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The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 3
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The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 3

December 3, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Multiplayer gaming: a public health issue?

There is a sub-genre of multiplayer games that will probably increasingly attract the attention of the media and the medical profession: the massively multiplayer online role-playing game. These games have the unique characteristic of being exceptionally addictive, for three primary reasons:

  1. They take place in a persistent virtual universe -- the game has no ending, per se.
  2. The game system relies on the endless improvement of the player's avatar. In other words, the game offers an inexhaustible source of challenges to motivate players.
  3. Their multiplayer dimension: it is far more stimulating to chase after a dragon with a bunch of friends than on your own.

The experience in Korea, where these games are immensely popular, demonstrates that a significant portion of MMO gamers may become completely and utterly intoxicated. The same issue is emerging the western world. In France, for instance, the Marmottant hospital, a leading institution for the treatment of addictions, has opened a therapy for treating the increasing numbers of addicts of this new "drug".

Thus a question arises, which affects both game design and publishing strategy: is it ethical to conceive such powerfully addictive games? Many gamers will tell me that only a fraction of players become victims of MMOs. True enough, but would these very same gamers feel the same way if such an addiction seized their own son?

Many players are still too young to have children, and consequently to understand the joys and torments of being a father or a mother. But there is also a growing number of gamers that do! I think this public health issues truly warrant a public debate. It is better that we talk about problems before they get out of hand rather than wait for legislators to enforce regulations upon us that will hurt the industry.

If this problem is taken into account by game publishers, game design solutions for limiting the potentially harmful effects of MMOs could be found. For example, we might reward avatars that sleep, i.e are idle for a certain amount of time, or somehow penalize those who do not get enough rest.

The case of players with multiple avatars might be dealt with by developing some kind of in-game parameter common to all of a given player's avatars: i.e. if one of his avatars consumes too much of this energy, the player will not have enough left to use his other characters to their full potential.

Next article

In my next and last chronicle on the megatrends of game design, I shall address three less obvious trends that are nevertheless rife with potential for future paths of development:

  • User-generated content
  • The aging of players
  • The emergence of emotions in games

Previous articles

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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Nils Haukås
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Although some of these trends are trends I can easily recognize, the article did open my eyes in the respect of ethical gamedesigning. Is it acceptable to lose some poor souls in the quest for the ultimate, addictive experience?

If the issue isn't taken seriously it might perhaps result in automatic high age restrictions on the mmo genre.

A good read indeed!

Sjors Jansen
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This comes from people who make money treating this "addiction":

The big problem is the quality of life of a lot of people in general.

Mickey Mullasan
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If we are to tackle addiction in games we should first figure out how to stop addiction to gambling. If you insert the word "gaming" where "gambling" is in the below page, you'll find it clicks in quite nicely:

How would you redesign poker to motivate people to play less? Can you cure gambling addiction by having people gamble with redesigned games? Gamblers Anonymous would disagree.

Bryan Suchenski
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Sorry to get off of the topic of addiction, but I just had to point something out.

"The arrival of cooperative gaming modes has allowed players of different skill levels to have fun together. I think it is one of the main reasons for Counter-Strike's success, where players of any level are playing together as a team."

The first sentence in this quote makes perfect sense. The second sentence is...well, have you ever played Counter-Strike? We're talking about the same Counter-Strike, right? The one where new players get killed in under a minute and spend 80% of their time waiting for the round to end so they can killed again really fast - that Counter-Strike?

Hardly the first example that pops to mind of a game that's inviting to players of all skill levels. It's a nitpick, but I couldn't not say it.

Bart Stewart
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"Single player games are making use of downloadable content: new equipment, levels, missions, game modes, settings, opponents, etc. There's every chance this will become increasingly extensive."

I agree, and I see a real opportunity for the industry here. An idea I've been knocking around for a while now (
vely-single-player.html) is the possibility of merging the business model of MMORPGs with the gameplay design of open-world games.

The typical business model for developers of single-player games today is built around making one big, complex game, then dropping that product completely (or with at most a couple of bits of downloadable content) to go make some other different game, and hoping that one of them is a commercial hit before the studio runs out of money. The "Living World" business model would be to create a large gameworld space and then, over months and years, extend that gameworld with high-quality content in the same way that MMORPG operators continuously refresh and expand their content.

This model would appear to offer two advantages over today's usual model of making a series of unrelated single-player games and hoping one of them goes big:

1. It designs in a long-term revenue stream for paying back the usually-steep initial development costs, rather than requiring one-time sales to be strong enough to cover all costs. This reduces investment risk.

