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Understanding Addiction-Based Game Design 308

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-can-quit-any-time-i-want-to-i-just-don't-want-to dept.
spidweb writes "The common theory is that games like World of Warcraft are addictive. But what are the exact qualities that make it so? Are there specific elements of the design that can be pulled out, distilled, and used at will to give a game drug-like properties? Is it wrong to do so? A new article at IGN RPG Vault attempts to isolates the exact qualities that go into making an addiction-based design. From the article: 'If a game uses rewards of any sort to entice you to experience highly repetitive content, you should see what it's trying to do and which of your buttons it's trying to press. If you don't mind, that's cool, but you should understand it.'"
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Understanding Addiction-Based Game Design

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  • by Poobar (1558627) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @05:44AM (#28120933)
    If a game has me hooked, addicted, and I play it for hours at a time for weeks on end- fine. I'm getting enjoyment, the developers get money, everybody wins. But it seems to me that the games that pull me in the most are those I buy outright, not the WOW-alikes that are subscription based. Surely if you're paying monthly there's always going to be a pressure on Devs to create addictive play? If I'm addicted to a bought-outright game, it's because it's a good game. That can't always be said for pay monthly games- the grind, the acheivements, the high-level horsie you just have to own- do they really add to the game, or do they just feed your addiction?
  • +1 Honest (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tygerstripes (832644) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @06:04AM (#28121063)

    While I've no doubt there is a healthy sub-set of heavy-gamers (WoW included) that have well-adjusted approaches to life and enjoy gaming as a part of that, there are many, many people who have done and actively do exactly as you describe. Few of them have the balls or self-awareness to admit it though, and fewer still have the verbal skills to articulate the trap as clearly as you have.

    I've teetered on the edge of that life-destroying artificial-reward gaming addiction, and was fortunate enough to have circumstances intervene, but I know other people who have descended into exactly the hole you've experienced. A certain reclusive predisposition and messed-up life events are a common starting point, but people who don't understand the addiction can be very unhelpful with their "buck up, get a life" attitudes. Such people would also tell heroine addicts to "just stop taking it" if it were PC to do so, and their advice would be just as helpful and welcome.

  • by geekmux (1040042) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @06:07AM (#28121079)

    ...Seeking companionship is one of the most primal of human urges.

    I don't know how you can say the game is addictive, in that sense. I'm not addicted to breathing or eating, but I'd die without doing either of those. We are talking about something very close to the core of being a human, not a dependency developed through repeated exposure.

    I think you summarized this quite nicely regarding the component of companionship within humans. However, is virtual companionship good for our race going forward? This may sound like a bad analogy (sorry, don't mean to take away anything from your UID ;-), but just how far away are we as a society from The Matrix? 20 years from now, will it absolutely be the norm to work out of our homes and become that same virtualized community, designing and creating from behind a computer screen, virtually representing ourselves in the corporate world? What if someone took the WoW engine and put an actual business behind it and started hiring on the basis that you would be represented within the company as your virtual self instead of a physical presence? If course, getting fired might take on a whole new twist, as your character gets killed by your e-boss.

    The real question is what will happen to reality as we know it today?

    At least we have the fruits of procreation that can't quite be replaced (yet), so hopefully they'll still be some reason to share physical contact in the real world in the future...

  • by incubeous (841440) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @06:20AM (#28121155)
    Don't forget that one of the key ingredients in the MMO soup is being able to compete and flaunt your achievements to you the people you like AND the people you don't like. It gives a sense of personal ranking and has a elitist type effect on the psyche. It's always fun to show off your gear and make people drool.
  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Thursday May 28, 2009 @06:27AM (#28121201)

    In a sense, even Slashdot is a game. As you mention, we are awarded points when we post something "useful", and points are revoked when we post something not so useful. Even in the case of Microsoft stories, it is not unheard of to see pro-Microsoft posts get modded to +5. The fact of the matter is that the content of a post isn't the determining scoring factor. It is mostly style that is rewarded here.

    The guy who thinks he's funny for saying "Linux sucks!" is going to get slapped down hard, but someone who takes the time to explain exactly how bad Linux is as a desktop operating system (for example) or how hard it is to use (as another example) will be modded very high. This isn't because the content of the post is different. Essentially, both simply explain the obvious: Linux isn't a suitable OS for the vast majority of the computing public. The first post expresses this sentiment as an opinion. The second provides a logical framework upon which the reader may be convinced of the facts.

