TIME technology

3 Ways Video Game Companies Are Getting Your Kids Hooked

A seven year old boy plays with a Microsoft Xbox 360 on March 22, 2014 in Göttingen, Germany.
A seven year old boy plays with a Microsoft Xbox 360 on March 22, 2014 in Göttingen, Germany. Swen Pförtner—picture-alliance/DPA/AP

Jaden Darnell, 10, of Southbridge, Mass., plays video games on an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 3 and an iPhone. At times, he says, it can be hard to tear himself away from the action, especially when he’s playing NBA General Manager on his phone. Whether it’s because he wants to get to another level or earn more points, “sometimes, I just don’t want to stop,” says Jaden.

Long gone are the days when playing video games was synonymous with gathering around a console in the family room. According to the NPD Group, a market research firm, kids ages 2 to 17 are shifting more and more of their gaming to mobile devices. Many start playing games on phones and tablets when they are toddlers, and by the time they are in their teens, they are on average spending seven hours a week playing mobile games.

Mobile game designers are playing an active role in making this happen. Many mobile games are free or nearly free to download, but the game companies rack up revenues by charging users for in-game enhancements such as “boosters” that make winning easier or “extra lives” that let you stay in the game. In this model, the potential revenue from a user is strongly correlated with the total time they spend playing the game. Games as a result are being designed with an emphasis on keeping users hooked — and wanting more.

What are some of the common tactics being used by game designers?

1) Positive reinforcement makes people play longer.

Take one popular game, Peggle. It blasts a rousing, operatic rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” every time you succeed at beating a level. “This gives us a strong sense of agency, like what we’re doing has made a difference,” explains Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Since Peggle is a game that mostly depends on luck, “it’s an example of insanely over-the-top celebratory feedback for fairly minor achievement,” says Koster. “But it gives you this amazing amount of celebration, and as a result, you feel awesome.” And you tend to stay with the game longer.

2) People like to finish what they started.

Extended play alone doesn’t automatically motivate users to pay for the experience. Game makers know that once players have put in the time and effort to achieve a certain goal, they don’t like to give up. That’s why many games start out easy, then suddenly become more challenging. At that point, the player may be offered a resource that makes it easier to progress to the next level. “The game creates a problem that it offers to solve for you in exchange for cash,” explains Ian Bogost, a video game designer, critic, and professor of interactive computing at Georgia Institute of Technology.

3) Sometimes the game is smarter than the player.

The more we play, the better game makers get at roping us in. Mobile games by their very nature are played on devices that are more often than not connected to the Internet. This enables developers to keep tabs on players’ choices in order to find out what keeps people plugged in and what makes them most likely to buy things. “It’s very easy for us to get data on every user and build a statistical picture of what is working,” says Koster.

While adults may be aware of these tactics, some people worry about how the experience of playing this type of games impacts kids. “They’re not old enough to understand that the free part is just a come-on and that the game is in fact rigged to get them to spend money,” says Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Golin believes that games designed for kids under 13 should not have in-app purchases. “You should pay one price for the game, and it should not try to manipulate you into spending more and more,” he says.

Currently, age rating systems do not take into consideration whether a game pushes in-app purchases. This means that even Candy Crush, the famously addictive game that grossed more than a billion dollars in 2013, receives the most inclusive ratings: Ages 4+ in the iTunes store and Everyone in the Google Play store. Golin thinks this is misleading. “If it is designed to get more money out of you, that should be factored into the rating, just like if it has violent or sexualized content,” he says.

Golin also says that surveillance of kids should not be allowed. “[Developers] should not be collecting information about how to make them more vulnerable, more frustrated,” he says. “It’s outrageous that that’s occurring with games kids are playing.” That’s something to think about the next time the game-playing child in your life asks for your credit card.

 

TIME Video Games

Bethesda’s BattleCry Sounds a Little like an MOBA, but It’s Not

Bethesda would like you to know it’s going to release a free-to-play online game sporting 32-player battles somewhere down the road, and that it’ll be showing it off at E3 in a few weeks. No, not Robotech: Battlecry, or Warlords Battlecry, just BattleCry, capital C, and no, it’s no relation to The Elder Scrolls: Battlespire.

