who killed videogames? (a ghost story)

| tim

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chapter three: engagement wheels and compulsion traps

(or, “different metaphors”)

Every social game now uses a mechanic called “energy”.

Energy is a devilish, sinister little fantastic idea.

In a game with an “energy” mechanic, you need one energy point per profitable action. When you run out of energy, you can either pay money for more — usually you can fill your meter for two dollars — you can spam your Facebook friends’ walls and mailboxes, begging for more, or you can sit patiently and wait for the meter to recharge.

As research for a game I was developing, I played the latest megalithic social game, The Sims Social, which is the product of Electronic Arts and Playfish dissecting each of Zynga’s sinister success stories and reverse-engineering their own, leaner, deadlier model.

The Sims Social uses “energy” points. However, it also uses a dozen other currencies, all of them directly or indirectly converting into another (if not one another).

I should note that, when I say “currencies”, I’m talking about more than just gold or coins or rupees or any other in-game money unit:

Game design is about crafting a micro-economy. Even in an action game, every action the player or an enemy can perform is a stock or a bond or a unit of currency that can be traded for something else. As the screen scrolls from left to right, Super Mario Bros.’s market fluctuates. One fireball can buy one dead koopa. The points at the top of the screen can’t buy anything. Given enough time and a spreadsheet, I could tell you how many dead Goombas a Bowser fireball is worth.

In Dragon Quest, it’s less obscure. Gold buys weapons. Weapons buy attack power upgrades. Attack power upgrades buy clearance for more attack power upgrades — through allowing the player’s rate of gold acquisition by allowing him to traverse a previously impassable tunnel and access a region of the world with stronger, richer monsters, in the vicinity of a town whose shop sells better weapons. At the end of the day, all you’re doing is buying bigger numbers. Armor is a currency which buys you an extra round of survival in a battle against a particular type of forest imp. Experience points buy you level-ups, which buy you marginally bigger numbers, which buy you time — accelerating the pace at which you approach the benchmark amount of gold needed to buy the next more powerful weapon or armor. In Dragon Quest, you’ll every so often reach a point where you have to decide between being able to survive longer or hit harder. It feels like an important choice, though “harder” is nearly always the right answer. The simple evidence for that is this game is unwinnable if you do not hit something every now and again. (This is algebraically sound.)

What the “energy” mechanic does is limit the player’s time. This is how you know Zynga employed psychiatrists and psychologists and psychomathematicians in the honing of this concept: you give the player only a few moves at a time. The player uses all of these moves. Now he can’t play anymore, unless he:
Pays some money
Begs his friends
Waits

The first of these options leads to the game’s victory. The player has paid something, so the game wins. It takes the money, puts it in its pocket, tells the player his “kidnapped” daughter is already safe at home, and walks away.

The second of these options leads to increased viral exposure of the game. Of course, this is incredibly effective. Remember: the “average” player who spends $1.70 is a Math Ghost. In order for these games to profit, they need to have as many players talking about it as possible. What better — and more brilliant! — way to get players to talk about a game than to make talking about the game a way to earn currency in the game? I’m sure we all know how brilliant a moneymaking idea this is. We can all agree that it’s sinister, though let’s stop for a second and reflect on how amazingly simple it is.

(It used to be, people talked about a game when they enjoyed playing it. The businessmen whose arms may well be huge pairs of tweezers no doubt saw this and took away the information that “People talking about games leads to increased exposure of the game.” They failed to see — or conveniently ignored — that it was because the game was enjoyable, or interesting, that people talked about it. Now, they force you to talk about the game. Does that, then, make the game interesting? I’m not going to delve too deeply into the good things about social games, though I will say, with a sigh, that yes — yes, it does, ultimately, have just about the same effect as the game being interesting.)

The final of these options is the one the psychomathematicians grinned most sinisterly about. The player who does not want to pay or scream must now wait. He can take some actions without expending energy — he can move his furniture around, or what have you — though he can’t do anything in the name of progress.

The player who waits might not be paying because:

He doesn’t like the game
He isn’t sure if he understands the benefits of paying

The player who waits might not be asking his friends for help because:

He doesn’t like the game
He has a sense of common decency

Any time the player decides to wait for his energy meter to refill, he is (subconsciously) selecting two of these four possible reasons. In the case of “He doesn’t like the game” and “He doesn’t like the game”, the game is probably not going to get any of his money.

In the case of “He doesn’t like the game” and “He has a sense of common decency”, this is where magic occurs.

One click in one of these social games will take the user to the Real-World Money-Costing In-Game-Currency-Unit-Buying Shop. Here, the player will see that the game indeed offers him an option for paying $100 for something which is not real: an in-game currency with which to buy things in the game.

At the time he makes the conscious decision to wait for his energy to refill, the player likely already knows that “micro”-transactions exist which have $100 price-tags. Now he learns how much energy costs — usually, it’s nowhere near $100, or even $10.

