Awhile back I was working at a job that, in retrospect, made me very unhappy. Each day brought a new discomfort and the commute was kind of a pain. I would have to take the bus out to the end of the line each morning and then ride my bike an additional 15 minutes just to get there, all to do a job nobody particularly thought I was good at. Needless to say, mornings were not my favorite time of day.
At one point, however, I decided to take my 20 minute bus ride and turn it into a little “me” time each day. I accomplished this by dragging my 3DS along with me and trying to play a game that would relax me. I chose games that I could pick up or leave at any time but also had clear stopping points. The Phoenix Wright series was my go-to for awhile, until I got through them all. My other option was actually put onto my machine for me by Nintendo. Now, people don’t usually like these forced suggestions, be they games or music or what-have-you, but I’m actually not offended by something I can easily delete. The game was Pokemon Picross, and it saved my sanity a number of times.
For those not familiar, Picross is a puzzle game in which you follow the numbers on each side of a grid to determine which boxes you should select. The end result, if done correctly, is a picture. In this particular game, the pictures were Pokemon, and they could use special “powers” to aid in solving more difficult puzzles. Another unique feature of the Pokemon variant of Picross is the implementation of limitations. You can only mark a certain number of squares before your stylus needs to be “recharged.”
This can be circumvented, however. You see, Pokemon Picross is a Freemium game – it is free-to-play, but you can pay to add more features. In Pokemon Picross’ case, you can pay to bring up to five Pokemon with you, to purchase Pictrites, specialty game currency, to unlock new levels without finishing the last one, and to expand and ultimately render infinite the charge of your stylus.
I played for a few weeks, just content to keep moving at a slow pace. I would get through one or two puzzles before running out of energy, but that was fine as I would often be near my stop anyway, and by the time I was done with work I had a full charge again. As I continued, however, I also continued to gather Pictrites, and was able to upgrade things on my own. Eventually, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to get the amount necessary to unlock the time limit. So I made it so I could play for an unlimited amount of time, and even made it so that I could get Pictrites whenever I wanted. Suddenly there were no restrictions… And nothing to work towards.
I hadn’t noticed it but part of my soothing routine was that I was working towards something. I could only put a little time into it, but I plodded along on my own. By taking away those restrictions, I started feeling like I was wasting my time. I could effectively play whenever I wanted, so why bother on the bus? It was strange, but what had given me the most incentive to play was exactly what made the game less accessible.
I think that there’s something to the finite nature of a game, something to the limitations that encourage one to push forward. When those limitations are dissolved it’s far too easy to either dive into obsession or wade out in apathy. Though the Freemium game is an obvious ploy by companies to eke out just a bit more money from our bank accounts, there just may be something else there that could be good for gaming. These limits can keep us playing, keep us caring about a game much longer than we may otherwise have. With a hard limit, a puzzle game can become a morning routine rather than a binge, a respite rather than a distraction. I’m not arguing that all games should lock people out after a set amount of time, but perhaps having a few more games around that cleverly integrate such limitations could help ensure that gaming continues to be both a hobby of skill and leisure.