Psychology of Expansion Packs 640

Yesterday, a major patch for Diablo 3 released, adding an assortment of new features for players to enjoy. Already, heroes of the world of Sanctuary are taking to Reddit and forums to gleefully report their findings: new items, new monsters, new quality-of-life changes. Everyone is happy.

For now.

In time, this happiness will pass, as it has with every content patch before it, as it does with every other game, including World of Warcraft and its many expansions.

You see, it really doesn’t matter how hard Blizzard – or any other game developer – works on new content for an established game. No matter how much new content is added, it will never be enough to keep players happy forever. Even if a new expansion includes more content than the average player can hope to ever get through, excitement will dip back to pre-expansion levels within months – at the latest.

Why? Because of a concept in psychology called the hedonic treadmill.

At its core, the hedonic treadmill describes a person’s tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness after either positive or negative events. In other words, there is only a temporary gain in happiness following a positive event like an expansion pack release, because desire and expectation rises along with your happiness. Picture your happiness as a man running on a treadmill; as happiness increases, the man runs faster and starts advancing down the treadmill. But soon, the treadmill – your desire – increases its velocity to match the man’s speed, once again keeping him in place.

“A true saying it is, Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill.”

A 1978 study of lottery winners and paraplegics was the first to investigate the hedonic treadmill. Both groups were compared to a control group that experienced no extremely positive or negative life events, and the results showed that for both lottery winners and paraplegics, happiness levels eventually returned to average levels after their windfall/paralysis. In a 1999 book titled Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology, a more universally relatable example of hedonic adaptation was offered: if you get a raise at work, you’ll initially be happier, but you’ll eventually grow accustomed to the larger salary and return to your base level of happiness.

How does this relate to games? An expansion pack isn’t unlike getting a raise. It is a permanent addition to the previous level of content, but results in only a temporary increase in happiness. We become accustomed to the new maps, new monsters, and new items, and then the only thing that will make us happy again is the next big content release.

It’s not uncommon to see the older generation of gamers call out the younger generation for an apparent sense of entitlement to receive additional content after a game releases. “Back in my day, there were no patches!” says the old generation. Today, we’re so inundated with DLC, expansion packs, and free content patches that we’ve come to take them for granted. And are the gamers of today happier than the gamers of old? Of course not.

Our desire and expectations have risen, leaving game developers in a difficult position: they have to keep churning out new content just to keep us running in place on the treadmill. There will never be that one, perfect expansion pack that will keep players happy forever. It may be easy to decry the foul, greedy game developer for pushing their filthy expansion packs in order to keep milking us of our hard-earned dollar, but consider that in today’s video game climate, they have to produce that content to keep players happy, and they have to pay employees to produce that content.

As early theologian St. Augustine said, as cited in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, “A true saying it is, Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill.”

I’ll see you all in 2020, when Blizzard releases World of Warcraft: Return of the Stormreavers.

Want to read more about the psychology of video games? Check out how How Your Mind Screws with You in Games Like Diablo.



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