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Why the games I'm already playing trump the most exciting new releases

Inertia on the iPad
Welcome to the latest in our series of Pocket Gamer columns. We're taking the best games writers in the industry and giving them a platform. Veteran journalist Jon Jordan is here each week examining the trends shaping your mobile games scene. Today he's thinking about the inertia of games.  

I enjoy talking to game developers. Typically they're enthusiastic and intelligent people - people who enjoy talking about games.

Of course, they're also highly knowledgeable about the games they’re making and surprisingly open about how they measure up to the competition.

After all, strengths and weaknesses analysis is a key part of any product development.

But there is something that's always puzzled me. Game developers don't seem to think very deeply about how actual players approach games. Notably why would a player stop playing someone else’s game and start playing their game?

Sunk costs

I think this is because in the realm of the premium, or paid, game, once you've got someone to buy your game that's a sufficiently strong psychological trigger to start spending time playing the game you've just bought.

There are also some strong psychological levers, such as marketing and critical acclaim, that can be pulled to push people towards that vital purchasing decision.

This isn't the case with free-to-play games, however, where getting someone to download your game is very difficult and no guarantee they will start to play it.

Indeed, for these type of endless experiences the psychological flow works in the opposite direction.

If you've spent money in a free-to-play game, you're more likely to want to keep playing. Even if you've only spent time, once you've been playing a free-to-play game for a number of weeks with any level of daily frequency, it becomes much, much easier to keep playing that game than to learn how to play a new game.

A displacement theory

Personally I find this sort of inertia overwhelming.

If you can get me to play a free-to-play mobile game for a couple of weeks, I'm locked in for at least six months. After that point, most games get dull so unless the guild system is brilliant or there are clear long-term meta goals, I'm probably going to churn.

Still, getting me to play a free-to-play mobile game for a couple of weeks is a high bar to accomplish.

There are currently nine games downloaded to my iPad but not played, 12 games I've played at some point but not during the past month, and 14 games I've played at least one during the past month.

I know all this because I keep track of what I play. I'm a data geek. It's what I do.

That's 35 games on my iPad, and over the past week, I've been busy so I've only played four of them daily.

The easy options

The reason I play Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, Marvel: Strike Force, Battlejack and The Walking Dead, March To War every day is because it's very easy to play them.

All of them have highly automated gameplay options and very strong metagame goals, but you can pretty much complete everything you need to do in 10 minutes (often two 5-minutes sessions per game per day).

This means if I'm spending an hour a day playing games, I've got only 10 minutes left to share across all those other games. Of course, some days I spend a lot more time playing, which means I can also get stuck into something on the fringes like Assassin’s Creed: Rebellion.

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But some days, I struggle to complete even Galaxy of Heroes' Daily Activities and that's despite the new fear of being demoted to the 'social' arm of my Guild, such is the current demand for slots for active players.

And that's why I'm struggling to get to grips with games such as Quantum Siege and Dungeon Hunter Champions, which I'll enjoy if I ever get deep enough into them, but which have issues, notably the lack of autoplay options.

Yet, I also struggle with games that do have strong autoplay options because learning new systems is always a form of cognitive dissonance.

So what should developers do?

My advice to hone the opening sessions of your game to make them as streamlined, enjoyable and pacey as possible. In this context, Marvel Strike Force is an excellent example of a game that supercharges your first couple of weeks, generously handing out rewards and character power-ups to get you into the flow.

That's one of the reasons it's found a slot in my daily schedule, dislodging games likes The Sims Mobile and Legends of Solgard in the process.

Not because those games aren't great or enjoyable, just because in an era saturated with games to play, they're just not great or enjoyable enough.

If this column has given you food for thought, share your comments below and bookmark this page for more of the same next Monday. Remember to also check out words of wisdom and mirth from experienced games journalists Susan Arendt and Harry Slater each week.

Reviewer photo
Jon Jordan 12 March 2018
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