Take Me To The Pilot: New TV Shows and New Games are Risky Ventures, But Winners Accomplish Three Key Goals
The pilot of NBC’s hit This Is Us is an all-time great. It packs relate-ability, sentiment, and a mind blowing twist.
It delivered with poignancy that drenched viewers in tears. And those tears have generated a flood of social sharing.
New TV series pilots have much in common with the first-time user experience of live freemium or episodic games. Both have a limited time to grab attention and make people want to come back for more. Both require significant ongoing investment and carry a high risk of failure.
In The Anatomy of Story, screenwriter John Truby describes how a good narrative seduces the audience to relive “essential” events and creates a puzzle out of information both given and information withheld.
Truby writes that “audiences love both the feeling part (reliving the life) and the thinking part (figuring out the puzzle) of a story.
For games, the art and science is different, but the goal of attaching the player to both the environment and the design mechanic, or “puzzle,” are the same.
In the age of “peak TV” pilot episodes are more crucial than ever. FX Research cataloged 455 scripted series on American television in 2016 – up 71% from 266 just five years earlier.
Competition for audience is fierce, choices across media are far exceed viewers available time, and our attention spans have shrunk.
Cancelling new TV shows, and taking down live games, has negative repercussions for creators, networks/publishers and fans.
Nonetheless, broadcast TV network cancellation rates have averaged about 65% over the last half-dozen years, and freemium game failure rates are far higher.
In this environment, how can creators and managers mitigate risk? You need the right team, hard work, ongoing user research, and brutal honesty. Effective marketing is always a necessity. But from a product point of view, here are three essential conditions:
The product has to work: A game has to load quickly and play without glitches. The player should understand the rules, and what constitutes success in the design.
TV pilots have a short window to introduce characters along with the initial premise. This should happen in a way that peaks interest and maintains suspension of disbelief.
The audience must get lost (in the good way): A good game design drives the player into a motivated mental state characterized by fun, a sense of challenge, and desire to move forward. There are many types of games, so this is necessarily an oversimplification, but, the goal is to focus the player’s attention on learning and mastery of a skill. On top of that, the design should generate a feeling of reward or progress. An engaging game enables the user to “lose themselves” in play.
A good TV pilot does just what Truby suggests — inspires the audience to make an emotional investment in inhabiting the story, and sets up a puzzle that makes learning and figuring out irresistible.
The “puzzle” aspect must be compelling: Games are disadvantaged compared to TV or Movies in generating emotion. Rarely can games bring people tears, (and here we are talking about AAA or premium games vs. freemium games). For most games, the mental or physics-based puzzle is paramount. The action of the game engages thinking and reacting in a way that brings motivational joy, fun, curiosity, and a sense of discovery and accomplishment. If that feeling of that can be generated in a first-time user experience, it’s a big win.
A successful TV pilot compels the viewer to care deeply about what happens next. It reveals enough to intrigue, and leaves mystery to come. In the binge-watching era, the puzzle is often what keeps viewers stuck to the couch.
TV networks need audiences to carry into episode two, and game makers must generate a second play session after the first. These are primary indicator of a success in the market. If creators accomplish the conditions above, it greatly improves the odds.