I’ve played the vast majority of my 70-odd games of
Twilight Struggle online, either against live opponents or via e-mail. But a few times I’ve had the pleasure of playing it face to face. I love teaching it to other people because it’s such a great game and it’s a delight watching them gradually pick it up until the penny drops and they’re totally in the zone with it. I can remember taking it to visit my regular gaming opponent Graham and teaching him how to play with an open hand for the first turn. I dealt the cards for the second turn and, being the seasoned player that I am and knowing what the cards did from the titles alone, quickly organised my hand and looked up at Graham who was having to plough through all the card text. And he wasn’t there. Well, he was physically but his eyes were glazed, totally fixated on those eight cards in his hand, and mentally he was back in the 1940’s, fighting the cold war. And I knew at that point that the game had him by the balls and he was going to love it.
Addiction is possibly the most ephemeral quality that a game can have, yet it is also one of the most important. That sense of “wow, just one more play!” even though it’s already three in the morning and you’ve had too many beers and you’re going to have to mow the lawn tomorrow and you really shouldn’t but what the hell. It clusters around certain popular games and yet, strangely, if you ask two different gamers why it is that any particular game is so addictive, you’ll probably get two totally different answers based on them emphasising whatever qualities they usually most enjoy in games tied in with this particular title.
Regular readers of my columns will be aware that I have ongoing obsession with pinpointing exactly why it is that certain good games are, well, good. To perhaps quantify quality if you will and make the business of playing, judging, rating and reviewing games a slightly more scientific process so that readers can put some useful store by the viewpoints they digest before going on to shell out what is increasingly becoming a fairly serious investment in the latest game titles. But it’s a hard - maybe even impossible - task, and my opinions on it change frequently. However increasingly of late I’ve started to think that this strange quality of addictiveness is possibly the best indicator of gaming quality that there is. After all if find a game addictive you’re going to spend more time reading about it, more time thinking about it and, ultimately, more time playing it and play time is, of course, the ultimate indicator of whether a game has actually turned out to be a good investment or not.
So what commonality can we find in our quest to discover what it is that makes games addictive? Rather than do the proper, scientific thing and pinpoint highly-rated games from different genres and go through them searching for points of reference I’m going to take the scattergun approach and work backwards: what qualities would we expect a game to have in order to make it addictive? And the first answer that comes to mind is something you often hear quoted about good games - that they inspire you to find out what you did wrong so you can do better next time. Unfortunately this is in itself a rather subjective quality to look at because there could be a myriad of reasons as to why you want to improve your performance for the next time. But from personal experience and observation there are two things that tend to engender that reaction. The first, and the more obvious of the two, is to offer a gentle route into learning the strategy of the game. In this model you learn the rules and should, assuming you’re not as thick as a brick, get some basic concept of how to form a strategy for the game but then go on to get beaten by your more experienced and/or talented peers because there’s a wealth of more subtle strategy to grasp. Some of these hidden nuances will become clear on your first play through, while others might require five, ten, fifty games to get to grips with. It’s addictive because you’ll immediately have some idea of why you went wrong in each game and have some idea of new strategies to try and correct it, making you want to play again. Twilight Struggle is an excellent example of such a game: there is an immediate connection with using events to support or nullify one another to make the best of your hand, but right away the neophyte player will begin get a sense that it’s a good idea to play certain event effects in a certain order and/or refrain from playing into particular countries until particular events have passed, but it’ll take a while to lean and implement this knowledge. Further down the line there’s getting a sense of timing, of when to do what where, and learning to interpret and control the incredibly subtle dance of influence waxing and waning across the board.
The less obvious source of addiction is, oddly, games in which the strategy is so obtuse or the learning curve so steep that more experienced players will completely hammer the uninitiated. This is a rather less certain approach because a lot of gamers faced with such a game - me included - will often throw up their hands in horror and cry “never again”! But for a sizable set of presumably fairly masochistic gamers this is real grist to their mill and they’ll want to play again and again until they get the hang of it and can compete with the big boys. Martin Wallace is the past master of games like this with classics such as Age of Steam and Brass falling squarely into this category.
That’s pretty much how the world is going to look to you if you subscribe to the old idea that “meaningful choice” is all that matters in games. Some gamers believe that of course, but I’ll wager that a lot more look for a lot more in their games. Happily I suspect that we can actually make non-choice aspects of gaming fit into the same model. One of the most popular and enduring facets of game design that often (although not always) steps outside the “meaningful choice” model is of course randomness: dice, cards and so on. When you look at randomness from the same perspective of “do better next time” its utility in making games addictive is obvious: you might well do better next time, just because the fates are kinder to you than they have been in the last game. It’s a clever hook too, because people being people they’ll tend to blame their failure on bad luck even when, as is often the case, it wasn’t, and want to try their luck again. Indeed there’s probably an entire article on how falsely blaming “bad luck” for poor performance is a cause of people avoiding randomness in games for the wrong reasons. But to get back to the question in hand this aspect of addiction in gaming is of course the underpinning of pretty much the entire gambling industry and we all know the problems with addiction that that can cause. Happily, in games addiction to a game is more of a positive thing that will may well actually save you money in the long term as you end up playing fewer titles but enjoying them more.
Another tie-in can be found in story driven games. Books and films offer merits aside from just the plot, but we’ve all come across books which have frantic, desperate plots that keep on on the edge of your seat and turning page after page to find out what happens, long after you should have gone to pick your kids up from football practice. Indeed in some book that’s pretty much all they have to offer - but they’re still read and enjoyed on the strength of the plot alone. That is, of course, a form of temporary addiction to the plot. In the very best narrative games you can have a similar experience, the desire to see one more card, one more paragraph of text, one more move or dice roll just so you know what happens next. Arkham Horror is the past master at this style of gaming, with no better example than the time we spent 3 hours playing and just on the verge of a sixth seal, we were all on tenterhooks as the character with the clues in the otherworld turned over no less than 3 “miss a turn” encounters on his second area and in the meantime the great old one work up and we ended up loosing. In most games that sort of random end would be instant qualification for trading the game away, but in Arkham Horror it was an absolute triumph, purely because it was such a thrilling end to the story.
I actually think it’s hard to argue that addictiveness is a key quality in identifying the very best games. What’s more open to question is whether it’s the main measure. However I also think it’s hard to argue that it’s an incredibly difficult thing to design into a game even if you start out with it as a goal. For starters what different gamers find addictive depends on the gamer and their taste in games. Some games that have proved perennially popular across genres - Twilight Struggle, Through the Ages and War of the Ring are good examples - can certainly ascribe some of their success to falling into more than one of the categories of addictiveness that I’ve defined here, and that helps a lot. But even if you can pull off that trick, it’s just too much of a subjective thing to properly push into what is, after all, a fundamentally objective process such as game design. However I do think it’s a rather more useful tool for those reviewing and rating games to bear in mind: and that, of course, includes you!