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.

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9 thoughts on “Should game companies have a duty of care?

  1. Very interesting article, though it somehow does not entirely connect to its headline.

    A lot of thoughts here. You are right, there are diverging parts of game design that allow people to play less and still stay competitive, but at the same time there are things that are supposed to keep them occupied.

    Daily Quests are an example of design that tries to keep players playing and paying for subscription games, be it WoW or LOTRO. Funnily, Guild Wars copied the daily quest idea as well – but this was late in its development cycle as it was clear they have a lot of time to bridge till GW2 gets released.

    EVE has its own smart approach: You do not need the game to progress, but you need to keep paying/stay subscribed to train “offline”. Which is nice in a way, but it also always bugged me to pay for a game I am not really playing. Not to mention this “2nd account” thing that is so common in EVE. Brrr!

    I think Guild Wars “pay once” model and the game itself were the best thing that happened to me in ages. The design had the brilliant idea that people should be able to drop the game, play something else and come back later easily when new content is out without having fallen back or getting discouraged by having to resubscribe or something like that.

    I hope they do not forget their former design ideas with Guild Wars 2. I really fear they are going more and more item shop. They already testing how much the audience is willing to pay for what in Guild Wars 1 with optional items in the NCsoft store.

    I think MMOs need to get away from the pay for time model. Pay for content might be the future. I don’t think the current lame “little by little” F2P offers or DLCs, often packed on top of a subscription game that also makes you pay for the box, are going to stay.

    While there is a trend to allow people to play less and still stay effective, most sub based games nowadays go for badge grind or rep grind. They are relying heavily on addictive mechanisms to keep their paying customers subscribed.

  2. This is something that’s been on my mind for a long time.
    I know it is not a solution, but just giving you an idea to play around with:

    MMORPGs use artificial progression (gear, levels etc.).

    Probably you are familiar with the original Battlefield 1942. A relatively slow First-Person Shooter with classes, but no progression.

    Everything you could achieve was personal improvement

  3. Sorry, I accidentally hit the send button.

    The only two reasons that kept you in game, was actually fun and social activity.

    I have played the games in a senior clan for over two years. The charm was, that you could come in whenever you liked to spend a few hours, without missing any content. A Rookie was able to play with a veteran, without any difference besides personal skills.

    Having this in mind, I think an active combat mechanism with a level free environment and customised character improvement could be the way. Dark Fall tried this, but the translation from shooter to RPG still feels to much like Shooter and not as tactical as an RPG should feel. But it’s a start, to work around with.

    As I said, just play around with the idea and adapt it to your needs.
    My ulterior motive is always, to eliminate boundaries that keep people from playing together. Level Systems create barriers, you can’t join your level 13 friend with your level 80 character. Ideally you, as the skilled veteran, could take your newbie friend along from the start. Give him some average gear you have collected and start slaying difficult monsters.

  4. I think game designers can and do make decisions for the benefit of players. Not all of them (hi Zynga), not all the time but I do think people in the industry see themselves as the peers of games players and prefer not to abuse them.

    I’m rather against legislation. How would you make, spamming say, illegal without putting a law in that makes criminals out of people who have 200 wedding guests then send them the wedding photos by email?

    According to the psychology book I just read (Cialdini on Influence) we can defend ourselves against scams and hustles by understanding them. For example being given a gift inspires an urge to reciprocate but if we understand it’s not actually a gift, it’s a manipulation we become much less likely to reciprocate.

    Hopefully our blogs will help people enjoy a diverse internet while being too aware to be easily fooled.

  5. Duty of care is an interesting concept. My first thought was that the idea was totally off the deep end, but on further thought… Lots of addictive behaviors place those kind of restrictions, some legally, some not…

    Some states mandate casino loss limits, there’s a consequence for overservice of alcohol… even people who have risky sex have a duty to tell their partner about potential risks (Magic Johnson got sued when his partner contracted HIV, because he failed to tell her about the risks!)…

    We could conceivably see something like that with MMO gaming, where it’s easy to distinguish how long a person has been active in the game. Not so easy for something like a Facebook game, though. And practically impossible for something done offline like Solitaire or single-player console games. It’s very interesting, at least. Thanks for the thought.

  6. In my mind it comes down to what is reasonable.

    Is it prefectly acceptable for a person to play MMo’s 18+ hours a day…for weeks at a time? Maybe. I mean what if I have sort of physical problem or somesuch which means I’m basicaly housebound for a long period of time. Day-time TV sucks!

    But what if they’re playing 48 hours at a stretch with minimal amounts of downtime, again for weeks/months. Obviously someone pushing it to the edge or a team of persons? Maybe.

    Glad its not my call to make!

  7. Assuming we are discussing Duty of Care in the American legal sense, I think it would be very dangerous to impose such a duty on developers. To do so would open the industry to all sorts of tort actions that would drive up the cost of doing business, and ultimately harm gamers more than it would help them. It would also take the individual decision of how much time is appropriate and place it in the hands of judges and legislators who know next to nothing about the subject matter. These things are better left to the individual and the free market than to be regulated by the state.

  8. To wax pithy about it, symbiotes (or parasites) shouldn’t kill their hosts. Devs make their living from players spending money (like any other business, really). Their business plans have to maximize that, without tipping the playerbase over into unhealthy habits that would threaten the revenue stream.

    It’s “enlightened self interest” for the devs not to make something that will burn players out. There’s no legislation necessary for that (if it were even possible in the first place, which I doubt), just a bit of self-restraint and careful designon the part of the devs.

    Whether or not that happens might easily be debated, but it really is in the best interests of devs not to abuse their players.

  9. Pingback: Psychochild’s Blog » Moral obligations of game designers

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