For Our Consideration

Dragon Vale

In Praise Of Un-Addictive Games

In a free-to-play world, addiction has become a banal commodity.

By Joe Keiser • November 29, 2012

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.

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755 Responses to “In Praise Of Un-Addictive Games”

  1. Enkidum says:

    The reason why the addictive games model is so popular is of course very simple: it makes a shit-ton of money, especially when combined with micro-purchases. Diablo III and pretty much anything Zynga has ever made are the best examples of this (and probably now even the sainted Valve with TF2). And, like “real” gambling, Zynga makes almost all of its profit from a tiny fraction of players – I’m not sure how many it is, but it’s somewhere on the order of 5% of people who will pump dozens or hundreds of dollars a week into Farmville, or hundreds or thousands of dollars a day into a slot machine. Depressingly, they’re the real profit engines, these poor bastards whose psyches make them easy to exploit.

    And the trouble for games like Dishonored, of course, is that they will never make more than a fraction of a game like Farmville. Which is probably even more depressing.Sorry if I’m repeating myself, because I think I mentioned this here before a few months back. But I attended this very cool lecture by Mike Dixon from the University of Waterloo on another trick slot machine designers use to make them more addictive. The big jackpot occurs when you get a 7-7-7, right? Well it turns out that something that really motivates players to continue is when the get a 7-7-almost 7, but the third value ends up being just in front or just behind the 7. This occurs 12 times more often than it would by chance – and only 7-7-X, not X-7-7 or 7-X-7, because the latter two don’t generate the same tension. Dixon was looking at precisely why this motivates people to keep playing, and his results suggest it’s a matter of frustration – people get kind of annoyed, but in a way that makes them want to have another shot – much like a missed layup in basketball or whatever makes you want to do it again right away. 

    Modern slots also do really clever things like having independent touch-screen “stop” buttons for each of the three wheels. This gives players the sense of control, but of course this is entirely illusory – exactly the same algorithm determines where the wheel is likely to stop, but because you’ve pressed the button you feel like you bear responsibility, and it feels like more of a matter of skill or choice.

    • WorldCivilizations says:

      Interesting article in The Economist not long ago, touching on some issues here. Particularly interesting are the regulatory issues related to addictive, freemium games. I was stunned by this statistic though: social-mobile games in Japan are a 500 billion Yuan ($80billion) business.

    • caspiancomic says:

       In my brief quarter-century I’ve twice stepped into a casino, and both times were abject misery according to any conceivable standard. Some friends and I, while staying in Ottawa, took a brief trip across the border into Hull, Quebec, to try the casino out. We intended to play poker, since we’re all amateur players, but the wait was too long, so we frittered away the time at the Roulette table (after looking up the rules and table etiquette on Youtube, so as not to embarrass ourselves.)

      I tell you, witnessing compulsive gambling is tremendously sad. Not only because of the obvious monetary loss taking place, but because you get to see all the little specific tics and rituals that people associate with changing the winds of good fortune. Since I was vaguely familiar with the math powering the game, and knew my chances of winning on any one bet would never be significant, I spent the entire night placing meagre bets on the same one number, watching my small fortune slip through my fingers. But I knew what I was getting into. The guy across from me placed a neat stack of chips on multiple numbers, different each time, and with every round pissed away 20 or 30 times what I was betting. Twice he left the table to visit an ATM and came back with hundreds of dollars that he immediately traded for chips. The second time he came back, the lady running the table offered him the same colour, and he asked for a different one, as if the colour of the chips was the source of his bad fortune.

      And don’t even get me started on Las Vegas.

      • WL14 says:

        I’ve had arguments with people about “But it was red the last 7 times, the next one HAS to be black!” The only time I’ve won was when I was talking to parents: Let’s say you’ve had 2 boys. You’re due for a girl, right? But would you risk have THREE BOYS [author’s emphasis]?

        I know Zynga et al rely on this type of psychology to make money, but I wonder if there are examples in more mainstream games… I guess going into dungeon after dungeon expecting the ultimate treasure in the next one might be a form of this. “You have obtained the (Unique Item) Lucifer’s Ultimate Quicksilver Hair Brush” or something down those lines.

        • Enkidum says:

          Oh, there are definitely examples in mainstream games – Diablo being the most blatant. It’s just that video games are normally designed so that you do occasionally succeed. Gambling is designed so that you constantly almost succeed.

