One of the most powerful drivers of an entertainment product’s (e.g., game, movie, television show, book) success is the emotion the customer feels at the end of the experience. The juxtaposition of my experience playing Plants vs Zombies 2 and research I came across highlights the importance of the ending and how it would impact a game company. While reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (which I previously recommended and is the most important book I have ever read), he shows some very interesting research and examples that highlights the importance of the last stage of the experience. The underlying concept is called “duration neglect:” A person neglects most of the experience and bases their impression (whether it was fun/good or not) on the last segment of the experience. In the world of free-to-play games, this insight has very interesting implications.
Kahneman’s most salient example is an experiment he ran in which participants were asked to put their arms in painfully freezing water. To summarize the key findings, one group kept their arms in the ice cold water for 60 seconds. Another group kept their arms in the freezing water for 90 seconds but was then given a warm towel afterwards. Surprisingly, participants in the latter group were more likely to be open to repeating the experience, even though they experienced a greater amount of pain (90 seconds in the freezing water rather than 60). Their decision was governed by a simple rule of intuitive choice: Pick the option you like the most, or dislike the least. Rules of memory determined how much they disliked the two options, which in turn determined their choice. The cold-arm experiment revealed a discrepancy between decision utility and experienced utility. Kahneman points out that “the memory that the remembering self keeps, in contrast, is a representative moment, strongly influenced by the peak and the end.”
There are other examples, both from Kahneman and personal experience, that demonstrate the strength of this phenomenon:
- If you take a vacation and spend more time on taking pictures and video than enjoying the experience, your activity is likely driven by the subconscious knowledge that perception of the vacation being fun will be based on how it ended and how the pictures turn out.
- A waiter acts very friendly at the end of the meal after neglecting your table most of the evening. You end up determining the tip largely on this most recent activity.
- Hollywood is notorious for virtually every movie ending on a high note. In fact “Hollywood ending” is a metaphor for a happy ending. Was Star Wars a great success because of the storyline or because of the epic scene destroying the Death Star? This formula has been successful for over a hundred years; you have to assume that moviemakers have experimented with other types of endings, suggesting the strength of a positive ending.
- In sports, the measure of a player’s or manager’s season is often judged by how well they did in the post-season. A player who has a great post season (remember Carlos Beltre a few years ago?) is remembered as having a fantastic year even if the rest of the season was mediocre (and paid as if he did) while a player who stumbles at the end (LeBron James pre-2012) is often denigrated even if he has fantastic metrics.
All of these incidents are examples of how the end of an experience shapes your perception of the overall experience. Kahneman points out that a story is about significant events and memorable moments, not about time passing. Duration neglect (again, not paying attention to the length of a good or bad part of an experience) is normal in a story, and the ending often defines its character. The same core features appear in the rules of narratives and in the memories of colonoscopies, vacations, films, etc. This is how the remembering self works: It composes stories and keeps them for future reference.
My experience with Plants vs Zombies 2
As I mentioned in the first paragraph, my experience in Plants vs Zombies 2 illustrates the power of duration neglect. I was recently arguing with a few colleagues about whether or not it was better than the original. I was saying that although I could not pinpoint the reason, I found the original a better experience.
After reading Kahneman’s work on duration neglect, what I believe is happening is that I am drawing a conclusion about the game based on how I usually finish a play session rather than the overall quality of the game. I have mastered the original (probably played through it 75 times on various platforms), so every time I play I end with the zombies being killed in a hail of peas, watermelon and corn. Although the game itself is largely boring to me as there is no challenge, it is this happy ending that keeps me coming back.
Conversely, I usually stop playing the sequel after I have lost a level and become frustrated. Even if I have enjoyed the game for a while, my memory of the game is based on losing. Thus, I have the impression that the original is a better game than the sequel.
Build your product to create a good memory
It is obvious from this research that if you are creating a linear game experience, the end is crucial to a player having a great impression of it and generating strong word of mouth.
The more important takeaway, however, is the impact on design of a free-to-play game. In a free-to-play game, the most important metric is getting the player to come back (retention) for days, weeks or months. Having a player leave a game because their plant just died, their city burned down or they lost is probably not the most effective way to make them want to come back.
Although you may not be able to design the game in a way that the player always leaves on a high note, there are ways to mitigate the experience so the player does frame a favorable memory. Also, you can communicate with the player after they have left to change how they remember playing the game. Given the success that Hollywood and traditional media has had with a “happy ending,” the importance of creating a comparable experience in your game should not be overlooked.