There are many reasons why we pick up and play games in general, more why we keep playing them, and even more why we gravitate toward certain games to begin with. These reasons will vary wildly among gamers at large, but the underlying theme remains the same: games draw us in, through one method or another, and seek to keep us there as long as possible.
The initial draw is most important; without it, gamers would never consider booting up a game in the first place. This is the hook. If a game cannot initially capture the interest of gamers, it will often fail, regardless of the level of polish and depth it may entail. Though we are often told not to “judge a book by its cover,” this is frequently exactly what first catches the eye of the gamer. Does the game have an enticing title? Is the trailer flashy and memorable? Do the graphics stand out? This last one strikes a key chord with me, and I want to specifically elaborate on it further.
I am certainly one to appreciate graphical fidelity and the effort required to pump out explosions of color, detail, and intense special effects. I remember often pointing out to my brothers how incredible each new AAA game looked year after year and exclaiming: “It looks so real!” Certainly, this was a draw for me, and I loved exploring new worlds in glorious detail, but it was not an element that would hold my interest for very long. Over time, the awe fades and I become more enamored with slaying baddies or solving puzzles than gawking over how I can see the pores in every NPC’s face. In the end, gameplay always trumps visuals and is what truly keeps gamers coming back for more.
One of the most iconic examples of a powerful graphical hook is that of Crytek’s Crysis. Released in the Fall of 2007, it exploded onto the scene, creating immense waves in the gaming world. Crysis was far and away the best looking game of that decade, and arguably it still stands up extremely well to many top guns today. Crytek’s titanic graphical achievement was not without cost, however, and it boasted the highest system requirements of any game for a very extended period of time. It became a badge of honor for PC gamers if their gaming machine “could run Crysis.” Despite this hurdle, Crysis quickly became one of the most popular games of the year and something that everyone just had to “see to believe.”
If Crysis had just been all flash and no substance, it still would have been a marginal success simply due to how envelope-pushing its visuals were. Happily, however, it was also one of the best shooters of its day, providing incredibly dynamic gameplay highlighted by intense and frenetic firefights. This dug the hook deep. Gamers first came for the graphics, but they stayed for the consistently fun and engaging gameplay.
The powerful draw for gamers isn’t always determined by how pretty a game is, however. Sometimes it is the unique quality of the premise that the game entails. All too often, we see a plethora of titles that are just reskins of tired and familiar formulas. How many times did we hear that every new Action RPG was just another “Diablo-clone” or that a new project was just another form of Battle Royale? Now these games may be fun and engaging in their own right, but they don’t stand out from the crowd, and therefore they have a limited ability in “hooking” potential players. Though it has become increasingly difficult for developers to create something that truly stands by itself, both in quality and unique substance, those that do have an incredible opportunity to grab the attention of future players.
A prime example of a game that uses multiple hooks to its advantage is that of Crypt of the NecroDancer. The description itself is enough of a draw, boasting a tight fusion of beat-matching rhythm and roguelike elements, all accompanied by an original and thriving soundtrack. Not only is this a mashup not seen elsewhere, it is one that is incredibly well done, garnering high praise from players and critics alike.
Another common and incredibly effective hook is one that revolves around the theme of “just one more turn.” Sid Meier’s Civilization games do this better than any other, offering small but noticeable progression with each player turn. Taking this further, indie sensation Stardew Valley experimented on this method by evolving it into “just one more day.” Days in Stardew Valley last about 17 real-life minutes, ending long before any kind of boredom sets in. Additionally, players’ crops grow and mature daily, and so it is invigorating to visually see progression as each new day begins. These hooks can easily plunge into the realm of addiction, and are some of the most viable means of keeping the attention of gamers.
In addition to eye-catching visuals and engaging gameplay, many games are best served by giving players a sense of progression and accomplishment. Top performing mobile games do this especially well, and it could be argued that they are under even more pressure to provide enticing hooks. Games like Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, and Angry Birds all did a phenomenal job of providing bite-sized satisfaction (and healthy doses of dopamine), keeping gamers constantly coming back for more.
As gamers, we are all uniquely faceted, and while many of us “like what we like” it is still nearly always intriguing when a new project boasts something “bold and fresh.” I am hooked by creative and daring games, and I love to see developers try risky ideas. Heaven’s Vault was one such game for me, and while not everything “clicked,” the novelty of it was not lost on me and kept me coming back for more. It isn’t often that games can put everything together in a unique and well-presented package, but I laud the developers who are able to create something truly special that grabs my attention from the outset.