Gamification of Games
Gamification is one of those buzzwords that has been getting thrown around for a while now, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. Gamification is the addition of game mechanics to something that is not traditionally a game. Foursquare is a great example of this; it takes the process of “checking in” to a location and turns it into a game by giving the user goals. We can see gamification seeping into just about every aspect of modern life. It’s a great marketing tool, and a fantastic way to keep people using your service or product over a long period of time. Give someone a goal, and it will drive them to continue something long after when they would have stopped normally. It’s a marketing tool, simple as that, but gamification has started affecting the way that actual games are designed.
Some games are starting to favor gamification of simpler mechanics over the refinement of larger ones. Why make the shooting better when we can just throw points at the player for running around? Why make the platforming more accurate when they get a trophy for defeating each enemy type? This system removes the need to refine the actual gameplay. Most gamers that were gaming in the 90s or earlier have spent hours upon hours playing a game to earn something as simple as a block of text, or a thank you from the developers. Then, when the game was turned off, it was gone. You would spend weeks telling your friends that you had beaten the game, and they would believe you about half the time.
When the idea of achievements started they were initially a badge of honor. It was something you could be proud of, and broadcast to the people on your friends list. Again, the addictiveness of this system quickly caught on. When I was a peon at my local Gamestop in my teens I had several co-workers that would play children’s games just to get achievements. Talk about a win-win for game companies! People who quite literally have no interest in playing their games are rushing out to pick up a copy just for the achievements. Now, obviously, the majority of gamers aren’t draining their bank accounts for copies of Cars 2, but this does represent a slowly growing problem in game design.
The trick here is the instant gratification of a system that pats you on the back constantly. It feels good to have points raining down across the screen, and the achievement/trophy ding sounding off. There’s even a good opportunity for some fun fourth wall breaking humor to take place with snarky names and inside jokes. At their best, they can be a great way for developers to give a little nod to gamers in a way that doesn’t disrupt the game itself. However, problems arise when games are designed around gamification. It can be used to hide shoddy mechanics, or simply add artificial depth where a game is supposedly lacking.
To cite a recent example, Diablo 3 has an extensive achievement system used to unlock banner emblems. What do the banners do? Well, nothing except look kind of cool. Presumably they’ll be used to in PvP in the near future, but even there they’ll likely still be nothing more than a decorative identifier. Thus far in the game my banner has done nothing but serve to irritate my friends as I repeatedly drop it on their heads when they’re taking too long at a vendor. In reality the achievement system was likely to make the game feel like it had more depth. Diablo 3 isn’t a terribly deep game when you get right down to it. I’ve been slogging through Inferno difficulty and I can tell you right now that it doesn’t change a whole awful lot from your first playthrough to your fourth playthrough. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic loot-grabbing baddie-slashing game, just not the deepest.
Gamification, luckily, can mostly be added to games without interfering with the game itself. The ugly underbelly of this practice is that some designers may mistake it for actual depth. The reality of the situation is that a game doesn’t have to be really deep to be really fun. Some of the best games ever made are incredibly simple. Pac-Man was, and remains, one of the most recognizable and beloved games of all time, and the deepest part of the entire experience is trying to eat the fruit. Games are fun, that’s the entire basis of their existence, and if you can’t make the core gameplay enjoyable then maybe the answer isn’t vanity items.