        • Fluka says:

          The human brain seems to have no innate understanding of statistics.  In addition to the “this time it MUST be a girl!” example, I’ve seen students get *angry* trying to refute the simple solution to the Monty Hall problem.  We seem to have some kind of hard-wired sense of fairness and like to construct a sensible narrative for ourselves, even when we’re dealing with rather cold, random mathematical odds.

          Mix that love for “story” with possibly loaded dice, like in the slot machine example (and in games like D3, I wonder?), and you’ve got a recipe for addiction and large piles of sweet sweet cash.

        • Army_Of_Fun says:

          I am currently addicted to Mass Effect 3’s multi-player. Every single upgrade and consumable item in it is doled out in ‘virtual’ card packs. You don’t know what is in a pack until after you ‘buy’ it (like baseball cards or Magic cards). You can buy the packs with currency earned in game, or you can pay for it using real money converted to Microsoft or Playstation tokens. The switch from paying with (free) in game credits and the real money backed credits is a simple up down selection in a menu.

          An important difference with something like baseball cards is there’s no way to trade with other participants. It’s much more akin to gambling, but like in Slotmania, the rewards are all virtual.

        • Bakken Hood says:

          I shouldn’t have clicked @Fluka:disqus ‘s link.  Now I’m angry too.  THERE ARE TWO DOORS LEFT!  So does this explain why my volus engineer has racing stripes but I still don’t have a krogan vanguard?

        • Fluka says:

          @Bakken_Hood:disqus New ME3 Multiplayer policy.  You are offered three packs, one of which is guaranteed to contain Ultra-Rare kit.  After you choose one, BioWare reveals that one of the other two packs contains only an M-8 Avenger and some human junk.  DO YOU SWITCH?  Somehow, the BioWare fan community gets even grumpier as a result.

        • Bakken Hood says:

          @Fluka:disqus  Of COURSE they’re grumpy about it!  It’s clearly rigged, because they get the junk pack two times out of three.

      • ijij says:

        I don’t mean to be a dick, but it should be pointed out that your strategy of betting on the same number and this guy’s strategy of changing the color of his chips had precisely the same impact on the outcome of your bets. 

        • caspiancomic says:

           No no, you’re exactly right of course. In fact by placing multiple bets per spin, he was actually more likely than I to win on any given round. The only difference was that he seemed to think his strategizing would bring him victory, while I knew we would both be broke at the end of the night.

      • I have a question for any probability gurus: much of blackjack’s popularity is due to the fact that it’s possible for the player to beat the house based on their play*. If a player had x-ray eyes, he could break from the “optimal” rules of blackjack, and enjoy a significant advantage. It’s not 100%, because there are no-win scenarios in blackjack. (e.g. Dealer has twenty, you have nineteen, the next card is a seven. Hit or stay, you lose.) I did some empirical testing (save states in “Vegas Stakes”) and found I had a win rate of 66% when I knew what cards were coming next. Can anyone give me an actual probability of encountering a no-win scenario? Feel free to assume an infinite number of decks, and neglect the impact of doubling, insurance, and splitting. 

        *(Yes, a player using the “optimal” blackjack strategy will still ultimately lose to the house. And the difference between winning money at roulette because you guessed what number was coming versus winning money at blackjack because you guessed what card was coming next is largely artificial)

        • SartreLaugh says:

          The ability to win money at blackjack does not really come down to counting cards to recognize when to deviate from basic strategy but instead to use the card count to recognize when the odds are in your favor even when playing basic strategy. The composition of the remaining cards depends (with non-infinite decks of cards) on what cards have already been played. Assuming that the remaining cards are in a random order, the odds of winning games changes; in simple terms, the more 10 cards remaining in play favors the player while more 4,5,6 cards favor the house.

          When the odds for the remaining cards shift in the players favor, the player bets larger amounts. Conversely, with a new deck or “shoe” (multiple decks, usually six) or when lots of 10 cards have been played the player bets just enough to stay at the table.

        • @SartreLaugh:disqus : Perhaps I didn’t express myself properly. I’m not talking about counting cards. I’m talking about a hypothetical scenario where you know with 100% certainty which cards are coming next. Some hands will be impossible for the player to win regardless of when they hit or stay, or what strategy they play. 

