September 12, 2013

Game Compulsion Disorder and the Call for Discipline Games

This post started as a reply to Patrick Carroll’s recent blog post: Aha! So That's What I'm After!. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts, and after my reply snowballed into over a page of text, I figured I might as well go for it and make it blog post of its own. Here we go…
When playing a video game, a tough situation often comes up for me. I'm playing along and pause to reflect, asking myself "why the heck am I playing this?" What is it I'm getting out of the experience (if anything?).

I recently read an article from Keith Burgun's blog titled an "Anti-Videogame Manifesto" that I think you'll find insightful.

In it, he describes “compulsion” games and “discipline” games. Compulsion games compel people to play based primarily on a schedule of extrinsic rewards. Case in point – I used to play Diablo and Diablo II (computer action RPG’s) quite a bit, until one day I asked myself, “why am I playing this game?” All I’m doing is the same monotonous sequence of clicking and attacking in hopes of finding incrementally better loot so that I can progress incrementally further into the game in hopes of getting the next incrementally better pile of loot. There are very few significant decisions with broader or long-term consequences in such compulsive games. You are motivated to play for the extrinsic rewards.

By contrast, “discipline” games – of which most hobby/strategy board games would be, are more focused on creating significant decision points – and the “journey” of how you win or lose and the knowledge gained from that sequence of choices is the primary “reward” rather than a hand out of extrinsic rewards.

In terms of video games, I feel many of the games in the strategy/turn-based camps (i.e. Masters of Orion, Master of Magic, etc.) are in the discipline camp when the scenario/situation calls for deeper strategic decisions – but there is still a moderate amount of monotony as well (moving fleets/units across the map turn after turn for example). But generally, these games don’t have a compulsion aspect to them; the joy of playing them is, well, actually playing them and making tough choices!

I used to play a lot of FPS games (Quake, Doom, Counter-Strike, etc) and RTS games (Starcraft, Dawn of War, etc.) and in a competitive multiplayer context these were definitely discipline type games too. You had to play and practice to become better at the game, and that was reward enough. Winning a tough match against a skilled opponent/team was an accomplishment. You didn’t need to be rewarded on top of that with some silly “achievement” badge or special unlock, or some other external reward.

Looking back, I can’t help but see that the decline in the quality of FPS games (in particular) is plummeting (in my opinion) because the gameplay is shifting from a discipline model to a compulsion model, and one that is also coupled with monetization schemes. The gameplay itself is dumbed down to shrink the impact of skill differences – but in turn skill differences are artificially imposed by giving perks to players willing to “grind” for better gear/loot or pay money outright for better stuff (the pay-to-win-model). It’s really too bad.

So for me, I’m rarely interested in any videogames at this point that fit the compulsion model. They seem like pointless time wasters. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time/flexibility to play many competitive multiplayer games either (the good ones that are still around). So I’m mostly restricted to solo games – of which I’m most interested in 4x/Civ style games from a strategic standpoint and adventure/RPG games from a narrative and immersion standpoint.

Yet even here I have my doubts about what’s to be gained from playing such games. Skyrim, which I've discussed before, provides an interesting point. I think from a raw design standpoint, it’s a compulsion game, with the player being incrementally rewarded with better gear and the next monotonous quest assignment. There isn’t much room to actually become a “better” Skyrim player or more skilled at playing the game. The extrinsic rewards of gear and skill points make your “character” better, not “you” better. At a certain point though (and fairly quickly for me) the compulsion drive runs its course and there is no room for substantive advancement of your character. Sure, you might get more skill points or this slightly better weapon – but the challenges you face don’t really require it. So what are you left with?’

One might say the value is in the “narrative” of the game, which in other RPG’s or other games could claim to be of a discipline aspect, where players are faced with tough choices with lasting consequences and no way of “going back.” Yet the narrative in Skyrim is not at all dynamic or responsive to player choice – for all its appearances of being a living world it’s really a dead one. Which leaves the visual adventure, for me, as the only redeeming quality of the game – in other words the “journey” of going from one place to next provides its own sort of aesthetic reward. Yet this only works in modest chunks and wears itself thin quickly. And perhaps even that reward is compulsion too.

From the Civ/4X standpoint, I run into similar quandaries. I recently fired up Alpha Centauri again, a game which I purport to love. Yet it struck me this time around as immensely boring. The vast majority of the game time is spent messing with build cues on planets, and moving units from one spot to the next. For every meaningful strategic decision I might face in the game, there are 100 monotonous actions leading up to it. Why? I think there is a certain compulsion element to that game as well – the incremental reward of getting the next technology, or finishing a special project. Is there really strategy in that? The gameplay is in general far too tactical and stretched over too long of a time frame to be certain of whether your choices are even strategic in nature or not.

An older game that I’ve been playing recently that I’m fairly intrigued by is Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. This is a fantasy 4X game in the vein of Master of Magic. I’m enjoying it quite a bit, despite some concerns I’ll outline in a moment. On the plus side, the fantasy setting has a much stronger narrative and sense of character than most sci-fi/space 4x games do. But more importantly the way magic works, and how you project your wizard’s magical abilities across a domain of influence adds a decisively strategic layer to the gameplay that’s absent in most space 4x games. Your wizard’s magic abilities, on any given turn, are limited by your mana pool – it’s a sort of turn by turn strategic resource that you need to use and allocate wisely. Couple this with the fact that you can only project your magic around your wizard towers or hero’s and suddenly there is compelling strategic planning element to how you build your empire and distribute your forces to be able to support them with your magical reserves. It’s pretty cool.

Yet ultimately, a lot of the gameplay is still monotonous and compulsive. Many turns go by of methodically exploring the world map, fighting neutral monsters for loot-based rewards, repositioning your forces on the world map, etc. I’m not terribly far into the game, but I hope that as I progress the difficulty and the time pressures the player is put under increases significantly – because at the moment I feel like I have “all the time in the world” to amass my forces for an inevitable victory. There aren’t enough competing demands or time pressure to force me into tough strategic positions. But maybe as I get into the harder levels/scenarios that will change. I’m hoping it does.

What’s the take away from all of this?

I think there needs to be (or I need to find) more video games outside competitive multiplayer games that are more discipline focused. I keep brainstorming a videogame design concept for a 4x/civ game that VASTLY increases the “density of strategic decisions” while eliminating the monotony. Boardgames in the genre already do this well. So the challenge is how can you do the same in a video game format while taking advantage of platform to create a more immersive and narrative experience at the same time. How would redesign Master of Orion if the whole game was to be played out in 30 turns instead of 300 turns? How would the game be structured such that every turn the player was faced with significant strategic choices? Certainly the game could still be complex and rich, but it would be focused on scrutinizing the details to inform a grand strategic choice, rather than navigating the details just to carry out monotonous incremental tasks in the name of “empire building.”

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