When A Game Stops Being A Game

There are 1000s of games released each month to all the various game platforms but I seriously believe that soon, no new game will be able to achieve the great cult status of games such as the SNES titles like Mario and others like it from the late 1980s and 90s. The reason I believe this is so is because too many games these days, stop being games in a relatively short amount of time and become a daily chore. People don’t like doing chores, so if your game becomes one, then it will soon be forgotten.

This is particularly so with mobile games. They are designed to be simple games that help pass the time, but they soon become too challenging and sometimes too expensive to continue playing. This is when they become chores. How exactly do they do this you might ask?

POWER UPS

I used to be an avid player of Candy Crush for example, but after reached level 107 the interest in the game started to wane. The challenges became increasingly insurmountable without power ups, and power ups became increasingly scarce unless you paid for them. At that point the game was no longer a game but a chore and ultimately a bit like gambling. Gambling because there was no guarantee spending $10 on powers would actually help you complete the level you were stuck on. I may have money, but $10 on candy I can’t eat does not seem like a good use of money.

LIVES

The next thing new games such as Candy Crush have taken to doing is limiting the number of lives you have and you either have to wait insanely long amounts of time to get a new one, buy a new life to continue or ask a friend for assistance. Its an interesting model for generating revenue but the game developers need to understand that not all my friends play the same game as me, and if I decide to not ask them for help, or purchase the life, then I’m going to wait it out. Now what do I do to wait out the 5 – 30 minutes in order to get a new life? I play a different game. Ultimately, if that second game is just as interesting as the one I’m waiting on, I will soon forget I have anything going on the first game and probably will never return.

I currently have over 10 notifications from existing games I’ve played that say I have new lives to be used, but I can’t even be bothered.

GOALS

It seems all the current casual games coming out have very little in terms story. This is different for the 3D games on consoles though. They tend to have grand and epic stories for the 1st or 3rd person action adventures. But for the small casual games, there is virtually no back story or an on going story that the players can follow in order to see the outcome. Instead what we have are a bunch of goals and achievements to attain in order to open up new levels. This however, gets old very quickly. 

I recently started playing Despicable Me: Minon Rush on Windows 8.1 and loved the game. It’s an endless runner which very visually appealing but ultimately boring. After opening up the various levels and locations you can run in, all you are left with is the prospect of running and running until you attain certain specific goals like “Run six (6) times”, “Use 10 rockets”, “Collect 2 Freeze Rays In A Single Run”. These are nice challenges but the more you go on the harder these become to achieve and ultimately, it’s no longer a game but a job or task you have to perform. There is no enchantment of finding new worlds or locations to conquer just running and collecting bananas. And most of all, you need to pay tonnes of cash if you ever want to get to use new costumes for your character. I don’t mind paying for a few things but ultimately, what sense of accomplishment do I really gain by doing the same thing over and over again and then finally have to pay to do the same thing in a shiny new costume? The Iron Man game on Android recently as a terrible example of this. I only played the game for a few weeks before uninstalling it completely.

FINAL THOUGHTS

These games I describe above are all fun in the initial but quickly become stale and loose market share quickly. Endless runners (Temple Run, Minon Rush, Iron Man etc) really need to throw in a bit more in terms of story and game progress to keep the players interested. After running 5000 miles for example, players need to be able to stop and do something else, like a colour matching section and then continue with the endless running knowing they have another stop to look up to. 

Colour matching games like Candy Crush, Jewel Saga, Bejeweled, etc., need to reevaluate how they setup the difficult levels of their games. Not every one has the time to waste fighting one level for a whole month just to be able to move on to another level that is even more difficult and have to spend another month trying to overcome it. People have school and jobs that are boring and laborious and they escape to these games for comfort. But If the game is harder than the thing they are trying to distract themselves from, then eventually they will go back to doing that instead.

Even racing games such Asphalt 8 also have this model where cars become harder to purchase by just winning races and accumulating coins and stars. When you do manage to purchase a car, you need to upgrade it a few times in order to win races, and some races are near impossible to win without purchasing specific cars and upgrading them a couple of times.

These are all fine for concepts, but when this becomes the only goal of the game, it quickly looses its appeal. You can bait players with daily prizes and competitions but that will not help them feel accomplished in the game. Each time you play a game, you should be able to stop at a point feeling accomplished and be able to walk away with a desire to return and accomplish more. If I play for 2 hrs but don’t accomplish anything (e.g. stuck on the same level for that whole period or could not get a needed upgrade without paying for it), then I will feel like a failure and not even bother trying again after a while.

Games should not always be hard, they should be FUN!

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2 thoughts on “When A Game Stops Being A Game

  1. You are looking in the wrong places for meaningful game experiences. Everyone (I thought) has known for years that, by and large, social, casual, and mobile games are near barren wastelands of “games” algorithmically designed to be gamified advertisements for themselves. That subtle feeling of doing a form of gambling while playing? There’s nothing subtle about it, the game was intentionally designed to be that way for maximum profitability and virality. It’s been like this since Zynga discovered (or at least popularized) the freemium model combined with viral marketing features. You are complaining that the glorified advertisements you’ve been playing lately don’t have great stories or much substance. I’m baffled as to why you were expecting those things from these types of games in the first place.

    I worked on games like this when I was in the game industry. I was a programmer on a handful, but I and my coworkers had been trained in game design to some extent. At every opportunity, we spoke and argued passionately in favor of making our games with real substance and quality, to create a meaningful and fun game while still being free to play. Sometimes the management listened, but eventually it would always come back to hearing how well Zynga was profiting. The desire to emulate the industry’s top company is overpowering, it seems, to the management types. I hear now that many game company heads are literally only interested in making games that are exactly like Candy Crush or Call of Duty, because those are the most profitable, and therefore, the only things worth focusing on.

    You want meaningful game experiences, here’s where to look:
    * Indie games – I very much enjoyed Fez, Anti-Chamber, Dust An Elysian Tale, Braid, and dozens upon dozens more unique, clever, and beautiful games, made by small teams who passionately love games.
    * Non-Free Games – when you play a free-to-play game, YOU are the product. When you buy the game, THE GAME is the product. Think about the motivations that entails. When they have to sell a game one time, and that’s it. The company has to convince you, up front, that their game is worth investing in. This forces them to focus on quality and a meaningful promise that the game will continue to be interesting in the long run. Free-to-play games, on the other hand, only have an incentive to keep you playing and spending as long as possible, by any means necessary, even if it means taking advantage of psychological tricks and dubious advertising. The barrier to entry is zero dollars, so there is no need to entice players, only to get as many players in as possible.
    * Other genres/platforms – though the industry is doing everything it can to make every genre into a free-to-play genre, most other genres are relatively uninfected. Try console and pc games that are fps’s, rts’s, driving, adventure, rpg, platforming, puzzle platforming, etc. Avoid Facebook and mobile games more or less completely.
    * Older companies – as a rule of thumb, the older the game company, the less likely they are to be using these tricks and practices. Notable exception: EA.
    * Games with a unique graphical style – if they are going to go to the trouble to make a game with a really different look, either because the gameplay needs it or to differentiate themselves from others artistically, it’s pretty common that the desire to create unique things carries over into the gameplay design as well.

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