    • GhaleonQ says:

      I think a problem is that you and Joe are comparing a “live”/public experience to a solitary private one.  Slot machines and U.F.O. catchers are designed to attract and keep you in a location, so their tactics and business model are more obvious to the eye.

      Frankly, Dishonored’s 3 DLC packs, just dated, are a capitulation to the same model.  It DOESN’T end definitively.  It does encourage online leaderboards and competitive speedruns.  The packs are contextless challenge maps; that is, they’re gyms for players to get the “hit” of the core gameplay concept.

      I mean, God forbid that I complain about Picross E1 and E2 existing.  I have all of Virtua Fighter 5’s items, so I submit to the grind, too.  I just think that Blizzard’s model is merely the worst example of addiction, not a separate category.  People just only “brag” about their addiction to The Elder Scrolls because it’s obvious what it’s doing.

      I apologize because I’m going to complain about Miyamoto showing disrespect to Lovedelic tomorrow, too, but Lovedelic (or Artdink or whoever) are much better examples.  There are missions where you have to meet non-player characters regularly on THEIR schedules, tasks where you literally have to stand still and hunt for 10 minutes, and a required, hidden where you just have to survive an overseas flight (real-time: 6 minutes of standing still) by…eating and enjoying the scenery.  The entire premise of the game, plot, and gameplay both, is anti-addiction.

      To go more commercial, Pokemon Snap and Rescue Shot Bubibo are great mainstream examples of “redeeming” the light gun genre’s obsession-building core mechanics in the way that Joe argues Dishonored does shooters. They reward attention to detail, experimentation, defense over offense, and slow pace, despite being on-rails.

      • Nathan Rogers-Hancock says:

        Ah, this is sort of like the “patience” challenge in Takeshi Kitano’s game, right?

        • GhaleonQ says:

          Yep, except instead of messing with you, it’s more about “building virtue.”

          Some would say that Desert Bus does the same thing, especially given that it’s now used for charity!

      • Enkidum says:

        Well, like most of these things it’s not an either/or situation so much as a gradient. And Dishonored (at least without the DLC) is far more towards the non-addictive side, I guess. (I’ve never played it, but it certainly seems that way – and I’ve also never played any of the other games you mention, except for Virtua Fighter.)

        I’m sure there are much purer examples of the non-addictive model, but certainly Dishonered is better than Diablo, right?

        And FWIW, I don’t have a problem with the “addictive” gameplay, but it seems to be grossly over-represented at present, again because it makes money hand over fist.

    • dreadguacamole says:

      Another thing to consider is that “addictiveness” is very compatible and relatively easy to achieve with casual games – the single biggest market at the moment, and one most execs at games companies are desperate to chase.
       It’s very easy to make a very accessible game that’s also addictive and easy to learn on the fly; with something like dishonored, you’ve got to put a lot more of effort to game its systems – and that’s not even counting getting used to the controller, which is a much more daunting proposition for non-gamers than we usually think. In fact, Dishonored uses a number of conventions that we take for granted, but people just starting out have to come to grips with.
       Other, more cynical factors: generating “addiction” is a lot easier and far better understood than generating “fun”. It’s also a lot easier to monetize and easier to successfully pitch to execs who (generally) don’t really care about games.

       I’m not disparaging on casual games or gamers, by the way – just pointing out that there are lots of reasons why cityville or whatever earn more than the vast majority of “core” games by 1000:000.1 (a figure I arrived at by entirely scientific methods!). This will change, eventually – the bubble might be deflating a little, if Zynga is anything to go by – but it won’t go away anytime soon.

      • jessec829 says:

        Good point about the controller. I had a friend over the other day who’s a bit older than me and grew up just before the video game console became a regular household item. Anyway, we decided to play Trivial Pursuit on my PS3, and watching him hold the controller like it was some alien technology was really eye-opening. I swear to christ, I told him to press X, and he peered at the controller and then jabbed X with his index finger. His index finger! I realize now that this is how I must look to younger folk when I try to use a smartphone. 

        • Enkidum says:

          I know, right? It’s like, “you know that controller has been honed by hundreds of thousands of users over decades to be approaching an optimal design, right? It rests in your hands and you don’t actually need to change their position, ever…”

        • Jackbert322 says:

          Oh man, my mama uses my PS3 for Netflix streaming, and she’s got it down to muscle memory. One day, she wanted to play LittleBigPlanet and asked me for a control rundown.

