Ixnay On Long Play?

This week in the U.K., a select committee of Parliament heard testimony from John Carr, executive secretary of the Children's Charities Coalition for Internet Safety, suggesting that in order to prevent people from playing video games too long, game designers should "dis-incentivise" long-play sessions by allowing players to achieve the top rewards of play early on in the title's lifecycle.

Up front, let's just get something out of the way -- this will never happen. Developers aren't interested in making games that reward casual players without providing a bigger payoff for their hardcore fans, and gamers certainly aren't interested in buying those games, either. Carr's testimony is yet another example of video games being held to a higher standard than other media. After all, nobody suggests that J.J. Abrams should put all the best revelations in the first season of "Lost."

But despite the impracticality of Carr's suggestion, there is something important to consider about how the length of play sessions is rewarded in today's games. With the rise of subscription-based gaming (specifically, MMOs), game developers have a financial incentive to keep players subscribed and playing for as long as possible. "WoW" is a classic example of this model--ask any player, and they'll tell you about some of the interminable "grinds" they've done to advance their characters--hours killing one specific type of monster to collect dozens of items that only drop 3% of the time, or completing the same dungeon dozens of times looking for a rare drop. And given "WoW"'s mega-success, other companies are emulating the model

In subscription games, it's not just that long-play sessions are incentivized, it's that they're one of the only things that are incentivized. Although games like WoW do reward skill and knowledge of the game, length of time played is king. Even with all the skill in the world, if you don't have hundreds of hours put into the game, your character likely won't have the experience or the gear to hack it.

There's a balance that needs to be struck between rewarding a game's most dedicated players and turning that game into an endless grind, aimed only at keeping people subscribed -- and there's no MMO out there that's really found it yet.

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