Tuesday, June 9, 2009

About Addiction-Based Design, Part 2.

Last week, I linked to my last View From the Bottom article about addiction-based game design. It was originally meant to be a two part article, but most of the second half had to be lost to fit everything into one part.

This is the original second part of the article, which gives more examples and clarifies the sort of design elements I'm trying to isolate here. A tad dry, perhaps, but worthwhile. I think that World of Warcraft grindy addictiveness can be found in a lot of more games and systems (like achievements) than it first appears.

About Addiction-Based Design, Part 2.

In the last article, I wrote about addiction-based game design. This is game design that encourages players to experience the same content again and again (often referred to as "grinding") in return to obtain a series of little rewards. These constant positive reinforcements (money building up, skills increased, experience bars filling) are very satisfying, to the point of being mildly addicting.

It's a powerful design technique, and there are a lot of good examples of it being used (and pointedly not being used). Some of the examples are quite surprising.

Massively multiplayer games are probably the best example of encouraging addiction. When character advancement is frequently referred to as a "treadmill" and gold farmers earn money playing the game for other people's behalf, that should tell you something. Every level or nice piece of loot results in a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. If you play these games any amount of time, you will see players get into passionate arguments about who gets the nice treasure a monster just dropped. Of course they do. They are junkies fighting for a nice hit of their drug of choice.

However, there are other excellent examples that don't involve MMORPGs at all. Consider the Lego games (Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, etc.). The gameplay in these games, when you use adorable Lego people to reenact their namesake movies, is fairly simple and repetitive. Much of the fun comes from playing the levels over and over again to gather money, characters, and hidden treasure. Lego games encourage grinding the levels to earn cash to buy a stunning variety of rewards. Oh Legos, when did you turn to the Dark Side?

Games in the tower defense genre also use repetitive gameplay, accompanied with rewards, but in a far more benign way. In these games, you generally defend against waves of increasingly powerful but otherwise similar foes. You use the money from the victims to buy stronger defenses. It is the entire grinding/reward cycle, compressed pleasingly into a few minutes. The free Flash game Desktop Tower Defense is an excellent example of the genre, and it also shows that games can create that satisfying illusion of achievement without necessarily eating up huge chunks of time.

Another amusing example is the free game Progress Quest. It is a brilliant parody of the RPG genre, a game that plays itself. You just run it and watch your character gain levels. It's quite funny, and yet it is worrying how satisfying watching that bar fill up can be.

One of the best and most interesting examples of addiction-based game design, in my view, is Achievements, that metagame that can lay a layer of grinding and reward-gathering on top of even the most innocent game. Even World of Warcraft has them now, a move of awe-inspiring cruelty to its already fixated player base.

Addiction-based design is a powerful tool, but it is not necessary to create a fantastic game. There are games at the other end of the spectrum, that completely resist addiction-based design in their quest to provide fun. Tetris is a classic example. Left 4 Dead is another. You start a game, play for two hours, and you are done. Music games like Rock Band have a few grinding aspects (like gathering stars and fans for your band), but the bulk of the fun simply comes from picking a song you like and noodling along to it for three minutes. You can grind out fans, but it's completely incidental to the point of the game.

Here's a good rule of thumb: If a game doesn't need to save your progress or scores to be fun, it's fun isn't addiction based. It might be addictive, but it is that way simply because it's fun.

And, now that I've done as well as I can illustrating this aspect of game design, I have to ask the big question: Is it bad? Is it something that "good" designers resist?

No. We should understand what is going on and notice it when it's happening, but trying to addict your players is not inherently a bad thing. In moderation, the grind/reward cycle is like alcohol ... Pleasant, in moderation. The sense of achievement when gaining a level, or, you know, an Achievement, is real. It is odd that it's so satisfying, but it is satisfying, and we designer would be foolish to ignore it. Heck, I write role-playing games, a genre that is almost entirely founded on the grind/reward cycle.

But, like Spider-Man, we should use our powers for good and not for evil. If we want to write innovative games that further the genre and take it more in the direction of an art form, we have to make games that are more than just examples of some experiment where a mouse hits a lever and makes food pellets fall out. In my ideal world, it would be one color in our palette, nothing more.

But, then again, World of Warcraft has eleven million subscribers. So what do I know?


  1. This reminds me a lot of a Grumpy Gamer column you wrote back in the day, titled "The Whittling Part of the Brain". Any chance of that being reposted here? It'd be interesting to see what parts of your design philosophy have stayed the same since then and what's changed.

