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  • Writer's pictureAlex Nichiporchik

Chasing the Thousand-Hour Game

Many devs have been asking us on what kind of games tinyBuild is looking for. It's hard to tell based on our portfolio of releases, because games take years to develop. So something launching today was decided on 2-3 years ago.

What games is tinyBuild interested in publishing?

I could go into generic answers of different target audiences, and instead want to talk about our chase for the thousand hour game. A game where you earn so much enthusiasm from your players that they spend over a year playing it, for several hours every day. Every single day.

We all have these from our youth. Mortal Kombat, Tekken, GTA SAMP (which morphed into GTA Online), Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2, World of Warcraft, and so many more. We as developers got into making games because of these obsessions, the feeling of being so completely fascinated by an experience that nothing else matters.

User Review for Streets of Rogue

And then it all changed. For many it was Minecraft. For others - DayZ, H1Z1, The Culling even. That feeling of flexible definition of "win".

I did an extensive talk about this, essentially going through how Rust Youtubers create content through systems. It's worth a watch for anyone who hasn't played these kind of games. You still need to spend a thousand hours in any of the modern survival games to actually get it, so while you're downloading Rust, DayZ, ARK, Hurtworld, or Deadside -- give the below a watch.

We are investing into worlds where players can spend a thousand hours. And we're not doing AAA budgets.

The easiest way to go about achieving the above is getting a megafranchise together with thousands of developers churning out enormous amounts of content. It's absolutely fine to do so. I just get a panic attack when thinking of scale of some of my favorite games that'd fall into this category.

Instead, we look for emergent gameplay. Games that are based on systems instead of content. Games where the players may decide their own definition of win.

I might win by completing the game design-intended quest. You might win by trying to prevent me from doing so. My definition of win might shift to preventing you from preventing me to complete the quest. Flexible, dynamic goals that are mostly user created. Flexible definition of win.

Let's talk about technical limitations.

It's incredibly difficult to create games with user generated content and persistent game worlds, since those are the ones where you can create emergent stories. Having 100+ players in a static world that's session based is a completely different beast than a persistent world that has user-created structures and vehicles.

This is why we are seeing the rise of Extraction-like games. Think "Escape from Tarkov but X". Between Marauders, Call of Duty DMZ, and Dark & Darker -- the format of dropping a dozen people into a match, having them fight through hordes of bots and having a risk of meeting other players -- and losing your loot to them -- creates a very similar feeling as I'm trying to describe, just in a much more technically achievable format.

I see too many teams get very ambitious building an MMO-survival game with Player vs Player (PvP) and Player vs Environment (PvE) gameplay, only to have to pivot to co-op because the gameplay only starts to work at 50+ players per server. The amount of overhead added to your dev team is substantial when you factor in server/client optimization, anti cheat measures, and testing required for new features. This is why it took us over half a year to get boats into Deadside. Syncing moving vehicles in a way that's not easy for cheaters to hack is a monumental task.

If you have a team capable of getting 50+ people into an open world with PvP, PvE, and base building -- send me an email. Let's talk. Don't care about the pitch itself, let's talk about technical and design.

Practical examples.

Let's first talk about multiplayer since this is the obvious focus for us. Hello Engineer, Secret Neighbor, Totally Reliable Delivery Service, SpeedRunners, Pandemic Express, Deadside, the upcoming SAND, Level Zero (and unannounced titles) -- all of these games are multiplayer. In all of the released ones we have players who spend thousands of hours. Here's what we learned from them and playing other titles.

Systems vs Content

  • Focus on designing systems that work with each other vs creating content that users consume once

  • An electrical system can have 10 components, and adding the 11th component may actually double the amount of time users can spend with it

  • If you have 10 hours of cutscenes, adding an 11th will add you 10% of content and your returns diminish. Same for missions, cut-scenes, etc.

If you're designing a quest - make sure you throw as many Random Generated Numbers (RNG) elements into it as possible. Locations RNG. Responsive AI behavior. Ability for other players to know you're doing a quest and trying to steal your progress. Chances of different NPCs and Environment elements making it different every time. Design any actual content like a quest with the goal of players being able to have fun with it on the 100th time.

