Those working in the game business understand there’s more than design, coding, artwork and audio. A variety of disciplines are now dedicated to maximizing the business and “usability” potential of games. People are dedicated to game and business analysis, contributing to key decisions, working with designers to optimize the user experience (UX). The field of game user research (GUR) studies how players interact with games. Genre and complexity of games today are so broad, game maker’s today must know their audience, interpret data collected and listen to community feedback.
In each game played, we as players consciously and subconsciously perform a mental checklist. It’s a process that determines if and to what degree we engage in a game. The level of engagement found in the majority of players ultimately determines a game’s popularity.
My interest in game analysis began in arcades during the early 80’s. While waiting to play, I would often chat with other players. But I found it equally informative to quietly observe. I compared their learning curve to my own. Was learning intuitive, did difficulty ramp fairly, and was challenge and achievement rewarded? Being able to translate my observations into actionable items, helped me better understand the user experience. By being a voice of the player, I could enable teams to make games that would be played over and over again.
Coin-Op: It’s About Earning Power
The best of the classic games distinguished themselves by earning more quarters than others. A simple, yet honest barometer. They did so by commanding attention, engagement, and retention.
Weekly “collection reports” (see later example) documented each game’s earnings. Like a mini App Annie they ranked games by a metric ($) time on location (weeks), this week vs. last week’s rank. Obviously, mobile games don’t charge for each play like an arcade game. But doing so would reveal very interesting data. You never truly know the demand or perceived value of a product until people have to pay each time they use it.
In 1982 I met Nintendo of America’s VP of Marketing, Ron Judy while playing Donkey Kong. He arranged for me to meet with Mr. Arakawa over a then test game called Donkey Kong Junior. He asked me to visit Nintendo the next day and show the company how I played it. Surprisingly my demo and game comments while the company watched earned me a job. Hired on the spot, it remains as one of my best days ever.
Nintendo created the Market Research Analyst position for me. Improved information would lead to more informed business decisions. But I had no experience in the game industry. Nor did I know anyone else who did. Nintendo was the only game company in the Seattle area. I reported directly to the president of Nintendo of America, Minoru Arakawa.
Uniquely smart and confident, yet gracious and unassuming, the door to his office was always open. I was eager to learn and he willingly shared his knowledge. He was a very logical thinker but never assumed to have all the answers.
One of my first projects was a formal game analysis on Donkey Kong Junior (Figure 1). I described in detail the game’s different stages, level progression, game strengths, weaknesses and recommendations for improvement. Understanding its underachieving performance wasn’t as clear then as it is today. Was it too close to theme and timing on the heels of Donkey Kong? Did it have the right mix of easy to learn and hard to master? Was the basic storyline not as compelling? Or as a sequel to a blockbuster hit, were expectations just too high?
Personally, I liked Junior and believed it had the potential for a better fate. A few design tweaks to improve “onboarding” and goal recognition would have increased early engagement. In retrospect, the timing of when to introduce a sequel to one of the best games ever could have been better.