24 February 2016

The fallacy of the treadmill and why games should learn from sports... (Part 2)

So how can all these principles that have become common in sports be merged with the emotional engagement from the hero’s journey and applied to skill-based games that currently rely on the treadmill in order to retain players?

Level Drain

You think my suit and colour scheme look good? Well, they won't for long because I have to ditch this gear to level up!

When talking about primarily skill-based games, to take Destiny as an example (because I’ve played a lot of the game), I think the starting point is to make the game mechanics – which stand out so well from the rest of the game’s features – and make those the core player retention mechanism.

This means not gating content behind artificial power levels but instead concentrating on encounter design and difficulty. In RPGs and in games like Destiny, being underlevelled in a scenario is as bad as being overlevelled – but that does not mean that the scenario itself is bad or unenjoyable. There are many missions and quests that are very popular but once the player has exceeded the requirements of that mission/quest there is no reason to play it again because the content is uninteresting and the rewards are non-existent.

23 February 2016

The fallacy of the treadmill and why games should learn from sports… (Part 1)

Take it easy! Have a rest from the treadmill for a while...

In many games, progression is experienced as a gradual climb of abilities, skills and power to (what developers might hope) is a climax right at, or right before the end of the game. This is colloquially known as a ‘treadmill’ or 'grind' and while games such as RPGs and MMOGs tend to utilise it to the fullest, the principle is broadly replicated across many genres (mostly in the single player environment).

Not only is it a way of the developer meting out availability of content based on level or ability requirements but it is almost exclusively used to stretch out that content in the context of RPG, MMOG and F2P games in order to keep players from completing that content in the minimal amount of time possible and thus moving on to other games made by other developers. It’s a way of padding-out the game experience in order to extract increased revenue for games that have monthly subscriptions or rely on the statistical cravings of a userbase in the latter two and a way to increase difficulty in the first (or, if a game is lacking in content, a way to pad that out to increase the play time – which can sometimes happen in RPGs though it’s more common in FPSes).

It’s no surprise that player power curves and treadmills are closely associated in gaming but what is surprising is that I believe that we do not need to rely on these mechanisms to gate content or retain players in crafted experiences. And yet there are few games in these genres that actually break out of that design mould.

You can see where the origins of the power curve and treadmill are found: storytelling.

20 February 2016

Getting old with games…

Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to ang... Wait, I mean - ARGH!

There was a recent report on how gamers become less competitive as they get older – specifically over 30 years old. The research has been picked up by many outlets and reported with more than just a bit of surprise in many corners.

When I saw the news I just scratched my head and mentally said, “Well, duh!”

It’s as if no one remembered that it is well established that people calm down as they get older. Things and events tend to bother them less and they tend to become less violent. I may be in my thirties now but I knew this even in my twenties and I knew it, not only through personal experience but also because I spoke to older and younger people.

One of my close friends who had a career in the military once lamented to me that he just wasn’t angry enough to do his job anymore – he found it more difficult to push himself into becoming aggressive and he felt like he was a failure because of that. I had to take him by the shoulder and tell him not to worry about it because it was perfectly natural. You just mellow out over your lifespan (generally speaking!).

A competitive streak is not something specific to games but to a person’s psyche and, as such, is most likely also affected by this general mellowing out. So I say, embrace it! There’s nothing to fear. Just realise that it’s natural and that you will now be able to appreciate games in genres that you may not have thought worth it before – even if, at the same time, you feel that you no longer like the games you used to.

"I'm not competitive, I'm too old for that!"

Too much of a good thing

Remember that activity burnout is also a known thing: you do something too much of something – even something you love – and it will lose its lustre over time. How long that time frame is, is very dependent on many factors.

So don’t sweat it. If you feel like taking a break from a game or genre or, well, anything – do so! You are probably going to be able to come back freshly to that activity in some time so enjoy the time you have now to do something else – something that you like more than the thing you’re tired of. One of the great things in life is that most ‘things’ are there whenever you want them. So a game you could have forced yourself through today will still be there in a year when you’re really getting a hankering to play it.

It’s one of the things I tell myself when I buy a game during a sale or I put a game down because I’m just not feeling it. Life is too short to worry about having to enjoy doing something – even if your partner bought you the game as a slightly misguided present (I’m speaking from experience here! :) ), you shouldn’t put yourself through something that makes you unhappy or cranky. Maybe one day you’ll be wanting to play something and, perusing your collection of games you see that title. It may be then that you really appreciate it.

So play the games you enjoy when you enjoy them – don’t worry about feeling less competitive, stop and smell the digital roses.

6 February 2016

Mid-Thoughts: The Witness... and the language of games

People are strange, when you're a stranger...

I've been intrigued by The Witness ever since it was first demoed several years ago. The art style really grabbed my attention (though in the intervening years this has become less unique with several titles using similar visual styles) and the fact that the game would be another thought-piece reflecting on "something" as well as a logic game had my attention.

As usual - thar be spoilers!