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Evergreens
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
A game designer I respect once said to me, "If I ever make another Game of the Year that sells only 50,000 copies, please just shoot me." People who have been in the industry for years are often very good at making games that other game afficionados (such as game journalists) love -- but not so good at making games that actually *sell*.

As game budgets increase, it is rare for a game to take up less than a year of production time; Two years or more are not uncommon. And most of these games stay on the shelves for less than 3 months. I, for one, am tired of seeing such a brief return on years of my effort. *Some* games stay on the shelves for six months, a year, or even longer. Sometimes six months can go by where the top 5 sellers *don't change*, just shuffle their order. In this essay, I'm going to try and identify commonalities among these "Evergreen" titles. It goes without saying that an Evergreen has to be fun -- but that clearly isn't sufficient, as many fun games either vanish without a trace, or get only a brief stay on a best seller list.

In looking at Evergreens over the last few years, I see lots of little patterns, but they can be divided up into two broad categories: Mainstream Appeal and Lengthy Games. All Evergreens I looked at had at least one of these in a big way.

Mainstream Appeal

In order to sell lots of copies, people need to "get" the game. Games that are in and about the "real world" have an obvious leg up. Sports games, The Sims (and most of Maxis' output), most Sid Meier games, various "Tycoon" games -- all are eminently "gettable".

Sales can get an extra leg up if the setting is one that hasn't been previously exploited in gaming (Deer Hunter, Roller Coaster Tycoon). This effect is mitigated somewhat by the inevitable horde of copycats -- but not as much as one might think. Being "first in" has clear advantages, that seem to last well into, and often comletely through, the "competitive period".

Another source of popular settings seems to be from other media, Star Wars being the canonical example. In actuality, however, few other media licenses have generated Evergreens, and even Star Wars only rarely manages this.

The other source of familiarity is a game franchse that was once "original IP", but has since become well established in the public mind. Examples include Pokemon, Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil. That's great if you *have* such a license; not so much if you're just hoping to establish one, but haven't yet succeeded.

It also helps sales if the setting is one you have a monopoly on. Any one can make space opera games, but only Lucasarts can make Star Wars games. Any one can make monster-collecting games, but Nintendo owns Pokemon. The license itself has enough appeal that it can help drive sales -- and it's an aspect that can't be competed with.

Lengthy Games

Of the Evergreen games I examined, vanishingly few of them had short gameplay. of the ones that did, *all* of them had extremely strong, popular licenses. Hypothesis: Given a certain minimum level of distribution and marketing awareness, the ongoing popularity of a game is more dependent on word-of-mouth than any other factor. People talk to their friends about the game that they're playing lately -- the longer they play any one game, the longer they talk about it, and the more friends of theirs will be inspired to pick it up themselves. (If you can show any counter-examples, I'd love to hear them! Part of the point of writing out theories like this is to find the holes in them...)

Over the last few years, there has been a general trend towards shorter games. This is driven primarily by the economics of increasing technology. As engines pump out more polygons, more artists are needed to create those polygons, pushing development budgets ever upwards. One way to cope with the ever-increasing expense of high-quality content has been to simply make *less* of it. Game journalists at first decried this trend, but have since become complacent about it. It si now common to see a line in a review say something like, "It's too bad the game is only eight hours long, but it was still really fun." That is a perfectly reasonable thing for a game reviewer to say -- but I don't think it's wise for *developers* to be so complacent about this issue.

Game Designers and game journalists both, as players, actually like short games. They are each professionally required to play many, many games, and rarely get to spend as much time as they like with the good ones. For an adult game designer wih a family, playing a game through to the end is a rare luxury -- one that a short game is more likely to provide. Since we know so much about the inner workings of games, we are likely to see through them and become bored fairly early on. In all these respects we are *very unlike* the consumers who actually buy Evergreen games. They have demonstrated that they prefer -- overwhelmingly -- games that can be enjoyed for months on end.

There are several common mechanisms for making games long-lived. Robust multiplayer options make it so that the game never plays the same way twice (sports, FPS, RTS). Some games have a lot of different ways to play, so that the player can enjoy trying out new strategies in a very unstructured manner, watching the emergent results of their actions (Civilization, The Sims). The game can include vast quantities of raw content, so that even a single "playthrough" takes weeks or months (Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft).

What's Missing?

There are two things that are noticeably absent or weak throughout the list of Evergreens, but which many game designers nonetheless focus on: Cutting Edge Graphics, and Complex Stories.

