After working on games for 14 years, I’ve slowly come to realize something that, in hindsight, should have been obvious: We don’t play games today the way we played them when I was a kid. As a game designer, I need to catch up.
When I was growing up in the mid 80s, there was a neighborhood kid down the road with an NES. He only had one game. Or, at least, we only ever played one game: Super Mario Bros. It was hard, but we loved the challenge. I would visit once a week or so, and we’d chip away at it, getting ever closer to the end of world 8-4.
I got my own Gameboy a few years later. I only had two games: Tetris, and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The latter would keep me up at night, thinking about how to solve the more obscure puzzles and find all the secrets. I remember agonizing over how to find the legendary boomerang.
I played through the whole thing again after I beat it, just to be sure I had found everything. This was before it was standard for games to tell you what percentage of the secrets you had found, so there was always the possibility there was something hidden, somewhere, that I hadn’t seen. Games felt limitless.
Some of my most memorable early gaming moments came from obscure titles with little in the way of tutorials. I loved digging in and figuring out the rules and secrets of these games as I went. Getting stuck just meant I would be up all night obsessing about finding the way forward; it never felt as though just quitting was ever an option. Besides, games were expensive. What else would I play?
Things have changed
Fast forward a few years. Digital distribution is now a thing. The app stores have launched. The price of games has come down, and game development is now much more accessible, thanks to game engines like Unity, Game Maker, and Unreal. More games are released every year. Like, a lot more.
This week, dozens of new games will hit the various stores. Dozens of really good, worthwhile games. If you own an Apple device, you can now pay $5 month and get more games than you’ll probably ever be able to play.
As I look at my Steam library now, I see dozens of titles I haven’t started yet. There are a few games I’ve started, but they didn’t grab my attention and I’ve moved on. There are perhaps five games I’ve “finished” in the last few years.
As an adult player, my attention span has changed — but also, the sheer volume of content means that I simply can’t give the mental energy to any one game as long I used to be able to, but I also no longer feel like I need to. There’s always another game to try, and I probably don’t have to pay much for it, if I even have to pay at all. Various services are always “giving away” games as long as you keep up the subscription payments.
A game has to grab my attention almost immediately these days, and I’m likely to move on as soon as that attention is lost. My habit is to engage with games at a much more surface level these days, in the same way that I skim through long-form articles and books. I have an attention span problem, and I doubt I’m alone.
But I’m not just a fan, I co-own an indie game studio, and this trend is a little terrifying from a business perspective, even though I’m also excited about the diversity of games and creators that have been enabled by a more open industry.
Flippfly’s first game was Race The Sun, and it was a game that was instantly understandable and instantly enjoyable. It was a pretty big hit!
For our second game, Evergarden, we wanted to do something different. It was a puzzle game, wrapped in a magical garden world. It had a lot of hidden mechanics, and a mysterious narrative. We wanted players to feel a sense of wonder, and perhaps unease, as they explored its world.
This is where we may have made a mistake, by designing games based on our experiences as children, instead of looking at how players were actually playing and interacting with games today.
Wouldn’t it be cool, we thought, if we didn’t explicitly explain the rules of the game, and players had to discover them for themselves? We avoided the standard textual, hand-holding tutorial system, and instead gave players subtle hints about what to try next. You’ll discover some of these secrets if you stick with the game for about 20 minutes and, ideally, a sense of discovery will you into what we tried to make a rewarding experience with plenty of discovery.
We’ve had some memorable moments in our Discord server when players express sheer joy, having just discovered some deeply hidden and undocumented secret we left for them to find. The design worked as intended, at least in the broad strokes.
The reality, however, is that a majority of players simply walked away when the game wasn’t instantly gratifying. Only about 20% of players came back and played it after having tried it once. There are certainly improvements we could have made to the design, but I can’t help but think that if we had released a game like this 20 years ago, its reception may have been very different.
