The quest for content

March 4, 2014

Time to essay an essay.

Game developers want players to play their games. It only makes sense. On one level, a small independent developer might be happy to know that a million people played something. On another, an established company might want to make money off of a million players with monthly subscriptions.

Both of those are fine, but there’s the question of what comes next. If you need to keep a player base, either for interest or for money, what do you do when the players “finish your content”? Unlike with paying for food, players need not pay twice for the same sort of content: they already own your game. They’ve “consumed” it. And now they might just say “there, I’ve done everything” and uninstall it.

This sort of “quest for content” affords three approaches.

A: Offer players more content.

B: Slow down player consumption of the content.

C: Make “consuming the content” irrelevant.

I’ve come to understand that bad decisions at this stage can defeat the purpose of gaming. We have created a monster: a sort of “anti-gameplay” in modern entertainment. Let me show you how we get there.

Solution C is a healthy choice, but hard to define. Consider: does chess have content to consume? No. You can play it forever against different opponents and always be satisfied . . . assuming you ever enjoyed chess in the first place. Thus if an experience is inherently fun, however one defines “fun,” then none of this matters and players will keep coming back.

Often, though, people need something to consume in order to have fun. A new story to read or new world to explore. Solution A is an answer, but, traditionally, is expensive to implement: one can make a longer game. One can produce an expansion pack. One can develop a sequel. Some players will buy it, then they’ll consume it and you’ll have lost them again. Repeat.

Solution B is the cheapest and most failsafe way to solve the problem. One might think I’d support solution B and dislike solution A, since I’ve argued that more content is not necessarily good content. But in that essay I made a point on “filler,” on forcing the player to do “the same thing twenty times,” which I did not fully substantiate. Solution B is the “filler” solution. It brings the threat of bad game design, and is the reason I’m writing this essay.

Now to tell a story that any gamer already knows, but bear with me as I get to the conclusion.

I first became aware of solution B years ago when I learned about MMORPG’s. My roommate was hard at work advancing within, oh, one of those really popular games toward the start of the era. The game had released super-special “legendary items” that took a lot of effort to earn as the player had to collect intermediary items from different locations in the world.

So one day my roommate was camped out near a lake. To populate the lake with aquatic nasties, the developers set spawn points which periodically would replace critters the players killed. No problem so far; though of course it breaks immersion a little when the players locate these magical “instant monster” spots. Anyway, my roommate explained that this one item you needed was only available from an alternate version of the fishy foe, which only appeared on a tiny fraction of the respawns. How could you tell if the alternate version were in the water? Ah, well, because it’s the only one that would follow you out of the water and shatter all suspension of disbelief by swimming in midair. Then, on a tiny fraction of the times you faced this watery loot machine, it would drop an intermediary needed for your “legendary item.”

One of several intermediaries.

And therefore once you had it, it was time to do another tiny-fraction-of-a-tiny-fraction hunt in another part of the world with another monster.

Yes, by the time all this was done, it’d be long enough of a “quest” to make a “legend”! No argument there! But why was this happening? In an ordinary “quest,” you engage in things that are personally meaningful, meet and lose friends, face real risk and find remarkable rewards, and maybe, just maybe, change the world. Here, the only real event was gaining the “legendary item” at the end. Meanwhile? The developers slowed down the player, dragged out the content, kept people paying to play, and implemented solution B.

I’m far from the first person to talk about this. Jonathan Blow, well-known developer of Braid and thinker of gaming thoughts, presented a speech titled “Design Reboot” in 2007. It started with sentiments like mine about “game developers want players to play their games” and followed it through to logical conclusions. It left such an impression that Superbrothers (the brilliant minds that were to bring us Sword & Sworcery EP) made an animation you want to watch of the kicker of the argument. To whit:

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re smart or are adept at trying to get ahead in a system because what really matters is how much time you sink in, because of all the artificial constraints on you. That also says that you don’t really need to do anything exceptional because to feel good, to be rewarded, all you need to do is run the treadmill like everyone else.”

As I said, though, any gamer already knows about filler. My point is here: consider how removed we are from any gameplay.

Pretend I’m the game developer, dressed in the regal robes and crown of a mighty quest-giver. You are my old roommate. With all gravity, I set to you the challenge to retrieve the 7 Whatsits so you may earn your Legendary Polygonal Reward. Where are the 7 Whatsits and how do you retrieve them? Ah, therein lies your challenge! So now you go forth to accomplish your challenge by downloading a Whatsit location guide that somebody posted in an online text file.

Wait a minute.

You are doing nothing to find the 7 Whatsits. In fact, you can’t: how were you to know that a tiny fraction of all fish monsters spawned in one lake in the entire multiverse might give you one of your Whatsits? You’d have to spend days per monster in the whole game just to test each one. You can’t do that, so you don’t.

So you, my roommate, depend on someone else to have found the solution and have posted it online. You don’t even need to think: somebody else already did the thinking for you. “What really matters is how much time you sink in.”

Or you can imagine an even worse scenario. Assume Whatsits are ordinary items available to all players, including those who don’t seek the Legendary Polygonal Reward. It’s easy to imagine that the first person ever to get Whatsit #3 did so by accident. This person then posted online “I just got a ‘Whatsit #3’ from this rare nasty in the lake, but I don’t know what it is so I sold it.” Then you, my roommate, searched online for a Whatsit guide, found the post instead, and camped out by the lake.

No one sought the item and found it. No one solved the challenge.

No one “consumed the content.” No one played the game.

I argue that methods to slow down the player’s consumption of the content are ways to stop the player from playing. It’s long been known by many (including my roommate) that the sheer drudgery of filler gameplay is no fun. I argue that this approach, in its inevitable extreme, is the polar opposite force to gameplay: the “anti-gameplay.”

Thus, by definition, this version of solution B is bad game design. And if only the story stopped there.

In years since, I’ve seen the games on . . . oh, you know. That popular website. The one that took Livejournal and traded all the good features for a million incomprehensible privacy menus. Anyway, these games adopted a new game system: the “energy system.” For those blissfully unaware, this limits player actions or choices (in game design, “choices” and “things to do” are synonymous) by assigning a cost in some resource called “energy.” How do you get more “energy”? By waiting.

When I saw this, I couldn’t believe it. It was like an advertiser or politician using doublespeak to admit terrible wrongdoing but call it “an exciting innovation.” Energy systems are a mathematical in-your-face implementation of anti-gameplay: they define how you will not have fun now. And more games are released that use solution B this horrifically all the time.

So now that we have plumbed the depths of depravity, is there any way upward? Fortunately, yes. Solution C, making a game that’s actually fun, is still there for whomever dares the attempt. Some would argue that player competition, like the chess example, is an inexhaustible source of this. Developers are also wising up to the sheer breadth of solution A: by providing level editors and easy game-modification tools, developers let the players make their own new content. This they do gladly, sometimes going so far as to make nearly-standalone games that may then be developed and sold as a new product.

The opportunities are there, and I would say that the quest for content should lead in these more positive directions, not down the frightening spiral into anti-gameplay. That way lies madness. Which, if you’ve viewed Jonathan Blow’s speech, you know might be more then hyperbole.

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