Barriers to Extended Play in Monster-Catching Games

Disclaimer: This article is a Work in Progress.

Games studied are based on the Pokemon formula and include Pokemon games both handheld and console of all generations, and online asynchronous MMORPG Outernauts, by Insomniac games.

The article aims to identify Points of Failure, or factors that cause a player to stop playing and leave the game. I will do so by discussing game mechanics, and illustrate how the intersection of these mechanics results in Points of Failure. Finally, I will list alternative mechanics that could eliminate these points and result in increased player engagement and monetary contribution.

The mechanics discussed include Beast Disparity, Onboarding Failure, Finite Progressive Elements, and Unbalanced Rate of Return.

1. Beast Disparity

Some beasts are inferior to others.  Some beasts are ugly, common, and have a Return on Investment that is lower than that of other beasts. These are often correlated.

At the same level with similar time invested in training, these beasts will lose to superior beasts. They can also “Top Out” before other beasts,via a slowdown or cessation in the acquisition of increasingly effective skills, a slowdown or cessation in the increase or the rate of increase of stats relative to other monsters, or a fewer number of evolutionary states than other beasts.

This means that time spent on the following activities in the game can be wasted: Catching inferior beasts, training inferior beasts, using inferior beasts to overcome challenges (such as battles), and researching inferior beasts.

Beast Disparity can result in a Point of Failure when the player realizes that they have invested unfairly in dead-end beasts, or would experience too much challenge to acquire more suitable ones, and the player leaves the game feeling that they have been duped or unfairly treated.

2.  Onboarding Failure

Incorporating a new beast into an existing team is disproportionately difficult to achieve.

When beginning the game with a Level 1 beast, the player is not required to deviate from core game progression in order to attain competency with that beast. This makes the process of training and overcoming challenges with the beast similar to that of “flow”- the player (and their beast) is appropriately engaged with every challenge presented by the game.

When a new or promising beast is attained, it is often not as capable as a beast above described, and additional investment must be made by the player to incorporate it. A new, promising beast is a reward to the player that can trigger a positive emotional response, but when the new beast represents additional unwanted investment in order to attain benefit, the attainment of a new beast can become a Point of Failure, in which the player becomes disgusted or disengaged with onboarding the new beast and either quits the onboarding process or leaves the game.

Possible solutions:

Training friction 0: New beasts are always at the same level as primary beast, and are not lacking in the benefits attained by raising a beast from level 1, i.e. have the full complement of skills for their level, full stats that would be achieved by training to that level, full evolutionary stages reached by training to that level, and so on.

Training friction reduced: New beasts can be incorporated into the party while the player’s primary beasts fight without inappropriately endangering their lives. They receive experience and any other rewards necessary for Competency at a rate higher than that of your primary beasts, which only slows down as the beast approaches the capability of your Primary beast, when it can be incorporated into the party without disrupting rate of core progression. Incorporating them pre-Competency does not disrupt rate of core progression either.

Alternate training: New beasts may be trained using an alternative method with a significantly higher rate of return than that of the player’s primary beast. They should be onboarded to the team with less time and effort cost than it took to raise the initial beast, as well as equal engagement and reward as was received when raising the initial beast.

3. Finite Progressive Elements.

Core game progression is often finite (i.e. when there is a story with sequential plot points that culminate), and when it is, its elements (i.e. defeating an opponent, making an exchange of resources, or otherwise achieving a goal) are often finite as well.  I will refer to the aforementioned as Game Progression Elements.

(Core game progression in Bejeweled Blitz is not finite, but in Temple Run, as in Pokemon-style games, it is.)

Elements that contribute to capability are those that increase the resources in a player’s possession that allow them to overcome challenges. These include: money and other currencies of exchange, beasts themselves, beast strength, beast skills, or items that can increase any of the previously mentioned. I will refer to the aforementioned as Capability Elements. Capability elements are all rewards for investment, and it is necessary for the player to receive these in order to progress.

Elements that contribute to an increase in capability are often tied with elements that contribute to an increase in core game progression. Core game progression is finite, which causes those capability rewards to be finite. Capability progression, however, is Apparently Infinite, because the limits of the player’s resources neither need be nor can be realistically achieved by the player.

The flow of Pokemon-style games is designed using both finite and infinite Capability-increasing Elements. This means that in one sitting, in an untouched portion of the game, the player can progress at a certain rate by taking advantage of finite elements as well as infinite ones. Once the finite Progressive Elements have been used up, a similar rate of progression cannot be achieved on a return trip, because infinite progressive elements are the only ones remaining. This can result in a Point of Failure, when the player is obligated to Progress in Capability at a rate that is Apparently Inferior to a former rate. What I mean is that the player’s expectations are set by the high, finite rate, and when they are required to progress at a rate lower than their expectations, they can experience Frustration or Disengagement(boredom), resulting in quitting the task or leaving the game.

4. Unbalanced Rate of Return

When investing time into core game progression, the rate of return is high.

For each minute spent engaging in story progression, the player feels as if they are moving quickly, and can thus feel enjoyment. During story progression, the player receives a kind of reward that is not a Capability Element, but a Dramatic Element. Dramatic elements include: plot, introduction to or development of characters, humor, dialogue, a deepening of relationships, change in the world of the game, or revelation of the unknown.

Rate of Return during Game Progression is sometimes syncopated (that is, the player must stop core progression and allow time to pass or engage in another sort of progression before returning.) When the period between progression becomes too long or too often, the player can become disengaged and cease feeling enjoyment, instead feeling detached (not appropriately engaged or motivated) or frustrated (inappropriately challenged, despite high engagement or motivation).

This can become a Point of Failure. When the player is pleased by the rate of return during core game progression and primarily engages in it, but is forced to quit that rate of return for another type of game activity with a  lower rate of return before returning to core game progression, the sudden change from a high rate to a low rate can cause the player to experience Returns Shock. Just as if someone stepped from a warm, cozy livingroom into the freezing Boston tundra, which is shocking.

If the player is not allowed back into the high returns track for too long, they may leave your game for another game, or the real world. If your game has a lower rate of return than the real world, it can become painfully apparent to the player that you are wasting their time, and then they will feel Gamer’s Remorse. If the feeling of Gamer’s Remorse is strong, the player will be obligated to leave your game, not return, and disparrage it when given the opportunity.

Glossary

Syncopation: “a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm”

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