Do you ever remember when games used to be fun in that way that kept you coming back and playing them? Do you ever remember when a single player game was so fun, in fact, that you would play it for hours on end – well after you beat the main campaign?
Publishers sure as hell don’t.
In their quest for the Ultimate Money Printing Machine, publishers have forgotten that chores are simply not fun. You are forced, more than ever before, to be online all the time when you play your games. And for multiplayer games, you are expected to dedicate more time than you probably have to be online playing them.
Again: chores aren’t fun. Forced loyalty to a brand isn’t fun, either.
“Player retention” is the term used to describe how a game keeps their players
paying playing after they buy or download a product. MMOs used to be the only genre of game that cared about this because they were the only games that lived or died by their player count. Every other game didn’t care; it already had your money at the point of sale.
These days however, because games are always online, you are expected to invest your time into the game for many months or even years after your purchase of it. To do this, many games employ “grinds” of a sort. You and your buddies will be given a carrot on a stick. End game items are locked behind arbitrary progress bars, all in an effort to make sure people keep playing.
And publishers have lost sight of how a game just being fun could actually keep people playing.
Online games are employing longer and more tedious grinds to try and pad out player retention. Their thought process is that grinds are “engaging” insofar as they keep you “engaged” with the game. It’s also a psychologically manipulative move on their part; the more time you have invested, the more compelled you’ll feel to keep playing because of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. You know, the false idea of “I’ve already spent so much time, I’d have wasted all of it if I give up now” that a lot of modern games bank on you thinking? Yeah, that.
I’m not saying that grinds are bad. When they’re implemented properly, actually, I think grinds are very good. Giving you a goal to shoot for is never a bad thing in moderation. Publishers, however, hate moderation of any kind, so grinds are an unmoderated wasteland of tedium and frustration. Anthem, the recent looter shooter of Bioware, is boring and stupid and tedious because it never throws you an actual good weapon in a reasonable frame of time. Warframe, the action shooter brainchild of Digital Extremes, has introduced a weekly “activity” grind that demands you complete 70% of the tasks if you want to get all the rewards from the “season”. A countless number of games employ a “daily log in” system that will just reset if you miss a single day.
Modern games punish you for playing them. You are not rewarded for investing your time into a game, you are in fact punished for not investing enough time.
The concept of player retention has been, like many other things before it, hoovered up by publishers, chewed up and then vomited back out. Nobody cares any more if their methods for getting you to play their game are fun because, ultimately, they make you play for longer and harder by instead making them tedious – and by punishing you when you fail to meet their own standard. Despite the fact that many of us have picked up and played a single player game well beyond the hours it asked of us – because it was fun – modern online games (including single player always-online games) now simply want to force you to keep playing by making you guilty when you don’t.
I wrote this article because right now, I hate Warframe. I don’t hate Warframe the concept, to be clear, but I hate the current incarnation of Warframe. I hate it, because it is trying to make me feel guilty for not playing it and using negativity to get me to log in. I hate it because I’m not excited to play it any more, and it has turned itself into a chore. I hate it because it used to be fun and I used to play it voluntarily…
And then the concept of “player retention” happened at Digital Extremes, and I have never hated their game more than I do right now.
Look. I’ll be blunt. When your game gets people to keep playing it by punishing them for not playing it? You’ve failed at making a good game and you don’t deserve to retain players. When your game aims to retain players by making them feel guilty and pressuring them into playing it like it’s some kind of obligation, you’ve made a fucking chore, not a game.
Player retention can go die in the same fire as lootboxes and early access, not because the core concept of it is bad, but because publishers cannot keep themselves in check if they think there’s money to be made. Until such a time as they learn to regulate themselves – or the more likely, they become regulated by a third party – I’d seriously tell players to reevaluate the games you play and why you play them.
Do you play it because it’s fun, or do you play it because you feel like you have to? If your answer is the second: stop doing your chores, turn off that wank, and go turn on a real game you actually have fun with.