Points for Everything!


Over the weekend, I finally watched Jesse Schell’s DICE 2010 presentation: “Design Outside the Box”. I’m told that it was a huge hit at SxSW. I’ve embedded it below.

It’s 30 minutes long, entertaining, and worth watching but in case you are pressed for time, here’s a summary:

  • Ultra-casual games like FarmVille, Webkinz, Mafia Wars and Club Penguin took the industry by surprise and are making enormous amounts of money.
  • Brian Reynolds should make a slot machine where if you win you get real money and if you lose, you get FarmVille money.
  • People are starved for authenticity and links with the real world.
  • Foursquare and other mobile apps seems like the next big thing.
  • Sensors are becoming cheaper and cheaper and are heading towards ubiquity. (Spimes!)
  • You think point programs and loyalty cards are a thing now? Wait until game designers get their hands on this stuff.
  • Some examples where game designers have redesigned systems with a gaming bent (turning grades from scores into experience levels).
  • An extended bit of design fiction where Schell imagines every action tracked and scored and how that might change our behaviour.

Prior art for a universal scoring system.

First thing: we already have a universal points system. It’s called money. Indeed, just about every example that Schell mentioned in his talk were systems by which we’d get points from corporations and governments that we could convert into money, discounts or tax credits, all of which are just money.

So what we’re actually talking about here is a ubiquitous micropayment system, which tracks your behaviour and rewards you accordingly. He’s talking about turning things into games by attaching a reward scheme to them.

Here’s the thing about Mafia Wars, FarmVille and all the rest. They’re objectively terrible games. They are incredibly tedious, repetitive activities gussied up with adorable (or lukewarmly bad-ass) graphics. There is little to no skill or strategy involved and the main path to advancement is to show up and click on things.

Indeed, the main profit centre for for FarmVille is giving players methods by which they can avoid playing the terrible game. You can either pay money to buy points that you can exchange for things that allow you avoid playing the terrible game, or you can look at advertisements you wouldn’t otherwise look at in order to get points that you can spend on things that allow you to avoid playing the terrible game.*

The lesson of these games is that a well-made reward scheme will get people to do all kinds of tedious fucking things. This really isn’t an exciting revelation. All those gambling addiction ads you see? Those are a consequence of the fact that a variable reward schedule will get some people to sit in front of a glowing box and press a single button over and over again until they run out of money. Casinos have this down to a science.**

Unbelievably comprehensive surveillance.

Back to the “ubiquitous” of Schell’s ubiquitous point scheme.

In computer games, the way that we can give you scores, points and achievements for the things that you do is that we know exactly what your avatar is doing at all times. Indeed the bulk of all hacking and cheating in games consists of giving the game bad information about where you are and what you are up to.

So what Schell is envisioning is a ubiquitous, perpetual, highly efficient surveillance society. Efficient to a degree that it orders of magnitude more effective than the worst fears about 1984. Is this plausible?

Well, on the one hand, people are already voluntarily giving out their locations to anyone who asks and voluntarily wear tracking devices so they can exchange bragging rights. On the other hand sometimes people are extremely reluctant to share. It’s a highly nuanced question, with very complex results.

If you can play it, you can cheat at it.

Let’s assume for a second that the right alchemy of incentives, fun, fad, and reassuring privacy policy can be found, and most of us choose to play. A lot of us are going to cheat.

We already do. We made the Game Genie a best-seller so that we could break our single player games. Every set of patch notes for every multiplayer game ever made includes changes made to close loopholes and code exploits that allow cheaters to teleport, fly, fire with perfect aim, and on and on. This is a constant battle waged over games where the gold, points, and scores have no real-world value whatsoever.

That’s just at the code level. There’s a social problem too. You can, right now, hire someone in China to play your game for you. These kinds of things are much, much harder to police and it’ll be much, much worse with real world games giving real world rewards.

Foursquare got their first taste of this when users started checking in from home. Their fix promptly ran afoul of mistaking legit check-ins for cheats. What happens when getting Foursquare points is valuable enough that it’s worth lending your phone or account login to a friend who bikes around the city collecting points for everyone in your crew? People will do it, that’s what happens. Did you hear about the US Dollar Coins exploit that gave infinite frequent flier miles? Ever considered cheating at Nike+? Here’s a guide for you.***

There are a lot of tools in the designer's box.

The lesson here is one that economists have know for ages. Changing the incentive structure will change the way that people behave but it will rarely be in the way that you envision. People will poke at the problem and some of them will find the most efficient way to tackle it, and then they’ll post a strategy guide.

All that said, I’m pretty enthusiastic about turning the best parts of game design to the problems of the world. The promise of ubiquitous sensors that Schell mentions is that it will offer many new ways to make the invisible visible, to nudge us towards better habits and better behaviour. After all, what gets measured gets done, right?

But the emphasis in Schell’s talk on scoring systems — the bluntest, worst hammer in the game design toolbox — is the wrong approach. We already knew that we could get you to do things you didn’t want to do by offering a reward. It’s why we’re paying you to show up at work all the time.

I’m much, much more interested in using game design techniques to make the activities themselves more fun, engaging, and valuable. Instead of replicating FarmVille’s success at papering over a terrible gameplay experience with an effective reward scheme, what if we tried to replicate the successful mechanics of genuinely good games? Jonathan Blow examined this question much more eloquently in 2007.


Notes

*One might think that an easier way to avoid playing FarmVille would by to simply stop playing it. Well, I have a theory about that.

I grew up in a household that was fairly suspicious of television. TV time was very limited and so TV was only on when it was time to watch TV; I never got used to just having the TV on in the background. The result is that I’m helpless when there’s a TV on. I can’t help but stare when I’m at bar or whatever. Meanwhile, my friends who grew up with TVs in the background are perfectly able to ignore the things. The people playing FarmVille aren’t gamers. They haven’t built up an immunity. Gamers take a look at FarmVille, figure out that it’s a shallow game and go waste their time somewhere else.

I wonder what will happen when this kind of scheme becomes commonplace. I think there will be huge pricing crash. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you clicked on a flashing banner ad? How much attention do you pay to point reward programs? Did you collect Popsicle Pete Points, or Coke Points, or McDonald’s Monopoly tickets?

**The moment of hope is that game design techniques can be used for improving bad situations. The same techniques that get people to play the lottery? With a few tweaks, you can get them to feed a savings account. On the other hand, here’s a fun assassination game that anyone can play!

***We’ve hardly even started with the spime games and there are proto spime game hacking tools.