One might think that better graphics means better sales -- but this doesn't hold up to closer examination. Better graphics can make good screenshots, and look good on in-store demos -- but they don't promote the sort of lengthy gameplay that I argue is essential to creating Evergreens. Indeed, they actively work against that goal, by taking resources away from aspects of the project that increase play time. Moreover (at least on PC), extreme hardware requirements limit the audience to only hard-core gamers -- who aren't the people driving the Evergreen market. Awesome graphics may get great reviews and a great-selling debut, but it won't keep a game on the charts for months.

On the contrary, we see many Evergreens that demonstrate the exact opposite. Roller Coaster Tycoon was *years* behind the state of the art graphically at the time of release, but sold millions for years more. In the third installment, it modernized the graphics considerably -- and didn't stay on the charts as long. One of the canny decisions Blizzard made early on in World of Warcraft was to make the art design of their world highly stylized, almost cartoony. This lets them push very few polygons, relative to other games (even MMOs), and keep their hardware requirements low.

What about stories? Huge chunks of the Evergreen games have *no* story at all. Or if they do have a story, it's an emergent one, that exists more in the mind of the player than in anything programmed into the game (The Sims being the most obvious example). Where stories exist at *all* in Evergreens (such as GTA, Diablo, WoW), the stories are cliched, and only tangentially related to the gameplay. They're really just an excuse to "do the next mission", and usually a clumsy excuse at that.

There is, undeniably, a market for games with strong stories. It includes me and many of my friends and colleagues. But it is *not* an Evergreen market. As far as the mainstream is concerned, story is not what they play games for, and they vote with their wallets. A strong story-based game may be a critical darling, or even top the charts for a month or two -- but I can't recall such a game ever *staying* on top for more than that.

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If you've got a strongly story based game, and it's really good and emotionally involving and all that... then when you come to the end of it, you may want to go back and see "that cool moment when" once or twice, but essentially, you're done. You know the story, you've felt the emotion, and that's that. What's next?

Story-based games won't become evergreens -- but they can inspire loyalty through sequels. Has anyone tried the telenovela/soap opera approach to gaming? Where you pump out another story set in the same game universe and probably the same game engine, plus or minus a few tweaks, every three months? $20/game four times a year is better than $50/game once every two years.

Has anyone tried the telenovela/soap opera approach to gaming? Where you pump out another story set in the same game universe and probably the same game engine, plus or minus a few tweaks, every three months?

Not yet successfully. There have been a few attempts, but most have not made it to production. Those that have, have had very poor distribution and marketing, and thus very limited sales.

Valve is certainly moving in that direction with Steam and the Half-Life franchise (and publishing SiN in episodes). Still far too early to tell if there will be any success this time.

I think that for the basic concept to work, we need to get to the point where "high production values" don't necessitate re-inventing the underlying technology so thoroughly and so often. Arguably, we may be at that point now, but we certainly weren't two years ago.

Do you mind if I pass this around work?

Nope. There's a decent chance I'll be looking for a job in that neighborhood some day. Having people know my name seems unlikely to hurt :)

Not being a game player, I really ask - not challenge.

Why didn't your analysis include some discussion of the social implications and the network effect? Isn't it possible that people play the games they do because they can play them with friends, or because their friends and they now have "yet another point of common cultural experience"?

I certainly agree with that. The first paragraph under "Lengthy Games" was meant to address that point. I didn't go into it in more length because I wanted to keep the overall size of the essay down.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
A strong story-based game may be a critical darling, or even top the charts for a month or two -- but I can't recall such a game ever *staying* on top for more than that.

Well, I think Myst is the canonical counterexample. Strongly driven by story and graphics, with moderately but not exceedingly lengthy gameplay, wildly and enduringly successful.

But then, that was a long time ago.

Myst certainly counts as an Evergreen, no doubt. I will mull over the implications.

One thing that immediately occurs to me is that it wasn't actually all that short for "the mainstream". Dedicated, long-time gamers were all familiar with adventure games, and most (though not all) of the kinds of puzzles that Myst presented. If Myst was your first exposure to such, it would definitely take several weeks to get through. And... hmmm. And *help*. In those pre-Google days, if you were stuck in a game, you often had to ask for help from a friend. This would have had a natural side-effect of increasing word-of-mouth.

Will continue to think about this; thanks for the example.

Is it fair to include megahits like Tetris, Minesweeper, and FreeCell in the list of Evergreens? Or is that a different category of games? They all seem to have had some mainstream understandability (simple rule set), almost no graphics, zero-length (effectively) games but with infinite replayability, and no story at all, so match your conclusions about 50/50. Perhaps it's another set.

