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Trapper Zoid

How to make great games less addictive?

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The short description: I'd like to open up a discussion on the following questions which have been plaguing my mind for ages:
  1. Is there an ethical problem with aiming to make a too addctive game?
  2. If so, how can we as designers make great games without them being too addictive?

The long description: This is more of a philosophical question that I have worried about for a while. It's a general question about game design rather than about a particular game that I am creating, or even tied to a particular genre. But it's something that has bugged me for a while regarding what I should be aiming for in game design. Many times when I read lists of what makes a game great, I see "addictive" listed as a positive attribute. This has always made me uneasy, because addiction is an association that marks a vice. In this case, an addictive game is one that sucks up too much time. I think the appropirate psychological term is flow. I know that I have occasionally fired up an addictive game thinking I'd only play for a half hour, and ended up spending the rest of the day playing. Or worse, up to the early hours of the morning when I had classes or work the next day. As such I feel uncomfortable with deliberately setting out to design an addictive game. It's to a lesser degree than if I were say designing a slot machine, as a "good design" for slots is one that ends up hooking vulnerable people to spend more money they can afford. In the case of an addictive computer game, all the addict is wasting is time, but that still is something I feel uncomfortable about deliberately setting out to achieve with a game design. Although obviously some responsiblity must lie with the player, from an ethical point of view I think as a designer I should consider methods of making games less addictive but still remaining great. The problem, however, is that in my mind there is a significant overlap between the properties that makes a good game and what makes an addictive one. Obviously as game designers we wish to create experiences that capture the imaginations and provide entralling experiences to our players. I think this overlap is the reason why I see "addictive" listed so often as a positive trait associated with good games. However, is it true that this overlap is a necessary evil? Is it possible to make a brilliant game that is not addictive? It might help if I list what I consider to be elements that help create an addictive game (I might add to this list later on):
  • Uninterrupted seamless gameplay (limited loading times, smooth gameplay progression between stages etc.)
  • Multiple game objectives so there is always something in progress
  • Randomised reward elements (example: randomised weapon drops in RPGs)
  • Feedback on development level (only 250 XP required for level up!)
  • Social elements (such as massively multiplayer)
  • Rewards for time invested in the game (again: massively multiplayer)
  • High level of polish (nothing to jar the player out of an immersive state)
Unfornunately I think all those things are desirable attributes for a game to have! So how can we design a game that still has these positive qualities but is less addictive? Probably the weakest one of those attributes is the seamless gameplay. One possibility would be to allow an optional gameplay timer that can save and quit after a set amount of time. Of course, the problem with this method is if the player is at a critical point in time they would be fairly annoyed. Another approach is to have natural points in the game where players feel comfortable switching the game off. I find that I have no problem playing level based games for a fixed amount of time, as the end of a level is an obvious point to evaluate whether I should keep playing the game. However this is harder to achieve in the more freeform games, such as large scale strategy games; the 4X genre is one that I frequently described as addictive. One possibility would be to insert milestones into such games - possibly reward screens that mark time elapsed or set achievements? - that provide the wake-up call. My questions then are firstly the fundamental one: in your opinion am I being over-conscious in worrying about the addictiveness of games, or am I worrying too much? Secondly: is it possible to still make great games that are not as addictive? In particular, can we take a traditionally addictive great game and make it less addictive while still retaining its greatness?

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You know, I wouldn't have even thought of games as being "too addictive" until I read your post. You bring up some intriguing thought provoking points. Never once would I have considered it a matter of ethics by making addictive gameplay. hehe.

Addictive games for me are actually games that don't involve much gameplay time, and yet, ironically, they chew up enormous amount of time. Games like Scorched Earth, or the more familiar Worms type games - ate up an enormous amount of my time while I was at University (when I should have otherwise been working on studying). These games for me provide the "Just One More" level/round/session type of gameplay. While they are intended as coffee break type of gameplay, it ends up providing an alternative to that 5000 word English essay, or as a means of procrastination.

Other games which seem addictive (not to myself personally), but steal away all my friends who *are* addicted, are the MMORPGS. Everquest stole away all my friends, and I was left scratching my head wondering why we couldn't go out anymore! :( To them, these games sucked up enormous amounts of time, and hours seemed to fly by effortlessly in their virtual worlds. I guess the game makers are counting on this form of addictiveness.

As to a resolution? Maybe, popups could come up every so often saying "Have you done your homework yet?" or "Did you remember to sleep in the past week?" or "Remember your friends!".

I will have to think more on this...

I think in terms of gameplay and game design, making a game less addictive is self-defeating, and like making a cheese pizza less cheesy. You aren't gonna get that 5 star review if people aren't going to come back to it often. Replayability is an important factor in game design.

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I might venture out here and suggest that addiction has psychological and physical explainations, not technical explainations.

Some people want to be addicted. How are you going to design around that?

The solution has to do with people, not technology.

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The problem is that anything which is good is going to get addictive, so you can't construct a good game without making it addictive. Consider chocolate for example, it's unhealty to eat much of it, you're more likely to eat more if it tastes good, does that mean we shouldn't make chocolate which taste good? The problem is the same with games, it's "unhealthy" if people use too much time on it and people are likely to use more time if it's a good game. The things you listed as addictive properties are just properties which make sure the "fun-level" keeps fairly constant, this is addictive because the game never gets boring enough for the player to quit.

I don't think you can make a great game which isn't addictive, why would someone not want to play your game if it's that great? A timer would be fairly annoying, since sometimes I want to play for a long period of time (12-hour deathmatch ftw). Also the reward screen would just provide "Feedback on development level", a thing you listed as addictive. I know I always want to "just finish the next part" when I get to a reward screen, or get to the next level when I see I'm close. I think the problem is at the user's side, game developers simply supply products good enough to, in itself, be addictive. I would say it's just an implicit property of all good games.

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Single-Player. It's the multiplayer drive that makes games "more exciting", even though in truth, it's only "More addicting".

That's my opinion anyway. Seriously, how many people turn on their NES and play Excite Bike every day for 3 years straight... no one really... What about Diablo 2. If you create a single player game, you'll end up cheating someway through, and then leaving the game be. If you start a multiplayer account, it will destroy your life for years.

That's what I'd imagine anyway.

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Quote:
Original post by F1N1TY
Single-Player. It's the multiplayer drive that makes games "more exciting", even though in truth, it's only "More addicting".

That's my opinion anyway. Seriously, how many people turn on their NES and play Excite Bike every day for 3 years straight... no one really... What about Diablo 2. If you create a single player game, you'll end up cheating someway through, and then leaving the game be. If you start a multiplayer account, it will destroy your life for years.

That's what I'd imagine anyway.


Not all people find multiplayer more addicting, me being one of them.

@Trapper Zoid: In my opinion, most of the time a game isn't good unless it's addictive. I'd classify it more as a "it's ok." (There are exceptions, for me at least.)

Plus there is the fact that just because the majority doesn't find it addictive doesn't mean that everyone doesn't. I've played games before that I thought were awesome and I'd play for hours, but my friends thought they were total crap.

Quote:
Secondly: is it possible to still make great games that are not as addictive? In particular, can we take a traditionally addictive great game and make it less addictive while still retaining its greatness?

I don't think so. The only way to take away it's addictiveness would be to cut out a key part of what makes it great.

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F1N1TY: You have a good point but, I think that multiplayer games are probably the most likely to be great but not so addictive.

For example GoldenEye for N64 was a great multiplayer game but unfortunatly the fun had to end when your friend went home (true it did have unlockables for the single player to increase time, buts its mainly remembered for multiplayer).

Another (not so good) example is Halo, going through the levels on your own gets pretty boring (and sometimes scarey in levels with the flood), invite a friend round and its great! They leave and it isn't. Although Halo has made up for this by allowing people to access the internet and play games with strangers (I'm can't remember what this is called). Although IMO the Co-Op is more fun than the multiplayer.

In summary I think that Co-Op playing would help - the game is great fun, but when your friend goes home it looses its appeal (but hopefully the friend will think it was great and go out and buy it himself).

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Quote:
Original post by Peter Conn
F1N1TY: You have a good point but, I think that multiplayer games are probably the most likely to be great but not so addictive.

For example GoldenEye for N64 was a great multiplayer game but unfortunatly the fun had to end when your friend went home (true it did have unlockables for the single player to increase time, buts its mainly remembered for multiplayer).

Another (not so good) example is Halo, going through the levels on your own gets pretty boring (and sometimes scarey in levels with the flood), invite a friend round and its great! They leave and it isn't. Although Halo has made up for this by allowing people to access the internet and play games with strangers (I'm can't remember what this is called). Although IMO the Co-Op is more fun than the multiplayer.

In summary I think that Co-Op playing would help - the game is great fun, but when your friend goes home it looses its appeal (but hopefully the friend will think it was great and go out and buy it himself).


