One of the dumbest things a prospective indie game-developer has ever uttered to me was “I want to make an MMO.” Even if the kind of people who tell me things like this ever manage to make an indie MMO, which is an incredibly expensive endeavor, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be successful; if anything, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the game is going to fail miserably.
For the longest time, I tried to figure out why this happens. I mean, sure, MMOs cost a lot of time and money, but even then, surely someone can distill ‘what MMO means’ down to its core concept and make it successful. Plenty of other indie games do well, even if they don’t look like AAA extravaganzas, so why is it that it seems like failure’s really only guaranteed where MMOs are concerned?
The MMO, after all, is a genre of game with a great deal of fans. Many people I know play MMOs exclusively, with the exception, perhaps, of Blizzard and Valve games, so why…
And, just like that, I figured it out.
If you enjoy these games, you should probably sit back, think about how I’m about to say something that might make you feel bad about yourself, that might upset you, that might make you want to write something nasty as a response, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and continue. Because we’re going to talk about mind control and how it affects you.
All good? Let’s begin.
What is game design?
It’s the art of getting people to play in a structured way. That is, you’re creating—designing—a framework for the audience, the players, to do things in.
What is play?
It’s the activity you perform because you want to perform it, generally often for your own personal enjoyment. If I decide to pick up a dinosaur action figure and make it eat another dinosaur action figure, for no reason other than I want to, then I’m playing. It’s not a perfect definition, mind you—I watch movies because I want to, after all, and I used to collect coins—but it’ll do for now.
So… what happens if someone tricks you into doing something?
Let’s say that you’re sitting in a room, and whenever a bell rings, you know that a small cup full of your favorite drink will appear on the table in front of you. You walk around the room, kinda bored, but then, when the bell rings, bam, you’re there, at the table, drinking whatever it is. After a while, the bell’s ringing is enough to get you to the table, even if there’s no drink present. This is called classical conditioning—that is, whoever is responsible for ringing the bell and making the drink appear has conditioned you to visit the table whenever the bell rings.
Then you’ve got operant conditioning, which, like classical conditioning, is designed to make you do things, even if you have no reason to do them, but with the added twist that things will change based on your behavior. That is, the quicker you make your way to the theoretical table, the more of a drink you may have, while the slower you arrive, the less you receive.
When it comes to games, conditioning is used to make players engage in activities not because they’re fun, but because the developer wants the player to engage in these activities. This ultimately means that a developer can make you play parts of a game, not because you want to, but because the game has trained you to respond to the game the way it wants you to respond.
Let’s get this out of the way: nobody buys a game without choosing to do so. We look at the marketing materials, impressions from friends, and a host of other sources, and ultimately, we make a decision whether or not to buy a game. For the purpose of this discussion, we’re talking about what happens to us after we’ve acquired these things.
We generally choose to play games because we think we’re going to have fun playing them, and often, we do, but… well, sometimes, we’re not actually having fun. Our brain tells us “yes, I am having fun,” but what’s really happening is that the games are just massaging our mental pleasure centers. There’s nothing fun about doing lots of drugs or playing slots at the casino, but these things operate in ways that make us think we’re having the time of our lives.
So when I look at conditioning in games, I think yeah, some bean counters somewhere are probably trying to get people addicted, but I also think it's a case of engineers thinking very literally and trying to engineer fun. It's easy to condition players' brains to release dopamine. It's a very mechanical, scientific process.
Most of the people I know who get into game design and stuff are programmers—many of them are people who tend to think very literally, very logically. If you were to talk about emotions and feelings and stuff with them, they'd go 'oh, that's just chemical blah blah blah.' Not all of them, but a great deal. And there's nothing inherently wrong with this. We've got people who are really strongly left-brained, and we've got people who are strongly right-brained. But game design tends to trend more towards left-brained stuff than right, and as a result, I think there's a bunch of people out there using conditioning to create a weak parody of 'fun' because they don't quite understand the importance of an emotional component.
You should be much more familiar with audiovisual feedback. That is, if you do the things the game wants you to, you receive an audiovisual reward. Level up, for instance, and the game will play a special audio cue and maybe throw in a pretty light show to boot. It's an utterly meaningless reward, but something about that is just crazy-satisfying to the human brain. For the same reason, games give us things that tell us we're not really done (XP bars are great at making us feel like we need to level just one more time), that there's more to do.
Of course, there are other ways to condition players.