Do players buy energy? What sorts of players buy energy? The short answer is: actual idiots. The long answer is: people who don’t understand why they have so much real-world money.

In social games, energy doesn’t exist to be bought. It exists as an engagement-regulating filter. The player attaches to it some vague notion of “value”. Backward-like, he comes to associate waiting an hour in the real world before coming back to the game with “working” and “earning” the “value” of the thing the game is giving him for “free”.

This isn’t exactly a truthful impression. The impression the player should take away — and gets confused about — is that in social games, time is a currency. Time is what you use to buy energy. Energy is a currency for purchasing in-game money, and some less-abstract in-game currencies (the premium in-game currency which the player must use real money to purchase) and more-abstract in-game currencies (namely virality and chance) can be used to purchase energy directly.

Energy’s multiple conversion rates into multiple in-game currencies mystify the idea of time as a currency.

The old idiom “time is money” has many meanings, you see.

“Energy” is a money that literally directly represents time.

Social game developers are scrambling knee-over-shoulder over one another, as of late, to implement The Next Energy. Concepts like Social Game Energy Points — much like Viral Marketing, masturbation, and caffeine — are the sort of thing that works for a while, until its flimsy veneer snaps off and the user blinks, and says, “Wait, what?” It’s a compulsion trap.

So here’s what the geniuses at EA and Playfish came up with — and I’m not being snippy when I use the word “geniuses”. They really are geniuses.

"OKAY"

The Sims Social features a mechanic coldly entitled “inspiration”. “Inspiration” is a temporary state of euphoria during which your Sim earns 150% the money he usually earns from single-energy-point-costing in-game actions which yield money. “Inspiration” reflects your Sim’s stock on a good day, as it were.

The “Inspired” status is, in bluntest terms, a currency-augmenting state purchased with two currencies. One of the currencies is “time”. The other is the most abstract social-game currency yet devised: “care”.

If virality as a game currency were Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, this is the Mona Lisa.

(Alternate sentence: “If virality as a game currency were some shrewd engineer’s attempt at creating a communication method more vapid than a Christmas card, this is a reinvention of waiting for the cable guy.”)

The player appreciates the world of the game; if the player didn’t hold some small attachment to the world of the game, the player would have quit playing. Both “player” and “game” would henceforth semantically cease to exist.

We talked above about how all of Zynga’s energy-point social games contain not-for-profit actions which can be performed without the expense of energy points. The line in the sand is clear: to get currency (in-game coins), one must use currency (energy, or real-world money) to perform action. If one performs an action which does not require currency, one will not receive currency.

The Sims Social’s “inspiration” is a filter applied before the expense of currency which is then used to perform actions which, bluntly put, purchase a different currency.

Here’s how it works: at the bottom of the screen are five buttons, representing the five Basic Needs of a Sim: Socialization, Hygiene, Food, Toilet, and Fun. These buttons start out a radiant primary green. As time passes, these buttons’ colors slip — in sometimes wildly randomized rates — from this tasty green to a lighter green, to yellow, to orange, to red, and eventually — very eventually — to black. When a need is red or black, the Sim will refuse to do anything except satisfy that need. (Needs become black if the Sim has just stood around not doing anything for a time.)

To satisfy the need, click the button. Click the “Hygiene” icon and your Sim — regardless of the color of the need button — will trot off to the bathroom to either take a shower or wash his or her hands in the sink. Click on “Food” and your Sim will head to the kitchen to either eat from the refrigerator or heat something up in the microwave.

If a need is any color other than primary green, doing a need-satisfying action will cause a bright green happy face icon to pop out of your Sim. Click on it to collect it — or, well, don’t click on it, and after a moment the game will collect it for you. (This is a crucially important element of the game.)

The green happy face is a “mood” item, which increases the “mood” meter, a vertically oriented temperature gauge of sorts with a happy face at the top, located to the left of your “need” buttons.

Getting all of the buttons to primary green will yield a maxxed “mood” meter, a big green happy face, a twinkling sound effect, a sparkly aura around your character, and the shining word “INSPIRED!” above the need buttons. “Earn more Simoleons!” it says, under “inspired”.

Now you click on the nearest thing that you know will earn your money — the microwave, for example. You can earn 20 Simoleons every time you cook nachos. With the “inspired” bonus, you can earn thirty. You have been writing emails and talking on the phone over in The Realspace, so you have a Sims Social energy meter which is near-bursting turgid with fifteen energy points. You click that microwave, and you just start going to town on making those nachos.

Here is where it should be noted that each action — be it a free-of-cost need-satisfying / mood-boosting action or an energy-point-costing currency-earning action — results in a series of cute character animations which play out over an average length of time of ten seconds.

Ten little seconds! In, say, a first-person shooter, much of the math is accidental — inspired by game designer brain-sparks. The game designer is firing a gun, and says, “This should be a little faster.” So we head over to the spreadsheet and look at the numbers. The machinegun fires 18 rounds a second. We pump it up to 19. 19 — a weird little prime number. Somehow, it feels better.

