Let's trade short session lengths for games with depth, argues Quark Games
Don't sacrifice meaning for accessibility
Shawn Foust is a VP at Quark Games, handling a mix of business development, lore writing, and game design.
I am often told we developers are small and petty beings, grovelling before the menacing overlord known as the mobile session length. This cruel taskmaster requires our games be playable in 5-7 minute sessions.
Failure to comply will result in financial ruin and ridicule.
Expecting players to stick around long enough to emotionally engage in your game is a fool's errand. The mobile user simply isn't prepared for the ravages of immersive gaming. Or so I've heard (warning: certain portions overstated for dramatic effect).
Grim times indeed for those aspiring to the mantle of hardcore developer. How can one deliver depth when constrained by brevity?
It's like asking Peter Jackson to release a 90 minute film. Masterworks in content just aren't meant to be experienced in any session that doesn't require a pit stop.
Time and immersion
So is design really constrained by session length?
Well, mostly nah. It depends on who you're trying to bring to your game. If you seek to entice the 'masses', then complying with the session length guidelines is a sound way to keep the welcome mat out and on display.
Most people that game without considering themselves gamers are unlikely to prioritise a longer game session over other things (taking a phone call, eating, sleeping, etc.). For these people, flexibility in their gaming is at a premium, and so games must be adaptable for this audience.
A hardcore user is willing to trade flexibility for immersion. For them, a commitment to a longer play session is perfectly fine if the content delivers on depth.
Let me support that assertion. Valor, a hardcore PVP strategy sim (which I spent a chunk of time designing on), averages over 30 minutes a play session. The game can be played in 5-7 minute sessions, but it was designed for 30 minutes plus.
Indeed, playing in short bursts without paying attention to the deeper strategy or social elements is a great way to get wrecked in the game. Valor is over two years old (a complete dinosaur in mobile years), and the players have only become more dedicated.
Indeed, Valor is what convinced us at Quark that there was an opportunity in hardcore mobile (not that midcore silliness). Our next game is a massive investment in hardcore.
We are attempting to bring a sophisticated competitive hardcore experience to mobile/tablet. We expect average session length will exceed fifteen minutes and potentially run much longer. Frankly, we don't think you can have an interesting player versus player experience in a few minutes.
It just isn't enough time to develop depth, to create interesting choices, and to force a player to become emotionally attached to the goings on. You don't watch Lord of the Rings in five minute spurts, now do you?
I'm not saying we can match the majesty of LOTR, but I am saying that any serious piece of content should expect some level of commitment from the user.
The cost of pushing the time limits
So what happens if you push toward longer session lengths? The short answer is that you lose the masses.
Gaming is a priority for some, but not everyone has decided to avatar up. Dropping the folks not inclined to game normally wouldn't be a problem – Steam seems to do decent business without getting my mom to sign up – but it actually has dangerous implications for mobile/tablet.
The issue arises on the user acquisition front. You see, there simply isn't a good way to acquire hardcore gamers on the mobile phone.
This isn't the time or place to go into a detailed discussion of discovery and user acquisition in the mobile ecosystem. Why not? Because it's like a three article series and I'm not paid by the word.
What I will say is that there is no strong targeting mechanism for hardcore users. They do not aggregate anywhere in particular within the ecosystem other than other hardcore gaming apps.
Alas, most hardcore games do not make banner space available for purchase, which impedes the sniping of users between hardcore entrants. Third-parties, such as Facebook, are beginning to bring greater targeting tools online, but we're far from a perfect solution.
In our sights
We lack a proper distribution partner that has a sufficiently catered audience. Think about it for a second. There is no GameStop of mobile – a retail operation with millions of would be game buyers flooding through the door.
There is no Steam of mobile – a large gaming social community layered on a distribution mechanism. There is no EA or Activision – a massive publisher of scale that can bring a pre-existing buyer base and put millions in marketing dollars to work.
There are only the app stores, massive aggregations of applications for audiences hundreds of millions large. It sounds awesome in theory, but if you can't figure out which members of that audience are the ones who want your specific flavour of game, it can get tricky.
That means trading mass for niche is a grave cost indeed: you may lose the ability to acquire users profitability because your signal (paying retainable user) to noise (user that installs and deletes immediately) is so bad.
This problem is a big part of the push for midcore. If the game is more accessible and appeals to a larger cross section of people, the targeting complications sting a bit less. I understand the strategy, but I believe it introduces one problem in an attempt to solve another.
Hardcore gamers do not want games that sacrifice depth for accessibility.
They're willing to pay the price on the learning curve if it offers them a more meaningful experience (League of Legends, World of Warcraft, World of Tanks, and Final Fantasy come to mind).
Mortgaging the hardcore audience for a bigger slice of the masses makes me nervous.
If we are to cast off the iron chains of session length, I believe we must learn new ways to target users. We must learn how to market, not just 'acquire'. We must learn how to build brands that people recognise and are attached to.
The fact these games are apps does not matter. If we let vision and a desire to deliver deep experiences drive our decisions (rather than analytics), I believe we can push back against the stigma attached to mobile games.
There may be more risk attached to such an approach, but I do not think it is a coincidence that the most successful games in mature markets are games that provide a deeply engaging experience.
It's our hope at Quark to be known as a maker of good games (not just a mobile game developer). I imagine a few people of those hundreds of millions will take notice if we're successful.
I also imagine they'll play a lot more than five minutes.
To find out more about Quark Games and Valor, take a look at the company's website. For moment-to-moment updates on everything Shawn Foust, you can follow him on Twitter.
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