Video game players have a strange relationship to addiction. We talk about our insatiable need to keep playing as if it's a good thing, as if our struggle to tear ourselves away from a given adventure shows how well-crafted it is. Such praise ignores the opposite side of what that compulsion means.
I do believe that games, like any form of escape, can create an unnatural hold on a person, namely because I've been caught in the traps that games construct more times than I can count. It's when I lose hundreds of hours to Bravely Default that I question how healthy such devotion is, or when I'm glued to Teraria in the hopes to mind ever more ore that I shake my head. Why am I still playing? And so I sought answers from Teddy Lee, one half of the two-man team at Cellar Door Games that created the unabashedly addictive Rogue Legacy, on how he kept people playing, and how he views this trend throughout the industry.
"The most important thing about being an addictive game is that it's still fun," Lee says.
Indeed, it's clear that Rogue Legacy is built on the framework of satisfying combat. Its Vita release coincided with my departure from GameSpot, and my new-found free time was dominated by this adventure. Venturing through the castle and discovering the many secrets had me hooked, as did strenghtening up my character. As I sunk untold hours into the leveling-up process, I was thankful I had such an easy escape; I didn't have to face the cold reality of unemployment alone. It made me appreciate the positive side of addiction. There are times when life is too much to bear, the weight of reality too crushing to hold up, and I need a safe place to curl up in. Rogue Legacy provides that shelter. And that unshakeable desire to keep playing wasn't an accidental part of the development process. "We knew that that kind of pull would be in Rogue Legacy, because every time you died, the upgrading part happened after you started a new game," says Lee.
It's an ingenious decision. Upgrading one's character is a joyful event, and by forcing you to start a new game to unlock gear and bolster stats, Cellar Door Games ensures that people will keep playing. Of course, there was more that went into that decision than the obvious outcome. "Addiction was part of the reason we did it, but it was a small part of a lot of reasons,” Lee explains. For example, "it helped naturally explain how the lineage system worked."
So you're caught in a continual loop of dying, restarting, and upgrading, without an obvious break in the cycle to make it easy to turn off the game. Still, Lee wasn't expecting people to pour so many hours into Rogue Legacy. "We never wanted to make a game that people played for a hundred hours," he says. "We didn't think it would be that addictive. Some people have put in a lot of hours, way more than the game deserves."
His deprecating joke may seem like modesty, but Rogue Legacy doesn't support the hundreds of hours that some people have sunk into the game. There's little endgame to speak of, so once you vanquish the bosses and max out the skill tree, it's only your own motivation that's keeping you going. "We just try to make games fun. We're not trying to make a game that sells 40 million copies," Lee says.
There's no doubt that Rogue Legacy has an addictive feedback loop, at least until you max out your character, but it's just a small example among a sea of games that desperately try to keep us hooked. "Games nowadays need to be more addictive because there's just too much competition," Lee argues. "You're not going to last if you don't have these extra bits and gizmos."
It's a sad statement, but one that resonates with truth. There are so many games out there that have a bread crumb trail of upgrades continually luring you back into the fold. We so often refer to the "RPG mechanics" that have wormed their way into every genre. It's expected that open-world adventures such as Watch Dogs will have metagoals to keep you playing, or that racers such as Forza 5 will require extreme devotion to unlock every car and part the designers implemented. Addictive elements have become a common design decision that ensnares people for countless hours. The pleasing drip of endless rewards is infatuating.
The need developers have to pepper games with continual prizes has created two separate styles. "I know that Spelunky is much more about internal mastery, same goes for games like League of Legends, and I think those kinds of games are mutually exclusive," Lee said. "You can't have intrinsic mastery and extrinsic mastery."
These opposing idea are impossible to ignore in a recent game built around addictive progression: Destiny. As I try to vanquish whatever evil has befallen the galaxy, I find my raw talent has a much smaller impact than my acquired loadout. No matter how skillful I play, destroying a high-level foe is nigh impossible without appropriate gear. And so I grind previous missions until my fingers are sore and my mind numb, not in the hopes of getting better, but to earn the tools needed to progress. It's an example of addiction being used to a game's detriment. When my innate ability takes a backseat to dogged persistence, I feel like a passenger being taken for a ride rather than a hero saving the weak from danger.
We've seen this design philosophy take hold in the multiplayer arena as well. "I think [multiplayer upgrades] are a necessary evil," Lee said. Even though the core mechanics in games such as Call of Duty are incredibly well-executed, its reliance (along with so many of its peers) on extrinsic rewards serves as a distraction to the immediate action. The days when we would spend hours immersed in Goldeneye 007 simply because it's simply a fun game are becoming increasingly rare because of this need to keep us playing indefinitely with the promise of unlockable rewards. Addiction has dominated game design. It's a troubling truth to swallow, and one that doesn't seem to be abating anytime soon. As unsatisfying as these addictive qualities are to game design, what most troubles me about this trend is how unhealthy I imagine it must be to devote yourself completely to a video game. I know how dirty I feel after spending dozens of hours going through rote actions to earn better gear. This is where Lee disagrees. "I don't think they do anything negative to me."
And this is an important point. Just because you spend a week of your life, or even a month, doing little but playing a game doesn't necessarily mean that you're hurting yourself. After all, there are many positives aspects that go along with escaping to a digital world for long stretches. Many of these games are built upon a social foundation, so you're venturing forth with a guild or clan, forming friendships along the way. And we wouldn't even start playing if we weren't getting something from it.
"I don't know of anything that doesn't bring you some form of fundamental pleasure which isn't addictive," Lee says. Video games can be addicting, I don't think there's any doubt about that. But it doesn't have to be a bad thing if you're going in with your eyes wide open."I think a lot of games strive to be purposefully addictive," Lee says.
So understand how a game is manipulating you, and if you want to continue chasing that dangling carrot that you may never get to bite down upon. These addictive elements aren't going to be eliminated anytime soon; companies profit from them and players are enthralled by them.
“I don't think you can have something that's fun which isn't addictive," Lee finishes.
Just don't forget to take a breath every once and a while.