Discoverability by Design: Rethinking How Video Games Get Noticed
Designing a truly great video game is hard. Getting potential players to notice it is even harder. The proliferation of broadband, digital storefronts, all-you-can-eat subscription buffets, and free-to-play business models all but ensure that consumers are flooded with an endless stream of content choices.
Even if most of the content is crap, how do you swim past the clutter of 500 games released daily on the App Store or constantly growing releases on Steam? In an era of nearly unlimited content, this struggle is what is referred to as the discoverability challenge.
If you are not thinking about discoverability, you are pretty much doomed. Or, as Microsoft ID@Xbox Director Chris Charla recently put it: “In the world we're in right now, where discoverability may actually be a harder thing to solve for than investment, breaking through is really important.”
You can never shout loud enough
Game developers were once notorious for being oblivious to marketing. While deeply passionate and creative, most were untrained in business or marketing. Many focused on what they did best: making a great game. Then they threw it over the fence, prayed to the Steam gods, and hoped for the best. Sometimes, they got lucky; most often, they did not.
In recent years, however, most developers have wisened up: They have embraced such imperatives as marketing, community building, and putting adequate resources toward the commercialization of their games. This manifests in heavy promotional activity (e.g. having a booth at the PAX video game convention, posting frequently on social media, etc.) This can be labelled the “shout as loud as you can that your cool game exists” strategy.
But the issue is, you can never shout loud enough. The multimillion-dollar Grand Theft Auto campaign is louder than you. The mesmerizing Assassin’s Creed live-action promo trailers are louder than you. The God of War-sponsored streamers’ trip to Greece to reenact gladiator fights is louder than you.
The best way around this shouting match? Avoid it altogether.
Rather, embrace that game design is part of the marketing equation and embed discoverability directly into the game itself. As purely digital, interactive experiences, games are uniquely positioned to have discoverability baked directly into them.
With discoverability “embedded” in the game itself, studios no longer need to rely on huge promo budgets (aka shouting). Instead, players find the game organically as it markets itself. In other words, word-of-mouth and the community growing around the game build momentum for you.
That said, it is critical for discoverability to be part of the design process from day one ― not just an afterthought. As developers embark on a new project, they will have to ask themselves: How will my game get discovered? From there, they will ideally build multiple paths to discovery.
A taxonomy of discoverability techniques
If studios are to abide by a rigorous approach to embedding discoverability in game design, they need more nuanced guidelines than just to “make something catchy.”
Below are four broad approaches to discoverability, as well as specific examples that will help you sort through the techniques at your disposal.
Perhaps the most obvious category, it includes everything that makes a game “go viral.” Examples would include:
- A quirky hook: Untitled Goose Game spawned endless memes that flooded social media and earned House House priceless media attention.
- Stunning art: Gris, Sable, and Ooblets each have uniquely beautiful art that players easily fall in love with and can’t help but show their friends.
- GIF/Replay exports: Factorio generates amazing replays that are captivating to watch, but are also full of puzzle clues, which encourages sharing.
- Genre-like: Some fans stick to specific genres they love. If a game triggers the right genre signifiers, they could see a similar effect to Sim City fans flooding into Cities: Skylines or Harvest Moon players raving about Stardew Valley.
The value of this meme-style spreadability was best articulated by “un-marketer” Zach Barth, creator of Opus Magnum: “Our marketing was making the game sh*t out gifs that everyone would put on Twitter.”
In some cases, this happens unintentionally: fans can be swept away by a quirky design element and, soon enough, social media is taken over by a goose. But intentional efforts pay off. Case in point: Poly Bridge has a purpose-built replay system that allows players to easily record, export and share snippets of their game. Nimbatus also generated such mesmerizing gifs that new fans flocked to their Kickstarter campaign, tripling the funding target.
