Treatmills, or, Hades, Roguelites, and Gacha Games
Okay. I've been researching games using procgen (procedural generation) elements, right? Blah blah blah... anyways it turns out hardcore procgen isn't really what I want at all (as I figured out in my post about "Shuffled Worlds"), but there is still stuff I can learn from the rogueLITE genre (Spelunky, Hades, Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, etc, which for this post I distinguish from rogueLIKE (Caves of Qud, IVAN)). Current popular vocubalary does not distinguish these two categories, but they're remarkably different.
While playing Hades yesterday for the first time, I noticed my body feeling compulsive/addictive symptoms similar to when playing the gacha game "Super Fighter M", or any Gacha Game. Now, on the surface Hades and Gacha Games are not so similar! I played a few hours of Hades before quitting, as the story/writing style feel most like... 还好 to me (chinese, roughly. "ehhhhh it's alright i guess"). It's an okay game, I'd rate it maybe 5/10 after learning how narrative interaction/progression work, reading more dialogue, etc.
Okay, so I didn't like Hades that much, BUT, I still felt really compelled to keep playing after putting it down. This is where I noticed the similarities to gacha games: I felt EXACTLY the same putting down Hades as I do when I put down a gacha game or idle game like Kittensgame or Melvor Idle. I have anxiety for a few hours after quitting where I consider re-downloading and leveling up more, doing one more run, etc... going back for another short high
To me this feels really unpleasant... it's like going out of control while being very self-aware of it happening. I have to actively rip myself away from a game, and I don't think games should make people feel like that... it's something I've trained myself to do less of as an adult.
What's this game??
Okay, exercise time! Let's describe a game in this way:
- It's common to invest 40+ hours into it without reaching a clear ending
- There may be no clear ending to the game
- The game might feature the concept of 'dailies', daily tasks you do so as to not miss out on rewards
- When you play the game, you usually play through a very similar loop of gameplay each time
- You can expect to increase numbers in some way (stats, etc), even in a tiny play session.
- There is a seemingly endless amount of content to play
- There are no social elements within the game
- Players often gather somewhere outside the game to discuss strategies
- Popular with streamers, because there is a seemingly endless amount of content
Let's also say it might follow these ideas, too:
- It has patch notes, and the developer team often implements changes in response to player feedback.
- Players anticipate large 'patches' which introduce new gameplay elements, i.e., the game is designed expecting a player to be 'retained' over long periods of time.
- The game launches with a Beta or Early Access model.
- The most common adjectives are 'fun', 'pleasurable'.
- The game is not 'done' when it 'releases', it's expected new stuff will come.
What kind of game does it sound like I'm describing?
To me, it sounds like I'm describing an Incremental Roguelite, or a Gacha Game. Of course, these genres have their differences between and within them. Some Gacha games have okayish story elements, some roguelites have interesting emergent systems. But to me that doesn't change many of the above aspects.
I'd like to call this category "Treatmill" games. I think I'll exclude "Open World" from this category, not because they're good, but mainly because those games tend to launch with an absurd amount of content (thus fitting mainly AAA-development styles), rather than 'efficiently' create an absurd amount of content through permutations in weapon/equipment/skill setups. Likewise I think Idle games (like Melvor or Kittensgame) have some overlap, but they have reduced viral potential, so let's not talk about those...
A Treatmill game is designed keep you playing indefinitely by placing incremental mechanics behind all kinds of systems in the game. In Gacha, this might be maxing out multiple characters or re-doing stages to grind for certain materials. In roguelite games, this might be (in the example of Hades), having multiple weapons, with special items you can only earn by doing runs and killing bosses with particular weapons. Every run gives you a little progress, sometimes you even fail runs early to gain progress faster.
While I quit Hades after 4 runs, I watched videos to learn how the total game time could easily extend over 1,000 hours. Hades isn't the only roguelite like this, of course! It's just a recent example I played.
Now let me talk about business for a bit. As much as indie developers might say they want to make games 'for players to enjoy and have fun', that is 100% ALWAYS compromised, even a little bit, by needing, or wanting money. I have met developers who, with a cold and precise logic, tell me they are going to keep working on a famous roguelite series with the intention of adding new content to keep the 'money fountain' going. Even if someone says they're making something 'to maximize fun!', their decisions are also driven by selling enough copies to keep their team afloat. I would argue that the bigger the team, the more they might use marketing speak to hide this fact, but that's just speculation.
The gacha model of games evolved from smartphones inserting themselves into peoples' every day lives, and designers exploiting that fact. Retention techniques evolved out of competition and the relatively low game design skill needed to make the 'game' part of gacha games.
The indie roguelite model of endless games evolved from the rise of Twitch streaming as a marketing tool, and designers aiming to optimize for this, but also because in some respects it's more manageable to make a really big game for a small team, if content has some level of replayability/procgen.
Now, whatever the developers' believed or marketed intentions are, Treatmills are 100% designed with the intention to occupy a gigantic amount of your time, maximize the period in which you might share it with others, and thus, also occupy 'The Conversation' of game players for as long as possible. Because this is how they make enough money to sustain the studio, and this is how they compete. Like Blockbuster Open World corpgames (corporate games), Treatmills intend to take up tons of space in players' game diets.
What's frightening about Treatmills is that, in Hades' case, the incremental mechanics (Darkness, Gems, etc, used to permanently improve your power, which maybe originated in Rogue Legacy? Idk), I would wager were a way to make the game more accessible to different skill levels via grinding. However, the result is that now Hades has these additional addiction loops built in, just like gacha games!
So now it's the question of "Well Melos are you saying you want there to be no treatmills? there are people in tough times who play treatmills and watch people play them for 1,000+ hours to cope with tough lives and enjoy it."
I'm not meaning to judge *players* of treatmills. But I do mean to make a slight moral judgment of treatmill designers and the kinds of behaviors the games enable. I think developers at the bottom of the ladder are not really blameable. It's mostly the people at the top driving decisions - morally bankrupt gacha CEOs, well-intentioned indie studio heads.
There are already enough treatmills. Why make new ones? You might justify it with "to keep my studio afloat" but... idk! A lot of morally grey things get created because someone needed to make money! Well, whether or like it or not, the system of Twitch, streaming, and parasocial relationships on the internet - will continue to drive the creation of treatmills. But... maybe if a few of us stop making them... maybe I'm just too unwilling to accept the bitter reality of what the existence of treatmills implies about the world.
People will find things to play for 1,000 hours regardless of making treatmills or not, so why would I spend my time as a designer to make 'a new shiny Treatmill?' I don't know. I guess I can accept that a treatmill is a source of relaxation, but I just feel the way they are designed does not really encourage, from the start, a healthy type of engagement. If someone wants to form a bond with my game and play it for 1,000 hours, I'm fine with that. But I don't want to add in elements of design that encourage that playtime *via* addictive loops and retention techniques. It feels coercive.
Anyways, AAA gacha and indie games might have more in common than we'd like to admit. Time to go eat lunch.......