Our attention span is changing and the game design has to change too

After working on games for 14 years, I am slowly realizing that something should be obvious in retrospect: We don’t play games the way we played them when I was a child. As a game designer, I have to catch up.

When I was growing up in the mid-80s, there was a child in the neighborhood who had an NES. He only had one game. Or at least we only ever played one game: Super Mario Bros. It was hard, but we loved the challenge. I would stop by once a week or so and we would get closer to the end of World 8-4.

A few years later I got my own gameboy. I only had two games: Tetris and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The latter would keep me awake at night and think about how to solve the darker puzzles and find all the secrets. I remember the agony of finding the legendary boomerang.

I went through the whole thing again just to make sure I found everything. This was before it was standard for games to tell you what percentage of the secrets you had found, so there was always the possibility that something was hidden somewhere that I hadn’t seen. Games felt limitless.

Some of my most memorable early game moments came from unfamiliar titles with few tutorials. I liked to research and find out the rules and secrets of these games over time. Getting stuck just meant I would be awake all night and find my way forward. It never felt like it was ever an option to just stop. Games were also expensive. What else would I play?

Things have changed

Fast forward a few years. Digital dissemination is one thing now. The app stores have started. The price of games has dropped and game development is now much more accessible thanks to game engines such as Unity, Game Maker and Unreal. More games are released every year. How much more.

Dozens of new games will be available in stores this week. Dozens of really good, rewarding games. If you own an Apple device, you can now pay $ 5 and get more games than you can probably play.

Now when I look at my Steam library, I see dozens of titles that I haven’t started yet. There are some games that I started, but they didn’t catch my attention and I kept going. There are maybe five games that I have “finished” in the past few years.

As a grown-up player, my attention span has changed – but the sheer volume of content also means that I just can’t give the mental energy for a game as I could before, but I don’t feel like it anymore either. I just have to. There is always a different game and I probably don’t have to pay much if I have to pay at all. Different services always give away games as long as you keep the subscription payments.

A game has to grab my attention almost instantly these days, and I’ll probably move on as soon as that attention is lost. I have a habit of dealing with games on a much larger scale these days, like browsing through long articles and books. I have an attention span problem and I doubt that I’m alone.

But I’m not just a fan, I’m a co-owner of an indie game studio, and this trend is a little scary from a business perspective, although I’m also pleased with the variety of games and developers that a more open industry has made possible.

Flippfly’s first game was Race The Sun and it was a game that was instantly understandable and instantly fun. It was a pretty big hit!

(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmjAg0e_YYU (/ embed)

For our second game, Evergarden, we wanted to do something different. It was a puzzle game embedded in a magical garden world. It had a lot of hidden mechanics and a mysterious story. We wanted the players to feel a sense of wonder and maybe discomfort as they explore the world.

(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nor_6yxibtw (/ embed)

Here, we may have made a mistake by designing games based on our experiences as kids, rather than examining how players actually played and interacted with the games today.

Wouldn’t it be cool, we thought, if we didn’t explain the rules of the game explicitly and the players had to discover them themselves? We avoided the standard tutorial system with text and hand gesture and instead gave the players subtle hints on what to try next. You will discover some of these secrets if you stick to the game for about 20 minutes, and ideally, based on a sense of discovery, you will find out what we have tried to make a rewarding experience with a lot of discovery.

We had some memorable moments on our Discord server where players expressed their joy after discovering a deeply hidden and undocumented secret they could find. The design worked, at least on the broad lines, as intended.

There was always the possibility that something was hidden somewhere that I hadn’t seen. Games felt limitless.

However, the reality is that the majority of players simply left when the game was not immediately satisfactory. Only about 20% of the players came back and played it after trying it out. There are certainly improvements that we could have made to the design, but I can’t help but think that the reception of a game like this 20 years ago would have been very different.

Conversely, I wonder if we could have developed the same sense of mystery for the players if we had intended to make it more accessible immediately. In my eyes, it’s an unfortunate compromise, but it wasn’t just faceless players who accepted this behavior. I play games so often these days, I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.

Planning for an abundance of games and lack of attention

This is a line that designers have to go now, and the bottom line is that we spend an increasingly disproportionate amount of our time worrying about player “onboarding”. What is the first-time user experience? What is “Day 1 Retention”? How can we compete with the 100 other games launched in the same store this week, not to mention games on other stores and mobile devices?

In the meantime, AAA game companies are putting millions in their titles to ensure that committed gamers remain committed. If you can get them to play for a week, you can probably get them to play for 30 days. And if you can get them to do it, how can you get them to keep playing for months or years? If you cannot assure the money that you can achieve these goals with a sufficiently high percentage of players, the game will not be completed. This is attention economy, and game developers become attention economists out of necessity.

This trend scares and grief me as a game designer, but it’s our reality. However, there are some strategies we can use to mitigate this attention span issue and they don’t have to be negative.

When I was just starting out on indie games, Adam Saltsman introduced me to a term that he used to describe his strategy for developing web games: “Generous game design.” The idea is that you are the first player Show something really cool in seconds to get their attention and gain their trust. In Saltman’s endless runner Canabalt, the generous game design included a striking intro animation, in which the player character falls through a window and flocks of birds fly away. It worked.

I also accept that over time a game developer can build an audience that trusts them, and that audience will likely stay longer, even if the tutorial is boring. Rest assured that if Blizzard does Diablo 4 and the first 30 minutes are lackluster, players will skip it. This is a trust that we can build over time by delivering rewarding gameplay. I don’t think there are shortcuts!

People will sometimes say that certain things only work if Blizzard does them, but it does it in the opposite direction and misses the lesson. These things only work because Blizzard has built trust with players for decades. Hell, check out Riot Games. Teamfight Tactics is incredibly difficult to learn and requires a lot of outside knowledge before you become competitive. Why doesn’t Riot have to follow these rules?

Teamfight Tactics relies more on the trust of the players than most other games, especially when the players learn the game Graphics: Riot Games via polygon

Well, it took a long time to gain the trust of a huge player base, and these players are ready to look into future Riot games before they see the fun, or they think work is part of the fun. I’m not sure and it doesn’t matter to make it clear. In both situations, the hard part is how much preparatory work had to be done to build and reward the audience before these two companies started launching games in a way that the rest of us would never dare.

It could also be that games like Teamfight Tactics are successful in their complexity, because they explicitly exist in an ecosystem in which the target group (League of Legends players) is well understood and served by their complexity.

The lesson for new game designers may be here: if you’re inventing a new genre for an audience that’s not ready for your innovative gameplay, you’d better be ready to engage it quickly. I also think that some games are so obviously impressive from the first impression that players can’t help but stay with them. It’s hard to do this stage of presentation as an indie, but we’ll try!

As a player who is very much part of this zeitgeist, I reflected on my own playing habits. However, the most important lesson for me is that I have to start designing how I play games and how the industry works right now, instead of chasing the nostalgic feelings of how I played as a child. These times are over, whether good or bad. Players have changed. Habits have changed. They don’t come back, not in a broad, trend-based way, although there will always be exceptions to every rule.

But I still remember the magical moment when I finally found the boomerang in Link’s Awakening. That was 25 years ago. We are so concerned about attracting and keeping players’ attention. I wonder if any of the big moments in games released this year will make a similar impression.

The moment I finally found out that boomerang is still in my memory was 25 years ago. Now when I browse through my Steam library, I think about these trends and consider whether I should delve into something dense, difficult, and mysterious. And I should stick with it until I finally solved his last dark secret. I want to feel this joy of mastering again.

In the meantime, I’m standing at my desk and redesigning the tutorial for our new game for the seventh time.

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