Mar 5, 2012

F. U. Social Games or Why I Stopped Playing Tiny Tower

Oh Tiny Tower you rapscallion! You almost got me! I see what you did there. I thought you were going to be a fun little management game and then you went and pulled a fast one on me. You aren't a "game" game, you're a "social" game!

Really, social isn't the right word, but I don't have a better one. I'm referring to a particular breed of free-to-play game. You know, those very Facebook-y, Zinga-y kind of games.

So, what's the stick in my ass about "social" games anyway? Do I not want companies to make money? Maybe I just hate change? No, neither of those things. I have no ill feelings about studios and publishers finding novel ways to monetize their products. What I do have a problem with is how these monetization techniques filter into the very design, nay, rule over the design of the games they are making. So, how does Tiny Tower fit into this? One simple example, and the reason I stopped playing after about a day and a half with the game.

When I first downloaded Tiny Tower, I really liked it. It looks totally charming, the game play is simple and easy to grasp and it's fun to manage your little tower with its cute little shops and tenants. So, what happened? The game told me when to play. Not literally, but surreptitiously, through its restocking mechanism. You see, when a store runs out of an item, you need to restock it, makes sense. You do this with a simple button press which activates a progress bar. A little annoying, but I'll put up with it. Up to this point I've got no real issues. More valuable items take longer to restock. Makes sense. The meat of the problem arises when the progress bar is done filling up. Is the item now "in stock" earning you little virtual dollars? Nope! The game is now waiting for you to press another button to stock the item. Why is this such a big deal? Because the progress happens in real time whether the app is running or not compelling you to return to your tower to press that restock button lest you miss out on a bunch of virtual revenue (read: do poorly at the game). As you may have guessed, all manner of different items have out of synch restock timers forcing you to return to the game in 5 minutes, 12 minutes, 26 minutes, 47 minutes etc. This is the game telling YOU when to play it. Call me old fashioned, but my leisure entertainment does not get to tell me when it needs me, that's my call to make. In fact, I think it's bad game design, flat out. It's good money making design, maybe, as you can pay to skip all the little annoying wait times the game throws at you, but it isn't enjoyable. Not enjoyable? Not for the benefit of the player? Sorry, that's bad game design. And that summarizes most of what I don't like about this type of free-to-play game. They incorporate un-fun mechanisms to goad you into paying. They are making worse games, on purpose. Or, more sinister still, more compulsive games.

Which brings me to my second point. I want to draw a comparison between these types of games, so called "social" free-to-play games that have you signing up your friends and checking in on your farm, city, tower or whatever a dozen times a day and electronic gambling machines. Both operate on the principal of getting you to play compulsively by throwing all sorts of rewarding glits in your face in lieu of actual accomplishment. Here's the difference, electronic gambling is governed by strict laws. What these laws boil down to is that all forms of electronic gambling, be they slot machines at a brick and mortar casino or the virtual variety on gambling web sites, need to be random. This means that their payouts are expertly crafted to play to the odds as best they can but the outcome of every spin is, none-the-less random and unpredictable. A player can spin nothing five times in a row then decide to quit and there's nothing the designers can do about it. The outcome of a spin can not affect subsequent spins. Imagine how (even more) devastating to your wallet a slot machine would be if the designers were allowed to control the payouts in such a way as to never leave you high and dry for too long. If, they were allowed to fake the spins so you would always win a little on your third spin, compelling you to try spinning three or four more times before another well planned payout? They could keep you playing for hours! This is the kind of stuff these social games do. They time their payouts just so. They make sure rewards come at exactly the right time when users, statistically, tend to close the game to keep you in there just a little longer and, for those willing to spend money on these games, keep paying just a little longer. This is what these CEOs of social game companies are referring to when they boast about their expert use of "player metrics". You see, because these games never actually 'payout' any actual money, they aren't bound by gambling laws and so are free to use any sort of data about your play habits against you to keep you in the game. Problem is, they may not pay out any real money, but they sure don't mind taking it.

So, the next time you notice a game is telling you when it wants to be played, or the next time a game seems like it's been designed to annoy you into forking over your cash, you tell it: "No way man! You work for ME! I ain't your fool!"

Image from NibleBit

1 comment:

  1. I think you totally nailed it - the compulsion-driving mechanic of timed rewards and is immoral and doesn't belong in gaming.

    It's called "Operant Conditioning" and it's akin to brainwashing. The technique is sometimes creepily used in marketing (think "Roll up the Rim to Win"), but it's even more creepy when it's employed in a recreational context.

    It's becoming a really familiar game mechanic. The "random item drop" (variable reinforcement schedule) mechanic has the same addictive qualities, and you can see it everywhere in gaming. Diablo, for all it's fancy decoration and elaborate presentation, is a glorified slot machine that drops armor sets instead of coins.

    That's my number one problem with the recent popularity of Zynga's games - that they're endorsing and popularizing these kinds of addicting methodologies. I think the morality of these kinds of techniques, really needs to be explored by gamers and game designers.