Stateful games considered harmful
Last update: 14 Nov 2017
This article explores the game design elements that are present in majority of games and presents their harmful consequences to the end user. In particular, extrinsic rewards.
What is a stateful game?
Stateful game is a game that carries some state that is preserved when quitting the game and loaded back when the game starts. However, settings that are required to run the game, such as graphics settings and keybinds are not considered state in this article because they are all available from the start, can be changed at any time and are not tied to gameplay in an important way. The important state is an information that is being altered by player actions in the game such as game objects and player data.
Historically, early video game consoles didn’t have a permanent storage so the games on these systems were stateless. You turn the game on and you are always on the first level of the game. This fact put an interesting challenge to game designers. They had to make sure that players will want to start the game from the first level over and over again. Otherwise, they would never spend any money on it. This was especially important in arcade machines where players paid each time to start the game. The developers needed to make sure players like the sole fact of playing the game, that the game relied exclusivery on intrinsic rewards. Did stateless games proved to be a failure? No, they were a foundation of the gaming industry. Had stateless games been a failure, we wouldn’t see the current gaming market. This is an important point.
And only after that the computers with some form of permanent storage were became the norm. First with cassette tapes and floppy disks and then HDDs. Now game developers could write data and it would persist between game sessions. This led to creation of stateful games. And we’re going to examine these games and see the consequences.
Story-driven single player games
Example: Splinter Cell
These are the games where player progresses through a story in more or less linear fashion and the game ends when the story ends and it is back in a default state. The player can save the game and then load it back at a later time. These games can be compared to books or movies where you can pause them at any time and resume afterwards. There is nothing wrong with these games from the user standpoint but they are very hard to develop as free software. Usually, the player is captured by the unknown and plays the game to uncover the game world, this only works if the player haven’t played the game before. However, free games are usually developed publically and player can build the game at any stage of development and see all it has to offer. This will ruin the surprise and will ultimately result into failure to capture players.
Stateless multiplayer games
These are the games where the first time launching it you see a server list, you join the game and all content of the game is available from the start. You can select any player model, any weapon, anything. The only thing you don’t have is your own experience of playing this game. And that’s where the fun starts. It’s all about outsmarting your opponents and scoring the points. And when the match ends, you close the game and it goes back into default state but you have the feeling of a well played match and you feel like your time was well spent. These games rely solely on intrinsic rewards, the players play the game for the sole purpose of playing the game and having fun. These games can be played for years if not decades and will not grow old. The more time the game is played means the better is the quality of it. And these games are very well suited to be developed publically as free software. Players can play beta versions of such games for years and more players means more potential developers - a positive feedback loop.
Multiplayer focused games with single player mode
Example: Unreal Tournament
These games contain a single player campaign or some sort of a mode designed to be played alone. Usually, these modes act as tutorials for the game before player can join multiplayer and be completely devastated by skilled players. I think these tutorials are very important for the first impression and inclusion of them usually makes games better. This is another example of good use of state in games.
Multiplayer focused games with state from single player mode
Example: Worms: Armageddon
In W:A the completion of single player missions awards the players with new weapons that can be used in custom schemes. Then these schemes can be selected when setting up a non-story single player or multiplayer game. This creates a slight disadvantage to beginners as they don’t have the access to the full content of the game. Depending on the game, this can really change the mechanics of the game in a harmful ways but I haven’t seen such games yet.
Games with stats
Example: Company of Heroes
These games have a statistics screen where player can see their stats such as total number of kills, deaths, accuracy, etc. Used wisely, like ELO rating, they can provide a better experience by matching players with similar skill levels or anything alike. However, stats that simply increase by the player actions such as total number of kills can be easily abused. Say you add an in-game leaderboard which sorts players by their total amount of kills. What are the consequences? First, some players will now play the game just to move up the leaderboard, they no longer play the game for the sake of playing it, they play the game for this kill counter - extrinsic reward. Some players will try to artificially increase their stats by, for example, cooperating with other players to artificially farm kills, other players will start developing cheat programs to increase kills. Now you will need an anticheat and spy on your users. This is only the beginning, more examples follow.