          I say, “okay, you use the left stick to move, X to jump-” and she goes, “what are those?”

          “Like when you watch Netflix, you know, the left stick and X-”

          “I don’t use those buttons for Netflix.”

          “Yes you do!”

          “No, I’ve never even heard of those buttons.”

          “…Umm…You use fast forward to move and pause to jump-”

          “Oh, okay!”

          It was pretty weird, because I figured she knew the controller. I mean, she uses it every day! I guess talking about letters and sticks on what she essentially thinks of as a remote got her confused. So yeah, it was pretty funny, but if it had taken too much longer I probably would have become frustrated.

      • Enkidum says:

        Two things. First, I like the point about the controller – watching my non-gamer friend and my father trying to deal with two-stick controls (like Portal) is alternately hilarious and incredibly frustrating. WHY DO YOU KEEP LOOKING AT THE FLOOR? LOOK UP, MORON! OH, GOOD, NOW YOU’RE LOOKING STRAIGHT AT THE CEILING! ARE YOU TRYING TO ANNOY ME? BECAUSE IT’S WORKING!

        Second, you’re right that addiction is easier than fun – and in fact it doesn’t require fun at all. In fact addiction research has shown that though addiction involves hijacking pleasure circuitry, it doesn’t actually involve the feeling of pleasure. Rather what gets hijacked is circuits responsible for pleasure seeking, and it doesn’t actually matter very much if what you ultimately get is that pleasurable. Which is kind of extra-depressing – you might not even enjoy what you’re addicted to. Certainly, when I get into one of those pure grindy games, I’m sometimes not actually having any fun at all.

        Who me, addictive personality? Getouttahere.

  2. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

       Is the metastasizing encroachment of multiplayer in any and every game a manifestation of this dynamic?  The story touches briefly on developers providing enticements to prevent games from being sold back and presents Dishonored as an example of an antithesis of the compulsion-based gaming.
       When people (my misanthropic self occasionally being one of them) complain that mulitplayer is needlessly being squeezed into a product, it’s usually based on the perception that a good single-player game is in itself a fine cut of meat and in Ron Swanson fashion, only diminished by such superfluous sauce as multiplayer.
       That multi is included only to appease a certain market directive or to artificially pad out the lifespan of the game.
       That multiplayer or a subscription based MMO enable addiction by simply rendering a game an ongoing staccato of repetition, a more sophisticated skin layered on the same slot machine dynamic?   This is an overly harsh assessment, and one that, despite my personal gaming preferences I don’t really believe.
       But there’s so much prognostication swirling around some mysterious emergent shape of gaming.  And it feels like this designing for addiction is something seen as an inevitable commonality for any style or delivery of games.
       ‘Course when I was nine, I spent twice the amount of my personal pan pizza on the Ghosts ‘n Goblins at Pizza Hut and never made it past that first goddamn red devil, so maybe it’s naive of me to presume addiction is either a new concept in games or solely the domain of multiplayer.  

    • Sleverin says:

      I think what a lot of people are worried about that online play being tacked on (or maybe should be) is that is costs large resources to add something that feels unnecessary and possibly pointless in an attempt to hold sway over our attention.  I myself don’t much care for pointless multiplayer, but worse I can’t approve of games that push multiplayer as a way to unlock singeplayer awards or items (of which I couldn’t name of the top of my head but from what I understand exists) it feels like some odd way of a “parent” trying to tell us to go outside and play with friends when by God, I’m a fucking shut-in and want to play with myself solo thanks.

      Anyways, I’m getting off topic.  The worst idea of multiplayer as I originally stated, is that they burn through resources to make network code, a (possibly) stable game build that won’t be easily exploited by players (if they care) and in general when they add this amount of fluff when they could be producing a great game that is good enough on its own merits that you in fact want to play because its fun for God’s sake instead of some odd multi player that is pointless or irritating.  If games like, what am I going for here, Call of Duty and Battlefield (?) are built solely around playing multiplayer, then why put on the 5-6 hour singleplayer game when you could just make the multiplayer fine, save a large amount of production costs and still charge a huge amount of cash for it.  Let’s not have these games pretend to be something they’re not with tacked on story, muddy singleplayer campaigns, boring characters or any of that stuff.  Just let the multiplayer be multiplayer and the single player single player, there’s no reason for these games to attempt to masquerade as one another.  Maybe I’m crazy but they should just stick to certain guns when it comes to development…also this stuff eats up developing time and resources (cannot stress this enough on how much this drives me crazy) which could be better spent towards properly chiseling the Statue of David that they could be working on instead of adding tentacles midway through to his chest, have them be crude shapes and say its there for “flavor”.  It just doesn’t do anyone favors.

