Designing Addicting Games

Video games are great. They’re a ton of fun to play and can be a cheap way to occupy your free time. They help people stay in touch with friends or even make new friends. Games are a far more interactive form of entertainment than just watching TV or movies. They keep your brain engaged and usually do a great job of rewarding players for their success. With all these benefits, it’s no surprise then that some people might get addicted. You could probably even make a good argument that all well designed games should be addicting in some way. For this article I want to look at the different ways that games make themselves addicting, decide if this constitutes good or bad gameplay, and finally make a decision on whether companies should make games like this.

Two types of addicting games

From a design perspective, there are two different categories of addicting games. The first category is games that have addictive gameplay. What this means is different from person to person. Some people love the “one more turn” types of games like the Civilization series. Others enjoy the “one more match” multiplayer games that can range from shooters, to MOBAs, to sports games. There’s another group of people that fall in love with MMORPGs and what they have to offer.

The second category of addicting games are the games which employ addicting behavior. In these games, it is not the gameplay itself which is addicting but the way you play the game. These games might include addicting gameplay, but more importantly, they encourage forming habits. For this article, I want to focus on this second category of games and the gacha genre specifically. To be clear, many different types of games use these strategies but the gacha genre seems to rely on these heavily. The recent release of Genshin Impact for PCs got me thinking more about this, and I would like to use it as sort of a case study. In the next sections I’m going to break down all the things that I’ve seen gacha games do to encourage player addiction. I have not played Genshin Impact and know almost nothing about it other than some gameplay videos I’ve seen. I am curious to know how many of these things the game does or will do.

Lowest possible barrier to entry

It’s very important if you want to get new players addicted to your game, you have to get them to try the game first. In the world of video games, the easiest way to accomplish this is to make your game free. What harm could there be in trying out a free game? You see equivalents like this in the real world too. Have you ever heard of a casino where you have to pay to park? What about a casino with a parking lot that is too small? Many casinos will even offer free shuttle services. The most important thing is to get them in and get them started.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Most gacha games will also start you off with one of the strongest characters. This accomplishes three things. First, it helps ensure you will have success immediately when you start playing. Most of the starting content for gacha games is laughably easy. It would almost be impossible to fail. They want to get those success endorphins kicking in as soon as possible. The second reason is that it immediately shows the player the power difference between lower tier characters and higher tier characters. Think of it like a company giving out free samples. First one is on them, but you’re going to have to pay if you want more (either with money or your time). The final reason for doing this, is to help players get over a time gap. For gacha games that have been out for a while, you will often see them enticing new players or returning players with offers for a free highest tier character if you start playing now. People who play gacha games know these characters can be very time consuming to acquire so it helps them feel like they won’t be starting so far behind other players.

Multiplayer content

Speaking of other players, including interactions with other humans is a must for this genre. The most common form of this is PvP matches. The higher your rank, the better your reward. PvP matches allow players who have been playing for a long time or spent a lot of money to feel like they are stronger or better than other players. These types of PvP matches are not set on even ground like most multiplayer focused games. Players don’t start with equal stats and have to rely on their game knowledge or experience. Instead, players with stronger or higher-level characters can straight up beat lower level players every time. It’s their reward for being committed to the game. PvP matches are also a great way to endlessly extend game time.

Multiplayer doesn’t have to mean PvP, however. This might be co-operative content where you join a guild to help chip away at strong bosses or maybe just visit other players’ bases to see what they have and compare. This results in content that you can’t access unless you join a guild or maybe currency that you can’t acquire if you don’t have in game friends. These games are essentially forcing players to join and stay with a community. You are far more likely to stick with a game when you feel like you’re part of the group. Gacha games make sure it is easy to join guilds or fill up your friends list for this reason.

