Remember to Play While You Play–Shaking Off the Obligation to Grind (PlanetSide 2)

PlanetSide2 2013-02-24 17-12-28-61

We won. Esamir was ours. Our enemies had slunk away a short while ago and taking this last bio lab had been more of a formality than anything else. Still, the conquest of this frozen landscape has ensured Vanu soldiers across Auraxis discounted armored vehicles for a while.

Flush with victory, I checked the map, wondering where best to deploy next. That’s when a curious message flashed across the chat:

Everyone back to the Esamir VS Warpgate! Lightning race in 10 minutes!

Well, my outfit was pulling out to make a move on Amerish… and I did need to farm certs for that new scope… but… a tank race? A spontaneous, player organized event that would bleed my resources without giving anything back? How could I… How could I refuse! What a wonderful idea! And a great use of this conquered continent now devoid of all foes! How could I miss that! I dumped a hundred of my precious certification points into a shiny, new high-speed chassis for my Lightning tank and made for the Warpgate.


The arrival of free-to-play titles and online gaming has created an interesting wrinkle in the way we play. In response to the social obligation model pioneered by Farmville and the MMO ideal of keeping players busy, as perfected by World of Warcraft, many of our favorite virtual pastimes are in danger of become something more akin to chores or obligations than entertaining endeavors. Social structures like guilds are created and incentivized by developers to keep like-minded individuals egging each other on. Time-sucking reputation systems offer tantalizing trinkets only after you log in every day for a month to mindlessly hammer on a button for an hour. RPG-styled player progression trickles out a constant stream of perks, achievements, titles, and pleasant noises to give gamers the illusion that their time actually matters. All of this is carefully orchestrated to keep people logging in everyday even after the magic has gone. Backed by reams of data gathered from hundreds of thousands of players, developers and on-staff sociologists are constantly devising new ‘gameplay’ systems not just to entertain, but to obligate.

swtor mailIn this modern era of psychologically exploitative and time devouring entertainment mediums it is important to remember just why we’re here: To have fun. Not to ‘Keep up with the Joneses’ or make sure we ‘Don’t let the team down’, but to enjoy ourselves. And sometimes you need to be a little inventive with your toys to do so.

So, how did the player organized tank race across Esamir fare? Well, I was fortunate enough not to be one of the lead dozen instantly vaporized by friendly fire. Sadly, I would not escape fate for long. I was sideswiped about a quarter-mile out and jackknifed through the middle of the pack. Knowing what was coming, I spitefully fired a salvo a the poor sod who happened to be ahead of me. Four tanks collided with my hull an instant later, flipping me end over end before my racing career concluded in a spectacular fireball. I may not have gotten far, but the spectacle was worth it. I laughed and checked how long it would be before I could build another tank. The timer taunted me with a glowing red 10:08. I decided to log out rather than play the waiting game.


  1. A lot of people, including some game designers, have lost sight of the fact that a game should, first and foremost, be FUN. From the asshat that complains about someone not vastly overgearing the dungeon they're in (heaven forbid they actually need some gear out of it) to the designers who see an appropriate reward for weeks of doing daily quests as...more dailies. I have a job, I don't want to PAY to do something that isn't fun.

    WoW still makes you wait an hour to receive items through the mail, although it's been changed some. Mail to your own characters is instant, and if you've got a good enough rep and a high enough level guild, mail between guild members is instant. But if you try and mail something to someone else...

    Borderlands 2 is hilarious. They remembered to put the fun in the game. Between the base FPS amusement of handing out headshots, the dialog from the characters, as well as some of the meta things (You can get Mad Moxxi's favorite gun, the Good Touch, that she keeps for her 'alone time'. And if you have a controller with the feature turned on... whenever you have the gun out, it vibrates.)

    I forget where I was going with this, so I'll just hit send and you can get out of it whatever. :P

  2. Borderlands in an interesting counterpoint. BL has the advantage of only needing customers to pay for their product once. Still, even Borderland 2 has social hooks and incentivized gameplay. The most obvious was BL's marketing (happily parroted back my the enthusiast press) is that BL is best played with 4 of your friends.

