Last week, I was fortunate enough to be one of the few folks who attended the Northern VA IGDA meeting where Paul Barnett spoke to us about desire. Specifically what you can and cannot control to influence your customers into buying your product (in his case a subscription to a MMORPG). That is, to make them desire your product. To warm up he spoke about the utility of mind maps and suggested reading Tony Buzan’s book on Mind Maps. While speaking about mind maps, he hinted at the mind map he drew on the board in preparation for his talk. As background, for those who may not know what Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR) is, Paul explained that it is not a computer game. As Paul sees it, computer games are like “washing powder” (laundry detergent) in that it is a product which is made, shipped and forgotten about. Next week there is always a better version of washing powder on the market (new, improved, etc), to the point where it seems like just weeks ago we were essentially washing our clothes in dirt. WAR, in contrast, is a hobby game. As a hobby game it requires skill, commitment and imagination. Hobbies are self-obsessed/self-indulgent; a very personal endeavor. And WAR is not just a game that is shipped and forgotten. Since it is a massively multiplayer online game, the developers must constantly work to improve the game while the customer service team resolves issues and others work to lead in-game special events. EA Mythic is providing an experience with WAR (as is Blizzard with World of Warcraft, aka WoW). Getting back to the topic of the evening, Paul spoke of the three thwarts to your product:
- Acts of God. These are causes that you have no control over, so you shouldn’t try to overcome them. Examples included loss of internet, loss of life, bankruptcy, etc.
- Your own fault. These are causes that you have total control over which you can mitigate with planning, investment and training. Examples included unstable code/servers, bad download experience, bad customer service, bad install experience, etc.
- Not any good. These are causes that you have control over which are extremely difficult to mitigate. You cannot just plan to have a good game or invest in a good game. This is extremely subjective, what one person thinks is great someone else may believe to be total crap. Examples included balancing the game, making it engaging, building a sense of community, etc.
Once you’ve built-up desire for your product you have to maintain it. Paul stated that desire is eroded at audit points. Audit points are times when the customer takes stock of their experience and consciously chooses to continue paying you money or not. He compared audit points to the form of interrogation where-by a person’s head is held under water for a period of time and then pulled out — those points when the person comes up gasping for air are audit points. You have to keep people away from audit points. Each of the thwarts mentioned above cause audit points. Thus when you balance (or nerf) the game, you’ve just changed the user’s experience and thus inserted an audit point. In addition, when you release an expansion pack or a patch, it causes an audit point as the user must choose whether or not to go out and purchase the expansion pack which allows them access to new locations/adventures taking them out of their comfort zone within the game. That’s all well and good, but how do you actually build desire for your product in the first place? Paul believes that you must plan and invest in several areas prior to the launch of your product. You should have transparent communication from the very beginning (see Paul’s video blog along with developer interviews/podcasts and other behind the scenes material). You also need to build a sense of community so that your customers and prospective customers feel part of a greater whole. In this regard, EA Mythic has created kits for fan sites, forums on their website, special promotional events and materials, etc. Another way to build desire is to ensure that your product provides a sense of progression. This is very similar to the notions espoused by Kathy Sierra around helping your users kick ass. At the end of his talk, Paul mentioned the ‘innovator’s dilemma’, specifically evolution vs. revolution. He estimated that new products can only support 2-3 innovations per release, any more would simply overwhelm the market. For a product like his, he gave examples like a unique HUD, unique control scheme, completely different questing system, etc. In a related vein, he spoke about ‘crossing the chasm’, loosely related to Geoffrey Moore’s book which discusses bridging the gap between the early adopters and the early majority (the pragmatists). Paul’s example was that of setting for the game, fantsy vs. science fiction. His argument was that people can relate to better to a fantasy world as everyone knows about cutting enemies down with swords or clubbing them but shooting blaster cannons or instaneous space travel, which don’t exist in real life, take more of a leap. Personally, I’m not sure that’s the reason why most Sci-Fi MMOs are having a difficult time but he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. Overall, Paul’s talk was quite enjoyable (in no small part to his bitingly sarcastic British humor) and he has definitely made some interesting observations, though it would seem that many are widely known outside of the “game development” community. I look forward to hearing more from Paul and the team at EA Mythic and will be keeping an eye on the development of WAR.