    Likewise, pro-Microsoft posts are commonly modded up. Due in part to the over-demonization of the company, a calm post explaining that the company isn't as bad as everyone thinks will frequently be modded up as a voice of reason. Even posts that extol the virtues of Microsoft (great software) and Bill Gates (worldwide philanthropy), while seemingly over the top, will get positive modification.

    Slashdot has done many things wrong, but the moderation system is something they have done very right. By encouraging posts that have exemplary style, they are promoting a discussion that doesn't necessarily need the most knowledgeable participants, the only requirement is that the successful poster be garrulous and loquacious.

  • by Lordfly (590616) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @06:31AM (#28121225) Homepage Journal

    Anecdotally, my best friend from high school pulls down six figures at an international oil firm. He's an engineer, finds natural gas all day. He's one of the smartest guys I know. He pulls down 24 hour shift routinely.

    What does he do in his very limited spare time? Runs raids in WoW with all of his fellow engineers. He has multiple accounts, each with multiple Level 80s on them.

    Somehow I think your stereotype of "FATBALL LIVES AT HOME WITH MOMMY LOL" falls flat.

  • by turing_m (1030530) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @06:33AM (#28121245)

    http://www.progressquest.com/ [progressquest.com]

    The character creation screen alone is worth the download. I don't think I've laughed that hard since Airplane.

    (And it's in the Ubuntu repositories. You gotta love Ubuntu.)

  • by Jack Zombie (637548) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @07:11AM (#28121421)

    Actually, a Blizzard developer said in an old interview that they closely copied the 'constant rewards' system of casinos' slot machines when developing Diablo. They're not doing this at random.

    I know it's on the Internet, but I've tried looking and couldn't find it. If someone could find that one or two paragraph quote, it would be great for discussion.

  • by Opportunist (166417) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @07:14AM (#28121451)

    If you're actually looking for "efficient management" in MMOs, you might have to look to other MMOs. I know of a few EvE guilds that are ran more ruthlessly than the worst (RL) corporation you've ever worked for. Where you're told when and where to be online, what ship to fly, what skills to learn, what equipment to outfit, if you're a fighter. Where you're told how much ore you are to mine in a given amount of time, if you're a miner. Where you're told what to produce and where to get it, if you're builder or transporter. All with levels of management who have to report what they're doing, with set goals that have to be met, and if you don't meet it, well, it's been a pleasure to work with you, you have 24 hours to leave our space before we open fire on you.

    That's not playing anymore, though. That's worse than working a second job. That's working a second job and paying to do it.

  • by Hatta (162192) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @09:18AM (#28122549) Journal

    Personally, I don't care much for companionship in a game. I've never been much into multiplayer games at all. The game I find really addictive is Civilization. That and Nethack. The "Just..one..more..turn!" appeal of these games that entire nights, or even weekends can disappear into them.

    I don't play much of either any more, I spend more time expanding my collection of classic consoles. But my point is, there's something besides just surrogate socializing that makes games addictive.

  • by Aceticon (140883) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @09:35AM (#28122765)

    If your theory about the need for socializing was the end all explanation for the success of Online games, then Second Life (as pure a socializing game as it could be) would be by far the most successful of them all.

    The truth is that not all of us in our 30s are driven to play Online games for companionship (or are fat and live in our parent's basement ;)).

    There are multiple drivers to play online games (see the Bartle Food Groups: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartle_Test [wikipedia.org]) only one of which is Socializing.

    Online games (like WoW or Unreal Tournament) have two really big differences from equivalent single player games, both little or not at all social:
    - MMORPGs contain HUGE universes, much bigger that the largest of single player RPGs and they periodically grow. A game like WoW can keep an "explorer" type busy for months, even years.
    - The current status of AI in games is such that playing against computer-controlled bots is less satisfying that playing against people. Part of the reason is technical: bots are incapable of complex strategical moves - and part is social: it is more satisfying to demonstrate superior skills against a fellow human than against a bot. This mostly satisfies the Achiever types.

  • by FooRat (182725) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @09:48AM (#28122925)

    If someone is susceptible to addiction, avoidance and escapism, they'll have more advanced ways of doing that in the future, but well-adjusted people will just be the same well-adjusted people, but with fancier phones and whatever else fits into their lifestyle. They will be largely unaffected by the growth of MMOs, except that some of the people they might have hung out with before will now play games instead.

    I'm curious, why is there a value judgment of "good" for "real world" interactions, but "bad" for "online" interactions? Is it ultimately not just "bad" because it's stigmatised? If I think of some of the so-called "well-adjusted" people I know who crave a lot more real-world social interaction and aren't interested in computers, is it not equally arbitrary to pathologize and say that those people are "addicted" to "direct social interactions" which they crave because they get "psychological rewards"?