It takes its name from its eponymous design studio, launched in 2012 under owner ZeniMax Media’s wing and helmed by a ex-Bioware-ite Rich Vogel (who’s also worked on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, so he’s been around the MMO block).

Bethesda calls BattleCry a “multiplayer action combat game,” which you’ll note stands for MACG, not MOBA. It’s intended to be a team-based combat game in an alternate history version of the early 20th century without guns (or gunpowder, anyway) designed by Viktor Antonov (the guy behind Dishonored, and before that, the art director for Half-Life 2). Instead of messy world wars, you settle your grudges in “warzones” led by teams of warriors trained for the occasion (in other words, Hugo meets The Hunger Games).

That’s the official revelation trailer above, and here’s Bethesda on the gameplay:

Choose your faction and progress your warrior through the ranks. Each rank unlocks new abilities and effects allowing deep strategic builds for your warrior on every level. Risk life and limb as the powerful Royal Marines or the fearless Cossacks in imaginative WarZones each designed to combine positioning, spacing and verticality to redefine your core combat experience. Fight with transformative melee and ranged weapons that harness iron and energy and eviscerate your opponents with swords that transform into shields, bows that can punch an arrow straight through an armored skull or electrocute your foes with high powered blades crackling with electro-static energy.

TIME Reviews

Watch Dogs Review: City of Interest

Watch Dogs was supposed to be this grand genre-bending hacking game, but you'll do almost nothing of the sort. And that's a good thing, though what you do instead -- mostly shooting, sneaking and speeding around a fantasy version of Chicago -- dithers between inspired and imitative.

There’s the node I’m looking for. Swivel. The smartphone-controlled security camera sights my target across the industrial yard, but can’t quite home in. That target — a hackable security access panel — lies behind corrugated steel sprayed in graffiti, obstructing my view by inches. I’m stuck. But then I notice a security guard with a portable camera patrolling nearby. Lucky!

I aim, tap a button and leap through space, soaring over rusted containers, witchgrass, hunks of concrete, wood-slat pallets, through thrumming rain, nesting at last in the guard’s camera and pivoting to my new vantage — his vantage. He turns and walks a few steps in the direction I need him to. There we go. Swivel. The panel’s now an arm’s length away. Jackpot.

That’s Watch Dogs when it’s in the zone, when I was in the zone playing it, and where Ubisoft’s action-stealth game — starring you as the sort of MacGyver-ish antihero you’d get if you merged Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson’s characters in Person of Interest — starts to feel like it’s firing on balletic cyber-cylinders, delivering on its promise to make me the World’s Coolest Hacker. It does that for maybe two-thirds of its five-act story. And as the song goes, two out of three ain’t bad.

But then it heads in the other direction, the one you see overambitious games sometimes go, backpedaling on its promises and permutations, under-delivering on a story that sparks and fizzles toward its sequel-ready ending, and worse, sacrificing all those tactical gains to the gods of gameplay clichés. Hoo-boy, that ending. If you’re observant, you’ll see it coming a mile away, and I mean that both figuratively and literally.

I don’t want to sound too glum a note, because some of the online stuff’s a hoot, and Ubisoft’s world-building is second to none at a time when the bar’s been set pretty high. So let’s talk about the world-building.

Network-connected cameras glass every inch of this paranoid, scrupulously designed rendition of Chicago: the flat, skyscraper-lined lakeshore metropolis you know, as well as the one you don’t — the one surrounded by forests, cliffs, waterfalls and antigovernment militias. Ubisoft’s imaginary Chicago is the Windy City by way of Portland or Seattle, all its flat suburban sprawl swapped for hilly timberland perimeter — less simulation than homage, and the studio’s way of ensuring its playground’s full of stuff to look at or do, whether you’re rubbernecking the Willis Tower or screwing around miles from downtown.

That includes the city’s cybernetic thoroughfares, every byway, building and mobile device slaved to a single operating system you can hack and manipulate in real time as your skills grow. Sure, the notion’s more the wishful thinking of a Franken-CEO built from the egos of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. But Watch Dogs isn’t concerned with being politically insightful, and the rare moments it tries feel more like anvils dropped on your head. We get that nothing’s impregnable, don’t we? That whatever we put in the cloud isn’t really secure? Turning control of your city’s infrastructure over to a monolithic operating system would be suicidal…or a necessary gameplay conceit, if you want to give players godlike powers without the pointy hat and staff.

