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Digital Obsession: The Most Addictive PC Games Ever
Date: Dec 13, 2012
Author: Joel Hruska
Introduction, Civilization
Gaming is something we've done quite a bit of over the years, but sitting down to pick a list of the most addictive games ever proved surprisingly tricky. Addictive games aren't necessarily the top sellers, or record-smashing behemoths. Sometimes, their appeal is measured in near-perfect execution of a narrow concept, while other games keep us up 'til 3 AM because, despite their flaws, they offer a compelling, challenging experience.

Orcs Must Die 2 has eaten more of my life than I want to admit in front of my employers.

Here is our criteria:
  • No mobile/pocket/Facebook games:  I've been a Tetris fanatic for decades, while games like FarmVille and Angry Birds enjoy huge audiences. Are they addictive? Yes. Are they in the same league as major MMOs, RPGs, or the best FPS's?  No. A list of addictive browser/mobile games is just as valid as a PC focus, but it's pointless to try and compare across such different spaces.
  • PC-Centric:  Cross-platform games are included on this list. Console-only titles aren't.
  • Franchises vs. specific titles: Game publishers rarely leave a successful title standing all by its lonesome. Additional gameplay and features may be added via expansion packs, full sequels, or online updates, but one way or the other, new content gets made. This makes it difficult to split the difference between multiple sequels and a single title. Rather than try, we've weighted them equally. When one game in a series particularly stands out, we've mentioned it individually. If multiple products are similarly habit-forming, we name the series.

Let's get started...

Civilization: (I - V, Alpha Centauri)


The original that started it all...

Most of the computer franchises that I loved in my childhood are dust. Space Quest, Quest for Glory, Wing Commander, and Ultima are all relics of another age. Sid Meier's Civilization is a happy exception to this sad state of affairs. The original game that I played on my 386 is long gone, but the sequels have endured the intervening years in remarkable form. Civilization II, which debuted when Windows 95 was still the primary OS shipping on systems, can apparently still run under Windows 7.

Civilization is a classic 4X game (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate). It wasn't the first series to implement turn-based gaming, but it became a ubiquitous example of deep, empire-building strategy. The first game allowed for ahem, creative exploitation; in a joint game, my best friend and I once discovered railroads in 1200 BC. Completely random warfare results meant it was possible for a Greek Phalanx to defeat a 20th century battleship -- and yes, I write from experience. Later titles sharply increased the role of espionage, diplomacy, trade negotiations, environmental changes, and added racial factors, religious influences, and a great deal more. 

Civilization II introduced a three-quarter view and visible cities that evolved from age to age.

Each game has introduced enough changes and additions to stand independently of its fellows, with their own unique play styles and capabilities. What they share is a finely tuned balance of short-term goals, random events, and long-term planning. Whether you're planning a war, racing to discover new technologies, or fine-tuning the economy, it's easy to get lost in the lure of "just one more turn." 

Civilization III introduced new unit level mechanics, an entirely new graphics engine, unit animations, and added the concept of culture as a gameplay mechanic. 

Civilization IV made religious affiliation part of the game, expanded the use of Great People, was built to allow for 3D zooming from close-ups to space-based views, and fine-tuned a number of characteristics thanks to extensive use of Python scripting. Added bonus: The game was narrated by Leonard Nimoy.

Civilization V revamped unit movement, city squares (now hexagons), simplified water movement, allowed cities to defend themselves (and attack nearby units), and added city-states -- neutral cities that can be allied with for mutual gain and defense.

Each iteration of Civilization has built upon the title that came before it, but the previous games stand firmly on their own two feet, even after later titles were made available.

Counterstrike, Diablo II


Most of the games on this list are open-ended world builders of one sort or another. Counter-Strike (CS) is a notable exception. The original game was a Half-Life mod that became hugely popular in the years between HL and HL2. In 2004, Valve built a revamped version of the game, appropriately titled Counter-Strike: Source. Both the original game and the CS:Source remake remain playable through Steam. A sequel to CS:Source, entitled Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, was released this past summer.

That's CS: Source on the left, CS: Go on the right. Original comparison by pcgames.de

Counter-Strike's game modes, weapon damage, and a number of other factors depend on which version of the game you're playing, but certain conventions are common to all three titles. Death is permanent in the majority of maps -- once you die in a round, you stay dead, rather than respawning. That tactic is the core of the CS experience -- weapons are purchased from round to round based on your previous performance and there are no game-changing weapons you can unlock via kill streaks or other events.

What sets Counter-Strike apart from a number of other popular franchises, like Call of Duty, is the launch of a new game doesn't cannibalize the previous titles. Thanks to Steamgraph.net, we can show you objective data to prove it. Steamgraph's data only extends backwards through May 5, 2011, but that's long enough to establish short-range trends.