    I've known plenty of people who are not very successful in life because they simply like going out and having fun with their friends a lot. Yet somehow we consider it more "well-adjusted" to be a fun party type in a McJob ("hooked on" going out, one could surely say) than, say, a highly successful financial manager who spends his evenings "hooked on" WoW.

  • by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Thursday May 28, 2009 @09:55AM (#28123029) Homepage Journal

    i had to forcibly destroy the disc in order to have a life

    for me, it was a combination of the engrossing micromanagement (which you see with WoW and its endless loot management) and that insistent "just one more turn..." urging that moves you to devote 5 more minutes to the game that turns into 5 hours. that urging is the desire to see the completion of small goalposts, like building a wonder or taking a border city from the spanish or the indians, which is also discussed in regards to WoW

  • by slackbheep (1420367) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @10:19AM (#28123337)
    A few years ago I was in a relationship with someone who became addicted to WoW. In the course of the 8 months roughly that she lived with me her main character alone had well over 150 days played time. She was kicked out University because she was skipping classes to play WoW and was unable to hold down a job as she frequently called in sick in order to Raid/Farm. She became increasingly withdrawn from all aspects of real life including personal hygiene and maintained zero relationships in real life, managing to scare off even this hardcore nerd.
  • by Aladrin (926209) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @11:37AM (#28124423)

    That's probably true, for those who bothered to fill out the survey. Obviously, the '6 figure' friend above didn't fill it out because there isn't even an income bracket for him.

    In case that isn't clear: People that make a lot of money don't go around telling random people about it.

    Also, let's talk about numbers... 64% of MMO players are single. You've also said the 'largest group' of MMO players 'has no personal income'. How do they manage both? Even if we assume minimal overlap, there's > 14% of them that are married and have no income.

    Seriously, your numbers don't make sense.

  • Re:Its the rewards. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sj0 (472011) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @12:11PM (#28124889) Homepage Journal

    There are two modes of game addiction, in my opinion. I'll use two different games to illustrate then I'll bring it back to WoW compared to Guild Wars.

    I once played this freeware game where you built up characters slowly. The fundamental design was based on Final Fantasy Tactics or something and it was actually a very sound and fun design, but you'd spend hours levelling up, so it was very VERY slow. The game was addicting, but only because a fundamentally good design was slowed down so much you'd spend hours progressing. It was less fun, but more addictive.

    By contrast, Fallout 3 was addicting because I'd want to know what I could find next. I'd leave megaton and start walking in a random direction, excited about finding the next unfilled triangle on my HUD. I maxed out my level by the end of the game through sheer exploration.

    Guild Wars and WoW seem to me part of the same spectrum of addictive through content vs. addictive through pacing.

    I played Guild Wars a bit in College. It was a very fast-paced game. You could easily slam through 2-3 locales in a session, and without playing a lot, I was rapidly approaching L20. I kept coming back because there was always something new to see down the road, and the depth of multi-classing was really cool.

    By contrast, after college I played WoW for a short time, and found it to be a painfully slow-paced game. After playing through Bioshock in a weekend, playing WoW for a weekend and finding myself at the second area of the game was a cruel joke. The fundamentals of the game are terrific(Which is why Diablo and Diablo 2 were so fun), but the game slowed it all down so much it become intolerable to me. Someone with more patience would likely find it addictive in the same "This game is paced wrong but fun otherwise" way the freeware game I referenced earlier was.

    So basically, it's because you play guild wars, a game properly paced, that you've got the time to find a girl who will accept cunnilingus for black dye.

  • by tnk1 (899206) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @01:20PM (#28125951)

    Having played both WoW and Eve in endgame situations, you're absolutely right that the Eve Alliances are absolutely insane, but its simply a matter of degree. You can actually build empires in Eve which contain actual game space that you have sovereignty over, and it turns out that such things need serious management.

    I remember times in 0.0 space when the constant raiding from other groups or random pirate gangs made it impossible for people to even hunt rats (NPCs). It would take way too long to call our fleet out if they weren't already formed, and generally we ended up with a miltia of people in their ratting ships or people in ships too slow to deal with the nanogangs at the time.

