Where does the drive to monetize 'compulsion loops' in games end?
Also: Derek Yu on assessing risk in making games & more.
[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]
Welcome back, from a distinctly rainy Northern California, to the first of the free GameDiscoverCo newsletters for this week. And our main subject is a bit of a thorny one, so… let’s just get on and do this thing?
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‘Compulsion loops’, predatory monetization & you..
We’ve been sitting, mulling on this subject for a few weeks now. But it’s time to uncork it. You may have noted that the PC/console game market is changing, with a high supply of new games, and a tendency to reward titles that allow recurring play.
Along the way, we’ve been preaching things like: ‘make deep, mechanically complex games that you can additionally monetize with DLC’. We’d defined this as both good business & ‘ethically sound’, whatever that means. (We’ll get there later.)
But what happens when you get too far down the spiral of monetizing your human-computer interface at all costs? One of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last few years is Natasha Dow Schüll’s ‘Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas’, which answers precisely that question:
“Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas, [the book] explores the dark side of machine gambling - a solitary, rapid, continuous form of play that has less to do with the competitive thrill of winning than with the pull of ‘the machine zone,’ as gamblers call the trancelike state they enter.”
As an industry, we make video games that give people pleasure. But I do think people should, from time to time, ask - are we jamming people’s brains with overly ‘addictive’ things? And are we taking advantage of that to make money, especially from those less able to afford it?
Dow Schüll’s book is relevant because - remarkably - it is both a meticulous history of how machine gambling companies learned to retain players, and a close study of some of the local, less affluent Las Vegas gamblers locked into a vicious cycle of spending - because these machines demand money constantly.
One big conclusion from her work? Winning money back from slot machines - the thing that makes the government regulate them so closely - doesn’t actually seem to be why many people play them. It’s about reaching a ‘flow state’, as defined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi - the idea that you can get lost in an experience.
From Schüll’s interview with O.B., a Vegas local: “Back [in the day], when I had problems, I’d go to the [bowling] alley, concentrate on my game, socialize with friends. Today when I have problems, I come [to play] video poker. I do it to forget, to get lost. I could say for me the machine is a lover, a friend, a date - but really it’s none of those things. It’s a vacuum cleaner that sucks the life out of me, and sucks me out of life.”
When you’re seeing people doing this in a physical space (as you do with machine gambling in Las Vegas), the symptoms are more overt and startling - especially if you have to keep spending continually to keep playing. The book observed, in one local supermarket: “Yesterday a woman bought a whole cart of groceries, lost everything she had, returned all the groceries, and put that money in the machines too.” Not good.
So yes, I’m suggesting that putting gambling machines in all public spaces worldwide would be a net negative for our society. Yet in some ways we’re going there - due to availability on our own personal devices - anyhow. And the ‘video game x gambling’ crossover is real.
(It’s not the only gambling-adjacent biz on the rise. In the U.S., online sports betting, and expansion of official state lotteries - effectively a tax on the poor - are also surging.)
Re: the games crossover, when you look at the financial results for video game companies like Netmarble, you’ll see: “Marvel: Contest of Champions was the largest single contributor to the company’s revenue.. generating 11 percent of the total. This was followed by Cash Frenzy, Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds, Jackpot World, and Lotsa Slots at 8 percent each.”
Three of these five top-grossing games are just overtly ‘slot-machine style gambling’. Sure, players can’t get their money back again. But maybe that’s not why some play? As Dow Schüll told me, lawmakers or experts who “assume the only reason that you would stay playing” slot machines would be “to play in order to win” are deluded.
Video games - how are they different to machine gambling?
And yep, some mobile game companies specialize in virtual slot machines. Yet are we saying - ‘slot machine simulator bad, video games good’? Not really. We stick up for video games because we believe they can be a) entertaining b) social & c) meaningful. Many games are more sophisticated and interesting - and less overtly financially manipulative - than most slot machines.
When I had a chance to talk to Dow Schüll recently, I was struck by how she also saw video games as potentially different to gambling. She highlighted the narrative nature of games, and told me that in contrast, “…the slot machine is pure repetition, pure death drive, if you want to put it in psychoanalytic terms. There's no sort of symbolic dimensions and evolution of the self. It's just doing the same thing over and over again without an end - without closure or destination.”
