Saturday, 11 November 2017

How Seasonal Events in free-to-play service games work

I have a friend called Mateusz, and we have a very special relationship which allows him to punch me in the face while I'm dressed as the architect of Britain's ultimate doom.

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The greatest swordsman who ever lived is just out of frame. I move in lofty social circles

But when I asked him what he'd like me to write about when I was fishing for blog ideas, he was desperate (desperate!) for me to talk about seasonal events in video games, so here we fuckin go.

What's a seasonal event? You've probably seen 'em. Christmas, Chinese New Year, All Hallows Eve. Maybe just something specific to that game's fiction. Whatever the seasonal theme happens to be, the game gets varying degrees of special features and aesthetic dressing centred around that theme. However it tends to be service based games (free to play, MMOs, and e-sports) that get these seasonal events as opposed to boxed product style games. More and more boxed products are also choosing to include microtransaction type elements in their design, but I'll just forget about those for the sake of this discussion. 

Here's some Christmas content from Best Fiends

Basically, boxed games already have your money. In theory they shouldn't have any business trying to get any more money from you. Okay they sell DLC and other add-ons but they certainly don't need you to spend any additional time playing it. If every customer just bought these boxed products and add-ons and never played them, the suppliers of these games would be happy.

That's not the case for service games.

Competitive online games like Destiny and Hearthstone. Free to play games like Clash of Clans and Marvel: Contest of Champions. They need you playing their game actively. If the audience for Hearthstone gets too low, the motivation to get to legend, the motivation to own all the fancy card backs, and the motivation for influencer channels to support the game in their content will wane. The fickle public will move on to something else. RIP revenue stream.  RIP game.

The people who run these games know that each individual only has so much attention and time to give to their leisure activities and that this attention is hotly contested. There's never been a greater dearth of entertainment options for those looking to play games, and there's even more entertainment besides (YouTube, Netflix... Facebook) so these games can't afford to merely be excellent. They have to be effectively demanding your attention as often as they can. Seasonal events are but one tool in the game designer's toolbox to achieve this.

Artist's impression of me deciding which TV show I want to watch this weekend
How do they work? They appeal to several key motivations of players. I'll list them in what I perceive to my top 5 motivators, in no particular order. There are plenty besides.

  • Social level FOMO (Fear of Missing Out): Even if the individual player isn't drawn in by all the hubbub of the holidays, chances are that their friends most definitely are. Christmas comes but once a year, so if your MMO (for example) is doing a limited edition series of festive raids that year, nobody wants to be the only one in the social group that missed out on it.
  • Holiday Spirit: Certain holidays command a desire to be involved in all things related to that holiday. It's easy to get swept up in spooky things at Halloween, and you're in the minority if you don't get a little excited about some aspect of Christmas. If you have three favourite games, and only one of them is doing something to celebrate a holiday you're genuinely excited about, odds are that you'll be playing that game over the other two. Simple as that.
    • For bonus points, some holidays usually coincide with culturally conditioned bouts of excess and spending in combination with extended holiday time (Christmas and Chinese New Year) so the average player will be more inclined to spend their money, and their time, in your game than usual... if yours can be the game that they want to play of course.
  • Individual level FOMO: Not everybody is a socially motivated player, and I count myself in that category. But that doesn't mean people like me don't want to miss out on what's going on with the seasonal updates. It's worth noting at this point that not all seasonal updates have anything to do with traditional holidays. It can be as simple as the next chapter of an ongoing narrative in a game, with one-time special prizes to compete or grind for. The all important aspect is the time limited nature of this content. Once it's gone, it's gone. I have to come into the game if I don't want to miss out on the event forever.
  • Curiosity: An app icon changing in your phone screen is something you're going to notice. The phone that you're more likely than not to check within minutes of waking up. The phone you check more than ten times a day. That phone. If the Mario icon on your Super Mario Run game is suddenly winking when he wasn't before, you're going to want to check that shit out.
  • Superfan Commitment: Every game has its die-hards for whom all of the above is par for the course. The effect of any of the above goes double for this segment of the game's audience. A new card back or special character in Hearthstone might not always get my attention, but you can bet that the hardest of your hardcore fans will notice.
The problem with everybody catching on to the seasonal events formula is that the water level quickly rises again. It's not merely enough for your game to be excellent, and have plenty of seasonal support. Not if your next nearest competitors are also hitting the same beats as you during the holidays. What makes your seasonal update any more special than the others? Savvy consumers will recognise when a game has just slapped some spooky art assets and pumpkin themed prizes around the appropriate time of year. Yawn. Leverage your IP, lean into the particular fantasy or need that your particular game provides better than anybody else's.

To conclude, seasonal events actually don't do all that much to help the fortunes of a game that people don't already love. Did you check out the September event in Pocket Mine 3? Of course not. You weren't playing it to begin with. No amount of spooktacularity will change that.