The noble denizens of PlayMesh have recently been overcome with a surge of Magic fever. It’s a pestilence, besetting the poor folk with a thirst for collectible cards that may only be sated through reckless expenditure of funds. I’ve seen terrible things. Unspeakable acts undertaken at the behest of the dark creators of this mysterious product, the so-called Wizards of the Coast.
I personally have fallen prey to this malady before. The first was 15 years ago. The last bout was 4 years ago. I cannot help but wonder, why am I not rid of the beast? Why do some games endure?
The Enduring Game
Most games hit the scene and die away with nary a ripple to remember them by. It’s not that these games are bad, it’s just that they aren’t designed to last. It seems that most enduring games are built upon a core of sophisticated strategy — Go, Chess, Magic: The Gathering, Risk, Monopoly, etc. The games pop up consistently because there is simply no “answer” to them. Every time the player returns to the game, they are permitted an opportunity to view it with fresh eyes purely because there are no simple resolutions to the puzzles they present. Each play feels new and novel, even if the experience is substantially the same.
Games that rely on content consumption as the core element of enjoyment are destined to short lifespans. It is very difficult to consistently create new material for gamers to engage in without having that material grow old or stale. There are few examples of content driven games that have managed to survive beyond a few years — World of Warcraft comes to mind. Content faces decaying value in a way strategy does not: graphics will advance, social tastes will change, and stories will lose their luster.
I find Magic: The Gathering among the more interesting of the enduring games purely because it manages to blend strategy and content so effectively. I suspect that Magic would experience a noticeable decline were it to refrain from issuing additional cards, but it’s really the strategic core that keeps people coming back. When Magic resurged among my group of friends, it’s because someone pulled out a deck one day and we all got hooked on the interesting choices, not because we heard about some random card that we could go out and purchase. What Magic manages to do is refresh the strategy to ensure the game never becomes “solveable”.
Why Aren’t There More Enduring Games?
Two reasons: they aren’t designed to make a lot of money and they’re incredibly difficult to design. Enduring games don’t manage to generate outsize returns because the only monetizable moment is when the player is being offered the opportunity to learn the rules (i.e., when you buy a chess set or a Monopoly game). Once the implements required to play the game (rules, materials, etc.) it is the strategic elements that will define the play experience. It’s not easy prying more money from a user once they have everything they need to play. You can try to sell more chess boards, but you’re not gonna have the opportunity to sell them a new strategic framework.
Well, it’s not IMPOSSIBLE to do, but it’s often required to blend in elements of content. Some games have managed to walk the tightrope by including new pieces of content that deepen the strategic elements of the game — Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and League of Legends for example. However, by and large, most games that have stuck with humanity for any notable period have been relatively static in their structure over that period of time. Without change, there aren’t a ton of additional selling opportunities.
The other issue for enduring games is the difficulty associated with creating them in the first place. Enduring games cannot be readily solved, which means that not even the creators can comprehend the full range of outcomes under the strategic system. It’s pretty frickin’ hard to design a game without knowing the all experiences associated with the play. More importantly, it’s incredibly difficult to design a system that contains enough variables in delicate balance to create a sufficient level of complication to keep people puzzling through time.
These two factors create a very compelling reason to come up with small pieces of marketable content rather than go after the next chess. Many game designers may aspire to create a game that will outlast their time on the mortal coil, but the simple fact is that most lack the capacity and the financial backing to go after it. I’m thankful for the enduring games we have, but I can’t help but wonder what we’re missing out on.