Ages ago, a pretty limited number of games were designed to eat your time in this way – essentially just MMOs. Sure, PlayStation RPGs could put '50 hours of gameplay!' down as a back-of-the-box bullet point, but it was only games like Everquest and World of Warcraft whose entire business models were designed around keeping you playing for months. MMO developers needed you to keep paying subscription fees, as well as logging into the game so that everyone else would have someone to group up with.
Now, the majority of triple-A games are built with 'recurrent consumer spending' in mind – and if you revolt at that terminology, just think how it feels to listen to the financial reports of Ubisoft, EA, and Take-Two every quarter. We've spent a long time complaining about microtransactions, which are typically defended in terms like 'it's just cosmetic' and 'it's entirely optional', and in the vast majority of cases those things are entirely true.
But in order to get you to buy into those microtransactions, publishers don't just have to make a game you like – that game has to become a significant part of your life. You might check out the Assassin's Creed II DLC one weekend if you played through the main game months ago, but you're not going to pick up that sick new Eivor skin on the Ubisoft Store unless you're living in Assassin's Creed Valhalla every day.
The design of Assassin's Creed II didn't have to change to justify its DLC. The design of Assassin's Creed Valhalla already has changed. Valhalla has daily quests, community challenges, and seasonal events. It has a giant skill tree that can be respecced at any time so you can try out the three new skills added in every major patch, rather than one that provides a satisfying power curve. The story isn't built to give you a carefully paced payoff after a few dozen hours of play – it's built to string you along so that you can get wrapped up in the regular cadence of events and new content drops.
But for everything that might make you want to check in, there are also plenty of reasons that you have to check in, and that's when time sinks get more difficult to swallow. Did I really enjoy spending an hour in Fortnite so that I could drop in, pick up a couple of floating objects for a weekly challenge, then instantly get myself killed so I could do it again? Well, I guess I liked it about as much as I enjoyed 'playing' Cookie Clicker. And hey, that battle pass expires in three months, so I had to do it, right?
And NFTs – like the ones being introduced via Ubisoft Quartz – are the final nail in the coffin. One set of those Ghost Recon Breakpoint NFTs is only available to players who've stuck with the game for over 600 hours because, presumably, artificial scarcity creates even more value when you've given away 25 days of your life for it. Phrases like 'play-to-earn' haven't yet made the transition from investor calls to triple-A gaming, but they're close enough to taste. Your time is more valuable than your money, and even game publishers are starting to wise up to that fact.
I spent 633 hours playing Cookie Clicker on Steam this year. Well, I probably spent single-digit hours actually 'playing' the game. The rest of the time, it ran in the background of my PC, and my mind, bringing me back for regular check-ins to see what new upgrades were available and what fresh horr