    Their second, more insidious, hook comes in the form of gold keys. Taken straight from the F2P model, signing up for spam from the devs, following on Twitter, and engaging in other social media activities would earn you codes that gave you keys in the game that could be used to open a mysterious chest, prominently displayed at the central hub of the gameworld, for Fatt Lootz(tm).

    Thanks for the tid-bit on the vibrating gun. Hysterical! Being a PC snob, I've never played BL2 with a controller. I did get an alt version of that gun in a second playthough: Ms. Moxie's Bad Touch. Kinda scared what that does with a controller!

  3. Bad Touch doesn't do anything, sadly. :D BL2 is more fun with friends, you can take more risks and live through them.

    It's not hard to get keys; I don't even have a facebook account (Yes, I'm the last person on the planet...) and I have 28 of them. A friend follows the stuff and gets the codes for me. The stuff I've gotten out of it has been lackluster at best, though. RNG is random. But they're free... it's not like you have to pay anything for them, just watch some videos or follow a facebook account. You can't even buy the keys, the only way to get them is free, so it's not like 'bribing your way to victory'. You also get things like the Valentine's code, which gave you some keys, pink themed skins for all the characters, and another Mad Moxxi weapon, the Heartbreaker shotgun for whichever character you logged into first after using the code.

  4. Obviously BL2's keys are nowhere near as insidious as some MMO's grind-a-thons, but Gearbox is still leveraging the same hooks. Sure, you didn't subscribe, but your friend did. Gearbox expects that. As long as you get a code, you'll log back in. It is about encouraging repeated player engagement. Moreover, it demonstrates why social gaming is so strongly encouraged. All you need is one player to get 'hooked' to encourage more. Gearbox makes their money when everyone is still playing BL2 and they release a new DLC package. Again, the player social structure only requires one to bite then that player does the dev's job of selling to the other members of the group. Heck, it's why Steam tells you everything your friends buy.

    It would be interesting to map out when key codes got handed out in relation to DLC releases. I mean, they DO advertise DLC right on the game launcher. All you need to do is give someone an excuse to fire up the game to hit 'em with an ad.

    Also, money isn't always the direct goal. The more people play, the more they generate buzz. Some blab on Twitter or forums (or blogs:) , some record YouTube vids, some stream via Twitch, everyone helps push the game up the Steam 'now playing' charts, etc. Keeping your product in the zeitgeist is bound to sell more copies than it being forgotten.

    Borderlands 2 leans upon grinds and social a good deal less than your average MMO, but the tricks are still in use. Probably more than any other retail release. There are even 'endgame' group boss raids.

    I am SO glad you brought Borderlands 2 up in this context! I totally forgot about that stupid key thing, LOL. Also, that game got robbed in the 2012 GOTYs! Really expected it on more lists.

  5. (rocks a paw) Not exactly. I played Borderlands 1, got the GOTY version with all the DLC, and told everyone I knew how much fun I was having with it. Doing the same thing with this one, keys or not. I've only used like two of the gold keys so far. I'd be playing it without the keys, or if my friend didn't get the codes for me, I'd still be playing. It's just some random decent gear you get access to. And there are ways to get 'infinite' keys; save scumming a file lets you use the keys, get the gear, close the game, replace the file, etc. (I haven't)

    They've got to be making a fair amount of money off the DLC, with the season pass having people paying 30$ in advance for a DLC pack that hasn't even been released, plus 10$ for the extra character class that those of us who didn't preorder didn't get, plus the creature annex for another 5, and all the 99 cent skins...

    Grinding in BL2 is a little pointless, really. Almost all the stuff is at or near your level (I'm 32, and back in the starting area all the beasties that were level 1 when I had Claptrap's little popgun are now level 30), you might as well just go follow missions. Except for farming bosses. (Damn you Doc Mercy, gimme the Infinity already!)

    Personally, I feel like I've gotten my money out of it. Paid a total of 60$ for the game and the season pass (Steam sale FTW. :D) and then Green Man Gaming had the season pass on sale for 16$. ("I just bought that! XO") Bought the mechromancer and the collector's edition pack for another 15$, plus two of the skin packs for a total of another 2$, but I've played the game since I got it for a total of 148 hours so far. I think I got my money's worth.