Why does a multi-millionaire strive to make yet more money? How could a teenager derive more satisfaction from the purchase of a second-hand jalopy than a middle-aged executive acquiring their third luxury sports car? Because happiness and satisfaction are associated with relative improvement, not absolute achievement. As long as you are better off today than you were yesterday, by whatever measurement floats your particular boat, you’ll feel good.
No, I haven’t decided to branch out into a self-help blog. I was just setting up being able to use a quote – ‘In games, as in life‘.
An innate goal that players set for themselves in any game that allows it is to continually improve their situation. Many games tap into this powerful urge by starting the player in a relatively uniform, weak or barely adequate state, and then offer opportunities for the player to make it more personalized, powerful or capable. In Civilization, the aim of the game is to turn your little empire into a great one. In Spelunky and Dungeon Bash, the player constantly strives to make their character or team more capable.
Look at Farmville. A quick google, and many of the top results are articles sniffing that because its such a ‘dumb game’, it must be the ‘power of social-networking’ that is responsible for its phenomenal success. Well sure, social-networking is a great way to promote awareness of the game and get people to give it a test-run, but the game itself must be doing something right to hold on to players for any significant time. If you aren’t familiar with Farmville, its basically Sim City lite. The same basic gameplay as Sim City is going on, except the game itself is less complicated and very accessible to new players. The thing that is going on is resource management decisions in pursuit of the goal of building the player’s own little farm. You start off with a certain amount of money, and you decide which crops to grow, and harvesting your crops gives you more money. You can buy other stuff to personalize your farm, and tractors and things to make harvesting easier, etc… As games go, it’s fairly shallow – the variety and depth of the decisions the player makes is limited. As long as the player tends to their farm frequently enough, it’s existence is never threatened. But regardless, it does allow the player to make decisions in pursuit of the goal of continual improvement and that’s enough. Without that basic thing going on, no other amount of social-networking stuff laid on top would get anyone to play it for very long.
Minecraft is an example of this goal used in it’s purest form. In this game you start with a pick-axe and a few other resources, and you can literally end up building the Taj Mahal. This game has two modes: survival mode in which your resources are limited and the existence of your character is threatened by monsters and environmental hazards, and creative mode, where you have infinite resources, super powers, and nothing to worry about except what to build. My exhaustive research (I googled it and clicked on the first three links) shows that survival mode is more popular. Survival mode takes the improvement goal and combines it with some consequential decision making and thus makes a game of it. Creative mode does not.
So. The pursuit of improvement is probably the most important goal a game can facilitate. Many successful games don’t use it, but many, many, many successful games do, and for good reason.