Game Difficulty & Consumer Expectations

Professor Stacy Wood, faculty advisor to C3, has unveiled more research on consumer behavior; this time, she studied the consumer’s emotional reaction to the process of learning how to use a product (and the customer’s subsequent overall satisfaction with that product). Stacy’s research isn’t game-specific, but is particularly interesting in the context of games. After all, video games have evolved (by necessity and definition) into some of the most elegant learning systems ever designed!

Stacy’s key conclusions, which probably won’t surprise members of this industry, are as follows:

When consumers were surprised by learning difficulty and experienced negative emotions (e.g., frustration, anger), there was a lasting negative impact on evaluations. Importantly, however, negative emotions did not decrease product evaluations if consumers expected learning difficulty… a consumer may experience the same challenging learning experience as positive if she anticipated difficulties prior to use or as negative if she did not.

Although these “learning” emotions are process-oriented, they still have a significant and stable influence on product evaluations. In this way, we evaluate a product more positively when it offers a smooth learning process, independent of our assessment of the product’s net benefits. While it may not seem rational (since the pain of learning is only experienced initially and the product’s use may far outlast this initial learning period), these learning emotions can impact more stable overall evaluations of the product. Perhaps, as consumers, we blame a product when it has made us feel stupid and reward a product when it has made us feel smart.

In other words, if a consumer expects a game to be difficult to learn and/or master, (s)he will probably enjoy the difficulty. On the other hand, unexpectedly difficult games are likely to bomb with their initial audience. Makes sense, right?

So here’s my question: how often do video game marketers, as part of their plans, develop (implicit or explicit) messaging about the difficulty of a game? While many games offer explicit difficulty levels (or better yet, automatically adapt to a user’s skill), many remain too easy or too difficult for a large subset of potential customers (not to mention reviewers!) For the sake of PR as well as sales, would it make sense to communicate more clearly (and possibly, but not necessarily, more explicitly) about difficulty?

429 responses to “Game Difficulty & Consumer Expectations

  1. >After all, video games have evolved (by necessity and definition) into some of the most elegant learning systems ever designed!

    Really? Dude, we haven’t been playing the same games! I think that overall, the industry does a very poor job at this. Granted, it’s a tough nut, but to call them elegant is a stretch at best.

    – explicit difficulty levels is a path out when they can’t solve the problem. ANd itself has problems. If I’ve never played the game, or anything like it, how do I know what level is right for me?

    – While marketers SHOULD consider difficulty, I’m not sure many do. I think the bulk of games target an existing customer base, and assume they are familiar with content in that genre (e.g. Best thing since HL2! or Best game since Bejewelled!). The difficulty then is implied, no?

    K

  2. > I think that overall, the industry does a very poor job at
    > this. Granted, it’s a tough nut, but to call them elegant is a > stretch at best.

    You’re such a cynic. Game-based learning is pretty elegant compared to average school-based learning nowadays, IMO. ;)

    > explicit difficulty levels is a path out when they can’t
    > solve the problem

    I’m not a huge fan of explicit difficulty levels. We built an auto-difficulty adjustment system into Cyclescore, and I was pretty pleased by the results. But anyway, this is all sort of besides the point, since I was saying that levels are precisely NOT sufficient answer to the problem in my post.

    > I think the bulk of games target an existing customer base,
    > and assume they are familiar with content in that genre

    Good point. But then, this does increase the likelihood that any given game will fail to break out of its core audience. As an industry that is currently struggling with questions of wider demographics, we should be careful to make too many assumptions about what people do and do not know (or would and would not like to play.)

  3. I think that Wired’s story on the Mythical 40-Hour Gamer is related to this:

    http://www.wired.com/news/columns/0,71836-0.html?tw=wn_story_page_prev2

    It seems that game difficulty is already explicitly stated on the box – but then again, game difficulty is relative, so you really can’t say that the statement on the box is inaccurate.

    So how do you convey a subjective piece on information objectively? Maybe the number on the box is applicable to above-average gamers only. Maybe they should give “average” figures instead? But who is the average gamer? :)

    Interesting dilemma for game developers :)

  4. I thought that article about the Mythical 40-Hour Gamer is pretty spot on Chuck. I think most of the games out on the shelves these days do target a specific customer base; either you\’re in it for the ultimate 40-80 hour long experience or you play it casually for a couple minutes. There aren\’t a lot of games that are mutually exclusive (or is that not possible?).

    I suppose another way to put this is whether it\’s possible to create games that serve both the hardcore and casual gamer. And you know what? I think it is. World of Warcraft is a fine example proving that it can be done. And so is Tetris, Mario Kart, and many others…

    Here\’s an entry I wrote earlier this week about this issue (sorry, don\’t know how to use trackbacks)
    http://blog.bottomlesspitgames.com/2007/08/31/balancing-between-the-casual-vs-hardcore-part-1.aspx

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