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System Fatigue

Summary: A lot of pervasive, game-like things are pretty boring. Games should be exceptional, not an extra layer of weaponised mundanity.

(This post orignally appeared on our company blog, Pixel-Love).

Russell Davies says something important in this blog post and its very lucid follow-up. It relates to my concerns about a lot of pervasive apps, both in the real world and on the web: A great many things that have been trumpeted as game-like have actually proven to be quite dull. I've let this niggle flounder at the back of my mind for a while now, thinking something decent is bound to come along. I'm not so confident.

As more things become game-like, there are battle lines being drawn between game designers and people who've picked up a few very addictive, game-like tricks to throw into interactive projects. There are designers that see causing addiction as a virtue of their profession, a major plus for any design they put out; a job well done.

Then there are game designers who see World of Warcraft and Farmville as horrific treadmills that suck in users and gradually use collecting and leveling mechanics to wear their minds down to the merest stubs of cognition. These things really work, exceptionally well, but there's a touch of snake oil about them in the present day.

They are being sold as a magic recipe for engagement, and the basics, such as points, collectibles and leveling, can be built into almost anything. I see a few problems with this: System fatigue, and lack of performance. When I say performance, I mean it in the dramatic sense.

Game-like systems can be enormously compelling, even the simplest of rules can engage people very deeply and alter their behaviour for months, even years. We tire of them though. My colleagues and I found One-Behindmanship was really good for quite a few months and created interesting patterns in our manners, but we burned out on it eventually when everyone had become hyper-aware and noone was coming up with new tricks.

Chore Wars can cause a lot of cleaning, but it loses its novelty after a while. Being in an Unreal Tournament clan a decade ago was fun, but it eventually reached the point where we'd just hang out in maps and chat. Systems have boundaries, and once you've pegged them out, existing within them can become monotonous.

People only have so much bandwidth for play, and when you see game-like systems spring up everywhere, you grok them quickly. On contact, you can immediately recall the weariness you felt when leaving the last similar one that sucked you in and persuaded you to play it beyond tedium. It may seem like a groundbreaking new setting for a game, but if it's the same meta-game as any other, it's the equivalent of a Diner Dash or Bejewelled clone.

The real world comprises the aesthetic of a pervasive game, and swapping that out doesn't make a new game. Changing the location or context can be as lacking in new depth as a re-skinning. Ambient mechanics also mean that, like a Princess Rescuing Application, the interaction can becomes so smooth and repetitive it may as well be entirely automated. The process of reaching that kind of boredom through most game systems is a seesaw. Most games I play take me through a few phases: Confusion, excitement, mastery, drudgery.

For some specific examples, take Borderlands: the first enemies I encountered outside the town gates seemed insanely tough for my low level character, but as I learned more about the world, I could make better plans and assess risk more accurately. I wasn't just leveling stats and accumulating inventory; my knowledge and competency were rising along with them. This was exciting, and settled into feeling mastery: I had an adequate inventory for any situation, and enough knowledge of the world to plan for situations and experiment with new enemies.

Even collecting missions like the Claptrap rescues were placed in varied locations, alongside regular missions, with meaningful rewards in the context of the game. A few late stage challenges were particularly unsuited to a Hunter class character playing solo, specifically the last arena battle and the last boss. Requiring vastly more leveling up due to low DPS weapon specialties tipped those parts of the game, or at least preparation for them, into drudgery.

Finding locations in Fallout 3 pushed me toward the same kind of system fatigue, as did unearthing all the statues in Brutal Legend, and trying to stamp out every alien base in the late stages of Terror From The Deep. I loved all of those games, but each encouraged my most obsessive compulsive tendencies long after they peaked.

Excitement and mastery tread the balance between familiarity and unfamiliarity. When the same three mechanics are being repeatedly rehashed and applied to everything, it doesn't matter how new and shiny your game is, what new aspect of the world or social media it's being applied to, how many players it has or how much investment you have: Experienced players will reach system fatigue very quickly.

Many games don't get it right, and achievement/trophy frameworks often seem to be there for their own sake. Allowing players to gorge makes a game less memorable; instead of ludic and narrative spikes that stick with me, these games I have trodden so completely become muddy expanses of repetition.

Finer points of the narrative debated on forums are lost in my memory to endless fetch quests. Drudgery is what gets me to 100% completion, and the more games I do that with, the more I realise my bandwidth for play is quite limited. I don't want everything to become a form of "play", because sometimes it just gets in the way.

That's my main worry. A lot of interactive projects and playful apps seem to have a great potential for system fatigue built in between the app and the audience. The more copycat pervasive apps get built, the higher that potential rises, and not many seem to be doing much to counteract it. There are showbiz principles at work here that a lot of game-likes ignore: Give the audience amazing moments, ramp it up and go out on a high.

Magicians and performers of all kinds have known for a very long time that they need to put a dramatic arc into their act and end it when people are still hungry. A well timed encore is charming, but it's all the more critical to end the act before it outstays its welcome. Mechanics and meta-game systems applied to everyday life are at risk of being so repetitive they never achieve any kind of worthwhile structure, let alone a peak.

I'm not saying games necessarily need narratives, but they need something to structure them as more than an almost featureless expanse of repeating interactions. Games should be exceptional experiences, not an addictive layer of weaponised mundanity.

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