What’s your earliest memory of gaming? I don’t just mean what’s the furthest point in time you can recall playing a specific game or system. But what’s your earliest memory of games themselves? Your view on this great big new world you were stepping into? For most of us, this’ll seem a rather easy set of questions to think about. As a gamer from a young age, it was all about fun with friends, sitting there with crossed legs and tangled wires, staring at a horribly huge, non-HD box. It was brilliant.
Our child like exuberance for games would have meant our capacity for objectivity was flaud, yet we were free to wade into the seas of this new ecosystem. Our parents only peeking through the cracked bedroom door to make sure we weren’t squabbling – and to get a bit confused by it all.
How times change.
Wire spaghetti: the only thing my brother and I had to worry about during our formative gaming years
For the purpose of this IMO, you’ll need to know my girlfriend has a couple of kids. Two boys, 5 and 8. Whilst the five year old understands the concept of gaming – he can jump around in front of the Kinect, or press a button to make something happen on screen – he doesn’t quite get it. Not yet. He will.
However Christopher, the eldest, is now on the cusp of profound gaming experiences. He is confidently splashing around in the gaming training pool with the Lego games and Band Hero beginner mode. He can fly helicopters and drive cars in GTA – that’s all I let him do, don’t worry! and knows to stay the hell away from the guy with the Gravity Hammer. For the most part, his first experiences are going to be the same as mine, the only difference being the hardware he uses.
And this is where a problem lies.
For Christmas, Christopher received a Hudl – the Tesco Android tablet. Whilst I was a bit wary of him receiving one, it does mean he’s getting an early grasp on how things like the internet and connected devices work. He draws on it, researches homework on it and Skypes the grandparents. For the most part, this is a genuinely brilliant thing. However, a lack of handheld gaming devices in the house means this is also his go-to gaming treat. Now we tread with trepidation.
Christopher’s welcome to the world of mobile play: the Android Play Store’s top grossing games list is dominated by free-to-play.
Let’s take a quick, very generalised, history lesson. Games used to be mainly in arcades. Drop in 50p and you get three tries or a set amount of time to complete as much of the game as possible. When consoles came on the scene, early games were pretty much ports of this system. ‘Lives’ in console games are a vestigial appendix from these arcade days – at best a memory inducing quirk, at worst, a gameplay limiter. It is the latter of these two that I feel is starting to creep into his gaming experiences and, more worryingly, the gameplay mechanics.
Before, money was used as an entrance fee, pay your 50p and have a quick go on the ride; or, pay a larger amount and take the ride home with you, simple. The money was used in a deal with the vendor to participate in their product. A separate transaction, sterilised from the game itself. It’s sole purpose was to remove the metaphoric rope and allow the player to pass.
However, especially within the free-to-play model that dominates the tablet game market (and thusly, Christopher’s Hudl game folder), money is now an integral part of the gameplay mechanics themselves. It is no longer a separate entity: a cold but logical deal made with the developer. Now it’s presented by the cute characters within the game themselves, inviting the player to purchase this set of gems, as “It’s the best deal!” Without this mechanic, the game is slow – often painfully intentionally so (Dungeon Keeper Mobile, looking at you). This presents a new dichotomy in games you own: how you want to enjoy it vs how you can afford to enjoy it.
EA’s Dungeon Keeper becomes gruellingly, unplayably slow if players do not wish to spend real world money
In our ride analogy, this kind of payment is like paying for the ride to go faster, so you can enjoy the ride at it’s best – unless waiting is super integral to the game. I can almost hear the ride conductor over the tannoy: “Pay if you wanna go faster!!”
And I’m not talking about micro-transaction amounts, here. Some of these in-app purchases can reach the £100 mark. A price, that can easily get you a couple of triple-A sprawling epics.
How much you spend now affects the gameplay experience. Therefore, the understanding and views of games, their design – and even to money itself – are also affected. Christopher will think back to this way of monetising game design and think nothing of it. I find that borderline abhorrent.
Whilst the older generation, with our rose tinted view of past games and experiences, will feel this is a shameless cash revenue (a not unjustified view by any standards). To others like Christopher, with no real view on what makes good games good yet, these mechanics and tactics are being easily imprinted on his blank sheet of gaming knowledge and experiences. Like a baby chick imprinting on a hungry cat when she hatches: sooner or later, I worry he will fall prey to it.
Jurassic Park Builder, Christopher’s favourite mobile game, could end up costing us a small fortune
So now, instead of my job being to enjoy the good games with him and sharing the merits they offer, I teach him the fundamentals of design, mechanics and monetisation. He knows not to click that button, as it could mean money being spent unwillingly. A part of the game, which he enjoys and for all accounts is good at, is blocked off. The
amount he plays is casual at best; so these parts reserved for paying customers, grinders or people with a lot of spare time may never be realised by him. Imagine that, as a designer, a part of your product is blocked – not because of skill – but of a mixture of moral and monetary restrictions imposed.
I alluded before that this isn’t how I want him to remember gaming, when actually I think the opposite is true. I want his gaming experiences to be guided by good games full of imaginative storytelling and gameplay, and for the idea of paying being an integral part of a games core mechanics to be a long and distant memory.
So what do you think? Is the near domination of free-to-play, in-app supported games ruining early experiences for the young? Or is it just an evolution of how we play video games as children? Let us know in the comments below.