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One More Turn

August 16th, 2010 · 6 Comments

It’s the mantra of any Civilization player – just one more turn. Whether you’re exploring uncharted territory, or researching a new technology, or anticipating a Wonder of the World that’s about to complete, there’s always a reason to play one more turn. And once you’ve played that turn, there’ll be another, and another, and before you know it, you’ve blown way past dinner time, bed time, seriously-it’s-bed time, and you’re looking at your watch thinking, “I know it’s 4am, but I’ve come this far so I might as play for the x more turns it’ll take me to finish building my spaceship/invasion fleet/United Nations.”

I’ve spent too much time on Puzzle Quest, I played Diner Dash until I felt like I could re-order entire restaurants using the power of my mind, I’ve stayed up far too late messing about in Team Fortress 2 – but Civilization trumps them all. I have never played a game quite as compelling as Civilization.

There’s a term for how games achieve this kind of fixated behaviour: the ‘compulsion loop’. It’s very simple:

  1. You play the game
  2. You achieve some goals
  3. You get awarded with new content
  4. GOTO 1

You might claim that this is facile – that by this loose definition, all games contain compulsion loops – but the fact is that most games aren’t engineered around compulsion loops. Story-based adventure games like Uncharted 2 or Halo 3 may well have short-term goals and new levels and environments being awarded to the player, but they typically don’t come on a fixed schedule. Instead, they can be frustrating and time-consuming to achieve, and are easily deflated by poor pacing and writing. Not that this makes them worse – I don’t think the job of a game is to simply be compulsive – but they don’t keep me up until 4am.

Now, if you want to see pure compulsion loops in action, just check out any of Zynga’s games on Facebook. Farmville is basically a compulsion loop dressed up in plants, with goals being doled out on a player-controlled schedule and new content (crops, buildings, decorations) always tantalisingly within range. Mafia Wars is even better (or perhaps worse), because it drops the pretence entirely and is just a compulsion loop written out in numbers and text. You don’t need any skill to play these games, you just need to be able to click your mouse enough times to fill up a bar.

Viewed through this prism, it’s clear why Civilization is so compelling; every single turn of the game is a mini-compulsion loop. In every single turn, like clockwork, you move units, you achieve tangible goals, and you get new content. The game keeps you playing until you’ve have seen everything and done everything that the world has to offer.

There is a real difference between Farmville and Civilization, though. After playing Farmville for a couple of months, a friend told me, in a tone of undisguised self-disgust, that he felt like he’d wasted part of his life. I know how he feels – I played Farmville for a month and I feel like the experience was completely worthless, even though at some points I was scheduling my life around when crops were due to ripen.

Contrast that with Civilization, where well-played games will remain fresh in the mind for years – and yet even the meanest, most boring game of Civilization will contain something memorable. It might be the desperate last defence of a doomed city, or a particularly sneaky piece of diplomacy, but there’s always something you feel pleased about achieving. Civilization has a depth and complexity and meaning that Zynga’s toys can’t touch. The fact that it contains mini-compulsion loops feels more like an enabler of that richness, a way to manage that complexity, rather than a cynical trick to keep players hooked.

Of course, there’s one more big reason why Civilization, even with in its most Farmville-beating, sleep-depriving, anti-social nature, is not so bad: it always has an end.

Tags: adrian · civilization · games · psych

6 responses so far ↓

  • Barteld // Aug 16, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Nice to the point article Adrian.

    Makes me wonder if it is our job to make sure that is a “If end then exit with smile, else GOTO 1” statement. Not just a GOTO 1.

  • Dom // Aug 17, 2010 at 8:54 am

    I like the comparison to “cow-clickers” (although Cow Clicker is itself rather brilliant). I’ve been discussing with a friend recently as to whether we’ve wasted time playing games, and I think this sums up my stance brilliantly: It’s all about the experience and memories they create.

    However, compulsion loops are potentially dangerous as they can suck you into dedicating hours to ultimately meaningless and empty experiences, and you don’t realise you’re wasting all that time until much, much later. “Farmville is basically a compulsion loop dressed up in plants” indeed.

    Anyway, nice article.

  • Adrian Hon // Aug 18, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Barteld: Absolutely – I think that if you want to approach gaming as anything other than a pure moneymaking exercise, you need to consider what kind of memory or emotion you want to leave players with.

    Dom: Something we have to watch out for is the creation of compulsion loops for real-world behaviour (just like Jesse Schell’s talk, where you get points for watching ads or brushing your teeth). I think that these real world games will pale in comparison to the attractions of virtual games, but it’s a dangerous power to be abusing.

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  • I-Ming // May 28, 2012 at 10:50 am

    This article has made me want to play both FarmVille & Civilizations, I’ve played neither while always having my eye on both for different reasons.

    Just back from a video game conference, the science behind some games really disgust me.

    I believe in science, but only when it is used to serve art!

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