Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fun is not a Number

MMORPG designers nowadays seem to be stumbling in the dark. Maybe they have always done it. Maybe. But I think the problem started to become most apparent when game designers stopped wanting to make this fun game, and instead tried to make any really, really fun game. And when they tried to work in a scientifically sound way. Metrics played a very important role.

Guild Wars 2
But first things first. I read a bit of GW2 today and among a lot of interesting stuff I found this:
The slower-regen idea seemed so good on paper, but in practice the original design was just more fun. As we roll into this next demo season, there are a few major changes that we thought we should tell you about, and without further ado, here they are.
To me this is exactly what goes wrong. Apparently the game designers carefully created some kind of slower-regen game mechanic. Maybe they thought about 'interesting decisions' or prevention of 'optimizing the fun out of it' or general flavor.

Subsequently, they tested it and found it to be lacking. Now, I wasn't there. So, maybe they were right and the new mechanic was awful. However, my guess is that they tested something for a few days and then decided that it's unfun to use in a MMORPG which players are meant to play for thousands of hours. Maybe they looked at players playing the game at conventions were the players behave and think radically different than at home.

Fun Fallacy all over again
Let's use one of those chess-analogies. Imagine you test chess to find out whether it's fun enough. You make three moves. It turns out that it is totally boring; each single one. You scrap the project.

At the heart of this evil is Brenda's quote. At the time I first found it, I didn't see it for what it was. I considered it an interesting piece of "wisdom". But, in fact, it isn't even wrong. And that's among the worst things you can say about something.

Game designers nowadays assume that fun adds up. Just like a number. A wonderful way to explain why this is wrong is the soup analogy. You can add a lot of salt to a bad tasting soup and it tastes much better. You can still add quite some salt to a good soup and it tastes better. But you may add just a pinch of salt to a really good soup, otherwise you spoil it.

Salt represents a game mechanic that is the more fun, the worse the game. And there are lots of them. For example exponential character power progression, or starting out as a hero at level 1. These things make the game more fun if the gamer coincidently found out about it and decided to test it for 3 minutes. But ultimately they make the game worse.

What keeps you playing
Looking at metrics, designers found out that the highest potential for more players is keeping them from quiting during the first few minutes of play. Consequently, they figured the most important thing wasn't so much to make a fun game in the long run anymore, but rather to enthuse players during the first few minutes. Now, I don't dispute that it's good if a game is fun right from the start.

Rather, I fear the kind of fun that is used to achieve this. In the beginning, since the player doesn't know the game yet, he has no ambitions, little expectations, no dreams. And instead of giving the player something to dream about, the game designers give him something "awesome" and "cool". This is short-term fun. Just like playing an arcade game is short-term fun. It is a distraction. Salt, a sensation.

Compare that with one of my very first WoW experiences: I was on my way to the first city and saw some guy fly over me. What I didn't know back then: He was just flying on a flight route. And the route had deliberately been bent this way to make new players 'dream'. This dream was a more powerful motivator than short-term gameplay fun could ever be.

What made me play to level 60 in original WoW wasn't the short-term fun. In a way, the game was awful. It was highly, no, it was extremely repetitive.
What made me play to level 60 were dreams about exploration and power. If somebody had given me the isolated leveling gameplay out of all contexts, and asked me whether I looked forward to doing this for 300 hours until I reach level 60, I would have told him that making three moves in chess isn't fun, either. Actually, that's what I told some friends when they asked me how playing WoW can be fun.

Had I played original WoW pre-release at a convention, I would have left dreaming about playing it. I would not have remembered how heroic I felt while I played it.

Dreams of Denial
Game designers nowadays make games that want to be loved; not games that make you fall in love. Game designers nowadays go to conventions like attention whores; wanting to be praised for their badass dragons. And they iterate their game until it is exactly the way you "wanted" it.
Game designers nowadays are like the cute boy in school who did everything you asked of him; until you considered him creepy.

That's not the way it works! The most powerful art has the most agonizing flaws. The most engaging people have the most distressing weaknesses. The most attractive partners never do what you want.

The best games never succumb to you; they keep you dreaming.


  1. I just want to say that I love this post.

    Osterus has something up on this topic as well:

  2. Good read and I basically agree.

    But I can usually provide an advocatus diaboli to tweak gamers with a bit of muggle economics.

