Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Riding Slots and Crushing Candies: Game Design Aesthetics

I was planning on doing an in-depth analysis of Europa Universalis to show that any classroom using Civilization to teach history should uninstall it and load up EU instead. However a semi-spontaneous trip to Las Vegas changed my plans and I feel the need to talk about Candy Crush.

I have a few gaming prejudices. They include: thinking that everyone who competitively plays Counterstrike is a psychopath, that people who play Vampire: The Masquerade are weirdos, and that  people who play Candy Crush are idiots. I am working on this.
In Las Vegas though I saw something that put me back to square one with Candy Crush players. I saw a grown man put $900 into a slot machine. Nine-Hundred-DOLLARS. He was going to spend, at most, 3 hours at the thing before he lost all his money. This guy could have bought everything on the Steam Sale for $900 and he would be entertained until he died.

But no, he spent $900 on inferior entertainment. This then reminded me of Candy Crush and the fact that people could be spending their time (and MONEY!) on vastly superior games. It is so frustrating!

But it is not so much the causal nature of Candy Crush that annoys me. It is the fact that the game shifts away from being casual that makes the game so frustrating. And thankfully there is theory to explain my unease. Robin Hunicke and company put together a really interesting paper discussing the mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics of game design. In a previous post I defined game mechanics as the components of a game. Dynamics is what happens when these mechanics are put together in a game. For instance, a hail-mary pass in football is a dynamic of the rules, game elements and space of the game of football. Aesthetics though is the concept that helps us understand why Candy Crush is so deceptive. Aesthetics describe what the player gets out of the game; the experience that is created when the dynamics come together. In the paper, the authors list several aesthetics. Here is a brief overview.
  1. sensation (providing sights and sounds never seen before)
  2. fantasy (make-believe and wish fulfillment), 
  3. narrative (story and drama), 
  4. challenge (including competition), 
  5. fellowship (within social activities), 
  6. discovery (exploring uncharted territory and learning), 
  7. expression (self-discovery)
  8. submission (filling downtime)
The key for gamers to understand the appeal of Candy Crush is to realise that submission is a valid aesthetic. This is hard for gamers to accept and it is telling that it is the last on the list. "Filthy casual" is a shield we use to protect ourselves against troubling thoughts. "How can anyone play a game that only takes up 5 minutes of their time when I play for 2 hour sessions each day? Can I be so out of touch? No, it is the filthy casuals who are wrong."

Of course it is much easier to call someone names than to own up to the fact that many people feel perfectly comfortable getting their drama, challenge, fellowship and other psychological needs from somewhere other than games. However this doesn't let Candy Crush off the hook.

One of the reasons why I feel Candy Crush is exploitative is not that it is a "submission" game but that it switches to a challenge game and therefore takes fun as a hostage. What do I mean? Well the first couple of levels of Candy Crush are relatively easy. Easy enough that you can play the game as a pass-time. No need to put in a lot of time and effort. Then they crank up the difficulty and all of a sudden it is a challenge game. But the player didn't want a challenge game; they wanted a pass-time. So Candy Crush provides its players with an out. "Just pay me a little bit of money and I will make the game easier for you. It will be that fun pass-time again. And besides it is not like you spent money on the game before, right?"

Well this has been extremely successful for the company. Currently Candy Crush is making $633,000 a day. Of course this could go the other way, where the player vows to never spend a cent on the game. However since it is now a challenge game, the player must spend time and effort to continue playing. But they most likely started playing Candy Crush to get away from challenge games. In fact they may have thought it was stupid that people would spend hours playing a game. But now...

A friend of a friend literally has her iPad by her bed. She plays Candy Crush before she goes to bed and when she wakes up she rolls over, turns on the iPad, and starts playing. So what can you do to avoid situations like this? Understand what is the appeal of the game that you are playing and then determine whether the game is fulfilling that appeal. Why should I keep playing an RPG with a terrible story if I play those games for the narrative? Why should I play Candy Crush as a pass-time when it is frustrating or when there are better challenge games out there? This will lead you to have more fun with your casual gaming. 

Also even though Candy Crush is doing well now, it will not last. Years ago Farmville tried to do the same thing and Zynga, the company that made Farmville was the darling of the Wall Street tech funds. Now the company is not doing so well. People moved on. That's what you get when your customer base are filthy casuals. Ooops, silly me, there I go again. Those casuals are alright!


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