Sunday, January 31, 2010

Exposure as a Risk Variable in Game Success

In this article, graduate student Nick LaLone argues that another factor, exposure, affects game design decisions and whether or not players feel a game is unnaturally short or long, or just right.

Exposure is something that everyone thinks they want and need when selling a product. You see this in every aspect of game publicity: interviews with designers, advertisements in magazines devoted to people who would possibly play a game, discussion of a game in blogs, websites devoted to the game, advertising from console designers, and more. More exposure to a game through playing it will equal more sales, more or less. Video game demos can be seen as part of this strategy of exposure.

The downside to exposure is that it isn’t measurable. While a game might have more exposure, it might be popular for players who aren’t on that console, using antiquated design techniques, or is not a game about a topic that popular culture would consider. There are just as many reasons why a game would fail as there are for a game to succeed. However, being exposed to a product is ultimately beneficial to sales, even games that do not turn a profit. This consideration, consciously or unconsciously, finds its way into design decisions. It often does this through considerations of content, length, and sustainability. Abusing one of these items can theoretically hurt a game’s sales.

Given two other variables within a game, art and mechanics, exposure means more possible sales over time, greater likelihood that a gamer will remember and purchase a follow-up or sequel, and that the game will be talked about on social media / the internet longer.

If we were to take the art and mechanics of a game and add exposure, the equation for a game’s success could be represented like this :

Here, exposure equals to the average length of time for completion of central narrative. However, this equation is still a little too easy to manipulate. Through increasing each variable, a game could ensure success. Also, making up for one portion of a game by heightening another would ensure success despite bad performance in central part of a video game (bad art design, good mechanics or vica versa).

There are constant trends in video games that are always being mimicked. Video games that sell well, like movies, will be imitated. There is some logic in this. A product that consumers want and enjoy will have a certain “built-in” consumer base. However, it is necessary to create a product that is similar enough to feed off of that success while offering something new enough to be considered “special.” Through this, the possibility of simply spending more money on a game to ensure success comes under control.

But even this is not enough of an equation to truly predict video game success. There is, of course, a number that indicates the possibility of being “too” exposed to a particular part of a game (Not enough innovation, too far of a departure from design norms). The term to denote this possibility is Overexposure.

The Risks of Overexposure

There are a variety of trends that video games employ, things like control schemes, setting for certain types of games, moral choices, agency, and length. Through these equations, as we’ve thrown in more and more aspects of game design, most of these things have come under control. Overexposure could be called a “risk” variable. In essence, doing too much of one particular thing takes away from a video games possibility of success. It would look a little like this:

Exposure = Exposure = Average length of time for completion of central narrative.
Art = Budget of Graphic Design / Budget for Mechanical Design
Mechanics = Budget for Mechanical Design / Budget of Graphic Design
Current Design Trends = How closely the game mimics current popular games of the same genre.

It is an equation that few games manage to balance. Too often, a game is seen as too short and is quickly forgotten (Mark of Kri) or too long and is lambasted for it’s unnatural length (MMOs, GTA IV). Within this framework, overexposure can be seen as the average departure from the currently accepted video game design norm that a video game takes:

Manipulating this variable is a risk: Stay safe and remain inside the bounds of design and you end up with a positive number that will subtract from the probability of success; go too far and you unbalance the equation, creating a probability of success so high that whether the game succeeds or not is more of a chance of fate, than a calculated risk.

Nick LaLone is a graduate student working on an MA at Texas State University-San Marcos. When the video games are turned off, Nick can be found writing about modernization theory, gender, and social media. His work on these subjects with regard to video (and board) games can be found at


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