      • dreadguacamole says:

        I really wouldn’t call the singleplayer campaigns of CoD or Battlefield tacked-on or perfunctory – they have incredible production values, and it’s evident, a lot of effort put behind them. The main complaint with them usually is that they’re too short, and that they’ve got terrible, retrograde mechanics that focus on spectacle rather over gameplay. I’d also add that they contain more pure, undiluted STUPID in their scripts than most Resident Evil entries. That’s not a charge I level lightly.

         I’d say that if it’s something the devs want to put in, then fine; please don’t tie it to the single player campaign (incidentally: Fuck you, bioware!) but other than that, it’s fine – I’ll trust their judgement, or at least give them the benefit of doubt.
         If the Publisher forces it upon the studio, well, then we’re in trouble. Some publishers are pretty good at least of farming out the multiplayer to a different developer, at least. But that’s when it actually may cannibalize the single-player design

      • Jackbert322 says:

        Games that make you do multiplayer in single player: EA racing games. I tried out SSX the other day, and didn’t even have an online pass (bought it used so I could return it, sue me!) but the game was still telling me to “Check AutoLog recommendations so you can compete with your friends!” and “When you post your scores to AutoLog, you can compete with your friends!” and “Don’t have enough friends? Add friends of friends!” and “Don’t have any friends? Race with people online and send friend requests to everyone you encounter!” and I was like “Shut up EA” and they gave me 5000 “Boarder Points” or whatever the hell they’re called for just that.* Then I tried going in a race, they played dubstep the whole time, and at the end they gave me 10000 “Boarder Points” for (1) doing a spin (2) doing a flip and (3) getting in “Tricky”. So basically, it suffered from, let me see, “gamification”, tacked on multiplayer (you can’t even actually race people, you race their “ghosts” which are uploaded online, plus there’s no split screen which is what made SSX Tricky on the PS2 fun when I played this past Thanksgiving), and all in all, don’t buy SSX!*

        *Jack Kerouac sponsors these sentences.

        • Citric says:

          Ugh, Autolog. I bought NFS: Hot Pursuit because crashing into jerks in Lambos seemed like a fun way to blow off steam, and it is, but their insistence on pushing that stupid social network is just a pain in the ass. None of my actual friends own this game! I don’t care about competing on leaderboards! Go away!

          The soundtrack problem can be fixed with a custom soundtrack in Hot Pursuit at least, though it’ll always play song one first. I personally race to 80s power ballads.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:


      • I think a huge reason for single player is what I’d call the “sizzle-reel”.  All the big action moments and set-pieces you can put in trailers and commercials to build hype.

        Battlefield 3’s single player was abysmal but mind-numbingly so during a guided jet mission where you played the co-pilot who merely locked onto enemy planes and didn’t do any flying, but in the numerous trailers and commercials leading up to release, this scene was shown over and over, leading many to believe there would be a bad-ass jet level in the game!

        • Sleverin says:


    • GhaleonQ says:

      I think that you’ve captured the counterargument best: are bite-sized/mission-based gameplay (especially for portables), the entire existence of Sawbuck Gamer, multiplayer, downloadable content, “simple to learn, difficult to master” design, and multiplayer just weighted more to “fun,” and isn’t this legitimate?

      I think it debunks “these games are bad/shouldn’t exist,” but Joe didn’t write that.  It is NOT a compliment without qualification, he’s saying.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

        That’s the language I was vainly looking for.  Bite-sized/mission based.  Smartphone gaming is given so much deference due to the sheer numbers of people playing them, devs and publishers alike trying to implement smartphone game design to all platforms.
           And at their worst, MMO’s and multiplayer simply aping the vibe of a $.99 app for no good reason.

      • Enkidum says:

        Yup. Not a compliment without qualification, and the non-addictive model seems underused these days. CF. any modern FPS, now compare it to, I dunno, System Shock, Thief, Halflife I & II, etc.

