Over the weekend I spent time setting up our gym in the garage. The most grueling task was dissembling, moving and reassembling our treadmill downstairs into the garage. This got me thinking and inspired me to write this post about “The Content Treadmill”.
So what is the content treadmill? It is a metaphorical treadmill, that game teams are running on to generate content to keep the players engaged. Over time the player demands for content and expectations keep increasing and game studios run hard on the treadmill to keep pace with it, or risk being thrown off the treadmill.
Game Studios love creating games, content and experience for the players to enjoy. This is their raison d’être (the purpose for their existence), hence they have no choice but to run on this content treadmill. Monetizing their player base is what allows the game studios to keep running on the treadmill and producing content. The more players you acquire and retain, the longer you can keep running on the treadmill. The type of content you put out is what engages players, attracts new players and retains existing players.
In short Acquisition, Engagement, Retention & Monetization are key to keep the players happy and the game studios running on the treadmill in a sustainable manner. A change in one of more metrics, can lead to either the treadmill coming to a stop or studios being thrown off the treadmill.
In this post, we will go over the history of content creation, distribution & consumption based on my first hand experiences being a gamer and someone who has worked in the industry for almost a decade.
Disclaimer: All opinions mentioned in the post are solely my own and not that of my employers.
Single Player Games
Some of my earliest memories in gaming are those of me visiting my dad’s office to play video games. Pac Man, Prince of Persia, Wolfenstein 3D and Dangerous Dave were my favorite back then. These games had a finite amount of content and once you had run through it all, there was not much else to do. One could play at higher difficulty levels, try to find all the secrets or keep playing because we did not have many other games, but the engagement fell pretty sharply after the game was completed.
Local Multiplayer Games
In college, we would visit friend’s house and play Soul Calibur on his Playstation 2. Games now included modes where one could connect multiple controllers to the game and play against other players locally. We used to create our own tournament brackets and mashed buttons all day long for bragging rights. This was more fun than the single player campaigns, as we were trying to constantly adapt our strategy based on the opponents strategy (Or just mash buttons as in my case).
Networked Multiplayer Games
In college, we were also introduced to Lan gaming at a friend’s dorm room. We would play endless hours of Quake. It was a pain to ensure everyone was connected to the server and ready to play, but it did not faze us one bit. We could now each sit on our own computer, see our own view of the 3D world we were immersed in to sneak up on our unsuspecting opponents and blow them up with a rocket launcher. The strategy just took a big step up and so did the engagement.
Once I moved to Canada in 2007, I got my hands on Xbox 360 and Halo 3 and I was immediately hooked. It was a first person shooter game similar to quake, but with online matchmaking. We no longer had to get a group of friends together to play, instead the game would help us find others to play with and even helped players on the same team coordinate via voice chat. The in-game strategies got so much more detailed, we would coordinate strategic moves to flank people, steal flag or whatever else the objective was. I spent countless hours on weekends playing Halo!
The issue with the Networked games back then was that over time people figure out the optimal strategies. Given a certain game mode and map, we already knew what our plans would be and it got repetitive as strategy would not evolve as much. There were no new maps, characters, weapons on changes to the meta of the game being released and things slowly got stale.
Until this stage the acquisition mainly happened around launch and then maybe via word of mouth from friends wanting to get their friends to come play online with them. There was no post sale monetization so far. Various techniques described above helped extend the lifespan of the game but could not stop the inevitable exodus of players to a different game or franchise. Next came the part where new content was release after the game was released.
Downloadable Content (DLC)
Downloadable content which included new maps, modes, weapons, characters, missions etc.. were now being released after the launch of the game. These were usually paid downloads and each game could have multiple DLCs released. They helped with post sale monetization, drove higher engagement and also helped re-acquire some lapsed players. I for one got all the Halo DLCs to be able to play the new maps. It was a lot of fun for a while, but it suffered from one major flaw, that it fragmented the player base between those who had the DLC and those who did not. Multiple DLCs being released over the lifetime of the game only compounded the problem. As time went on it got progressively harder to find others with the DLC to play with so one often ended up playing the content in the base game.
Season Pass (Premium)
I purchased my Xbox One primarily to play Battlefield 4. The game looked beautiful and had 64 player conquest game mode which was a lot of fun and full of chaos (which was great!). What I really like about Battlefield 4 was they had Battlefield Premium which was a one time purchase and gave users access to all the DLCs that they would be releasing in the future. They also had exclusive battle packs, dog tags and other things thrown in which made the purchase totally worth it. It still did divide the players between those who had premium and those who did not, but the ones who stuck around long enough ended up buying premium anyways.
Subscriptions enabled customers to consume content at scale. They were no longer limited to the games they purchased, they could try any game in the subscription, play their fill and move on to the next game. The players would still be engaged with and were monetized by the publisher (if not directly by a specific game). I first purchased the EA Access subscription and then Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. I am an achievement hunter, so found great value in playing all the different games and I am sure the publishers and platforms liked the consistent revenue coming too.
So far the content was released in batches. You had a new game release or a new DLC release, this would drive a lot of hype and attract new players only to have that fizzle away after a few weeks. A new mechanism was needed which released content at a regular cadence and kept the players engaged over an extended duration of time by providing them fresh content and changes to meta on a regular cadence.
Games such as FIFA are really great at this via the Ultimate Team game mode. There is an never ending stream of new content (including player cards, weekly tournaments, squad building challenges etc..) to keep players engaged for a long time. There are also weekly and seasonal promotions such as Team of the Week, Team of the Year, Team of the Season etc.. which ties in real world football performance with the content being released, thereby creating a sense of relatability and hype around the content.
We could now also create virtual economies within games, with items users could purchase and trade within the confines of the game.
Lots of other games such as Apex Legends, Fortnite etc.. have Live Services too. Given that they don’t always tie into real world happenings such as FIFA, they have seasons with battle passes, new characters, skins, ranked mode etc.. to keep people coming back for more.
Free to Play Games
What can be better than free? (More on this rhetorical question in some other post). Free to Play games drastically changed the business model for games as they reduced the barrier to entry for a game. Fortnite, Roblox & Apex Legends became the sensation they are because they are free to play and anyone with a computer or console and an internet connection can download them and start playing them. They also used all the practices from Live Services model to keep releasing new content, hosting events and creating hype around new season launches.
User Generated Content
Why not let the players create content for the players? My first interaction with this was in Halo 3 Forge, where players got together and made pretty insane maps and custom game modes. It was a lot of fun, and since then we have seen creative modes come up in several games including Fortnite. Roblox took this to the next level, as it is a basically a User Generated Game Platform which allow allows creators to monetize their creations while taking a significant percentage of the revenue generated themselves. User Generated Content helped slow down the pace at which game teams have to run, as the community can create fun experiences for themselves. This led to the expansion of creator economies into games.
Play & Earn is the next evolution here which can help drive Acquisition, Engagement, Retention and Monetization. In my opinion this is what is better than free, what if you could have fun and also earn in the process. We shall cover this in a subsequent post.