The beginning of this article is aimed towards the player. It focuses on how you should examine your personal values when playing games, to prevent wasting your time on cleverly designed time traps. With the advent of free-to-play and “games as a service,” the warning label has changed from buyer beware to player beware, as we forget the value of time. The second half of this article is – if you’re playing games – a bit controversial and a counterpoint to the first half. There I’ll argue in favor some of these design methods, but also how we may move forward as developers, hopefully creating healthier design practices for both sides.
From buyer beware to player beware:
When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I got my first gaming console – a GameBoy Colour with Monster’s Inc and Pokémon Pinball. I still have vivid memories of playing both games but never managing to complete either of them. A year or two later, I got my first TV console, a PS1 with Ape Escape and no memory card. I lost count of how many times I played those first three levels until I could actually save the game, but it never grew old; I kept playing that same content over and over again, just as I’d play with any of my other toys. Count a few years past that and I installed Neverwinter Nights on my parent’s stationary PC, which opened my world to an online community of storytellers and crazy adventures. It still remains one of my favourite games today, as it captured the essence of the Dungeons and Dragons campaign feeling, in a way that has yet to be done again.
Move forward to today. I am 26 years old and the video game industry has grown exponentially. There is more money in video games than in the movies and there’s a serious problem with oversaturation on the global markets. Never has the selection of games been wider, and never has it been so hard to break through as a smaller developer with no cash for advertisement campaigns. With so much cash to go around, new strategies for game design have been devised, ways to keep our attention – and wallets – in the game world, by appealing to our most basic instincts. Designs which make it a harsh place for gamers and competitors alike. But how can the player tell when they’re being manipulated?
In an attempt to answer this question, I’d like to outline a theory of mine. One which separates players into two stereotypes:
- The Time killer: People with time to kill. This stereotype does not seek an emotional experience, but rather a sense of progress. They are often not aware of the time they are spending on video games, and may simply be victims of habit more so than conscious commitment.
- The Emotional: People who seek an emotionally fulfilling experience. This stereotype often works on a time budget, wanting to maximize the perceived value of the time invested. It is also very hard to define, as emotional stimuli is completely dependent on the individual.
Before I continue, know that I do not treat these stereotypes as mutually exclusive to one another. More often than not, we are moving back and forth on a spectrum between these. Our lives are in motion and the circumstances change, so the best way to illustrate the types is as a Venn diagram:
I won’t keep it a secret that I do not think the “Time Killer” side is a healthy place to be. I think it’s natural that we all find ourselves ending up there time and again, I will even call it beneficial, if it distracts from an otherwise painful circumstance. However, for those who lead lives where distraction is not a benefit, it is extremely important to be aware of what you are doing, thinking and feeling, when you decide to play a game. Just because you have time to kill, does not mean you should do it. Before you press play, ask yourself if you seek emotional fulfilment, and whether or not you believe that to be found in your current action.
As mentioned in the definition, the Timer Killer is a victim of habit – a fact which mobile games and MMOs can be particularly exploitative about. Recently, even more games have learned from these models; daily rewards and gambling elements sprinkled with audiovisual confirmations to underline the sense of achievement, each time the player does something to work in the habit just a little further. It is like the Japanese method of Kaizen – self improvement over many small iterations – but subtly deployed to habituate things that are stealing time, which could be spent on improving our lives instead. These are often not bad games, mind you. Some of these are even on my list of favorite games. The oversaturation problem simply pushes developers to use these designs, in order to be competitive. But that just goes to show how important it is to be the mindful player, to enjoy the games on your own terms. Here’s a few examples of design practices made to keep you coming back:
Daily rewards; rewards given in a limited quantity at specific intervals. Teaches you to return at said intervals, which eventually causes you to do so without thinking about it.
Chance-based rewards; rewards that are high, but only have a small chance of actually happening, favoring those who spend the most amount of time (usually doing the same thing over and over again). Usually referred to as “grinding.”
Event-based rewards; rewards which can only be gained at a certain period of time. Creates the illusion of scarcity, which makes you feel obligated to spend more time during the event.
I do not have time to kill. Killing time is killing a little bit of myself.~ Niko Pueringer
Once again, the best way to check if you are acting on habit, is to make a habit out of asking yourself what you want from this action. This can be a harsh exercise. Quoting Niko Pueringer (from Corridor Digital, check them out on the YouTubes); “I do not have time to kill. Killing time is killing a little bit of myself.” He is quite clearly aware of the value of his time, being a very busy person. But imagine if, being the busy man he is, he hadn’t made this realization. If he had a habit of wasting what little time he could spare. Do that for a few years and then come to his current realization. It feels bad. We don’t like to come to terms with that realization, because it makes us admit that we have done something that is not good for ourselves. However, the best way to tackle this problem is head on, come to terms with it and start being more mindful. If something is difficult to confront, it’s usually a sign that it should be confronted.
