10 Secrets to making your game longer (Part 2)
In this 2 part post I'll explain how the current trends in social and mobile games have left us with a series content problem, and 10 things you can do to conquer it.
Many of these methods revolve around ways to get players to replay content or leveling systems in a new way, often incorporating some algorithmic changes (power levels, handicaps, content difficulty) or content changes (unlocks). Many of these also use some form of increasing the difficulty to keep things interesting.
1. Setting yourself back
One of the techniques I’ve found as a sort of antithesis to constant need for progress is game mechanics to purposely reset or diminish your progress. The most high profile examples of this would be Prestige in the Call of Duty series. Prestige works by resetting your unlocks and other forms of progress in exchange for a meta-progress level, Prestige Level. This sort of thing doesn’t appeal to all types of players, as it means working your way back up from scratch in a sort of arbitrary way. The upside is that prestige levels act as a social marker for your dedication to the game. Depending on the game, it can also be thrilling to lose everything and work your way up again from nothing, the way you can still enjoy the emotional roller-coaster of a movie you’ve already seen. As shown in the screenshot below, a favorite mobile game of mine, Pocket Mine, also uses a prestige reset, but in exchange provides a permanent increase to your pick cap, meaning you must start from scratch but you can go longer before hitting the cap each time. This method can work well with multiplayer and procedural content related leveling, where there is some level of skill involved to make the next repeat of the grind different.
Another interesting way of setting yourself back seen in the recent mobile take on an old school sandbox game, SimCity Build-It (screenshot below). The game is still somewhat sandbox play, but with some social game style quests and unlocks a long the way to guide play and provide a sense of progress. The interesting part is that one of the last things you unlock with your progress is the ability to sabotage your own progress by having a mad scientist purposely hit your city with disasters, forcing you to rebuild. The game actually has you work hard to unlock the ability to sabotage yourself, in exchange for special golden keys that can also be gained (easier IMO) by an earlier unlock, a trade boat. There’s a certain child-like joy in knocking down the things you’ve built and rebuilding them that this taps into to smartly extend the difficulty of an otherwise mostly linear game.
3. Do it different
The three star rating system has become a staple of puzzle games ever since the popularity of Angry Birds (although I’m sure they didn’t invent it). This system lets players make progress past difficult levels when they get at least 1 star, but provides an incentive to replay the level now or later on for a higher rating. Some games provide a bonus for this, or use the total number of stars as a gating mechanism. One game though, has a take on it that I found extremely compelling, Pudding Monsters (from the developers of the hit puzzle game Cut the Rope). While the game may not have been the hit Cut The Rope was, I found their take on the 3 star system managed to get me to replay every level a minimum of two times, something Angry Birds or other “3 star” games couldn’t get me to do. The way Pudding Monsters used the 3 stars was having the stars integrated into the puzzle solutions themselves. You could beat the level with 1-3 stars as normal, but instead of pushing you always get 3 stars, they instead marked you as a master of that level when you got all 4 possible ratings, 0,1,2,3 (some levels had less than 4 possible solutions however). Encouraging me to “do worse” when I beat levels with 2 or 3 stars the first time worked wonders on my motivation and creativity, as sometimes it was hard to find the other possible solutions. I hope to see this method used more!
4. Achieve more
In a procedural puzzle game, your sense of progress is mostly tied to a high score. Seeing as a procedural game is based on using algorithms and math to create content, the way of measuring your progress on that content has to be as well. While using social leader boards, like Bejeweled Blitz did, adds some sense of relative progress, it eventually loses a lot of its meaning. Contrast this of course with seeing your progress through levels on an adventure map, where it’s always clear when you make progress. This is combined with the social leader board method by showing your friends locations as a competitive marker. This sense of progress is often further denoted by breaking up the content into different “worlds” or “islands” to provide medium term progress goals.
5. Just Harder
One of the most obvious and classic methods is to use explicit difficulty levels and only unlock the more hardcore ones upon completing the game. Diablo’s Nightmare mode is an example of this method. Another good example is the “Second Quest” unlocked by beating the original Legend of Zelda. This method can be approached algorithmically as in the case of making more difficult enemies, or with authored content as is the case of Zelda’s “Second Quest”.
6. Loot farming
Replaying content in order to either increase stats or collect a random drop is known as farming. Farming is sometimes associated with its boring cousin, Grinding in negative ways as it can often be boring as well, but this is more often when its tied to stat increasing. Getting players to replay content for chances at items of varying rarity can definitely extend the play time of content in a very slot machine/random scheduling kind of way. This can be done to go after powerful items like in World of Warcraft and Diablo, or after sets of collectibles like in Pocket Mine. Pocket Mine 2 takes an interesting approach of first having 5 semi-authored levels of each island/world, varying only in difficulty. Once those 5 are complete, the next island/world unlocks and the one you beat is now available for “endless” play which varies based on your skill and stats. While you can collect artifacts during your normal 5 level play, this endless unlock is specifically geared to having you farm for collectible artifact sets, giving you a reason to replay a level many many times. Endless play was the way the game worked in Pocket Mine 1, with the levels and artifacts being randomly selected each time. Pocket Mine 2 shows how you can take procedural content and evolve it into a Candy Crush Saga style puzzle adventure, without losing its procedural advantages. I’ve literally had Pocket Mine on my phone for well over a year, play it frequently, and it is the only game to never get deleted, so that should tell you something.
7. Special Events/Levels
A common practice now in many social/mobile games (sometimes referred to as Live Ops) is running time-limited special events and levels. Some times these take the form of new or exclusive content, other times just special challenges and rewards. These have been shown to greatly boost revenue and interest in games, especially in lapsing players, and to help build community around a game. By time limiting the content you also extend its lifespan in the way McDonald’s extends the lifespan of the McRib by making it only available occasionally. Here’s a great set of slides related on dealing with the difficulties of doing this: http://www.slideshare.net/gwertzman/effective-liveops-strategies
Also available to read on Gamasutra's website