In this blog post a basic but hugely profound premise is put forth; that throughout history the play of games has been defined by the mastery of single games for example a sport or a board game such as Chess or Go. Due to the appeal of mastery and the larger identity that comes with that, games were traditionally played for comparatively large periods of time by players seeking to master every facet of their game as can still be seen in competitive sports. The argument here is that this core appeal has fundamentally changed with the onset of digital games. The gaming industry, for largely commercial reasons, has developed the conventions of play in a way that specifically rewards the play of multiple games as opposed to a single game through a number of ways such as,
– ‘Complete-able games
– Narrative and Puzzle focused Gameplay
– Low Mastery Ceilings
– Weak player Identities
– Content-Focused Business Model’
Although all of these facets are interesting and each could provide a worthwhile case study into exactly why for commercial reasons, these facets have typically become so accentuated in digital games (narrative becomes an interesting topic here when thinking about the often cited idea of narrative dissonance), it is in the idea of low mastery ceilings that I want to quickly mention here as a convention of digital games that may be beginning to see a change.
‘· Low mastery ceilings: Since the design goal is to move players through the content of a game as smoothly as possible, the game mechanics are generally balanced towards the average skills of first time players. It is rare and surprising when a single player narrative computer game offers examples of masterful play. All this leads to early burnout where players rapidly become ‘bored’ and put the title aside.’
It is worth thinking about how this may be changing somewhat with the popularity of live streams and speed runs upon those streams. Seemingly simplistic ‘low mastery cielings’ are often turned on their head here as players prove that anything can be mastered and made competitive in the format of speed runs. However in the rapid rise to prominence of free to play models and e-sports, the idea of ‘low mastery ceiling’ really becomes something that is on the decline.
Free to play is important here because if, as the strong argument is made for, commercial reasons dictated the form of games, then free to play offers a new model that is actually hugely compatible with the mastery of a single game. In my own research of the MOBA genre and in particular League of Legends and DotA 2, mastery is at the core of both games and the free to play model they adopt monetises that commitment of mastery ideally. The supporting e-sports scene these games garner and the longevity the developers are seeking to build into this format also prove to be a commitment to the idea that a single game is more appealing.
Cook mentions this resurgence in his argument,
‘Digital evergreen hobbies
Into this media-centric ecosystem we’ve seen the reemergence of major games that hew more closely to the traditional games of old. MMOs like World of Warcraft or MOBAs like League of Legends are services. A digital game like Minecraft ties into numerous communities and is often played for years. Some like Halo or Call of Duty cleverly camouflage themselves as traditional consumable boxed products all while deriving long term engagement and retention from their extensive multiplayer services. These games share many of the attributes of older hobbies:
- They attempt to be evergreen.
- They have high mastery ceilings and robust communities.
- Many, especially eSports, replicate the nested yearly loops of a traditional sport.
Each of these games is a hobby onto itself. People predominantly play a single game for years. In one poll of 5400 WoW players, 49% claimed to never actively play another MMO.’
Cook also touches on the new business models that make sense of these new ‘evergreen’ games,
‘This new revenue stream places new constraints on game designs. Types of laboriously handcrafted content that was once feasible when your game was played 10 hours is no longer profitable if revenue trickles in over hundreds or thousands of hours of play. Deep mechanics once again matter. Communities you want to spend time in become a competitive advantage.’
The relevance of these assertions within the current debates surrounding free to play and pay-to-win are also huge. Pay-to-win can here be read as a convention of the digital games market of many games where play is only a short term commitment. A fair free to play game however, is much more prone to this long commitment play style driven by mastery and identity rather than the play of many different games.
The way developers continue to craft these ‘single game hobby’s’ is also a point worth mentioning as in comparison to a sport or board game, digital games such as MOBAs or MMORPG’s are prone to content changes that can often severely effect mastery levels. Unlike traditional games that remain relatively stagnant and thus allow mastery to continually grow with very few barriers to block that growth, the decisions developers make with regards to balance changes or additional content can have huge ruptures in the mastery players possess. Given that one of the core characteristics of ‘single game hobby’s’ described here is that mastery is deeply linked with identity, the content or balance changes made by developers take on a new level of importance here. Decisions made effecting balance are no longer trivial changes in the makeup of a game, but can destroy the masterfully crafted play some players may have built up. For example as a Cho’Gath player on League of Leagues, one of my core competencies built up over long periods of play is my ability to land skill shots by know the exact limitations of the character. To augment this skill I often play Cho’Gath as a heavy ability power character which makes these ‘skill shots’ even stronger at the effective cost of my own defence. It’s a risky strategy and most players will warn you against it, however due to the time commitment and skill I possess with regards to landing those skill shots, it is a strategy that pays off far more often than not. What happens if those ability power ratio’s get lowered or structural changes are made to the character though? All of a sudden all of that experience and skill I accumulated becomes redundant and it is effectively lost as the game changes in a different direction. This is the major break of digital games as ‘single game hobby’s’ from trational games that existed in the same sense. Mastery and all of the meaningful connotations it carries to a person exist at the whim of developers who may not fully appreciate the impact of their decisions (the outcry after every patch is symptomatic of this).
Another relevant point for my own current work is the idea that these ‘single game hobby’s’ are innately participatory as opposed to commercially fuelled enterprises as Cook explains,
· ‘Participation, not marketing campaigns: New players of a hobby hear about it from a friend or stumble upon a free trial. They participate first and see if they enjoy the lifestyle that the hobby promotes. Big bang media events can flood the early stages of the acquisition funnel, but they do not directly result in revenue or a sustainable community.’
In Cooks view,
‘I personally value a wild explosion of diversity. We need less mass culture and more emphasis on vibrant, generative communities instead of passive industrialized consumption.’