Since their inception, video games have been about fun. Whether you’ve spent late nights battling someone at Pong or spent countless quarters trying to beat a high score in Pac-Man or couldn’t wait for the weekend to take another crack at Super Mario, you probably started playing and continued to play video games because they were fun. There is a rising trend, however, that has minimized the focus on fun with an increased focus on addictive behavior that ensures continued engagement and micro-transactions. There has also been a rise in multiplayer games that have fractured their communities by focusing on the individual experience rather than the communal. Let’s look at a two very different but very well-known titles as examples of what I mean. The reason I have chosen these two games is because they are highly influential and replicated within both of their realms and platforms, so they are representative of the growing trends and problems in the gaming industry.
Yes, the dreaded, the addictive, the guilty pleasure of many who will never admit it; Candy Crush. What’s wrong with this game? For starters, it is incredibly unoriginal. It takes an over-used swipe and match game style that should be credited to Bejeweled, and simply gives it an aesthetic makeover. So you are matching candy instead of jewels, except there is one big glaring catch: you only have so many lives. These lives are basically attempts to beat a level, and if they run out you can either wait 20 minutes to get a life back or spend real money for extra lives or extra moves to beat the level you just failed. Or you can invite friends to play via facebook and ask them to send you lives. This means, at its core, the game wants you to fail. Sure, they lure you in with bright colors and animations and easy levels on the outset, but eventually the feeling of progression slows with the desire to progress increasing. In other words, you’re initially given a fun experience and a feeling of accomplishment, and then that feeling of accomplishment is pitted against you as the fail rate increases. This is a problem that I refer to as, “over monetization”. The game is so interwoven with monetized motivation that the game has stopped being about playing something for fun, but rather, is about pitting the game against the player and motivating them to spend money. And anyone who has played Candy Crush will testify that strategy and skill are removed in the higher more challenging levels, because the tiles are randomized. It is simply a matter of luck as you depend on the right colors to fall in the right places. So you continue to play the same level a frustratingly high number of times, only to finally beat it legitimately, and the next level is just another try-fail-try-fail experience. Eventually, non-paying players like myself walk away, but even that decision feels difficult as you’ve spent so much time advancing you feel you are throwing away an investment of sorts. For those who have spent real money, the choice to walk away or keep playing must be doubly hard. This is when the game becomes a non-game. It is rather, a chore, a habit, a punitive non-rewarding addiction. Stop playing these games and paying for them, because at the most basic level, they are not games. This type of game has been replicated 100 times over, from games like Marvel Puzzle Quest to any other cutesy titles by King (the makers of Candy Crush). Next up…
Call of Duty
As a veteran gamer and a huge fan of first person shooters, I’ve spent more time playing Call of Duty than probably any other game, except for maybe the Borderlands franchise. I could easily spend an inordinate amount of time detailing the woes of those of us who climbed up the ranks in skill and strategy only to have our beloved game become a heaping pile of disappointment. But I’d rather focus on the subject of this post, and that is the lack of fun. I played all three COD titles on the PC before getting my Xbox 360 and making the switch to consoles with World at War. Then the almighty long awaited Modern Warfare sequel: MW2. This game, much like World at War made huge strides for the franchise both in innovation and in epic storytelling. But something changed after this title. I believe a few simple things happened that lead to dilution and ultimate death of the greatness of COD. First, kill streaks became far too prominent and important. And second, the lack of being able to squad up while in game with random players fractured the community (yes you could lobby up but this required leaving the current game, adding them as a friend, sending invites, etc.). The more barriers you put between the gamer and an easy hop-in experience, the less likely it will happen. So, you have a community that starts to become incredibly individualistic. They focus on their kill-streaks, and with less people squadding up on the fly, more and more people start playing with no mic and take the lone gunmen approach. This makes practically every game mode break down. Objectives are largely ignored as many players come into games like Headquarters and Domination looking only to camp and get as many kill-streaks as possible. This also made it very easy for groups, like the guys I play with, to win over and over again. We hit a 103 win streak in MW2 and I think around a 223 win streak in MW3. This would later be referred to by Treyarch as “pub stomping”.
So the game makers, almost unknowingly, created their own problem. You had almost an entire community focusing on the wrong things (see my next entries on incentivizing behavior) which lead to lots of people hating the franchise because they would get decimated in game after game while their no mic selfish teammate sat in a corner and only decided to talk at the end to brag about his amazing Kill/Death ratio while ignoring the fact he just lost his tenth game in a row by another embarrassing margin. These problems lead to even greater ones. To make the game more accessible, skill started to matter less. In both Black Ops 2 and Advanced Warfare you have enormous outcry from the community about game breaking lag compensation and inconsistent game behavior. So players with skill end up being a beast one game only to have their first 5 bullets not count in the next, losing almost automatically. This attempt to minimize “pub stomping” and make the game more accessible has led many of us to stop playing the game within just a few weeks of its launch. This is why the franchise continues to push harder and harder for pre-orders and season pass purchases almost immediately after each title is announced. Cinematic movie style trailers entice you to pre-order for day one bonuses, and then future DLC packs started offering weapons instead of just maps. Anyone who has played a shooter will tell you, a new and more advantageous gun becomes a game changer. Once you start offering weapons and advantages in your DLC packages you have broken your own game experience. You are forcing players to, like Candy Crush, pay to win or trudge through the tougher trenches of non-payment. It isn’t even a question for many gamers at this point that Call of Duty is not fun. Even those who continue to play and have success won’t talk about how much fun they are having because they are largely playing alone and still continuing to focus on their own performance.
So where do we go from here?
Candy Crush and Call of Duty are worlds apart both in platform and in experience, but they both suffer from similar problems. And their approach to game development is being replicated almost universally across the board. All console games motivate players to pre-order both the game and all of its DLC, and over hyped titles continue to disappoint (ie: Watchdogs, Destiny, Assassins Creed Unity, et al.). And such a large number of mobile games have micro-transactions that they are now forced to have disclaimers about in-app purchases and can no longer refer to their game as free. Development companies, and the big names that put money behind the titles, need to study the history of games and see what created the buzz and massive surge in interest and participation. They will inevitably find, without fail, all big name titles like Mario, Zelda, Sonic, Halo, and even Call of Duty, became common place names synonymous with gaming because they created new engrossing experiences that were fun and rewarding. Once you start to pit the game against the player in an effort to squeeze more money out of them, you are setting the trajectory of fun and gamer engagement on a downward trend. I promise, if you make it fun, they will come.
See my next two part entry about incentivizing behavior. Agree, disagree, or have your ideas and input? Share in the comments below.