In a very real way, games play us. We may hold the controller, but often it feels as though the games — through their systems, design and pacing — hold most of the cards. And as game developers cotton to the specific design elements that compel us to play (and keep playing), many of them are reaping financial gains by capitalising on video games' inherent persuasiveness.
One of the (numerous) things I liked about Supergiant Games's recent action-RPG Bastion was that it didn't waste my time. It managed to channel the vibe of a Diablo-esque dungeon-crawler with none of the grind, and it didn't muck about with complicated inventory or old-school RPG tropes like stat-assignment and skill-trees. Those things can be fine, even enjoyable, in the right game, but I appreciated how Bastion placed as few barriers between me and its core experience as possible.
Contrast that with Facebook and iOS games like CityVille and TinyTower. Through cleverly designed, schedule-based systems, those games have successfully hooked a huge number of players into organising their daily routines around gameplay. Meanwhile, their publishers have reaped massive financial rewards by throwing roadblocks in players' paths and charging money in order to remove them. Many a FarmVille player has put in hour after hour of low-reward grind only to finally throw his hands up and drop $US20 to hurry things along.
Blizzard has announced that Diablo III will feature an in-game auction house that will allow players to buy high-level items, effectively trading cash to bypass the hours of grinding that it would otherwise take to acquire them. (While, of course, Activision/Blizzard takes a "nominal fixed transaction fee" for each completed sale).
"I think it's very important not to waste the player's time," said Bastion's creative director Greg Kasavin, speaking to me over the phone. "I feel as though time is the biggest premium for players these days, rather than money. You have these Steam sales, for example, where you can buy 50-hour games for $2. What I really value in games these days is when they provide an interesting experience without wasting my time, without making me feel like I'm going through a slog or a grind or anything like that. Unless the moment-to-moment gameplay is so sublime that the grinding is worth it, why bother?"
"I do understand why Blizzard would want to make the Diablo III auction house official," he said, "because it was a thing that actually happened in their previous games. I'll be interested in how it does, and how they make it optional. I didn't take offence at it personally, but I also think there's that uncomfortable middle ground of games that are trying to be atmospheric but they're also trying to monetise the in-game experience past the initial purchase."
"While I'm playing a game, I value the immersion of the experience; I don't like to think about my money, because my money in the real world is not a pleasant subject, right? Personally, as a player, I don't like for games to stop and ask me for money along the way."
"Games [like FarmVille and Tiny Tower] ," Kasavin continued, "are often built around building compulsive behaviour into players. Which is fine, but that's not the kind of play experience that I enjoy the most. In that model, where you're just kind of paying in order to play faster, the game can't be pushing the player towards some sort of thematic narrative conclusion or something like that. It's just going to be a kind of endless experience. As more games like that come out, people are reminded that they want games to be complete. There's a lot to be said for games that have a defined endpoint, have an actual story to go through."
"You hear a lot of people complain that they never finish games, and I think there are different factors for that. Part of the reason so many people don't finish games is because games have trained them to expect that there's not going to be anything good waiting for them at the end. So few games have satisfying endings."
Bastion certainly had an ending — one of the most remarkable, bittersweet video game finales in recent memory. "We invested in the ending of Bastion," Kasavin said. "We didn't know how people were going to take it, but did know that were going to put time in to try to make it good. We want people to get to the end of the game and feel very satisfied and rewarded for their time investment."
There's a fine line between enjoyable busywork and monotonous grinding, and now that developers have discovered how profitable it can be to throw up roadblocks, that line will get finer still. Here's hoping that game-creators like Kasavin and the team at Supergiant will continue to eschew mindlessly compulsive, artificially extended gameplay in favour of crafting well-paced experiences with a beginning, a middle, and an end.