The video game industry — the biggest entertainment industry in the world in economic terms — is simultaneously in the best and worst state of its relatively short history.
On the black side of the ledger is the diversity, creativity and sheer scope of many modern titles.
Gamers are spoilt for choice by single-player and co-operative action-adventure driven narratives conducted in immersive worlds, sometimes hosting players in their thousands. Or they can compete against each other in myriad ways; racing, shooting, managing simulations and sports teams.
But increasingly a dark psychological factor is creeping in, a dopamine-inducing strategy increasingly favoured by many game developers to addict players for reasons that have little to do with good game design and everything to do with greed.
In the early days of the industry, clever designers noticed a peculiar quirk of the interaction between players and games.
Motivating a player to stay engaged is no easy task, especially in an industry that moves so quickly with new genres and technologies emerging rapidly. Good game-play and storytelling will only get a designer so far, but some developers struck on a fairly simplistic psychological technique for maintaining interest — randomly generated in-game items.
The 1996 hit Diablo was one of the earliest examples. Not only did the game generate random maps, the ‘treasure’ found in these demonic-inspired dungeons was also delivered randomly. Players became obsessed with ‘farming’ the same levels again and again to obtain what they perceived as items with the best statistics.
Gaming commentators marvelled at the re-playability of what was essentially a fairly simplistic title.
The parent company of Diablo’s developer, Blizzard, would go on to embed randomly generated items into another of its most successful titles, World of Warcraft, where players in groups of up to 40 would collectively invest billions of man-hours into ‘farming’ dungeons with randomly delivered items forming the primary psychological driver behind this rinse and repeat behaviour.
Meanwhile developers of games such as Counter Strike Global Offensive realised the incentives did not even have to affect game-play. Players could be just as easily addicted to pretty colours — as long as those colours were perceived to be ‘rare’.
In-game gun skins quickly evolved into a lucrative real-world economy with some players paying tens of thousands of dollars for the ‘perfect’ rare skin.
There is no real value for these items in any traditional economic sense — although some may argue the same can be said of art and certain collectors’ markets. The only value lies in artificially induced desirability. And unlike artworks, the only thing that prevents an infinite number of so-called rare items popping into in-game existence are a few lines of code.
Developers in 2019 are all too aware of the economic power and psychological pull-factor of shiny in-game items. The last craze of addictive multi-player shooters, the so-called Battle Royale genre, are full of randomly generated, often tradeable, in-game items.
Despite many of these items doing nothing for game-play, players are collectively paying millions of dollars, if not billions, to obtain ‘rare’ objects in titles such as PUB-G, Fortnite and Apex Legends. Depending on the business model, it can be a highly lucrative, simplistic and effective way of generating large amounts of money from the player base.
Children’s games are also strong purveyors of the tactic. Popular platform Roblox contains many examples, the most popular currently titled Adopt Me, were children are induced to gamble on randomly delivered pets. The average cost of obtaining the most ‘desirable’ — such as a rare unicorn or dragon — can be eye-watering.
Some argue that delivering random items increases the fun factor, but at what stage does this clever psychological trick, so loved by poker machines, step into the realm of cynical exploitation?
When the addiction subsides, how many modern gamers will regret the thousands of hours they spent chasing an ephemeral line of code with no future value?
Myles Peterson is a Shepparton-based tech and video game writer.