Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Reponses to Towards a Moral Code for Game Designers

Thanks everyone for the feedback to my last blog post - there's a lot I want to comment on and the length of my response got to the point which warranted a separate blog post. Firstly, I'll take Andrew S' suggestion on board and expand each of the game design rules I outlined into a separate blog post (Serves me right for pencil sketching some ideas out that I should really have expanded on or saved for other posts anyways). Jonathan, I'll definitely try to address the points you highlight, whether its by agreeing with them, expanding on them or contradicting them, I'm not sure at this stage.

Everyone who pointed out that "moral" is a strong word are undoubtedly correct. There is a lot of injustice in the world to get angry about, and what you choose to get angry about is as much a reflection of who you are as the relative importance of each wrong. But hedging my argument with a weaker word wouldn't have got such thoughtful reactions - sometimes I find overstating an argument is a useful way to think about the problem.

Much of what I write on this blog comes from perspective of trying to design a game with longevity. That doesn't necessarily suppose complexity however. There's a great line of David Sirlin's I've used elsewhere which points out that Go and Chess have been played for thousands of years, but only a few computer games which have been around a decade or more still have a significant player base.

The last few years have proved computer gaming has already passed the cross roads between comic books and rock-and-roll, and we've gone down the path where gaming will be a part of everyone's life and not just a niche. But I firmly believe we have plenty of traps left to fall into, not the least of which is avoiding Fermi's Paradox, and one of them is charting a course between enjoyment and addiction. While I like Dan Cook's beer garden analogy, I don't necessarily find it that useful when thinking about this problem. The most important point to realise with gambling addiction is that gambling doesn't involve any external addictive substance. It is the human mind getting addicted to itself. To me 'Direct provable harm' and 'Lost opportunity' are points on a continuum, not separate categories.

The moral hazard I highlighted is an argument at heart about what it is games should be. I've not seen anyone clearly articulate what this is, although we all have an intuitive understanding that they should somehow be valued (otherwise why would we devote so much time to them). The first question is whether games have intrinsic value in themselves, or whether we should be harnessing them for extrinsic ends (e.g. human based computation)? The second is whether it is more important than games be played to win - i.e. be a skill-based activity, or whether they should be more valued as new social spaces? The third is whether games should aspire to have the best features of other art forms, or whether the most important aspect is experiences that are unique to games and no other medium? The fourth is whether the content of games should be owned and narrated by the game developers or the game players? The fifth is whether game content should be opened up through progression (or purchase) or available immediately? The sixth is whether it is possible for a single player, procedurally generated game to be as valued an experience as multi-player or hand-made game? The seventh is whether a game should provide sub-optimal choices? The eighth is how much of a game should play itself against require an investment of our time and attention? The ninth is whether a games rules should continue to evolve to address issues of play balance, or stay fixed to allow deep exploits to be discovered? And finally the tenth is that can different games fulfill these different values, or is there a hierarchy of 'better' and 'worse' games?

I'm sure you can chart your reactions against each of these questions, and there will be places where we differ in our opinions (and I suspect you can come up with many more questions, and quite happily disagree with the choices I have made). Until we have answers to some of these questions, if we can answer these questions at all, the decisions we make when designing a game are in a sense moral decisions, because they stem from our beliefs about what games should be, and not from an objective reality. To quote Wikipedia:

Morals are arbitrarily created and subjectively defined by society, philosophy, religion, and/or individual conscience.
So the design decisions in Bunni making 'bustle' important and to be valued, were made on a number of assumptions about what games should be (or more correctly, what this game should be). My initial reaction was that the decision was incorrect (morally wrong) occurred, because I'm operating on a different set of assumptions about the value of games.

To directly address Dan's response: I want to play games that make me aspire to improve my ability to play them, not hang in a social space. So I'm not your target audience. And undoubtedly, I've conflated bad game design with immoral game design. My apologies. But I'm glad we agreed there's a bad design mechanic waiting to be replaced there, and I look forward to see what you're going to replace it with.

22 comments:

Diego / Kimari / IndigoStatic said...

*starts a slow clap*

Andrew Doull said...

Is that a positive or a negative slow clap? I'm still unsure whether I've ended up my argument with a horrendous cop out or something more intelligent than where I started...

Diego / Kimari / IndigoStatic said...

Haha, I'm sorry I wasn't specific enough there, but it would just ruin the *moment* if I explained it, wouldn't it?
(Yes, it's a positive clap)

Now, for example, the end boss for Plants vs Zombies does everything humanly possible to try and get the most amount of expletives out of my mouth. And it's not rage, it's not that it's hard to win (it's pretty easy actually), it just insults my moral code as a designer.

CPL said...

'Direct Provable Harm' and 'Lost Opportunity' may well be on the same continuum, but only in a very metaphysical way... after all, you could argue that death itself (arguably the ultimate harm) is nothing more that a complete 'Loss Of Opportunity' :)

Even in a practical sense, their location on that continuum depends on both the game and the player. After all, as a form of pleasure, fun is inherently addictive... it would be next to impossible to frame a 'thou shalt not' in this regard. For instance, Bejeweled has just the sort of sparkly colors and sparkly sounds that directly massage our monkey brains (in exactly the way that Vegas slot-machines do)... does that make it Evil?

IMO, the only thing games 'should' be is fun... beyond that, I think it is only necessary that the designer be aware of what the game is, and why. Simple, context-free WYSIWYG games have a place next to complex, story-rich games than only reveal themselves slowly.

CPL said...

As a follow up to "Games should be fun", I don't think it's meaningful to talk about "tricking the player into thinking they're having fun"... that's usually just a version of "my fun should be your fun".

However, I would say at the very least, the first law of game ethics could be

"Don't make it hard for the player to stop playing once they've stopped having fun"

Jonathan S. Fox said...

I see an addiction to gambling in a casino as only a more extreme version of an addiction to playing a video game, with consequences that are easily comparable. You're losing the opportunity to spend your money on something else the same way as you're losing the opportunity to spend your time on something else. Furthermore, money is earned by spending your time on productive labors to earn an income; so while I might agree with CPL in questioning the usefulness of placing death and video game addiction on a spectrum, I have no problem seeing video game addiction and gambling addiction as on the same spectrum.

If you are willing to accept questions about the morality of turning people into gambling addicts -- and I am -- then it's no great leap to also accept questions about the morality of turning people into video game addicts. This is most strongly illustrated by pay-to-play online games, where players pay by the month or even by the hour to pour their efforts into games that are designed to create addiction in their players.

CPL said...

Sure... but you can't apply the Evil tag to game simply because it's addictive, or even designed to be addictive. As I said, fun is addictive. Worse still, fun is also subjective. I can't say "Game Mechanic X is clearly not fun, and is clearly addictive, ergo, it is Evil". Nor, for that matter, can you simply say "Game Mechanic X is clearly addictive, Game X is a pay-to-play game, ergo, it is Evil", particularly in an age where the single-transaction 'sell a box with a game in it' business model is becoming obsolete.

It's very important to distinguish between "an addictive game" and "an addicted player". To a certain extent, if your game doesn't make people want to keep playing, you've probably failed as a game-designer. People become addicted to all sorts of things... we're almost hard-wired for it. To that end, rather than wringing our hands about whether a game crosses some imaginary line from "good" to "too good", we should focus on the cost of addiction should someone find themselves in that category.

For example:

Does the game cost an unreasonable amount to play or levy a tax on 'hardcore' players?
I would suggest that games which allow in-game items to be purchased with real-world money are potential offenders here.

Does the game offer greatly diminishing returns?
i.e. are completionists forced to spend orders of magnitude longer, pulling the handle on a very stingy slot-machine.

Does the game make it hard for you to quit?
i.e. Does it delete your character if you stop playing for more than X days? Do you have to jump through hoops to cancel your subscription?

Nick said...

Now this is interesting. By saying that we have traps to fall into, you make an implicit assumption that life has a purpose.

I guess the danger in using words like "moral" is that people will start philosophising :)

CPL said...

Life shmife... games have a purpose :)

Jonathan Stickles Fox said...

