Time, value and scorn

I argue with MMO bloggers a lot. Maybe I’m just old and set in my ways, but so much of what these youngsters say just rings so false to me…

One topic to always get me embroiled in an all-day rasslin’ match is this concept that most MMO publishers are just out to fleece their customers and they make MMO’s full of un-fun time sinks so that people will play longer and so keep subscribed.

I don’t agree with this argument. If the activities that bloggers refer to as “time sinks” aren’t fun to the players, then why don’t the players leave the game? Why stick around if you aren’t having fun? Anyway, I’ve argued that argument until I’m blue in the face. Not going to do it again, life is too short.

In fact, I’m throwing in the towel and I’m going to AGREE with these bloggers, but on condition that they cast their nets wider. It isn’t the MMOs are full of time sinks. GAMES are full of time sinks.

This struck me when I was reading In Praise of the 3-Hour Game (doh, no stretch there.. I sure can make mental leaps, eh?). In it, Wired’s Clive Thompson suggests that most (narrative driven) games are bloatware and shouldn’t run more than 4-5 hours. The argument goes that games cost a lot to make, so you have to charge $60 for them, so you have to fill them with time sinks to stretch out how long they take to play so that players feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth.

For the record, I don’t totally agree with Thompson either, but I agree with him more than I do with the bloggers. When I’m grinding levels in a Final Fantasy in order to take on the next boss, all I’m doing is grinding levels. Nothing unexpected is going to happen. Nothing else in game is going on. Compare that to grinding levels in an MMO. I never know what’s going to happen next. Maybe someone is going to come running past any minute, in need of help or something. And I’m probably talking with guildies or friends while I’m grinding, so even if nothing unexpected happens I’m still having a pleasing conversation.

In either case, people are paying to do time sinks. Either at $15/month, or with that big fat $60 fee up front. If the basis of the argument against time sinks is that time sinks aren’t fun, and we’ve established that both single and mmo games are full of time sinks, then why do we find games fun in the first place?

I mean, any non-gamer would tell you the entire game is a waste of time and a ‘time sink.’

I could do into this some more, but I have to go grind a couple more levels in Star Ocean: First Departure before I can take on the next boss. And y’know what? I’m really looking forward to playing after the day I’ve had.

# # # End gaming discussion # # #

To my friends: A while back I was apologizing about being so negative and all that and mentioned that my mom wasn’t doing too well. A few of you expressed concern, and that was very much appreciated. I just wanted to post a quick update. It’s been an on-going struggle since, as we’ve tried to motivate her to take care of herself. Funny thing I’ve learned. If a person is lucid, you can’t force them to help themselves. We’ve been trying like crazy to get her to check herself into the hospital but she wouldn’t. Then today she fell (not for the first time) and hit her head (the first time). Thank goodness someone happened to be there, and an ambulance was called, and now mom is *finally* in the hospital getting some medical attention. Tests will be run; they think she may have pneumonia, or worse (her white blood cell count is way low – she’s smoked like a fiend for close to 70 years…draw your own conclusions) but at least they have her eating and drinking.

I know it sounds weird to be ‘celebrating’ my mom landing in the hospital, but it feels like such a relief. She’d gotten to where she would choose not to answer the phone, and every time I called I’d get to worrying that she’d fallen or had just passed away and was laying there, or hoping she’d just decided she didn’t feel like talking to anyone (you wonder where I get my crankiness…the apple don’t fall far from the tree!) Thank goodness an old high school friend lives across the street and he’d check on her for us. I’m far less worried with her IN the hospital than I was when she was OUT of it.

9 thoughts on “Time, value and scorn

  1. As I was reading, I started to conclude that all games could be considered time sinks and therefore un-fun, then reached your conclusion and found we thought the same thing. 🙂

    I hope everything works out with your mother. It sounds like you’re going through a very difficult time right now. I don’t follow any religion, but the sentiment “I’ll keep you in my prayers” seems appropriate. “In my thoughts” maybe? Either way, take care.

  2. There’s probably a distinction to be made between time-sinks we enjoy and those we don’t — just as with grinding, it’s a rather elastic term. Isn’t Monopoly a time-sink?

    Anyway, that’s rather overshadowed by the news on your mum — I’m glad she’s somewhere where *you* can get a diagnosis just as much as she can, even if she is cussing out the orderlies. 😉

  3. we can’t get our grandparents to , a. come live with us, or b. go live in an assisted living center so c. we worry about them just like you did your mom. Old people really don’t want to “lose freedom” even if better health care would actually mean more freedom.