Not that any of those powers resemble actual hacking. Whatever’s been made of Ubisoft working with security outfit Kaspersky to ensure the game’s story was plausible, hacking’s smoke and metaphor here. That’s not criticism. Real-world hacking — the sort companies like Sony, Facebook, Microsoft and most recently eBay have been subject to — is tedious and complex. It has no business being in an open-world action game. Hacks in Watch Dogs are like crossing the finish line without having to run the marathon. They’re just spells from a spell book.

Take hacking cameras, which you do by aiming and tapping a button. That’s all there is to it, which is so you can focus on what Watch Dogs is really about: sneaking around and spooking the bad guys. Cameras are insertion points for tactical tableaus, the contrivance being that you have to be able to see what you want to hack.

You’ll thus spend much of the game disembodied, hopping around the battlefield camera to camera like a cyber-poltergeist, triggering hazards or distractions — like cranking the volume in a guard’s headset to ear-splitting levels or pulling the virtual pin on someone’s belted grenade. It’s combat through a laboratory lens.

You can clear a battlefield without firing a shot, for instance, or prep a battlefield before initiating gunplay, or ignore the battlefield outright in some instances. What happens if you disrupt that guard? Distract another? Can you get two or three to walk under that droppable shipping container? Send the lot off to one side of the field so you can sneak down the other side? And failure’s never a penalty. It’s a reward, an opportunity to poke the beehive with a different stick. Battles — the ones that take place as walled-off tactical vignettes, anyway — are the best parts of Watch Dogs.

The hackable city-scape makes less of an impression. The idea here’s that you’re playing Grand Theft Auto, racing cars, trucks and motorbikes around the city, usually to get away from the cops or enemy fixers (the game’s slang for hackers), only you’re able to hack canal bridges, traffic lights, security gates, helicopters in pursuit, steam pipes, spike strips and “blockers” that erupt from the street like jail bars. It’s cool the first two or three times you confound a scrum of pursuers, but enemies in the game are dogged enough that hacks only slow them down a bit — even at lower notoriety levels, they’re incredibly hard to shake. And once you realize the A.I. can’t swim or do much over water, every chase becomes a beeline to the lake (someone forgot to give the police speedboats).

The rest feels pretty much like any other Ubisoft game, the world filled with optional activities — most of which you’ve seen before — when you’re not working through the story. The obligatory augmented reality and QR code games put in an appearance, the latter one of the Riddler’s line-of-sight matching puzzles lifted from the Batman Arkham series. There’s Assassin’s Creed‘s city tour mini-game as well as the same old towers you’ll have to breach to unlock regional content. You can follow side-investigations down their little rabbit holes, intercept convoys, thwart random crimes, infiltrate gang hideouts, play chess, and of course buy clothes and weapons and crafting supplies that’ll let you jury rig IEDs and grenades or scramble police scans.

But even there, the stuff that sounds cool is just technospeak for old school gameplay shenanigans. Take blackouts, which cut the power to parts of the city and give you a chance to get away from your opponents. Entire skyscrapers go dark when you do this, flickering to blackness for half a minute, which looks cool, but in the end it’s a getaway gimmick. You might as well be tossing a smoke pellet.

That leaves the game’s hybrid online modes, which let you invade other players’ game sessions and try to tail them for a period of time unobserved, or race against them, or play a timed game of hide-and-seek, or compete on teams to find a hidden object. You’ve seen most of that in games before, too, but it’s done unusually well and white-knuckled here, the game wisely forcing you to risk all or nothing: You either have online mode enabled, slowly accruing (or losing) notoriety points that unlock new skills while remaining vulnerable to invasion at any time, or you have it off, which zeroes out your notoriety point tally.

It’s just a shame that so much about Watch Dogs feels like Ubisoft playing catchup to Rockstar — like a cover band with one or two originals. City homage games might as well be their own genre now, but they’ll need more than car chases and gunplay and clothing stores and weapon shops and all their little lookalike diversions if we don’t want “open-world” to become another pejorative term we use to express our boredom with a genre, like “first-person shooter.”

