Online Addictions – or “When is it bad to retain players?”

Wolfshead posted an interesting article bemoaning the state of the MMO industry, and in the comments, Psychochild raised a very interesting question: “At what point do designers go from building a fun and compelling game to ‘[p]urposely crafting an addiction so you can squeeze bags of money out of your players'”?

That’s a fascinating and serious question, and one I think deserves a lot more consideration.

On the one hand, the better designed a game is, the more fun it is, the more we want to play it.  For many players, it’s clearly quite possible to cross a line between enjoying a hobby in a healthy and responsible way, and succumbing to an addiction.  MMOs can inarguably become black holes into which we pour our time, energy, and money.  So there’s a point beyond which it’s unhealthy for a given player to play, or perhaps a manner in which it’s unhealthy for a given player to play.

So if you’re designing an MMO, how should you take this into account?  If you’re playing an MMO, what should you look for?

The prevalent MMO funding model today is the subscription; by paying a certain amount per month, a player receives the right to access content.  Quite naturally, the goal of a game developer using a subscription service is to keep players subscribed as long as possible.  The devs want to maintain a critical mass of players to keep the world vibrant and engaging, because social ties are one of the “stickiest” things that bind us to our hobbies.  So by extension, in order to keep us subscribed as long as possible (and thus to make themselves the most money), devs are motivated to design games that keep us online as much as possible, so we can contribute to the social networks that in turn keep our friends subscribed.

In short, monetary success for a subscription-based game comes from retaining players.  Players are retained in large part by social ties, which are strongest when players are online.  So monetary success for a subscription game relies on keeping players online as much as possible.

Is it possible, then, to have a subscription game that is NOT designed to keep us playing as much as possible?  Surely.  But I don’t believe such a game is designed for optimal monetary success.  In order to make the most money, you need to make a subscription-based game as addictive as possible. A subscription-based game that is not designed to be addictive simply won’t make as much money as one that is.  Make no mistake about it… the producers of big MMOs – the people who supply the funding and thus make a lot of these bottom-line decisions – are well aware of this fact.  I contend that most subscription-based MMOs are deliberately designed to be as addictive as possible.

Now, ethically speaking, I believe that designers have an obligation to the players of their games.  If you knowingly make a game more addictive in order to make more money, how are you ethically any better than a cigarette manufacturer who deliberately adds nicotine to your products, to make them more addictive?  In both cases, you’re endangering the health of your consumers, by knowingly exposing them to things that can be harmful.  You’re putting your own profits ahead of the health of your consumers.

Maybe part of the issue lies in the choice of words above.  If I said a designer knowingly makes a game addictive, well, that sounds bad.  Of course we don’t approve of that.  But if I said a designer knowingly makes a game very enjoyable, who would argue with that?  Enjoyment is what we want out of games, after all.  So when does “good” become “too good”, and how do we make sense of that?

Some games have warnings when a player logs in, exhorting them not to stay online for too long, and not to let the games ruin their lives.  I don’t however believe this is meaningful if the game itself is designed to keep players online as much as possible.  Here’s the tasty nicotine you crave, they say, and boy is it gooooood, but be sure not to smoke these in an unhealthy way.  Yeah, that’s not really solving the problem.

In the comments to Wolfshead’s article cited at the top, Tesh mentioned that one way to differentiate between games is based on the intent of the designers.  I don’t think this is a meaningful difference though, since I don’t honestly see a way to design a monetarily successful subscription-based game that is not intended to be addictive.  Whether the designers view it or speak of it as such or not, that’s still what will make money.  As players, we rarely have real insight into the motives of the designers anyhow, so we have to view the results rather than the intents.

If a designer makes a game that’s consciously intended to bring about unhealthy behaviours, ok, that’s ethically wrong.  But how is a designer to know at what point a game becomes “too fun” to be used in a healthy manner?  And what should they do about it?  Should they carefully make sure their games are never as fun as possible?  Should they add in tedious equipment grinds or repetitive raids to lessen the fun?  And what if the tedium and grinding, theoretically intended in this hypothetical example to lessen the fun and make the game less addictive, are THEMSELVES addictive?  We’re going in circles.

So let’s break this back down into what designers are obligated to do, and what players should look for.

As a designer, to the extent that your game is fun, people will likely play it more.  Now, having games with concrete endings, caps, or limits is an interesting idea, and is one of the simplest solutions to the problem, but that’s philosophically opposed to the idea of a subscription-based game.  The whole point of subscription-based games is that the players should be retained indefinitely, to maximize the revenue stream; the game shouldn’t end, or people will stop playing.  You shouldn’t kick players off if they play for too long, or you weaken the social ties that keep other players subscribed.

As a player, when I’ve subscribed to a game, I feel a certain pressure to get “my money’s worth” out of the service for which I’m paying.  I’m not unduly moved by this pressure but I acknowledge that it’s there.  As long as I’m paying for something on an ongoing basis, I’ll feel an impetus to use it.  The more I play a game I subscribe to, the more value I get (from one perspective) out of the money I pay, which in turn means there’s an underlying financial incentive for subscribers to play more often.

