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What kind of a relationship is this?

By on July 15, 2014
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Some thoughts on the intersection between game design and marketing from Deputy Editor Zoya Street. 

Some relationships are a flash in the pan. I’m not just talking about romances; even a friendship can be a passionate affair that lasts for no longer than a weekend and then fades to little more than a memory. They burn bright and they burn fast. Some are less intense, but longer lasting: you don’t spend all your time with each other, but you send each other a couple of messages a day and spend quality time together at regular intervals. And then there are those relationships that give structure to your life for years to come.

I see a lot of indie games that are beautiful little design objects, carefully constructed for a perfect experience of playfulness, but with little thought put into the longer-term relationship between the player and the software. Sometimes that’s okay: not all relationships are meant to last. But some games would make great companions over a longer period of time, if only they had been designed with a relationship in mind.

It’s understandable if little thought goes into relationship design. There used to be a clearer road map for this: an arcade game was a fleeting indulgence that was portioned out in minute-long bursts, and a console game was a product that you bought up-front because you knew it was going to deliver dozens of hours’ worth of entertainment. And if it didn’t deliver on that, you could trade it in and buy something else.

Now the terrain is much more open, and the old road maps might not suit your audience or your game. There are lots of different ways that a game might fit into someone’s life. A few minutes of action-packet puzzling every couple of hours, a new adventure every day, a big multiplayer session every other weekend, or a pervasive hobby that includes spectatorship and strategising outside of direct play sessions.

Even when developers understand how to build games with a longer-term player relationship, it’s not common for them to communicate this relationship between player and software in their press emails. The focus is always on the core gameplay, which makes sense to an extent — when all is said and done, that’s what most people think that games are. The problem is that a lot of interesting human stories get lost when you just focus on the nuts and bolts. Ignoring the relationship makes a game less interesting to me as a writer, and harder for me to care about as a player.

As a designer, there are lots of things you can do to get better at designing relationships. If your game is free-to-play, be generous to your players, rather than making them feel squeezed or pushed into monetising. Celebrate them every time they return to your game. Don’t rely on manipulative psychological tricks. Think critically and creatively not just about how a game works internally, but how it fits into your players’ lives. This isn’t wishy-washy: the actual results of your design decisions are testable, not just through metrics, but through good community management.

When you’ve designed your games as relationships, you’ve created something that you can tell people about. This makes your job as a marketer much easier.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.