CPL, my words were that I am willing to "accept questions about the morality of turning people into video game addicts." I'm not sure where in that you got the idea that I or anyone else is calling any games, whether they're pay to play, addictive, or otherwise, "Evil" with a capital E. Evil's not even in my vocabulary for this topic, and while some might call gambling Evil, I'm not one of them.

I'm a big fan of Civilization and I admire the nature of the "one more turn" nature of its play, using what could be called addiction. But people don't do that when they're bored in Civilization; if it's addictive, it's because it's "too good", as you put it. The reason Civilization has a "one more turn" mentality is because it always has something you're about to accomplish, as every turn you begin to invest in multi-turn actions, movement, research, construction, and everything has strategic and tactical implications. There's never a stopping spot in Civilization, the entire flow of history is deeply interconnected. If you aren't invested in the moment-to-moment gameplay, your goals cease to be rewarding, and the entire thing collapses. There isn't an actual addictive mechanism in Civilization, it's just a very fun game with no good place to stop. There becomes an issue when the game turns to micromanaging, and this is where many players clamor for automation, and many games provide it -- the Civilization game genre doesn't depend on menial tasks to entertain, it depends on endless interwoven interesting strategic and tactical choices.

This idea that Andrew Doull brings up of a moral code for game designers isn't about games like Civilization. It's not about a game being "too good". It's not "thou shalt not make a game that's too fun to want to put it down". And while I have and shared many probing questions about his proposed rules and have a hard time seeing a moral dimension to most of them, I am very willing to consider as moral questions those rules that target mechanics that have a psychological addiction mechanism that goes beyond "too fun to put down".

Andrew Doull challenged the fruit trees in the Bunny game partially on the grounds that they're a form of operant conditioning, which is a psychological phenomena in which people enter voluntary behavior patterns and can be trained to spend extraordinary amounts of time doing menial, boring tasks, for minimal reward, simply by exploiting the psychological workings of humans and other animals.

Now, if you're in the gambling business -- which was the "gaming industry" long before Tennis for Two was even concieved -- that's a great thing. It's great that you can use random rewards to bait people into entering a semi-compulsive pattern of doing menial tasks like pulling a lever every five seconds. You want to do that because every time that lever is pulled, you make money, and the entire purpose of your industry is to make money off of people pulling levers and making bets. Gambling may call itself the gaming industry, but their games are a means to an end -- their goal isn't to maximize entertainment, but maximize play time and frequency by luring people in with the promise of a mixture of entertainment and a chance at a big win. Las Vegas light shows and sevens on slots are all part of that system. For a lot of people, this is all fun and games, and that's fair. For others, it's immoral -- and psychologically, it is addictive for reasons well beyond "too much fun".

Jonathan Stickles Fox said...

This discussion, it seems to me, is predicated on the acceptance of the argument that gambling has a lower moral standing than video games, and that we want to "do better". If there isn't agreement on that point, the argument stops there.

So let's accept the idea that the gambling industry's approach to entertainment is immoral, or at least "less good", and we want to do better. Let's also say we're professional game designers, and like the gambling industry we also separate people from their money and provide entertainment in return. But our focus is on earning that money by maximizing the amount of entertainment. If you make Civilization -- a game that's "too good" and becomes addictive enough that you don't want to put it down -- you can debate whether that's moral all you want, but it's certainly not immoral in the sense that we're saying gambling is. It's addictive, but providing a steady stream of entertainment from front to back, and the addiction doesn't exist when there's no entertainment left. It isn't exploiting psychological tricks to condition you into playing when you're not having fun.

But at some point, when you're not getting players glued to their screens through eager excitement, but from some kind of anticipation of maybe hopefully if they keep doing rote tasks they'll get some entertaining prize in the future, you've become the gambling industry's runt kid brother. Your game's function has ceased to be to maximize fun, and is now to psychologically condition the player into clicking your doohickey a hundred and fifty times in a row even though there's no really rewarding feeling in any given click other than an animation and sound combo they've already seen a hundred times before.

