“who killed videogames?” (a ghost story)
by tim rogers
The smaller of the men was still talking about engagement wheels.
“Look at this one,” he said. He clicked to the next PowerPoint slide. “How about it?” Some of the men reacted.
“I . . . I . . . uh, I like this one the best.” He clicked one more time. Some of the prior engagement wheels had resembled close-up snapshots of a brier patch. This one looked like something you might see on a sticker on the side of a recycle bin in a particularly particular hippie commune. If all the engagement wheels today had been girls, this would be the one you’d one day decide you should have married.
The larger man spoke. He gestured while doing so. “You teach the player how to play the game in one minute. Within that one minute, you give them in-game money. You make them spend all of that money to buy an investment that will begin to earn them profit. They build a thing. It says: this thing will be finished in five minutes. Spend one premium currency unit to have it now. You happen to have one free premium currency unit. The game makes you use it now. Now you have a thing. Now it says to wait three minutes to collect from that thing. So they have a reason to stick around for three minutes. When those three minutes are up, you tell them to come back in a half an hour. You say, ‘You’re done for now. Come back in a half an hour.’ The phone sends them a push notification in a half an hour. Right here, you’re telling them to wait. You’re expressing to them the importance of patience. They’re never going to forget the way it feels to wait a half an hour after playing a game for one minute. They’re going to forget the second time they wait for a half an hour, and the third time, and they’ll then not forget the first time they have to wait for four hours, then twenty-four hours. This is why they’ll start to pay to Have Things Right Now.
“So after the first half hour, they get a push notification. Their phone vibrates. It tells them their such-and-such is ready for collection.”
The Other Men don’t make any sound. They have collectively folded their hands alongside their Alpine Crystal Spring Superclear Water bottles atop the glass table, collective face intent and weirdly worried, like that of a man hearing the beginning of a joke involving a rabbi, a toddler, and a lizard.
“They open the app. They collect from their such-and-such.
“Now the game tells them they’ve leveled up. It gives them some bonus coins. It tells them they’ve unlocked a new thing — a fancier thing.
“Here’s the important part. When they collect from their such-and-such, it gives them maybe 120 coins. The coin bonus they get for leveling up is about 2,500 coins — that’s magnitudes more than collecting from the such-and-such. Now you tell them to open the store. You show them the new thing you can buy. It should be around 2,200 coins. It’ll leave them with only a couple collections’ worth — maybe a couple collections and a half worth — of coins. We do this on purpose.
“Now they build the new thing, because it’s promising them a thousand coins per hour. So now they have to come back in an hour. And then two hours. And then three hours: there. They’ve made more than enough to cover the initial investment.
“Now they can buy an upgrade — for 2,200 coins — so that their thing will make them 2,000 coins an hour instead of 1,000. The mathematical part of their brain sees this and thinks: ‘That’s double what I was making before.’ Everyone loves when numbers double. We control the game world, we control the numbers: we control the ceiling for doubling. We control the player.
“The player is almost hooked.
“This is very important: now we give them something that gives them a reason to come back in two and a half hours. Then we give them ninety minutes. Then we’re telling them they can get 25% more coins per hour overall — maybe now they’ve got investments bringing them 5,000 coins per hour — if they do this thing that’ll take twenty-four hours.
“If you can hook them for a day, you can hook them for two.”
“And that’s where it becomes tricky,” the smaller of the men says. “If you can hook them for two days it’s very difficult to say whether or not you can hook them for three.
“And if you can hook them for three,” he says, closing his eyes, focusing his pupils perhaps on the core of his head, before opening his eyes and staring right at me, “then they’re going to be considering sticking around for a week.”
“And if they do stick around for a week,” the larger man — he has gold cufflinks — says, “they will not find it difficult at all to conceive of sticking around for a month. Then three months.”
“And once this concept has occurred to them,” the smaller man continues, “they will be ready to spend some money. All we have to do is show them something and say it will take three days to build. Or they can spend eleven in-game premium-currency units to have it right now.
“We sell the in-game premium-currency units twenty for a dollar.”
“The second they buy twenty units, they’re hooked for at least twenty more,” the larger man says.
“How can you say that?” one of the older men says, breaking a long, throaty silence.
“Our man here can tell you all about that.”
I am sitting at the head of the table playing Action Button Entertainment’s ZiGGURAT on my iPhone. I designed this game and am the director of its team of three people infinitely more talented than I am at everything except math and acting like a jerk in public. During this meeting no one is going to mention my game — though during the next one, the guy with the money is going to ask, while someone else is at a toilet break (he drinks a lot of green tea), “What is that? It looks awesome,” and I’ll say “I designed this game” and he will ask to play it; he’ll die six times, his groan of excitement upon death gradually escalating to football-spectator volume by the sixth death. He’ll hand my iPhone 4 back, casually touch his fingertips to his forehead, and say, “I want that.” Then, after a pause, once I’ve jumped back into a game, he’ll say, without a trace of irony, “What is your monetization strategy for that?”
I used to stand up a lot at these meetings. I try not to, anymore. It genuinely took me a couple months to realize that I wasn’t talking about things you should stand up while talking about.
This time, I put my white iPhone 4 to sleep, lay it face down on the board table, fold my hands, and say, “It’s all math. It’s all math and psychology. By which you might say, it’s all economics.” I clear my throat. “Economics and philosophy. By which you might say it’s modern video game design.”
Now the larger man praises me; I am above blushing: “He is an expert at balancing these things. He will construct an algorithm that shrewdly obscures a downward-trending curve for in-game investment values.”
“What we’re saying,” the smaller man says, “is that the other guys are making things that people will fathom playing for three months if they play it for a week, and that we’re going to make a thing that people will consider playing for six months, if they play it for three days. We’ll generate a mathematically proofable engagement wheel. The players will come for the cute characters, and–”
I’m not listening anymore. For all I care, he is probably going to say “The players will come for the cute characters, and stay for the cruel mathematics.”