I've lost hours and days to various kinds of games, but one genre that appears quite often is the one where you're supposed to do the most proverbially insane activity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. I kind of think I should have a problem with that, but I don't really feel guilty. Somehow this gets recorded for me as "valid entertainment".
Before we analyse this further, let me open with a question: What does Mahjong have in common with Diablo?
Pulling tiles from walls
I've started looking into Mahjong (not this one) shorty after watching a sketchy anime series about the game. Due to inavailability of either Mahjong sets or human opponents, it prompty left my mind, then resurfaced when I joined Codility and met the local scene in Warsaw. I got baited by the game aesthetics and mood, then hooked by the complicated rules that are alone a challenge to memorise.
Once I got past the hurdles of comprehending the scoring rules and the complex rituals needed to start each round, I observed that MJ has a rather straightforward gameplay in essence. Get a hand of 13 tiles. Draw one, then discard one. Repeat until it has patterns. The nicer the patterns, the more you score. Add 3 more players who want to do the same thing, add a few simple interactions, throw in some mood and gimmickks and you've got Mahjong.
There's plenty of fun, but I admit it took me a while to observe where the fun comes from. Usually it's more obvious: in CSGO I have fun when I win, or at least score a few lucky one-taps; in Go or HotS I'm most thrilled by long battles and emergent plot twists (no matter win or lose). Mahjong feels different, though. There's little strategy I'm able to use. Sometimes I try to carefully weigh win probabilities of two possible discards, but sheer luck evens everything out. Normally my play is rather schematic. The big thrill comes when something unexpected happens, like when I draw a set of tiles that look awfully close to a monster hand. I desperately want to see it happen, even if unlikely, so I hold my breath and play on.
Some would call Mahjong a game of calculating probabilities and managing risk. To me, Mahjong is mostly a game of repeatedly prodding the God of Luck with a stick and provoking him to do something funny.
This description reminds me of a ton of computer games that also rely of the same premise. I remember when I would repeat the Baal area in Diablo 2 over and over, hoping to convince him to drop random items of value. I remember doing the same thing in Kal Online or World of Warcraft, teaming up and attempting the same encounter multiple times, hoping for the boss piñata to contain something useful.
I cannot avoid mentioning Angband too, a classic roguelike that used to steal crazy amounts of my time. I could drone on about the ways it managed to immerse me. There was plenty of "why are you playing this" situations when someone would look over my shoulder. But I played on. The key piece to immersion was the same: Each time I descended stairs to enter a new random dungeon level, internally I would proclaim: "dear Angband, surprise me again with some random loot".
Patterns and slot machines
Each game I've mentioned here could be ripped apart to reveal a tiny slot machine. I'd happily indulge in this gamified variable-ratio reinforcement; Instead of coins, I'd pay with the basic actions, such as discarding tiles, slaughtering mobs, or - in the best case - doing something interesting on its own, such as exploring new areas.
This format has been used over and over in games and has a good rate of making your game work well - well, at least until the player feels burned out or, perhaps, loses sight of his next goal.
Can you make a game that will surprise your player forever?