A few months ago I posted about the cadence of releasing new content, citing Netflix as an example, and it got me to start questioning a related commonly held belief, that consumers attention spans are shrinking. It goes without question that people today have shorter attention spans than previous generations, look at YouTube videos versus television shows. Common sense says game players or tv watchers now want a faster, more intense short experience. Whenever I hear “commonly held, “goes without question,” or “common sense” I get very skeptical, as it often means we are assuming something without evidence to prove it.
Television actually shows an increased attention span
The launch of 24: Legacy helped crystalize my suspicion against the case of shorter attention spans. When the original 24 series launched in 2001, it was a tremendous success largely because it went from a model where an episode on network television was primarily self-contained to a story arc that spanned an entire season.
Fast forward to 2017 and most of the dramas on television involve a story arc that lasts a season (or more). From Game of Thrones to Luke Cage to Man in the High Castle to Mr. Robot, each episode leads to the next and the story arc is not complete until the end of the season. Even popular network television shows like Quantico and The Flash have story arcs that pull you from one episode to the next.
A season of a TV series now is closer to a mini-series in the 1970s and 1980s (Roots, V, Holocaust). Rather than watch a single episode and be done with it, people are eager to watch 10-13 episodes (about 10 hours of programming), demanding more, not less, attention of viewers.
Games also have captured our attention for longer
Some would argue the rise of mobile, casual games shows that the game industry is experiencing shorter attention spans, as players are looking for a short (5-15 minute experience), but wait, maybe games are experiencing the same phenomenon as television. In the early 2000s people would wait anxiously and buy an Unreal or Halo or Final Fantasy, play it for days or weeks (often without sleeping or at least showering) and then go on the next big game. Now you may actually shower but instead of playing for days or weeks, you are actually playing the same game for years. The top grossing games in the iOS US iPad AppStore include Minecraft (launched 2009), Game of War (2013), DoubleDown (2010), and Candy Crush (2012), ranging in age from 4 to 7 years. These games shown that rather than lasting minutes, game players’ attention span last years.
What this means
Rather than just being an interesting discussion point, the attention span issue has significant implication for game producers as well as other entertainment companies. When you are designing your product, rather than just focusing on short and intense play sessions, understand how you will keep players engaged for years. Rather than trying to stick a metagame on top of your product, you need to build it for long-term engagement from the ground. Only then will you satisfy the demand for a sustained entertainment experience. And most importantly, never use conventional wisdom or common sense to plan your product or strategy.
- While it is commonly accepted that consumers’ attention span has decreased, the opposite is actually true.
- Rather than just watching one television episode or play a game for a few days/weeks, viewers now will watch a full season to grasp the metastory and play the same game for years.
- To satisfy the new consumer, you need to create entertainment products that can last for years, not minutes.