The internet is broken. An earthquake near Taiwan has dragged internet access across Asia to an interminable 56K crawl, and with it my plans to revisit Gunstar Heroes and Zelda: Link to the Past through the magic of Nintendo's Virtual Console.
As it became clear that I was not going to access the Wii Shopping Channel anytime this month, the dilemma was clear: What exactly was I going to play? In theory, the answer is simple - I have a drawer full of half-finished DS and PSP titles begging to have their secrets discovered. But at the time when games seem to offer the most, I find myself playing them to completion the least.
This fascinating report on Gamasutra by Immersyve takes an academic's look at this problem, examining the methods that games use to keep players playing and arguing that gaming fulfils some basic psychological needs.
However, looking through my library of games from the last couple of years, there isn't a single one I've played to death. But it's not lack of quality that's making me stop, but lack of incentive.
As the Immersyve report notes, there are two primary ways of motivating someone: reward (the carrot) and punishment (the stick). Gaming's sticks are few - only the sense of failure can spur the player on to succeed. The basic psychological needs that the report refers to can be as easily fulfilled by the next title from a different company. What can games do to keep us playing the same titles?
Gaming needs some new recipes for carrots.
A game like Animal Crossing is a rarity, with some players still checking up on their towns every day, two years after its release. I have seen people lose their lives to it, although it wasn't for me (I played the Japanese version but had to give up after the tenth letter which read, 'Dear Gearoid, I have no idea what the bloody hell are you raving on about, idiot.' I'm used to having my Japanese criticized but, by God, I draw the line at being mocked by programmed non-sentient animals).
Animal Crossing's beauty is the promise of the new. Things constantly change - neighbors come and go, new tunes can be found, and what miserable soul doesn't enjoy getting letters? In the Gamecube version, gamers kept playing to get the NES games hidden within (the same games which now cost you money on the Virtual Console), while in the DS version, new items and downloads for special occasions keep the player interested.
Of course, these decorations only work in Animal Crossing because collection and decoration is the very basis of the game. Collectibles must be worth collecting. Yet too few developers take the time to think about what the gamer wants and include the standard new difficulty levels, artwork or costumes which, despite good intentions, appeal only to perfectionists.
A perfect example of this is Resident Evil's costumes. Resident Evil 4 was one of the best games in years, but since I don't even like the afternoon it takes shopping for clothes I can actually wear in the real world, I'm not likely to spend the weeks required going through it again for a mere cosmetic change.
And although extra difficulty modes are a welcome inclusion for the cash-strapped gamer, since I regularly fail to make it to the end of the standard difficulty level, it's unlikely I'll resist the pull of this week's shiny new game just for a hardened challenge. The Xbox Live Arcade and Virtual Console have only exacerbated this problem, offering instant blasts of distracting nostalgia for the gamer lacking in attention span.
The traditional gaming carrots don't satisfy me anymore. But what more can a game give? There are some intriguing ideas out there. WarioWare: Touched! on the DS gave you fun little stylus toys to play with - no use whatsoever, but fun nonetheless. Capcom's forthcoming Wii game No More Heroes ups the usual costume stakes by having you collect T-shirts designed by a well-known manga designer. While Nintendo are masters of exploiting their back catalogue, few other companies outside of the Japanese giants have really exploited the power of their archives for rewards.
Really, the best thing a good game can give you is simply more game. The trickiest balancing act of all is that between our desire to get to the end and to never stop playing. Many times in a good game I have deliberately held back from plunging into the final level, because I didn't want my time in that world to end just yet.
With the hard drives and internet connectivity of the 360 and PS3, that time never has to end. Extra multiplayer levels for download are now almost standard for FPSs, but why stop there? Side-stories, mini-games, essentially more of the same: If it's a good game, with good rewards, we won't tire of playing it. While the Wii lacks the hard drive, Nintendo could offer branded Miis, Wii points or Virtual Console games for good performance.
Score tables are a classic carrot, but must take account of today's gaming world. In the arcades of old, a little dedication would get you on the high score table, but with several million players, you are unlikely to ever see your name in lights - and unless a game requires a college education or can only be won while drunk, a 13-year-old is always favorite to take me through sheer force of hours played. Games like Geometry Wars recognize this and make up the high score table from your friends lists.
Even real-world rewards, like those in Nintendo of Japan's fabulous Club Nintendo program, are a possibility. While I'm not convinced the promise of Nintendo calendars and merchandise compel me to buy new games, I keep putting in the points like a cigarette smoker with a lot of Camel Bucks to spend.
Replayability is one of the trickiest ingredients in the game recipe. On the one hand, playing one game to death is bad for business - buying the shiny new title is really what games companies want gamers to do. But by the same logic, although Toyota would really like customers to buy a new car every two years, reliability is one thing that helps a company stand out in a crowded marketplace.
So, too, can replayability; value for money and reward become watchwords in a gaming market where it's increasingly difficult to stand out.
It's time to write a new recipe book.