Fun may not be easy to sell! Uncovering the hidden attributes of successful games

Estimated read time 11 min read

Electronic games have been developed for more than 40 years and have been subdivided into several mature fields such as web, mobile games, client games and consoles. Among them, only the 3A market, represented by console games, experienced the Atari shock in 1983. Nintendo established a new industry order with royalties and cassette production, and embarked on the right track to pursue quality. This pattern has fostered a healthy market in which manufacturers compete on quality and sincerity rather than on the degree of black-heartedness. However, in addition to the external victory of quality, there is still an undercurrent that is always disturbing the market in its own way.

  Why did Irrational Games, which created the classic “BioShock” series, die? Why is the new year product “Call of Duty” (COD) so popular every year? How much does game quality have to do with sales? These problems that seem to be related to but unrelated to quality are all controlled by a few hands that are not easy to detect.

Quality = sales?

  Don’t beat around the bush and let the data speak directly (all from the US NPD market research group). The chart below records the total revenue of physical console games in North America in 2014. The rating data comes from the famous Metacritic. This website aggregates the ratings of various authoritative game media and calculates an overall score for the game. Games with relatively high revenue that year (with 150 as the watershed) are marked in blue. The higher the game rating, the higher the ranking.

High Rating Games
High Rating Games

  As can be seen from the picture above, the top few are of excellent quality, which is a prerequisite for sales, but it does not necessarily guarantee that the game will sell well. To look at a few prominent counter-examples, Street Fighter 4 and BioShock Infinite are of high quality, but have not even made $100 million in revenue. On the contrary, although several CODs have different reviews, each has a revenue of over 700 million US dollars. It’s no wonder Activision’s New Year’s Eve strategy and Irrational Games’ sad collapse.

The power of game time

  Since ratings cannot protect game sales, is there any data that can be used as a reference for sales? There really is. The figure below uses a similar structure, but this time the ranking is not based on ratings, but the average number of days players have been running the game. It should be noted here that as long as the player runs the game on that day, it will be counted as one day, rather than the game running for 24 hours. The average player plays the game aggressively in the first two weeks after getting the game, and plays it for about 9 days. After that, it gradually cooled down to about playing an average of two days a week. Based on this, we can infer the average lifespan of a game in the hands of players.

High sales are closely related to high days
High sales are closely related to high days

  The table above is a little more complicated to interpret, so let’s break it down. Let’s look at COD first. First of all, the average game time of “Modern Warfare 2”, which ranks first, has reached an astonishing 49 days. Considering that 65% of players do not touch multiplayer games at all (three days is enough to pass the single-player campaign), the remaining Players who continue to play multiplayer battles have forced the average number of days to 49 days, which is about 25 weeks. In addition, only 35% of players who play multiplayer for a long time, for them, COD can be played for a year. So they spend $60 a year, and each generation lasts a year. Needless to say, this is a good deal?

  Quality is actually not as important as how much entertainment (time) a game can bring to players. Being entertained for a long enough time is the core that drives the market. As a mass player who is the main buyer, what I consider is whether my gaming and entertainment expenses are worth it and how cost-effective it is. Hardcore players (opinion leaders) and practitioners often ignore this point and simply care about game quality and innovation. They pursue degree rather than quantity, and mistakenly believe that they are the real audience of the game. How many copies can they buy?

  Why is COD so popular despite being a New Year product? For example, if a player plays COD7 for a whole year, imagine whether he will be more inclined to buy COD8? It can almost be said that for a sequel, the length of the game of the previous game is the most important condition for success. The fatigue of gameplay and the value of IP cannot resist the naked temptation of capital.

For games that perform poorly, 14 days is a watershed moment
For games that perform poorly, 14 days is a watershed moment

  Players of AAA games have obvious consumption habits. They often pre-order or purchase games within two weeks of release. They have generally experienced many battles and can almost accurately predict the gaming experience of sequels. Without overturning the remake, players will have a stereotype of the game’s cost-effectiveness, driving them to choose a more “valuable” game sequel. Do people who were fooled by “Fallout 4” feel the same way?

  When the average number of game days drops to about 14 days, this driving force is greatly weakened, there are more concerns before consumption, and sales become difficult to guarantee. Whether it can last 14 days is the most significant difference between first-tier and second-tier works. Therefore, the success of the game can be considered to be driven by the player’s playing time.

Will innovation sell better?

  A common complaint among hardcore gamers is that there are fewer and fewer AAA innovations today than before. A popular interpretation of this is that game production costs have been increasing year by year, but the market size has not grown significantly, so developers have become more cautious about risky innovations. What is ironic is that this set of rhetoric used to explain AAA games has really become a fig leaf for everyone in the explosively growing domestic mobile game industry. “It’s not easy for us to survive just by copying mature gameplay and changing skins. How can we still have the energy to innovate?”

