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Like a Rat in a War-Themed Hat Simulator

2011-05-04 by . 1 comments

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Video games are addictive. There are plenty of studies on this. For most games, this is not intentional, because they only had a one-time payment of ¤50.* However, lately, games include DLC for a price, and it becomes more important to keep the player addicted. MMOs were the first to do this, but now it’s leaking into other types of games as well. In this article, I’m focusing on everyone’s favourite war-themed hat simulator, Team Fortress 2.

So, let’s have a look at how Valve intentionally made Team Fortress 2 gradually more addictive. Most of this research is based on operant conditioning chambers, also known as Skinner’s box. The basic premise is an animal, such as a rat, being inserted into a box with a lever. When the rat pulls the lever, a feeder drops a food pellet in. This causes the rat to associate a positive feeling with pulling the lever. How does this factor into Team Fortress 2, you ask? Simple.

It all started with the Gold Rush update. Three new weapons were created for the medic. How did you receive these weapons? By unlocking achievements. Do you see what’s happening here? Performing some in-game task, akin to pulling a lever, causes you to receive items, like the food pellets. Before long, getting achievements is associated with receiving items. Not only is achievement hunting now more fun, because it has a purpose, but the very fact that it nets a reward makes it addictive.

This pattern was carried on for a while, giving every class additional weapons. However, in the Skinner’s box experiments, scientists quickly figured out that in the classical set-up, the rat saw that it would receive food for pulling the lever. It would then relax, knowing that the reward will always be there, and only pull the lever when it’s hungry. Obviously, the same thing went for Team Fortress 2. Once you got all the achievements, the addiction would be gone. Good enough for science. Not Aperture Science.

Cue the Sniper vs. Spy update. Amongst the new weapons, a drop system was introduced. Instead of pulling a lever and receiving an award, all you had to do was play the game, and the rewards will come to you. However, just playing the game isn’t going to get you that reward. It just gives you a chance to receive a reward. Skinner’s box calls these “Variable Ratio Rewards”. Valve isn’t even hiding it any more. You’re rewarded for playing the game, which is what they want you to do. However, with both levers available, why not go for the surefire reward?

The answer: hats. Introduced in the same update as the drop system, you could only get hats by playing and receiving them randomly. This means you could look different, just by playing more than someone else. Do you see where we are going?

Now Valve really started to turn to MMOs for inspiration. In the WAR! update Valve introduced crafting. Crafting plays into another aspect of human psychology. Humans like rewards. But humans also like some form of complexity, to keep it from becoming boring. This technique is called ‘shaping’. Smaller rewards turning into bigger rewards. You want an entire item set for a class? Sure. Let’s take the scout set. You need the Shortstop, the Mad Milk, the Holy Mackarel and the Milk Man. Three weapons and a hat. You can get these by buying, trading, randomly getting or crafting them. If you want to craft the weapons, you’re going to need a primary token, a secondary token, a melee token, three Scout tokens, three scrap metals and a lot of luck. Alternatively, there are weapon-specific blueprints. You can get the Holy Mackarel using a Sandman and a reclaimed metal. You can get the Sandman again, in all of those other ways. This can go on, ad infinitum. Hats are even more expensive.

The Mann-conomy update then introduced trading and, more importantly, crates. This mechanic kills two birds with one stone. On one end, you have to buy keys to unlock content you already have. This is obvious money-making for Valve. What’s less obvious is that this plays into the random bit. Remember the “Variable Ratio Rewards”? Now, you pay to receive either something really rare, or something really common. Like a slot machine in a casino. What’s funny is that Valve didn’t even come up with this. They stole the idea directly from ZT Online, a Chinese MMO.

By continuously adding new weapons, there is always something to do. If you have all the weapons/hats, you can try to get all kinds of unusual hats. Since updates are coming in all the time, you are never done. And who knows? Maybe in the future Valve will include negative reinforcement as well. Look at for example one of the most addictive online games, Farmville. If you don’t return to your crops often enough, they whither, making all the work you did for them void. I wouldn’t put it past the TF2 team to implement something in this vein, later, if we continue the pattern. But who knows? Time will tell. All I know is that Valve did one hell of a job keeping a player-base.

*This is a generic symbol for any currency, be that dollars, euros, pounds, et cetera. Yes, this is a stab at unfair regional pricing.

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  • Raven Dreamer says:

    And an interesting thing to note, the Variable Ratio Reward scheme is the one with the longest half-life till extinction (how long the action will continue to try to garner a reward after rewards have stopped completely).

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