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  2. I agree with this post, but I think more emphasis should be put on not using it for evil. It's easy to make a game which is addictive but provides no value to people, and a game which is interesting but not addictive won't "stick" to a player very well because they don't spend a lot of time playing it, so there has to be a balance between things which keep players playing and things that make playing meaningful.

    An analogy is with novels: too meaningful without being fun to read and very few people will enjoy it, too much of a page-turner (suspense, plot twists, what-happens-next "mechanics") without worthwhile content and it's just Stephen King or Harry Potter or something, so a balance between the two works best.

    Although one problem is that the balance isn't the same for everyone: some people can put up with lags in stimulus-reward cycle, others can't and crave continued stimulus and reward. A good example of this is the indie game Knytt / Knytt Stories, and the discussions that surround that game. Some people just hate it, some love it, and the difference seems to be how well they can deal with a slower reward cycle.

  3. Lol @ Spider-Man, that was kinda cheesy, but the rest is awesome! Although I'm not sure about Tetris, I know someone who can play that for hours, although it's probably just the fun aspect, not much to do with "addiction based design".

  4. I think I'd say Tetris is a good reason why I don't think the term "addiction-based" is a good thing to call it. Because there are a number of games out there that can addict people, without having the aspects you're talking about.

  5. @Jadyn: There is a difference between "addictive" and "addiction-based." Tetris is not designed from the ground-up to specifically hit the reward centers in the brain, at least not in the ways I use to define the term.

    Though I am interested in suggestions for a better term. But hey, I have to call it something.

  6. This didn't quite resonate with me, mostly because games almost always are giving (or at least promising) a series of small rewards, but a little because Rock Band strikes me as terribly grindy. So I'm going to try to break it down into terms that fit my head space better.

    The major characteristic seems to be how cohesive the reward is with the gameplay. So Rock Band (play a note, hear a note) is very cohesive, Oblivion (use sword, gain skill with sword) a little less, most leveling systems (gain "XP") even less, until finally we hit Achievements which are almost completely disconnected from the gameplay.

    A second characteristic is the reward's ego, i.e. how much attention the reward calls to itself. Compare the more subtle parts of the Fable interface (your muscles get bigger) to a classical RPG (on the character screen your strength stat gets bigger) to the modern RPG (you get a sound and light show when you level up) to the on-screen progress bar (constant visual feedback). An attention grabbing reward also inherently tends to separate itself from the gameplay.

    A third characteristic is the sense that these rewards aren't really earned. Like "Perfect Attendance" awards at school, you get them just for showing up. This is the grindy part, the reward for doing something simple and/or repetitive. I haven't fully sold myself on this characteristic. "Simple" and "repetitive" depend partly on the eye and style of the beholder player. Plus you can't really build a single game that isn't repetitive. (Thinking of counter-examples, I remembered the Phil & Dixie comic where they are tricked and instead of reviewing a single game rulebook they review a game company's catalog.)

    Finally I think it is important how meaningful the reward is within the terms of the game. Rewards that expand gameplay are fabulous, like much of Plants Vs Zombies first run through rewards. Rewards that are in-game stuff (gold, weapons, gold, clothes, or gold) are okay. Rewards that aren't really in-game (Achievements) are kind of sorry. Not that our pleasure centers are smart enough to know this.

    Maybe this prattle was more about sketching the good-vs-evil addiction-based game spectrum. Plants Vs Zombies certainly feels addiction-based, but it feels like a good version. Achievements stake out the other end of the spectrum. And Progress Quest is sitting way out in the ultraviolet.

  7. @MarkSchaal: "This didn't quite resonate with me, mostly because games almost always are giving (or at least promising) a series of small rewards, but a little because Rock Band strikes me as terribly grindy."

    You say a lot, but I want to focus on this point.

    I play some songs in Rock Band again and again. So that is definitely repetitive content. Just as most players play Left 4 Dead levels again and again. There's only 4 scenarios after all. And, heck, any time anyone plays Pong, it's repeating old content.

    The question is: "WHY are they being played?" I lay out a lot of potential rewards for playing a game. It is the nature of the reward schedule that makes a design addiction based.

    If I play "More Than a Feeling" in Rock Band 50 more times (and I will, oh yes, I will), I'm not going to get anything extra out of it IN THE GAME. No experience points. No special tabard. No "You Rock At Boston" achievement. Only the enjoyment I get from playing the song, and, if I get a slightly higher score, a slightly higher score.

    THIS is what distinguishes addiction-based design from the alternatives: The presence of a reward schedule.

    There are many ways a game can try to appeal. Don't lump in every possible sort of fun with designs based on addicting the players with a series of small rewards.