Is it fair to include megahits like Tetris, Minesweeper, and FreeCell in the list of Evergreens?

Since people seldom if ever set out to buy any of those games specifically--Tetris maybe, once upon a time--I think they're by definition excluded from the list in the first place? They may be played at an Evergreen level, but they don't sell that way.

I dunno, it's Alexx's list, it's his call.

I have never found a game with a real story, one which you would bother reading if it didn't have a game attached. I suspect that intergrating one into a game would be a VERY hard problem.

There's a fundamental flaw there. If you *would* bother reading it with no game attached, then there was no point in making it a game in the first place. If the story is completely unaffected by the gameplay choices, then why not just put it in a book?

Integrating good story into good gameplay is difficult, but certainly do-able. My canonical example is Planescape: Torment. Integrating good story, good gameplay, *and* mainstream appeal -- that nut has yet to be cracked.

Sometimes six months can go by where the top 5 sellers *don't change*, just shuffle their order. In this essay, I'm going to try and identify commonalities among these "Evergreen" titles.

The use of the term "evergreen" here weirds me out. When I hear that used to describe a game, I think of something I'll play for years, a la Chrono Trigger. Using it for a six-month top seller is... weird to me. Does the industry really have that short an attention span? (Insert sinking feeling here.)

Hypothesis: Given a certain minimum level of distribution and marketing awareness, the ongoing popularity of a game is more dependent on word-of-mouth than any other factor.

Supporting hypothesis: The effects of marketing are largely short-term and can be overcome through word-of-mouth, if initial sales are high enough.

I suspect that in the absence of a high-powered ad campaign, the 'any-news-is-good-news' adage applies to word-of-mouth. Did Rockstar experience increased sales due to Hot Coffee?

It si now common to see a line in a review say something like, "It's too bad the game is only eight hours long, but it was still really fun." That is a perfectly reasonable thing for a game reviewer to say -- but I don't think it's wise for *developers* to be so complacent about this issue.

I don't think this is an obvious conclusion, but on reflection, I agree with it wholeheartedly.

There are several common mechanisms for making games long-lived. Robust multiplayer options ... Some games have a lot of different ways to play... vast quantities of raw content...

You forgot the damnably effective cheap trick of the modern game industry: unlockable content. Games which force a player to jump through hoops to experience all of the content are remarkably effective - they generate a sense of accomplishment in the user AND they dribble out content slowly, so that it doesn't get "used up" all at once, creating multiple (if shorter) periods of "fresh gameplay." The only problem here is to know your market well enough that you can make unlocking take as long as possible without causing too many of your gamers to give up before they get there.

Or if they do have a story, it's an emergent one, that exists more in the mind of the player than in anything programmed into the game...

I've found that, where my friends are concerned, the less-explicit works generate the most interest and discussion. If you give people room to interpret, they bloody well will. Epic themes seem to help. (Insert Bible-related comments here.)

There is, undeniably, a market for games with strong stories. It includes me and many of my friends and colleagues. But it is *not* an Evergreen market.

A strong story is good. But unless it's brilliantly written, with subtexts and foreshadowing and all sorts of other multileveled literary tricks, it has no replay value. Cutscenes, the second time around, are made for skipping.

Using it for a six-month top seller is... weird to me. Does the industry really have that short an attention span?

With few exceptions, yes. There are new releases fighting for shelf space every single week. If you don't make a splash immediately on release, you rarely get a chance to "find an audience". Kind a like movies in the theaters these days...

the effects of marketing are largely short-term

Short-term, but still critical (see above). An Evergreen can stay on shelves long enough for the word-of-mouth effect to kick in, a non-Evergreen depends much more on the initial marketing push.

the damnably effective cheap trick of the modern game industry: unlockable content. ... The only problem here is to know your market well enough that you can make unlocking take as long as possible without causing too many of your gamers to give up before they get there.

I look at the Evrgreens, and I don't see a lot of them with unlockable content. I think that that particular cheap trick works very well with the core gamer audience -- but not so much with the mainstream. The mainstream audience won't jump through hoops and replay old, unchanged content. They want their fun straight.

If you give people room to interpret, they bloody well will.

You are so right. I should print this out and put it up next to my writing space. When I forget this principle, I tend to over-explain.

But unless it's brilliantly written, with subtexts and foreshadowing and all sorts of other multileveled literary tricks, it has no replay value.

You forget the most important (IMO) literary trick, the one that's almost completely unique to gaming -- interactivity. Planescape: Torment has subtext and foreshadowing and multiple levels -- but it also has a story which reacts to the choices I make during the game, and doesn't play out the same every time.

