| February 10, 2011

This past year I noticed a disturbing trend in myself, much longer play sessions in a few select games with little to no progress towards completing them. Call of Duty: Black Ops, Red Dead Redemption and Fallout: New Vegas all consumed a disproportionate amount of my time consider I only beat one of those 3 games.

Gambling made its way in to gaming this year in a very big way. Black Ops introduced wager matches that let you bet on yourself like a crooked boxer, Red Dead wouldn’t be the same without its blackjack or liar’s dice, and New Vegas took players all the way to Sin City itself.

Good game design is all about creating a satisfying feedback loop of risk and reward for the player. It’s that teetering feeling where you’re not sure if you can win, but you know it’s always worthwhile to try. This sort of design is what keeps people playing even when outclassed by opponents or facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Players recognize the game wouldn’t present a problem that couldn’t be solved and so they push forward.

Gambling follows these same fundamentals; players always feel like there’s a chance the next roll of the dice could win them big and so they keep pushing, even when deep in the hole. Applying the mechanics of gambling to existing games offers designers an easy way to achieve a nearly perfect equilibrium of risk and reward because the principles of conventional gambling structures have already been perfected.

Call of Duty: Black Ops’ wager matches are a prime example of this, mirroring a traditional betting schema the game provides players incentive to push hard and win big. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen my bankroll drop to nothing after a few awry One In The Chamber matches, but I never recall feeling defeated or out of the running. Even when forced to go back to traditional multiplayer (blech!) to earn money for my newfound addiction, the sense that riches were just around the corner was never lost.

In the case of Fallout: New Vegas and Red Dead Redemption the addition of traditional games of chance is much more conventional, but no less effective. When presented with the option of hunting for pelts (radiated or otherwise) and rolling the dice the choice becomes clear. Gambling presents players with more than just a chance at in-game currency, they offer an opportunity to skip the more boring parts of a game.

Where this becomes problematic is when that risk/reward cycle overpowers the cycle provided by the core gameplay. Call of Duty handles this extremely well by making the experiences one and the same, but Red Dead and New Vegas narrowly avoid this by being spectacular games. Had their experiences been less enjoyable it’s entirely possible I could have become so distracted I never finished either because it’s happened to me before.

One of my dirtiest gaming secrets is that I’ve never finished Final Fantasy VII, I got distracted at the Golden Saucer long enough to forget what I was supposed to actually be doing. The same thing happened again with the amazing Triple Triad card game in Final Fantasy VIII.

Because I’ve traditional been more interested in strategy and action games than RPGs the availability of these alternatives, combined with the attractive pull of gambling ruined these games for me. It’s a fine line to walk, and it takes a very skilled developer to balance an engaging gambling experience without it overshadowing the satisfaction the core game brings.

Despite the challenge, developers should continue this practice. Adding gambling conventions is an effective way of engaging players, and when handled correctly it can accent the game in a very positive way. Developers just need to be sure that their core experience is enjoyable enough to satisfy on its own, or else we’ll be buying $69.99 casino games.


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