You've got something good for the player, some reward that they'll be really happy about. So does the gambling industry. But the gambling industry's reward is money, and they don't want the player to have it. Your reward is entertainment, and you DO want the player to have it. If you resort to the same tricks that they use to pad your game and delay giving the player that reward, it's worth asking yourself why you're doing that. Is your game so short on actual fun that you have to condition your players to accept increasingly austere gameplay in order to have any semblance of longevity? Have you arrived here through iteration because you confused the time commitment and determination characteristic of this kind of conditioning for the continual enjoyment you were aiming for?

I'm not saying that we should go out and burn designers at the stake if they spread out the really rewarding parts of the game with addictive, monotonous grinds. But I am saying that when you are holding players not because you're providing them with consistently high quality play, but because your game is manipulating them and conditioning them to keep playing through boredom, there is a moral dimension to what you're doing, and it's not favorable.

I believe we are capable of holding ourselves to a higher standard of how we treat players, and that we can make better games for it. This is why, as much as I criticized and questioned many of Andrew Doull's smaller points last post, I agree with the general principe behind it. I think there are ways that designers can have mechanics that are abusive toward players, and I believe that it's reasonable to discuss what these are and how we can avoid doing them.

Andrew S said...

I played the online game Travian for a while, and I consider that game design immoral. To do well, one needs to stay logged in as much as possible, leading many people (in the closing months of the server) to work at LEAST full-time at the game, get up in the middle of the night nearly every night, and start spending a lot more money on the game.

I don't think a comment about the social use of entertainment is relevant. People get addicted to World of Warcraft -- is that categorically worse than reading a lot? The worst attribute of gambling addiction is the people it leads to financial ruin, especially when they bring down their families because of it. I don't think playing games is immoral, or encouraging people to play them.

I think the useful discussion of immorality is bad designs like this. Punishing game designs. I played Travian as a team game, and I didn't want to let my friends down -- but the game demanded absurd dedication.

CPL said...

I don't know that comparisons with gambling are that appropriate. By definition, gambling is pay-per-play, and offers real money as a reward. This sets up scenarios such as "if I keep playing, I'll break even" or even the classic "I've been losing a lot, so I must be due for a big win"... so you could certainly argue that games which are pay-per-play (rather than fixed-rate subscription) are dubious, and if they offer real money prizes then they're functionally indistinguishable from gambling.

However, I think any game has strong potential for simply being a time-sink... i.e. doing the same thing over and over for marginal gain. That's the fundamental mechanic behind high scores, after all :) I personally spent a great deal of time with Civ2 trying to beat the game on Deity.

IMO, so long as 'all' you're costing the player is time, you're already on fairly safe ground. Unlike money, people know they can't get time back, and you can't trick them into thinking otherwise. Beyond that, you can't really force people not to 'waste' time on your game. People will set their own goals in the absence of explicit ones anyway, and they can spend quite a lot of time trying to achieve them... look at Quake Done Quick, for instance.

Jonathan Stickles Fox said...

CPL, if you've played a MMORPG for an extended period of time, you may have experienced at the time of canceling your subscription the same feelings of loss and defeat that define the gambler's remorse that occurs when you walk away from a table down a lot of money. As long as you keep playing, you know you can win your money back. The moment you walk away, your chances of getting your money back go from small to zero, and the impact of your loss comes crushing down on you. To prevent that, you ante up another time.

It's very similar for MMORPGs: As long as you keep playing that game, your achievements still matter, and all the hundreds of hours you've played that game have been for something. But the moment you cancel your subscription, everything you've worked for is gone. To prevent that, you subscribe for another month.

You don't get that with most games, because for most games, the fun of playing it is worth it alone. This is how people can have a poker night with friends and walk away happy having lost the $50 they walked in with. They were playing for fun, and while they came in and bet money, it wasn't just for the chance of winning the pot.

When you first play an MMORPG, it's like a poker game with friends. But in time, for many players the time investment occurs not because it's more fun than some other game, but because the accomplishments in the game world and the responsibilities to guild mates and other people compel them to. They continue to pay the game developers for the right to play this game because they achieve guild status and virtual prestige.

Then, the moment they stop paying, all of that is lost. Their guild no longer recognizes them, their virtual wealth is gone. Like gambling, the true costs of their participation in time and money only hit a player psychologically after they stop putting money and time into it -- and many players will continue in order to prevent that from happening. This has been a serious enough impact on some people that I've seen articles in the mainstream press questioning Second Life (which is free to play, but costs real money to buy virtual property) for that very reason.