A simple example. There's this game, part of one of the biggest, most critically-acclaimed series in the entire universe, and the entire first half of the game is a series of puzzles. The player has to put a ball in a hole, essentially. So they do that, moving from area to area, with each puzzle increasing in difficulty... and then the mechanic is done. Gone. Kaput. Everything the player's been taught to do is no longer necessary. Going back through the game with the commentary turned on, it was interesting to read about how proud the developers were of what they'd accomplished, getting players to move from one puzzle to one slightly more complex and on and on and... it was weird. It was just really weird, and kind of uncomfortable. They weren't making a fun game, they were making people have some twisted parody of fun.
Another way to influence players is to reward them at random. Essentially, what you're doing is convincing their brain that they should perform the action you want them to constantly because of the possibility of reward. This is what games like Team Fortress 2, Borderlands 2, and Diablo III are built around: manipulating the players into playing in the hopes that they'll receive something good.
Play is, and should be, intrinsically motivated.
“Intrinsic motivation” basically means that we are motivated to do things because we want to do them. I wish I could sit here and explain to you precisely why it is that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation, but I'm not a psychologist. I can only tell you that, in my own personal experience, intrinsic motivation is like love, as I mentioned above. The difference between internal and external motivation is like the difference between love and lust. The latter's just... hollow. It's tasty. It's awesome. But it doesn't really last, doesn't really matter.
And so it is with games.
I can't enjoy games that are trying to manipulate me into having fun, not just because I know what they're trying to do, but because of this mysterious 'other' that I'm having a hard time explaining. When I'm playing through a game that's feeding me its gameplay like little breadcrumbs, dragging me along, and then abandons all the skills I've learned, only to introduce me to a new series of mechanics... well, I lose interest.
One aspect of video games that I really value is the fact that I can replay them. The games I enjoy the most are the ones I can come back to, time and time and time again. I love being in the thrall of the richness of the experience, the texture of the moment. It's the heartbeat, the pulse, the flow of playing a game that I'm so deeply in love with, and when I play a game that's too busy trying to massage my lizard brain into doing its bidding, I find the experience jarring.
To me, the best games are the ones that say “okay, here is how you play this game,” and let me handle the rest myself. No, I don't particularly mind getting newer, more powerful weapons, items, and attacks, but I do have trouble playing a game with a learning curve so shallow that I feel like it's treating me as if I'm a baby learning to eat solid foods for the first time. And a lot of these games do that. For these developers, the gameplay experience is not about learning mechanics to use them at a later date, about being given tools to implement in a game in unique and interesting ways, it's simply about moving from point A to B to C and so on, or about filling up an XP bar, or any one of a number of similar tasks.
In other words, many developers are spoonfeeding an experience to the players. Rather than having them play the game, they're simply encouraging players to press a button or two, receive a 'fun' response, and carry on until the game has completed, the end.
Beep boop beep I am a robot
This kind of design is particularly prevalent in F2P and other online games. In order to keep people playing, these games almost have to rely on addiction mechanic. Most human beings just do not play video games long enough or frequently enough to support a game single-handedly. Most publishers make a game, release the game, and rely on sales made within the first month or two to help fund the next game. With an online game, particularly a free one, they have to figure out ways to keep people playing—and paying—for months. The easiest way to do this, of course, is simply to get players addicted to the game, so they'll keep spending money, so the developer can keep earning.
A while back, I heard a rumor that a very large, successful, very well-liked company would only hire people who had a background (such as a college minor) in psychology. The reason for this was supposedly because they placed a great deal of emphasis on player manipulation. Based on my observations of this company, the kind of games they make, and the systems they tend to implement in their games... well, suffice it to say, I'm willing to believe the rumor. Other companies, like Valve, list psychologists on their staff pages.
And the thing is, I can accept this. It bothers me, I don't find it fun... but I know plenty of people who do, who are aware, and who don't mind playing this way. They're fine with randomized drops and all that stuff, and they know it's manipulation. So they're cool with it.
But what happens if this stuff isn't in-game?
Well, Chris Hecker, creator of that super-cool-looking, asymmetrical multiplayer game SpyParty, talks about achievements over on his blog, and what I want to say about achievements is so long that it's going to get its own post later. I think I've linked this before in another essay, but Jamie Cheng from Klei (known for games like Don't Starve and Mark of the Ninja) has talked about similar concepts over on the Penny Arcade Report.
Even then, achievements can be good things. Valve used achievements in Left 4 Dead to encourage players to try mechanics they might not have tried otherwise. And, sure, we can argue that they should have been able to encourage using these mechanics in the game itself, rather than through achievements, but in the end, those achievements did help improve the gameplay experience.
As such, it might come as a surprise that Valve is the most egregious offender when it comes to manipulating their players outside of the game.
After all, we think of Valve as the good guys. They patch our games. They improve their services. They made Mac gaming not suck! They helped resurrect PC games! Their sales are amazing*!