A good practice here is to have equivalent of "keys" for these quests, so that it's not a linear progression and now you're fighting the boss. If your game world has multiple avenues of acquiring lower tier keys, then using them to unlock mid-tier quests, which then lead to high-tier quests -- you've got a system that will never play the same twice. The key here is to have player skill decide, and to have risk of losing progress.

Players don't care about levels or progress bars

If you grew up playing Minecraft, your game experience is not about a game saying you did great. It's about knowing you did great. It's about the emotional satisfaction of your own set goal and achieving that goal.

  • Don't create leveling systems in games

  • Progression is player skill and the loot they obtain

  • Players need to have a chance to go zero to hero

In the example with keys. Let's say you have a fantasy world and you need to get to the main castle. The gate is locked. The key spawns in 5 different mid difficulty dungeons. The keys to the dungeons spawn in 10 more locations. Each type of key spawn has a different difficulty curve. All basic design.

The trick is to not assign levels to players. As soon as you get into a clear progression that mid-tier dungeons need level X to complete, you're content locked. Your team will need to continuously pump out content for players who consumed everything up until the highest level, and this is the content that most new players will not get to see.

Instead, tie progress to the gear you acquire at these locations. Better gear can spawn there too, just with a very slim chance. Often you won't even get much anything useful, and will need to sell your loot at another location or to other players.

Your level is your skill of how to use the acquired gear. A newspawn player should be able to cheese their way into the final castle. Maybe it's camping in a bush with a shotgun. Maybe it's zerging (think a group of low-gear players using numbers to overwhelm) in while the gates are open and highly geared players are entering the gates. There needs to be a zero to hero chance in your game, and when it happens to players they will feel a rush not possible in content-driven games.

I've seen this happen many times over the years:

  • You got a game that releases and blows up.

  • Tens of thousands of users online.

  • Two weeks later it starts to die off.

  • Dev teams need to rapidly scale up and continue producing more content so that veteran players come back.

We were stuck in exactly this grind loop with Secret Neighbor, working overtime to get content updates out the door. The issue is new players can't really appreciate the work you're doing at that time. If you're making a limited time event, they're still mostly interested in the vanilla game. If you're making later-stage level content, the quality of it is likely higher than early stage content -- your dev team has scaled up and got more experience by that point, since your game is successful.

My advice here is to focus on adding more systems to the game so that players can master them, and allow players to be "Equal" in the world outside of their gear. It should be possible for a new player to obtain and use the best gear in the game, without needing to level up.

Focus on Social Interaction

Some of my best friends and worst rivalries come from random encounters in multiplayer survival games. Think about social interaction in multiplayer games as a gameplay mechanic. The whole point of Secret Neighbor was that lying to your team is the gameplay.

  • Can you trust this player? Instead of having the game show if the player's been hostile to others, let others decide. Let players tell a story of a player's actions.

  • Figure out ways for players to exchange gear and trade. In-game economies are a powerful mechanic that goes back to roots of board games.

  • What if there's a risk you get jumped while doing the trade? Betrayed? Saved by an act of kindness from a random passer by? Social mechanics create powerful stories

Many of these principles can and should be used in single player experiences

Over the past few years you've probably noticed many single player games adding crafting, looting, farming and similar mechanics. I believe the common theme is allowing users to create their own progression and their own personal space in the game.

It's especially evident in the rise of the so called "Cozy" games. Last year we launched Potion Craft and just last week I Am Future -- both fall under this cozy niche while being radically different. The common theme in both of them is that players spend enormous amounts of time due to non-linear mechanics.

The challenge here is to not start comparing your smaller-scale project to AAA giants. I love Baldur's Gate 3 and God of War. They take much more man power and resources to develop compared to what I'm talking about here.

Regardless of the type of game, this is the graph you want to see. And then cry as you read a negative review of a 3k+ hour player abandoning your game.

If you got to reading this paragraph, I really appreciate your time and want to finish off with this video from Youtuber Welyn. It's still one of the most popular videos about a non-AAA game ever, and can be enjoyed as a story. A story of zero to hero. Of man vs evil corporation. Of vengeance. Enjoy!

If you're working on a game that you believe can be enjoyed for a thousand hours, hit us up. The pitching format is very simple and is here.

Follow me on Xitter - @aNichiporchik


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