Monday, 3 October 2011

On Motivation

This week I’ve been sinking a lot of time into two games, neither of which are terribly new, but both are rated very highly. I’m new to both of them, although one of them is a Total War game, so I’m hardly new to the franchise. The other is a browser-based, story-heavy RPG set in ‘Fallen London’ – a gothic, alternative-history, Victorian-era London that has been dragged below the earth by bats – called Echo Bazaar. It’s as weird and awesome as it sounds.

These games have almost nothing in common, apart from the fact that I am addicted to both. In fact I’m writing this in-between doing action in Echo Bazaar. Echo Bazaar has this rather annoying mechanic that means you only have a certain number of actions you can do per day and only a certain number of those actions you can do at one go. You begin the day with ten actions, and have another 30 waiting to be used. You get a new one every seven minutes up to a limit of ten. In those seven minutes, I usually tend to busy myself doing other stuff, or staring at the count-down clock, waiting for more actions. This means that I get a little bit of time to sit and wonder ‘why is this so appealing, and why am I willing to waste so much time for what amounts to a very small amount of gameplay?’

Likewise, in Medieval Total War 2, the other game I’ve been playing this week, you get a fair amount of time between turn to twiddle your thumbs. While watching the computer play every other faction apart from my own, I tend to wonder why England’s conquest of the entire western world is so damn important that I’m inside making it happen while the hottest week of the summer is busy happening outside (yes, at the end of September).

I’m going to university tomorrow, so I’ve also been busy preparing everything for that. True to form, I’ve left all the important stuff until the very end, so I’ve been fairly busy. While waiting on hold to various banks, I’ve wondered to myself why I always seem to leave things until the last minute before doing them. It’s not an affliction that is unique to me, by any stretch, but it’s incredible that I could have easily done all of this literally months ago, but didn’t. In fact I’ve been seriously lacking any motivation all summer. Days on end with nothing to do haven’t really given me the will to do anything. Aside the occasional moment of creative energy, I’ve really been lacking in any desire to do anything.

All of this has leads me to ponder on the nature of inspiration and motivation. Why do I want to desperately to conquer the Holy Land for Christendom? Why do I want to stake my soul on a card game for the chance of wining my heart’s desires (in Echo Bazaar)? Why do I leave it until the last minute to sort important things out? Why do I waste time when I could be doing much more interesting things?

You might remember that a couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about some cooking I’ve been doing recently. I think the reason cooking appeals to me has a lot to do with the answers to the above questions. The reason I really like cooking is that feedback is instantaneous. You make something, it smells good, it tastes good, you’re satisfied. You get a very simple payoff for the effort of the cooking – you get to eat it. I have the inspiration and the motivation to cook because I know what the outcome is and I know when it will come.

But there’s something more than that; I don’t just enjoy cooking because I get to eat what I cook. I am always striving to make better and more interesting food. I make something and instantly critique it, not because I’m not satisfied with the taste, I almost always am, but because I want to better myself. I want to make meals that taste better because I see it as a challenge.

These two things are a large part of what motivates me to do things and inspires me to do them well. The outcomes of an action or the deadline for an action to be completed are very obvious motivators. If you can see a tangible result from your work, it’s a lot easier to get off your backside and do it, likewise if you have to do something by a certain time, you tend to do it.

The desire to do whatever it is I’m doing well is something that really drives me. In part it’s about being better than other people, but largely it’s about being bettering myself. It’s a challenge that I rise to.

This is how games like Echo Bazaar and the Total War games pull you in. Echo Bazaar is based around numbers. Everything you do increases or decreases your stats for certain qualities or affliction which have an impact on what happens to your character and what options you have open to you. It’s pretty standard RPG stuff. The reason I keep playing it is that I want to keep pumping up my stats and so unlocking more and more of the game’s content. The game is heavily story-based, and your stats dramatically affect the way the story goes, so it’s not just increasing stats for the sake of it.

The Total War games use missions with a time limit and overall victory conditions to drive your conquests, and the feedback for success is obvious, both in easily available graphs and the map showing the extent of your conquests to date to give you more and more things to strive against. Game play might only be a combination of moving little men around a map and town planning, but it’s compelling because there is a purpose and a goal to it. I want to play because I want keep succeeding according to the game’s definition of success.

A lot of games are built on this premise. I joke with a friend (who is probably reading this) who plays Football Manager that he is basically just playing with spreadsheets, but the same thing applies to FM. You keep playing it because you want to get Worcester City playing in the Champion’s league, no matter how meaningless that is. All RPGs work on this premise – you play in order to keep pumping those numbers up. You want to get a level 80 character, so you’re willing to grind for hours to get there.

Of course sometimes games lose touch with what exactly the end goal is. I ended up quitting playing Mass Effect and Fallout 3 because there was too much grinding and doing what seemed like very pointless tasks without a tangible result. I wasn’t getting any reward for my effort, or even any success in the broader sense of the game, so couldn’t see the point of doing it anymore.

Another similar way in which this is expressed in gaming is scoring. Something as simple as Tetris is addictive because you have a high score to beat. Challenge mode in Batman Arkham Asylum gave you a very simple way of measuring yourself against both yourself and others. The combat and the stealth mode were both wonderfully put together, but that’s no reason to keep playing the same level again and again. The only reason do to that is to try to beat the score you posted before.

The most interesting thing about this, however, is the way it works in reverse. In Echo Bazaar today (while I’ve been writing this post) I got a random ‘Opportunity’ that dramatically increased one of my stat, increasing it to the point where I could continue on the next step of the storyline that I’d just begun. Rather than feel happy that I’d been able to advance without the effort of building up this stat, I felt robbed. I had been allowed to advance without taking the effort and time to get there and it felt wrong. It’s not like it takes any skill to play the game – it’s all dictated by chance – but part of the reason why you become invested in the game is because it takes time to achieve anything. It felt wrong that I hadn’t had to put that time in, which is very strange.

The reason for that feeling is that success is not necessarily all that fulfilling in and of itself. Success unearned or underserved or even unworked-for is somewhat hollow. A well designed game makes you work for your success, so it feels good when you make progress, without allowing you to lose sight of that progression. That is why we keep returning to some games when we’ve already played through the content.

This is true in games because it is true in real life. I enjoy eating, but I appreciate a meal more if I’ve prepared it. Creating something will almost always be more satisfying that experiencing someone else’s creations. It’s not even limited to creativity; simply accomplishing something is more rewarding that having someone do it for you, certainly in my experience. The more challenging that accomplishment, the greater the sense of achievement. Of course, the more detached that sense of achievement is from actually doing the thing, the harder it is to find motivation; as was the case with my long, lazy summer with no lengthy spell of inspiration.

That summer has now come to an end and I’m off to uni next week, so I apologise if my blog post is late or non-existent next week, I will probably be drunk.