The Subway Sandwich Conundrum

Over on, 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…

3 thoughts on “The Subway Sandwich Conundrum

  1. Nicely expanded thinking into nowadays games. I never thought about “Doom 1″ versus “Battlefield 2″ in terms of “how easy it is to get in the game”. You are absolutely right.

    The gap goes even wider on some games such as the good ol’ Rogue Spear where you are killed with one shot: better not make mistakes!

  2. I’m going to have to agree with Juuso. I also want the person making my sub to know how to make a sub. I don’t make subs. I don’t know what goes on one. I just know that I don’t want pickles on it. The sub maker should have a default setup for each kind of sub. Then if I want to make changes to that, I can.

    I like the same from my games. All of those features you mentioned are great, but it’s nice if using those aren’t necessary to enjoy the game.

    Of course, these are the opinions of someone that is not in the niche of knowing what should go on a sub or being any good at FPSs.

  3. It might be a matter of being able to see all of the options. There is a Canadian hamburger shop chain called Harvey’s. There are a few kinds of burgers (hamburger, with cheese, with bacon, vegetarian). When the burger is ready the customer chooses toppings. There are only a half-dozen toppings and they’re all lined up in front of the customer in separate bowls. It’s very easy to pick toppings.

    In contrast, an ice cream shop which will remain nameless, offers two dozen kinds of ice cream. But, the lineup is right in front of the freezer so someone at the back of the line has no idea what flavours are available at the front of the line. Then, choosing a flavour they are taken past the head of the line to choose toppings. The customer has the choice of differnt kinds of nuts, candy and squeeze bottles. There’s a lot of choice, they are not all labeled clearly, they’re not easy to see because they’re stacked to conserve space and less popular options like almonds are off to side and people are usually standing in front of them. They offered me plenty of options but I didn’t see them all before I was forced to make a decision. I want to see what I can choose, then make it as simple (one ice cream scoop) or as complex (three scoops of different flavours and three different toppings) as I like.

    I usually order cheese burgers with ketchup and pickles, and french vanilla with strawberries and cookie crumbs.

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