Thursday, July 22, 2010

What makes a game compelling and addictive?

Written by pikaby

Okay, I realized I haven't made a long detailed blog in a while. But who can blame me? I'm always busy, and the daily news updates are enough to sustain the blog (and all you readers). For this post, I asked this question to everyone at the forum and at my profile at : 'What makes videogames compelling and addictive? What is that secret something that keeps you playing for hours on end?'

Guys at the forum were straightforward and less forthcoming with details as usual. 'Gameplay.' Full stop. 'Story.' Full stop. Oh come on guys. Gameplay is important, but it has to be a certain element in a game that keeps you coming back for more. This has to be explained in more detail. For example, two great Wii games, Mario Galaxy 2 and Monster Hunter Tri. When you stack the review scores up together, Galaxy 2 trumps. But in terms of play time, Monster Hunter wins out. Why? 'Online play' is the most obvious answer. Most games these days can't be seen without it, and bemoaned for not including it (Mario Galaxy 2 troll reviewer, you know who you are). But even so it still has to be done right and in a certain way to suck people in.

Friends from Gamespot had more detailed comments. Returning to a loved game series whenever a sequel comes out, but with new, fresh elements to keep the formula from getting stale. Online multiplayer and making friends on the fly. A good storyline...wait. I have to disagree on this. A good story keeps you playing the game if just to find out what happens next (Phoenix Wright being a good example). But once you reach the end and the credits roll, would you go back to the beginning and play again? Most games anchored to a strong storyline don't have the same compelling nature once the entire story has been conveyed to the player. Even if you do want to play it again it feels more forced than usual, with you skipping past the 'play' part of the game to get to your favorite scenes. And you already know what's going to happen anyway so what's the point anymore? It's like watching and re-watching a DVD. And don't even get me started on plot spoilers...

One point for compelling and addictive games, which I got from a freind at Gamespot, is the simplicity of the game. The commenter used Pokemon as an example...but there's a much better one. Remember Tetris?

One of the simplest and most beautiful concepts in puzzle games, which even now remains unrivaled. You could easily go 20 hours and the game still wouldn't end. The lines continue stacking up, the blocks continue falling down, the lines keep on clearing, the scores keep on rising, your bleary eyes keep on looking and you just Can. Not. Stop. I guess this has something to do with people liking to stack up things in neat rows and columns and seeing their effort pay off when they clear and points are earned. Or maybe they're aiming for a new high score. Decades on and Tetris still doesn't grow stale at all.

'Seeing their effort pay off'. I guess what's most important here is how the game rewards you. There's a delicate balance- whatever gifts the game doles out to you must be proportionate to the amount of time you spend playing it. Like in an RPG- you gain experience points and level up, growing stronger. If it's too easy to level up, or the new skills you gain are too powerful, that would ruin whatever you have left of the game. That's a case when the game rewards you with too much. Too little...think of MMOs where billions of EXP are required to level up, or things like Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, where enemies get too strong, too fast. Beating enemies becomes a thankless grind and gets boring very quickly.

But when the game does it right, the result is wonderful. Monster Hunter Tri, for example. The 'wyverns' or boss monsters, are almost never out of your reach in terms of your skill level, but will still give you a hard time. Beating them, you're rewarded first with the uplifting 'quest complete' theme song which never gets old, followed by all the spoils you carve from your monsters, which include rare items you might want to upgrade your armor and weapons with, and the cycle just continues. Weapons and armor get rarer and rarer, and together with that the items you have to gather to forge them get more and more elusive. The escalating rarity and power of your items and equipment just never seems to end, and you're always compelled to play more to find out where it'll stop. It's just that exact sense of accomplishment when among all the common things you get for completing a hunt, you get something rare. The game rewards you appropriately, and it's this that keeps you going.

And it's the same rewards system that taps into another factor, which is inclusion of sidequests and post-game content. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I've finally finished a game which I've been slaving away at for two weeks or more and see the staff credits roll, there's always a feeling of satisfaction, followed by an empty feeling that well, you've done everything. There's nothing more for you to see in that favorite game of yours. Post-game content is the game's way of rewarding your efforts for completing the game. New stages? New modes? New playable characters? Achievements and new difficulty levels? All good. If there's post-game content, it would compel people to keep on playing, and adds to the overall longevity. But heaven forbid that the only thing you'll unlock after completion is....a concept art gallery/'sound test' mode/other BS that doesn't make you want to play more.

But enough of playing by your own, as many other people have said, online multiplayer can be just as addictive. But it has to be a certain something to be a successful pull to the player as well. If all online play gave you was 2 on 2 duels or the like with no real rewards, would you play it? Sure, you show off your skills, but it's a waste of time. Add in a points/ranking system, leaderboards, friends lists, and the game soars. Mario Kart Wii has a points system for both Race and Battle Mode. It just feels good when you trump over 11 rivals and see that number increase by a wide margin. It just feels good. Same with Monster Hunter Tri, again. A 'Hunter Rank' system, that rewards you with even tougher and interesting quests for leveling up. Half of the content and the most epic battles in MH3 can only be accessed online, in fact. It's a compelling reason to get your Wii hooked up. And as said by friends at Gamespot, it only works if the online game allows you to show your skills alongside others, alongside everyone that's online regardless of how much time they've already invested in it, instead of putting low-leveled players at a disadvantage, as in Call of Duty.

And that's probably why we just continue to play games, to see the rewards which each game has to offer us at each stage of play. After the first boss battle, after the middle, after the climax point, and after the staff roll. It's this unknown disc/cartridge of surprises which keeps on attracting people to play, and will for many years to come.
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