Sunday, January 22, 2012

Value Points: The (Almost) Invisible Metric That Runs Your Game (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Mitchell Smallman explains the importance of value points and how value points drive users to support and play a social game.

This is my confession. I started out working in social games…I’m one of those few people who has only ever worked as a designer in the social games field. Sometimes it makes me a pariah, with designers I admire voicing concern over the damage that social games are doing to the industry as a whole. Thanks to a few successfully monetized games, sometimes I am seen as an authority, someone who has figured out how to bring the little game studio some decent cash. Both times, I’m treated as if I have found some sort of silver bullet to the heart of the game consumer; that I have found a mystical and perhaps unhealthy “release money” button in the human soul. I must confess… I have taken work on this principle even though I know that no such silver bullet exists. There is no metric you can track and tweak that makes people pay money for your game. There is however, a great deal of money to be made by understanding your audience as a consumer and a game player at the same time. To do this, I usually ask developers to consider what I call “value points.”

A value point is the moment a player assigns monetary value to your game. Your initial art and UI design is a value point. People look at a game, and see how much work, polish and appeal to their sense of style has gone into the game, and they place a value on it. A game with “programmer art”, while having a well-designed system, will still be missing a key value point. Content design is another value point. Not just things like spelling errors, but character consistency, and narrative progress matching player effort are other examples of value that can be easily lost. There’s nothing more frustrating for a player to be engaged in a narrative and work hard at an obstacle to get the next piece, only to have the quality of the reveal be lackluster because the designer places no value on the narrative and expected the player to do the same. Value points are discovered my constantly thinking of your player as a human being making a decision and analyzing your game as opposed to just a metric.

Although social games are often designed with an iterative design style that is very ,very heavy on data, value points are the portions of the game that are often difficult to nail down in terms of action. The numbers will not tell you why your game is missing that thing that makes people decide to support your game instead of others. How do make your game, which may have similar theme and mechanics to others, LOOK like it is worth investing in it instead of a competitor? How do we make it demonstrate its advantages and hide its disadvantages? How do we attract the type of player that will enjoy our game more than other games? These are things looking at the data of your existing players will help only a little, and market research only goes so far. Eventually, whether it is a new feature or a new genre of game altogether, a game can always increase its value by offering something new, but it is always a risk. In order to chart such a release successfully, the designer needs to understand what the players, be they players they already have (retention) or players they want (acquisition) place value on if they want the game to monetize.

Mitchell Smallman is a Game and Narrative Designer currently working for Big Viking Games in London, Ontario, Canada. He has seen Gremlins 34 times, trained as a luchador and once brightened up Vin Diesel's day. You can read this and other articles of his on his blog.


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