Yes, this is another one of those posts about the problems of gamification.  Because I like games that grind. Give me eight hours of strategic, deliberate decision making and I’m there. For this, I blame my mother, who restricted how much time we could play video games, except for one game that we were allowed to play as much as we wanted: SimCity.

SimCity is the ultimate grind game. Seasons take forever (even if you turn the game speed up to max) and you often have to wait multiple seasons before you really have enough money to build something new and interesting. But that, it turns out, can be really fun, hence the enduring popularity of the game. To watch something develop slowly and carefully, to make strategic decisions that feel truly consequential, and to do it just for the sheer joy of building your thing – before there was Minecraft, there was SimCity.

Sadly, as much as I like grind games, I don’t have much time in front of my PC at home these days. Which made me start looking on my phone to see what was available. And after several months of playing different games, I’m convinced that the strategic casual gaming available on phones has fundamentally broken the pleasure of the grind. So much so that I’ve sworn off them entirely.

The problem is opportunity cost. In playing SimCity, there is in theory some opportunity cost built in to other activities: any second I’m eating dinner or doing some work is a moment I could be building my city. But because my city doesn’t get worse when I’m gone and because the game itself is infinite, the opportunity cost is relatively low: it is simply that I am not making forward progress.

With casual gaming, however, this is dramatically untrue. First, there is the F2P (free-to-play) mechanic of limited resources. Essentially, I get food/gold/whatever every X amount of time with a Y cap. So if I don’t log in every two hours and spend the X, I can’t restart the clock and get anymore because I’ve hit Y. So now the opportunity of not playing is not only that I’m not spending X (the SimCity non-advancement cost), it is that I’m not gaining the next X, which may be essential.

Now in theory, that’s not so terrible. The opportunity is somewhat the same as in SimCity, it is now just made incredibly more obvious (and stressful) by the fact that the game world persists when I’m not around. Imagine leaving SimCity on while you ate dinner; now you constantly want to run back and accept the season passing so you can get started earning the tax revenue for the next season.

But the real problem is when you start to layer in PVP. Because now, it isn’t just that you need to constantly check-in but that if you don’t, your game is going to actively get worse. By introducing other players who are playing and growing when I’m not, you’ve created a gameworld that is constantly pulling away from me.

With SimCity, if I don’t play for a month, I’m not in any worse shape than if I played the next day. Sure, I didn’t get that intervening month of building the city up but it isn’t like the city was actively self-destructing while I was off doing other things. But with the F2P/PVP combo, I not only have to log in every two hours to make sure that the timer resets, but I have to compete against a bunch of other people who did. My city may stay the same size, but because everyone else is getting bigger, it is now comparatively smaller. Which means instead of competing against the game to build the best city, I’m now competing with everyone else to see who can be most obsessive about logging in every two hours.

Or I can pay money. That’s the whole point of F2P – if you are any less successful of a grinder (read as: less obsessive or busier) than the other players, the only way to catch up is to pay money. And what that means is that if you are are trying to pay for free, you end up being more obsessive in order to avoid having to pay. Which means less talking to other people, less taking a month off, less relaxing.

And it’s a true shame, because game makers have become so obsessed with this continual bleed business model that I can’t even pay them a one-time fee to avoid it. That is, originally casual games wanted you to pay once to do something like remove ads. But the model is now predicated on getting you to pay over and over and over again. Which is a terrible business model, by the way, because eventually people are going to become so busy playing your game that they aren’t going to be able to do the things that support them playing your game. Their relationships will break down or they’ll lose their jobs and because you hit the breaking point, they’ll no longer play your game.

Like I did (though before losing job or relationship).  This is just another of those problems with gamification: when you set your metric to be “get people to play as often as possible” instead of “get people to keep playing over time”, you start incentivizing the wrong behaviors.  When I get the time, I’m going to figure out how to make SimCity run on my phone. All because, in greed, we broke the grinding mechanic that was the basis of enjoying the games in the first place.