The Subway Sandwich Conundrum

Over on GameProducer.net, Juuso recently talked about the complexity of ordering a sandwich from Subway. When he went into Subway and said, “I’d like a sandwich, please,” he was overwhelmed by the number of choices he was asked to make. In the end, he would have preferred that his initial request, “give me a sandwich,” would have resulted in a sandwich without any further questions.

There’s probably a cultural divide here; the Subway shops over there in Finland may be better off doing things differently than they do them over here in the US. But in the US, at least, Subway is right on target for their niche.

Subway’s niche is making sandwiches, and in the US, this is a very well-defined niche. All niches become more complex over time. Seventy years ago, a sandwich shop would have been well-served by the advice to keep it really simple. But as time progressed, sandwich eaters required more and more features. Now, I can’t think of a single sandwich place in town that doesn’t offer the same barrage of questions Subway asks. If Subway simplified things so that, for instance, I could no longer get extra lettuce and no mayonaise, I’d stop going there. They wouldn’t have the feature set I require.

Game niches are very much the same way. When you sit someone down for the first time to play, say Battlefield 2, it’s an incredibly overwhelming experience. You don’t just move and shoot. In a modern FPS, you are expected to understand how to:

    • Move, strafe, and jump at high speeds
    • Look 360 degrees with the mouse, and zoom in with binoculars
    • Shoot with pinpoint accuracy
    • Switch weapons via keyboard keys
    • Use the map to figure out where you are and where you need to go
    • Follow instructions and keep up with the plan proposed by your teammates
    • Understand how to achieve objectives like holding points and capturing flags

And on and on. I can tell you from experience, it’s an overwhelming and humiliating thing to try to jump into your first FPS game. That’s because the FPS niche is extremely well developed. Back in the Doom 1 era, it was much easier for people to get started.

Battlefield 2 would definitely not be wise to “keep it simple” and strip out the complexity. They have to compete with other modern games in their niche, and their target audience gets more sophisticated with every FPS game that’s released.

As a niche becomes more sophisticated, the target demographic for that niche usually gets smaller. That’s because fewer new people are getting into the niche. In games, niches eventually either die out almost completely (like, say, adventure games), or they revolutionize themselves into a new genre (like RTS games that blossomed from turn-based strategy games).

As casual game developers, we try to go for undeveloped niches, because then we�don’t need to add the slew of features that a well-developed niche does. We don’t try to compete with FPSes because we couldn’t make one that has all the features people expect from an FPS. But when we set out in new territory, we can (and SHOULD) make it simple, approachable, easy.

Just because we develop “casual” games, though, doesn’t mean we’re niche-free. For the match-3 genre, a game as simple as Bejeweled doesn’t cut it anymore. Now a top-notch match-3 game needs:

    • Matching mechanics that are similar to everything else, yet different
    • Strongly directed gameplay
    • Power-ups
    • Beautiful changing backgrounds
    • Unlockable secrets

It’s getting harder to compete here, and it’s also getting harder for newbies to jump into their first match-3 game. Some day, if match-3 games keep evolving, we may even see a backlash — a return to simpler matching puzzles.

Genre revolutions, however, are pretty slow. Subway doesn’t need to worry that their niche is too complex just yet. Now if they start asking you what exact temperature and consistency you want your bread, and which of 14 lettuces you want, maybe they’ll have a problem…

Lessons from the beta

The beta for our upcoming casual game is winding down, and the results from the survey were very interesting. I thought I’d share a couple of the results:

Timed vs. Untimed Gameplay: not really surprising, but players overwhelmingly preferred playing the untimed version of the game to the timed version.

Story Didn’t Matter: most beta participants said that the game’s story didn’t matter; it would have been just fine without it. This isn’t necessarily an indictment game stories in general — I mean, our game’s story isn’t exactly super exciting. But it does reinforce the idea that if you can’t do story really well, you probably shouldn’t bother.

Web Features Irrelevant: our game has a feature called the Weekly Web Challenge, which presents players with a new challenge every week. Did they find it boring? Did they find it interesting? Who knows! What we do know is that the vast majority of them did not even try the feature. Apparently that menu item, along with the little explanatory blurb, was so unappealing that people didn’t even want to click on it to learn more.

Other features did get clicked on — people tried the “Challenge Grid” feature, and many people tried both timed and untimed gameplay. But the Weekly Web Challenge was a bust. So we’re removing the web feature and sticking all the downloadable content into the Challenge Grid feature.

This surprised me, just a little. I knew that our target audience would never want to try a web-based PvP feature. They aren’t interested in competition with random strangers. But I thought that they would find the idea of free weekly content updates to be interesting.

And who knows, maybe they would warm up to it after they’d bought the game and played for many hours. But a delayed interest is much less useful to me than a feature that catches people’s interest in the first hour, while they’re still in the trial version.

Game Analysis: Magic Match

Today I explore the 2006 hit match-3 game, “Magic Match.” I have to say that it’s a very unusual game, and really drives home how impossible it is to predict what games are going to be successful.

If I took the text off of some of the screens, I bet I could convince you that they were screenshots from the Amiga version of Bard’s Tale II. They’re a little squished, very brown, and feel retro.

But the game is not budget quality, by any means. It actually has tons of polish… it’s just not the the polish I would have added. For instance, there’s lots of animation, but the game pieces are tiny and often indecipherable. And while the game helpfully brings up a box letting you turn off the annoying in-game sound effects, perhaps it would have been better to make the actual sound effects less annoying.

In the end I think it works because it’s so cheesy, without being unpolished. People can’t tell whether to take the theme seriously or whether it’s all in jest. Like the singing minstrel? Do the authors�realize how horible that is? They have to, right? So it’s in jest? Right?

Because of its somewhat inexplicable success, this is a tricky game to analyze. I’m still mulling it over, and would love more feedback on why it works. You can read the full analysis here. If you haven’t played the game, start by scrolling down to the pictures at the bottom of the analysis. The pictures and captions will get you up to speed quickly.

Magic Match Analysis

��Magic Match Screenshot

Magic Match Screenshot

My game enters beta!

After a very long wait my game has now entered beta with the publisher! Although the beta is short, they say that they get many hundreds of testers, whose usage patterns are recorded and analyzed. They can also fill out an optional poll about their experience. I’m very excited to get feedback, and I can’t wait to see what problems they have and where they get stuck.

Sorry for the lack of a game evaluation this week, oh imaginary readers; while I did evaluate a new game, I haven’t had time to write up the results yet. I figure that with no users reading my blog, it probably isn’t too big a deal.