3 out of 5

PlayStation 4

TIME Video Games

Valve’s Answer to Xbox and PlayStation Isn’t Happening This Year

Valve

Steam Machines get pushed back to 2015, and the controller takes the blame.

Valve has delayed its push into the game console business, saying the first Steam Machines won’t arrive until some time next year.

In a forum post spotted by Ars Technica, Valve’s Eric Hope explained that the company needs more time to complete its unique controller, which trades standard thumbsticks for touch sensitive pads. Valve is currently testing the controllers and gathering feedback, Hope wrote, but it’ll be a while before any improvements are in place. Although Valve had originally planned to ship Steam Machines and the controller in 2014, the company is realistically looking at a “release window of 2015,” Hope wrote.

“Obviously we’re just as eager as you are to get a Steam Machine in your hands,” he wrote. “But our number one priority is making sure that when you do, you’ll be getting the best gaming experience possible.”

Valve’s controller has already seen one big change since its announcement last fall: Instead of having a touch screen in-between the two touch pads, it’ll use a more typical a directional pad and four face buttons.

As announced in September, Steam Machines will be able to run games from Valve’s popular Steam PC gaming service, as long as they support Linux. For all other games, players can stream them from another PC elsewhere in the house.

TIME Video Games

Here’s How Much Time People Spend Playing Video Games

The good news is that we’ve finally gotten our priorities in order. According to Nielsen, the average U.S. gamer age 13 or older spent 6.3 hours a week playing video games during 2013. That’s up from 5.6 hours in 2012, which was up from 5.1 hours in 2011. If you like fun, we’re trending in the right direction.

As for which systems were used most often in 2013, seventh-generation consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) beat PCs by a percentage point – 34% to 33% – while mobile phones took a distant third at 10%. Tablets followed at 9%, dedicated gaming handhelds at 6%, eighth-gen consoles at 4% and “other” at 4%.

Also of note is that people who play games on consoles are starting to play games on their phones and tablets more, too. Half of Nielsen’s console respondents for the 2013 study said they also played games on mobile devices; that’s up from 46% in 2012 and 35% in 2011.

TIME Video Games

Here’s 6 Minutes of Conan O’Brien Wrecking Chicago in Watch Dogs

Watch Dogs is out next Tuesday for all the old and new-gen platforms (sans Wii U, which won’t arrive until late this year), and there’s no shortage of video footage on the interwebs if you want to see how its high fidelity rendering of Chicago looks, or how its hacking-angled gameplay works.

But if you just want a glimpse of what the game looks like when someone plays it willy-nilly — you know, the way the rest of us do — take six minutes and give Conan O’Brien’s latest Clueless Gamer segment a watch, wherein he plays the PlayStation 4 version of the game before we can.

There’s ColdPlay, Conan trying to make out with a lady on a boat, a FedEx commercial, a tree massacre, Conan’s crime-solving advice and a debate about the proper hand signs for sex.

TIME Video Games

In the Watch Dogs Launch Trailer, Chicago Looks Ginormous

Ubisoft's sandbox romp through a dystopian version of Chicago as a vengeful hacker able to manipulate the city's computer-hyperlinked surroundings on the fly arrives for consoles and PCs on May 27.

Watch Dogs (or WATCH_DOGS, if we must) is almost upon us. Ubisoft’s open-world hacking game staged in a near-future version of Chicago managed by a creepy-sounding citywide computer operating system and starring you as the brooding hero sounds suspiciously like a season of Person of Interest. That’s probably not a bad thing.

Nor is the official launch trailer hard to watch, though it cuts so quickly between scenes you’ll probably have to scan it more than once to catch everything.

Out of context press blurbs aside (why sully the presentation by aping another medium’s shenanigans?), the launch trailer offers nothing new gameplay-wise, but then it exists to get us revved up. And there’s reason to be: it’s the work of Ubisoft’s Montreal-based studio (Child of Light, Far Cry 3 and 4, all the Assassin’s Creeds), one of the highest esteemed development outfits in gaming.

Watch Dogs was due last year around the time Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One launched, but delayed until this spring to give the team time to give the game a final polish. Our review (minus multiplayer) should be live next Tuesday, the same day the game’s available in stores for PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and Windows platforms worldwide.