But that cost of walking away is not really the side of addiction (or gambling) that I'm talking about here. I'm talking about short-term habits that are created using mechanisms that are known to condition a player to continue engaging in a specific behavior, without actually attaching compelling gameplay to that behavior. This abuses your player, teaching them to do boring things for carrots, and even if you don't think it's immoral, it certainly reduces the quality of your game. You can claim free will, and that players know the costs, but this is only a partial defense when you're using mechanics that are reliably habit-forming in everything from humans to lab mice.

The goal is not to prevent players from spending time playing games -- if they love a game so much they want to spend 200 hours playing your game, that's not bad, that's fantastic. Look at how often chess grandmasters play their game, and the obsession of sports professionals, and pro Starcraft players in South Korea. I wouldn't dream of suggesting it's immoral to make a game that can be so enjoyable and long-lasting as chess! I judge games in large part on how well they stand repeat plays, not on how unlikely they are to become time-sinks. People play chess because it's fun to play. People do speed runs and make other difficult personal goals because they want to master the game, to develop their skills, or to gain the prestige that comes with showing others their accomplishments. These are all plenty good reasons to keep playing the game -- fun reasons. Like Andrew S argued, playing games, and encouraging playing games, is not immoral.

Jonathan Stickles Fox said...

I'm talking about something different here. I don't mean to beat up on the Bunni game, but it's an easy example to draw on, since it's the game that inspired this post. In that game, you click a tree with apples on it. You might, on a very small chance, get one, three, even five gems. You need a hundred gems for your next goal. Now, if you've got plum trees, your odds of getting loads of gems are better, but plum trees are a rare drop on apple trees and purchasable at a store that requires a hundred gems to buy, and they cost gems themselves. So instead, you might build a farm of apple trees, which are a relatively common drop on other apple trees, to maximize the amount of chances you have to get the prize. Now you have an orchard of thirty apple trees, which are dropping yet more apple trees, and you are clicking and clicking constantly for occasional pittances of gems in the hope that you can slowly build up to reach your next goal.

I did that. Was I having fun? Heck no. Building an apple orchard in that game was actually one of the most boring aspects of the game. Some parts were pretty cool. Farming gems was the opposite. But I spent a good while doing it, even though I wasn't having fun, because I wanted to get to the goal and I was willing to jump through hoops and engage in boring play to get there.

The reward was that I eventually got my hundred gems, and with so many apple trees, I got a couple plum trees as rare drops and managed to build six or seven of those and eventually got all the gems I needed to finish the game. I also had a feeling of accomplishment -- but I still don't feel truly validated for the time spent on it.

I agree fully with Andrew S when he writes "I think the useful discussion of immorality is bad designs like this. Punishing game designs." I think you can dispute whether boring apple orchards is punishing in this sense, merely bad design, or even a personal problem for me, but I think that kind of mechanic is in enough of a gray area that it invites debate. There are ways to construct a game that are abusive and manipulative toward players, and induce suboptimal behavior patterns on their part. I could and should have stopped building an orchard and switched to playing a tower defense game (which would have been more fun), but I kept playing the Bunni game, because I was still lured on by the random number generator and the hopes of another heart. Whether you prefer something less strongly-worded than morality or not, I think this is an important discussion to be had. I believe you risk losing important insight if you are inclined to refuse the idea that some mechanics are abusive toward players, and should be avoided.

Andrew Doull said...

Johnathan's used the MMORPG example, but advertising funded flash games fall into the same category - games where the designer is financially rewarded the longer you play. These have the same design incentives as slot machines, even if the financial angle is indirect.

I think you will always end up in a morally grey area when you design games with this type of income model. With the upfront box purchase model of revenue, there is at least clear separation of areas where ethics can be blurred (journalists, publishers) and the game designer.

Jonathan Stickles Fox said...

