Can Successful Video Games be Fun? (Part 1)

“Woah, isn’t that the whole point of video games, Aaron?”

Well, it was, and ostensibly it still is, but I’d like to open your eyes to the hidden economic and psychological mechanics that are forcing successful video games to be increasingly less fun.

Let’s look at Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, one of the most successful video games ever. WoW rakes-in an estimated $1.4 billion a year. This revenue is realized by aggregating millions of $15/month subscription fees. 

At the macro-scale, the longer someone pays the subscription fee, the better it is for the WoW accountants. With billions of dollars on the line, there’s a lot of incentive (i.e.: pressure) to maximize the length of play.

How does this manifest at the micro-level? Time-sinks. WoW is a game full of endless time-sinks.

It’s often said that the ‘real game’ itself doesn’t start until a player attains level 60… and unless you’re one of the unfortunate few who make a living playing WoW, this takes about two weeks of play time. Now, that isn’t the same thing as 'two weeks of playing’, this is two full weeks spent entirely, and uninterrupted, in the virtual world. That’s 336 HOURS (for the 'early’ game alone! The end-game is played for substantially longer). Contrast that number with single player, story-driven video game playtimes. Those games are purchased for a one-time upfront fee of $60, and usually take around 12 hours complete.

Could WoW really have 30 times more gameplay than the average console video game? (12 hours * 30 ~= 336)  Couldn’t that be the explanation, and not time-sinks? Absurdly unlikely! The production cost of block-buster video game titles is around $50 million dollars. Blizzard spent an estimated $80 million to produce World of Warcraft. While it’s true Blizzard is a production power-house, it’s naive to think that they can leverage their production dollars thirty times more effectively into creating content than the other major game developers; they can’t. 

So what did Blizzard do? They figured out how to meter out moments of fun (content), one controlled drop at a time. Imagine video games as thirst-quenching beverage: there’s only so much fun (content) in one bottle, and when you finish drinking the fun (exhausting the content), you move on to some other activity. Console games are drinks packaged in 'wide-mouth’ cans… you can drink the fun very fast (12 hours) and have a pleasant and memorable experience. However, when you’ve got a subscription model like WoW, wide-mouth cans are anathema. They are more than wasteful, with $1.4 billion of potential yearly dollars on the line, wide-mouth cans are insane. 

The pressure, then, is to meter out the least amount of “average fun per minute” possible, without boring the player into canceling their account. This is exactly what Blizzard has done.

WoW starts out alluring and strong, causing intense gamer-euphoria with its bright colors, detailed back-story and clear, achievable goals. That last part is the most important for subscription games, and the designers know this, humans are addicted to clear and achievable goals. So once you’ve been hooked by the early game, the goal system keeps you coming back for more, even as the fun/minute ratio falls. In fact, the stronger the addiction, the further the ratio can fall, while still being tolerable: your reptilian brain no longer cares if you have fun, it only cares that you satisfy it by feeding the addiction. Again, game designers know this, and there is an emerging science for motivating engagement with video games (as well as websites, especially video game websites).

So there you have it: the economics of professionally produced, subscription-based entertainment will select for games that use our psychological 'addiction’ buttons to allow for the lowest possible fun/minute ratio. 

So I’ll return to my original question in this new light: Can successful video games be fun? 

I’ll share the solution in Part 2.