[The following article was written in March of 2012 but left unpublished due to the controversial nature of the content. Given his recent interview on NPR (http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/07/24/204621796/ONLINE-REWARDS) about this subject, the author feels that now is the appropriate time to put this into the public space.]
Every great thing that has ever happened to you has come with a release of a natural chemical called dopamine. When you eat something tasty, enjoy a kiss or a hug, get a gold star on your paper, or level up in a computer game, dopamine is there to reward you. Sex, cocaine, methamphetamine, 20-hour gaming binges, all do what they do for you because you get a massive hit of dopamine in the process. Since dopamine is in the broader class of chemicals called catecholamines, it also increases alertness but can lead to fatigue much in the same way as adrenaline can (another catecholamine).
When I was studying the link between abnormalities in catecholamine receptors and addiction at UCLA in 1989, I found the work fascinating. I ultimately abandoned it because I did not think research on animals was as conclusive as research on humans, and I had some issues with sacrificing large numbers of animals in every study. Now that I have spent the last fourteen years in the interactive media industry, I have the uncanny feeling that I have found the solution to what stopped my research in 1989. Now I have access to plenty of human volunteers, on the order of one billion of them. We call them gamers.
The way I see it, every time someone plays a game, they are dosing themselves with dopamine. Research has shown that this may have tremendously beneficial effects on a number of disorders including Parkinson's disease, attention deficit disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia. Since dopamine also comes with a general analgesic (pain reducing) effect, games could also be an effective treatment for anyone suffering from chronic pain, as long as that pain isn't caused by sitting for long hours in front of a computer (back pain, carpal tunnel, etc.).
Since the body is organic and adaptive, over time it will adapt to anything you do to it. “Use it or lose it” applies to pretty much every part of the body, including the brain. When it comes to dopamine, anything that becomes predictable has less and less of an effect. This causes us to get bored fairly quickly with the games we play and always want something better. Unless the game is designed to change and keep challenging us, or it contains a dynamic social element, it quickly becomes stale.
Game developers generally view their customers as either “hardcore” or “casual”. I would like to urge developers to abandon this world view and replace it with a perception of gamers as “high dose”, “medium dose”, and “low dose”. If you can do this, the relationship between developers and their customers becomes a lot less confusing. Currently in the industry, most software titles are aimed at the “hardcore” audience, which makes up perhaps 10% of all gamers. Let us call these gamers “high dose”. There has been tremendous expansion in the total number of gamers just in the last few years, in large part due to the success of social network games such as Farmville. Much attention has been placed on the fact that these new gamers are mostly women. Let us call this group “low dose”.
The industry has convinced itself that women want simplistic, cartoonish, and low content games. Let us call these games “low dose games”. Assuming that women are a sub-species that crave low complexity products and will pay well for them not only completely misses what is going on here, but sets up an environment that will be very destructive to the interactive media industry in the long run. Women are not inferior gamers, but in many cases they are new gamers. New gamers can get a tremendous rush from even low dose games, especially if those games are available instantly and anywhere. There are few other pleasures that are so convenient in our society other than food, and obviously food has a number of negative effects when you abuse it as your pleasure source of choice.
All gamers, male or female, start their careers as low dose. Even the most primitive game can be very exciting when it is your first game. I remember being fascinated by chess, Pong, Rogue (ascii/unix), and later Space Invaders, early in my gaming career. As I got increasingly jaded, these games no longer did it for me. I needed a higher dose to have the same effect. After years as a professional cyberathlete, even high dose games like World of Warcraft or EVE Online didn't get my heart rate up that much. I began work in the field of applied virtual economics in order to build games that could compete with reality and win. You could say I fell into the same trap as the vast majority of my peers in the industry: I wanted to make games for me.
You can see that in this case, making games for me and making games for gamers is not the same thing. I represent the top 1% of gamers on the dosing scale. Tons of games are already being made for this group. The group that needs attention is the lowest 50% of gamers on the dosing scale. This group is almost entirely ignored by AAA studios, but they have just as much money and desire as the other 50%. They may not look hardcore, but they are having just as much fun (at least for now) as their more experienced peers.
So who is serving this new group of gamers? I would describe almost all current social network and mobile games as low dose games. These products started off as relatively low quality (compared to AAA), but the quality level has improved markedly in the last couple years. A few companies, like Kabam and Jagex, are getting smart and increasing the intensity of their products to what I would call “medium dose”. They do this by trying to boost social interaction via player versus player combat. I have already written a number of articles on why they are doing this in a sub-optimal fashion, but the key thing is that they are targeting a consumer group that no one else is. [update: It would be fair to classify Puzzle and Dragons as being medium dose due to its complexity] Being able to operate in an uncompetitive environment is an almost sure recipe for success.
How is the dosing model valuable to interactive media companies? By understanding how it works, you can capture all consumer dosing levels and keep them linked to your franchise. This can multiply your revenues easily. Right now almost all companies provide products at only one dose level. This means that every time they put out a new product, they just end up stealing gamers from their last product. If a high dose company like Blizzard (the makers of World of Warcraft) wanted to increase their number of customers, they would start making low and medium dose products linked to their existing franchises. Grab those new gamers entering the space and teach them what it means to be a Blizzard customer. This makes capturing those consumers, and steering them to your higher dose products as they mature, a simple matter. Don't let companies like Zynga capture those consumers first and teach them not to play Blizzard games.
The same advice applies to Zynga and other “casual” or low dose game companies. Don't wait for your customers to mature and get bored with your products. You already have their attention and they are familiar with your brands. Instead of making new low dose products that will just cannibalize your existing products, start introducing medium dose products. Your low dose customers won't stay low dose forever just because they are women. Trust me, dopamine works just as well on women as it does on men. There is no reason why a company with the resources of Zynga can't ultimately make high dose games, other than that they don't know how to yet.
Once companies start following an approach of “cradle to grave” customer capture based on the dosing model, keeping customers and monetizing them gets a lot easier. My final cautionary note is that dopamine, like any good thing, can be bad for you if you get too much. Players get fatigued very quickly in the most intense games and need to be given rest breaks. This is part of the reason for the success of games like World of Tanks and League of Legends that can be consumed in small chunks.
[Now in 2013 I have been using the term Dopamine Driven Design (DDD) privately for the last year to describe the use of techniques to optimize dopamine delivery in interactive media products. It is my belief that DDD is being used on a very rudimentary level in most social network and many mobile games currently. One company, Riot Games, has been deploying DDD capable scientists to optimize their product on a level that is beyond rudimentary. Most if not all major studios have been creating business intelligence units to optimize engagement, which in my opinion is tremendously inefficient without the presence of an embedded DDD capable scientist.
It is my belief that the use of DDD is an essential next step in the evolution of interactive media, which will allow it to meet the entertainment needs of 21st Century humans. When used for entertainment, DDD can be of great benefit to society. When used to manipulate people, it can create social ill. Knowing far in advance that I would eventually be publishing Game Dosing, and that the information here could be used to manipulate people, I have published a number of papers in the last year explaining the associated risks.]
Front page image by Flickr user Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño / CC BY 2.0