  This explanation is not wrong, but it misses the point. It is extremely rare for a AAA game with a large investment to completely stop moving forward, and the publisher cannot lose face. The biggest difference between releasing a sequel and launching a new IP is actually the player impression mentioned above. Because this impression is the driving force that drives pre-orders and immediate purchases after release. Once you hesitate for a long time, you may choose to wait for a discount or buy second-hand, or even forget about it completely. The shorter the game time, the stronger this effect. Which one do you prefer, waiting a few days to borrow from a friend or buying it with your own money?

  ”The Witcher 3″ and “Shadow of Mordor” are rare masterpieces in recent years, but their risk is that players either cannot predict the actual experience from the previous games (“The Witcher” has huge differences in each generation), or they cannot know The new system “Nemesis” is just bragging. Although we all later knew that “Nemesis” was a breakthrough in design, the lack of reference would affect players’ predictions of the value of the game, and the sales of such games would be significantly delayed.

The Nemesis System is an unprecedented innovation
The Nemesis System is an unprecedented innovation

  Players’ predictions for a new game are based on marketing promotions, previews, and trailers. These things will be implant in the players’ minds early. Take “Watch Dogs” as an example. It is recognize that the promotion is in place (overdo), and the player’s impression is GTA + hacker + parkour. The sales volume after release is obvious to all, but if the quality does not meet players’ expectations, the sequel will have a hard time.

The ins and outs of AAA games

  High duration is the goal of the game, but players are alive and the industry is constantly evolving. A cross-generational work with enough energy to change the industry’s ecology and player tastes. Therefore, it is necessary to interpret and predict the direction of the 3A market. To make games, you must watch your peers and listen to your players. Let’s briefly talk about the trends of the 3A market since this century. Since we are talking about trends, we will talk about game types instead of individual games below.

2001-2003: Meteorites falling from the sky

  In 2001, “GTA” and “Halo” appeared in Flat Earth Thunder, and advanced design concepts opened the door to modern games. At that time, narrative-oriented linear games were still at the top. Until 2003, it may be unbelievable to say that the most successful game was actually a game adapt from a movie that had always been unreliable – “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”, but at that time, players just accepted it.

This is what the top-grossing game of 2003 looked like
This is what the top-grossing game of 2003 looked like

  As you can see from the table below, new types are about to emerge, while old types still dominate. But two dazzling meteorites have kick up tons of dust, and the fate of the dinosaur overlord has been decide.

Game profit data divided by type, the same below
Game profit data divided by type, the same below

2004-2006: A sudden rise

  The dinosaurs that previously dominate were almost wipe out in half within three years. At the same time, “Halo 2” was release, and a large number of players who originally play narrative-oriented games migrated to multiplayer shooting games. This type of outbreak can be see in the table below.

  Around the corner, platformers became the first casualty. They rushed to become the first victims of meteorites before narrative games. At the same time, the aesthetics of players has been push from a young age to an adult by the “GTA” series. The cartoon-like “Ratchet and Clank” went dormant until this year.


2007-2009: The new overlord

  The most profitable COD series appeared, completely detonating multiplayer shooting games, and platform games were almost extinct. COD, like many Blizzard games, lowers the barriers to ease of use and uses RPG mechanics to capture players until they learn to play multiplayer games and not just be torture by veterans. As a result, they quadrupled the multiplayer shooting market…


  On the other hand, the open world is a tough nut to crack and has killed many developers. GTA almost dominated the market until “Assassin’s Creed” entered the market. Unlike open world games that are everywhere today. It was not easy to find a playable one on the market at that time.

  ”League of Legends” and “Minecraft” were also quietly launch at the same time, and mobile games were in the ascendant. After these few grew up, they attract a large number of young people. Which was equivalent to eating up part of the console game market.

2010-2012: Great Convergence

  A new order has taken shape, multiplayer shooting has undoubtedly secured its top spot. COD still cannot stop making money. A large number of IPs were originally mix in the field of narrative. Some took a free ride on the open world, and some hurriedly put on the skin of the open world. The boundaries of game types are gradually blurring, and some games are even difficult to classify in traditional ways.

  In the past few years, the great success of “Skyrim” has come unexpectedly, giving B Company the capital to hold a press conference at E3. The “Elder Scrolls” series was once a game that only nerds would delve into, but “Skyrim” has been accept by the public due to its all-round improvement in ease of use. Its emergence allows the RPG series to maintain its position today and shows the hidden charm of this type of game.


  At this time, looking back at the dominance of 10 years ago, narrative games have reached rock bottom. Although there are many masterpieces in this series. Such as “BioShock 2”, “Dishonored”, “Hitman 5: Absolution”, etc. They are all unsustainable after almost doubling the development and promotion costs.


  Where will AAA games go from here? It’s impossible to make any detailed predictions here. It not to mention the rise of independent games and VR, a big disruptor. But in summary, finding ways to increase player participation in the game is the core.

  The ubiquitous “retention” in the domestic gaming industry is a concept very close to the length of the game. But the idea of ​​​​3A is different from free games after all. 3A must put quality first and use their brains in general direction and design to retain players. Although the word “duration” is use throughout the article. In essence, players keep coming back to the game because they are reluctant to let go of the experience.

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