Friday, July 3, 2009

Game Development as Customer Satisfaction

The Philosophy of Customer Retention

The creative side of game development is fun to talk about. A commercial game, however, whether a one-time product or a service like a MMORPG, has additional needs. In particular, it has to persuade people to choose to part with their money. And a development studio for commercial games, or for an online game, needs to make this persuasive case not just once, but repeatedly.

When it comes to repeat sales, I think successful non-game businesses may have something useful to offer game developers, and that's the concept of customer satisfaction as a conscious focus of daily business practices.

For commercial games, it's easy to think that "customer satisfaction" is some financial metric that can be left to the bean-counters: if a lot of units changed hands, if it made a lot of money, then customers must be satisfied. Making a game is just about doing your job of creating functional gameplay or art or audio; it's not about interacting with customers... right? Isn't that Marketing's job?

That might work. You could get lucky and wind up with a hit game, bringing you to the attention of many new customers. But what happens when you try to sell those customers another game product, or when you ask them to continue subscribing to (or microtransacting with) your game service?

What are you doing to keep customers once you get them so that your game development studio achieves a long-lasting state of continuous success instead of being remembered as a one-hit wonder?

Customer Satisfaction Defined

That's where customer satisfaction comes in. Far from being an after-the-fact affair, customer satisfaction works best when it's like water to a fish, when attention to satisfying customers is such an integral part of the organization's culture that no one even notices it any more.

So what does "customer satisfaction" mean? There's a simple functional definition: setting and meeting expectations.

Customers are satisfied when they understand what to expect from you, and when they get what they expected. An effective business, then, will take pains to define customer expectations properly, and then to meet those expectations consistently.

The Andy Unedited blog suggests four expectations that are common to all customers. I found them particularly interesting because each of them has direct application within the context of game development:

Customers expect accuracy. Visible bugs are the fastest and easiest excuse for rejecting your product. Don't give a potential customer that excuse.

Customers expect availability. For online games especially, you're providing a service in a competitive marketplace. If people can't access your service when it's convenient for them, they'll turn to someone else's. But even new single-player games need to become available on a regular basis from you so that customers can trust that you intend to meet their gaming interests over the long term.

Customers expect partnerships. Customers who sign up for a service want you to value their experience and listen to their opinions regarding that service. Customers know they have choices, and they expect you to remind them occasionally why you're still their best choice.

Customers expect advice. Gamers tend to object to feeling "forced" to do anything in a game, but they do expect you to guideposts that help them find the content that matters most to them.

So which of these expectations are being met where you work, and which aren't? Which of these things are you treating as a personal responsibility to increase customer satisfaction? Before you say, "that's not my job," are you sure there's nothing you can do to contribute to it?

In short, what have you added that communicates to everyone who spends their hard-earned money on your game that you value them as a customer and you want their business in the future?

On the Virtues of Plussing

A "thank you" screen at the end of a credit sequence (especially the ones that are twenty minutes long) is not sufficient. Focusing on making functional gameplay or art or audio is not enough. All your competitors are doing those things.

A memorable product -- a product whose creators, from bizops to programming, were consciously focused on customer satisfaction -- is one that has been made just a little bit better in every single feature. There's even a term for this, which comes from Walt Disney and has been picked up by such successful creative houses as Industrial Light & Magic and Pixar: "plussing." Everything gets created to meet its functional requirements... and then everything gets plussed in some way.

This isn't just some feel-good, buzzword-bingo "quality" statement that everyone just winks at. It's a proven tool for achieving customer satisfaction because it doesn't take the customer for granted. Plussing as a corporate policy is an understanding that customers will notice and appreciate extra effort.

When plussing is practiced by everyone in a creative shop, when it's so deeply embedded in the corporate culture that people actually compete to see who can most effectively plus their contributions to every product, customers notice. They may not recognize individual contributions, but the product as a whole will shine... and that, they do notice. Assuming the product meets their functional expectations, customers will remember that developer positively when considering whose future games are likely to meet their expectations of getting value for their money.


To sum up, the ultimate responsibility of everyone making a commercial game is to customer satisfaction. And everyone in the group can contribute to that goal by committing to making everything they do just a little bit better than it has to be.

Given the choice between a game whose developers did only what was necessary, and a game whose developers took personal responsibility for making everything they did a little better, which do you think you'd be likely to find more satisfying?