If you want to escape from life for a while, there's a wide range of options - from booze to bodice-ripping novels - to help you do it. Few, however, can match video games and the level of immersion they can add to your escape. There is no question that a video game can be addictive – even dangerously addictive – depending on the individual. But it isn’t just the individual. In fact, game designers have a lot to do with it. In this article, we’ll look at five techniques they use to keep you playing.
Video game designers spend a lot of time making the game experience immersive. This means that game designers strive to create a complete environment using audio and visuals, and then keep that environment consistent. The hardware behind games has evolved to the point where clouds drift lazily across the sky in the same direction as a gentle breeze pushes the grass, while a soundtrack provides the sound of a wind that rises and falls to match the motion.
This kind of consistency may seem above and beyond, but you only have to check YouTube to find glitches that developers missed – artificial intelligence characters stuck in a motion rut, a jumping piece of landscape, etc. – to find out how this can work against keeping gamers in the story line. The more complete a world is, the quicker you get caught up in it and start identifying with your character and your quest within that world. Immersion, therefore, is the primary tool that many sandbox games employ. But there is another approach.
What good is getting away from reality if what you’re escaping to isn’t at least a little bit better than reality? Some video games focus less on the blades of grass and more on screen-filling explosions, super combos and awe-inspiring special moves. Fighting games, beat ‘em ups and other video games intended for two-player action lean heavily on the wow factor to keep you coming back.
Unlike a single player open-world games or MMORPGs, video games based on the fascination factor don’t need/want you to spend hours playing them - but they do want you to pick up the next version to play with your friends. This why they focus on being short-term fun by delivering over-the-top graphics and basic (but addictive) button-smashing gameplay. The Nintendo Wii was a pioneer in this sense, introducing several top titles that were based around two to four players battling it out, putting the focus on fun and gameplay rather than realism and immersion.
When it comes right down to it, we love feeling like we’re getting ahead. This feeling is so powerful (and so rare in the real world) that game designers include progression elements in almost every game, regardless of genre. However, the games that rely most heavily on progression are role-playing games (RPGs). In fact, many gamers will spend hours killing the same subset of enemies to gain levels and abilities just so that they can move forward in the quest and kill even more enemies.
Once a gamer commits to grinding out a game, the time needed to progress increases, especially with MMORPGs, where a player can breeze through the first few hours, rapidly gaining levels. Then, the game introduces a spread. So, the points needed to jump from level 10 to level 20 involve much more grinding than level 1 to 10, for example. Spreading out achievements makes gamers value them more, and game designers know this. Like movies, our expectations of a game’s length have grown – less than 20 hours is considered a very short completion time for RPGs. An easy way to fulfill that expectation without beefing up a game is to lengthen the progression incrementally, forcing a player to spend more time grinding. Many players consider this a cheap move on the part of game designers, so they have developed a related technique to help cover up the slowing of progression: reward schedules.
Progression through levels and the new abilities that come with it are part of a video game’s overall reward schedule. To make the grinding more palatable, however, game designers have rewards that are independent of progression. The most obvious one is the gold or in-world currency that can be built up to purchase items, but there are also side quests, secret items and many other rewards that a player can get without progressing in the game.
MMORPGs go a step further by introducing achievements that are completely separate from the levels and abilities needed to progress through a game. These achievements are usually badges or titles of honor that are awarded when the player has devoted significant time to a repetitive task such as killing 100 or 1,000 enemies of a particular type. As such, they don’t further the game, but they keep the gamer playing for bragging rights, thereby playing on a sense of achievement and pride.
Perhaps the most obvious psychological trick that video games use is appealing to our desire to have the world make sense and follow some basic rules. In a video game, there is a direct correlation between effort and reward. If you play long enough, you’ll gain the levels or master the techniques needed to complete most games, and hopefully have fun doing it. In any genre, the first-time player is presented with a game that is initially slanted in his or her favor and becomes more difficult – but remains fair – as it goes on. Even fighting games strive to be balanced so that no one character can dominate the others. A world where you are rewarded well for doing something you enjoy can be a powerful draw.
It’s unfair to call these design techniques tricks. For the most part, game designers employ them to make the game more enjoyable for the gamer. Game designers do consciously look for ways to make their games more compelling and fun, thus making them more addictive. But, ultimately, it is the gamer who gets hooked and becomes addicted to a certain title or online world. If there were no progression, reward schedules, fascination, immersion or fairness in gaming, people would find another place to escape reality, whether into a good book or an all-night casino. Considered this way, perhaps encouraging people to keep playing isn’t the worst thing in the world.