by Matt Carey
Imagine a slot machine gambler. For hours she pumps coins into a slot for the privilege of pushing a button. Each time she pushes the button she watches an animation on the machine’s video screen. Usually the animation is about the same. Sometimes, though, the animation is a little different, indicating that something relatively unusual has happened in the machine’s random number generator, but that the gambler still loses.
The spillproof carpet beneath her is threadbare. Only when she looks down at it does the hum of the janitor’s vacuum float up above the surface of her consciousness. It’s late at night. Above all, the gambler is aging. She is hunched forward. Her stool doesn’t allow her to lean back. Her mind has mostly stopped working. When she has to take in her surroundings again her head will feel fuzzy, groggy. She is slowing down. The liquor in her glass is cheap, to lower her inhibition against loss, but not free because she is not a high roller. She loses money slowly. Her time is not considered valuable.
How did the slot machine gambler get this way? For many contemporary gamers a bank of slot machines is a vision of Hell: offering only a perpetual repetition of a single-button, zero-player game. Why would anyone voluntarily trap herself in this behavioral loop?
At a June 26 press event, Zynga announced its plan to help millions more make this grievous life mistake available as a video game with its new game Zynga Slots. It’s a slots game where you don’t actually have any chance of winning any money back. (But did the slot machine gambler ever have any hope of coming out ahead? Probably not.) The important thing is that Zynga Slots lets players experience pathetically dumping their money down a black hole just like at a real casino, with such premium downloadable content as “Cup of Coins” ($9.99), “Bucket of Coins” ($19.99), and “Vault of Coins” ($99.99). And if that just isn’t enough coins, there’s always the Platinum Purchase Program for $500 and up.
It’s easy to see Slots as an admission that Zynga’s design philosophy of “repackage XP grinding in a variety of brightly colored wrappers” is finally starting to wear thin for the social network set. And it’s quite heartwarming, actually, to think that someone within Zynga must have had the epiphany that “If the mechanics of our game boil down to rewarding players for pushing a button at the same semi-random intervals that would result in wins on a slot machine, maybe it’s time for us to be honest and present our game as a slot machine simulator so we can target players who are actually interested in that kind of interaction.”
Zynga stock is already down more than 45 percent since its December 2011 IPO. Maybe becoming publicly traded meant that Zynga finally exposed itself to some smart money, which meant its game design began to be scrutinized by people whose profits depended on it. In 2009, before the IPO, Forbes uncritically accepted Zynga’s claim that part of its strategy was to make games in a variety of different genres, while CNN called Zynga “more than a one-trick pony” because it had not only produced Farmville, but also Mafia Wars, YoVille, and Café World. But now that investors have wizened up, Zynga has learned that it can drive its share price down just by announcing a new slate of awful games, as analysts “questioned whether Zynga’s new offerings were diversified enough” and raised concerns about the quality of the games.
It’s a bit of a shame that the non-gamers who got hooked on Zynga’s bad games aren’t rejecting them in favor of better games. More likely they’re just going back to being non-gamers, as the percentage of users who play games on Facebook has fallen into decline. We can only hope Zynga’s last remaining corporate strategy is to brazenly cash in on the few “whales” still willing to pay money for this garbage, in order to keep the company’s price/earnings ratio out of the gutter until the founders dump their stock options and flee the company, leaving shareholders left owning nothing but an empty shell.
Maybe this new, humbled Zynga finally signals the end of the wave of non-gamer game developers, who invaded the gaming industry in the past few years, promising to turn every possible gameplay element into a marketing opportunity by being armed with advanced insight into human motivation that somehow boiled down to “add experience points and real-money currency to every game ever made.” Certainly the Zynga formula still has some addictive potential, as shown by its ability both to inspire and to crush imitators like The Sims Social, but I think they’re starting to realize that they haven’t actually stumbled on the magic formula that will lull all of humanity into mindlessly cow-clicking and Ville-farming until they die.
But it would be arrogance for us more serious gamers to assume that, just because we don’t turn our brains off in the same way when we play, we can’t fall prey to the same kind of operant conditioning and reward scheduling as a slot machine gambler or a Zynga whale. Unwary hardcore gamers still get taken advantage of, but more like a gambler at the Cantor Fitzgerald sports book: they’re highly knowledgeable, highly engaged by a constant influx of data and statistics, and hard-pressed to use all their skill to finish the game with a manageable loss instead of a huge one. We all remember comrades—good men and true—who lost considerable chunks of their young lives to WoW circa 2004 to 2008. And it’s impossible to ignore that even a fairly respectable game like TF2, while it can offer plenty of depth to geek out over, now revolves around a metagame that works in precisely the same way as a Zynga slot machine.
Players “find” special items at random but decreasing intervals that don’t actually depend on player performance. The game demands such an outrageous amount of grinding for certain rewards that buying them for ten bucks or so in real money almost feels like a reasonable idea. And of course, anyone trusting enough to go after a new item by grinding for it may find that it’s been nerfed by the time they reach it. Valve has announced plans to monetize its next free-to-play, Dota 2, in the same way — although surprisingly Valve claims that none of the items for sale in Dota 2 will be game-breaking.
Obviously the kind of “loss” a gamer needs to be worry about isn’t exactly the same that a gambler has to worry about. Gamers don’t expect to come out ahead in money, but they should expect to get some kind of worthwhile experience when they spend their time. Too often instead they get experience points that serve as numeric markers for the gaps in the middle of the narrative where the interesting experiences were supposed to go. The real danger in a game is that you’ll spend dozens (or hundreds!) of hours trying to work your way up to the “good part” only to find that the game was unworthy of your attention all along. And even if you feel grindy game mechanics don’t have a big influence on you personally, they’re still a danger to the obsessive completist who could actually become one of those whales who end up paying the developers’ kids’ college tuition.
There may be no shortage of commentators ready to decry pay-to-win grindfests as “evil” design, but what’s still needed is a code of ethical game mechanics that provides a yardstick to measure which games and which game designers can be trusted not to unduly manipulate their audience. Probably the most important standard for such a code would be: “The machine does not use the brevity of the user’s precious mortal life as a stick to beat him with.” Far too many games threaten to waste players’ time as a gambit to extract money from them (and some games do it merely for the bragging rights of padding out the length of the game).
Obviously some players like their gameplay a little repetitive, and developers shouldn’t be blamed for providing that kind of gameplay to those who want it. But when progression in the game involves performing a simple task repeatedly, developers should be expected to allow players to get the same benefit simply by demonstrating their mastery of the challenge, rather than sitting at the computer and grinding indefinitely. For instance, if the game dispenses rewards for doing nothing, do the developers allow indefinite idling? Is scripting allowed to automate simple tasks like harvesting gold from enemies? Is there a fast-forward feature once the player has queued up a bunch of actions (like in SpaceChem) and is it adequate to skip past the trivial part of the game? Can you manually adjust the number of farmable resources in your inventory (like in Minecraft)? Is there an “unlock all” feature (like in the redoubtable VVVVVV)?
When the developers block these functions is there a serious justification in term of fairness to other players, or is the scarcity of in-game benefits purely artificial? And are players informed at the outset of the amount of grinding that’s going to be required to access all the game’s content? Or are the developers sitting around running analytics on the players’ in-game activities, ready to release mandatory patches that tweak the game rules to move the goalposts?