  3. Aaron Riccio says:

    For me, I often feel as if I need to be playing/doing something when I’ve got downtime, so the addiction is to games in general. The variety of games out there is what keeps me from simply playing one game, and one game only (like DOTA 2); I like new experiences, so if there’s stuff I haven’t tried yet, I’m going to be distracted by the shiny candy — only when I’ve beaten it will I wind up going back to the true crack that’s out there. I’m sure there’s a name for this sort of fighting-fire-with-fire self-therapy, but after realizing how many addictive things are out there, I’ll just call it what it is: modern gaming.

    • This is where I’m at, and it’s only become worse since I’ve purchased a decent gaming laptop.  If my laptop is in front of me, chances are steam is open and one of the numerous games, i’ve bought on impulse, but never finished is staring at me.  So I click it, play for 30 minutes, then switch to a new game.

      As if playing itself, is a compulsion where I constantly need a new game.  This of course, is in stark contrast to growing up, when my choices were limited to whatever NES cartridge was working at the time, but now the tyranny of choice is so overwhelming that i just play certain games because I own them and they’re suppossed to be good (Team Fortress 2, I’m looking at you) not because I’m truly enjoying it.

    • indy2003 says:

      I like the diversity of switching between games, but I also have an odd inability to change out a disc until I’ve finished something. So, I’ll switch formats: I’ll play some Mass Effect on the PS3 for a while, then some Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii, some Okami HD from my list of PSN games, a little Binding of Isaac on the PC… I feel like I’m able to have a pretty wide array of options at any given time while also feeling like I’m progressing towards actually finishing things. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go open and close the front door three times since it’s an odd-numbered day of the month.

  4. Zack Handlen says:

    If you step back a bit, this is actually a tension which occurs in most art-forms, especially ones that use a narrative to appeal to readers/viewers/listeners. While novels and TV shows don’t rely on the more obviously mercenary design of “free-to-play” games–you don’t read a book and find an option to get the big twist ending sooner if you’re willing to pay a couple bucks extra–but there’s a balance which has to be struck between two contrasting, and at times opposing, goals. As to what those goals are, you can find out if you just read my next post. 

    • Zack Handlen says:

      Okay, I’m being a little too cute here because I can’t help myself, but I’m sure everyone’s become engrossed with a story because of the way its constructed to simultaneously tease out the importance of information while at the same time restricting our access to it. Many of the big ticket TV dramas get at least some of their intensity and strength from subverting viewer expectation, and you do that by asking questions that demand answers (“How is Walt going to get out of this?” or “Is Nicholas’s big secret ever going to come out?” or “Is that zombie going to eat that guy’s face?”), allowing us time to come up with our own answers, and then resolving the situation in a way that both scratches the initial itch, while still raising further questions. This is a slightly more elegant, and much less mercenary, form of offering a player a potential reward–“rare” items (whose rarity is dictated by the game design; free of in game context, that special dragon is meaningless, just like a book of Walt Whitman poetry is meaningless unless it happens to be sitting on the back of a very specific toilet), which provide a resolution to the game’s basic premise, and are dangled in front of players as encouragement to either keep playing or invest some of their hard earned money to jump ahead in the system. I’m getting a little esoteric here, I realize, but the basic mechanic of pulling in participants by creating a clear, basic need is pretty fundamental stuff. The difference is, great art can use the itch-scratching feeling, the need to know all the secrets, to close all the doors, for greater ends. Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Homeland use the same suspense tools as the pulpiest of pulp fictions, but they use those tools as a means to an end, and not an end in and of itself. Which is my basic problem with the free-to-play games described in this (excellent) essay: there’s no point to them beyond the most basic, monkey-brained satisfaction, and they can never be truly fulfilling because their business model depends on stringing out players for as long as possible. Which means the experience is a bit like watching a lousy show (or reading a lousy book) which sucks you in with its cliffhangers, but can only hold your interest by threatening its heroes with bigger and bigger drops. Eventually, there’s no reason not to let go.

      • zebbart says:

        “the experience is a bit like watching a lousy show (or reading a lousy book) which sucks you in with its cliffhangers, but can only hold your interest by threatening its heroes with bigger and bigger drops.”
        Hmmm, I’m Lost for an example of such a television series.

        • Zack Handlen says:

          See, I wouldn’t actually put Lost in that category (I’m thinking more Heroes and the later seasons of 24); to me, even if you didn’t care for the ending, the characters and themes were rich enough to support most of the mysteries. But it’s definitely a mileage-may-vary situation.

