starcraft group, had been in a long term relationship. Once it was done though, they want the break to be final.

Once we have healed from our break up, and realize that the game may not have that initial excitement, can we come back and just be friends? Is it possible for us to go back and rekindle what once was? Though video game industry desperately tries to get gamers back, I wonder, can we go back?

 

The Breakdown:

I hear the argument now, “but TB, I go back to old games all the time!” The question though is which games? I have an extensive collection of retro games and there are usually two keys for return: event and quality. Our friends or event gets us thinking about how we enjoyed the game before. These catalysts are what draw us back after years. My desire to play Pokemon Gold after Pokemon Go came out is a great example. Relationship wise, this is like checking in on facebook or going out for coffee after years away. There is no intention of another relationship just a quick “oh the memories” kind of gathering. To boil it down, this is the high school reunion of video game experiences.

The second thing to consider is the quality of the game. We do not return to games like Sonic Shuffle or Hydlide. We return to Mario 3, Super Smash Bros., Halo, or Half-life. I do not believe that we return to these games because they are classics, but because they are good enough in the first place for us to create fond memories. It is the memories surrounding our game experience that get us to return. We do not go to a High School Reunion with the intent of going back to high school, but for the memories and celebrating what the experience was. Nostalgia is what draws us back for a quick play.

That’s the trick though, these retro games are different. They draw us back for a single use, not to reunite for good. It is only with the advent of online gaming, MMO, and Esports that companies are trying for longevity instead of the quick hit. Nostalgia drives remasters, remakes, and ports to new systems. Studios now want to retain subscriptions, tournaments, and micro transitions. It becomes easier and lucrative to maintain a creation than build something brand new. There are a few styles of games that companies are trying to build for longevity: ecosystem, MMO, and Esports.  A few examples of ecosystem games are Little Big Planet, Mario Maker, even Starcraft 2 has an arcade mode. MMOs hope to build a world for a player to become a part of. World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI become the social outlet.  Other games aim for longevity through competition. League of Legends, Starcraft 2, and Dota are prime examples. Here we see the sports team that trains from a young age to make it in the big league. Less skilled players get coaches or become fans to watch the pros compete. You may not be able to make it as a professional football player, but you still might watch your favorite NFL or NCAA team.

 

Esports:

esportsLet’s begin answering our question with the sports analogy. Sports and competition has been around for thousands of years, as evidenced by the Olympics. Baseball has been prominent in USA for over 100 years. It is clear that competition has longevity. There is a sticking point here though. Most sports that last have a connection to the fan. Team based sports draw much larger fan bases than the solo sports (ie. NFL, MLB, Primer League, NBA). Once a team draws the fan in, then the skill of specific players amaze and inspire. These teams have the advantage of connecting to fans based on region or a commonality such as university. The fans then are rooting for “their” team. Narcissistically, they are rooting for themselves. It’s human nature. The fan wants to claim that they had a part. “We” did it. Listen to any amount of sports talk radio and you will hear fans discuss teams as “we” and “us”. Esports do not have this connection with teams yet. Do you root for Liquid? Why? Why not Startale? MVP? The true correlation I believe is to individual sports such as Golf, MMA, and Tennis. The challenge here can be seen as these sports do not gather the publicity and market the same way a local team sport does. Another challenge is that without being local, a team like Liquid or Dignitas is hard to connect with. Streaming provides the best route to follow an individual, but how to find the stream? The Olympics highlight the challenge with this formula. Athletes do not get the notoriety or publicity until the event happens. It is the tournament that draws people in. The trick though is the tournament places people in countries and gives the fan someone to root for from their country. Esports draws in some fans with the large tournaments and championships, but the connection with teams as an entry point is lacking. The other challenge here is the high turnover in Esports, from players to the games themselves. Most sports have been around an exorbitant amount of time with small steady changes. The landscape for video games does not allow this, or we have yet to really see one last. The closest to achieving this success is Starcraft Broodwar in Korea, which still has tournaments.

A new development gives hope to truly creating a fan base connection- college teams and Blizzard’s city based teams. US colleges have begun embracing some Esports and creating teams. Blizzard also just announced that they are revamping Esports with Overwatch. Blizzard will be implementing an offseason, sustainable salaries, scouting (path to becoming pro), and region based teams that allow for local competition. These new developments allows for the “we” language and forging new connections with a team. It also allows for sustained success for talented and dominate players.

league-of-legendsCan Esports bring gamers back? Sadly, the answer is likely no. If most of Esports is like golf and tennis then we need only look at how a star inspired interest and the result of their fall. Tiger Woods drew in millions of viewers to see him compete and dominate. When he struggled, ratings dropped and have not recovered to the levels they once were. New fans have come in small numbers, but casual fans that latched onto Tiger have moved on. Esports, such as Starcraft, see this happening now. It was the legends that drew people in- Flash, Creator, Marineking, and more recently Hydra and Life. Success is short lived at the top in that game. As things changed the top players have faded and viewership has dropped. Expansions were tried, which provided a bump, but never back to the peak. The game now has now become something completely different with Co-op being the main focus and tournaments being cancelled. The only games here that seems to have hope in bringing people back is League of Legends and Overwatch as they embrace regional teams and structures that learn from other professional sports.

 

MMOs:

The ultimate goal of the MMO is to become the social outlet. It is designed to become the gamers network of friends. Time spent here is a social gathering like that at a bar or party. The biggest challenge with these games is they are in constant competition. Competition with all other social networks and responsibilities the gamer has. Go on the quest, or go to work? Meet up with your clan or attend class? The flipside is the game is reliant on you making connections. If your connections leave then you are alone. Imagine connecting up each week at the bar, but all the others have kids and no longer come. Are you going to be at the bar by yourself? No, of course not. You find a new outlet. That means new friends in the game or another game.

