Game developers will often talk about compulsion loops. How do I keep the player playing? How do I keep them coming back? How do I keep them paying?
Last year the world spent more than a hundred billion dollars on video games. That’s more than twice of what we spend going to the movies. It’s just continued to shoot up. This is going to be the century of games. Which means the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco is one place you come to get a glimpse of the future of entertainment.
But the leading edge of that future is not where you’d necessarily think to look. It’s inside this tiny, indiscriminate booth run by a scientist named África Periáñez. What she’s working on isn’t goggles, or guns, or even a particular game. It’s data. We record every single click.
Every single interaction that players do in the game. You can study motivations, how humans react to challenges, to strategies. Africa used to do mathematical modeling in string theory physics at CERN, the European organization for nuclear research, but now she’s betting her future on applying mathematical models to tailor video games to individual players. Maybe this game has seen you play for a while and has realized that these are the kind of things that you seem to want. Maybe you really like driving maybe you’re not good at all the shooting.
Maybe there are things in there that the game by analyzing your behavior knows that you would like but you don’t know you like. And then it creates something like that for you. Over the decades, the rise of video games has drawn plenty of criticism. Much of it has focused on how violence in the games affects us long-term.
Our children are growing up in a culture of carnage. People get an emotional reaction to something, and they just assume it has to be bad. You cannot tell me that a kid sitting in a basement for hours playing Call of Duty and killing people over an over again does not desensitize that child. Real life effects of violence. We actually just published a study looking at kids and their exposure to shooter games. 7 years later we were not able to find any evidence of a predictive link between playing shooter games at one time period, and these kind of behavioral problems that people worry about at a later time.
So we’re just not finding this kind of predictive evidence that early game playing is associated with later problems in kids. Critics have paid way less attention to the more immediate influence games have, as in, how they affect our behavior right when we’re playing them. And that might be the more important question right now. Because we’re spending more time than we ever have playing games. And they’re with us all the time. Smartphones have changed where, how and how often people play games – and they’ve changed who’s playing them.
The classic view of a typical gamer is, you know, a 15 – 20 year old guy in a basement somewhere with a controller in his hand in front of a TV, and that’s just not the case anymore. Today, the typical gamer is more likely to resemble that boy in the basement’s mom. The largest demographic of gamers in the US right now is adult women.
That group is a bunch of people who don’t see themselves as gamers, they see themselves as playing Bejeweled. You can download and start playing Bejeweled and most casual phone games right now for free. Many of them make money through microtransactions, selling you things in the game.
Want to upgrade your character’s looks or abilities? Get an extra life or unlock new features? Pay a buck or two, and then you’re in business. And so is the game. The biggest game on the planet, Fortnight, is free to play, and it’s on track to make two billion dollars in 2018.
And so instead of paying for everything upfront, you’re paying in these little streams of $1, $5, $10 to the game company and it turns out the companies make tons more money in that model then they ever did back in the day. And the money pouring into a lot of games isn’t coming from casual players, it comes from a very small group of big spenders, known in the industry by a special name: Whales. A Whale is a players that spends a lot and plays a lot. They really love this game and they love being powerful and special.
and the big spenders will drop $2000 to $3000 a month, on a single video game. Whales make up just a tiny fraction of total players, but they can generate more than half of a game’s total revenue. Which means finding and nurturing potential Whales is the name of the game.
How do some companies do that? They turn to people like Africa. We have two ultimate goals. Predict every single action that the player is going to take if he’s happy or not, I mean know that and then try to make them happy. Africa runs Yokozuna Data, based in Tokyo. They work with several game companies to comb through their data, and better understand who’s playing.
To keep with our sea life metaphor, you can call non-paying players ‘Krill,’ and occasional spenders ‘Dolphins.’ In this new ecosystem, games are built from day one to move players up the food chain. We identify who has the potential to become paying users, and also those paying users that have a strong potential to become a Whale.