    Are the game companies trying to provide a great game? Should they? At least for games that cost over 25 to 50 million US$ and up, isn't maximizing profits of a very good game a better strategy for the company? At some level of investment, it is no longer art but commerce. You can try to make a movie that will get great reviews and wins a Palme D'Or and Sundance. Or you can try to make a movie that grosses as much as Transformers. Having as your goal to do both is unlikely to succeed and not a great strategy.

    Game companies, all software companies, already make these tradeoff for scope all the time - spending an extra $10mm would indisputably make a better game but would only generate an extra $5mm sales. So why is it not appropriate to say this change would make it more enjoyable for a small group but make it less for this larger group.

    Considering how very important the opening is (the small % of WoW players that get to level 10; how few hours game reviewers play a game) if I see a game with a clunky opening, I think it is reasonable to say "this game may have a great finish; but that's not the way to bet. If the company did not polish something this important, then it is unlikely the rest is better. Unless I read a lot that says differently, the odds are I am better off moving on." For the exact same reason if you download trial software and the install is obtuse and clunky, that is a very strong suggestion to look elsewhere.

    There is considerable truth in my joke that for AAA and even AA games, find out what the great gamers want in a game and do the opposite. It is easy to do since these people are happy to identify themselves as a great gamer and offer you their opinion.

  3. Good points, Hagu.

    A great game can absolutely do everything you hate at the start, as long as it can credibly convince you that it is done on purpose and that the designers know what they are doing. You remain curious. (Limbo, Minecraft).

    A clunky UI is very difficult to sell as 'done on purpose' nowadays; even though there have been times in the far past when the interface was a legitimate part of the challenge.

    If you can't sell it, give in. If you think your game cannot be fun unless it is 100% balanced, you must balance it!

    But if you are convinced that this game has so much going for it, and so many reasons to be played and that balancing it would have more negative side effects than is worth it. Then you can come away with a completely unbalanced game. And it will even be better due to this 'weakness'.

    This is a fine line to walk. Especially as gamers are spoiled by other games. It's like this girl that has five men around her all the time who do her every wish. It is hard to get through to her. But if you can credibly prove your 'worth'* to her, denying her wishes is not a weakness, but a strength.

    * (I am not talking about moral 'worth'. All humans are equal. I am talking about the subjective respect a human has towards you).

    It's also the reason why some of the most arrogant and despiteous humans can become great Leaders. Take Churchill.

    It is the reason why the politicians that win elections usually are not the ones who promised the biggest boons. Voter would feel 'cheap' if they voted for these guys.

    It is one reason for why Mr. Obama's popularity is coming crashing down on him right now. Jokes, like succumbing to his wife 90% of the time, suddenly become a weakness; silly.
    Had he been able to push through strong tax increases (somehow), people would have laughed about this strong guy succumbing to his wife according to his own words. It would have increased his popularity. Now, it doesn't.

    There are so many examples .. like the boss who wants to be liked by his team too much. Or the parents that fulfills their children' every wish.

    Giving in only makes you stronger if you can maintain respect. If there's no respect, every try to 'be liked' worsens your situation.

  4. @ Hagu

    In keeping with your metaphor of comparing the gaming industry to the movie industry, I would argue that making a mad dash for profit doesn't always pay off.

    This year hasn't been so great for many "blockbuster" films. Studios are being less subtle about the fact that they're pouring so much money into creating this mindless entertainment that they just assume everyone is going to soak up because they put so much money into it. Look how people are rebelling against the concept of every movie coming out in 3D. Audiences seem to be craving something more or something less obviously flashy.

    You can still put out a movie of quality and have quality be your priority, while still making a tidy sum at the box office. The two are not mutually exclusive. I think if the quality is there, the rest will come along in time. Hence all the "sleeper hit" type movies.

    I think if gaming companies stopped trying to be the biggest, the baddest, the shiniest, and focused on the content instead, the rest would all fall into place.

  5. I think there's a slight problem with the analogy.

    Chess is a single game. By contrast, an MMO is a collection of games all wrapped together in an overall meta-game.

    I agree with you that many MMOs at the moment are suffering from luring players in with glossy demos and rendered video instead of talking about mechanics and experience. Maybe it's because it's easier to talk about emotive concepts rather than the specifics about what they're building.

    I think that dissecting MMOs into their constituent games and how they comprise a while could be worthwhile, as it'd allow more analysis. Fun might not be a number, but it is a bit of a jigsaw.