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Forget ‘Addictive.’ Give Me a Game That Only Lasts 3 Hours

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Most iPhone games are designed to keep you hooked. Rymdkapsel is not that game. (Image courtesy Martin Jonasso …

By Ryan Rigney, Wired: Game|Life

Whether it’s been Doodle Jump, Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga, most popular iPhone and Android games have been designed to get you hooked, and keep you as long as possible.

And yet rymdkapsel, the hottest and most interesting new strategy game for iOS, Android and PlayStation Vita, is not interested in long-term appeal. It costs $3.99 and you’ll be done with it in about three hours. This is a game that wants you to spend a few hours figuring out its system, then put it down and do something else. There’s something refreshing about that.

Rymdkapsel (it means “space capsule” in Swedish) has an obvious Tetris influence that goes beyond the tetronimo pieces you’ll build your space station out of. Pieces are delivered in a random order, and there’s a preview box in the corner that lets you see which piece will arrive next, just like in newer versions of the classic puzzle game.

Also just like in Tetris: Fitting one of rymdkapsel‘s L-blocks perfectly into a wedge created by a T-block is instinctively pleasing. Some psychologists have identified this phenomenon as fitting with the Zeigarnik Effect.

But while Tetris is famous for its infinite replayability, rymdkapselonly wants players to get good enough to reach three goals, each of which involves surviving against increasingly deadly waves of alien invaders and collecting data from four towers on the map. You don’t have to do all three in one go, but if you get really good at the game, you very may well be able to.

Reaching all three goals means you “beat” the game, and at that point you can probably just quit playing. The game even goes so far as to throw up a “The End” screen.

“This is just the size [it] ended up being,” rymdkapsel creator Martin Jonasson told WIRED in an email. “I’ve agonized quite a bit over it being too small, but there’s a few hours of good playtime in there so I feel I can stand by it.”

This is particularly unusual for a real-time strategy game, a genre known for lengthy campaigns and multiplayer modes with seemingly endless depth. Even budget-priced strategy titles on mobile marketplaces have continued this trend.

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What do you mean “game over?!” What am I supposed to do now, read a book? (Image courtesy Martin Jonasson)

Many mobile game developers are explicitly making it their goal to keep players engaged with their games for as long as possible. At a recent event in San Francisco, DeNA West CEO Clive Downie bragged that his company has figured out how to keep people playing a free-to-play card game based on the Transformers franchise for an average of 70 minutes a day.

The motivation for this is, of course, financial. Game designers have learned that the more time players give to games, the more likely they are to spend money on in-game items or boosts. Free-to-play game designer Will Luton has even gone so far as to say that “you really want players to play over multiple session for months, if not years.”

Earlier this week, a writer for Business Insider with an apparently devastating addiction to Candy Crush Saga revealed a cheat that allows players to get infinite lives without paying a dime.

That’s very bad news for Candy Crush maker King.com, whose entire financial strategy is based on making Candy Crush difficult, so players take a long time to beat levels and feel more motivated to spend cash for in-game boosts.

This is the same reason that the maker of the disappointing mobile remake Contra: Evolution has gotten rid of the series’ famous extra lives cheat code and replaced it with real-money in-app-purchases as expensive as $20. When game makers profit by keeping players engaged for as long as possible, cheat codes and even games that can be completed in an reasonable time frame become bad for business.

When measuring the value of a game, people often tend to consider how long it keeps them hooked. “Addictive” becomes a substitute word for “good,” and non-addictive games get labeled “disposable.”

I would say that rymdkapsel is anything but disposable. When you build your space station and think about how to best organize your supply lines, you’re being encouraged to think strategically about optimal use of time and space, and you’re learning a few lessons about resource management.

Similarly, whenever alien hordes start swooping in and attacking your base, your have to decide whether to embark on a full retreat to battle stations, or take a risk and try to squeeze in some extra supplies. The game punishes the greedy, and rewards the prudent. If you’re attentive, you’ll notice that there’s actually a happy medium between the two: optimal efficiency.

It’s far too short to be called “addictive,” but there’s value to be taken from a few hours with rymdkapsel. Play it, love it, then go do something constructive with all that free time you have.

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