With a social game, you can tell where they’re starting. I have reverse-compiled a game design balance sheet for The Sims Social, and I will tell you all about it, if you’ll read my review on Action Button Dot Net, though for now I’ll only say that where an action game is home to many sixes and nineteens, in social games you find a lot of fives and tens.

Let’s not dwell on what that means (just yet).

It takes ten seconds to perform an action — once your Sim has approached the object he will use to perform the action (toilet, microwave). You’ll need to perform five actions — at least — to max your mood meter. Your Sim might have to walk back and forth across the house five times to perform all those actions. When you boil The Sims Social down to its essence, this is “The Fun Part”: watching Cartoon You (or Cartoon Bill Cosby) walk around inside your happy little home. Sometimes, something breaks before you can use it, and your Sim gets frustrated. You can either fix it (one energy point), or you can use an alternative (instead of the microwave, head to the refrigerator to satisfy hunger).

Once your mood meter is full and you’re inspired, it’s time to make money. Each money-making action takes five seconds. By now, this software product (“game”) has firmly hooked you.

Crucial: you can only queue up five actions at a time. (This is not Starcraft.)

You have fifteen energy points. If you tab away from The Sims Social to check your email during a cycle of five actions, maybe the microwave will break in the middle of your nacho-frenzy. You’ll come back to see only two of five actions were completed: he’s not going to fix the microwave automatically.

Or maybe you’ll plug in and watch ten actions go without a hitch. That’s a hundred seconds of your life evaporated painlessly. Then you’ll plug in the last five actions and tab away. You’ll come back to see you have four energy points left, the microwave is broken, and your inspiration has worn off. Next time, you’ll be more careful.

So here we are, playing video poker in a bar by the highway a decade after the nukes drop and everyone is dead and “money” is just a ghost like anyone else’s dead grandpa.

The idea, here, is that The Sims Social is rife with sticky walls and mental fly-paper, trying to keep you staring at the world until you become so accustomed to its face it’s the same as being in love: you’re staring at your guy making nachos, or writing blog posts, because the game has attached this mammoth importance to making more money, to moving up in the world, to buying new furniture, and here it is giving you a fifty-percent bonus. You’re trapped, whether you’re actively “enjoying” yourself or not. You’re “doing it correctly”, and the game is rewarding you, and it’s easier than pressing the right buttons with the right timing in Rock Band, and all it required was a little sleight-of-brain. You feel good about yourself. You look at this cartoon world long enough, and something of an Inverse Pavlov happens. Your brain begins to know that you are “enjoying” yourself, even if you hate this insipid thing. In spite of a love-shaped hole in the center of your spirit re: this electronic monster, you will not turn away.

The game is a Chinese finger trap of the mind: soon you realize that inspiration is free, which, in economics terms, means that the inflated value of single-energy-point actions when “inspired” is not a “bonus” or a “maximum” value — it’s the baseline; it’s the “minimum”. Once you grasp that your character can be made inspired with a little flick of the game’s mechanics, you’ll never want to do money-earning actions without being inspired — and if you do (and this is the important part!) you’ll feel lazy.

Lazy! Lazy! Stupid! Lazy! (Fat!) Lazy! Stupid! Lazy!

So you’ll need four “newspapers” to “unlock” your “newspaper article” writing skill, which allows you to now use energy points to perform actions which earn money (while “inspired”, of course, so as not to feel lazy); perform those actions on a new skill enough times to earn a one-time skill level upgrade, which earns experience points and a money bonus — and so you realize you are literally (figuratively) living in a spider web. The currency which buys the “newspapers” to unlock your new skill-level-upgrade opportunity is, of course, virality: beg your friends.

Your friends all have newspapers. They have ice cubes and coffee beans and blocks of cheese and turnip seeds and guitar strings and sheet music and turtle-doves as well: they have whatever you need. They have it even if they aren’t playing the game. However, unless you ask them for it, they can’t give it to you. Unless you ask them for it, they don’t Actually Have it. If they are at the point where they need “Muse” items to build a Fucking Bookshelf, and you’re at the exact same point, if you ask them for a “Muse”, they can give you one, even if they don’t have it. You can give them one, too, even if you don’t have it. This is what suffices for escapism: that we have the power to create ephemeral things with concrete value, which can then be bartered for a bookshelf which is fully assembled as opposed to on the floor in a box.

In the future, three months will have passed, and you’ll still be checking in, from time to time, just to send items to your friends — all it takes is a single click in your inbox — and then maybe you’ll see that weeds have grown in your garden, and you’ll spend nine energy points to get rid of all of them, and then maybe by then you’ll have gotten a long- and good-enough look at your old homestead to consider coming back, and maybe spending a little money, this time.

In other words: we play, so that our friends are not miserable. We suffer, so that others might not suffer. We pay money so that we might suffer less.

What gruesome psychomathematiconomist devised this heart-labyrinth? Or: now you know what happens to psychiatrists who are decommissioned because they break the doctor-patient confidentiality rule.

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