Put another way, I don’t honestly see how to design a subscription-based game that isn’t at its heart intended to encourage unhealthy behaviour.

As a player, there are simple guidelines to keep any hobby healthy.  It’s quite possible to play a game, even one that’s intended to be addictive, in a healthy manner.  But wouldn’t it be nice if we could encourage designers to make games that are intended to be used in a healthy manner?  I submit that we can do so, by voting with our wallets – we can stop paying subscriptions, and we can buy and play games that don’t use subscription services.  I realize how difficult this is to do, since not using subscription services means drastically limiting the available games today.

If you are going to subscribe to a game, or if you’re going to design a subscription-based game, how can you minimize the damage?  That is to say, what can be done to mitigate the addiction and make it less terrible?  First and most crucially, avoid the treadmill.  Don’t emphasize it as a designer and don’t buy into it as a player.  Getting a marginally better item won’t make you a better person and won’t make your life complete; it’ll just suck up your time and energy, and leave you exactly where you started.  There’s always a slightly better item out there.  Treadmills focus on quantity rather than quality; that is to say, it’s all about number-crunching and trying to get the most points of offense/defense/healing/whatever.  Focus on the quality of the game experience, the fun to be had minute to minute.  That way, even if a player is addicted, at least they’re having fun more or less the whole time, instead of putting up with something they don’t enjoy in order to reap an ultimately empty and meaningless reward.  I know, it’s a scant consolation.  We’re still talking about accepting addiction.

What about games that aren’t subscription-based?  This could include cash-shop games like Wizard101, where players can buy specific content outright and then perpetually have access to it (as opposed to “renting” access to the content via a subscription), as well as games like Guild Wars, where players pay a one-time purchase price and then perpetually have online access to the whole game.  In both of these models, it seems considerably easier as a player to play in a healthy manner, and it seems vastly easier as a designer to conceive of gameplay that doesn’t encourage or even require unhealthy behaviour.

7 comments so far

  1. Longasc on

    I think non-subscription games (like GW/Guild Wars) that make players pay for content are the best thing for GAMERS.

    The business model invariably influences the design of the game – and exploitive/greedy business models won’t have a healthy and good influence on the game design.

    P.S. It seems GW2 will have, unlike GW1, a “proper store” with much more things to buy. I see me already fighting with the stick sword, everyone else with the shiny shop sword. :>

    • foolsage on

      That’s the conclusion I’ve reached, as well. Gamers’ best interests just don’t logically lie with subscription games, all other things being equal.

      Of course, all other things AREN’T equal, because there aren’t many good MMOs that aren’t based on subscriptions… so choices are limited.

  2. Tesh on

    It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure that with that comment, I was coming at it from a dev point of view. As in, devs should ask themselves “why am I designing this feature”? Even there, one has to wonder if some devs might not actually want a game to go on forever or want to design something that gives near-infinite playability.

    Is that *game design* in itself a bad thing, or just when it’s monetized via subscriptions?

    I believe that addictive game design is in itself a bad idea, but that the sub model only makes it worse in a vicious feedback loop.

    So… great article! Good to see you popping out of hiatus with something nice and pointed. I’ve long been a proponent of selling content rather than time… and that content can actually have an end. I believe it’s healthy.

    Sorry I’m late to the party on this. 😉

    • foolsage on

      Better late than never. 😉

      I knew you’d be more or less on board with this since I’ve read your feelings about the evils of the subscription system. This is a fairly new position for me to hold though; after a lot of thinking and soul-searching, I really don’t see a way to design a subscription game, intended to make as much money as possible, without trying to foment addictive behaviour, which I think is in some regards unethical. That is to say, I do not see an ethical way to design a subscription game that is intended to make money.

      Put another way, it’s possible to design an ethical game. It’s possible to design a game that’s intended to make money. It’s even possible to design an ethical game that’s intended to make money. But when the game is subscription based, I believe that the goal of making money requires the designer to act unethically.

      I think, incidentally, that it’s quite possible to design non-subscription games to be addictive. It’s thus possible for them to be unethical in precisely the same way that subscription games can be. The difference is that I don’t think non-subscription games REQUIRE addictive behaviours from users, in order to make money.

      • Tesh on

        Excellent summary. I am in complete agreement, as a player and a developer.

        It really is odd to me that the industry finds itself in this state… and that players have merrily joined in on the ride. Maybe it’s more jarring to me because I wasn’t an early adopter of the MMO genre? Or maybe just because I’m stingy… it’s hard to say.

        Still, yes, when you boil it down, ethics are at the heart of this, and I think subs don’t fare well at all.

  3. […] think it’s important to draw a distinction between the game design and the business design.  They do affect each other in unhealthy ways, but credit where credit is due, after all.  The WoW devs do have a few good ideas here and there. […]

  4. I Can Afford It « Tish Tosh Tesh on

    […] point.  The business model inevitably affects the game, and just as item shop games have warts, sub games have warts… they are just different ones.  No game will be a perfect fit for everyone, but if the […]

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