        • zebbart says:

          The thing about Lost was like every episode they either added a new mystery or just revealed a deeper, crazier mystery beneath the already existing ones. My experience anyway was an ever heightening feeling of “Holy shit, what does THAT mean?” to the point where I was just watching to find out how all this fit together. My problem with the ending was not so much that it was bad in itself, but that it revealed that all those mysteries were just meaningless set dressing at best, or audience bait more likely. For that reason it is my prime example of an addictive but empty show. I agree YMMV on the characterization, and the writers tried to pin the whole thing on the characterization in the end so one’s overall evaluation of the series must hang on that, but “son of a bitch” I found them all to be either one dimensional and unlikable or, in the case of Locke, so fucked with that he stopped being an interesting character and became just a magical plot device.

          I guess the question is, is it fun enough being teased with mysteries and cliff hangers, or do they need to cash out in either deeper meaning or the very least in sensible resolution? You could ask the same of addictive games – is it fun enough just repetitively shoot birds at pigs, or are you only doing it so you don’t have that empty star coded on your phone anymore? And if it is the latter, to what extent does the resolution justify the time it took to get there and is it a credit to the creator?

      • Enkidum says:

        Well, IS the zombie going to eat that guy’s face? C’mon, don’t leave us hanging here!

        • Zack Handlen says:

          Arnold screamed. “Fuck! Fuck! Get the–DO NO EAT MY FACE, YOU DAMN ZOMBIE!” He reached behind him, hands scrabbling for a weapon, a tool, _anything_ to keep the creature at bay. The gray, shambling form of Arnold’s dead tennis instructor reached out, and Arnold grabbed hold of something heavy and soft. Not bothering to see what it was, he swung the object like a baseball bat directly into Mr. Marners’ lifeless face, and the impact was enough to send the teacher sprawling back onto the court. 

          Arnold breathed a quick sigh of relief as he stepped backwards towards the exit, keeping his eyes on Marners’ as the older dead man twitched and fumbled, sneakered feet kicking impotently at the air. It wasn’t until he reached the parking lot that Arnold looked down and saw what had a saved him: a baby. A zombie baby, in point of fact, and the fucking thing had its mouth on his wrist. 

      • Enkidum says:

        You, sir, are a scholar and a gentleman. Of course now I want to know if Nicholas’ big secret is ever going to come out…

        • Electric Dragon says:

          I spent a good 30 seconds staring at that wondering who the “Nicholas” Zack was referring to is. Then I realised he meant Homeland‘s Brody (or at least that’s my guess) – it’s just that not even his wife calls him Nicholas.

        • Zack Handlen says:

          @google-6108c5611fbc5b86af5df565c4b4b048:disqus Yeah, I used his first name to throw people off the sent. I’m tricky like that.

  5. D3ADP0OL says:

    There are two paths to addictive gameplay, one being the kind of conditioning used by slot machines and the casual market described in this article.  But the other way games become addictive is by providing true challenges to the player while giving them capable tools to overcome them.  Unique designs, stories and characters are window dressing that makes a good game great, but the “hook” is making gamers feel like they are accomplishing something while they play.  If you want to see some examples of the “good” addiction model, check out

    • markiej says:

      I think Plants v Zombies (which sounds like a Supreme Court Case) is exhibit A of the latter type.  A perfect escalation of challenge, up to, but not surpassing the point of frustration.

  6. ItsTheShadsy says:

    This had just crossed my mind a few days ago. I was playing Halo 4 multiplayer and noticed that I was really playing to get my rank up, not because I was particularly enjoying the game. Thanks for pointing this out. I never actively realized how “addicting” qualities have been codified and, in some cases, commodified. It’s weird that something that’s usually considered an integral quality for a game can just be grafted on top now with progression systems.

  7. Knarf Black says:

    Good “un-addictive” game: Hotline Miami. It’s kind of exhausting, which makes it hard to get lost for hours on end in the pixelated mayhem. Best to try again tomorrow.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

      While I get the exhausting point, I’d also argue that the quick restarts make for a Civ-like “one more turn” kind of game.  

      Ah, that dog will come down the hall, so I’ll throw my gun at this guy, then punch that guy and pick up my gun again to shoot the dog, then finish of those goons! I’VE GOT IT THIS TIME!

      No no no NO! fuck.

