Degamification of Games

Dec 3, 2013

Is your game still fun to play without scores, limited lives, ammo limits, and restricted access? Related: consider why Game Genie was so successful.

Here are the invulnerability and unlimited ammo settings from the MechWarrior 2 (1995) options menu, available right out of the box, as mentioned in the video:

I’d love to see a return to games experimenting with doing this, taking the concept even further by not restricting progress while they’re enabled. When I wrap up my current set of games in development look forward to some built-in “cheats” (as options immediately available, without penalty) to play however you’d like. I hope you’ll consider doing the same!

Update: I was interviewed for a follow-up article on that touches on a few related topics.

Example: I released a version of Zylatov Sisters updated with some degamification options. See also: “creative mode” in Minecraft!

Transcript of the above video (adapted):

Up up, down down, left right left right, B A.

Why do a whole generation of players know that?

Today I’m going to talk about “degamification” of our games.

Gamification is a movement that has grown outside the game industry, trying to adopt what they see as game conventions: rules, point systems, rewards, achievements, recognition… though I say achievements because these have also found their way back into games! The idea is just that it’s a way to drive someone to do something with an incentive. With points. With high scores.

Much of the time they’re basically just incentive programs – they’re like frequent flier miles but applied to things other than the airline industry.

The objection, of course, is that there’s always some question of whether they’d be doing what they’re doing otherwise if you stripped away the points, the achievements, the trophies, and so on. Otherwise maybe the game there’s not that compelling to begin with.

What I’ve been thinking about more recently – partly by accident – has been degamifying our games. This started partly with moving a pinball machine. It’s an older model, so rather than it not working at all when one of the internal wires was unhooked, it just didn’t score points when it was supposed to. So here I still had a full-size pinball machine where the ball would knock around, lights would trigger and the bells would chime, and I could still try to perform ball control techniques with the flippers. However it wasn’t running the reel. I wasn’t building up any score in the process. Yet it was still compelling enough to play.

If we look at other games, there are all kinds of other examples. In Doom, Command & Conquer, or Descent growing up, I often played with all the cheats on. Frankly I had more fun running around with all the weapons against all the enemies, playing out scenarios in my mind, than I did from the challenge set before me of trying to prove I was good enough to make it to the next level, or to get whatever the reward was in the particular game.

If you look back far enough, so MechWarrior 2 for example, had Unlimited Ammo and Unlimited Health in the menu. In the option screen! I mean, sure, they didn’t let you progress if you were using them, but just the fact that you could just turn those on if you wanted to play the game that way was a big deal, and that’s how I preferred to play it. It wasn’t just that I was a kid, it was also that what I liked most about the game wasn’t that I could overcome the challenge of defeating something within a certain number of lives or in a certain amount of time, but simply in the way that the mech moved, in the way I got a sense of its heft in the way that it bounced, the way it eases with significant momentum into its turns, the way weapons, mech customizations, battle formations, helicopter blasting and city crushing – that was what engaged me with the game. Not a challenge from the game’s designers.

There are whole categories of games that this relates to. Most of the things made or led by Will Wright, for example. If you’ve ever played SimCity, or The Sims, maybe you played it right. By that I mean you didn’t use the cheats. However a lot of us, certainly my peers and I, whenever we played those games we used all the cheat codes to get access to a whole bunch of money, or a whole bunch of items, or a whole bunch of special things immediately. We didn’t care about trying to jump through the right hoops to earn something from it, we just wanted a big set of toys in front of us to play with. To us what was interesting was how the pieces all fit together and what was possible in the game.

I think the reason why something like the Konami code (originally used in the console version of Gradius but best known for its use in Contra to get players a ton of lives) became so famous for a whole generation of players is because that’s what made the games really enjoyable. This is especially true for co-op. We didn’t really care about getting better at the game for a sense of mastery. We liked running through the jungle shooting machine guns at aliens. Having 30 lives helped us do that. Having all the powerups in the Gradius ship helps us enjoy that kind of experience, without the pressure of worrying whether we’re not good enough due to not being able to commit the time necessary to playing the game well.

