Most Games Fail

Most games fail. The statistics show that only about 1 in 10 entertainment games are considered a success. That’s a pretty bad rate. And it’s not much different for training games. I think we can do better!

Let me share a story. I was a soccer coach for many years. I loved playing – especially in the rain, when the sun is setting, and it’s almost, but not quite cold. One time, I attended this training session. It was for the coaches and it was really intense – 20 hours of lessons from Fri evening to Sunday morning. The whole time, the teachers kept repeating this one lesson – drilling it into our heads. It was a simple idea, but it became my secret weapon.

What was the secret? Dribbling. That’s right – the most fundamental of all soccer skills. It’s the first skill we teach and it’s also the most important. But, because it’s so basic, so fundamental, most coaches don’t practice it very much – they focus on plays and shots on goal. So, that was my secret weapon. My boys practiced basic dribbling every day, especially in the rain. And it paid off. They became the best dribblers in the league. Imagine the confidence a little boy gains when he steals a ball from someone a foot taller and 20 pounds heavier.

In soccer, the fundamentals are simple – if you control the ball, you control the game. But, what’s the fundamentals of a video game? Is it the graphics or the story?  Maybe it’s about networking or multiplayer. How about the sounds, music, or character customization options? It’s none of these things.

The fundamental aspect of games is flow. Flow is that wonderful state where everything else seems to fade away – where you become completely focused on what you’re doing. Nothing else matters. Time gets distorted – five minutes feels like an hour but an hour flies by in seconds. Flow is why we play games.

Now flow isn’t unique to games. It’s part of the psychology of being human – which means that flow can happen anytime, in lots of situations. Even at the dentist.

I like my hygenist. We talk while she works – it’s one of those off-and-on conversations of course. I try to say something witty. Then she digs around with a long, scrappy metal thing while she talks. Naturally, I reply, ‘Mmm Hmmpphhh?’

But something funny happened. Right in the middle, she stopped talking.  And she didn’t say anything for a long time. She was completely tuned into what she was doing. She moved with efficiency from one task to the next, checking, cleaning, and polishing. She was doing all sorts of things, but she had stopped talking to me. She was in flow! (Maybe I should have flossed more…)

The point is that flow is a basic part of being human. And it’s the essential element of games. And here’s something fun. Flow has been studied scientifically by lots of folks. The guy who discovered it, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, even gave us a recipe for making it happen. Go figure! And just like with stories, I love recipes. So, here’s what you need for flow:

  1. Clear tasks
  2. Immediate feedback
  3. Balance of difficulty vs skill
  4. No distractions.

That’s it – just 4 things. It’s exactly like dribbling in soccer.  It’s easy to understand, but takes a lifetime to master. Unfortunately, game designers rarely talk about it. They don’t research it or present new findings at conferences. Now, I’m not saying they don’t work their butts off – they do! It’s just that they focus too much on the advanced stuff like graphics and technology. And that doesn’t leave much time for the fundamentals. But like soccer, it’s the fundamentals that lead you to victory.

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