Consistent and repetitive game time required

Here’s a great article about forming new habits. To sum it up, the article states new habits can be formed using a cycle of three things:

  1. Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior)
  2. Routine (the actual behavior you perform)
  3. Reward (the benefit from doing the behavior)

Does this sound familiar? What if I list it like this:

  1. Send phone notification that your energy is full or that special productive time is happening right now
  2. Get players to log in at least once daily
  3. Make sure daily quest rewards are the most productive way (if not the only way) to make progress

These games are trying everything in their power to get you to form a habit of playing. They don’t want you to play for 40 hours straight and be done with the game. They might start off with the ability to play a lot, but that doesn’t last. After a while, players end up logging in to do the same few things every day. Gacha games know this gets repetitive and maybe a little boring so they will usually include a way for the game to “auto-play” itself through these daily tasks. At this point, it’s the habit that is important. You’re actually playing the game a lot less now and just logging in to make sure you get your daily reward. It’s not uncommon for gacha games to even include a monthly reward for players who log in every day of the month. You should be skeptical of any game that gives you a reward for simply logging in daily. Chances are good they’re trying to form a habit.

If you’ve been playing one of these games daily for over two months, it’s likely that you have already formed a habit. Does the thought of not playing for a single day make you uneasy? Try it yourself. An even bigger test is to turn off alerts and stop playing for a week. Do you still have a desire to play after one week of not logging in? I find that I usually don’t.

Time limited events

Next up on the checklist are the time limited events or sales. It’s very common in these games to have events that last for maybe two weeks every other month or so. During these events, it is especially important for players to log in daily and do the limited time event quests. These events are often how new characters are introduced and added to the game. Players know that if they want these characters, their best chance of getting them is during this event only.

These types of events are the game design equivalent of the well established limited-time offer. Check out this article on ways to maximize your limited-time offer. How many of these have you seen in gacha games?

  • Promote Your Limited-Time Sale
    • Popups as soon as you log into the game informing about the current events
  • Convert Abandoning Shoppers with a Timely Popup
    • Popup before you exit the game stating how much energy you have left or unspent action points
  • Leverage the Holiday Season
    • Most gacha games include events that coincide with the major holidays
  • Offer Free Delivery for a Limited Time
    • This is the equivalent of giving bonus currency during a flash sale. You don’t want to make people regret their past currency purchases by putting it on discount, but you can reward them for buying more currency right now.
  • Create Urgency-Driven Popups
    • Sales that you get access to only once for a short time such as new player promotions available for the first 24 hours after starting a game and then gone forever.
  • Drive Urgency with an Email Countdown Timer
    • The games usually make sure to let you know there’s only “one week left” or “24 hours left” until the end of the event. Almost never do they just list dates and rely on you to be aware of when the event is ending.
  • Recommend Products in Your Emails
    • Make sure players know exactly what cool costumes or characters they can only unlock during this event
  • Tease Upcoming Limited-Time Sales
    • A calendar showing the schedule for upcoming events

Gacha games want you to think that these are just fun, limited time pieces of content to enjoy, but they are also thoroughly designed to persuade you to spend money. By having constant limited time events, players are encouraged to continue playing the game for fear of missing out on new characters. It’s also par for the course that newly released characters or gear are exceedingly strong. This is just one more way to incentivize players to always want the newest characters. They are pretty much guaranteed to be stronger than existing characters. They might eventually get tuned back down but they always start out overly strong especially in games that have PvP content.

Are these games actually fun

I am not ashamed to admit that I love gacha games. To me, it is really fun collecting new heroes and the risk/reward nature of rolling for new characters can be quite satisfying. These types of games often have gameplay that I personally find quite enjoyable too. They can range anywhere from turn based strategy, to tower defense, to action games. It’s almost unfair to call them a genre since it is more like a common mechanic included in a game of some other genre.

