Look at the most recent positive reviews on the Apple App Store for DragonVale and you’ll find words like “amazing” and “fun” used frequently. But you won’t see them as often as “addictive,” a word that fans seem to agree best describes the free-to-play dragon-breeding game. It’s a reputation that has translated into big bucks for DragonVale, which earns its money by selling “gems” that can be traded for speedier building times or new, extra adorable dragons. Gem sales have made the game a familiar sight on the iPhone and iPad’s list of top-grossing apps since its release over a year ago.
Video games have long had a relationship with addictiveness, both in the positive colloquial sense (“this chocolate is addictive”) and the negative, sort of medical sense (“this gambling is addictive, though technically it is an impulse control disorder”). The former has always been a goal of many designers, who want to keep players in their games for as long as possible to increase their work’s perceived value. It’s also long been a coveted bit of praise from reviewers, who still the use word to describe titles they played for a long time and enjoyed. Being addictive has been considered a high watermark of successful design, a feat of wizardry only the best developers can achieve.
In the past, this belief was largely true. But an interesting thing happens when you get decades of publicly available game design under your belt—addictiveness becomes easier and easier. For example, Diablo II, a game built around killing monsters to learn new skills and collect treasure, undoubtedly captures the grail of “addictiveness,” with people still playing it 12 years after release (and in the face of a more recent sequel). It’s also a completely open book; players have been picking it apart for more than a decade, and its skill progression systems and item generation algorithms are naked and bare for all to see. If other developers wanted to integrate similar systems into their own games, they wouldn’t need to create a model from scratch, because they already have a proven archetype.
Other ancient models of encouraging compulsive play—those of the world of gambling—are also becoming more relevant to video games. Most of the gambling industry’s latest tricks are closely held trade secrets, but what is known is that the industry uses careful manipulation of probability and psyches in order to maximize profitability. This is readily apparent in the design of the IGT Red, White & Blue slot machine, one of the few slot machines to have its design fully described for a public audience. It’s carefully calibrated to pay out 86.58 cents for every dollar that’s put into it. But most interestingly, it does this by paying out a 5:1 jackpot nearly five times as often as a 2:1 jackpot, making an encouraging big win a more frequent occurrence for a delighted player.
These models of compulsion have been emulated in countless free-to-play games, which have to get players spending money—continually, the studios hope. The gambling models are particularly useful for developers because they show how to reward the player for paying while draining their funds at a steady trickle. Social integration tricks, which are cheaper than ever thanks to networks like Facebook, concentrate the formula as players fight to “keep up with the Joneses” and show off their darling new super-rare dragons. Combining the “free-to-play” payment structure with these social pressures has proven to be immensely profitable.
Meanwhile, Slotomania, a virtual slot machine that takes real money for in-game tokens but never pays out cash in kind, is one of the top 10 highest grossing apps on the iPad. When aspiring developers see that kind of competition, it’s natural for them to craft similar designs for your own free-to-play game.
And even if game creators aren’t making a free-to-play game, they might be worried about making sure that players aren’t selling their Xbox game back to the used game shop—compulsive models look like a pretty good “solution” here, too. And suddenly, we’re looking at everything being addictive, a field of digital poppies out to the horizon.
So the question is, when everything is addictive, what do you get addicted to? Doesn’t the ever-presence of compulsive play make compulsive play boring, even though our unevolved lizard brains can’t stop planting crops or listening to clinky coin sounds? And if everyone can design this way, how could it still be good design? Maybe it never was, and the compulsive models that seem to drive games so strongly today are not only perverse, but dull.
Instead, it’s much more interesting to look at games that work successfully without these systems, like Arkane Studio’s Dishonored. As a first-person game about infilitration and assassination, Dishonored takes its inspiration from the freeform designs that predate modern trends towards compulsion. It doesn’t funnel its players down a carefully timed schedule of rewards because it lets them choose their own pace of play—a level can take hours or minutes, depending on whether the game is played with methodical stealth or as a homicidal rampage. There are few collectibles and even fewer power-ups, and each one meaningfully changes the way the player interacts with the game. Its rewards are more subtle, paid out in art and twisted Dickensian lore. Boldly, it can be experienced in a way that is traditionally “fun,” with all that murder, and in a way that is more satisfying, where killing is avoided completely—but it softly punishes the “fun” way, and it ends decisively without a multiplayer mode to extend its longevity. It’s a better game for it.
Games like Dishonored are rare these days, and have always been rare, mostly because they’re so hard to do well. But we should reward it, and games that share its spirit. Because at a time where every game seems so desperate to stick its hooks in and never let go, the most valuable ones are those with the politeness to poke their hooks in gently and gingerly release you at the end.