TIME Video Games

Samsung Reportedly Making Its Own Virtual Reality Headset

Samsung Electronics may reveal its 'gear glass' — a competitor to Google glasses.
Kim Hong-Ji—Reuters

The Samsung headset would join the race to mass produce virtual reality headsets and immerse millions of gamers in incredible worlds

Samsung is reportedly set to announce a virtual reality headset later this year that would compete with the forthcoming Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus.

The Korean consumer electronics giant has already developed early versions of the headset, which wraps around users’ faces, giving users peripheral and forward views, anonymous sources told Engadget. The virtual reality headset would be compatible with Android games.

The finished product is intended to target a lower price, undercutting potential competitors, and could be the first mass market virtual reality headset released. Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion earlier this year and Sony is working on its own Morpheus virtual reality headset, but those devices won’t become available for at least another year.

Samsung did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation..

[Engadget]

TIME Video Games

You Can Finally Play Minecraft on PS4, Xbox One and PS Vita in August

Mojang

Minecraft developer confirms release months for next-gen consoles and PS Vita, as well as new and upgrade pricing, and what you'll be able to transfer from one platform to another.

PlayStation 4 and Xbox One owners will finally be able to play console-tailored versions of the runaway-popular sandbox game Minecraft in just a few more months — before summer’s end, in fact.

Minecraft developer Mojang revealed this morning that versions of Minecraft for PS4, PS3, PS Vita and Xbox One, which it’s been prepping for some time, will all be available from their respective online stores in August. What’s more, the PS4 and Xbox One versions will arrive with “significantly bigger worlds and a greater draw distance” than the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.

If you want all the details broken down by platform, give Mojang’s post a look here, but in summary: the PS4 and Xbox One editions will include all the features found in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions and cost $20 each, or just $5 if you’re upgrading (Mojang’s giving everyone a one-year period, starting at the release date in August, to take advantage of the upgrade offer). PS3 and Xbox 360 owners will also be able to import worlds created on those platforms, but not vice versa. Cross-platform play will not be supported, and Mojang’s saying some (but not necessarily all) of any downloadable content purchased for the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions will be transferable, pending licensing decisions.

Vita owners who picked up the PS3 version of Minecraft will get it free, the PS3 + Vita Edition will run $20 and saves are transferable between the PS3 and Vita edition, so you can play on the PS3, then pick up and play on the go with the Vita if you so choose.

Minecraft across all platforms is the third-bestselling video game of all time (after Tetris and Wii Sports, but before Super Mario Bros., Mario Kart Wii and more recently, Grand Theft Auto V). The game was originally released in 2009, but as word spread and versions arrived for mobile platforms like iOS and Android, it’s gone on to become the most popular indie game ever released.

TIME Video Games

Steam In-Home Streaming Now Available, Lets You Play PC Games on Virtually Any Computer

Anyone with a Steam account can stream games from one PC to another running a completely different operating system, so long as it's on the same network.

Valve put its Steam In-Home Streaming program — a way to play Steam games between two computers on your home network — out for public beta just a few weeks ago, after running a private beta test for months.

Testing presumably went smoothly, because Valve’s announcing today that the feature is now available to anyone with a Steam account:

Players who have multiple computers at home can immediately take advantage of the new feature. When you login to Steam on two computers on the same network, they automatically connect, allowing you to remotely install, launch, and play games as though you were sitting at the remote PC.

The upsides of In-Home Streaming are really twofold: You can either stream content to something like your living room’s mongo-sized TV without dragging your PC around (or building a Steam Machine), or simply use a lower-end laptop running any number of operating systems, from Windows to OS X to SteamOS to Linux.

It’s also not a new concept: My colleague Jared Newman’s been streaming Steam games from his PC via Nvidia’s Shield for a while now. But Valve’s approach is more manifold, letting you mix and match existing or older devices without trading down to something the size of a handheld — a problem for PC games that don’t scale well on five-inch screens.

Valve’s put up an info page on the fledgling service here, with a handy info-graphic and step-by-step. Not that you really need the step-by-step. According to Valve, there’s just three: Log into Steam via Windows, log into another computer on the same network, then hit your library, select a game and fire away.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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