To my knowledge, most flash games don't provide income to the designer based on length of time players play the game. I don't have personal knowledge of the matter, but my roommate at DigiPen is Tyler Glaiel, the programmer who worked on Closure (currently in the PAX 10), Aether, and several dozen other, less well-known flash games. He makes a fair amount of money off of flash games, but as I understand the income comes primarily from two sources:

1. Sponsorships from sites that want early rights to the game, and their logo in it, and sometimes exclusivity. These are usually flat lump sum payments based on the reputation of the developer, the site that's sponsoring, and expected popularity of the game being sponsored.

2. In-game ads that generate money each time the game is loaded, or occasionally flash hosting sites that pay creators a proportion of the advertising revenue on the game, based on number of hits rather than play time.

As I said though, I don't have first-hand knowledge, so these may not be comprehensive; this is just from talks I've had with my roommate in the past.

Danc said...

Wow, a bunch of topics!

Upfront Box Purchase model
The mixture of game design and making money is only going to become more intertwined in the coming years. Instead of demonizing the unfamiliar, think of it as game developers gaining control over the real value they are exchanging with customers. Commerce is a tool of art, not an enemy.

The truth is I expect to see more people begin to idealize boxed products as business models shift under their feet. Change scares people and the past is always seen as better and more comforting. It makes me sad. We currently spend millions of marketing dollars to convince people to pay money for unseen gameplay. This distorts both the developers and the customer's view of what makes a competent games. Did you know that EA spends $30 million in marketing for every $10 million in their development budget. And you really think that people are buying the pretty box on the shelf because of the excellence of the gameplay? There are perverse incentives at work here.

At least with games as services, you get real metrics on what people like and don't like. You need to be very careful about what you are measuring, but the connection between the designer and the player is substantially stronger than in the 'pay up front' model. Developer can react, tweak and tune their game to deliver measurable value. This is a good thing.

Onto morality:

(cont...)

Danc said...

The morality of operant conditioning
Game design is applied psychology. Reinforcement schedules and ratios are a basic part of the game design toolkit and will not go away.

They are used in NetHack (random item drops) and Civilization (battle outcomes). Slot machines are a blunt implementation, but to broadly say one implementation is immoral and the other is demonstrates a lack of appreciation for why the games you like function on a psychological level.

The morality of Learning skills
There is an interesting arguement to be made that if a game does not teach new skills then it is a bad game.

Bunni's Fruit trees do in fact teach practical skills as Jonathan described in detail. People plant forests and upgrade their forests to different types of trees. There is a load of repetition, but there is also a system to be learned. And a surprisingly large number of players love it. They are proud of their forests of fruit trees and feel a great sense of accomplishment when they reach certain gem counts. They mastered the system and reach the goal.

As with any skill learning, some people will find the skill trivial to learn and the process of learning is seen as too slow, too pedantic, too boring. Interestingly, the 11 year olds who play Bunni generally don't fall within this camp. They find planting trees to be an exciting new skill that they are seeing for the first time.

It brings to mind an old lesson: You are not your audience. Your emotional reaction is not the reaction of your audience. A good designer can design for their audience and takes their gut reaction with a grain of salt.

As a thought exercise, how might you rebalance the Bunni Fruit trees for 20-40 year old men who likely frequent intellectual game design blogs? The simplest solution is to increase the complexity of the build tree. Each fruit yields a different fruit at different intervals. With a build tree multiple levels deep it would take quite a bit of knowledge to know which trees to invest in shaking and which ones to avoid.

At this point you have a system surprisingly similar to common build trees used in strategy games. A small fact: the Bunni Fruit trees are not a true slot machine. They use a fixed reward schedule. If you just let them sit there and X time passes, you'll get another fruit tree on your next click. Replace the time spent waiting with the time spent accumulating resources or build time in an typical strategy game and you have a system that is functionally quite similar.

Would we not have created a 'morally acceptable' game mechanic? If so, it is a matter of degree (and preference), not a matter of type.

Danc said...

The morality of work
Work is the repetitive execution of previously learned skills in order to reach a goal. I think some players are upset about grind because it introduces 'work' into a game. When you are collecting gems in Bunni it is an activity not disimilar to harvesting potatoes or any other menial labor.

Is work a bad thing? One thing I've discovered after many years of trying to ignore the data is that there is an entire group of people who like routine labor. Steadily progressing towards a goal is delightful and highly rewarding. They gain pleasure from the joy of knitting or the act of piling wood.

