So, you've read all my latest ramblings and now you wonder what it means for game design?
Well, first it means that games need to offer goals. Irrespective of theme park or sandbox, every MMORPG needs to offer the player goals. It can either enforce a few or even one single goal, or it can let the players decide freely. A very common and powerful goal is satisfying ones curiosity, by the way.
Goals can be stacked. For example, a player can first need to go for goal 1 and goal 2 before he can go for goal 3. Goals can also exclude each other. In that case the player needs to make a decision. Decisions, however, are already part of the journey.
We can assign a number to goals that represents how desirable they are. I call that number G.
The Journey is were the vast majority of fun is located. Generally, you want journeys to be as long as possible. Even if your MMORPG uses other business models than the monthly subscription. MMORPGs are social games. They become better the more people play them at the same time. It also makes better press if players play your game longer.
But to make the journey as long as possible is also in the interest of the player! Our "fun memory" is quite binary. We either have fun, or we don't. Sure, sometimes we have a hell of a lot of fun, and sometimes just a little. But in retrospect this is usually hard to differentiate. We can differentiate between fun 'moments' (usually, reaching a goal), but not so much differentiate between fun journeys. If we have fun, we want more. The longer we have fun, the better for everybody.
The journey, by definition, is something the player wants to skip. He wants to reach the goal! But giving in doesn't make him happy. Although the player won't support you, you must put a journey in front of each goal.
We can assign a number to the journey that represents how much work it entails. I call it J.
Goal vs. Journey
Generally, G must be larger than J. But just a bit! If the player considers the journey not worth the goal, he will not play your game. But if G is much larger than J, you should make the journey longer, because making long journeys is what games are all about. You are not a nice developer if you allow players to reach goals too fast. Rather, you steal fun from them!
But that's not all. There are good journeys and there are bad ones.
Even if a player embarks on the journey, that journey might harm your game, because a journey can either be fun or frustrating. And this is really the core of the problem of nowadays games, because metrics are very poor at identifying frustrating journeys.
Definition: An activity is frustrating if the player performs it, even though he feels he shouldn't have to perform it.
Fear of frustrating journeys is what drives most of the "evolution" of games (the rest mostly being technology). Mechanics that were totally acceptable in the past suddenly become frustrating, because players played other games in the meantime and now don't think they should have do this kind of journey (anymore).
It's not easy to turn back the wheel of time, and so most companies succumb to the players. It is usually the right decision, unless you are really good at managing expectations and instilling attitudes.
This is a race to the bottom as a consequence of the competition between game developers. But there's little we can do about it. Developers will eventually sink low enough for some developers to release "radically different" games that turn out to be really good, because they are so different from existing ones (at the bottom) that players don't transfer any expectations.
The problem with frustrating journeys is that players start the journey, but quit your game before they reach the goal. A good example are daily quests or daily dungeons. Players do consider these journeys worthwhile enough to start walking. But at the same time they don't think they should have to do this. Daily quests are damn ridiculous, after all.
Often, a player who performs a frustrating journey, "optimizes the fun out of the game".
The job description of a game designer could be: "Design fun journeys".
It's is an art. But a few things can be said about it. First, the by far most important property of fun journeys is that they make players forget time. They achieve this by keeping the player's brain busy enough to not start wondering, but relaxed enough to not become tired.
A few years ago, before competition turned grinding mobs into something players don't think they should have to do, players actually loved to grind mobs. They did it all the time. And when they finished grinding one kind of mob, they started to grind other mobs. Grinding mobs is just varied enough to not become boring. And it is easy enough to not exhaust you or get a headache.
It's similar to gathering resources.
It is important to understand that even good journeys eventually become 'not worthwile' or frustrating. For example, nothing lasts forever, and players eventually (and understandably) became bored of grinding mobs.
One important building block of journeys are decisions. Decisions can either be interesting or meaningless. Meaningless decisions can be used to add alternative content that a player can explore with a twink. Often meaningless decisions are superfluous and a waste of resources. (Should I invest mana to cast the highest dps spell? .. yes, always!)
Interesting decisions are either fun or frustrating. We already talked about that.
Good games confront the player with goals that encourage fun journeys which consist of fairly high-frequency decision making. Look at Angry Birds, Tetris, Chess, Soccer, Super Mario, etc.
If you forget everything else I wrote, please remember this: "Fun journeys" are not fun in themselves. They are fun because of the goals. And the goals are fun because of the journeys.