The World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent classification of ‘gaming disorder’ has sparked discussion and drawn criticism from many people within the games industry. Regardless of your opinion on the WHO, however, the controversy leads to another question: how do you develop games in an ethical manner?
Firstly, it’s important to say that the issue to be avoided is not so much addiction as burnout. The games that cause problem behaviors in their players are those that reward endless grinding and bingeing up to the point that players become essentially exhausted, hence the name. The WHO diagnoses gaming disorder in those whose gaming habits cause ‘significant impairment’ to their professional and personal lives but, when sessionized properly, habitual play is beneficial to both player and publisher. A player that settles into a regular pattern of moderate gameplay with a well-designed game builds a good reciprocal relationship with the game/publisher and is rewarded accordingly.
Best practice in F2P shows that the best and most popular games available are those that manage enthusiasm and sessionize effectively, discouraging players from playing for unreasonable lengths of time whilst encouraging them to come back regularly.
Where games get it right:
- Diminishing returns
Some of the games most accomplished in sessionization are those that stop rewarding players after a certain amount of time played or tasks completed. Hearthstone does this particularly well with its daily task system. After completing a finite number of challenges in exchange for considerable reward, players are faced with the decision to carry on playing without anything to achieve and strive for or simply return the next day when there will be new conditions to satisfy and benefits to win. Having felt the progression slow down so much, it becomes a no-brainer for the player to leave the game temporarily and return when the stakes are high once again.
- Capped inventories
Another good tactic available to developers looking to moderate session length is the capping of inventory space, often combined with time-locked rewards. Clash Royale favors this approach as it discourages excessive play without obviously devaluing effort. For example: if completing a level earns a player one special item that is not usable for 12 hours and they only have room for 4 such items in their inventory, the player is heavily incentivized to stop playing after completing a fourth level. It makes most sense for the player to return once they can free up space in their inventory and once again earn rewards for their play time.
- Finite energy mechanics
Some games operate a system whereby every attempt at a level/challenge costs the player a unit of energy, which only replenishes after a certain amount of time or in exchange for hard currency. Pitched wrong and this mechanic can seem either cynical if too expensive or ineffective if too cheap but striking the right balance through A/B testing and data analysis establishes a good reciprocal relationship between player and publisher that also encourages healthy and moderate gameplay.
Where games get it wrong:
The games that foster unhealthy play styles that lead to overlong gameplay sessions and risk burning out their players are the games that perpetually reward without considering session length. Players need clear incentives to stop and the limitless tier/rank systems seen most often in premium multiplayer games provide precisely the opposite. By tying perceived status very obviously to time played, you create an environment in which players have no obvious point at which to stop and no reason to either.
Common errors in these progression systems will be made more obvious with the expansion of certain PC/console franchises to mobile. Traditionally, the physical limitations of where consoles can be played have gone some way to prevent serious impact on certain areas of players’ lives but mobile gaming presents a new challenge which will hopefully cause a wholesale reevaluation of how to build metagames in an ethical way.
There is perhaps a misconception around gaming that it benefits developers to design games in such a way as to encourage unhealthy habits in their players, but that’s not true. The games that best serve their publishers are those that keep their players returning regularly without ever burning themselves out or spending beyond their means. Best practice in F2P games will serve as a great example for the entire industry as cross-platform gaming brings legendary franchises to mobile.