Tobold's Blog
Sunday, January 05, 2014
Predicting fun

Unless he plays the same game every day, a gamer frequently needs to make a prediction of fun. He will have to choose which game of his library to play next, and sometimes he might want to choose a new game for his collection. And the question of "will that game be fun?" is obviously an important criterion of choice. But how can we predict whether we will have fun playing some game today or tomorrow?

I think the main difficulty in this choice is whether to go for the old or for the new. If I played game A yesterday and had fun, it is rather natural choice to play game A again today. But we all know that this strategy has its limits: At some point we feel we have "finished" game A, be it because we reached the end of the game or because we simply grew bored of it. So we want to play something else. That still leaves us with a choice between old and new: We frequently predict that because we had fun with game A, we will also have fun with the sequel of game A. I don't know if you saw some of the lists of the best-selling video-games of 2013, but whatever version of it you believe in, it is most certainly dominated by sequels: GTA 5, Pokemon X/Y, Fifa 14, Battlefield 4, a Call of Duty sequel, Assassin's Creed 4, Bioshock Infinite, etc.

And it isn't just sequels: We also tend to stick to games of the same genre. If we grew bored of playing online multiplayer shooter Call of Duty and there isn't another sequel around, we'd rather try the latest Battlefield than to go for something completely different and play let's say a Pokemon game or The Sims. And because game companies know that, they have a tendency to produce games that are rather similar to whatever is selling well at the moment.

That gamer strategy of choosing the tried and tested genre of course also has its limits. Basically it is a problem of diminishing returns: If you switch from game A to game B, and game B is very similar to game A, your learning curve will be a lot shorter, but you are also likely to grow bored with the game faster. According to Raph Koster, the two are very much related, learning something new in a game is an important element of fun.

So one alternative strategy of predicting fun is to go for "something completely different", as Monty Python would have said. If your previous game was a multiplayer shooter, play a point-and-click adventure next, or a puzzle game, or a turn-based strategy game! The basic prediction of fun in that case is "I grew bored with this genre, I'll have more with something else.". But ultimately of course that is more of a shot in the dark than a prediction.

This is where game reviews and recommendations come in: If you are a huge fan of the Assassin's Creed series of games, you are likely to buy the next sequel regardless of what its Metacritic score is. But if you want to try something very different from what you usually play, going for a game that either has consistently high review scores, or is recommended by somebody you believe has similar tastes as you, improves your chance of having fun with a new game. It is still a matter of probability, as you might find that you simply don't like a particular genre of games and even playing the best of that lot isn't fun to you. But if you want for example to try a survival horror game for the first time, chances are you'll like The Last of Us (Metacritic score of 95) better than BlackSoul (Metacritic score of 25). Personally I tried The Last of Us this year, and found I simply don't like that genre, which isn't all that surprising, as I don't like horror movies either. But by going for the best of the lot, at least I'm reasonably sure that it is the genre I dislike, and not just that particular game.

As I have been playing video games for over 30 years now, I arrived at a mixed prediction of fun strategy: I rarely try completely new genres, as frankly new genres aren't arriving all that often. But I frequently change between genres I know I like. And to mix it up a little, I also sometimes play genres I'm indifferent about, but know I don't hate. How do you choose your next game to play or buy?

That could explain why advertising etc. work well compared to reviews (which you would think would be more logical for people to attend to). The ads keep players of a genre aware of 'the next thing' in their genre. Even if the new game is just okay, they'll probably enjoy it well enough.

The reviews are for the fraction of players looking for a change of genre - naturally in this case they want the best in genre to increase their chance of enjoying it at all (though the cleverer ones will look for accessibility to non-genre players as well as absolute game quality).

As for me, it's kind of a mix. I don't usually have the energy to devote to getting immersed in big games in styles that are new to me, so I often go for tried and trusted developers in my favourite genres, and I'm much more prone to take a look at a casual game than a complex one if I don't know what's in it. Indie games these days seem to be getting a bit too indie, but maybe that's just me getting old...

I do pick up odd games now and again when they are mentioned on blogs.

Speaking as someone who isn't very picky about genres, who also has fun comparing and contrasting a wide variety of games - analyzing where and whether their design worked or no, refining my criteria of fun by what I enjoyed or not, etc...

...I end up buying games by price. Specifically when they drop to $5-$10 (~75% off) or less.

One ends up with a big collection to address any mood or whim.

And if I find a game not so fun, only playing it for a night and never touching it again, the low price of entry means no regret. It can always be tried again some other day.

Of course I do tend to pick up higher rated, more talked about games more readily.

Lower rated games I'll only pick up if I'm intrigued by their premise, have read forums to figure out exactly why they scored low (usually something buggy in their implementation) and decided I can put up with that problem. Waiting till they're $1-2 also helps.
"How do you choose your next game to play or buy?"

Um, I read this blog!
Since we're in this age now, I tend to like to go on YouTube and look up video reviews, or even better "first look" videos of games I'm interested in. (Such as TotalBuiscuit's series : "WTF is...")

I also will read reviews from sources where I know the writers preferences, such as this blog. Since I know my preferences, and your preferences, I can make a rather well educated guess about a game reviewed here. =)
I find reviews are essential for filtering the overwhelming choice of games available these days but I also find relying on reviews quite limiting. There are more than enough excellent games around these days that I could only ever play games with aggregate review scores of 80%+. For the most part that is actually what I do but that misses out on many terrific games, often from smaller developers, that are great in their own right but perhaps lack a bit of polish. To counter this I now make a concious effort to find titles with lower scores (aggregate scores in the 60's or 70s)in genre's that I like. Even a single enthusiastic review may swing it for me. Sometimes the flaws become too much for me and I give up but sometimes I find real gems.
Interesting - I was coming here to post pretty much exactly the same as Jeromai.

I wonder if this is half the reason for the Steam Sale: purely a way to get around decision fatigue by a) reducing the number of choices down to a manageable size and b) reducing the potential downside of a wrong choice.

Fascinating pricing psychology stuff!
There are a few genres I've concretely determined I don't like (RTS, most turn-based strategy games, anything where the obsession is clinical rather than immersive, pont-and-clicks that aren't user friendly, etc.) and then I've discovered a few genres I love (any open-world sandbox with a story driven theme ala GTA/Saint's row, FPSes done well, survival horror where you are still allowed to shoot something).

But add me to the pool of people who let sales dictate what we buy, for the most part. I've dabbled in some genres I dislike (tried X-Com and Stacraft II, for example) because I love the theme, but the mechanics end up making it an experience I can't enjoy. As a Steam frequent sales shopper I've accrued about 600 titles on their shop....and probably will never touch 2/3rd of them outside of the initial foray as a result. I justify this by asserting that someday my son will get a giant boon in games, although I am pretty sure he's not going to want dad's geriatric collection of antiquated titles when he's the right age for it.
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