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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

What Do MMOs and Slot Machines Have In Common? (Too Darn Much...)

Posted by cmagoun Tuesday June 23 2009 at 1:52PM
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A friend and I were recently discussing the state of MMOs and sometime during the conversation, he said to me, "It's (computer games) all about making pushing buttons fun." Now, I could have sworn I read something to that effect before. I seem to remember an interview with a game developer where he was quoted as saying game development was giving the act of pushing buttons impact.

I tried to find the exact quote, but I couldn't. Nonetheless, the thought stayed with me for a couple of days and I toyed with it. After all, when deconstructed, playing a computer game is just a series of repetitive button-pushing. How do you make that have impact and be fun? I could be onto some great truth of computer gaming. And since MMOs are arguably the most "button-pushy" types of computer games, I might be close to revolutionizing the MMO industry!!!!! I am about to change the world!!!!!!!

Ok probably not, but you have to admit, “making pushing buttons fun” is one of those clever deconstructions that seems to bring to light some basic truth. So, I figured I would think about it for a bit and see if there was any core game-design concept there that I could use to REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORLD OF MMOs!!!!!!!!!!! (ok, got to calm down)

It was around that time that I realized that someone had already beaten me to the punch. There is an entire multi-billion dollar industry that has perfected the whole button-pushing concept -- Slot Machines. Walk into any casino and you will see hundreds of people repetitively pushing buttons for hours at a time and paying for the privilege... micro-transactions even :) How do they do it?

Well, for your button-press, a modern slot machine will give you flashing lights, some colorful graphics, an animation or two, various beeps and sounds and maybe if you are lucky, a mini-game which consists of more button-pressing for different animations and sounds. Most importantly though, slot machines make button pressing impactful with the promise of a cookie. Every press gives you the chance that something really cool will happen -- you get a big hit. Most of the times nothing happens, but the game strings you along with small hits and the ever-present promise of another reward. It’s a compelling formula – compelling enough that even though slots are the most boring games in the casino, and they give the worst odds, they are by far the most popular games.

So… if we go with the idea that a good game is one that makes button-pressing fun, we realize that computers games follow a very similar formula to slots machines. For every button press in an MMO, I get some flashy graphics, an animation or two, some sounds, and every so often I get a cookie – a cool item, a bit of story or a level up.

It is inevitable that when you play slots over a long period of time, you will run through your money. Even if you win every so often and even if you are “up” on the house at some point, if you continue to play, you will burn through your bankroll. Slots players call this the “grind”. Hey, where have I heard that term before? Fortunately, in an MMO grind, you don’t run out of money. Instead, you run out of patience with what is essentially a mind-numbing, repetitive exercise in pressing a button in hopes of getting an ephemeral reward.

And I think that is where the button-press deconstruction gets us – the novelty of the new buttons, graphics and sounds wears off and you are playing just to get the cookie. Once that happens, you are in the grind, and just like in slots, once you are in the grind, you are ultimately going to lose.
So, it isn’t JUST about making button-pressing fun. That quote holds a tiny sliver of truth, but it only gets us so far – about as far, it seems, as the current theme park model that plagues mainstream MMOs. Click button, PvE, get reward, click button, PvP, get reward, click button, craft, get reward, click button, quest, get reward…

Click button, engage in drama on forums about the grind, quit game… Which ironically, completes the slots analogy, since the only meaningful choice you have in slots is when to quit.

So, that’s all I have for now. Next time, I would like to take the next step; if games aren’t “just pressing buttons” then what the heck are they all about? (drum roll…)

Games are about making DECISIONS fun.

So, we’ll talk about decisions in games, why more meaningful decisions make games fun, and if they’re so darn cool, why don’t we see more of them in MMOs.