Cutscenes, the second time around, are made for skipping.

Amen. Blizzard used to make the most awesome cutscenes on earth. By World of Warcraft, they wised up: one awesome cutscene to start the game the first time, one mediocre cutscene to introduce the race you choose to play, and *no* cutscenes after the gameplay actually starts.

But, to the larger point, if the only way your game conveys story is through cutscenes, you're sadly lacking.

This is a seperate comment because I think replying to this could take its own essay.

How do you feel about minigames?

Generally favorable. They are a useful tool for changing pacing, and for helping indicate a change in the fictional context. Some of my favorite games from the golden age of Microprose were little more than a collection of mini-games stitched together in a common fictional setting (Pirates!, Sword of the Samurai).

Like all aspects of game design, they can be done well, or done poorly.

On the story front: Final Fantasy.

Not to say you're entirely wrong. A game that sells well has to be accessible to a large audience, and when people say "good story", they frequently mean "complex story". The complex story isn't always the one people like; need I gesture in the direction of currently-popular authors? The game with the Best Story Ever, Planescape: Torment, was an enormous failure sales-wise, I believe.

I think you're dead-on in terms of length. Not just because of advertising potential, but because of value. People like to think they're getting value for their money. It's OK to spend $50 on a game that will give you 60 hours of entertainment. That's less than a dollar an hour, which is cheaper than the movies, and games are frequently more fun. Spending $50 on a game that will only last 20 hours isn't as good a deal, and it leaves people feeling cheated if they know that the game right next to it is good for three times as long. People aren't going to like it as much, and if people don't like it it won't sell. (If a game isn't fun, people do eventually notice, via word of mouth, reviews, playing sample games in stores, etc. Alas, the reverse is not always true.)

I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't actually played any Final Fantasy yet. I only stopped being a "PC snob" a few years ago, and there are many classic I missed...

The game with the Best Story Ever, Planescape: Torment, was an enormous failure sales-wise, I believe.

True, but it's a very fuzzy data point. That game's design was ambitious in *so* many ways, all of which held great appeal for jaded "seen it all before" gamers, but were well outside the comfort zone of the mainstream "elves and dwarves" audience. Plus, the ever popular bugaboo - bad marketing. The box art was astoundingly unappealing.

Your comments on perceived value are well taken. If this was more than a cursory essay, I would have brought up that issue myself.

One of my favorite games of all time, Betrayal at Krondor, was a lovely lngthy game, as well as one with _tons_ of storyline. It worked very well for two reasons (I think): first, they storyline had heavy input from the author of the books that formed the basis of the game (Raymond Feist), and second, it was a very open game in the sense that you were free to go almost anywhere in the world at any time, and were provided tons of non-linear side plots. This made game play very long but not boring, and meant that if the player didn't care too much for the current part of the storyline or plot that they could go do their own thing without being ramrodded back into line until they chose to go back.

That was me. Funny cookie business, apparently.

I absolutely agree that cutting edge graphics are a waste of resources. More and more so as we find ourselves deeper in "the uncanny valley." That goes double for cut-scenes. I also agree that complex storytelling is non-critical, especially if it's linear.

I'd consider NWN an evergreen (though I don't know the sales figures), and that points up another factor, which is good tools for customization / extension. However, you can probably categorize this along with emergent gameplay, open-sandbox game worlds, and non-explicit storytelling, as "letting the player exercise creativity." Which I would posit is the golden key.

I suppose that the concept of "evergreen" has gotten mixed-up in my head with "best-seller". But the two need not necessarily be linked. It is possible to have lengthy sales, without large ones.

NWN does exploit a technique that I have often seen used to effectively extend the shelf-life of a game: multiple SKUs. Initial release, Expansion Pack, Game + Expansion Pack bundled, Expansion Pack 2, Game bundled with both expansions, Game + expansions + user mods. I wouldn't be surprised to see one more before NWN2 comes out. Individually, none of these had an especially lengthy shelf life. But the NWN franchise almost always had *some* representative on store shelves.

Impressions Games used to excel at this sort of thing. I had a brief stint working there, and got to see some sales spreadsheets. I was amazed at the number of different SKUs, and how they were still pulling in money from, for example, Caesar III, several years after it came out. Not a *lot* of money, to be sure, but it was still on some shelves, in various repackagings. And, of course, that wasn't enough to keep them from going out of business...

If I revise and expand this essay, modding is definitely something that will be talked about.

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