Over the years I’ve been addicted to a number of games. These include all the MMOs I’ve played, Championship Manager, Civilization, Elite, Just Cause 2 and Test Drive Unlimited. And this was proper addiction, you know:
- “Oh shit it’s 4am, oh man, not again.”
- Five hundred calories a day on weekends (crisps, tea and chips)
- Tips and strategy bookmark folders and printouts
- Home made keyboard overlays
- One game at a time, months at a time
- Wife having second thoughts..
I’ve wondered what is common to these games that are in quite different genres yet cause such an immersive consumption of my time.
My first thought was that they had no great peaks and troughs for ‘action beats’, that is, no clear and obvious closure points, such as ends of chapters or missions, as you’d find in, say, Tomb Raider, that would offer a neat way out. It’s particularly true of Football Manager, where your decades of Fergie-busting glory end with maddeningly zero fanfare, a curt retirement statement in the news feed. It has no finale at all. Civilization ends with victory or defeat after around six thousand years and it has a stable cadence of turn-taking all the way through. Compare this to the bitesized FPS maps of online games like Battlefield Heroes, Unreal Tournament, Halo and the MOBAs. These games offer a straightforward and quite traditional narrative structure ‘Here are your objectives (introduction) ->->-> Play (middle) -> Here’s your reward ->-> (end).’ You can casually consume these games. Those shallow rhythms do offer intense and enjoyable bursts of adrenaline, focus and concentration, something which the titles I mentioned at the top have rarely at best. Why then do the latter seem to bleed us dry of all other social commitments?
MMOs, unlike Civilization, take the ‘Here are your objectives -> Play -> Here’s your reward’ narrative and layer it profoundly. This is partly out of necessity for the subscription based games (design as byproduct of the payment model?).
Let’s take the Moria expansion in Lord of the Rings Online to illustrate the layering.
As I enter Durin’s gate I am given a set of initial quests, that are achieved within the hour, for some reward.
But for undertaking these quests I begin an achievement layer related to Dwarf faction which will take months, taking me from a ‘neutral’ through to being ‘kindred’ and all stops in between. This gives me titles which I can add to the name floating over my head as well as increasingly rare and valuable rewards including access to a hidden area.
In undertaking these quests I have to kill some things. As I kill the different types of monster it tells me that I have started ‘Slayer’ achievements, that will give titles and in-game currency for killing, say, 75 of whichever breed of monster. So multiple slayer achievements begin within minutes of my entering Moria, incremented while completing quests.
These slayer achievements have multiple layers, I finish layer 1 for some rewards and then there’s a layer 2 for killing a further 150 of each. Achieve this and I get a different title and increment one of a range of Virtues, which boost my stats in various ways.
Yet I have also kicked off an exploration achievement, which sets out a number of places to explore, over the coming weeks, yielding a further title and some rewards.
Great, you think, sounds very rewarding. But they haven’t finished. If I then enter one of Moria’s instances, it has a subset of achievements for its own completion, both for the ‘bosses’ and the ‘final boss’ as well as slayer achievements. Yet these slayer achievements also count to the overall Moria slayer achievements for that breed of monster! While completion of all these instances confers a meta-title, that itself is an ingredient of a meta-meta-title as an overall Moria conquering hero!
For each sword stroke or arrow fired, for every step you take, you are working towards multiple achievements simultaneously, each of which have a cadence ranging from minutes to months.
And therein lies the cause of your curtailed sleep. You are always close to unlocking an achievement of some sort, of getting some closure. But as soon as you get there, the next one is within sight, driving you forwards. Coupled with the social element of MMOs which drives the addiction on a separate level, it becomes easy to see why such richly rewarding and richly layered goals mean MMO gamers rarely play any other game during their gaming time.
Just Cause 2 follows a pattern that I’m sure is akin to GTA (which MMOs denied me a fuller appreciation of!) Here you are on a massive island systematically bringing down the evil dictatorship by laying waste to its military and civil infrastructure. Each settlement or base you take down increases the chaos, while you can also partake in multiple quest arcs with factions on the island that bolster the rewards, the latter compounding with the former more general goals. You also have some quite naked achievements slapped on top, such as the flying achievements and numerous other console style achievements that encourage you to keep putting the hours into the game so you can impress your friends.
Test Drive Unlimited litters objectives throughout its own massive island; drive around and you can’t help but bump into time trials, challenges and shoppers looking for a free taxi.
The parallels with Just Cause 2 and GTA, not to mention other open-world titles like Skyrim are plain to see (though I found the latter rather shallower than the former, the layering was thinner, it felt more like a grind).
The layering of achievements and objectives makes you feel like the minutes and hours you spend is time ‘well spent’, the game is rewarding you deeply for the hours you give it. This of course drives you to want to play it more often, at the expense of other titles.
Superficially different, Civilization, like a lot of strategy games, is a game of spinning plates. You are always within ‘the next turn’ of achieving something or having to make a decision (set new objectives), be it a granary in a new settlement to the production of a vital squad of Archers to defend your border. The flow of the game is affected by the other civilizations as well, meaning your goals are dynamically altering, thus altering the cadence of objectives you’re working towards, a shifting pattern of short, medium and long term objectives.
You are therefore working simultaneously to an overall strategy that maximises research vs military might within a fluid matrix of objectives. However, the killer in all this is that every action you take towards these objectives have this metronomic flow driven by it being turn based. The objectives are set, in progress or completing with practically every turn that goes by, within the general course of an ultimate victory you’re trying to win for your people over thousands of years. Each turn feels important, it doesn’t feel like there’s any filler, so you struggle to break off and just go to bed.
Conversely, addictive games like MMOs get disengagement when the layers of objectives and rewards become shallow or repetitive (see Farmville, Skyrim). When ‘grind’ kicks in, because the goal feels contrived by the developer merely to keep you clicking buttons, usually for more cash, disengagement rapidly follows.
I’m playing a lot of Battlefield Heroes at the moment, I need something that fits in with my writing and family. But I can’t help thinking it could take some tips from the excellent console racer Blur which found a way to reward or call out every good or bad ‘record’ set during the race. At the end of a BFH map it would be good to know that I was ‘Volley Shot King’ for the most kills while my opponent was airborne, or I got ‘Meep Meep Medley’ for most roadkills, or even ‘Enemy Agent’ for dying the most on my team. It would be good to know also that these stats could count to more than just a formidable stats list that the game already has publicly available to its playerbase, such as earning me custom outfits, funds etc. It would then be good to know that there were sets of these to complete, for even more outrageous rewards, and that this feedback was constantly ticking over in the HUD during the game.
On second thoughts, perhaps it’s good it doesn’t. I couldn’t afford the child support.