  4. There’s also a huge difference between a time sink that you’ve paid once for, and one that you’re constantly paying more for. That difference changes game design, and is the heart of my annoyance with DIKU MMO design.

    That said, yes, grinding levels in your prototypical JRPG isn’t significantly different from grinding reputation or killing a herd of foozles in an MMO… on a game play mechanical level. It’s the monetization that bugs me. For the player who plays 20+ hours a week, it’s possible to derive great “value” per dollar in an MMO, but for the player who typically takes a year to get through a Final Fantasy or Star Ocean, playing a couple of hours at most per week, the equation changes significantly. Beyond that, at the end of the year, that player can still play the FF or SO, while the MMO based on monetizing access is inconveniently out of reach *by design*.

    So, games=timesink, yes. Monetizing that sink according to time rather than content, on the other hand, is a significant difference.

    Best wishes for your mother. Here’s hoping those health care pros have eagle eyes.

  5. Thanks for the mom-thoughts. I called her at lunch today and she sounded better than she has in weeks.

    Anyway…

    @Tesh

    So we have 3 kinds of games:

    Single Player games with grinding levels
    Subscription-based MMO games with grinding levels
    FreeToPlay MMO games with grinding levels

    So you’re ok with the grinding in SP and F2P, but feel that Sub-Based should eliminate grinding levels?

    So what would you replace it with? If you don’t have to grind, then players will roll out the old “Monty Haul” jokes. If you do have to grind, then the devs are ripping off the customers.

    And *any* repeated activity will eventually be labeled a grind. If you took the worst Korean Grindfest F2P MMO on the market today, and transported it back to 1980, we would’ve played that game until we passed out from hunger/dehydration. Every fight would’ve been amazing, just to see the how incredibly well rendered/animated things were. But today, if you have to fight 10 of the same mob, some people start saying its a grind.

    So how do you economically [keep the dev in business] create a game that has constantly changing [= No grind] activities that challenge players [= no Monty Haul] ??

  6. Actually, I’m not so much against grind itself, since people will have different tolerances for it. I do love several FF games and the Star Oceans I’ve played (2 and 3) were great grindy fun. I’m just against monetizing *time* rather than *content*… but even there, there are people who will get adequate value out of it. Neither am I calling for the obliteration of subscription models, just the realization that their “one size fits all” mentality doesn’t work for everyone, and an MMO, of any game genre, should be trying to be inclusive, not exclusive.

    In other terms, grind in a single fee game increases the amount of time you can spend with a game, *reducing* the cost per hour to play it, while leaving the total cost alone. In MMO terms, that’s the Guild Wars model. In a game that monetizes time in monthly sub chunks, the cost per hour varies wildly per user, and grind winds up *increasing* the *total* cost. I’m looking at the bottom line, not the cost per hour of a game played like a part time job. It’s a different metric for a different market segment.

    Monty Haul only applies to a loot-centric game design, by the way. MMO design need not be constrained to the DIKU mentality. A constantly changing challenging world may well be designed around player actions and interaction (and player skill), rather than acquiring loot (or even avatar skills).

    That said, if we’re assuming the DIKU loot model charging for time is the only one to use, then yes, we’re stuck with an arms race between content creators and content consumers. Grind pads out the consumption curve, and makes sense for the devs; they have a better chance to stay ahead if the players are still farming reputation or hunting gizzardless foozles. Of course, this also assumes that the devs are trying to throttle players through content at a fairly universal pace. Letting players go at wildly different paces would throw that out of whack a bit as well, as the early adopters would blow through content too fast.

    See, the central conceit there is that players’ *time* must be monetized, not the content itself. A company charging for content doesn’t care how fast (or slow) anyone plays through the content; they have their money, and can work to make more only as they merit compensation from previous work.

    As for challenge, we might have to decide if we’re talking about challenge to the player’s skill, or challenge to their time commitment. Most challenges in WoW can be outleveled or outgeared with enough time investment. The raiding endgame differs a bit, for better or worse. (Better overall, I’d say, considering the greater need for player skill as the loot itemization levels off.) A game comprised largely of “endgame” like “level playing field” content may well be better for providing challenge, since it can be tuned with some sense of regularity, as players can’t simply outlevel it. A very narrow power band between newbies and vets could assist in that regard for an overall approach desiring consistent challenge. (That said, some people like the near-omnipotence that comes from outleveling content, so killing that would alienate those players.)