It’s true - there is much more to video games than pressing a button, repeatedly, forever. But the idealized concept of the ‘flow state’ still exists in video games. And the question is what we do with players monetarily when in a flow state - especially in systemic games with leveling up and repetitive gameplay.
Some games do nothing with extra monetization at all. Slay The Spire has amazingly powerful mechanics to hook, pleasure, and retain players, but doesn’t try to extract extra $ from them. But many titles - exploiting the concept of the ‘grind’ with randomized or ‘pay to win’ elements - may push the $ envelope. For example:
Kotaku recently ran an excellent piece on Genshin Impact whales - some spending up to $90,000 (!) to buy ability boosts via gacha. The underlying game itself is great. But you can see some on Reddit questioning the built-in monetization hooks, while saying out loud: “I have a big gambling problem.”
Games are inventing other ways to monetize that aren’t just randomly-selected power-ups. ‘Pay to win’ combined with social co-op gaming leads to problems like this: “Players of the popular “freemium” mobile games [like Game of Thrones: Conquest and State of Survival] say spending thousands became necessary to remain a part of tight-knit online communities. ‘I felt it was my duty,’ one said.” (I will note that there’s lawyers & a class-action lawsuit in the background of this one, mind you…)
Even with changes to be more transparent, modes like FIFA’s Ultimate Team are teaching all - even younger players - that randomly selected paid card packs can be addictive. There’s UK research on children playing games that notes: “Researchers observed patterns of compulsive spending, including among children who used adult's credit cards without permission.”
One train of thought would be to say: who are you to be censorious about how the video game industry makes money, or how private citizens spend their own $? You folks at GameDiscoverCo are all about pushing ‘hook’, retention and depth in PC and console games. And you think additional monetization is legit, too. (Which is true.)
But let’s zoom out further. Another book I’ve been reading is Sam Quinones’ ‘The Least Of Us’, which he talks about with NYMag. It’s about “the ravages of meth and fentanyl”, synthetic drugs which take monetized addiction to a whole other level. Quinones notes that addictive substances and activities “overwhelm - turn our bodies against their own self-interest.”
Yes, the list of stimulants for humans is endlessly long, not always negative, and games are a tiny part: “In modern life, many things now generate the charge of reward, though of varying intensity. These include shopping, sex, gambling, food, pornography, drugs, seeing a puppy or baby, helping an old lady across the street, consummating a business deal, a pickup basketball game with old friends.”
So why bring this up? I care that our industry doesn’t disadvantage people whose lives are adversely affected by the ‘compulsion loops’ in the games we make. And the rush to over-aggressively monetize can compound the financial part of this - people spending money that maybe they shouldn’t, given their circumstances?
So to end, I do have some subjective comments about what I’d like to see the video game industry do with monetization:
If you ask players for extra money, do it optionally. Keep it to upgrades - like cosmetic costumes, extra DLC scenarios, or time-based Battle Passes with optional upgrades - which players clearly understand, and can play the game without. Spending hundreds of dollars over time? Sure. Tens of thousands? Yeesh.
Think about the ages and maturities of the players you’re targeting - we talked about this with regard to Epic’s FTC fine for Fortnite. But games are often played by radically younger players than you might expect. Are you creating ways to limit access or spending for younger players? And what’s the effect on those minds of the compulsion loops you create? It does matter.
Don’t make randomized rewards that players can ‘re-roll’, ad infinitum - it can be a gigantic financial boon for games. But it’s extremely gambling-adjacent, can get players to massively overspend, and governments are getting grumpy about it. (Hence games like Brawl Stars removing it recently. I guess spending limits on gambling-y game elements could also work?)
If you really have to do ‘pay-to-win’, don’t layer on psychological tricks - Battle Passes that include major in-game characters? In-game vehicles you have to buy to acquire, or in-game systems that only get better if you spend $? Ehhh, there’s no law against it. But don’t add ‘outspend each other to win in multiplayer’ modes or ‘guilds where everyone has to spend crazily to win’. (Many ‘whales’ can afford it - but many really can’t.)
That’s a monetization line in the sand that I think the video game industry could be drawing, for the good of its players. And I’m very aware this is a personal, moral choice for all of us. You may vehemently disagree.
