Addiction: The condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or or involved in something.
I started this post about 5 years ago, in 2006, as I started to play Guildwars. This game intrigued me, as it was a complete change for every MMOG I ever played. I started asking myself, what makes an MMO addictive? Why would someone spend so much time on a computer game? I have heard so many stories from friends and students suffering dramatic drops in their school grades because of an online game.
A little history
Computer games have existed ever since we have had computers. Even before there was Pong, there was text-based RPGs. An several of these RPGs were cooperative. This is not surprising, given the strong basis of cooperation in society. Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, computer games where thousands of players share a common world, are an extension of this. These players all contribute to this world, shaping the economy and helping each other. MMO games also have strong communities, often reflected in guild-like structures.
By integrating thousands of players into a virtual environment, they create a virtual communities of people sharing their love for a game. It’s easy to lose yourself in such an environment. In addition, the more time players spend in the game, the more they are rewarded. This results in a lethal combination : group acceptance and constant positive reinforcement.
First MMOG experiences
My first introduction to MMO was Ragnarok Online, an anime-based hack-and-slash RPG game. Ragnarok is insanely popular in Korea and has a pretty strong following in America. I played Ragnarok for about 6 months, until I learned a deep dark secret about MMO games. In Ragnarok, the level cap is 99. This means that a character will reach the maximum of his abilities at level 99. Back then, the first 30 levels of a character were pretty easier to achieve. However, the effort required to gain a level increases exponentially.
Ragnarok is a MMO which rewards you for investing your mind, body and soul into the game. To get some serious character progression, expect to spend a few hours everyday just to level your character. As the end of the week, this easily amounts to 15 to 25 hours. This is known as the level grind. One of my friend, who still regularly play, told me the game only really opens up at level 85. Reaching level 99 can easily take over a year of work.
After playing for 6 months, my level progression slowed to a crawl. I was only playing 4 to 6 hours a week, which is not enough to achieve a serious progression. In addition, MMOG games often carry a monthly subscriptions, which can quickly add up.
Looking for Alternatives
I tired of the game and decided to look elsewhere for my MMO fun. I tried several other games, including Dofus, Everquest, Eve Online, Mapple Story, Rose Online. I also played World of Warcraft for a month. The game itself was pretty impressive and I instantly fell in love. I also realized that I could easily lose myself in the game, so I made sure the game would not renew itself once my trial was expired. Smart move.
Then, I was introduced to GuildWars, which provides a dramatically different play experience. In Guildwars, you only need to buy the game itself, there are not monthly fees and very little value-added products. The game itself has a very low skill cap, which means players reach their maximum skill level in a couple of months. However, Guild Wars is a game where player define themselves by their skill or creativity.
Time for a change
It’s five years latter and the MMO scene has completely redefined itself. Monthly subscriptions are no longer the norm, and are used only by the most popular MMOGs like World of Warcraft and Rift. “Free-to-play” is the new experience: players can play the early stage of games for free and are encourage to pay for value added services.
You might scoff at the statement that Free-to-play, also known as Freemium is the new standard. However, during first six month of 2011, over half of the top grossing applications on the Apple App Store have been Freemium titles. The exact numbers are staggering, customers are spending millions of dollars in value added services for Freemium games.
But what about addiction?
When I started writing this article five years ago, I wanted to point out how some people were a slave to these games with monthly subscriptions. Many hardcore players would own more than one game account, paying for several monthly subscription fees. People vulnerable to addiction, also expressed as addictive personality, are easily drawn to these games. Stopping to play these games can be has hard as stopping any addiction, such as alcohol or smoking. The fact that the addiction is with a game does not make it any less serious.
It’s easy to point out that people with addictive personality can become addicted to any games, not just MMOGs. However, MMOGs are often created with addictive attributes, such as gradual progressive positive reinforcement, or large-scale peer validation. These attributes are inserted into the game to encourage players to keep their subscriptions active, thus generating a continual revenue stream. This also makes it very difficult for people with addictive personality to stop playing.
What if we remove the monthly subscription
Many years ago, I would have thought that removing the subscription on these games was the solution. However, the monthly subscription is a way to draw money from a problem, and not the problem itself. This is illustrated with Freemium games, which lower the entry barrier for players by providing the game for free. Only 2% of the population on the Apple Store will actually spend money on value-added services in games. However, as mentioned previously they account for a large part of the revenues in the Apple App Store.
The same transition can be seen in almost all MMOG games. Many popular MMOGs, such as Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings have switched to Free-to-Play, with many more key players like StarTrek in the conversion process. Even World of Warcraft, king of the subscription model is Free-to-Play until level 20.
It’s in the game play
It turns out the game play has been the problem all along. While monthly subscriptions and micro-transactions are often blamed, it’s the specialized gameplay that create the addiction. It then becomes a case of morality when designing the game. And since it is well known that people can become addicted to any type of games, can designing this type of game be considered amoral? What would be different between an addicting game and a game that is engaging and engrossing?