What intelligent content creators can learn from videogames

Content that automatically adapts to individual users is a very new concept in marketing. But in videogames, it’s been going on for years. George looks at what designers and writers of intelligent marketing content can learn from a rich history of ‘adaptive’ videogames.

What intelligent content creators can learn from videogames

You may have heard about this whole “intelligent content” business; an approach whereby marketing content is programmed to adapt itself on the fly to the circumstances, preferences and needs of the person who’s viewing it.

Examples of intelligent content might include product pages that present different information depending on where a reader is in the buying cycle, or white papers where the industry challenges are altered on the fly based on which industry the reader works in.

(For a deep dive on what intelligent content is and how it works, we recommend you browse the Content Marketing Institute’s Intelligent Content blog.)

Videogames were there first

So intelligent content is a non-linear kind of content that is influenced by, and interacts with the reader.

Non-linear? Interactive? This sounds a lot like another particular medium: the wonderful world of videogames.

Videogames have been adapting their own content to individual players for decades. These five carefully picked examples shed some light on what intelligent content can do, and the challenges content creators may face when designing truly ‘adaptive’ content.

1: Max Payne

Before the Matrix, there was Max Payne, a gritty cinematic shooter about a NYPD detective taking revenge on a drug cartel that murdered his family. Grisly stuff. The game has since become a cult favourite due to its pioneering use of slow-motion, bullet-time action in gaming, spawning two equally well received sequels.

But what many don’t remember is that Max Payne used a very clever bit of AI to curve the game’s difficulty. While many action games ask if you want to play the easy, medium or hard difficulty and leave it at that, Max Payne went further and also altered the difficulty based on how well the player was progressing.

But the system had its limitations. Mainly: it wasn’t a very subtle piece of code. If you died, it got easier. If you didn’t, it got harder. However, if you died because you kept falling off the top of a skyscraper, suddenly all the enemies would be a pushover. The system tried to create a perfect difficulty to match the player, but as it couldn’t properly analyse a player’s performance and individual skills, the systems were a bit too basic and could do more harm than good.

What this can teach intelligent content creators: Make sure the algorithms that alter your content are rich and varied. Deep personalisation is hard to do, and if you try to cheat it by making simple systems that make broad-stroke content changes only, you risk alienating parts of your audience, undermining the whole experience.

2: Telltale Adventure Series

Telltale Games makes adventure games, and while they were content with the linear “point and click” style of game up until 2010, they then started turning their hands to non-linear, story-driven games using existing franchises like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.

Very little gameplay actually takes place in these games, with most of the player interaction coming in the form of choices. What do you say to this person? Do you go with one person’s plan of action, or another’s? Each choice you make is meant to shape the story, and build up to a tailored and impactful finale.

What this can teach intelligent content creators: The irony with the Telltale games is that the choices don’t actually have a huge effect on the story. Each decision you make is marked with a weighty reminder that “X person will remember that,” yet they often don’t, and the story conveniently drops you off at the same conclusion regardless of your decisions.

And yet these games are considered some of the greatest made in the past few years, despite failing in their core design. Why? Simply put, the games’ scripts are incredible, with tense moments, exciting set-pieces and fantastic characters that make you care about all of the above.

For creators of intelligent content the message is clear: intelligent content will be held to the same standards as normal content, so focus on writing engaging stories first, and worry about the intelligent part later.

3: Earthbound

Our next example dives further back into the videogame canon, with a quirky 90s roleplaying game developed for the Super Nintendo. Earthbound took the roleplaying game formula, but traded out dragons and wizards for a group of average kids adventuring around a strange and surreal take on American suburbia.

It’s a straightforward and linear adventure, but it asks you two key questions at the beginning of the game: What’s your favourite thing to do? And what’s your favourite food?

The effect of these profound questions? Not much. It changes the name of one of your special abilities, and you’ll often be offered your favourite food by other characters in the game. But who cares? It’s a fun piece of personalisation, and it’s enough to make you feel warm and welcome in the game’s world.

What this can teach intelligent content creators: Deep and profound content changes are great, but small personalisations can be equally effective. Even if it just means switching in a few details about the reader, if it’s done charmingly enough, it may keep them engaged with you for longer.

4: Hand of Fate

Hand of Fate is a very recent indie release that tries to replicate physical fantasy card and board games with a virtual twist. Players sit in front of a dealer who plays a game of life and death with them; forcing the player to embark on a series of challenging quests. You bring into each game your own customised decks of items and equipment, as well as an encounter deck that decides what adventures you tackle. The dealer then adds a few of his or her own cards to spice things up somewhat and deals them in turn.

While most games of this ilk decide what adventures you go on, in Hand of Fate they’re drawn from the encounter deck you’ve made for yourself. Each slice of gameplay becomes a mini episode with its own separate mechanics, challenges and rewards. It’s a nice piece of game design where small disparate chunks of content build up to be greater than the sum of their parts.

What this can teach intelligent content creators: Intelligent content creators don’t have the luxury of writing long flowing pieces. In order to change the content up to match the reader, small, discrete sentences, phrases or paragraphs are needed that can be easily rearranged.

If your chunks of text rely too heavily on one another, the flow can easily be broken when the content is rearranged, removing valuable context and potentially obscuring what you mean. Hand of Fate shows how you can elegantly create discrete chunks of content that still add up to a satisfying whole with a cohesive theme.

 5: Twitch Plays Pokemon

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the mid-90s, you’ve probably heard of Pokémon and are aware that the Pokémon franchise started with a highly popular Game Boy game that tasks the player with capturing, training and battling fantasy creatures.

Nearly 20 years after the original game release, an interesting experiment began on Twitch, a website that allows gamers to stream their game sessions live so others can watch them play, and chat with them in real time.

Savvy streamers modified an old copy of the Pokémon game, allowing thousands of people at a time to control the on-screen action through the stream’s instant messaging window. This effectively turned the single player Pokémon game into a multiplayer co-operative adventure that included input from hundreds of thousands of people.

What this can teach intelligent content creators: There are two lessons here. Firstly, people love doing things together, so if you can make your content collaborative, you’ll likely turn a few heads.

The real lesson, though, is in how the stream adapted the Pokémon game. Initially the thousands of players just completed the base game, but when the stream admins realised how popular it was becoming, they modified the original game to allow the players to take on new and exciting challenges not present in the original title.

The lesson here is that new ways of interacting with content means new changes need to be made; even to sacred cows. That blog template you’ve relied on for the past few years? Get rid of it. That ebook design that served you so well in the past? Move over ebook design; we’re in the age of intelligent content. By revisiting and reworking your oldest and most proven ideas, you’re likely to stumble upon designs that are better suited to intelligent content. Experimentation will be key as intelligent content begins to gain traction in content marketing.

What have we learned?

  • Make sure the content is good first, then focus on the intelligent part
  • Ensure your algorithms are complex enough to add proper personalization to your content
  • Small personalised elements can go a long way towards engaging your readers
  • Don’t be afraid to change up existing ideas and formulas
  • Make sure you can write discrete ideas and text blocks that can be rearranged easily

What’s your view?

As I mentioned at the start, intelligent content is pretty new in B2B marketing, and most marketers are just feeling their way into it. What’s your experience? Have you started experimenting with intelligent content, and if so, do you think all or any of the lessons above hold true? We’d love to hear your thoughts – drop us a line in the comments below or Tweet us at @radixcom.

The header image for this article is taken from Parapraxis Foundations: a 2D platforming adventure in development by Third Nerve, an independent game dev studio that George is a member of.

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