Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Metagaming, Fandom, and Gaming Theory: Acquisition, Engagement, and Retention

Boston Sports 
Since Y2K the Patriots have won 3 Super Bowls, the Red Sox have won 2 World Series, the Celtics won the NBA Championship, and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. In addition since 2000 Boston College won 4 NCAA Hockey Championships and Boston University added another. 
The above doesn't even count this year's Red Sox team which is currently leading the World Series 3 games to 2 with the Series returning to Fenway Park. 
...since Y2K every major sports team in Boston except the Red Sox has also lost in the finals of their sport. If the Red Sox end up losing you won't hear me complain. The team has already delivered way more than any fan had a right to expect his season. 
Besides - given all that has happened in recent Boston sports who would have any sympathy for us? When it comes to sports opulence - we has it.
The title of the post reflects the three primary success vectors of a game, and thus the primary missions of a game designer: player acquisition, engagement, and retention.

While they are important to any game, player acquisition is the most important success vector for "one shot" games (also called "standalone" games). These are games where you pay for the game up front, and then don't pay again, so it doesn't matter how long, or how often you play.

Of course, in these games, engagement is still important; because having a "good game" with an engaged user population means that you get good reviews and word of mouth, for a longer period of time; increasing your player acquisition (and thus sales).

With very good engagement, you may be able to create a franchise; thus increasing your success with other installments in the franchise (sequels, expansions etc...). However, in creating a franchise, you effectively change your standalone game into a persistent game.

Persistent games, are a somewhat different story. These are games where the player is expected to play many times, for an extended period, or both; and whose success depends on having a large player population These would include casino gaming (particular slot machines), free to play games (which earn money by either advertising or small in game premium purchases), "many replay" casual games (candy crush anyone?), and persistent world games like MMORPGs.

Both acquisition and retention are particularly critical to these games; and retention is achieved through engagement.

The way game designers accomplish these missions are with spectacle, and reward psychology (positive and negative reinforcement through anticipation, reward and penalty; with a very strong bias towards reward, leavened by the occasional penalty), particularly competitive reward psychology.

Something spectacular engages you for the duration of the spectacle. You are a passive participant. It attracts you, and fascinates you; but only for that moment. Retention requires maintaining engagement over time... becoming an active participant, either directly or as a metaparticipant.

So... what does that have to do with sports? Or with spectator sports fans in particular?

Simple... Sports fans are players in a metagame.

Spectator sport fandom, although passively received (the fan isn't an active participant in the games they are watching); isn't a passive, receptive, entertainment experience (like a movie or television).

However, much as television shows retain viewers by emotional engagement in the story (thus making them metaparticipants in the narrative); spectator sports retain fans by persistent emotional engagement with the sport, and particularly with their team (making them metaplayers in the game).

Sports fandom, is a kind of play by proxy; much as horse racing, and other betting games (roulette for example) where the players interaction with the game is not part of the gameplay. This makes it a metagame.

And metagames have the same success vectors as any other game.

One of the things that makes Boston sports fandom so... passionate and crazy I guess is the best way to put it... is that a Boston fan is being fed with a near perfect reward psychology cycle.

Boston teams win often enough (and often quite excitingly) to attract attention and generate spectacle. This  acquires new fans (or brings back those whose engagement has weakened); and it presses the "happy button" in existing fans, engaging their reward pleasure mechanism.

Importantly though, Boston teams don't win so often that fans get victory fatigue, and need reward escalation to maintain engagement.

When they're NOT winning, Boston teams are rarely just mediocre... they tend to alternate between "oh God so close..." and "total abject failure" (at least psychologically if not objectively). It may seem counterintuitive, but this is actually far more engaging than consistent high performance or even consistent victory.

In terms of gaming theory, this 3 point cycle (victory, near victory, failure) helps create spectacle to attract and acquire participants; and helps create, reinforce, and increase engagement.

Very importantly, it also helps maintain engagement (and thus retention) by reducing victory fatigue, anticipation fatigue, and expectation escalation.

So... getting into that second and third part...

Retention is achieved through continued engagement. When engagement is weakened or broken, you lose participants (gamers, fans).

Engagement is created, reinforced, and increased; with spectacle, novelty, fascination, and competitive reward psychology as described above.

Engagement is weakened or broken and you lose participants (gamers, fans) through frustration, demoralization, boredom, and fatigue.

So, the challenge is to maintain or increase engagement over time.

In general, you deal with boredom and fatigue, through novelty. Change things up, so that a participants experience, expectations, and emotional engagement with the game are maintained, and thus they are retained.

I mentioned victory fatigue above, but didn't define it, I should probably define the three elements of "game fatigue" now.

Victory fatigue is what happens when a player receives too many rewards, or wins too much too easily. This tends to cause boredom, and frustration; because the rewards no longer feel like rewards. This weakens or breaks engagement.

In an interactive game you can deal with victory fatigue (and to a lesser extent anticipation fatigue) by varying gameplay (introducing new and different ways of earning rewards) increasing challenge (NOT just increasing difficulty, though that is one way of doing so), increasing penalty for failure (though you can't do that too much or you break engagement through frustration and demoralization), varying rewards (making the rewards new, interesting, and different), or by increasing intensity or spectacle (making the rewards bigger or more desirable). These mechanisms keep the players anticipation and pre-reward engagement high, and their reward pleasure mechanisms responding strongly to the rewards.

In most spectator sports however, you don't have those mechanisms available to you (or they are severely limited). The difficulty and rewards do escalate somewhat over the course of a season, but are basically fixed year to year (win a game, win a conference, win a division, win a playoff game, win a championship game). So, frequent and consistent victories, particularly championships, result in expectation escalation.

The three major expectations to this issue of fixed challenge and fixed rewards by the way, are motor racing, premiership style football (soccer), and NCAA football and basketball. Not surprisingly, the first two are the two most popular spectator sports in the world; and the third creates a degree of unreasoning passion far greater than any other sports in America.

Anticipation fatigue is a more interesting issue. When you get that "so close" feeling too much, it actually tends to discourage and disappoint you, which increases frustration and breaks engagement i.e. "they get our hopes up every time then disappoint us every time... what's the point".

Expectation escalation, is what happens when performance or rewards consistently exceed expectations (or consistently exceed the mean performance of a peer group).This causes people to "reset" their emotional expectation of what poor, acceptable, and excellent are, such that their median level of performance, even if it is objectively far better than average, is simply "expected".

So, a team that wins 80% of the time, year after year, will eventually be expected to do so. If that team starts to win consistently less than 80%, even if they are still better than most teams and win 60% of the time; the emotional reaction of their fans will be the same as if they had objectively poor performance, rather than simply "less good".

Lesser success can feel like failure, when you're used to greater success.

Cycling between "not quite great", and "really bad" (even if "really bad" is actually mediocre statistically, the victories and near victories redefine emotional expectations such that mediocre FEELS like abject failure), actually creates and reinforces engagement, and passion; far more, and far more intensely, than consistently high performance.

This by the way, is the exact same reinforcement cycle that creates and reinforces addiction. Reward (the high), anticipation (the process up to the high), and penalty (the come down and the jones).

So... for Boston fans, it's like vegas slot machine designers were controlling things for optimum fan acquisition, engagement, and retention.

It's an almost perfect metagame... arising without design... which is kinda neat.