On the extreme end, games can embed gameplay data into screenshots shared across social media. Such was the case with MidBoss, which encoded a player’s save game data in a shareable “death card” image that could be posted automagically to Twitter and then downloaded by new players, who could then replay from the same seed and salvage loot from the failed run.
A more intentional version of sharing-based discovery are elements intrinsic to the gameplay itself. Examples would include:
- Issuing challenges: Forza Horizon enables players to issue and accept challenges to beat their friends’ best lap times.
- Requesting help: Candy Crush Saga has built-in “ask-a-friend-for-help” features when your playtime runs out.
- Referral perks: World of Warcraft and EVE Online reward players when they get a friend to sign up.
- Friend buffs: Troops in Stronghold Kingdoms max out at 300 units, but the game allows players to collect 200 more from a friend in-game.
In such cases, the gameplay requires ― or is highly optimized for ― engaging with other players (even if the game itself is single-player). In some examples, you simply cannot play without pushing your friends into the game as well.
In the mobile game Puzzle & Dragons, players have to pick another player’s monster as a helper before entering a dungeon. The helper’s owner receives points, which are needed to get new monsters. The more one plays, the higher chance there is to appear as a helper for other players ― thus earning more points and advancing more quickly.
Twitch and other video platforms are taking over the gaming world. As a result, streamers and influencers are becoming an integral part of the discovery process. Wise developers are optimizing their games to be more watchable and integrated with the various platforms. Examples include:
- Viewer buffs and assists: Rage 2 spectators can revive their favourite streamer via Twitch.
- Integrated play: Jackbox Party Pack, Streamline, Darwin Project, and Choice Chamber were all designed for interaction between streamers and their audiences.
- Expert play: Rocket League and My Friend Pedro enable highly skilled players to show off, attracting droves of fans to be inspired on how to play better.
- Optimized broadcasting: Beat Saber built dedicated tools to make VR streaming work well, greatly boosting its exposure via Twitch and YouTube and leading to unprecedented sales for a VR game.
Part of the rationale here is to create unique experiences that Twitch streamers will want to play with their fans and that are improved with the support of their spectators. In some cases, like the karaoke game Twitch Sings, the game can only be ― and can only make sense when ― played on Twitch, with a player’s friends and audiences watching and voting.
In the case of highly competitive games and esports, players will often jump online to watch the “pros” play and learn new tricks and skills. And, more broadly, just the opportunity of building a game that could become the next big esport is a tantalizing way to solve the discovery challenge.
This category leverages Metcalfe’s Law in that the value of the game ― and its likelihood to be discovered ― increase exponentially as its player base grows. Examples include:
- Social status: Fortnite, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, League of Legends and similar competitive games all have leaderboards, track wins and display your ranking.
- Watercooler effect: Dark Souls has deep, mysterious, and hidden lore that players come together to discuss and speculate about.
- Wikification: Hearthstone deck builds and strategies are so complex and numerous that fans build wikis and other encyclopedic resources to help each other.
- Challenge scaling: World of Warcraft has specific raids that require guilds to coordinate a group attack in order to overcome.
More broadly, this category relates to the value of developing a community around your game and giving its members the specific hooks (and motivation!) to engage. The survival role-playing game Outward did this very intentionally by not providing an in-game navigation system, instructions on how magical items interact, nor even the recipes needed to cook meals to survive. Players built extensive wikis and ended up streaming the game as a way to explore, discuss, and share guidance.
The TV show Lost is a wonderful, non-game reference on how mystery creates that watercooler effect ― everyone coming together to discuss and debate their theories about the hatch or the black smoke monster. Not only does the wisdom of the crowd help unravel mysteries, but the crowd ends up attracting... an even bigger crowd.
Hope is not a valid marketing strategy
Yes, you still need to make a great game ― none of the discoverability techniques above will help a boring game sell.
At the same time, you need to think about how the very design of your game will help it get discovered. Do your homework and market analysis. Observe the games that are getting noticed ― and why that is.
Pretty sure it won’t just be because of luck.