Back in 2011, Valve did their annual christmas sale, but it was different this time. For performing various deeds, usually unlocking achievements or buying games, players would receive a virtual piece of coal which could be combined with other pieces of coal, resulting in the player receiving a reward, like games or coupons. Valve has yet to do another sale where players received games, however.
In the summer of 2012, Valve introduced badges, which players could earn by performing various tasks, such as buying games or voting which game should go on sale next (thus encouraging players to come to the store page every few hours to see the new flash sales and community picks). By the summer of 2013, Valve had implemented its trading card system, again rewarding players for voting and buying.
With the advent of trading cards came Steam levels, which meant that yeah, XP progression had finally become a part of Steam. Play a game, get cards, craft the cards to get a badge, upgrade your Steam level, and on and on you go.
Thing is, to get all five levels of a regular badge that has, say, 8 cards, you need to receive forty card drops, but for 8-card games, you will only receive four drops, at least one of which is guaranteed to be a duplicate. You can, of course, trade cards with your friends, but still, you'd need to trade thirty-six cards. Valve, of course, has a solution: random booster pack drops.
Unfortunately, booster packs drop once every two or three weeks. If, like me, you own forty games that can receive random card drops, you could take forever to get the cards you want. Seriously. At a rate of one booster every two weeks, assuming Valve never adds any new games and you don't buy any more games with cards, if you're lucky enough to get no repeats, and lucky enough to get the three cards you need exactly, but unlucky enough to get it last, you're looking at eighty weeks for the cards you want... which is close to two years of waiting.
Now imagine how long you'd have to wait a game with ten or fifteen cards.
You'd need two drops for a game with ten cards—that's one hundred and sixty-weeks, or just over three years. You'd need three drops for a game with fifteen cards, or, in other words, two hundred and forty-weeks, which happens to be over four and a half years.
...and that's just the first level of the badge. Each badge has five levels and a foil badge.
So, are you curious how long it would take to receive every card for badge for every card that is out, as of the morning of September 24th, 2013, assuming optimal drops at one booster every two weeks?
It would take two hundred and twenty-two years.
For two hundred and seventy-seven games, each with five levels of badges and one foil badge, you will have to log in once a week, every week, for two hundred and twenty-two years. When I first calculated this, it was around one hundred and fifty years. I think it's safe to say that most of you aren't going to live that long, that they'll add more games and it will take even more time, and, hey, maybe they go out of business in two hundred years or so.
Does that not seem a little problematic to you?
Valve has created a metagame** that you cannot win.
Of course, they have a solution: spend money. In case you were wondering, at an estimated fifteen cents per card (and cards range from eight cents to a few dollars or more, so we're on the low side of things), you'd have to spend $1702.65 to get all the cards. This isn't a game you play—the only way to obtain cards and 'beat' the game is to run video games, trade cards, spend money, or hope for random drops. All you get in return are some chat icons or profile customizations (which are random).
Is that really worthwhile?
They've created a psychologically compulsive experience that... serves no purpose. Until I did the math, I thought it wasn't really that big of a deal.
So yeah, why do a lot of MMOs fail? Their developers don't know how to manipulate players into spending time with the experience. Why do certain games sell like crazy? Because their developers do?
Why should you care?
Well, that's up to you. Do you like being manipulated? Do you like playing games for their own sake? Do you really want to wait more than two centuries to get a bunch of cards that don't mean anything? For my part, I've decided that nope, these metagames aren't exactly worthwhile. Achievements can be fun, and I must admit, I like leveling or being surprised by some awesome loot, but hey, here I am, sitting in front of my computer, letting A.R.E.S. run so I can sell the cards and use it to buy something cool, like Shadowrun Returns or Divinity: Dragon Commander.
I'd rather be blasting through the skies, a dragon wearing a jetpack, than I would pretending to be one of Pavlov's dogs.
If you were wondering what the theme of these pictures was, they're games that I played because of my internal motivations. Didn't really like Hitman: Absolution all that much, but I don't have any good screens of Sniper Challenge, and I tend to use my own screenshots.
I did those Steam calculations on my own, by the way. You can find them here. They were sourced from Steam Card Exchange, which shows some games as not having foil badges, but I think this is just a database error? Not positive.
You can follow me on Tumblr or Twitter. If you have some topic or video game you'd like me to cover, let me know. If you know where I can find better work, especially a writing job (or, heck, a mentor), please point me in the right direction!
*Valve sales have been outclassed by sales from guys like Amazon and GreenManGaming, who sell codes that unlock games on Steam.
**a game outside of the game, a game centered around playing your games