This is such an easy thing to do! Yet increasingly it’s not seen in games anymore. Achievements, which are literally gamification of our games, are plugged in to say if you do something in under 30 seconds you’ll get a special achievement or whatnot. They add an unneccessary incentive to certain play objectives, and they’ve gotten in the way of old fashioned cheat codes. You’d of course just type in a series of keys, a sequence of key presses, or commands on the controller to get special modes, special abilities, and so on. Anymore those things are often not a part of games, perhaps in part because they’d devalue the achievements and trophies, they’d give you a way to practice sections ahead of time and get in the way of those.

I’ve heard that on XBox 360 and PS3 achievements may even be required. That may be forcing out the kinds of gameplay that could easily give us cheat codes as a way to degamify them. That vacuum creates another one of the advantages that we can still potentially enjoy in the videogames that we play on the web, on mobile, or on PC, including the hobby and student games we develop for free on our own time for each other.

It’s tempting to set up some challenges, and to have so much pride as a designer in the challenges we’ve built and the scoring systems we’ve designed that we don’t want to just let people have it as a toy. But at the end of the day they’re going to be happier if you just let them “play with your game,” instead of forcing them to “play your game.”

I remember when I was in high school GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64 was really popular at the time. It was really, really hard to unlock some of the game’s earned cheats – to get the All Guns Mode, Slo-Motion Mode, Big Head Mode, Paintball Mode, Invulnerability Mode – some were easy to get, but others were incredibly difficult to access. That especially goes for unlocking some of the last levels, including one of the multiplayer maps. Yet most of my friends preferred playing the game with some of those cheats on. They didn’t necessarily want to put in the time to get enough practice at the game to earn that stuff, they just wanted to play it with the cheats. So, after I got very good at GoldenEye, I had about 13 friends lend me their cartridges to help unluck the cheat codes before returning their games. I was happy to do it. I like the game, I liked helping out my friends, and it only took a few days each to do. However the game out of the box could have come with those modes available to the player to let them get more from their experience. For many of them using cheats was the only way they got to see cool areas in the later levels, or play multiplayer rounds in the ways that they wanted to play. For single player the didn’t much care about being good enough, they just wanted to run around invulnerable while firing off dual wielded grenade launchers in slow motion. That is what gave them enjoyment from it.

If you’re going to build all the assets for your universe anyway: yes, it might be fiction breaking. Yes, it’s not going to challenge the player. But not everyone’s engagement comes from challenge.

This also has a little bit to do as well with the Notgames movement. That’s something that started with Tale of Tales, and at least I first heard them announce it at the Art History of Games in Atlanta back in early 2010. That was all about “games” that focus on atmosphere – maybe not even games, just software using game-like technology. Their deal was to explore removing game conventions altogether. I’m not even going that extreme though. What they’re talking about in many cases are set pieces you can explore. This degamification idea on the other hand is about taking something that otherwise is a completly conventional game, and just asking what happens when you strip away the points, when you disable the score, when you disable limited lives, when you disable ammo counts, and just let the player do what they want with it.

That doesn’t take much programming to do. And it might be what your player wants.

So I’m just throwing out there as a request. Experiment with this idea when you’re working with your games. I think this will help you focus on making a core mechanic that is enjoyable on its own merit.

I remember back when Mario 64 came out, a lot of people just liked running around as Mario. It just felt good the way he ran, jumped, moved, even the way the camera swiveled when it did. Those are aspects of videogames that, as I’ve called attention to before, Steve Swink’s book Game Feel focuses on.

What I’m suggesting is that one way to really draw attention to that side of play in your own game is to try saying: if I turn off the timers, the life counters, the ammo limits, is it still any fun to play? Or is the only fun that I’ve made something which was hard to do just to prove to myself that I can do it?

Try degamifying your game. If not only for your end user, at least for you own internal design purposes as another way to look at the content you’re developing.

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