Games, Movies and Milkshakes
This originally appeared on my LinkedIn newsletter, Scaling Games. Since I’ve settled all of my content creation on Substack, it appears here as part of my archive.
One of the most powerful tools a game studio can employ is deep audience understanding. This article will add another tool to your audience-insight toolbox: the Theory of Jobs to Be Done. The essence of the idea is that competition for a product comes not from comparisons to similar products–but by understanding what someone "hires" a product to do for them. The true competition for a product is not always immediately obvious.
For example, do games compete with movies? Sometimes.
Back in 2019, Netflix reported that their competition isn’t just other streaming services like Disney+ or HBO – it is all of the ways that screen-time can be consumed. In a letter to shareholders, Reed Hastings explained that they lose more to Fortnite and YouTube than to HBO.
Attention is a finite resource that can only be directed towards so many screen-based experiences. So while Netflix was right in the broadest sense, it wasn’t accurate in the way this actually matters. Some games definitely compete with Netflix, but Fortnite is usually not one of them. Fortnite satisfies different needs in peoples’ lives.
Rather than thinking about consumers as owners of screens and wallets and how to gobble up a greater share of them, it is often more helpful to think about what sort of jobs the consumer hires these products for. This is what Clay Christiensen did–famous for his theory of disruptive innovation–when he helped McDonalds understand their milkshake sales. It turns out that if you find people who like milkshakes, bring them into focus groups, and learn all the things they like and how the milkshake can be improved, you don’t actually learn the things that increase sales.
On the other hand, if you observe people in real-world situations and learn why they choose a milkshake in the first place, it reveals more about the actual job that milkshakes are hired to do. Christensen found that about half the customers who bought a milkshake during the morning commute just wanted a simple hold-me-over that was relatively long-lasting and satisfying and easy to consume in their vehicle; the real competitior wasn’t about making a “better milkshake.” It was about offering alternatives to donuts, bagels and Snickers bars that satisfy a similar “job.”
My suspicion with Netflix is that their screen time goes up when YouTube is offline because both of these services are frequently hired to do a similar job, not because the consumer is looking for streaming videos per se. Speaking for myself, I use YouTube either for learning about specific subjects–or for relatively passive entertainment that makes few cognitive demands on me. In the latter, switching from YouTube to TikTok or an SVOD service makes a lot of sense, because each can do the same job. The games that compete in this market would be similar in offering low cognitive load while being easy to pick up and put down. Fortnite probably isn’t it.
Social context is also very important. Is my watching with friends and family; is it with younger children; is it romantic; or is my viewing solo?
Let’s forget about Netflix for now, and ask what the job of a game is. If I jot down a list of games I’ve played recently, I find that the context and “job” it does for me is a lot more important than anything about genre:
Elden Ring: to experience awe and wonder in a strange world; play alongside my son, who is a lot better at the boss fights than me–so it’s also a parent-child bonding opportunity.
Humankind: scratches the itch of historical grand strategy games; and fits into a paradigm where I can tolerate a lot of interruptions. For example, it’s a good game to play while I’m cooking dinner.
Diablo Immortal: when I’m away from home, or just want a few minutes of engagement. And it reconnects me with one of my favorite franchises of all time.
It Takes Two: social experience with my kids.
Stardew Valley: chill, easy gameplay that I play with my daughter. Typically played in the evening when I’m not feeling like more intellectually engaging or skill-based games. And it’s another example of parent-child bonding.
While genre and franchise are factors–the more important aspects for my own play involve how it fits around my schedule, my location, and the type of social interaction I’m looking for. Contrast that with Elden Ring, which never competes with my Netflix screentime, although it does compete with It Takes Two.
For another player, they might hire the same games to do completely different things. Maybe they play Stardew Valley as a solo alternative to binge-watching Netflix; or play Elden Ring because they want a game that challenges them with hard battles. And maybe for some couples, It Takes Two plays the same role as Netflix and Chill. If you start from this perspective, you’ll acquire a more nuanced understanding of your competition that's not overly-broad (e.g., all things people can do with a screen) or overly-narrow (games within a specific genre, almost as if they’re commodities).
Real audience insight would mean you'll need to do more than look at yourself or one datapoint. But talk to enough of your audience, and you'll see the patterns emerge.
In my recent conversation with Eric Seufert, he made an important point:
[the old way of marketing games] was the Harry Crane paradigm–it was we had the computer, we did all the measurement, and that was it. Now it is the Don Draper paradigm: like, you really have to think, what is going to resonate with these target audiences? And that process doesn’t start when you’re scaling a game–that process starts when you’re speccing out a game. That process starts in the whiteboarding, paper-prototype phase; you have to think, will this game resonate with this audience that is big and lucrative?
When thinking about what will resonate with your audiences, move beyond simple genre classifications and features lists. Challenge yourself to understand the job your audience will hire the game to do for them: not only the feature list, but when they’ll play, what context they’ll play in, who they’ll play with–and why people play together.
Understanding the real competition you face–based on the jobs your audience hires you for–will inspire you to think about these features in ways that truly delight your players. And that knowledge will equip you to build games that can really scale.
For the conversation with Eric referenced above: