Here’s a fun question I asked myself a lot back in the day: Why, exactly, did leveling take so long in Final Fantasy XI?
The obvious mechanical answer doesn’t require a whole heck of a lot of thought. Leveling takes a while because the game borrows the experience mechanics of games like Final Fantasy Tactics wherein your experience rewards are a fixed value based on a comparison between your level and the target, but it also has the ascending experience requirements of many other titles. In short, you’re never getting more than 200 experience for a kill, almost certainly far less while solo, and yet your requirements for the next level keep going up as you level.
But it did take a while for me to figure out the larger picture of why this was the case because the designers didn’t make the system work like this accidentally. It wasn’t to make the higher end more elite or possessed of a higher skill threshold, no; it was because this change meant that it would take a lot more time as the gaps between levels stretched out longer and longer. And that kept me subscribed longer, and that was what mattered.
If you ever think that business models are entirely separate from gameplay decisions, try to play a classic arcade game. I can very distinctly remember a birthday party for a friend in middle school in which four of us stood to play The Simpsons Arcade Game at one of those family amusement centers that seemed be cropping up everywhere at the time. Our hosts had given us some absurdly large amount of tokens to play on the ticket-awarding minigames or, as we wound up spending them, on the arcade game.
We beat the game. But we had each started with something like $20 worth of tokens, and ended with… far fewer, if any. This was not accidental. Old arcade games were designed to kill you with vigor and intensity to encourage you to keep spending money, to drain your quarters steadily even while remaining technically fair to play.
That’s not to say these games were entirely bad. The Simpsons Arcade Game is a fun game; ditto Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which sucked down so many of my quarters in various locales even as I don’t think I ever saw past the third level in an arcade. It’s just to say that these games were also designed to make money, and they made money by leaving you walking away with a sense of “next time, I’ll come back with more money and then I’ll win.”
MMOs aren’t an exception. They just have never involved popping quarters in a slot – at least not literally.
We all know that Ultima Online used a subscription fee when it launched, and that was almost entirely down to what it cost to keep the servers up and running and developers working on the game as the team tried to figure out what they had actually made. The game had some timesinks, but some of them came down to emergent features of design that developers couldn’t or didn’t foresee being a thing. That’s not to let it off the hook for the tedium of skill driving being tedious or anything; it’s just to say that this probably wasn’t done with an eye toward subscription times.
But it cannot have escaped anyone’s notice pretty quickly that making things take longer meant that you were subscribed longer. Heck, if you want to be very cheeky you can even make progress backslide to force even more time out of players. You died in EverQuest? Well, not only is your corpse and all your stuff now in a tricky place to retrieve, but you also lose some of your experience, maybe even levels. That’s right, you didn’t just lose the time spent retrieving your stuff; you’re also losing the time spent getting up to a level which might have enabled you to actually go back and get your stuff in the first place!!
Herein we see the nature of timesinks as a gameplay mechanism. You can call it “designed downtime” if you so want, but the reality is that we’re talking about systems meant to just take all the time you pump into them and then ask for more. Making you wait for a boat to arrive, then wait for the boat ride, then walk across three zones, then sit there and look for a party, then slowly kill things just to level.
Again, one of the big innovations of World of Warcraft and the reason that the game basically exploded in popularity out of the gate was removing a lot of old timesinks from games like EverQuest. No more grouping up to level! Faster gameplay! Lighter penalties for death! Quest-focused gameplay! Wham and bam! We’re doing stuff without just twaddling about; the gameplay isn’t about tediously scouring at scraps!
(My editor insists on pointing out here that many of these accessibility features already existed in MMOs between EverQuest and WoW, that WoW merely brought them to the mass market. For the record, I personally consider this to be part of a larger sequence of blows to the status quo that also included games like City of Heroes and Guild Wars as signs that the old way of doing things with timesink-heavy gameplay was really well and truly past its sell-by date. An article for another time.)
What’s important here is to understand that timesinks served a purpose. They made the game slower to make the game slower. The goal wasn’t immersion, or making a better game, or anything beyond ensuring that you spent more time playing the game and thus subscribing.
Therefore, timesinks are bad and anything that feels like a timesink must be bad and should be removed. Problems solved! Get rid of the bad things, and games will be good!
Oh, wait, no, there’s a different problem. Because it turns out that timesinks aren’t actually distinct from just… things taking time.
The problem with having a reductive view of everything as either “this is good and we need more of it” or “this is bad and remove all of it” is something alluded to when talking about arcade games above. See, yes, it’s inevitable that a lot of these games involved yanking quarters from your pockets as quickly as possible and thus extending the length of the game with punishing challenge. That had an influence. But there are also a lot of arcade games that are glorious fun not just in spite of that fact but because of it. Going in with limited lives immediately turns these experiences into finely tuned challenges that play fair and force you to really think about what you’re doing.
It’s pretty unambiguous that Brad McQuaid’s “designed downtime” is kind of a bad thing. It’s literally time spent doing nothing because that makes it take longer for you to accomplish anything. That doesn’t mean that nothing good comes out of it, nor does it mean that you can’t find a certain degree of fun in the simple fact that your time is being sunk into something.
Past a certain point, games are timesinks. The real question is how that time is being spent, and why it’s being asked for in the first place. What experiences are you getting out of this? How is this facilitating your enjoyment?
My personal feeling is that the real dividing line between timesinks and worthwhile design is how much of your time is being spent doing something interesting compared to arbitrary chores. There are a ton of timesinks in WoW Classic that slowly got removed from the game over the years, things that no longer exist in the live game to their credit. (The live version of the game does several things worse, but how it spends your time isn’t one of them.) Even the Classic version of the game, though, lacks a lot of the timesinks that were present in FFXI at the time.
Playing modern FFXI allows you to get a lot more experience than 200 per kill, along with no longer having to sit around and wait for a party. Travel is far faster. You can find other ways to gain experience. In every way, timesinks have been removed. And yet the result is that when I log into the game, I spend more time just doing things, exploring storylines, going through dungeons that previously weren’t worth exploring, even just leveling for the heck of it.
It turns out that when you remove the timesinks from a fun game, you’re still left with a fun game. So if the game stops being fun for whatever reason… well, the time spent flailing about isn’t the determining factor.