Have games gone from entertaining to manipulating?

Let me start by making one thing clear: I know the gaming industry is a business like any other. I understand gaming companies exist to make money, just like any other. But I’m starting to get overly concerned that many, if not most, video game companies as of late seem to be hell-bent on extracting as much money as they can while offering as little entertainment as possible.

Unless it was simply because I was a naive little boy way back when, but I always felt that games were produced with  the consumer in mind, with profit for the company following simply because they produced something gamers loved. I rarely felt hoodwinked as a child, and was generally always pleased with a purchase I’d made using my hard-earned allowance money.

Nowadays, I’m skeptical of virtually every game out there. This goes for free-to-play casual games like Hearthstone all the way up to World of Warcraft and GTA V. I’m constantly wondering where the catch will be when I look into a new game, or think about trying out a new app. A lot of the time, it keeps me from actually enjoying the game as it’s meant to be played, as I’m afraid to get locked in and have my bank account drained $0.99 at a time. And, slowly but surely, it’s taking me away from one of the hobbies I’ve always loved the most.

Casuals: Time and wallet vampires

It’s no secret anymore that games like Candy Crush and Game of War make an absolute killing every single day of the week. This revenue comes mainly from people who have, not unlike slot machine jockeys, inadvertently become addicted to a game they probably don’t even love playing. Power-ups are sold for a dollar or two, and are gone in a flash. Extra lives are sold, so gamers don’t have to wait a couple hours to try to beat a level (and when they lose, again, it’s hard to not spend another dollar to try once more).

We can blame games like Farmville for creating this market strategy of free-to-play (for now) games. I wouldn’t so much blame the game, as I would Zynga’s recently-returned CEO Mark Pincus, who has never been one to keep his disturbing business philosophy a secret. The games that made him a billionaire, such as Farmville, were created solely to make profit using the simple try-before-you-buy method. Not only that, but Zynga saved countless millions on advertising by forcing its games’ players to bug their friends to get into the game as well, in exchange for a bigger farm and different crops to plant. In the long run, you were just clicking the same 50×50 grid to complete a task you didn’t care about, just to make a bigger grid to click. And the whole time, Pincus was laughing all the way to the bank with your money.

Do the creators of this game spend any time, money, or energy creating something earth-shatteringly new for you to enjoy? Not a chance. Candy Crush isn’t even an original game; it was a rip-off of a rip-off of Bejeweled, a game that was absolutely free to play with no strings attached for years before King Digital found a way to start making close to $1 million per day through in-app purchases.

Even a game like Hearthstone, which I thoroughly enjoy by the way, is set up in a way that is meant to trick you into spending money when all you wanted to do was play a quick, free game on your lunch break. The learning curve is pretty easy to navigate, but once you get a handle on how to play, you realize the cards you have are no match for your opponents. Your options: Use what you have and hope you win enough gold to buy some extra packs (which don’t guarantee anything great), or spend real money to purchase virtual packs of cards. And, of course, even then you’re still not guaranteed any cards that will make your deck any better. But don’t let that stop you from spending more in one night than I have in the past three years on games and accessories.

Unfortunately, it seems once game designers discovered that Skinner box-like games can bring in just as much, or more, money than AAA blockbusters, those games quickly became the status quo. You’re better off hitting up a casino; at least slot machines return money sometimes.

Addicted to the core

Casual games aren’t the only ones holding the puppet strings above our heads; hugely popular core games have been doing the same for years. I keep busting on Skyrim and WoW, even though both games have been a huge part of my gaming life in the past decade, but those games are absolutely massive, perhaps to a fault.

Due to the dreaded yellow light of death on my original PS3, I lost my original Skyrim save, in which I was about level 45 or so, and most of the way through main storyline. After getting a new system and grinding up my skills, doing the same quests I had just done a month earlier, and finding out I was literally right at the endgame when my first system took an arrow to the knee, I realized I’d never want to play through the game again. This is unfortunate, because I’ll never go through the game as a different class, never utilize different skill sets, and, quite frankly, never experience everything Bethesda packed into the game. But like I said before, I don’t have time to spend selling off garbage I’ve picked up just so my character can run again, and playing through with a different build isn’t enough to make me want to run the same fetch quests one more time.

World of Warcraft, on the other hand, is another story. When I was in college, and of course had a little more time on my hands, I spent way too much of it playing WoW. But looking back on it, the truly enjoyable parts were probably 10-25% of my entire play time (which I’d be absolutely frightened to check, by the way). I know that now you can start a character at 80, 90, or whatever, but when I was still under Blizzard’s hypnosis, that wasn’t an option. You want to be an endgame healer? Good luck on that grind. Forgot to log out at an inn? Looks like you’re going to be spending twice as long in Stranglethorn Vale.

