The “Long Tail” is an economic term that describes long-term revenue generation, the ability to earn money years and years after something’s initial release. Games, or products in general, that design their monetization model effectively to capitalize on the “Long Tail” end up becoming a very effective source of consistent income. For example, one benefit of games released digitally is that so long as your game exists on a digital storefront, it will have the ability to be bought for as long as that storefront still exists. Participate in one or two seasonal sales, and suddenly your game can be brought back into the spotlight and earning money years after its initial release, even if you’re selling it for 50% off. Or, you could develop and release Downloadable Content (DLC), a smaller add-on to a game that brings new content to a year-old game, exciting existing fans and potentially grab new players as well.
The current rise of live-service games is the latest “Long Tail” monetization strategy trend in the gaming industry. A lot of games are promising long roadmaps, releasing a baseline game that features online features that developers promise to keep online and updated with new content every so often. This can be very enticing model for both players and stock holders. Players will be able to purchase a game and get a lot of value out of it for months or years, being promised fresh, new content; a game that promises to stay fun and relevant for years after a purchase. For investors, it’s good to know that a single product could have the ability to generate revenue for years after its release date without going on sale and stay on the top of market trends.
However, how is this going to work when there are dozens upon dozens of live-service games on the market, all of them vying for the spotlight, all of them fighting for your time and money? Is it wise to design and develop a game that is very focused on “road-mapping” and “Long Tail” in a market that’s oversaturated with other games that are trying to do this? How is one working human being going to enjoy more than one live-service game, especially when competition is dropped during flooded time frames? The recent marketing fumble that EA pulled was costly: they released Anthem and Apex: Legends within weeks of each other. As a result, EA ended up competing with itself, losing lots of potential customers for Anthem to Apex: Legends, especially since one began to emerge as the objectively more polished game.
Gamers are humans, usually, of the working class doing around 40-hour work weeks. Some of them are parents, some of them have weekend plans and obligations, some of them work much much more than 40 hours a week, and to stay healthy and sane, they also need to sleep for a third of that week. How then, is a single gamer going to be able to get value out of a game that demands hundreds or thousands of their hours to get to a point of satisfaction? Was it not cruel and inhumane for Star Wars Battlefront 2 to lock away iconic characters like Darth Vader behind barriers that needed literally thousands of hours to unlock? Isn’t it unreasonable to expect a customer to be able to juggle more than one or two live-service games at a time? Their free time is sparse and precious. When the market is oversaturated with “Long Tail” focused games, what ends up happening instead is a spread-out player base, and a selection of games that are all competing against each other for more and more of a gamer’s free time.
Clean and concise, completable games are becoming more and more rare in the gaming industry, game design focusing more on replayability, procedural generation, gigantic explorable sandboxes, and competitive multiplayer. 2-3 hour experiences are treated like scams, 5-10 hour games as underdeveloped and lacking, 10-20 hour games considered “short”, and 30-60 hour games the normal, expected amount that a game should come with. There are a few demographics that this new gaming landscape discriminates against:
- People which have sparse or scattered opportunities for games.
- People who want to play a game at a social gathering.
- People who want to get the full value of a game without having to commit large quantities of time.
- People who want closure from a game.
- People who like to play a variety of games.
Of course, the video game industry is diverse and there will always be a game that exists or will exist soon that satisfies gamers of all kinds of circumstances and tastes, but the high-visibility marketplace, the high-profile news-header game landscape is an important part of game culture that is hurting the gaming on the whole because of this oversaturation of long games. Producers and investors may confuse ‘oversaturation’ with ‘high player demand’ and encourage the development of similar games, rather than trying new things and advancing the gaming industry. It discourages potential gamers or casual gamers from playing games due to intimidation from time commitment, or overshadow games that would actually suit their wants or needs. It stagnates the AAA scene, which a large portion of the player base watches closely. It makes it difficult for games journalists to accurately review games since they take so long to play to get a good picture for. It skews player opinion about video game length towards longer games, casting games with shorter playtimes in a negative light, even though video game length has nothing to do with their quality. And more dangerously, it obfuscates and normalizes monetization in games and delivery of broken or subpar goods with the promise of continuous upkeep and improvement, leading to a very anti-consumer environment.
It should be a gamer’s choice when they decide to clock in hundreds or thousands of hours for a single game. Designing a game that requires a player to play for hundreds of hours in order to get enjoyment out of it is not smart from a marketing perspective (at least when the market is filled with games like that) nor is it creative from a designer standpoint, considering how little you would be contributing to the medium (does your game really need to be an open-world sandbox rpg or battle royale with “optional” monetization schemes?).
What if you still really want to make a “Long Tail” game right now, and want to avoid the marketing and game design problems that come with it? Here are some things to consider:
- Encourage or enable short play sessions of 15-30 minutes so that even busy people can play. The ability to pop in and out without falling too far behind players who play for long hours can be very attractive and pro-consumer.
- Have a reasonable amount of mandatory content that can last for decent but completable number of hours, but a lot of compelling optional objectives for players who do actually want to sink hundreds of hours into your game.
- Be inclusive of local co-op/competitive gaming so that during social gatherings, your game isn’t off the table as an option. Also, try to let casual or non-gamers feel welcome to play.
- Be fun from start to finish. If your core gameplay loop is fun, players might not mind moving through your content slowly, or being forced to grind.
- Monetize fairly. Most gamers now have a sharp nose for anti-consumer business practices.
- By the time you release a game, it should be 100% completed, nothing less. Roadmaps and DLC should not include missing content or major bug fixes. Gamers should be purchasing a complete product, unless it is clearly labeled Alpha/Beta.
But wait, why would a game company ever heed this advice? It sounds as if I’m asking game companies to please not do this out of the goodness of their hearts, and we all know how that isn’t going to happen.
But what if I were to say that being decent to consumers actually will increase your bottom-line? These are turbulent times in the game industry, with giants of the past decade starting to struggle to appease the ever-maturing gamer crowd. Controversy is cropping up left and right and gamers are hungry for good content that isn’t openly reaching for their wallet or their health. It is a time in the game industry where you can loudly proclaim “There will be no microtransactions in our game” and be met with thunderous applause. Gamers are clinging tight to companies that they feel are bastions of hope for a better gaming industry, like Projekt CD Red (voted Best Developer in the 2018 Steam Awards) or Santa Monica Studios (literally quelling fears). If you can show fans that you care about them you will earn a loyal following and lots of positive word of mouth, which is basically free advertising for your next game. Love your gamers and they’ll love you back.