Yet for another group, quick and brilliant action is considered delightful. Slow and steady progress is...well...work. Should they fight? Is one group right and the other wrong?

Different people have different play styles. What you may enjoy is not what others enjoy.

I personally find the repetition involved in training up physical skills associated with a game like Contra to be work. Yet many players love this style of gameplay. Should I damn the designers as 'immoral'? I have in the past, but I really shouldn't. :-)

Game design is a broad tent. Feel free to express your own personal preferences, but be wary of dismissing those that play differently. There is room for plenty of different players and plenty of different play styles.

take care
Danc

PS: Might I recommend that you try Chris Bateman's BrainHex survey. It isn't perfect, but it shows you some of the variation out there. For example, I'm a Social Seeker and my game designs reflect that.

PPS: If you want to know more about the economics behind Flash games, I have some indepth essays here:
- Flash Love Letter Part 1
- Flash Love Letter Part 2

Currently, Flash games are measured based off 'fun' and '# of plays'. Retention is generally not considered. I hope to change that.

If you read the second part, you'll see some more thoughts on grind.

Andrew Doull said...

Danc: As always, appreciate the feedback.

I don't want to give the impression that the 'games-as-a-service' model is scary and new to me. I'm an 'x-as-a-service' guy during my day job.

The difference being that there is a direct alignment of financial incentives to both parties by going with x (managed services); whereas the games as service model causes a different alignment of financial incentives to the box model without it being necessarily better. I'm not saying that either model is morally superior, but the game as service model is more likely to have the "suits" - with emphasis on the air quotes - worrying about the game play.

Jonathan Stickles Fox said...

Danc, I sympathize rather strongly with your views on games as a service as well. I would just caution to realize that you're trading one set of flaws for another. Often, when you solve the problems of the current model, you are creating a new set of them in the process. This is true of technological advance, public policy, nearly anything you can think of. Advances are judged by whether the new set of problems are easier to deal with, or less painful, than the old.

On operant conditioning, I think I may not have been clear, at least for my part. I don't question the idea of having something be random. I question the idea that you manipulate a player into accepting a dearth of gameplay, or a flood of repetition, which they would otherwise refuse to accept. If, to your audience, the random battles of a JRPG are the core of gameplay, then a grind in that game is not abusive. But if you're conditioning them to accept boredom, you have a problem. I agree that Nethack is an example of using this mechanism, but it so automates and speeds basic tasks that a grind in that game tends to be a simple tactical game, and for the player that might be arguably akin to playing Solitare on the computer. Civilization combat results, on the other hand, don't have anything to do with operant conditioning. Having a random factor in a game doesn't automatically make it a random reward schedule.

Regarding the target audience of the Bunni game, I can readily accept that if the audience is 11 year old kids, they might have a very different set of experiences and expectations. I previously, if skeptically, left open the possibility that it's my problem in this case, not a matter of bad design; if my experience comes from not being the target audience, that's an exceptionally good argument in favor of that idea. You're right that it's subjective; if you're not training players for boredom, but challenging them to strategically optimize their play, then they might well be having plenty of fun.

While I agree that some players like work, and many players hate it, I don't think "work is bad" is quite what I'm saying here. I consider the entire Diner Dash genre to be painful and extremely unfun, but I don't think they're bad games. They're just not for me. My objection isn't to a particular style of gameplay, but to glossing over a lack of it by substituting addiction or short-term conditioning as a retention mechanism.

I think I have to admit and step back a bit to acknowledge that it's too difficult to objectively determine what is meaningful gameplay, due to the enormous variation in audience and taste. I can see on these grounds the argument that morality is too strong a concept to inject to the discussion at all.

There remains in my view a subtle but profound problem when a player is being retained by mechanisms others than actual entertainment. Addiction or training is no excuse to charge players their time or money; if that's why they're playing, there is a problem. Perhaps it's too much to use words that seem to condemn the designer, as it's presumably not the designer's intent. But even if we drop the hard line tone about the problem, it's still a negative experience that occurs for players, and many games do suffer for this.