Should game companies have a duty of care?

I have talked over the last few weeks about the challenges of playing more casually, or adjusting to having less time available when you want to play with people who can put in a lot more time to a game. But one notion that hasn’t been challenged is that  dedicated players want to spend more time in  games, the only reason that they don’t is  real life issues.

The entire point of these games is to progress your character. The only way to do this is by spending time on it. Even if you are happy with the progress of your main character, you can progress your account by levelling alts to give more options, more tradeskills, and so on. Or progress your in-game social network by spending time with people. Plus people always want to spend more time on their hobbies and less on work/ study/ chores, it’s human nature.

Maybe it is part of the drift towards more casual friendly gaming, but MMO devs have been toying with encouraging people to play less for years. For example: rested xp bonuses, easy cash/ consumable supplies from daily quests, limited boss attempts or long respawn times. But at the same time, the whole game design points people in the opposite direction. And being able to keep busy is one of the factors that keeps people in the game in the first place.

This just leaves a lot of open questions:

  • What’s so bad about playing a lot, assuming you have the time?

From the dev point of view, there are lots of practical reasons for encouraging people to play less. They’ll consume content more slowly. The gap between most progressed and least progressed will get smaller, making it easier for them to play together. Less likely to screw up their real lives to an extent which means they can’t play any more. Less need to design time sinks. Less use of game network resources. Takes people longer to burn out.

Obviously if you are charging by the hour, then it’s better for people to play more. But in any other case, the only reason to encourage heavy play is because of the stronger community base which will be built. (You will get a more tight knit community if people spend more time together.)

So there’s really nothing bad about playing a lot, and it’s great for the in game community. Just it means that content is consumed more quickly, devs might need to put in more time sinks, and it may be harder to play with more casual players if the progression difference is too great.

  • Is there any real way to encourage MMO players to play less?

Sure. Release dull, buggy content, have dreadful PR, provide an awful service, etc. Or just have less progression – players will probably leave when they’re finished and there’s no progression left, but they will play less.

Otherwise, given a game that people like, there is no way to stop the hardcore from pouring more hours into their hobby.

The debacle with the ICC limited attempts is a good example of how hardcore gamers found inventive ways around the time limiters. Originally, raiders in Icecrown had a limited number of attempts per week on the end of wing bosses (I think it was about 15 attempts on Arthas?). The idea was that after you had wiped that many times, you could not try again until the next week. Ultra hardcore guilds got their members to roll up alts which duplicated their mains, they geared these alts up by raiding, and ran extra raids so that they had more chances to learn the boss fight. (I’m sure this wasn’t common – but lots of hardcore players ran multiple raids on different alts to have more chances to learn the encounters.)

  • Should devs force people to play less?

As stated above, there are lots of reasons for devs to want people playing less. But having the opportunity to throw in lots of hours for tiny advantages is one of the appeals of the genre for a lot of players. Having a game that you can play 24/7 is another. Even though a lot of people do damage their studies/ jobs/ relationships/ etc through playing too much.

  • How about not encouraging people to gamble with real money?

When talking about a duty of care, how about F2P games which obfuscate their charging schemes to get people to spend more money? Or effectively endorse gambling? (Note: gambling has a wide definition, which could extend to online collectible card games).

I’d like to think that my favourite games were not actively encouraging people to get involved in pyramid schemes, ruin their lives, gamble crazily, and otherwise do things which aren’t good for them. But you have to at some point assume that people are big enough to make their own decisions. And be quick to nail those games which do indulge in shady practices that drift afoul of the law.

I’m not even sure how to conclude here. AAA MMOs as we know them are on a downward spiral, but it isn’t because people play too much. Farmville and other facebook type games have similar issues – the more you play, the better you get. It’s inherent with a permanent world that’s all about progression.

All we can really hope for is more models for allowing people to easily play with each other, whilst still putting in as many hours as they want on their own main character. Which, funnily enough, is something that Farmville et al do very well indeed.

And as for ruining their lives in other ways — the legal base isn’t yet caught up with what is going on online. Certainly people need to take responsibility for their own choices, but games are manipulative of human behaviour, and sometimes the lines will not be clear cut. All we can do is speak up when we think anyone has crossed the line.