    At any rate, if we’re challenging time commitment, again, yes, it’s back to the arms race, and grind is an easy tool to use to slow down the players. If we’re challenging player skill and keeping the Monty Haul loot lust under our thumb, frequent content upgrades and updates would indeed be the best way to keep the game interesting, via horizontal expansion. A high enough frequency would make charging for content silly, and a subscription makes sense again.

    (Tangentially, Blizzard has also used “combat ratings” to make it so that characters leveling actually get *less* effective as they level, prompting the loot upgrade treadmill, just to stay even with previous abilities. It’s a clever way to keep the bigger numbers coming to provide the illusion of improvement, but have the actual effects dodge exponential inflation.)

    Sigh. Lots of words to say “it depends” on a lot of things. Still, looking at your three game models, I’m not opposed to “grind” itself in any of them, just the monetization thereof (which tends to make a negative feedback loop creating more grind over time).

  7. I personally believe that the term “time sink” is used for those activities that one finds unfun in a game. Take for example Fable 2, I didn’t hate nor love the game, but it was full of activities that can done besides the main quest which I did not like, felt like a time sink to me. On the flip side, I just finish Saint’s Row 2, loved the game and it’s full of activities that can be done besides the main story, never once felt like a time sink to me.

    MMO’s are full of time sinks because there is no real end to the game like a single-player game. A problem with MMO’s is that players will complain about time sinks because they are generally wanting something that is taking a length of time to aquire or achieve, but if you make such things too easy to get, then players will complain that there is nothing to do. It’s a no win situation I feel for developers.

    BTW, glad to hear that your mom is doing well, I would give anything to be able to spend time with my mom if it were possible.

  8. @Tesh
    “I do love several FF games and the Star Oceans I’ve played (2 and 3) were great grindy fun. I’m just against monetizing *time* rather than *content*”

    But Star Oceans DO monetize time rather than content. They (according to Clive Thompson’s arguments) put grinding into the game to artificially extend the length of the game so they can charge more for it.

    The only difference is you’re paying up front rather than monthly. They take 5 hours of narrative which they could only sell for $10, pad it out with 40 hours of grinding, and sell the resulting product for $60.

    Or another way, if a $60 game lasts 5 hours, you’re paying $12/hour to play. So they fluff it out with grinding to make it a 40 hour game, and now you’re paying $1.50/hour to play.

    So how is this any better than an MMO publisher putting grind in to extend the number of hours it takes to play through the content?

    I say it’s the same thing.

    “In other terms, grind in a single fee game increases the amount of time you can spend with a game, *reducing* the cost per hour to play it,”

    Disagree on the cost reduction. I pay $15 for a month of playing an MMO. If there’re 15 hours of gameplay in it. I’m paying $1/hour. If there are 1000 hours of gameplay in it because of level grinding, and I play 30 hours, I’m paying .50/hour. That also reduces the cost per hour to play.

    MMOs are essentially infinite, and I can play as much as I like. The more I play, the less/hour I’m paying. You could argue that grinding ADDS value to MMOs.

    “the cost per hour varies wildly per user, and grind winds up *increasing* the *total* cost. I’m looking at the bottom line, not the cost per hour of a game played like a part time job.”

    But grind is irrelevant in this equation. An MMO that has 1000 hours of non-grindy fun isn’t going to cost less to get through than an MMO that has 1000 hours of grindy fun. It isn’t the grind that’s the problem.

    The problem is that the MMO’s have a subscription model, and there you and I agree: I too think there need to be more options. Since neither you nor I can carve out adequate time to get our money’s worth out of $15/month, playing an MMO seems like a worse deal than a single player game. I’m right with you on this one.

    But I wasn’t arguing that $15/month subscriptions rock. I was arguing against all the comments that say that MMOs are designed not for fun, but to get as much $$ out of the wallets of the players as possible. I can enjoy grinding levels in a single player game or an MMO. MMO’s just offer more options than almost all single player games. (Crafting, socializing, etc) And they’re always changing…at least, the good ones are.

    But I don’t attribute the problem to “time sinks” or “grinding”. Just to the flat-rate sub model.

    @JayeDuB — “It’s a no win situation I feel for developers.”

    Exactly, and it’s why I keep sticking up for the developers. They do their best to find some middle ground that pleases as many gamers as possible, but obviously they’ll never please everyone.

  9. Actually, I don’t really buy his argument. Retail games have a fairly “flat fee” going on as well. Publishers charge the same price for a Gears of War as for Mass Effect. There are those who tout “hundreds of hours of gameplay” *coughDisgaiacough*, but they aren’t really charging any extra for that, it’s just a selling point.

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