On the sixth day of March, in the town of Eastleigh, I met with a group of potential conspirators… Not really, but I did run a focus group to inform the development of the nacsent “Conspiracy 600″ project (or whatever it ends up being called). So what did I learn? First of all, don’t rely on the SoundNote app. It crashed half-way through my focus group, and I’ve lost the recording of the first half of the session. Luckily I took notes.
The group was six people, from mid-teens to 30, all living or studying relatively local to Eastleigh. We began by discussing the games they enjoyed, and they mentioned everything from Draughts to Flappy Bird, with card games, Monopoly, Call of Duty and the Sims in between. They also talked unprompted about how and why they play games and in doing so, showed a great deal of diversity within the group, some played casual games to pass the time, others didn’t touch them. One or two said that before they invested any time in a game, two or three people had to tell them it was worth playing. One person spoke about playing (physically) alone but with on-line friends. Another use a term I hadn’t heard before, but which everybody understood: Rage games.
I had planned to ask specifically about why they played games, and what they got out of them, but a couple couldn’t stay long and so (given that they’d discussed it a bit already) I cut it out of my plan. As it turns out one left and covered for the other who stayed to the end, so in retrospect, I’d have liked to include that section after all. Never mind … next time.
Instead I moved onto a discussion of game mechanics. I’d printed out a number a playing cards, each naming feature of videogames culled from the “choices and feedback” lists in Navarro’s article on games and emotion. I asked them to work together to group these, however they saw fit, as I recorded the conversation. (This is the bit of the recording I most miss, as I didn’t make much in the way of notes.)
They ended up with seven groups, the two which were the easiest for them to pull out where those referring to rewards and goals. The discussion around this was bast very much on achievement and the dextrous skills and game-knowledge that allows a competant player to show off, at one point one of them added “spectacle for others” to that group, talking about people who like to post videos of their brilliance on-line for others to watch. Later on they were quite disparaging about those people that boasted about their competence on-line.
The second, and largest group was around role-playing, and here, the discussion was about creating your own avatar, refining every details and immersing yourself in a rich fantasy world. Interestingly, there was a slight tendency to corral RPGs into the mediaval worlds of Skyrim and Zelda and talk of Mass Effect about which there was some discussion) as something other, but I think it was conceptually folded into this genre with a discussion about the immersive, filmic qualities of games like The Last of Us. Nurturing games, like the Sims or the many pet-care variants were counted by the focus group as a subgroup of Roleplaying mechanics.
The third group turned out to have a number of the “serious fun” mechanics: study, work out, rhythm etc. And that was how they indentified it (without of course using the “serious fun” tag. A small group was made almost exclusively of “people fun” mechanics: Lead; Mentor; Cooperate; Communicate and Compete. These were seen as applying to physical team sports as well as (or more so than) computer games. And the focus-group’s unprompted creation of these groupings made me think there might well be something in Navarro’s work, and that it might apply to more than just digital games.
One collection was all about strategy, and challenging environments, puzzle solving in an immersive situation. Lara Croft, Far Cry and exploratory games were mentioned in this discussion, as well as the Monkey Island series.
I then asked a stupid question, about whether one set of mechanics appealed more than any other. Of course no-one said one did. They pointed out that a good game, Skyrim was the example they used, has a mix of all the mechanical groups. It offer levels and increasing skills, you are also creating your own character. One member described playing it socially, though that functionality isn’t available yet. Three players would start playing at the same time, and compare their progress as they played. Next time I’ll ask instead if there’s a group of mechanics that they could do without, that might be more insightful.
This group placed a lot on emphasis on the story, even though they also said they didn’t like being on rails – they decided in the end that they wanted the illusion of not being on rails. The Last of Us, one said, is not designed to be played again and again. Another was reminded about controversy over mass effect, that there was only one ending. This prompted discussing of Elder Scrolls on-line, and the difference between Far Cry 3′s single player and multi-player modes – the multi-player mode focused more on points scored, kills and achievements, and less on narrative.
Bioshock and Borderland’s worlds came up in discussion, one player explained that part of the attraction of those games was just being in their worlds. Immersion is a word that gets mentioned a lot, and its going to be a challenge for our “real-world” game. Something to thing more upon.
The group then returned narrative, and the importance of a good ending. I think that’s easier for us to provide.
Then I moved the discussion to communications. Everyone had a smartphones – a couple with iPhones, the rest with Android. There was very little love for Windows phone and no mention of Blackberry. I shared a set of cards featuring the logos of most of the famous networking/messaging tools as well as some more surprising ones that had been mentioned in the survey, and asked them to comment on them.
The first thing somebody pointed out was the lack of Microsoft branding, this was said with no surprise. One of girls and one of the boys pointed out the lack of Facetime, which was more surprising them them because it was something they used. One person mentioned using Steam as a communication method. This prompted a discussion of Google Hangouts and Skype for conferencing. One young man uses Skype a lot, for all his gaming conversations and talking to his girlfriend.
I asked about preferences for text messaging. First to the bottom of the list was Facebook “Its just annoying now” “The only thing I didn’t miss when I spent a month off-line” However it was useful for keeping track of family and friends abroad, getting notifications from clubs and the messaging function was still the primary method of communication for at least one group-member. He said it was because he spent a lot of time on his computer at home and wanted to carry over conversations to his phone when out and about. Other preferred SMS and chose to ignore a backlog of Facebook messages.
Snapchat came in for a lot of criticism, one girl uses it quite a lot, but hates it because its so, slow. Viber came in for special praise because of the quality of international voice calling.
Something that became apparent is the way young people use different networks to segment their social contacts, keeping family and friends separate. The challenge they present us is the one thing everybody uses is SMS, rather than data. Because SMS is now unlimited for most users.
Then we got round to discussing the early concepts for the conspiracy game itself. There wasn’t overwhelming enthusiam for the game as described. One young man warned that “I don’t think I’d get out enough to enjoy it.” One person raised concerns about trying to achieve too much in any day, and worried about letting other people do the work for him. He wanted to be there, not to turn up at the end without any sense of achievement because he’d left it to others to find the clues.
This lead to a discussion about team work “You need to have equal participation”, one said or there’s no sense of achievement. This led to a discussion about a mechanic about people in a team having to be (say three) particular places at the appointed time. There was a concern though about being let down by a friend who didn’t turn up. The group preferred a mechanic where if a number of people turned up at a target place within a certain timeslot everyone there might get a points multiplier, but if you turned up without anybody else, you’d still succeed, and the story will still progress.
A mention of fliers at the locations brought the discussion round to marketing. I asked how we’d bring it to local young people’s attention. Word of mouth is the main vector of marketing to the group, they also mentioned on-line adverting, which can be localised and personalized relatively cheaply(but its something we need to budget for). No-one admits to reading magazines. Youth-clubs and other networks may be effective. We talked about early adopters convincing others to use it, one person suggested that the early phases of the game should be at busy locations.
It makes me wonder if the game should be a modern version of the Southampton Plot, rather like an updated version of a Shakespeare play. So our players can be conspirators on a modern, immersive conspiracy, that mirrors the 600 year old plot: Hal as a Dave Cameron, rousing the rabble to war against France, with the conspirators choosing to work for or against him… The costumes would be cheaper.