Playing a single game every day for months or even years on end always seemed bizarre to me, especially ones with resource management or experience accumulation. It seemed stressful, and it put me into an awkward in-between zone with a bunch of titles where I liked them enough to want to engage further for a few weeks, but not enough to stick around for an entire battle pass period, season, or whatever else. Games like Destiny 2 or Dead By Daylight always made it seem like the most fun stuff was always dozens of hours away from where I was, and that if I took a small break to refresh myself once I got there, I would quickly find myself behind the curve before I felt a desire to come back.
This is in part a function of my upbringing. Many years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, Final Fantasy VI was the longest video game I’d ever played. And just like with many games that would follow, I remember feeling somewhat sad that I had to move on once it was over. What had become an after-school routine was now just another CD on the shelf.
In the intervening years, the way video games are made has changed drastically, and if you so desire, you can opt to never put down your favourite game. With the wide availability of the internet, and the rise in popularity of the MMO and the multiplayer shooter, basically any game with an online component offers a plethora of daily log-in rewards, tasks, and small progression bars for you to keep chipping away for 30 to 90 minutes every day.
In the before times, the closest analogues to such a thing would be Fighting Games or online RTSs, where the motivation to play such games daily was the inherent variance of a head-to-head match, and the only repercussion to taking a break was halting your own improvement at the game. If you left and came back for a few months, only muscle memory and perhaps a couple bits of game knowledge would be lost, and you would be quite aware of what you’d missed.
These days, it is not unusual to come back to a game only to find all your gear is mediocre now, there are plenty of new systems you need to familiarise yourself with if you want to be a serious threat to anyone again, and all the newer drops are so far ahead of yours that they are almost fundamentally incompatible.
And yet, over the last couple of years I have found myself quite enamoured with the daily log-in systems of games, in particular Genshin Impact. It took the world shutting down, and going through so many personal struggles that there were days where I just couldn’t get out of bed, but I finally understood the appeal.
At the time of writing, Genshin Impact is still going through the process of completing the archipelago nation of Inazuma by slowly unlocking subsequent islands with every update. And as of the time of writing, I am an entire patch behind on exploring these islands, despite having played the game pretty much every day of the current update.
Engaging meaningfully with things takes emotional effort. Even a slow, turn-based JRPG expects you to at least digest its mechanics, and in some cases, sit through hours-long story segments that you are, hopefully, emotionally invested in. And sometimes you’re just not up to that.
Every long-term romance eventually reaches the phase where, alongside dinner dates and thoughtful romantic gestures, you also just want to stay in bed together, each reading a separate book and occasionally caressing each other’s hands, because barring some very particular people, most of us don’t have what it takes to be intense about the same subject day after day. So too, must every long-term romance with a video game wind down a little if it’s going to last.
I would never argue Genshin Impact’s daily and weekly activities are particularly good, in fact, all things considered, they are probably subpar, but they manage to at least retain the core of what makes the game so appealing in bite sized chunks. Even when you’re done exploring the available landmasses and have done all major quests, it is fun to just hop around a lovely meadow or a howling mountain, thwart a couple evil mages’ plan, collect some fruits, gather the wood you need to make a new sofa, and move on with your day.
Routines are powerful ways of giving some structure to your life. Playing a video game isn’t exactly a productive addition to any day, but all work and no play makes Walker a dull boy. When I was lacking the energy to even explore in Genshin Impact, it was still a nice reprieve to know I could always log in and run around for 20 minutes to try and forget about my problems.
There is a comfort to the reliability of booting up a game you love and know inside out only to do a half-dozen easy tasks, ticking a few boxes and levelling up a piece of gear by an insignificant amount. It is nice to know that there are 30 minutes of diversions waiting for you when you just need to take a break from work, or simply don’t want to think about anything else. It may sound a bit pitiful, but it is at least “something to do.”
It is important to strike a balance between daily gratification and simply giving the player reasons to work every day, however. One of my earliest encounters with this concept was Halo: Reach, which constantly straddled the line between fun challenges and busywork. Where the daily challenges would go from “land 15 headshots today” to “kill 3 enemies with a single sticky grenade”. Or in other words, a challenge entirely dependent on your own skill to a challenge entirely dependent on the enemy’s behaviour after you stick them with a grenade.
When Reach’s challenges were used well they did a great job at getting my friends and I to try different game modes and not get funneled exclusively into whatever specific match-type we were fascinated with at the time. But when they were at their worst, they could very well make you waste an afternoon playing a game mode you didn’t really like only for the purposes of adding funds to your flaming-helmet savings.
Daily challenges also offer an opportunity to familiarise yourself with the game in ways that only ongoing games allow. From the fastest route to get to a place, to the best sniper perch in a given map, and even the silly little oversights in the design of the challenges themselves like whether or not does killing an enemy on the brink of death with the grenade toss itself, and not the explosion, counts as “killing an enemy with a grenade”. They are a more accessible way of reaching deep game knowledge, without having to develop the extreme tolerance for repetition required to reach the same mastery in single-player or head-to-head games.
This is not to say that daily challenges are exactly a good thing, having their roots in Skinner Box-like mechanisms designed to create a feedback loop that continues to bring you back to the game. They are put into games less as a source of comfort for recurrent players, and more as a tool for the ominous corporate goal of “player retention”, which is an entirely different metric from whether the players are enjoying the time they’re being retained for or how much.
Nevertheless, a ploy to keep you engaged can only actually do so by offering things that would be attractive to you, and I now understand how people can fall in love with games that feature these systems not in spite of, but indeed because of them. A game that you love, offering daily easy comfort is, on occasion, much more meaningful that a game you don’t care about promising the possibility of a heart-rending story.
Whilst we should always be wary of companies exploiting our basest instincts for their profits, there is no denying that revisiting an old favourite for a sliver of time every day is a comfort rarely afforded by single player titles. And in the toughest of times, who are we to eschew a little easy comfort?