Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Glorious, Profitable, Inescapable Art of Addiction

Get those numbers up! Those are rookie numbers!
I've been reading a lot about Anthem. It's that gigantic, mega-budget looter-shooter from BioWare and Electronic Arts. Apparently, it doesn't give out enough loot for the monsters you kill. For a game like Anthem, this is BAD FORM.

Apparently, when you spend three hours killing a boss, the increase in your character's numbers isn't generating a sufficiently pleasurable dopamine hit to justify the time invested.

So Bioware releases a patch, and good loot suddenly drops like crazy. Our characters numbers shoot up and up, causing a pleasurable, sustained dopamine high. Ahhhhh. That's the stuff. But oops. The rebalancing was bugged! The loot rate drops, and again we are strung out, demanding that when we kill the level 99 Glip-Glop we get a properly satisfying purple (or legendary or epic) item.

They never enabled Anthem to give the players the sweet hits of neurotransmitter they desired. Anthem is therefore not serving the main purpose it exists for, so now the game appears to be slowly dying.

So what have we learned?

Time To Actually Look At What We Are Seeing

I can't be the first person to notice that complaining about these games' loot drop rates is like being mad that the bartender is watering down the drinks. Complaining your character's numbers aren't going up fast enough is the "My weed dealer sold me a bag of oregano!" for the new millennium.

While artsy indiepants developers debated whether video games are Great Art or a great storytelling medium, the big shot developers wearing the money pants became the most profitable drug dealers the world has ever seen.

Fifty of us spend 12 hours being this jerk so that I could get an imaginary sword. What force is powerful enough to inspire such madness?

A Brief Disclaimer to Get the Neuroscientists Off My Butt

When I say video games give you a pleasurable "dopamine hit" that’s shorthand for whatever pleasant chemical process is going on in the brain while you play. Is it actually dopamine? Or some other more complicated reaction of chemicals in the brain?

Beats me. Answering this question is way above my pay grade. I'm just using "Dopamine Hit" as a placeholder/shortcut term. But whatever is happening, it IS chemicals, and they are generated by the brain on gaming.

So, here are a few thoughts about the ways video games provide pleasure and manipulate our brains. Just observations. I don't have any answers. Nobody does. We can, however, look across the landscape and see what we see.

1. The Video Game Industry Sells Engines That Release Pleasure Chemicals In To Your Brain

Hey, I love artsy video games like Papers, Please! or whatever. I really do. But don't kid yourself. That is not and never will be where the real money is.

Popular video games sell so well because they cause the release of sweet, sweet dopamine in the brain. When you fill up an experience bar. When a stat number goes up. When you find a vein of diamonds and can make a sweet pickaxe. When you get the BEST sword. When you solve a puzzle or clear away a row in Tetris.

When you die fifty times to a boss in Bloodborne, you are holding off the fix, which makes the huge surge of dopamine when you finally win all the more satisfying. Aaaaahhhhhh.

I'm Not Judging

I know I'm expected to say how bad this state of affairs is, but I'm not going to. I don't think it's bad. I play these games. I like the dopamine.

This isn't an editorial. I'm not judging anyone. I write computer RPGs for a living. My games are crude and low-budget, but they give you your modest dopamine dose for a far more reasonable price than the free-to-play drug lords over on Android. I even throw in a decent story to put a patina of sophistication on the whole thing.

How many children are, right this moment, grinding at the computer to get the thrill of seeing a fresh vein of diamonds.
2. The Effect Is Very Real and Very Powerful.

Back in the day, before game designers got really good at parceling out the dopamine hits, I raided in Everquest and World of Warcraft. Hardcore. Hours a day for weeks to get my shot at one of the really high-end artifacts. When I got one, the good feeling, a really substantive warm illusion of accomplishment, could last for days.

These days, I struggle to remember what any of those clumps of data stored on a distant server actually were. (An "epic weapon"? Was that a thing?) However, the memory of the FEELING of satisfaction I got is still very strong.

Now, of course, we designers know to make the upgrades come in a constant flow of smaller improvements. A host of bars slowly filling up and numbers increasing, so that the warm feeling never stops.

This effect is so powerful that you don't even need to make the player DO anything. Look at clicker games. Cookie clicker is particularly good.

In clicker games, a few simple clicks jump starts the process of earning cookies/points/gold, and then it runs on its own. You can walk away from the computer, return later, and see your progress! In some games, not only do you not need to do anything, you CAN'T do anything, and you still advance. It really, truly feels like you did something! It's amazing how our brains work.

3. Writing An Addictive Video Game Is HARD

Making a truly addictive video game is an art. Like, it's really, super hard. If it wasn't, there would be far fewer failed video games. Artsy types don't appreciate how difficult it is.

When I am trying to design a game that pulls people in and gets them stuck there, I don't have rules. There's no algorithm. When designing a system, I sort through the 10000000 different ways I can do something, and I pick the one that feels right in my gut. The design that makes me go, "Yeah, this compels me. This would tickle my brain and keep me playing."

There’s no rules for it. It’s intuition. Feelings. Art.

I mean, think about it! When I write a game, I am trying to manipulate another human being's brain, at a distance, using nothing but these abstract mental constructs I build. Do I get to give the user cocaine or meth? No! I don't get a tool as easy or clumsy as actual chemicals. I'm trying to shape their minds with nothing but pure thoughts! That's awesome!

I like writing and visuals and all that good stuff, but don't undervalue addictiveness. Making a game addictive requires true craft, and this quality enables video games to provide something unique in entertainment. If controlling the player's brain was easy, Anthem wouldn't have burned up hundreds of millions of dollars and exploded.

Even artsy games are smart enough to provide a score to increase. Nothing is more fun than bigger numbers.
4. DLC and Micropayments Are a Side Topic, Not the Main Argument

Our industry has discovered that the pleasure jolt from advancing in these games is so great some people will spend lots of money to keep the drip coming. “Five minutes of gameplay and your fancy tower is completed right away? That will be a dollar, thank you.” Bottomless fortunes are being made off of dopamine.

Look, if an ADULT spends $500 of their hard earned money to buy Fortnitebux or Smurfberries or whatever, I don't know what business it is of yours. If an adult wants to spend cash on beer or DLC or opera tickets or loot boxes, it's their right.


Parental controls are deeply flawed. The companies who give them to you don’t want them too work well, because they want the money your children will spend.

Suppose a tired distracted parent (as all parents are) makes a mistake (as all humans do) and lets their kid play the wrong game unsupervised for an hour. That game will happily suck your bank account dry and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

For decades, the world has been trying to portray our industry as malevolent and harmful and evil. They’re always been wrong so far. PLEASE do not allow your greed to make them correct.


Suppose the people who hate free to play games win the argument and get rid of microtransactions. Suppose they change the laws so you have to get your looter shooter Destiny/Anthem/Division dopamine drip for one fair fixed price. So you're grinding hundreds of hours to get better armor, but you aren't spending more money. Just time.

What is the creepy part? Is it evil to charge a dribble of money for a game so addictive it devours hundreds of hours of your time? Or is the problem making the game so addictive it consumes hundreds of hours of your time in the first place?

Again, I am asking this as a person who writes games as addictive as I can make them in order to buy food.

This turned into a huge post, so this is just part one. The second half is to come.


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.


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