This ramble starts off with some general theory and goes onto some vague implications for game design (mostly video game design) at the end.

Sipping from the Firehose

Humans have a natural and obvious tendency to value more of something. Most of us will accept a moderate decrease in quality for a large increase in quantity (up to a certain point and relative to the circumstances). This makes a lot of sense in most cases, but it’s a little weird for media, where “quantity” equates to “requires more time to consume.”

Really since the advent of the public library, but especially since the internet, we live in a world of media post-scarcity. If you could backup the internet as it exists right now and lock someone in a room with nothing to do but access that backup through a terminal, that person would take lifetimes to consume all the media online worth consuming, even without adding access to anything behind a paywall.

In many cases, decision paralysis is a worse cause of boredom: you just have so much you could read, watch, or play that it’s hard to settle on one thing. I have a whole stack of Steam sale games and shows and movies in my Netflix queue that are simply daunting, especially when I look over at my growing stack of unread novels and RPG books.

Which is all to say that it’s kind of weird that we put so much stock in things that take longer to consume, when a story or game that was shorter but still packed in all the fun and emotions would allow you to more easily move on to the next thing in your list. TV has been gradually learning this lesson: more and more really good shows are moving to the BBC model of 6-12 episode seasons with a more concentrated story and without filler.

Extra length does have a benefit: it allows you to add a lot more things that create immersion, making the consumer feel like the fictional world and characters are real and full of texture, like you would like to escape there. But while it allows that, too often what it does is present creators with more space to fill and not enough creativity or money to fully utilize all that space.

All Payment Options Lead to Grind

Video games, in particular, have a bad version of this problem. There’s a lot of commentary on how going from a “pay for it once then own it” model to an “all you can eat subscription” model drastically increased grind, and “free to play but with lots of options to buy things” model made it worse, but all three have their problems:

  • Box Only: Games that are less than 10 hours have a really hard time convincing consumers to purchase them at full price. Even though a matinee of an hour and a half movie has crept up to $9, and you’d thus easily be paying $60 to spend ten hours in the theater, paying $60 for a ten hour game is a very hard sell. So rather than giving you a game that’s a few hours long and packed with unique art and story, designers need to turn the money that would pay for a certain amount of amazing content into a lot more less amazing content. Frequently, since it’s very easy to repeat combat encounters and make them take time, you wind up with fights that are time fillers struggling to change just enough that they continue to be fun.
  • Subscription: Subscription games have it worse, particularly for “content heavy” games. The longer you can make a game take to complete, the longer the player keeps giving you $15 a month, and you have to somehow create enough stuff to do for players that are in game hours every day while not making players that can only play an hour or two a week feel like they’d never get anywhere. A Kill Ten Rats quest is drastically easier and cheaper to build than something heavily scripted and unique that would take the same amount of time to play, and an “end game” gear grind lets you make the casuals feel like they’re making progress while still having a much more time-intensive option for your hard cores.
  • Freemium: Freemium games, no matter the marketing speak, exist for one reason: in a subscription game, you’re leaving money on the table for both hard cores that would give you more than $15 a month and casuals that might not give you $15 but would give you something. The model essentially demands that designers create situations where you can progress through the game in a way that’s not particularly fun but is free or one that is fun and costs money. Sometimes that “fun” is just “getting access to cosmetic things to make you not look like one of the boring free players” but quite a lot of the time it’s “getting to skip some of the grind.”

And all of these issues flow from a perception that longer is better, intensified by the need for a persistent multiplayer environment.

Virtuous Grinders, Sinning Payers

But the weirdest thing, the thing that inspired the whole article, is how that mindset has resulted in weird behaviors regarding the transition to Freemium that most MMOs are making. Most players seem to hate the idea of “Pay to Win” with a righteous fire: the concept that you could buy something with cash that they spend game time achieving is enraging and that you might buy something better than they can get from playing is anathema. Because, deep down, players recognize that they’re being forced through a skinner box to try to get the thing that is actually “fun” and being able to skip that process doesn’t seem fair. It’s often couched as “earning through skill,” and how it’s not fair for someone to get to skip that learning and earning process, but there’s relatively little in most MMOs (except possibly at the bleeding edge of the endgame) that can’t be obtained by just slogging through whatever obstacles are in place. Designers simply can’t make a large-scale, content-heavy MMO that prevents less skilled players from progressing, so the only real “skill” is perseverance.

What this winds up meaning is that having free time to play the game becomes the only virtuous way to play; if you have less free time, it’s seen as sinful to pay real money to catch up to those with more free time. Even though, from the business side, the players that are paying you more money to see less content are exactly what you want. Developers would love to make more money while only producing their best ideas as content. But the norm for games is that players would rather have padded content for less money and actively stigmatize players that want to pay more for less padding.

I don’t actually have a solution for this. It’s just a trend I’ve noticed recently, and I’m curious whether anyone else has solutions, and whether players that hate the idea of Pay to Win feel that I’m mischaracterizing their motivations.