“Almost unfair” is important wording here. Inevitably these games all seem to follow the same formula. The game will start on a very high note. There is almost no repetitive gameplay and players are constantly unlocking new features, characters, or areas to explore. Eventually though, you will hit a content gate. It’s impossible for any company to produce new content at a rate faster than players can consume it. Gacha games need you to keep playing forever, however, so they have devised a way to extend content almost indefinitely: the difficulty grind. Figured out how to beat a boss for the first time? Next up is beating it with 200% more health. The only way to do that is to make your characters stronger. The only way to do that is to log in every day and do your daily quests. Welcome to the end game gacha grind. The further in a gacha game you get, the longer and longer it takes to increase your characters’ power.

Some people find this type of grinding to be right up their alley. As much as I enjoy playing these games, they all lead to this same destination and this is usually when I end up moving on to the next game. I’m still waiting for the gacha game which does not try to last forever. Dragging the game on indefinitely doesn’t have to be part of a gacha game, it just fits the business model that gacha games currently use.

Is it wrong to make addicting games

I spent a lot of time thinking about this. I generally tend towards the idea that people are responsible for their own actions. I want to say there is nothing wrong with making an addicting game where people can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a game. After all, who am I to decide what they should do with their time or how they should spend their money? How is it any different than letting someone spend thousands of dollars on shoes, or a purse, or cookie jars, or a car? Something about that, however, just doesn’t sit right with me. After thinking about it more, I realized it’s not an equivalent comparison. For all those other items, there is nothing inherently addictive about the product. Someone might be addicted to collecting shoes, but the shoe itself has no addictive properties.

I’m willing to go one step further. It’s OK to design an addictive game if the results of that addiction are not an immediate and direct benefit to the company. For example, I have heard from many fans of the Civilization games (myself included) that they have on occasion played until the sun unexpectedly starts rising the next morning. To me, that definitely sounds like addictive gameplay and the impact to the player could be considered harmful. Firaxis, however, did not benefit in any direct way from me staying up all night playing the game. Maybe I’m more likely to buy an expansion or the next version of the game, but while in the middle of this activity, there were no direct or immediate steps I could take that would benefit the company. The gameplay being addictive wasn’t designed to lead to anything other than the person playing the game more. If you are a satisfied customer, the company doesn’t care if you played for 10 hours, 50 hours, or 200 hours. If there was a game out there which used every one of the addicting tactics I listed above, I would have no issue with that if there was no way to spend additional money on the game. I’ve not heard of a game like this, but it’s possible one exists.

The gacha games I know of, however, most certainly do benefit directly and immediately from players being addicted. By allowing players to spend endless amounts of money, it is in their best interest for you the player to get addicted and play the game for as long as possible spending as much money as possible along the way. It’s hard to argue they think otherwise when these types of games include pricing models that are so far outside the previously established pricing norms for video games. A fully priced AAA game typically sells for $60. Maybe there is a collector’s edition which could sell for up to $150 dollars. In that case, you know exactly what extra you are buying with your money. It is guaranteed to arrive with the product. Gacha games, however, will let you spend hundreds of dollars every single day with no guarantee of acquiring what you hope to get. Again, in theory, there is nothing wrong with a game allowing players to spend as much money as they want on the game. But how can I interpret a game designed to be behaviorally addicting while also allowing unlimited spending as anything other than malicious? It is the combination of these two things which leaves such a bad taste in my mouth.

In the end, I do think companies have a moral obligation to not take advantage of their customers. Making games like this does tell me what you think of me as a customer. You view me as a target to extract as much wealth from as possible. If the industry keeps going this direction, it will only be a matter of time before regulations are put in place to protect consumers, much like a legal drinking, smoking, or gambling age. Here’s one company that was willing to openly talk about the issue and I think they should be applauded for it. Companies don’t have to use this design and business model to make a profit, it just allows them to make a bigger profit. Ultimately, the choice is yours to play games of this nature. I know many people who’ve played games like this for years and never spent a dime. You should just know what you’re getting into. It’s the equivalent of putting health warnings on cigarette boxes. For anyone that’s played Genshin Impact, how did I do? Does the game break the mold, or does it follow the tried and proven path?