The Over-justification Effect of Games as a Serviceby@jetwilbury
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The Over-justification Effect of Games as a Service

by James DesmondOctober 15th, 2020
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The Overjustification Effect is a phenomenon in which being rewarded for doing something actually diminishes the intrinsic motivation to perform that action. Destiny 2's recent move to the F2P model (Free 2 Play) provided a much needed boost in returning players and in my opinion is one of the standard bearers for the AAA blockbuster model in question. To do so, developers need to provide a fun experience for a broad audience, creating a reason to keep players coming back for more. For the GaaS model, the basic motivation is to provide the promise of a reward or reward.

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A goal that you set yourself is more powerful than a goal that is set for you.

Over this current and passing generation of gaming consoles, we've witnessed the rise of the almighty live service game. What I like to think of as the AAA adaptation of mobile gaming mechanics and MMO hits like World of Warcraft, wrapped in a blockbuster console game setting. Player retention, daily logins, battle passes - buzzwords that are part and parcel with the Games as a Service business model permeate throughout these titles that vie for our hard-earned time and money.

To quote a good friend - the "ecosystem" has become the dirtiest word in the industry, with developers and publishers alike looking for ways to keep players engaged long-term. What started with the odd PC only expansion model in the 90's, blossomed into DLC, Season Passes and now Games as a Service. A system that consists of some sort of persistent online world, a gameplay loop designed to be engaging (usually) with constant daily events, new loot and bigger content drops that add new wrinkles every so often. All with the intent of keeping players engaged for years.

After reviewing Marvel's Avengers (classic shameless plug tactic) and stumbling on this particular Game Maker's Toolkit video during my daily YouTube scroll, I got to not so subtly start thinking about the links between the Overjustification Effect - A phenomenon in which being rewarded for doing something actually diminishes the intrinsic motivation to perform that action - and the causal effect this has on the GaaS business model. Not content to use just one example, I wanted to compare this with Destiny 2, as its recent move to the F2P model (Free 2 Play) provided a much needed boost in returning players and in my opinion is one of the standard bearers for the AAA blockbuster model in question.

The Over-justification Effect is a phenomenon in which being rewarded for doing something actually diminishes the intrinsic motivation to perform that action. To use just one example, I wanted to compare this with Destiny 2, as it's recent move to the F2P model (Free 2 Play) provided a much needed boost in returning players and in my opinion is one of the standard bearers for the AAA blockbuster model in question.

The Intrinsic Incentive of Gaming

To dive deeper, we must first look at what the motivations are to play a video game. On the most basic level it is because they are designed to be engaging and fun; there's a reason why Mario has his own theme park, you know?

Whether you get into gaming at a young age or just randomly decided to drop money on a console/PC of choice to see what 'all the fuss is about', once you've found the interest, there is an intrinsic motivation to keep playing i.e. doing a task for yourself - because it is enjoyable and feels rewarding.

Other factors that might influence your intrinsic decision making might boil down to your personal tastes, the kinds of experiences you like or perhaps the brand/marketing attached to a video game.

In the case of both Avengers and Destiny 2, there is ample reason under each category for interested parties to invest. One leans heavily on the branding, Marvel's cabal of ever increasing revenue from the MCU has re-introduced an entire generation to the concept of the superhero and how to capture their comic book counterparts larger than life stories in a digestible and, more importantly, entertaining fashion.

This is why they have completely dominated the box office over the course of 10 years.

Destiny meanwhile has (relatively) humbler roots coming from the storied developers over at Bungie; the studio that changed the console FPS landscape with Halo. A sequel to their first foray into GaaS, Destiny 2 marks a somewhat return to form for the studio.

After an initially middling reception to the first game, this sequel proved the concept still had legs, improving on all aspects (particularly its story component) and even breaking away from their Activision overlords to chart a new course on the F2P market.

Whatever the motivation may be for you however, I've chosen these games based off these factors with one continuing to trend in the trades (if not for great reasons) and the other remaining a constant in the gaming community writ large that has learned and grown in the years since launch.

An Extrinsic Level Event - Developer Intent

Like the intrinsic before it, extrinsic motivation is the equal and opposite behavior behind a persons motivation i.e. doing something for the promise of a reward or avoiding punishment (the latter possibly not related). As a developer, the basic need to provide a fun experience for a broad audience is the intent. To do so, that often requires enticing the player by creating a reason, usually through gameplay, to keep them coming back for more. For the GaaS model, this design concept must run a bit deeper - after all, these games are supposed to last for years right?

Taking a look at the older of the two concepts, Destiny 2 first and foremost doubles down on a gameplay level. The moment to moment action is quick, combat encounters require twitch reflexes, tactical thinking and enemy mob management to overcome.

The player feels engaged in the fight throughout and while fights are deliberately frenetic - rarely do they feel so difficult as to become overwhelming or unfair, particularly when playing solo. The power fantasy of being a badass Titan or Warlock is empowering and the game smartly rewards you for making it out of a scrap alive.