      Well, I’ll definitely get it THIS time…

      • Knarf Black says:

        Very true, especially when you’re on the second floor of a level.

        Still, it’s one of the rare games that I both enjoyed and managed to not plow through as fast as I could. A level or two an evening was about all I could manage. It didn’t hurt that I was standing up at an arcade cab and would often find myself dancing (more like shuffling) along with the soundtrack.

        Good way to burn some calories while gaming, BTW.

    • I don’t know, man. I’ve certainly woken with a start from a three-hour Hotline fugue before.

      • Sleverin says:

        Same, I burned through most of the game through a one night 5 hour playing session.  Not only was the gameplay just powerfully cerebral, with the wicked colorful background and the music combined into a swirling frenzy of blood and addicting hypnosis…that and I was really wondering how the story was going to play out.  Goddamn surreal.

  8. Brainstrain says:

    Speaking for myself, MMOs have almost completely burnt me out on compulsive play. I still like the idea of an MMO and I enjoy them in small doses, but small doses is not enough to progress past a point. And that sucks.

  9. indy2003 says:

    Just finished my first playthrough of Dishonored a few days ago, and the game effectively demonstrated that I am both less talented and less patient than I’d like to believe. I had every intention of going through the entire game without killing anyone. Alas, I fumbled early on and wound up frantically stabbing my first target to death before scrambling out of the room with a host of guards on my tail. I hung my head in shame when my superiors told me what a good job I did.

    Things improved as I went along, and I was actually able to sneak through a couple of missions without murdering anybody (assuming that those unconscious guards eventually climbed out of the dumpsters I put them in).

    *mild spoiler warning*

    Alas, when I reached the level filled to the brim with assassins, I found myself being forced to turn to violence on an alarmingly regular basis. Wound up taking out about 15 people by the time the mission was finished.

    *end mild spoiler*

    In the end, I had done well enough to get the low chaos ending, but it felt strangely unearned. Definitely want to give it another go sometime and try to make it to the finish line without shedding any blood. Alternately, I’m also compelled to go on a rampage at some point just to check out the countless powers that I never bothered purchasing (because if I purchase an ability that aids me in killing people, then I’m admitting to myself that eventually I’m going to kill people, right?). However, my first playthrough was somewhere in the 12-14 hour range, and I suspect that a high chaos playthrough could be managed in half that time.

    • Merve says:

      I’m doing a low-chaos playthrough right now. It’s weirdly addictive for me: “Alright, one more try on making it through this room undetected.” That sort of thing.

      • indy2003 says:

        It definitely pays to explore a bit, too – there were many moments in which I would eventually discover a hidden passage or nearby ledge which made my seemingly challenging task of getting from point A to point B unseen relatively easy.

  10. Another game taht seems to fit this model you propse of dishonored, is a game I over looked but just recently uncovered is Deus Ex: Human revolution.  While not as good as the first ones, I am more compelled to play this game because it requires me to think and choose, I doubt I will replay through the long grind that this game is. But finding ways through difficult areas and sneaking past guards is a difficult and rewarding experience

  11. Joel Rasdall says:

    This article has been stewing in my brain since I read it a few days ago.  The difference between games that this article is describing is tough to describe sometimes (especially to non-gamers) but frustrates me as a gamer over 35.  Personally, I’m still looking for the next Master of Orion or Master of Magic.  For me, Dominions 3 is the only real contender lately, but there used to be a fair number of pretenders vying for the throne (Star Ruler, Sword of the Stars, Lost Empire: Immortals etc.)

    But now it seems like for every Endless Space that squeaks through, we get a hundred Galaxy Onlines and Star Supremacy, which seem like they’re really only there to keep me logged in.  I’m not even clear on where the “strategy” in the title comes into play: if I stay logged in, I’ll…well, not *win*, but *get more stuff.*

    Because that’s the thing with addictive games: there’s no finite endpoint.  I have no idea how many games of Dominions 3 I’ve played, but what keeps me coming back is the game having far more options than I could ever experience in a single game.  This seems to be exactly 180-degrees off from the ideal appeal of an addictive game, which is to reward you for accumulating a few specific resources, possibly only one.  I played Marvel Avengers Alliance a little bit and the meat of that game is the endless, extremely simplistic duels.  The appeal of the game, rather, is the Pokemon-like rush to catch ’em all…and they release new ones often enough that you will never reach that goal.