2. It minimizes loss of revenue due to piracy by shifting revenue generation from a one-time sale of copyable content to repeated sales of download-only content.

Adopting this model would create a game development studio whose core business process is to fund a mid-sized team to create a large single-player gameworld, then spin off to a smaller external development group the long-term enhancement of that gameworld through high-quality DLC in return for a percentage of the income generated by DLC sales. In effect, this builds the business around monetizing the most capable modders.

We can already see small versions of this starting to appear, as with making DLC production for Little Big Planet part of the business plan. It remains to be seen whether some developers will choose to structure their entire business on this model, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that someone's already headed down this path.

Bill Redd
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That's true Tim, and I seem to remember articles/news reports about the obsession or potential addiction of those non-electronic games as well. Addiction to anything, IMHO, is a symptom of a more serious and most likely unidentified problem with the user.

However, many games tend to reward addiction, or long term play. For instance TF2, when I play a lot my Steam Rating is "10 - EAGLES SCREAM!" Wow, I'm cool! But when I don't play for a couple of weeks it says something like:

"2 - Nearly Lifeless" Wow, I suck.

Now, I know the Steam Rating is pointless, it's not skill level, but how much you have played over the past couple of weeks. Of course it is meant as a purposeful jab to the user to keep them playing.

In the end, the industry has to create addictive games, the user has to want to play it. But it is the user that must be responsible for his or her time and social well being. So supporting and encouraging addiction may be the real problem. Perhaps reminding the player to take a break after playing for long periods.

Maybe the Steam Rating should say:

10- Dude get a life!


2 - Thanks for playing!

Alex Meade
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I'm not sure how I feel about all this talk of getting addicted to video games. I don't think it is the games fault but moreso the lack of responsibility of the player.

So I do agree with Bill, addiction usually is a symptom of problem with the user but games that reward addiction also tend to anger those players with less time on their hands and/or work against them being responsible.

So great article and good comment Bill, i agree.

Taure Anthony
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@ Bill R.

I couldn't agree more!!!

Mickey Mullasan
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Much like smoking companies are forced to warn their users that yes they do in fact sell an addictive product, maybe it is game makers responsibility to inform and educate their users of the potential addictiveness of the experience. A lot of groups advocate the "cold turkey" method as the only true way to stop addiction. If game players have a problem, (and yes we can set some kind of heuristics up to know if gamers are addicted to online) maybe we should intervene and say, "Hey, you're addicted. Please stop playing now and take care of yourself. If you are unable to then call this support line (xxx-xxx-xxxx)."

Shaun Huang
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I suspect that the public health issue is more of a parenting problem than it is a game design problem.

Bob McIntyre
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Playing WoW for 40 hours a week might not be how I choose to spend my free time, but that doesn't mean it's an addiction. I would say that it's unhealthy, you should be getting some exercise and/or learning new things. But I think it only becomes an addiction when you start failing your classes, skipping work, missing your children's sports matches or music recitals, forgetting your anniversary, that kind of thing, as a result of playing too much WoW. Until it's actually messing up something important that you handling properly beforehand, it's not an addiction. And it is 100% the choice and the responsibility of the person doing it.

You know, TV has a lot of channels and a lot of shows on each channel. I bet that if I tried to watch every episode of every TV show one time (no reruns), even if I never needed to leave my TV, and I skipped all the commercials, and I were independently wealthy and lonely enough to do it, I would still die before reaching that goal. In fact, the amount of unwatched material would go up the longer I tried it, because they make new episodes and new shows faster and faster, on more and more channels, and I can only watch one thing at a time.

So does my TV set need a warning? No, it absolutely does not. I need to take control of my life. I need to be responsible on a very basic level for my own actions.

Ibo Mazari
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good reading! In this case one should mention the phenomenon called eSports (electronic sports), which relies on multiplayer gaming and that has to deal with the problems mentioned by the author:

1. Cheaters who abuse a game's bugs or design errors

2. Bad players or sore losers who log off during a session and leave their team-mates hanging

3. Pro gamers who have mastered a game so thoroughly that their presence leaves no chance of survival to newcomers... or to anyone else!

4. Players who lack the team spirit necessary for tactical play

5. Thugs with rude or even outright xenophobic or racist behavior

The eSports legues have developed solutions to get along with these problems and to ensure a good development of social gaming. Take the ESL for instance, more than 1000 volontary admins keep the system work. Maybe this should be pointed out the next time!

Best regards


Luis Guimaraes
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@Bart Stewart Totally agreed, I have written something (that nobody has read - or understood the point - now it's my chance :D ) in the following post: