Game Difficulty & Consumer Expectations

Professor Stacy Wood, faculty advisor to C3, has unveiled more research on consumer behavior; this time, she studied the consumer’s emotional reaction to the process of learning how to use a product (and the customer’s subsequent overall satisfaction with that product). Stacy’s research isn’t game-specific, but is particularly interesting in the context of games. After all, video games have evolved (by necessity and definition) into some of the most elegant learning systems ever designed!

Stacy’s key conclusions, which probably won’t surprise members of this industry, are as follows:

When consumers were surprised by learning difficulty and experienced negative emotions (e.g., frustration, anger), there was a lasting negative impact on evaluations. Importantly, however, negative emotions did not decrease product evaluations if consumers expected learning difficulty… a consumer may experience the same challenging learning experience as positive if she anticipated difficulties prior to use or as negative if she did not.

Although these “learning” emotions are process-oriented, they still have a significant and stable influence on product evaluations. In this way, we evaluate a product more positively when it offers a smooth learning process, independent of our assessment of the product’s net benefits. While it may not seem rational (since the pain of learning is only experienced initially and the product’s use may far outlast this initial learning period), these learning emotions can impact more stable overall evaluations of the product. Perhaps, as consumers, we blame a product when it has made us feel stupid and reward a product when it has made us feel smart.

In other words, if a consumer expects a game to be difficult to learn and/or master, (s)he will probably enjoy the difficulty. On the other hand, unexpectedly difficult games are likely to bomb with their initial audience. Makes sense, right?

So here’s my question: how often do video game marketers, as part of their plans, develop (implicit or explicit) messaging about the difficulty of a game? While many games offer explicit difficulty levels (or better yet, automatically adapt to a user’s skill), many remain too easy or too difficult for a large subset of potential customers (not to mention reviewers!) For the sake of PR as well as sales, would it make sense to communicate more clearly (and possibly, but not necessarily, more explicitly) about difficulty?

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