Concluding: I’d like to see more public industry discussion beyond the traditional poles - ‘extra monetization is all terrible’ or ‘ignore the subject entirely’. Thus my attempt to bring that to light, whether you agree or not with this ‘hot take’. *ducks for incoming shoes*
[One more thing: games with overly strong ‘compulsion loops’ - but no extra monetization - can still be ‘life-negative’. In Adrian Hon’s gamification book, You’ve Been Played, he mentions that he won’t play Civilization any more due to this. ‘Make your game less replayable’ is not exactly an easy pitch, though, right? But it’s also food for thought…]
Spelunky’s Derek Yu talks ‘risk’ in making games..
As a brief palate-cleanser, wanted to point out this new longform article by Spelunky creator Derek Yu about “help[ing] us estimate how risky one idea is compared to another” commercially - a key issue for everyone - not just indies - in today’s game biz.
Derek - who was also a key mover in early indie game community TIGSource - is an inspirational thinker. (Heck, we like him so much that his eBook on the making of Spelunky is one of the perks for our GameDiscoverCo Plus subscription.)
And his points in the piece - particularly thinking about the amount of ‘developer experimentation’ required, and focusing on “bigness (the feeling of being big) and fiddliness (the level of interactivity)” as key differentiators - are great lenses. Go read it.
The game discovery news round-up..
So let’s finish this one off with a whole bunch of video game platform and discovery news, shall we? Let’s see what we have on tap here:
PC video game platform (maybe you’ve heard of it?) Steam just hit 33 million concurrent ‘online’ users - not all of them playing games, mind you. This was a couple of days after it reached 32m, 10 million of which were in-game. (We think the Chinese success of Goose Goose Duck - 600k CCU recently (?!) - is helping.)
Just Microsoft things: the company walked back its claims that the FTC was unconstitutional (!) in opposing the Activision deal, saying they “should have dropped these defenses before we filed” (was this ATVI lawyer feistiness?); ‘cool dad’ Microsoft is running U.S. newspaper ads to say that it’s good with unions.
It’s based on data that is slanted ‘base game’, major-publisher and physical, but UK game sales dropped 6% in 2022 - and physical console sales dipped 29% due to shortages. However: “13.9 million games sold during 2022 were new releases, which is a 20% increase over 2021.” So the slowdown was - presumably - in catalog…
PlayStation had a fine old time at CES, announcing 30 million PlayStation 5s sold through, with December 2022 the biggest-demand month to date, as well as 30+ launch titles for PlayStation VR2, including a Gran Turismo 7 upgrade, and unveiling “customizable accessibility controller kit” (above) Project Leonardo for PS5.
Now the Steam Winter Sales has ended, you could adjust up the regional prices of your games to match Valve’s new regional pricing recommendations. Just bear in mind that some of the changes may look fairly extreme, and you’ll have opt out of discounts for 30 days if you do it…
If you haven’t heard of it, ImportYeti is a tool that lets you search sea container shipments worldwide, to see who’s been shipping what to who. For example, this seems to be (part of!) Limited Run’s recent to/from shipments… fun times.
Also at CES: HTC now debuted the all-in-one Vive XC Elite VR headset, and this hands-on from Engadget suggests that it’s good, but “shares a lot of the same flaws as the Quest Pro.” It’s ‘only’ $1,100, vs. $1,500 for the Quest Pro, but the Elite has “a lack of content that can take advantage of the headset’s capabilities” like hand tracking and passthrough.
Some other notable CES news: Asus announced a new Xbox controller with a built-in OLED screen; the GeForce Now cloud gaming service will be coming to cars (Hyundai, Polestar & more), “with no special equipment needed”, looks like 3D monitors are making a comeback, this time without a headset or 3D glasses.
Recently realized that popular (445k subs) indie game YouTubers Wanderbots have a dev-biz-centric blog! More from it soon, but here’s a great recent ‘how to’ about “a quick reference guide for developers contacting creators” - ft. all the key things you need to include…
Microlinks: looking at how Fall Guys ‘fast follows’ Stumble Guys & Eggy Party have come to do so well on mobile; Polygon takes a look at its 50 most anticipated games currently due out in 2023; late-breaking rumors of a possible Xbox showcase later in January showing Bethesda, Forza, Minecraft-related content…
Finally, we love this RestOfWorld piece about how the Mexican pinata-making industry has been over-run by memes. If you look closely in the pics, you can see game-related IP like Sonic and Huggy Wuggy (Poppy Playtime), for starters:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]