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.