And conversely, I wonder whether we could have achieved the same sense of mystery for players if we had set out to make it more instantly accessible. In my mind, it’s an unfortunate compromise to have to make, but it wasn’t just faceless players who were engaging in this behavior … this is how I often play games too these days, I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.
Planning for an overabundance of games, and a lack of attention
This is a line that designers need to walk now, and the end result is that we are spending an increasingly disproportionate amount of our time worrying about “onboarding” players. What is the first-time-user experience? What is the “Day 1 retention”? How do we compete with the 100 other games that launched this week on the same store, not to mention with the games on other storefronts and mobile devices?
Meanwhile, AAA game companies are pouring millions into their titles to ensure that engaged players stay engaged. If you can get them to play for a week, you can probably get them to play for 30 days. And if you can get them to that mark, how can you make them keep playing for months or years? If you can’t assure the money folks that you can achieve these goals with a high enough percent of players, the game doesn’t get made. This is the attention economy, and game designers are becoming attention economists out of necessity.
This trend saddens and frightens me as a game designer, but it is our reality. There are some strategies we can employ to mitigate this attention-span problem, however, and they don’t have to be negative.
When I was just getting started with indie games, Adam Saltsman introduced me to a term he used to describe his strategy for developing web games: “Generous game design.” The idea is that you should show players something really cool in the first few seconds to grab their attention, and to gain their trust. In Saltman’s endless runner Canabalt, the generous game design involved a flashy intro animation where the player character crashes through a window and flocks of birds fly away. It worked.
Another thing I’ve come to accept is that over time, it is possible for a game developer to build an audience who trusts them, and that audience is likely to stick around longer, even if the tutorial is boring. Rest assured that if Blizzard makes Diablo 4 and the first 30 minutes are lackluster — players will ride it out. This is a trust we can build over time by delivering rewarding gameplay. I just don’t think there are shortcuts!
People will sometimes say that certain things only work when Blizzard does them, but that’s thinking about this in the opposite direction and thus missing the lesson. These things only work because Blizzard has spent decades building up trust with the players. Hell, look at Riot Games; Teamfight Tactics is incredibly tricky to learn and requires a lot of outside knowledge before you become competitive, and it blew up. Why doesn’t Riot have to play by these rules?
Well, it spent a very long time earning the trust of a huge player base, and those players are willing to put in the work with future Riot games before they see the fun, or maybe they think the work is part of the fun. I’m not sure, and to be clear, it doesn’t matter. The hard part, in both situations, is how much upfront work had to go into building and rewarding that audience before those two companies began to launch games in a way the rest of us would never dare to.
It could also be that games like Teamfight Tactics succeed in their complexity because they explicitly exist within an ecosystem where the target audience (League of Legends players) is well understood and well-served by their complexity.
Perhaps the lesson for new game designers here is that if you’re inventing a new genre for an audience that isn’t primed for your innovative gameplay, you’d better be prepared to engage them quickly. I also think that some games are just so obviously impressive from first impression that players can’t help but stick with them. It’s hard to pull off this level of presentation as an indie, but we try!
As a player who’s very much a part of this zeitgeist, it’s made me reflect on my own gaming habits, but the most important lesson for me moving forward is that I need to start designing for how I play games, and for how the industry works right now, instead of chasing the nostalgic feelings of how I gamed as a child. Those days are over, for good or ill. Players have changed. Habits have changed. They’re not going back, not in broad, trend-based ways, although there will always be exceptions to every rule.
But I still remember the magical moment I finally found the boomerang in Link’s Awakening. That was 25 years ago. We’re so worried about grabbing, and keeping, the attention of players, I wonder if any of the big moments in games released this year will make a similar impression.
The moment I finally found that boomerang still stands out in my memory, and that was 25 years ago. As I browse through my Steam library now, I’m reflecting on these trends, and thinking that maybe I should dive into something dense, difficult, and maybe mysterious. And I should stick with it until I’ve finally peeled away its last obscure secret. I want to feel that joy of mastery again.
In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be at my desk, redesigning the tutorial for our new game for the 7th time!