One of the most frustrating things for creative people is the lack of selling. Selling in this case doesn’t mean money, but people who buy (i.e. understand and like) your vision.

Let’s take my example. For the last nearly four years I’ve been working on Zandagort. It’s a browser based sci-fi strategy game. An OGame clone you could say, until you explore the depths of it and realize how far you were from the truth. My problem: you don’t explore the depths so you don’t realize the truth.

And how do I know if the game itself really is that great? Mostly from the reactions and feedback of those who play it actively. That’s a few hundred players currently (and about a thousand including the past). I trust them because they’re not my friends so they wouldn’t like the game just to make me happy.

So I’m pretty sure, it’s a great game, and yet there are a lot who don’t buy it. First let’s take a look at some statistics:

This chart shows the players who sign up weak by weak and the ratio of those who stay in the game for only a day, 2 days, 3 days, a week, a month or more than a month. The first few weeks are special, because players who already know and love Zandagort sign up in those weeks. Mostly in the first day (or hour) of the server.

Two things are interesting in the chart:

1. Most players who sign up either leave the game in less than a day or stay for more than a month. That means they decide very quickly.

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2. Most players who sign up leave the game. 50% in less then a day, 75% in less than a month.

I don’t know if those numbers are good or bad compared to other games, because I have never seen any statistics. I think game developers and publisher are a bit too cautious and/or envious when it comes to sharing information. So I have to guess. And I guess the churn rate could be and should be lower.

It’s not easy to find the reason why those players leave the game. They don’t provide any feedback even if asked. Fortunately a review (or better call it first impression) was published a few weeks ago on SpaceSector and it reveals a lot.

From the developer’s perspective a review is partly a marketing tool, partly an analysis. If the review is positive it can channel a lot of players to the game. And apart from that it can give you hints about what is great and not so great about your game.

My first reaction to both the statistics above and this review was: people are short-sighted, lazy and dumb. Short-sighted: they only look at the graphics and their first impression and don’t explore the depths. Lazy: they are not willing to sacrifice time and energy on a game. Dumb: they don’t have the mental abilities to understand any game more complex than an FPS or Farmville.

But is it really their fault? There are hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of games out there. Information foraging suggests it is natural and not short-sightedness to rely on first impressions, it is natural and not laziness not to sacrifice much time and energy until you are sure it’s worth it, and it is natural and not dumbness to save on brains until necessary.

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Anyone who says that they’re great at communicating but ‘people are bad at listening’ is confused about how communication works.” The same applies to games. If you think “people are bad at playing” you better think again. It is mostly your fault if people are bad at playing your game.

Taking these into consideration I concluded there are three problems with Zandagort (for new players):

1. it’s too complex

2. it’s too slow

3. it’s too time-consuming

Complexity is probably one of the “unique selling points” of the game, so to dumb it down to the level of (say) Travian is out of the question. The solution is a self-explanatory user interface, tooltips and minihelps, and a tutorial/quest system that facilitates learning-by-doing with a lot of small steps. This won’t enable anyone to grasp all the depths instantly (which is impossible btw) but will let players slowly digest the complexity of the game.

Speed is a tricky point. By changing a few parameters it would be easy to speed up the game. The problem is exponential growth: experienced players can double their economy every week. If construction times and costs were manipulated to speed up the game in early stages, the result would be such a short doubling period, that anyone who signed up only a week after a server started would stand no chance against those who signed up on the first day.

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So what? Don’t speed up the game, speed up the experience. Players need immediate satisfaction. If the first satisfaction they get is the first planet they conquer about two weeks after registration, they won’t wait for that. So let them have a lot of tiny (and not so tiny) achievements (badges, quests, whatever), so they can feel their progress. The real unit of speed is achievement/minute not parsec/minute.

Finally about the time required to play Zandagort. It seems a bit paradox that the game is both too slow and too time-consuming. The truth is it has a special pattern: you put items on your building list (there’s no limit except for your foresight), wait for them to get done, build again, wait again… There are of course other activities like trading, fighting, chatting, but the basics go like that. So you either keep a browser tab for Zandagort all day long (like one half of the players do) or adopt the habit of playing half an hour every evening (like the other half do) or you get lost. Or I create an appropriate notification system that helps you spend the little time you have the most efficiently.

In about half a year, once all the above are implemented, we’ll see if they work…

To sum up this already too long post, here’s the essence: If you think “people are bad at playing” you better think again. It is mostly your fault if people are bad at playing your game.