For VIP players, we can increase their revenue up to 20 percent. With Google and Facebook you know you’re being watched. When you’re playing a game you think of yourself as not being watched.
You think of yourself playing in your own private universe, but actually we hand over so much information about ourselves. Every decision you make in a game can be tracked. If you turn right instead of left, jump instead of duck, crush a blue candy instead of a green one, these are all tiny decisions, that when added together can say a lot about you. You can predict elements of your personality from how you play many games. You can predict age; you can predict gender.
You can probably predict a lot of more sensitive things um, but hey, I haven’t done that follow-up research, and I’m not sure I want to do it. But I’m sure someone is doing it. We can leverage human psychology to increase the probability of someone purchasing something. Now, this is true of any product. This is why we have advertising on TV. The thing is here that we’re operating a little bit closer to the human brain if you will.
That is something we do need to be careful with, there is a degree of ethical conduct required of game developers. This worry has way less to do with hazy links between on-screen violence and violence in real life, and way more to do with addiction and compulsive spending. That analogy about Whales and what they spend sounds like it was borrowed from a casino. Maybe that’s not an accident.
Maybe video games aren’t just the future of entertainment, they’re the future of gambling too. So it becomes kind of like a slot machine, and the way that slot machines tend to hook users is they give you little reinforcements every so often but with a promise of a big payout. Please, please. Maybe, the most distilled example of this comes wrapped up in a box. Please don’t screw me over, give me something. The loot box.
Anything. And now I get to pay too much money to open loot boxes. These are boxes you purchase with in-game currency, or real dollars, without knowing what’s inside. It’s easy to see how this starts to look like a gambling problem. Ah come on, give me something, give me at least one of the new ones! No, no, no, no, no, no.
Just saying, “Hey, look. I’ll give you this item if you pay $5.00.” You know? That’s a fairly straightforward transaction, and that’s probably ok. If you say, you know, pay $1.00 and we’ll see what you get, that is a bit more manipulative. And for some players, they may find that it’s difficult for them to disengage from that process, because they keep thinking the next dollar, the next five dollars, whatever it may be, will be the one that will get me what I want.
It’s kind of all I wanted to spend. No you know what, let’s do a little bit more, this is it, last time, last time. Depending on the game, it takes on a different shape, or name, but the idea is the same. You pay, you open, and you either win, Oh my god. or more likely, you don’t.
Are you kidding me? The ability to sort of suck money out of people with these kinds of methods has become so advanced that in some countries, like Japan, they explicitly banned certain kinds of game design, because it ‘s just really unfair to users, It just hauls money out of them. Japan, South Korea and China have all taken steps to regulate or ban games with loot boxes that they deem deceptive.
This spring, Belgium banned any game containing a loot box, a decision that could ripple through Europe and possibly the world. Apple also just recently started requiring games with loot boxes to disclose their odds. At a minimum, anybody consuming any product should understand fully what it is and how it works. So games should be completely transparent about what’s the revenue model. Unlike slot machines, these games don’t currently have age restrictions. and some of them are marketed to kids.
And unlike slot machines, the next generation of games may be studying you. learning what it takes to keep you playing, or what it takes to keep you spending. What will game companies be allowed to do with information they can gather about you and things they can extract from this information. This is going to be a real issue. I don’t think there’s a bright line between what’s not ethical and what’s ethical, or what’s manipulative and what’s not. With any new technology, there’s always complaints and worries.
This goes back to Socrates who was worried that students were writing things in books and would no longer remember. And those on the industry’s cutting edge say that games becoming more sophisticated, immersive and personalized is one of the key reasons they’re becoming something more profound. More immersive games that actually give us better, deeper, more profound, more significant experiences, are fantastic. It’s a bit like asking, “Why should we have better literature? Why should we have better writers?” Video games is another world. You move to another world, live another life.
Suddenly you become not only another person, you become another entity.