RPG Dynamics and the Freemium Revolution

Josh Bycer just said publicly on Gamasutra something that I’ve been thinking for a while: RPG dynamics are spreading to all kinds of other games.  While I disagree with a number of his arguments about the specifics of this trend, it’s clear that it is happening.  RPG elements and dynamics are making their way into everything these days, from shooters (randomized loot in Borderlands, character progression in Call of Duty), to puzzle games (quests are now ubiquitous in online casual games), to action games (skill trees as a core character development dynamic), and even builders (quests, randomized loot, and stat progression).  The question is, “Why?”

[Aside:  I noticed a similar trend recently with AAA action games now including stealth: Assassin’s Creed always had some stealth in its DNA, but The Last of Us, and even GTA V had significant stealth components.  Stealth is not easy; to do it right takes a lot of polish on the AI, character controls, animations, and UI.  The reason why developers/publishers are making this investment?  My guess is that needing larger sales numbers, they’re trying to broaden their appeal by giving players multiple play-styles through which to experience their content.]

Oddly enough, I would argue that the rise of always-online gameplay goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of RPG elements into other genres.  Sure, there are outliers (Puzzle Quest had a minimal online component and was arguably one of the first to really hybridize RPG dynamics with radically different gameplay), but most of this has happened in the server-driven world of the last few years.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  As games shifted from shelf-filler to online hobby, they needed to extend the experiences that were available.  PvP has always done this for online shooters and strategy games (other players are endless content), so why did they start dipping into the RPG well?

In part, they needed to incentivize players to create accounts and use accounts that were tied to the always-online world.  Not only could you not reliably make RPG dynamics part of a sometimes-online, sometimes-offline experience (infinitely hackable) and maintain the competitiveness of your online world, it turns out that giving players carrots is a great way to get them to do things.  Again, shooters already had some tools here, with leaderboards and clans, but as games became services, every available way to hook the player and to wrap them up for as long as possible became a key element of competition.  Progressions in general, skill trees more specifically, and especially experience grinds serve the purpose of keeping that carrot dangling in front of the player’s nose – easy to see, but hard to reach.

The advantage of online communities for players is that endless PvP content; the advantage for developers and publishers is that in a server-secured world, every player has to pay.  When we published Titan Quest, we could look at our online usage statistics and spot that out of every 100 players (online only, single-player sessions didn’t get captured), 95 of them were playing with a pirated copy.  When I wrote about that online, it created a minor stir (mostly because someone mis-identified me as the CEO of THQ), but I also got confirmation from a number of other developers and publishers that they were seeing about the same rates.  I don’t think it’s random that the percentage of paying players in the free-to-play, freemium model is quite similar, at around 3-6%.

In fact, there’s very little that’s getting published anymore that isn’t in that server-secured model, and of those models available, freemium is definitely accounting for the greatest mass.  So, when you’ve got players online and you want to keep them engaged for as long as possible, where do you turn?  Why, MMORPG’s have been doing this for years!  RPG systems can be cheap and effective ways to extend content: give players the same gear, but with better stats.  Stick a new color on it, or a different particle effect, and it’s a whole new asset!  Scale up an enemy, give them a new name, and now you have a new enemy!  Give players an endless grind that nets them a 2% competitive advantage, and they’ll do it.  Particularly with freemium, games-as-a-service, if you can maximize player lifetime while minimizing production costs, you’re more likely to break even.

It’s a little more complex than that, of course.  It’s not all about cynical manipulation to extract as much money as possible.  The reality is that all designers are beggars and thieves.  We take things that work from other games and re-deploy them, re-shape them, and hope that they work in our games.  Game developers have been ripping off RPG’s for as long as there have been RPG’s.  If you think System Shock isn’t a shooter/RPG hybrid, you’re fooling yourself.  Let’s not forget that Doom (the granddaddy of all shooters) came from an RPG campaign.

The ubiquity, though, has definitely increased.  Even as we get fewer and fewer actual RPG’s (or even Action RPG’s) – because those things are really hard and expensive to make – we’re getting more and more RPG dynamics in other genres.  Tencent made a version of NBA2K for China that wrapped all kinds of MMORPG dynamics around basketball, of all things.  In fact, the core components of RPG grinding (experience, quests, resources, slot-machine loot, repetition) have become staples of most freemium games out there.  At some level, this is because those dynamics encapsulate the things we want out of a game: we want a goal (quest); we want to be rewarded for accomplishing that goal (loot); we want to get better (stats); and then, we want to do it again so that we can see how much better we are.

What RPG’s do that other genres (action games, particularly, but also shooters and other genres) used to not do is to reward time investment without regard to skill.  Sure, certain levels of skill require time investment, and sure, RPG’s can require skill, but what RPG dynamics offer the freemium space is a way to map time into power.  It’s reliable, testable, and proven.  It can be done (relatively) simply with spreadsheets and graphs.  And, once you monetize time, you’ve got a business.  This is what is at the heart of this spread: RPG dynamics extend play time through simple, procedural progression.  Whether your’e competing in the freemium space or the AAA space, that’s a win, but in the freemium space, it’s essential.

Difficult Identities

The #1reasontobe panel from GDC2014 is now online for free at the GDC Vault site.  I highly recommend it.  You can go watch it; this will still be here when you get back.  All of the speakers give great talks, telling powerful, compelling stories.  

Deirdra Kiai, the final speaker, gives a particularly personal and challenging narrative of falling between/outside the binaries of gender. They (Kiai prefers the use of the non-gendered third-person pronoun, which I will attempt to respect) outline a catch 22 of being both not masculine enough to be an insider of the “bro” culture of gamers while also being not feminine enough to be an object for that culture, resulting in a no-person’s-land in which having an identity position at all is challenging.  As they say, repeatedly, “Making games is easy.  Belonging is hard.”  Of course, we game developers know that making games is not easy; the opposition highlights how truly difficult belonging can be.  It’s worth watching the talk; I can only give you a pale shadow of what Kiai presented.

Back in the early 90’s, before the world wide web was something that everyone had access to, when you had to use text-based browsers to access even the most advanced sites, the early adopters of the internet used a variety of other formats to connect with each other.  I (and many others) got caught up in IRC (internet relay chat), a protocol that allowed one to venture forth in real-time into various chat rooms and interact with other people.  Chat rooms seem quaint now, but 20 years ago, this was groundbreaking technology.

As with most online communities, it was necessary to create a handle, an identity that would be announced every time you “spoke” in a room, a marker by which people would come to know you as you.  Fascinated by the textuality of the medium, I took the handle “ascii”.  After all, we were all just text on screens, so why not embrace that?  As a corollary, it seemed appropriate that as a purely textual being, gender need not apply.  In English, at least, language does not need to be explicitly gendered, and a virtual environment where everyone interacts through text should not require gender to function.  In general, this worked.  Most of the interactions online didn’t require any kind of gender information

However, strange things would happen when someone asked for a/s/l (age, sex, location), which was also fairly common on IRC in those days.  In most cases, I could simply ignore these requests and things would proceed along normally.  Sometimes, though, people would become insistent.  When I explicitly refused to identify as having a discrete gender, it often escalated into a type of crisis.  Participants would cajole me to go along with the request; some would become quite angry and express their anger as forcefully as they could in text; occasionally, I was kicked out of rooms and even banned.  In a purely virtual world, where every identity was composed of a series of artificial, textual events, the possibility that someone might occupy an indeterminate gender space was so disruptive that I was ejected, like Kristeva’s abject.

At the time, I chalked this up to a problem with human psychology.  Gender identification is a high-priority item in human relations.  When you walk down the street, or sit in a mall food court, or go anywhere where there are lots of people, one of the first things you do with every passing person is to identify their gender.  There are probably very good reasons for this; it could be that since so much of human interaction is coded around gender norms, that you need to identify someone’s gender in order to not violate social codes in interacting with them; there may be an evolutionary advantage in identifying gender early (is this a possible mate?  Is this a possible threat?) as there seems to be in identifying faces (is this person a known or unknown quantity?  Friend or foe?).  I didn’t (and still don’t) know exactly why this is so important, but it seems pretty indisputable that it is very important.  By refusing to have an identifiable gender, I was causing enough emotional distress to people that they felt they had to either make me stop or get rid of me entirely.

Around the same time, I read an incredibly brilliant essay by Judith Butler called Imitation and Gender Insubordination.  Again, if you want the whole deal, go and read it; it’s a challenging piece, but revolutionary.  I’m not going to do it justice here, but I will be using Butler’s analysis (or rather, my own limited interpretation of Butler’s argument) to try and shed light on the dynamics described above.  To crudely over-simplify what is a very nuanced, discursively sophisticated piece, Butler argues that the subject “I” who acts in the world may not precede the action, but rather be formed by it.  Identity may be retroactively generated by performance.  This inversion of priority does not erase or devalue the subject, but it does make it a less stable position.

At some level, I think I was prepared to accept this model because of my own experiences.  When I was 12, I went to live in Malaysia for a few months with my mom and step-dad.  As one might expect, it was an eye-opening experience, on multiple levels, not all of which are relevant to this discussion.  One of the key pieces, though, was that identity is heavily about context.  Whereas I was a fairly normal, albeit quirky, kid in my own experience, in Malaysia, with my towheaded blonde hair and my white skin, I stood out from the crowd everywhere there was one.  Complete strangers on the street would touch my hair, because it was considered good luck.  I had gone from normative to alien in one long plane flight.

Just as importantly, at an impressionable age, I was transplanted out of my existing social context into a completely different one.  At the school I went to in Malaysia, no one knew who I was.  The only way for them to figure that out was to observe me being me.  And “me” in this context was a loose concept.  Whatever my performance of myself, that is what people came to know, and there was a lot of latitude there.  This was reinforced when I came back to the states and went to live with my dad, enrolling in yet another new school.  Having already jogged loose a bit of my previous identity, I was once again able to re-invent myself, because there was no prior knowledge in this new context.  As I went to middle school, and then high school, and then college, I re-invented myself repeatedly, capitalizing on previous successes and learning from previous failures, so that I was pretty comfortable with my artificial self by the time I hit grad school.

Artificial, in this context, does not mean inauthentic.  Rather, if we accept Butler’s structure of performance generating identity, there is no position more authentic than to have consciously and artificially created a coherent set of performances that establish an identity (not that authenticity is a value worth elevating; one could take a cue from Nietzsche here and argue that there is no position less authentic than to have consciously and artificially created an identity).  That is also what I did on IRC; it is also, I would argue, part of what Kiai is doing in preferring the third-person, non-gendered pronouns.  They may have a different perspective, though; I do not speak for them.

All of which is fine and good, but what about the “bro” culture, with its misogyny, homophobia, and intolerance?  Why does it generate so consistently this violence (emotional, textual, verbal, and, yes, sometimes physical) against its others?  What is gained by constantly rejecting the feminine, the homosexual (or bisexual, or transsexual), the Other?

Going back to Butler, these performances, this repeated (almost ritualized) opposition is a hysterical attempt to solidify a straight, male identity that is constantly under threat of becoming something else.  By rejecting the Other, one affirms one’s own position as the self.  This creates the soothing image of a stable, grounded identity, and the associated violence both makes this more emphatic as well as signaling how truly disturbing this instability is on a psychic level.  People insist on stable gender categories, even in virtual spaces, precisely because the digital, virtualized space is calling into question, more and more every day, the stability of the identity practices that have traditionally supported that notion of the self.

The experience of leaving behind a historical social context and being free to (or being forced to, depending on one’s perspective) re-institute a model of the self took me going halfway around the world in the 1980’s.  In the 1990’s, it was starting to be available through your computer, if you had the privileged resources necessary to access it, but now in the 2010’s, it is ubiquitous.  As our communities become more virtualized, as our relationships become more mediated through online interactions, that sense of self becomes less and less stable.  We should not be surprised that some of the most strident notes in this conversation come from the young (already challenged in their identity functions by growth, awkwardness, and lack of control) and the male (masculinity is dead, and what are all of these misogynistic, homophobic outbursts if not its tomb and sepulchre).

In other words, as we (game developers) create more and more opportunities for players to experience being a different self, to perform an identity that is not connected to their immediate physical context, we are both undermining the stability of identity (and should expect this to generate crisis and resistance) and liberating the subject from its historical shackles (only to introduce new shackles, of course).  Regardless of whether that dislocation is seemingly reinforcing cultural norms or explicitly destabilizing them, by giving players the experience of re-formulating themselves, of finding the “I” through its performance, we are undermining the conceptual stability of all kinds of identity positions.

The jerks will still have to be policed, to be sure.  In many ways, this is going to be a generational shift, not a sea-change, and in the meantime, we still need to work to keep the peace, to create safe spaces for a broad range of identity performances.  But, just as the generation of kids who grew up with gay characters on sitcoms are now overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing gay marriage (an astonishing shift, considering how challenging it was to be out in the 1970’s), so today’s kids who are growing up in a world of digitally-mediated, artificial social spaces will one day have a much more diverse and tolerant set of expectations around identity than what is the norm today.  It is coming.

So, yes, belonging is hard.  But it is getting easier.  And games are helping.