Devil’s in the Design: The Only Game You Play

When the time comes to choose a new game to play, many gamers look for something that has high “replay-ability”. Typically when you hear people use this term, they’re referencing single player games with a clear beginning and end. Sometimes though, this term is used to address how long one can stick around in the multiplayer. Some might argue that there should be no upper-bounds to replay-ability and that if a game can endlessly churn out enough content to hold a player-base, then more power to them. For the most part, I agree; just because a title loses your interest, doesn’t mean it’s not still fulfilling for others. That being said, there are two types of games that could be considered to go beyond optimal replay-ability in a sometimes negative way. I’m going to call these two types of games: artificially endless, and naturally selective. Keep in mind while I explain what these games are, that they’re not always mutually exclusive.

“Artificially endless” is a term I coined when trying to articulate why certain games can start to feel like a treadmill. Despite a clear increase in skill or power within its own systems, these games leave you with the same or only slightly higher win/loss ratios or competitive skill ratings. The genres most guilty of this are usually trading card games and mobile games who restrict player growth based on time. Before I get too deep into explaining this term, I’ll need to identify what it’s not. “Artificially endless” does not mean “power creep”. For a quick explanation of “power creep” let’s take a look at two cards from Blizzard’s Hearthstone below. The card named “Booty Bay Bodyguard” is older and came out first in the game. It has a cost of 5 to play, it does 5 damage, and it has 4 health. Later with some expansions and events, a new card called “Evil Heckler” was released, which has the same attack, health, and skill as Booty Bay Bodyguard, but costs 1 less to play. If you had Booty Bay Bodyguard in your deck and had strategies around using it, you’ll now have to do your best to acquire Evil Heckler, because it’s simply better.

Hearthstone is actually pretty good about not feeling “artificially endless”, despite having the occasional struggle with power creep. When games have systems that reward the player for having started playing the game earlier than others, versus rewarding players who have been actively playing the game longer, they’re guilty of being “artificially endless”. Many mobile games that rely on timers can fall into this trap. If there’s a player vs player environment in games like that, there are many players whom you can realistically never be competitive with, simply by virtue of time restrictions on in-game power and resources. This is not the same, however, as Hearthstone’s collectible card mechanics. Sure, if you just started the game a few weeks ago, people in higher ranks will have a more robust collection and stronger decks than you. Earning card packs takes time, and you’ll ideally get there with more of it.

Many aging MMOs are faced with criticisms that might sound like they could fit the criteria of being “artificially endless”. Some complain that new players are kept out of the densely populated “post-game” (you know, where their friends are) because it takes them so long to hit the level cap or “age” their character via gear and skills. This puts the designers and developers in a sort of catch-22. Much of that early content is there to provide tutorials for new players to become acclimated to the game’s systems or provide them with a background on the lore that might be needed to truly understand what their purpose in the game is. If they allow a fast track through that content, they’ll flood their post-game communities with players lacking the skill or basic game knowledge. If instead of a fast track, they simply remove “outdated” levels or content to allow for a different coming of age for new generations of players, they’ve now removed content that was core to their game. In a best case scenario, players no longer experience a gap in knowledge or skills, but the studio has wasted resources and the costs sunk into producing that content. If resources from the studio have to constantly revise a living version of the game, it’s unlikely they’ll also be able to provide new, quality content, to their now growing post-game community. I’d argue that these concerns aren’t what make a game “artificially endless”. An overwhelming amount of content isn’t the same as endless, especially when that content is diverse and nonrepetitive. These games might require a lot of time, but at the very least, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can step away.

“The Naturally Selective” games are different in a key aspect: they’re not intentionally designed to keep you on the hook, but they punish you for leaving. These games almost always catch a large crowd on release but have a visibly high skill ceiling. After many of the more casual players move on, the remaining community's average skill level continues to go up. If you’re still playing the game competitively at this point, you’re almost certainly competent at it. But therein lies the catch: to continue being competitive (read: having fun, for most hardcore gamers) this is now the only game you play.

Rocket League is the poster child, in my opinion, for this phenomenon. When the game came out, it was so wacky and new that many people didn’t have a similar game in their library that gave them a mechanical edge. This wasn’t like a new shooter, where if you’d played hours and hours of one shooter, you’re bound to have retained some mechanical skill that transfers to this new title. No, Rocket League was something all it’s own (as long as you’re not hipster enough to know about its predecessor: Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars from 2008) and so for a while, the community was largely on a level playing field, learning new tricks and strategies together. It stayed one of the most played games for many people for a majority of the summer.

Then, seemingly like a switch, there was always one guy in every game that never quite seemed to touch the ground, scored most of the goals, and was usually quite bad mannered. That was, for me, probably the signal that I wasn’t willing to invest the time to gain those levels of skills, as this game was a passing interest. So I put the game down for a while and came back to it months later at the behest of a friend of mine. After almost an hour of playing, it was clear the only people left playing this game, were those “one guy”s from before. Even with a couple months of rusty experience under my belt, there was no competing with the average player at this point. The game had “naturally selected” those with enough skill and determination to stay, and made the game pretty miserable for anyone else. I was at a loss to how any newcomer could possibly get a foot in the door in this game’s online community.

Rocket League, and other high skill-based games aren’t the only way games can be “naturally selective”. League of Legends is an excellent example of a game that can be daunting to people who aren’t constantly playing it. LoL and many MOBAs have a lot of mechanical skill that goes into playing them, and unlike games like Counter Strike or Super Smash Bros. Melee, they compound on that skill requirement with a bloated cast of (at the time this article was written) 134 playable characters. Each and every one of these characters plays differently, and even if you have no interest in knowing how to play certain characters, you’ll need to know their skills intimately so as not to be surprised when they’re used against (or even with) you. If you’d be an active ranked match player of LoL in previous years and found yourself in a lower tiered skill league (Bronze, Silver) you’d almost certainly notice the difference. The lower ranked players of yesteryear were much easier opponents than the players who occupy that same competitive space now. LoL is certainly one of the games that comes to mind when I mentioned previously that “artificially endless” and “naturally selective” are not mutually exclusive. The massive cast is inclined to make players feel that older players within the community have a slight edge. With such a high learning curve as well as a high skill ceiling, it’s a prime example of a game that seeks to be the only thing you play.