Case in point. If you think about cigarettes (which I do often), you'd know that the reason they are addictive is because Nicotine releases a neurotransmitter known as Dopamine into the brain. This chemical affects the "pleasure" center of the brain, making it believe it enjoys nicotine.

In truth, the body rejects it, as it is poison to the heart, but the dopamine makes it seem as if it's good.

I think the ability to make a fun game, without being addictive is contradictive. Because, fun = dopamine (whice the brain enjoys), dopamine = more "need" for the cause of fun. There are rare occurances where you can have a generally fun game, that isn't so addictive (I love Tetris, but can only play it for about 5 minutes before finding something "more fun" to do).

But again, that's all (most likely) due to the "amount" of dopamine that's delivered. (Tetris = 5mg dopamine, Diablo 2 = 4000mg dopamine).

I guess, what I'm trying to say, is: it's all up to your brain. :)

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Thanks for all the replies so far!

I might have to clarify that I consider addiction to be stronger than just enjoyment of a good game. If someone plans to spend an entire evening playing a great game, then that's fine with me. It's more the tendency to play a game more than is healthy such as intending to only play for an hour but ending up playing all day, feeling guilty about playing a game too much, or playing a game beyond the point where it is still fun. It was for examples such as this that I conjured up the idea of an optional lock-out timer; one where the player could specify at the beginning of the game to limit the game to, say, an hour.

In my case, I suspect I have an addictive personality. Take books for example: unless a book is total rubbish I tend to read one cover to cover in a single sitting or I feel unnerved and have to finish that book. That's one reason why I don't read fantasy novels, after a time several years ago when my sister gave me a mediocre novel to read without telling me there were nine more in the series before the plot came to a resolution - that cost me three days [smile].

It's hard to quantify, but I know from my experience there are games that I still classify as good that are nowhere near as addictive as other games. For example, compare Grim Fandango to Diablo 2. Now in my opinion, I would rank Grim Fandango as a better game than Diablo 2 (note: that's my opinion, I understand if yours is different [smile]). However, I never was addictied to Grim Fandango, even when playing in through the first time, whereas I have at times played Diablo 2 even when I wasn't finding the game any fun. There was something about the gameplay that kept me playing. Now I suspect it was the constant progression combined with the lottery of finding items and finished with the overall very high polish level, whereas Grim Fandago (while similarly polished) has a slower pace that lends itself to be able to put down and pick up again at a later stage.

I also know that if I am working on a project, or back when I was studying for exams, there are certain game types that I could play that I would not find addictive. I was able to play single player Warcraft II responsibly while studying. Similarly platformers were also on my play list (my favourite when studying for exams was Monolith's Claw). But something like SimCity or Creatures? No way - I'd lose precious sleep that I needed for thinking clearly by playing those. Note that I consider all of those to be good games (to various degrees), but the level like nature of Warcraft and Claw made them much better study games than the open ended SimCity or Creatures.

Of course, part of the answer to the question I think lies in the definition of what a good game actually is, as well as the definition of fun. It might be true that what some people consider fun can never be made non-addictive, and that good non-addictive games are more satisfying than fun.

However I am a big fan of those open ended epic games like Civilization and SimCity as well as RPGs, but it seems to me that those types of games are the ones that are often the most addictive. I can't help thinking there must be a way to make those types of games equally compelling but without getting players unnecessarily burning the midnight oil in the wee twilight hours of the early morning.

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I don't think you should feel guilty about allowing people to have too much fun. Trust me, I've gone the distance. Worse case scenario, they forget to eat for 24 hours.

Jobs come and go. But a lot of people are unhappy. Making those people happy is a damn good thing to strive for. Even if it does mean you transform a few potential doctors into McDonalds clerks. I'll be a happy clerk rather than a miserable doctor any day of the week.

Quote:
Original post by F1N1TY
If you think about cigarettes (which I do often), you'd know that the reason they are addictive is because Nicotine releases a neurotransmitter known as Dopamine into the brain. This chemical affects the "pleasure" center of the brain, making it believe it enjoys nicotine.

There's something else to it. I actually convinced myself that I wouldn't be able to do some things as well if I stopped smoking. For example, I had it in my head that if I stopped smoking, I wouldn't be as patient, and could no longer sit and work on character animation for eight hours straight. Talk about an evil substance. I did quit. And after I got over the extreme anger stage, there was no effect.

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