Games with Friends on a Saturday Night

With much excitement I received this CD key to a closed alpha online game. It’s part of a franchise I’ve loved, with a brand that cares about its impact. The alpha is very, very good. Even without the leveling system. Even without the unlockables, consumables, or the customizables. It might eventually hearken back to Counter-Strike or AVP2, a place to meet friends on a Saturday night. The problem is it’s difficult to stop. Part of that is me. In 30 years I’ve played too much, about every way you can play too much. So I’m going to be susceptible. There are also a few ways (I’ve argued for almost a decade) that games can challenge our self-control. That distinction between what a game does, and what a person does, is important. There’s only so much a designer can worry about, with an individual’s susceptibilities. It’s why Blizzard, just before their Burning Crusade expansion, talked at a GDC roundtable about not ruining gameplay for the players without issues. And then they phased out 40-person raids. It was a good change. In some of my research, a preference for that grittier, more hardcore raiding held a statistically-significant relationship with reported behaviors like loss of sleep, missing meals, jeopardizing a job or relationship. That is, the functional problems that typically come to mind when we’re talking addiction. World of Warcraft launched with another feature, probably the most emblematic, of how designers can reward players for breaking up their play. In their rested XP system, the longer you’re logged out, the more you build up a bonus to experience gain. It’s effective because of the direct contextual link between the “work” of adventure and rest. What’s surprising to me isn’t how successful or lauded it was by players or developers, but why we don’t see creative extensions of it everywhere. Granted I don’t focus on phone games, so totally might not know good examples, but I’m surprised never to have seen a focused rest system (rewards for getting in and getting out quickly), or a deep rest system (rewarding players for not visiting too often in a given day). If you can keep players from feeling obliged to check a game every few minutes, or from feeling forced into huge daily binge visits, in certain reward contexts this is going to help players to have a much improved experience of your brand. If you can get context that explains why we powerlevel a certain game, or constantly check a specific app, you can design in rewards that cushion that. You can - like Warcraft - make elegant changes to encourage balance. So then, very promising F2P Game, some thoughts: 1. You don’t need to use the World-of-Tanks-style tiered meta leveling. Leveling can happen in game (WoW), in the meta (WoT) or as a hybrid (LoL), but I’m not sure that WoT’s flashy green dress fits on you. Like WoT, not all of your tiered grinds are very fun. Unlocking some of your stuff gives me these cold flashbacks to grinding the AMX 40. Just google that grind, and you’ll get page after page of bitter. What kills me is that your actual game parts are a joy. When you use that tiered meta and tie in months worth of compulsive design? Those will be some painful grinds. Upcoming F2P Game has a proven track record of making fun, balanced games. Chess, say, doesn’t have the same strategic depth if you can buy a slightly better pawn. 2. You already designed in the kinds of customizable characters that are the bread and butter for games like League of Legends. For just one example, those could all be unlockable champions with themed customizations. You’ve already designed those elements into the alpha. Making characters the foundation, rather than unforgiving grinds, it’s a path that’s been proven. 3. There are also already systems in place for customizing the unlocked stuff at different tiers. Aesthetic equippable items aren’t exactly built in to your meta chart yet, but identical pieces are in your game. It would be a significant, but not a monumental graphics/programming task to add them. At very conservative estimates it takes 750 hours of gameplay for one single top-tier tank in the World-of-Tanks-style meta. By comparison, I’m used to spending maybe 25-40 on the other games in your franchise. And besides, there's stellar content in the low tiers that a meta would bury. That would be a shame. There’s one last reason not to bring some of this into your beta. A healthy majority of the players I know take one look at grinds this invested and say, “I know what that is. No thanks.” As is, Upcoming F2P Game might still be the next CS, or AVP2, or LoL. Something I want to play with friends on a Saturday night. So long as my friends can grind.