Which brings me to the definition of the “Emotional” side of the diagram. This stereotype is not easily pleased. They seek out very specific experiences which resonate with their core values. They want power fantasies that appeal to their inner selves, crazy scenarios to play alone or with friends – experiences that stick to our minds as individual memories, instead of being a blur of easily interchangeable clicking sessions. As mentioned in the initial definition, the Emotional stereotype is very hard to outline, as everyone has different lives and personal values. Often times the Emotional even slides unknowingly into the Time Killer, as they experience the initial high of a new game, then spend the rest of their time trying to find that feeling again. Some games even exploit this on purpose, showering you with progress and accolades in the initial play session, then luring you into doing the same things repeatedly, hoping for the return of that initial spark of joy.
Since I can only speak from my own perspective, what I can contribute here does not apply to everyone. But I will add some experiences that I find emotionally fulfilling, to better clarify what I am talking about:
Character development; the game has a narrative with interesting characters, which undergo change as the story progresses. This makes me want to come back, for the want of knowing what happens next.
World building; the game has a universe which abides by a set of concise rules, no matter how complex the setting. This allows me to fantasize about the universe both within and outside the boundaries of the game, because I understand these rules.
Social interactions; the game provides a set of tools that allows for memorable interactions between myself and other players. This lets me and my friends talk about both the fun we’ve had and how we can imagine interacting next.
These are just a few pointers which, once again, are very subjective. But they are some of my personal cornerstone values that a game must uphold, before I deem it worthy of my time. It is a good idea to ask yourself what your cornerstone values might be. Often times fulfilling just one of these items is enough for a game to be worth your time. However, you may be surprised once you’ve made your list, at how many games actually fail to uphold those personal standards. It’s a weird one though. I find these elements to be worth my time, because I think life is worth it so long as I am creating interesting memories.
Which brings us to the second half of the article:
As much as I’d love to say that it only takes one great example to start a new trend and change the industry for the better, there is a great risk involved in trying to abandon the “best practice” designs in monetization. I say best practice in quotation marks, because most of these appeal to the Time Killer stereotype. And as much as I dislike using manipulative designs, it may well be one of the few things that can keep a company afloat in such oversaturated times. But a game can use these designs respectfully, while also providing a richer experience for the Emotional stereotype. As a matter of fact, a game can do this so well that both stereotypes feel incentivized to invest in it, which is really where you want to be. If you are too manipulative, the Emotionals are scared away. If you are too focused on the pure narrative (which I personally don’t mind, but let’s look at this from a monetization standpoint), you scare away the Time Killers. There’s always a risk of trying to please everyone – it often results in scaring everyone away instead – but there’s a sweet spot where both are comfortable together. The Elder Scrolls Online does this very well, as it comes from a franchise designed almost entirely for the Emotionals, yet is meant to fit with the MMO standards that are more appealing to the Time Killers. It could have been a huge mess – it did have a rough start – but over time it has managed to appeal to both, using incredible amounts of writing and voice acting, adding lots of weird and wonderful ways players can express themselves and interact, while also implementing design loops that are easy to just sit down and click around in. By and large, the game fits all three of my listed cornerstone values for my Emotional stereotype. However, it also fits all three of the cornerstone values which I listed for my Time Killer stereotype.
Which brings me to the overlap where I feel okay with the Time Killer design implementations, because they are presented in tandem with the Emotional designs, which – while I am aware that this is partly me justifying my playing habits – actually allows for me to have those Emotional experiences, even as I spend a little more time than what is considered optimal, for someone with my schedule. Of course, in a perfect world, the Time Killer designs would be long gone and we’d all play however we wanted. But looking at the market today, I think this is one of the more respectful ways to tackle the issue, while keeping the business afloat.
As someone playing games: Think about what you’re doing with your time. List your most treasured memories, find out what triggered them and uphold your games to those standards. If something fails the test, it’s quite likely not worth your time. Try to make a habit of asking yourself what you want from your game, every time you play.
As a developer: Try to look at your designs as the players would. Your designs should uphold your own standards for what makes a game worth the time investment. If you are torn over the problem of monetization vs. respecting your playerbase, I highly recommend making a case study out of The Elder Scrolls Online, to understand how there can be room for both in a multiplayer environment.