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Play Context

Jurie Horneman on what matters about the where and why

As game developers, we have to think deeply about our players. Who are they? Why do they play? When are they playing, and for how long? Where are they playing, and with whom? Which device are they using? For a long time, coming up with answers was easy, but with the proliferation of platforms and devices over the last ten years or so, it is worth spending more time thinking about these questions, both to make more effective games, and to find new market niches.

Who players are is a fascinating question. I've often been irritated by the primitive, demographics-based concepts of "target audience", straight out of mid-20th century marketing, that I have seen used many times by game developers. It's a standard entry to be filled out in concept documents: "Target audience: Men 18-35." But that's a rant for a future column. Here I want to talk about what I call play context.

Play context is determined by the when and the where, and how those factors influence how people feel and which devices they use. A game designed for long sessions in the living room is very different from a game designed to be played during a bus ride. In the 80s, play context was not something very high on the list of concerns for game designers, because console development was still rare, and consequently most games were played under a narrow set of circumstances: the player was sitting behind a computer, with a keyboard, perhaps a joystick, and, towards the late 80s, a mouse. Games were mostly designed to be played alone. These were incidentally pretty much the same circumstances under which games were developed, making things even easier. (If you think that doesn't matter, then why is text in console games often so small?)

" Games were mostly designed to be played alone. These were incidentally pretty much the same circumstances under which games were developed, making things even easier"

In the 90s, console development began to take off and things started to change. While console players could still be seen as one big group, just in a different place (the living room) and with a different device, it did represent a new play context for designers to take into account. For a device in the living room, local multiplayer is a much more obvious feature, and to my knowledge all consoles have offered the ability to play with two or more players. And so, in the 90s, more developers started to pay attention to this.

Local culture can influence play context in fascinating ways. One of my favourite examples is post-pub gaming in the UK. The UK alcohol licensing laws dictated that pubs close at 11. What do you do afterwards? Why not go round to one of your mates and play games there? I don't know if games were designed on purpose to be played by inebriated Brits late at night, but according to a Guardian interview with Geoff Glendenning, Sony's head of marketing at the time, they did intentionally target a different audience which includes people who would want to play games after the pubs had closed.

The amount of situations in which people played games really started increasing rapidly in the aughts. Casual games, browser games, mobile games, the Wii and the Kinect: they all changed when, where, and with whom people were playing. Improbable nooks and crannies of time and space can now be filled with gaming. New input devices mean unlikely activities became a part of games, and designers have had to adjust accordingly. And the way people use devices keeps changing. I once worked on two interconnected games: a deep browser game to be played in the evening, and a shallow mobile game to be played during the day. But by the time we started development, we noticed that usage patterns had changed, and we turned it into a shallow browser game to be played briefly at work, and a deep tablet game to be played in the evening.

How long people play has also changed a lot. Games for home computers and consoles were, and mostly still are, designed for long sessions where the player is paying complete attention, and these sessions recur regularly until the game has been completed. This partially explains one of my pet peeves in console game design: if you stop playing a game for a month, it is often very difficult to get back into it. What was I supposed to do here? How did that button combo go again? Many mobile games can be played for a minute or two, without an enormous investment of time and energy-while travelling on public transport, for instance.

"This partially explains one of my pet peeves in console game design: if you stop playing a game for a month, it is often very difficult to get back into it"

Mobile and social games also tend to require less conscious attention, so they can be played in contexts where people are tired or distracted. I find this amazing: because the browser and the mobile phone became game platforms, suddenly these previously infertile bits of the time/space landscape were invaded by gaming, and people made billions. Bathroom breaks became a play context. The CEO of a successful social game company once basically told me that he played social games-lots of clicks without stress and without difficult decisions-because it helped him with his anxiety. This reason for playing was underserved by mainstream games, but the browser enabled a play context (and an economic situation) where this kind of game suddenly became possible, and profitable.

Game designers have adapted to high-frequency, low-duration play sessions, for instance by using appointment mechanics ("Come back in 1 hour when your crops have grown to their full size") and asynchronous multiplayer. In 2007, the Stone Age of social games, Parking Wars showed that you can be engaged with a game even when you're not playing it. The upcoming mobile game Subterfuge is revitalizing dynamics from Diplomacy and Play By Mail games. It will be fascinating to see the outcome.

What I have described so far is the typical ad-hoc accumulation of game development knowledge, but of course people have been studying this in a more rigorous manner for decades, and some of that is being applied to games. Marketing can be used to create a play context, or rather to try and get people to play in a certain context, as with the example of post-pub gaming. User experience researchers use psychological techniques to study how and why people play games, and these days you can hire them to do this for you. All of these fields have valuable lessons to teach about play contexts. ICO Partners' Thomas Bidaux, in a presentation he gave last year, used a concept he calls form factor, which is quite similar to play context, except coming at things from the platform and business model side. How do people discover games? How and when do they pay for them? This is the platform's form factor. Each platform creates and affects the play context, as the negative space in which players play.

" Marketing can be used to create a play context, or rather to try and get people to play in a certain context"

Looking hard at play contexts can make your game better. Kazuya Niinou, the designer of Etrian Odyssey, a role-playing game for the Nintendo DS, has spent a lot of time thinking about how players use the DS's stylus. Using the stylus makes it hard to play lying down, and tiring to play for long periods of time. But it also enables hand-written maps, which add enormously to the game's experience. So the team at Atlus designed the game to have two different modes or styles, one with stylus and one without, with different intended activities and levels of concentration. That's a lot of work to get right, but it appears to have paid off.

But, to come back to last month's column on innovation, looking at play contexts can also help you design new kinds of games. Margaret Robertson introduced me to Dreeps, a mobile "alarm playing game", for people who don't have time anymore to play RPGs. It's a bit like Tamagotchi and has very limited means of interaction. Whether Dreeps is a great game or not, it's a fascinating exercise to identify and design for underused play contexts: if people were to play then and there using this device and feeling like that... what would they play? VR and the Apple Watch are obvious areas to investigate, but are there others?

The most intriguing approach is to try and design games that work in multiple contexts, either because they adapt or because multiple games co÷perate to create one game experience. Companion apps to big console titles are a step in this direction, but I am unaware of any major successes there so far. The problem, as I found out the hard way, is that you effectively need to develop two games that are dependent on each other, which is more than twice as much work than just making one game. Still, I remain convinced that someone will crack this problem, and that interconnected, multi-context games will become more common.

Thanks to Thomas Bidaux, Andy Schmoll, and Verena Riedl for their help with this article.

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