Wednesday, 22 March 2023
Ten Player Motives #4
Everybody likes to win, but not everyone is willing to suffer to get there. Fortunately, there's a way of making games anyone can win - pure, blind luck. The reason that kids love games with a low degree of skill and a high degree of luck (Snakes and Ladders or Candyland for instance) is that anyone can win - they have just as much chance of beating their parents at these games as vice versa, and that makes games of pure chance very appealing to younger players, who are certainly not going to beat Dad at Chess or Splendor - at least until they get a little older!
The same lowering of the level of challenge was key to the success of Popcap, whose game Bejeweled (modelled on the brilliant Panel de Pon), which was the origin of the term 'casual game'. Bejeweled was built on the breakthrough realisation that having a timer in puzzle games was inherently stressful, and not everyone enjoyed this stress. The addition of an untimed mode was key to the success of this pivotal casual game, which in untimed basically became an opportunity to switch things around at random until the player eventually won. (As a postscript, I note that when EA bought Popcap, they immediately destroyed this clever design by making Bejeweled Blitz...) Along with kids boardgames, this demonstrates how the luck motive can substitute for the victory motive. However, most examples in commercial videogames will substitute luck for the acquisition motive - or combine the two.
By far the most commercially successful example is not even a videogame, however: it's Magic: The Gathering, which took the design principles of trading cards and built a howling goldmine with it. The luck motive is put into play in two ways in the design of this game, one of which has millennia of precedence, the other being less than a century old. Firstly, by shuffling a deck of cards as a source of randomness, games of Magic: The Gathering and any of its descendants such as Hearthstone or Marvel Snap, play differently every time. It's something that adds enormous values to boardgames and all videogames that have boardgame-like system. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there's the incredible power of the booster pack.
In a trading card game like Magic: The Gathering, booster pack contain random cards of varying rarity. In the original release, a pack would contain one rare, three uncommons, and eleven commons. Over the years, Wizards of the Coast (and later Hasbro, who bought them) varied these designs and came up with different configurations but the core concept was the same. Every booster would have one card you definitely wanted, either for your own set or for its trade value - the rare. It would have three cards that would be of high utility in deck building - the uncommons. And it would have a bunch of commons that were exciting when you first opened booster packs, but would just become chaff after a while.
Magic: The Gathering's booster pack design was incredibly powerful. For acquisition motive players such as myself, it means spending a huge amount of money on boosters to collect (and trade for) a complete set. But even for players who weren't interesting in 100% collections, the luck motive made each booster an adventure in itself. This in turn led to videogames inventing loot boxes, which were digital versions of the booster pack, with the same monetisation policy.
Loot boxes divide players. Many consider loot boxes manipulative... and they certainly can be, even when what is contained is purely cosmetic. You only have to look at the Steam marketplace for gun skins on Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to see how players can be motivated to look for ultra-rare, ultra-valuable skins like the karambit knife skin. But the possibility for exploitation isn't a certainty. The design and monetisation of Supercell's Clash Royale has many defenders, for instance.
But you don't have to monetise random chance to make the luck motive work for your design. There is a long and honourable history of games using the luck motive without monetising it. Most of these designs descend from TSR's (and later Hasbro, who bought them) venerable Dungeons & Dragons design, which used random tables to determine treasure drops. Nearly every computer role-playing game that followed over the decades made use of random chance drops to add variety of experience - and, when done well, to capture some of that excitement from 'opening the booster pack'.
Next week: Thrill-seeking