The thing about games like WoW, in which there really is no “end”, is your entire playtime becomes a grind; you’re always looking to what’s next in the game rather than just enjoying where you are in it. It’s why people use bots to skip certain parts. But think about that for a second: People buy a game for $60 (with expansions adding to that cost), pay a monthly subscription fee, and then let a machine play most of the game for them, until they get to a certain point? Then they run through that instance 4-5 times, get tired of it, and put their character on autopilot again until it’s strong enough for the next highest dungeon? What exactly are they paying for if they’re only enjoying 5-10% of the time the game is on?

Then there are achievements and trophies. A vast majority of these absolutely add nothing to the game; they simply force players to play a different way than they want to in order to display some accomplishment on their profile. I guess I’m being pessimistic here, when I could be looking at it from the perspective of “the developers want something for everyone in their game,” but let’s use GTA for example, a game notorious for poking fun at any and everything, including itself.

To get 100% completion in any GTA game since the third installment, you have to spend hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the map picking up random collectibles that serve no other purpose than to attain 100% completion. I recently read an article about how games that offer such a vast array of experiences actually take advantage of people with neurological disorders such as OCD, which is completely disheartening. I’m not saying that developers purposely prey on those with special needs, but by providing “something for everyone,” they’re inviting the collective fan-base to drown in their created virtual world, running errands they really don’t want to, rather than dip their toes in for a controlled period of time playing the parts of the game they were excited for in the first place.

As is a running theme in this blog, I guess I sound a bit hypocritical, and the 10 year old me would smack me in the face for ever saying a video game gave me too much to do. But the 10 year old me didn’t know that one day, there would be something more important in my life than running up Mt. Chilead to collect a piece of virtual paper.

Reaching a happy medium in gaming

In my previous (and inaugural) post, I talked about how my life as a gamer has come full circle, and how I barely have enough time to play the games I want to anymore (but yes, I did spend almost exactly 60 minutes on The Witcher). I’ve realized that the reason I put away games for a while is that the games I have time to play don’t interest me much, and the games that I want to play are way too involved for the amount of time I have.

Though I grew up with pick-up-and-play games like Tetris, I don’t see much point in playing those types of games anymore. The fact that Candy Crush rakes in about a million dollars a day downright disturbs me. Despite this, I still find myself playing Crossy Road when I’m waiting for the elevator, even though I know it’s the absolute most ridiculous game in the world. It’s really the only game I can load up, play, and get tired of within the two free minutes I have as an adult. I’ve been relegated to dumbing my gaming down to the lowest common denominator, all because of a lack of time.

The games I want to play, however, are simply too much to handle. They’ve gotten too…real. Even fantasy games overdo the reality factor. When Skyrim came out, I was ready to tell my boss and my friends I had contracted a terribly contagious disease, and melt into my couch for a good few weeks. While I did spend a ton of time on the game, I would too often find myself losing an hour of my life selling unneeded garbage to the Thieves’ Guild, only to have to wait in real time because Bethesda thought it’d be a good idea to make the vendors so realistic that even they run out of money. Sell, rest, sell, rest, sell, rest…oh, I can finally play the game now? Well, only until I pick up too much and become over encumbered. I loaded up this game so I could escape the reality of not being a hulking behemoth, not to be reminded of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Skyrim, but my point is these additions serve no purpose other than to make the game more “realistic,” which only serves to annoy most gamers and waste time they don’t have.

To continue the discussion on having too much to do in a game, let’s leave Tamriel and head over to Azeroth. I’m fairly certain I would have to give up my life goals if I wanted to do well in WoW. I used to be hooked on the game, but I never even came close to doing everything it has to offer. Not only does WoW require hours of repetitive grinding, but to get to the best parts you actually have to schedule your life around the game to make sure you were on when your friends were. Forget that. It’s just not worth doing, no matter how awesome the game is (or was, as the case may be).

But, fortunately, there are still games that hit that happy medium. As mentioned, I’m currently making my way through The Witcher 3. Before you stop reading and say “But there’s like 200 hours of gameplay there,” let me clarify: I have about 12 hours of play in as of now, and I’ve yet to waste a single minute while playing. I know I’ll be using every herb I pick up. Every character I meet actually has something to do with the story, at least from what I can tell. CD Projekt Red has created an in-game world that is seemingly infinite, but unlike Skyrim, I actually feel like I have a chance to see it all, and I’m not the least bit overwhelmed. It might take me a while, but at least I know every time I load up the game I can actually play, instead of running meaningless errands for some woman who I’ll never come across in the game again.

Now again, if you’ll excuse me…hey, wait, it’s Friday! I’ll play all night if I want! Here we go…

Gaming, Planning, and Growing Up

Here I am, a week shy of my 30th birthday, and I feel like I’ve come full circle as a gamer. I spent my entire childhood being infatuated with video games. At the age of 3, I literally crapped myself because I was so engaged watching my grandfather play Super Mario Bros. (or so the story according to my mother goes, but I don’t doubt it for one second). By the age of 5, was showing him how to go North, West, South, West in Zelda to get to the graveyard (and I had also gained control of my bowels, to boot). So began a life-long relationship with video games. Or so I thought.