Enter the loot drop; a mechanic that, while not entirely new in concept to gaming, is the crux of the extrinsic GaaS motivation. With every encounter dropping some form of loot, the promise of more and better gear, at higher levels or in the next quest or bounty becomes enticing. Sure, it's important that what is left of humanity and civilization isn't destroyed but I could use that shiny new gun this vendor on IO has promised for shooting 15 Vex and look good doing it so....

Enticing Design - The Avengers Initiative

Likewise, Crystal Dynamics Avengers attempts to deploy that same enticing scenario. But unlike Destiny, there is a larger emphasis on your chosen hero than on the larger mechanics of the game world. To become an Avenger is like a dream come true for a lot of people. These characters have an accumulative history spanning 80 years. That is a lot of nostalgia and personal attachment for any product and taking into consideration the modern successes of these characters, any excuse to be directly involved as a player is simply icing on an already intrinsically lavish cake.

On a gameplay level, the third person brawling action ensures you see every frame of animation as Captain America hurls his shield at AIM bots galore. Outside of the story beats that task you with bringing these characters together, the extrinsic motivation comes from molding your Cap/Thor/Other to your liking - to the image you have always had in your head - by asking you to repeat rotating mission types and pick up faction challenges to gain the resources needed to truly bring your hero closer to that pedestal.

Finding New Ways to Motivate Them

Gear, material, power levels, resources & materials... THINGS. The Endgame that is the crux and currency of these services. Knowing you can only spend so many hours campaigning before you run out of things to do. Once the story is done the grind rises and now all those hours you spent not bothering too much with the nitty gritty details are front and center.

This is also where the intrinsic value of the game diminishes, after the credits roll but the game keeps going. Maybe you're delighted that there is still more to do, that there is no reset button and you can take your character and the hours of gameplay logged even further. But then you notice that, the NPC's don't carry the same lively feeling they once did.

Their dialog on a loop as you go through the same cycle of menu hopping to get to the next daily mission. Environments become overly familiar, instead of exploring every nook and cranny you now have figured out the shortest possible route to make things easier as you make your way to the next objective.

The drive to discover more is gone because you've more or less discovered everything the game has to offer. So now, the issue becomes player engagement. For some of course, the story doesn't matter so much as the gameplay and so any excuse to play will suffice but for others, more incentive is needed. Now we enter the realm of the extrinsic motivations required to keep playing.

Broken, Beat & Bored

This is where developers, I believe, have the most difficult time transitioning players too. With Destiny 2, despite learning a lot from its predecessor, still there were issues surrounding a lack of transparency in how XP was being rewarded, how new DLC had level gated previously accessible content and caused players to distrust the developers for weeks until a more comprehensive and honest approach was taken by Bungie to engage more with their community.

I should point out that, despite a rough launch, the intervening years have proved Destiny's cache with its community. It just seems to be the same old story regardless of who is behind the wheel.

History repeats...

The reason I bring this up is, as the above image shows, the Endgame is still very much a problem. As of this writing, almost every article related to The Avengers video game revolves around a lack of content, zero communication from developers and a massive drop off in player retention.

News items that gamers around the world have heard consistently with each new GaaS game release. Something is always broken, content is never enough for its fans and the practices employed to keep people engaged become chores.

These chores can take the form of swapping out weapons / armor and cosmetic skins on a regular basis. While Destiny's gear, armor and cosmetics are tied together, any potential loot drop after a boss fight for example, might not suit a characters build and therefore lead to more meaningful gameplay decisions for the player. The same cannot be said for Avengers.

Since the focus is on the Hero, the gear required to increase your power level takes a back seat to cosmetics. In a single play session the gear you pick up will consistently be better than the one collected mere minutes before. Compounding this issue is that gear - being separate from the cosmetics locked behind the battle pass grind - offers no real value to the player outside of making numbers go up. This arbitrarily inflates the value of cosmetics that instead of promoting player engagement - feels grating, unnecessary and more importantly, unfair.

From the Pinnacle to the Pit - The Over-justification

It might seem unfair of me to dunk so heavily on these titles. Let's be fair, it's not like they haven't succeeded in the sales department and would we be talking right now if these games hadn't left such a large mark on the gaming community? Probably not, but as these services gain more popularity among AAA publishers there is a clear failure to listen with each release, my question is why developers are intent on repeating the same mistakes over and over - further diluting the genre and the brand attached.

Why should we continue to spend money on these titles when each new take offers less than what came before only to include it later behind a paywall? Add to that the need for developers to design and redesign player incentives, instead of providing a service that feels welcoming and not overbearing. Whether you are a newcomer to a now 7 year old franchise in Destiny or just dropped 60 dollars on the new Avengers title, the service is the same yet the quality varies wildly.

Throughout all this there is very clearly a reason people keep coming back. These games are fun - but maybe the bells and whistles of inventory management, daily grind, the fashion souls (had to throw this in here) of cosmetics and level-gating content is something that can be trimmed in such a way as to not feel mandatory? I am no game developer, I have no knowledge to go off of, only trust in the feelings I get as a gamer and arm chair critic.

There is a lot of truth in the saying "less is more", playing the game should be the most rewarding aspect, not checking off a todo list. Ultimately I write this because you already have our attention - maybe stop trying to grab it?