Games with achievements
Example: Counter-strike: Source
Achievements are a meta game rewards that can be awarded to players for doing certain things in the game. Once earned, they stay attached to your profile forever. As they are only increasing over time, they are harmful stats as described in the previous paragraph.
Games with unlockables
Example: Team Fortress 2 (as of 2008)
In 2008 Valve has released the Goldrush update which added unlockable weapons to the game. Before the update all weapons were available from the start. Now you had to earn achievements to unlock new weapons. This lead to the creation of achievement servers which had the sole purpose of farming the new unlockable weapons. Instead of playing the game, players were wasting hours of their lives (including yours truly) on achievement servers. People on other servers changed the way they played. It also have changed the way people treated each other, before that you were judged by your skill, now you are judged by your unlockables. The virtual communism was destroyed and the game became far far worse.
Example: Lineage 2
Now these are truly horrifying. You create your character, you start at level 1 and the grind has begun. Skill doesn’t matter, it’s all about your level and your equipment. It’s all about extrinsic rewards. And it never ends, every once in a while a new update hits and adds more levels and items to waste your life to. And would you believe that millions of people sacrifice their lives for pixels on the screen? It’s a mental trick. People mourn losses much stronger than celebrate achievements. You put a few days or weeks into your character and then you don’t want to lose them. You are hooked. You’ve fallen for the trick of game designers. I wasted 5 years on that because I didn’t want to lose the items I’ve put hard work into. And other people too. I was smart enough to realize that this skinner box will never end and deleted all my characters. I was able to escape extrinsic rewards, other people didn’t.
Free to Play (aka Pay to Win)
Example: Team Fortress 2 (after 2011)
Now, you have designed a stateful game where players are expected to waste tons of their time on getting pixels, but you feel like nobody will pay for a game that bad (and you are probably right). What to do? Let’s distribute the game free of charge but - and here’s the catch - add the ability to buy in-game items. Any sane person would not touch such steaming pile of shit but some people will fall. And some people will waste a lot of money - the so-called “whales”. It now it is all about the whales. The game can’t be played properly without paying a lot of money, you can’t win without paying, you are playing a Pay 2 Win game.
Example: Dead Space 3
So you thought this can’t get any worse? Let’s charge a full price for the game and after that let’s charge more for in-game items! These games are becoming more and more frequent.
Fee 2 pay with loot boxes
Example: Team Fortress 2 (2010-2011)
Human greed knows no limits. Pay full price upfront, pay even more but you can’t directly buy items you want. You now need to buy loot boxes that give random items and hope that some of them contain items you want. 60$ (or more) is only an entry fee to this casino.
Real life is a Free to Play MMORPG that is perhaps the most horrible game of them all. You are put in the game without your consent, you are forced to go through a 10 year torture called school. You always need to do something to keep your body alive and you are punished by pain for not doing so. Quitting the game is also hard and people may put you in the psychiatric hospital for the quitting attempt. In severe cases you will be force-fed and be forced to play this game against your own will. Though actually the game is single player and you are always alone in your consciousness. There are no clear objectives and other players play this game mostly for extrinsic rewards. This fact is exploited by gamification. So far I haven’t been able to contact the developer and file tons of bug reports that I’ve amassed during my playtime. I would never recommend anyone to play this game.
Extrinsic rewards are the number one cause of bad games. And psychological exploits are number one cause of extrinsic rewards. To fix bad games, we need to fix psychology, we need to educate people on the nature of extrinsic rewards, we need to make them stop wasting their life on meaningless badges, pixels, etc. First, we’ll fix bad games, second, we’ll fix economy, third, we’ll fix copyright and patent laws. It is easy to make some kind of achievement outlined by someone else be the purpose of your life. It is hard to find your own.