's daily rate dips slightly on the day CS:Go is released, but recovers thereafter. The original Counter-Strike doesn't budge at all. This makes sense, if you're committed to playing a ten year-old game already, you probably don't care much about a sequel launch.

CS:Go's daily rate settles just above the 20,000 mark. The net number of people playing a Counter-Strike title has risen slightly since the new game's release, from ~101,000 people pre-launch to 122,000 today.

Now let's compare that to the popular Call of Duty franchise.

This graph neatly summarizes why Counter-Strike is on our list of most addictive titles, while the hugely successful Call of Duty isn't. Each CoD title rapidly cannibalizes the game that came before. When Modern Warfare 3 debuted, the total number of CoD players hit 128,794. By the time Black Ops II hit the streets, this had dwindled to ~53,000. Black Ops 2's impact sent total players soaring back to 105K, but dwindled quickly thereafter. Right now, the total number of people playing one of these four titles is just over 70,000.

Diablo II:


Diablo II doesn't hold my personal record for most hours played, but it's the only game that sucked me in so deep, I became addicted to improving it. I've written about that effort before, and I won't rehash the entire history here, but the game struck an amazingly good balance between addictive playstyle, an explorable world, innovative quest structures, and interesting gameplay.

It built perfectly on what had come before in Diablo but expanded the canvas from a single world in the same town with varying dungeons to an entire world of brilliant colors, evocative music, and differing architectural styles.

Who could forget this musical gem?

Diablo II
introduced Blizzard-hosted servers meant to reduce player cheating, after numerous flaws in Diablo had effectively destroyed the game's multiplayer. The Open vs. Closed Realm system succeeded at this, at least for the years following the game's release. Blizz also introduced a new permanent death option via Hardcore mode, and designed many character abilities to function best in parties.
Minecraft, World of Warcraft


Minecraft is the sort of game that makes game publishing executives slam their heads against a wall. It doesn't feature any big-budget voice actors, massive special effects, or an army of animators and artists. There's no plot, no scripted combat sequences, no multiplayer mode with character levels, weapon unlocks, or finely-tuned multiplayer maps.

A Minecraft world map

It's not that features like multiplayer don't exist -- they do -- but the game's open-ended design puts as much control in player hands as possible. You can explore dungeons, fight monsters, and build up a base of operations for yourself, or you can flip to creative mode with unlimited resources and build to your heart's content. Worlds are procedurally generated, which makes each game a new experience. There's an extensive crafting system and a huge variety of resources players can gather in their explorations.

Minecraft's website summarizes it as "Minecraft is a game about placing blocks to build anything you can imagine. At night monsters come out, make sure to build a shelter before that happens."

What can you do? What can't you do?

People have built scale models of Hogwarts, a 1:1 model of the Enterprise D, the house from Up, and much, much more. Some folks make scenery, while others design functional CPUs.


Yes, you can create a functional circuit in Minecraft. And people do.

With over eight million players, the game's popularity shows no signs of waning. It's a powerful testament to the joy of creativity even when players are given little more than blocky graphics and a handful of options to show them how to play.

World of Warcraft:

When it comes to to the number one spot, there was never any serious question which game would take home the prize. World of Warcraft's star may be fading, but no other game, MMO or otherwise, has sucked in so many players for so long. Answering the question of why WoW was so addictive, however, is surprisingly difficult.

We couldn't take the Hunter anywhere...

When WoW launched, Blizzard was the new guy taking on Everquest II and Sony's established empire. I played a lot of WoW, starting from six months before the game launched and continuing, off-and-on, through the Mists of Pandaria expansion. I was a guild leader, a raider, and a casual at various points. It was the first MMO I ever played, but far from the last.

The most recent expansion, Mists of Pandaria, is gorgeous.

I think WoW grabbed people because it nailed the quests, storyline, and dynamic play that were sorely missing from previous games. Before WoW, MMO gameplay boiled down to standing in one place and killing the same mob over, and over, and over. Most quests still boiled down to "Kill X number of Ys", but they were often interwoven with plot developments and zone-spanning adventures. Most quests could be completed without ever joining a group.

WoW's broad appeal has faded in the past few years, but no other MMO has remotely challenged its dominance. It seems as though no game ever will. Even the high-flying Star Wars: The Old Republic, the last major title that attempted to adopt per-month pricing, has gone free-to-play in an attempt to encourage more subscribers.

That's our list -- what's yours look like? What games have kept you coming back year after year, even as graphics advance and new titles launch?

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