    - Jeff Vogel

  8. Have you played Achievement Unlocked? It's like Progress Quest, but I think as a commentary, it's a lot more scathing, especially as it's on Kongregate.

  9. @Jeff: I'm mildly tempted to disagree, but I think I'd be defending a reductionist view that ultimately doesn't have anything constructive to offer.

    Anyways, I'm not a game developer. I'm more curious how theory becomes concrete -- how this impacts your game design. Avernum 6 with Achievements? Or a deliberate paring back of addiction-based elements?

  10. Sorry, I meant if you want a more indepth analysis of addiction-based game design, read those two posts.

  11. Interesting review of addictive-based design.

    I'd say don't turn to the dark side. There needs to be changes in gameplay - by rewards of new things to allow greater flexibility in a game (from as little as opening up international markets to better clubs for trading in a sport management game, to gaining levels in an RPG, or new weapons in an FPS).

    Luckily, those are not grind-tastic. I just rather loathe games which do any kind of grinding, to be honest (most JRPG's are "ding ding ding" on the mark here).

    I'd say the Lego (not Legos! :P ) games are partially grindy - they are aimed more at children, and the grind aspect is entirely inconsequential to the gameplay, luckily.

    I liked Shamus' writeups, although they could use some dire cross-referencing and links for people who don't play WoW (like me). Other games can use similar techniques too.

    I hope this is part 2 of 3, I'd love to hear more comments on the subject :)

  12. Instead of posting a long comment here, I'll point to my recent blog entry on this topic: Why "addiction" is the wrong word.

    For those who don't care to read a long post, here's the summary: "addictive" is the wrong word here. I prefer the term "compelling" because it has less negative connotations.

  13. "Optional" grinding, where one can spend hours killing the same monsters over and over just to get more money to buy better weapons, or to buy a few more heal potions, is fine.

    But when you need to grind the same monsters ad infinitum just to get strong enough to play the next part of the game, or do the next quest, that's often just irritatingly lazy game design.

    However, games with zero optional areas or regenerating monsters can be problematic. Unless they are extremely carefully balanced, it's very easy to nerf a character. Use too many heal potions too early and run out, put experience points into the wrong stats, and you're screwed if you don't have somewhere to raise an extra level or earn more gold.

  14. Hey Jeff, good article. I couldn't agree more.

    I'm a WoW zombie in recovery myself so I have had my taste of the many addictive mechanices of WOW and they are many indeed. I've been heavily into raiding but lately I've been finding myself grinding trash of old lvl 60 raidinstances just to get the factions to exalted reputation . .omg what am I doing.

    Like so many others I loove numbers and bars going up and in the case of wow I do think there is true evil at play. If you just look at a single aspect or feature of WOW it's not so bad. The problem is the amount of achievements and things to do. I belive that my addiction for bars and numbers comes from a deep desire to be number one. I want to be the best player, have the coolest gear, complete raidinstances before anyone else, have the coolest mounts, etc. etc. etc. and the list goes on for ever. Therein lies the evil. There is more stuff to achieve than what is possible . . and I want to achieve it all. When you combine that with the fact that it's not possible to complete the game and new content is added constantly we end up with a nice formula for endless evil. It's a sort of trap trap you see :)

    So if we look at a game you can actually complete . . a game that ends; the mechanics are not so bad because the addictive mechanics will stop when the game is completed. In this case addiction is used for good enjoyable fun that drives the game forward (on the better cases atleast)

    that's just my 2 cents. Cya later I got some daily quests to complete.

  15. I'm currently studying (and teaching) about how video games can be used by educators in classroom instruction... one of the things I immediately realized while studying behaviorism—a somewhat outmoded school of thought about how to educate and train people—is that many loot-oriented video games align perfectly with behaviorist principles. Very clearly so, although I would suspect that the developers arrived at the methods independently, rather than explicitly copying the theory.

    One example is the way that WoW, Diablo and other Blizzard games reward players at inconsistent intervals for repetitive behavior. This is textbook "variable ratio reinforcement," which dictates that a subject will perform a behavior that he has been trained to perform with roughly equal frequency if he is rewarded each time as if he is rewarded at regular but unpredictable intervals. The advantage for game designers is of course that it allows you to stretch play time without requiring you to build 10 times as much content.

    I have a blog where I write about this and similar subjects, if anyone is interested... although I have not updated it in months. I will being doing so again come August, and at least there is back content on there for now. http://boomculture.blogspot.com

    Finally, I had no idea you had a blog until I saw a shoutout on 1up's RPG blog, I'll be reading from now on.

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