Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Are MMORPGs Actually Games ?

That is a question I wanted to discuss for a long time. See, I often use Chess to make a point about MMORPGs, because it is well known and most people agree that it is one of the best games ever created. But are MMORPGs actually games?

Games consist of
- equipment,
- players,
- goals,
- and rules that constrain the player from reaching the goals in a fun way.

For a classic game like Chess this is easy:
The board and its pieces are the equipment, the players are, well, the players, the goal is to drop the opposing king and the rules tell you how to do it, severely reducing your options.

A MMORPG, however, is different and that difference lies in the simulation-like character. A MMORPG still has equipment, your computer, the servers, even the devs, if you want. It has players, obviously, but does it have goals?

Many small ones perhaps, but usually a MMORPG does not have one big goal, like Chess or Soccer or the Settlers From Catan or even Boxing.

And rules? You might be inclined to say "yes, of course a MMORPG has rules", but actually, that is not so clear. In Chess or Soccer there are things you could do, but are not allowed to do by the rules. There are no such things in an MMORPG! All those things you can do, you are allowed to do. What one would traditionally consider a rule seems actually more like part of the equipment here.

It is as if there were an invisible force that kept you from moving the queen like a knight. That invisible force would be part of the equipment not part of the rules, wouldn't it? Is the fact that you can or cannot teleport a rule or a property of the equipment? Is the fact that you cannot move your queen to Qk1 a rule or a limitation of the equipment? Are the only rules in a MMORPG then that you are not allowed to cheat, hack or to exploit? Interesting questions I think, but probably without consequence. The distinction between rules and equipment can sometimes become blurred.

What is more interesting is how the non-existence of a higher-ranking goal influences MMORPGs. You see, good rules are fun, because they constrain players from reaching a goal in a fun way. But if you have no goal, then how do you design fun rules?

The answer is that it is all much more complicated in an MMORPG. There are goals, just not one higher-ranking one. Instead, the goals appear naturally while the simulation runs its course. The most trivial example is you meeting a 'monster'. That 'monster' attacks you and to 'die' is now considered to 'loose'. Suddenly there is a goal, like 'defeat the monster' or 'escape as unharmed as possible'. But this goal is setup by the player. The designer has some influence, but ultimately the player decides what he wants to do.

But how did the player even get there? What was his goal before he met the 'monster'? There must have been a goal .. must there not ? Actually, I think .. no. And that is where the simulation-like character comes in. The player might have been on the search for fun in an amazing fantasy world. But this 'search for fun' is not really his goal. It might not even be a conscious effort.

What does the simulation-like character mean?
It means that the designer has a bonus. Chess wouldn't work if the players had to 'have fun', but were not given a goal during the first half of the game. Neiter would Soccer work if the trainer told the players "to start playing and have fun and create goals along the way".

But in MMORPGs this can work! Things can be fun, even though there is no gameplay at all! If fact, things can be fun, even though there is rather bad gameplay at work! Things like having the option to explore a vast landscape can add to the fun, even if the player doesn't do it or even plans to never do it. Part of the fun a player draws from the simulation-like character of an MMORPG comes from participating in a story, like beating the Lich King. The fact that the healing game in itself isn't much fun, can be very successfully overlayed with the simulation-like character.

Moreover, in traditional MMORPGs the simulation-like character is the glue that connects and permeats the various minigames, like maximizing gold, killing 'monsters', building a house or earning a social reputation among other players.

The simulation-like character determines how those minigames work together and thus should be chosen carefully. The very second a player starts to participate in just one minigame and starts to min/max to reach the now apparent goals, the MMORPG has lost a lot of what makes it special. It has lost the fun-bonus it once had. The player will now mercilessly assess your gameplay and if it is flawed he will become unhappy.

No MMORPG has ever kept players away from eventually picking one minigame and trying to 'beat' it. So better make sure that your minigames employ good gameplay. But at the same time remember that the interconnectiveness of the various minigames can make this much harder than in any traditional game. And try to use the glue, the simulation-like character of MMORPGs, to your advantage as much as possible.


  1. I think MMOs are usually games (because game developers create them as such), but by intent are rather something else.

    If I dare a description: MMOs are a virtual hobby playspaces and a social interaction framework, featuring but not limited to games as an option for pleasantly spending time.

    (excuse me if that sounds pompous :))

  2. "Games consist of"...I think your last one on the list is a combination of some fact and some opinion. Rules, yes, most of the time. As constraints? Debatable point that isn't part of the strict definition of a game.

    Speaking of definitions, there are alternate definitions in the dictionary, one of which is "activity engaged in for diversion or amusement", meaning just about anything can be defined as a game, even MMO's.

    But I suppose using your criteria I can't really disagree with you, that MMO's can fairly be characterized as a collection of minigames. (I hope I summarized that fairly). But if I choose to use definition #1 in Webster's to define MMO's, I can also fairly call the whole thing (a MMO) a game as well.

  3. "Games consist of"...I think your last one on the list is a combination of some fact and some opinion. Rules, yes, most of the time. As constraints? Debatable point that isn't part of the strict definition of a game.

    When you read the manual of a board game, it first lists the equipment, then the amount of players the game is supposed to be played with and then it lists the goal. This is usually the first page. The rest of the manual is about the rules.

    It might be a bit hard to understand at first, but for the developer rules are arbitrary. After he stated the goal of the game (e.g. The winner is the guy who first has 10 victory tokens), he can construct any kind of rules.

    Without rules the first one to grab 10 victory tokens would win. All the rules do is constrain him. They tell him how to not receive victory tokens. The rules in chess tell you how to not move the pieces.

    It is difficult to understand, because manuals usually do it the other way round. They first declare that every way to move the piece is forbidden, except for these: .....

    For somebody who never designed a game it is sometimes hard to grasp the arbitrariness the developer faces when he comes up with rules that tell the player how to reach the goals.

    Speaking of definitions, there are alternate definitions in the dictionary, one of which is "activity engaged in for diversion or amusement", meaning just about anything can be defined as a game, even MMO's.

    There are a lot of definition, but I didn't try a definition. I did not state that everything that consists of the listed things is a game! I only said that all games consist of these four things. But I am certain you can come up with an example that falsifies even this statement. It is really hard to describe a game in general.

    Wikipedia says: Ludwig Wittgenstein was probably the first academic philosopher to address the definition of the word game. In his Philosophical Investigations,[5] Wittgenstein demonstrated that the elements of games, such as play, rules, and competition, all fail to adequately define what games are. Wittgenstein concluded that people apply the term game to a range of disparate human activities that bear to one another only what one might call family resemblances.

    He was probably right ;)