If I look at the games I have put the most time into in 2019, they all have one major thing in common. Every one of them focuses on obsessively doing the same task, over and over, aiming for nebulous undefined end points. From my quest to not only catch every single shiny Pokémon in Let’s Go Pikachu, but also train those Shiny’s to level 100 and beat their respective Master Trainers, to Dragon Quest Builders 2 and my obsessive quest to build unnecessary train tracks and stations between every possible point of interest on my main island, I keep getting sucked hundreds of hours into games where I am basically repeating myself ad nauseam.
Don’t get me wrong, I love getting lost in these kind of games. There’s something oddly satisfying about mindlessly working towards a huge goal, not having to learn any new mechanics, and being able to almost thoughtlessly plug away at tasks in predictable orders without too much thought. One task leads to another seamlessly, and for someone like me who has autism related obsessive tenancies, these kind of games can really scratch an itch. These games satisfy a need to complete, be directed forwards, and repeat towards a huge and predictable goal. The problem is, I don’t love that I love these games.
Games with these kinds of obsessive game loops can offer great value for money for players who get really invested. If you’re happy to just see one game for several months, you can really get a lot of fun out of these games. But that obsessive gameplay loop, particularly for players like myself predisposed to get addicted to trying to complete something never designed to be properly completed, can get quite detrimental.
Take for example No Man’s Sky, a game I absolutely loved until the day that I got a bit too stuck playing it. I was around 20 hours deep into playing the game, and had somehow managed to fail a fairly major objective. In my attempts to get back to where I had been, I found myself farming a resource, using it to jump to a new area of space, farming some more, making another jump, trying to find my way back to old planets I had visited hours ago, in an impossibly large procedural universe. I was never going to be able to find my way back, but I got stuck trying, getting wound up and anxious. I got so invested in that gameplay loop I missed multiple work deadlines that day, I missed a social appointment, and playing was making me more and more anxious over time. I was playing because I was addicted to the loop, not because I was enjoying the loop, and it’s a trap I find easy to fall into.
Additionally, as much as I love the sense of accomplishment of finishing these hundreds of hours long journeys, I struggle with a real sense that I have in some way missed out by focusing so much on a single game. I’m now 550+ hours into Let’s Go Pikachu, but I can’t help imagining if I’d spent 50 hours less grinding to fight master trainers, could I perhaps have played ten more indie games? Could I have played through more single player narratives? Is plugging away at this borderline thoughtless repetitive action I’m a little addicted to really better than expanding the variety of games I get to experience?
One of my favorite things about playing video games is getting to have conversations about them after I finish playing, it’s why I got into my current career. When I get into these obsessive play holes, I end up playing games later than those around me, and missing out on getting to talk about new titles as they are releasing, which is one of my favourite things to do.
I don’t like the fact that, while I started playing these obsessive loops for fun, somewhere along the line they become an obligation on my brain I feel the need to appease.
I’m trying to be better about this. I have recently set myself more firm end point goals for some of these games, to make sure I eventually move on from them. I’m getting better at recognizing when my addictive behaviors around a particular game are flaring up, it’s a big part of why I have not returned to No Man’s Sky since I put it down years ago.
I can’t stop playing these games, and I love getting deep enough into them to feel like I’m accomplished, but I don’t like that I struggle to put them down sometimes.
Using NMS as an example what would you change about the game if consulted?
What would you do to reduce the potential for anxiety in others?
– Allow easy returning to planets/systems?
– Allow completion of a planet at 80%?
– Construct a device automatically that slowly surveys the planet automatically over days to 100% it if you missed something?
Also what would you do to give it a more finite ending for completionists?
– Put a 120 hour hard limit on the character to survive?
– Limit it to 50 system and 200 planet discoveries per account?
It’s fairly obvious to find where self-imposed completionist challenges in single player titles may appear and can’t help feeling game designers need to do more to reduce late game grind, mixing it up with new mechanics for scale and/or curb “obsessive play holes”. Factorio being a great example here. Otherwise it becomes harder for fans to justify the time investment required to play a sequel.