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What Games Are: Real-Money Gaming Is Really Boring

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

It seems that the United States may be becoming more open to the idea of real-money online gaming. Real-money gaming has been very successful in certain areas, and among investors it tends to be contrasted against trends like social games in very positive terms. The average lifetime value of a real-money player is generally thought to be far higher than a social gamer, for example, and the expected ARPUs can get pretty crazy. The smell of cha-ching is in the air.

In particular, the U.S. has long been considered a kind of El Dorado because of its size and potential. A variety of companies used to providing gambling in the UK, Europe and Asia, as well as domestic suppliers in the physical casino business and social game companies like Zynga are hovering. Legislation is going through the warren-like process of being passed in several states and some people are forecasting that real-money will be the next big thing for the games industry. And yet, for me at least, the news that real-money online gaming might come to downtown Des Moines, Columbus or Omaha is totally uninteresting. Like, so what?

Professionally speaking, the world of casino, slot, bingo and poker is just as valid as any other sector of the gaming universe. I know several people who work within that sector, and have consulted on a couple of projects over the years – which were as much an education for me as for them. They are busy solving problems of player satisfaction, retention and technical issues just like anyone else, and they take pride in their work.

Several parts of the online gambling universe host cultures of players who behave just like any other gamer. The sector is no more dark or seedy than any other kind of game, and it has its fans and whales just as every other kind does. There are debates within its various communities over who are the best providers, and as a whole the sector has its hardcore genres (sports betting, poker, etc.) and its more casual (bingo, slots) counterparts, too. Even the whole addiction thing is largely handled with the same levels of responsibility as any social game, massive multiplayer game or other provider.

And yet, meh. It’s hard to want to write about it.

My reason is that, although it may have an active subculture all its own much like sports, online gambling is probably the least innovative sector of the games industry. It’s always the same few games repackaged endlessly and the movements within that space tend to be very narrow. Unlike, say, indie games where cool weird stuff like Space Team bubbles up on a regular basis to teach us all the meaning of play all over again, there’s really very little to say when all you have is poker, slots, bingo and so on.

That’s why online gambling remains largely a margin- and customer-acquisition business, and why it rarely generates any real enthusiasm among the gaming press. Games are an entertainment business like TV where the fiction and the mechanic are just as important as one another, but online gambling comes across as about as genuinely exciting as watching QVC. They are so un-innovative largely because of the philosophy that drives them.

I don’t just mean a focus on the bottom line. I mean that gambling companies are behaviorist. They think of games in terms of predictable outcomes and measured rewards, guided user experiences and some degree of manipulation.

Behaviorist game design is very popular among investors these days. The prospect of being able to measure everything is perceived to reduce the guesswork of what is fun, but – as I wrote previously – it doesn’t really. Instead, metrics tend to be good at helping to maximize the effectiveness of a game dynamic which is already fun, but is no good for invention. Successful game dynamics always come from that weird creative place that method can’t quite access, and – not really trusting in that sort of thinking - that’s why gambling companies tend to stick to what they know.

So they are timid, and timidity encourages incrementalism like “inventing” a variant on slots, or a slightly turned-around version of bingo. Sure, fine, but that makes for some incredibly dull product. Bingo with extra numbers and a daily reward schedule may be exciting within certain frames of reference. But outside those walls it’s all very whatevs and the most important consequence of that is that the race to win online gambling is only about marketing spend and distribution. As a sector it’s fundamentally unlikely to lead to a Minecraft equivalent, or even a FarmVille equivalent.

So I find it boring because it feels like it’s over already. Online gambling is already clogged with undifferentiated products competing over small incremental differences, so – if/when the laws do pass in various states – the gold rush will quickly go to whoever can afford to compete. It’s just not the sort of thing that sparks marketing stories and causes revolutions. It’s just too small-minded.

That’s why I’d rather check out The Room because it seems kooky and weird, or play Eufloria. These are games that carry the potential of a marketing story, of gathering attention and excitement based on what they are and what they represent. A game like Minecraft is the sort of thing that spawns a revolution because it becomes a passionate game that folks talk about.

Exciting games marry both creative and business requirements in novel ways. Whether it’s an app, an online game like Spry Fox’s Leap Day or an old-school Steam game, genuine interest comes from taking big risks over little ones. In all philosophies there are conservative game makers who tend to try and increment their way to success (and largely fail to do so), but behaviorists are more conservative than most. That’s why they got dull and the San Francisco revolution came to an apathetic halt a while ago.

I’m still waiting to hear the story about a gambling company that invented a whole new game. Not some adaptation of an existing game, some recasting or re-theming of stuff we already know, but something brand-spanking new. Whether your business is in selling single-shot games, virtual goods or cash payouts, the demand to invent and be weird is one that never goes away because the future of games is all about surprise. So if you want to get me excited, don’t just show me something that’s 1 percent different from everything I’ve seen before.

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