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Sunday, 5 March 2017

Does a game have to be fun?

Here's a thing I've discovered about mobile games: they aren't any fun at all.

Here's another thing I've discovered, though: I can't seem to stop playing the damn things.

I recently exerted an impressive amount of willpower and, in a short sequence of time, deleted no less than three games from my iPad. Total War: Kingdoms was the first to go, because it was a complete time- and mind-suck. I'd build a house here, fight off a Viking army there, and pretty soon I'd realize it was 10pm on Sunday night and I hadn't accomplished anything.

Next to go was Kingdom Rush, a tower-defense game that I've had dalliances with in the past. I downloaded last Saturday, played through the entire campaign, and then deleted it that same night, for the same reason as before - my brain had been there, and not on the actual issues occupying my life (for instance writing the proverbial great vampire/fantasy novel, earning enough money to survive in Trump's America, and attempting to find a woman willing to find my dead body 60 years from now and thereby ensure my corpse isn't eaten by a pet or something).

Yesterday, I took the final step, and deleted Star Trek: Timelines. As I was explaining to my dad a couple minutes ago, Timelines isn't what you'd call conventionally fun - you can have space battles, for instance, but you don't actually control the ships, and if your ship is strong enough, you don't actually have to do anything.

And yet I'm now kind of regretting deleting it. I'd built up a pretty strong and eclectic crew (I had Evil Goatee Spock from the classic Mirror Mirror episode of TOS, for example!), and had sunk enough time and effort into leveling them up. And I'd done all this without spending a dime, as Timelines is one of those annoying freemium games where you can pay for a certain type of currency, but can't win that currency in other ways.

As I said, it isn't conventionally fun. But somehow, it triggers some kind of endorphin rush that keeps me clicking on the next mission to win that piece of basic loot that I can use to build the piece of gear that will let my character unlock the next tier of rewards and perhaps, someday, actually win the episode. It's probably the most insidious version of the addictiveness of mobile games I've ever seen, precisely because it's so not fun (reading that last paragraph seems to indicate a number of reasons for my inability to attract a mate, for instance).

I've got a fair amount of experience with this stuff - I've messed about with Angry Birds, Infinity Blade and all three Kingdom Rush games, for instance. I've lost who knows how many productive hours and days on stupid flash games that I found on newgrounds.com. And back in college, I blew a lot of time on a naval battles game that let you set some conditions but didn't actually give you control in battle - someone once asked me if it was fun, and I remember trying to explain that no, it wasn't conventionally fun, but that wasn't the point.

That conversation was at the back of my mind over the past five or six weeks every time I played Timelines, which is what led me to delete the damn thing (that and a Tim Ferriss blog post suggesting I get rid of domino triggers that cause me to ruin all my productive work - for some people it's cookies, but for me it's Star Trek-licensed iPad games). It also got me thinking about why mobile games are like that - engaging but not fun.

The simple answer is that they provide a steady drip of pleasure drugs into your brain from accomplishing stuff. Total War: Kingdoms had this obnoxious thing where everything was on a timer - building a house took ten seconds, building a castle took ten hours, and so forth. But it was all staggered, so as soon as I collected money from one building, my farms were ready to harvest, and then I had to collect stone from my quarries, someone was attacking, and suddenly I'm two hours closer to my cat chomping on my face (this is a notional cat, by the way, as I haven't yet yielded to becoming whatever the male equivalent of lonely cat lady is).

But why's that steady drip of tricking your brain into thinking it's accomplished stuff so important? I'd argue that it's because they can't compete with console or PC games on graphics or gameplay. I'm told Super Mario Run has been super popular since launching on iOS, but I think it's because, by being a lot simpler than the original Super Mario Bros, they've unlocked a thing where you're constantly trying to improve on your performance. Just think Flappy Bird: it's some shitty web game where you're traveling through the same course endlessly, giving the occasional tap to keep from crashing into a pipe or something, but it unaccountably became the biggest gaming phenomenon outside of Pokemon Go, for that precise reason.

All of this is key to understanding why the mobile gaming business has eaten up so much of the traditional gaming business. Nintendo got a lot of praise when it launched the Wii for making gaming accessible to casual gamers, but then promptly lost that entire demographic to smartphones and tablets. Stuff like Angry Birds or Candy Crush provides a lot more endorphin per minute for the fifteen minutes you spend on the bus than cranking FIFA 17 or Dragon Age Inquisition does - in the time it takes to load up your first actual game in a season in FIFA, you could win three stars on the first ten levels of Angry Birds.

Paradoxically, I think it's the increasing sophistication and cinema-aping of console games that's turned casual gamers off the medium (that and shit like GamerGate, of course). You have to purposely sit down and play Skyrim, but Angry Birds can be played for five minutes and then abandoned. And that's why people get sucked into it for hours at a time.

What it all comes down to is understanding how your brain works, and planning accordingly. I'm not an alcoholic, but now that I've deleted Star Trek: Timelines I understand Chris Hardwick's analogy of a million baby birds chirping at you to take a drink. Despite the cellular noise saying that I really should have seen what happened when I leveled my one-star Desert Ezri Dax to level 100, intellectually I understand I'm better off.

And I restarted my campaign on Dragon Age Inquisition yesterday, so at least I don't have to decide on whether to eventually be eaten by my dog or my cat until I finish that, at the bare minimum.