    In the end, since we were never a major alliance, we couldn't maintain 24/7 coverage of our chokepoints so we had to create what I called "Office Hours" where we pre-assembled the fleet, set up gate camps and roving patrols and told people that they needed to run their operations in that time or they were on their own. In that time, people had to provide fighters in effective warships or if they were industrial companies, they needed to provide a quota of materials/ships/ammo/components to allow the members of the Fleet to do the fighting and not have to spend all of their other time farming to make money to pay for ammo or new ships.

    WoW ended up being much the same, because I found that while I did not need to schedule as often to have fleets available for self-defense, I still had huge hassles with scheduling in WoW raiding.

    I found that in the end, its "the dealing with other people" aspect of raiding, with all the variable skill levels, their demands and their personalities, which is what made Alliance management and Guild management into real tasks. And I found that you ended up with a similar amount of people management in both games simply because you were regularly dealing with 20-150 people in both games.

    Having said all of that, and having been a guild leader, I wouldn't call WoW addictive. Or rather, it wasn't addictive to me. That may be a funny thing to have someone say who spent 7 days a week for hours playing, but its true. WoW simply has a lot of content that is worth looking at. Its not worth buying something if you don't get to at least explore it to the best of your ability. Once that content is done, though, its boring and completely non-addictive. I stopped playing the game totally at least twice as soon as the grind began to overtake the new content, and the only reason I came back for BC was because a friend dragged me into it (and for new content, of course). I was quite willing to say out of the game.

    Right now, even the new content is not enough, because I know its now basically the same gameplay and I can watch You-Tube videos to see the pretty landscapes, if I want to. Even though I never considered buying WotLK, I can say that I am satisfied that I completed World of Warcraft as a game, and it was time to move on to something else entirely.

    On the other hand, unlike WoW, I did actually wanted to play Eve after I stopped playing it to concentrate on WoW. I think that while it does not have the same unique content and polished world as WoW, there was enough complexity and niches in Eve to make it replayable even after having played yourself out once before. In WoW, you have two choices. You can be a raider or a loser, which for me is no choice at all. You might also add PvPer as a possibility, but nothing I have seen of WoW PvP makes me believe it has stopped being a joke and I did actually try to be a PvP player more than once.

  • Re:Its the rewards. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by superwiz (655733) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @02:16PM (#28126951) Journal

    You can't get that sort of feeling of achievement from a video game.

    You can't get the same achievement. But, you can get the same feeling of achievement. It's my understanding that WoW now has a built-in system of "achievements". There are also some actually difficult in-game events that most people aspire to but never accomplish (the difficulty mostly arises from the requirement to pay attention to more simultaneous indicators than an average person is capable of). But on the other hand every little thing you do in the game pops up a shiny "congratulations" notice with a sound similar to the one played by slot machines when someone hits a jackpot. And the "achievements" are recorded and touted to other players. Grats on your personal ability to lead a "good life" in Aristotelian sense, but what I am trying to argue here is that WoW is not just an outlet for people who can't achieve much outside of the game. It also destroys lives of some people who are productive. Imagine that someone in your position were stupid enough to try heroine. It's virtually impossible to not be addicted to heroine after the first try. This addiction would derail their built impulses towards achieving a good life through natural means and would refocus their life towards ensuring a steady supply of heroine. It would give a more intense feeling of elation than the life you are currently enjoying. But only because it would move the baseline for anxiety threshold. Just as you are occasionally anxious to ask yourself "ok, what's next?", they would be constantly anxious to feed the addiction. The difference, I guess, is that when you ask "what's next?" you exercise a choice. And addict doesn't have a choice. To clarify that last statement (because it come out a little too absolute), an addict only has a very narrow set of choices.

  • by illumin8 (148082) on Thursday May 28, 2009 @04:30PM (#28129665) Journal

    If I'm addicted to a bought-outright game, it's because it's a good game.

    I remember reading an interview with some of the developers behind Diablo and Diablo 2, which are some of the most addictive games ever made. They said they specifically designed the loot mechanic to be like a slot machine. Slot machine creators have scientifically determined the exact intervals of time between rewards (payout). They have analyzed human behavior to the point where they know that after a certain number of minutes you will get bored, so just before that time, all of a sudden you'll see a green drop, or some other epic loot. This reward mechanism is so addictive that it can keep you playing for hours. Just look at any casino and all of the old ladies pumping quarters into slot machines for hours on end and you can see how addictive the timed reward mechanics are.

    Successful video games like Diablo and WoW have used these same type of reward mechanics to create millions of highly addicted gamers. See giving up addiction to Diablo 2 [thesillyaddiction.com] for a personal experience.

I bet the human brain is a kludge. -- Marvin Minsky

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