A college roommate of mine played Final Fantasy XI for two years. In those two years he logged over 200+ days of play time. Insane! He one day realized it was impacting his life and asked me to hide the game from him so he would not get back on. After a few weeks he no longer wanted to go back. I never saw him play the game again over the last two years of college.

It is for this reason that I do not believe gamers come back to these types of games. Once done, they lose the connection and friends. Without the friends on the game then there is no reason to dive back in.

It was easy to see the natural curve for an MMO in World of Warcraft’s subscription numbers. Unfortunately, Blizzard stopped releasing data to track when it began trending down. As of November 2015 World of Warcraft was down to 5.5 million subscribers from 12 million in its prime. With the latest expansion WoW is now back up to 10.1 million subscribers. This shocking twist has two key elements. First, each expansion in WoW has provided a bump previously so a rise was not unexpected. Why such a large bump? That is the second key, the World of Warcraft movie. Released on June 10th was followed by a WoW expansion in August.  Like previously mentioned, events serve as catalysts for us to return for nostalgia. Expansions often provide this, but their reach is limited to those tuned in to the news. The movie, and marketing for it, reached those who had tuned out.

For most the re-connection is a fun short lived excursion. In relationship terms, it is like seeing an ex, you get together, remember the good times, and have some fun. When the first reminder of why you broke up arises it becomes time to say goodbye again. The game still has its flaws and when you see them again it is time to move on. There are always outliers, but most people are not in long term relationships with once exs. This bump for WoW was largely based on time and marketing reach, but just like previous ones it will drop and continue to fall.

destinyDestiny, another MMO, often gets mistaken as a game that is looking to take WoW’s mantel. With Destiny’s economic model it is clear this is mistaken. Destiny, as a Gamespot reviewer noted, has perfected using game design to keep players addicted like slot machines and a ratio-scheduling system. Bungie uses its regular expansions as the primary source of income instead of subscriptions. Micro transactions boost the bottom line. The genius of the expansion model is that it provides events and new content to keep players focused and coming back for more. Bungie knows expansions only retain players so long. As a result, Bungie is releasing a sequel to Destiny every other year beginning in 2017. The illusion of a new game, even if they turn out to be glorified large expansions, suckers customers into thinking they are getting a brand new experience. This essentially becomes seen as a new entry point rather than a continuation of the previous game. See Madden and Call of Duty to see how well this works. These titles would likely not sell half as well if titled Madden: 2016 expansion, or CoD: Modern Warfare expansion. In the end, Bungie is attempting to create longevity, but essentially without creating longevity in a “single” game. It is likely with the expert use of ratio-scheduling system in game, and in expansions/new games, that Bungie will be able to continue its success in Destiny for the foreseeable future.

 

Ecosystem Games:

little-big-planetEcosystem games are the games that want to be a console. Fans here are encouraged to build and create new content for the game. Little Big Planet 2 is a perfect example. Media Molecule marketed the game as a “platform for games”. They noted how the original had over three million levels and in the second they would be able to create new games and levels. The idea is that the game provides value and longevity by a constant influx of new challenges, ideas, and the ability to create.

This is a brilliant move by the developers. They essentially make the gamers into employees. The gamers prosper by having more game to play and try, where the companies no longer have to pay programmers for new content, just storage.

This model relies on many aspects for longevity, but the biggest key is time. For them to have new content the fans must have time on their hands to learn, create, and fine tune the games. Without time they are no longer able to make new levels for fans. When constraints impact time available to create new levels then new content suffers and ultimately the game will die out.

Time is not only crucial for those making the levels, but those finding and playing them. When the ecosystem becomes over populated, the time to find new worthy games increases. Who really wants to spend more time searching than playing a game? Levels start to blur together as the creative ideas begin to run dry and even the level of new content no longer feels new.

The ecosystem game certainly prolongs the life and replay of a game. Like any ecosystem though, delicate balance needs to be preserved. When the balance is no longer there it collapses and extinction begins. The same is true with these types of games, they will eventually die out and gamers will not come back. Ironically, when the company shuts down the servers hosting the games, the game’s replay value is drastically diminished.

 

New Realities and Free Play:

New technology is bringing out new communities, experiences, and possibilities. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are presenting new possibilities in gaming. While the majority of these experiences fall into the above categories and realities, there are some unique experiences. Pokemon Go is one such game.

While these seem like new models these games often move into the RPG genre. The reason for this is to sustain and profit from the game micro transactions are needed. Two hooks keep a gamer in an RPG, leveling and story. Most micro transaction games lack story, so it is the level and item leveling that sustain the longevity. When a gamer completes their goals they no longer have a reason to return.

This is the delicate balance of psychology, testing human behavior. I remember one study from college where casinos tested how many times a rat would pull a lever to get food before it gave up and stopped playing. The animal had its limit, and companies have tried to implement this tactic in games. The RPG has to have enough time and energy required to prove worthwhile, but not so much that there is no progress.

Once a gamer has completed all tasks or feels there is no progress then they are done. Message boards on Pokemon Go have noted this exact phenomenon. Gamers complain about only getting Pidgeys, no progress, and quit. Others note they found everything or most and quit. Once moved on, the gamer invests in other areas and is unlikely to return, even if it is a new AR or VR.

 

Can we go back?

The words of Marty McFly from Back to the Future have been resonating through my head this entire time- “We have to go back!” I too want to go back. I loved my times with the multitude of games I have played. They were like companions to me. We got to know each other and developed a relationship. The truth though is when our connection with a game ends, it is essentially done. Our best hope to cultivate a long lasting gaming relationship is Esports, but otherwise the reality is that we will only stop in for a quick visit. We acknowledge the good times, but we have found new friends and loves.

To all the games we have loved- its not you, it’s us.