A life revolving around video games

As a child, my life revolved around gaming. I’d wake up early and get a quick session of Mario in before my mom bugged me to get dressed and comb my hair. Nothing could possibly start my day off better than finally getting through a level in Chocolate Island that had been driving me nuts the night before. Of course, nothing could start my day off in a more aggravating way than dying the same way I had twenty times in a row the night before, either. It was always a crapshoot, but it was a risk I was always willing to take.

After my mom would drag me away from the TV and bring me to school, I’d meet with friends who had different games, different systems, and parents that let them play Mortal Kombat. We’d share instruction manuals, secret moves, code books, and anything else that had to do with the virtual worlds we’d plan on diving back into once the bell rang at 3:00.

After school, I’d always have a friend nearby to slam-dunk on in NBA Jam, or help me beat that dastardly level in Battletoads (you know the one). We’d get lost for hours, taking Street Fighter tournaments much more seriously than our spelling homework, and haggle with our parents for “fifteen more minutes” four times a night, 5 days a week. If only YouTube existed when I was ten, I’d be a Let’s Play millionaire by now.

I know it doesn’t sound like much planning went into all of this gaming, but this was only daily life. I had long-term goals, after all. Of course, these goals also included video games. When I was about ten, my mom finally broke down and got a Blockbuster membership (fun fact: they closed up shop solely because of my unpaid late fees). The only caveat was that I could only go once a month, and rent, at most, two games. This required some heavy research on my part. Luckily, I also had a subscription to Game Players magazine, which helped me make an informed decision about which games to lose myself in for a weekend. So I’d head to Blockbuster on a Friday night with a list of games in mind, and this is where I would often get a dose of real-world disappointment: The games at the top of my list had already been checked out. I know, I had a tough childhood. But, like I said, I learned something through these experiences: sometimes, no matter how much planning you put into something, other forces beyond your control could derail your objectives at any minute.

Looking back on my youth, it might be easy to say I wasted a ton of time playing video games. Okay, it might be truthful to say that. But, on the other hand, I also learned how to read by becoming infatuated with video game manuals and storylines. I learned the ins and outs of journalism through reading Game Players and other magazines, and analyzing the differences between their reviews for games on my radar. It was a passion of mine that, unfortunately, as I got older, seemed to fade away, but not for want of trying.

Putting away childish things

As a kid, there were never enough games to fill the vast expanse of free time I had. As I got older, the relationship between amount of free time and amount of games I wanted to play completely flip-flopped.

I’d always considered myself a core gamer, even when my gaming hit a lull. I would like to think that the ridiculous amount of time I spent on Final Fantasy 7 would solidify me in the core gamer club for life, but, unfortunately, it’s been almost 10 years since I’ve played a game with the sheer intention of completing it. Nowadays, I barely find time to get a quick game of Hearthstone in on a lunch break; hardly enough to consider myself a gamer.

My attention to the world of gaming has slowly drifted, as well. In middle and high school, IGN might as well have been my homepage. I was one of the first people in my town to play the PS2, which I did for the local newspaper the day before it hit stores. Such a monumental release was something I’d looked forward to for years. By the time the PS3 came out, I had gotten so wrapped up in the real world that I didn’t even notice it’d been out for months. Same with the PS4. I do own both systems today, but I’d venture to say my wife uses them for Netflix more than I do for games.

Now, instead of planning my day around gaming, I have to plan my gaming around my life. I’m not so far gone that I haven’t bought The Witcher 3, and I do believe I’ll end up beating it (it really is incredible). But what might have taken me a month at best at the age of 15 will most likely take me through 2015, and possibly into next year. I literally have time planned today that I’ve set aside to play the game, and unlike my 10-year-old self, I won’t be able to negotiate “just another 30 minutes.” I’ve unfortunately reached the age where lack of sleep actually does something to your body. I definitely never planned for that.

Coming full circle

I mentioned my love for video game magazines and websites as a child, and the fact that I let that passion get away from me as I grew up. Well, it recently hit me that the career path I was on was not the path I wanted to be on, and I decided to pursue that original passion. Lucky for me, the awesome team at Pixel Dynamo took me on as a contributor, and in one short month of curating breaking news in the world of video games, I’m beginning to realize a childhood dream.

But, as was to be expected, writing about video games isn’t full of zaniness (like writing for Mad Magazine is). It requires dedication and utilizing technology in a way I never had before (i.e.: Using Twitter for something other than sharing jokes about cats). There might actually be nothing worse than covering news about a game while simultaneously knowing you’ll never actually have the time to play it. Okay, there’s probably much worse than that, but this is a close second.

On the upside, I’m diving much deeper into the video game industry than I ever had as a child. I’m making connections with likeminded individuals who share my love of video games. I’m also finding that gaming is a legitimate part of our culture, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with spending some time getting lost in a virtual world…as long as you come out every once in a while.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have exactly 60 minutes of The Wild Hunt to attend to.