Thursday, September 1, 2011

Analyzing Travel

Games consist of (a) the simulation, (b) goals, (c) rules and (d) players. When developing games, we have to focus on the simulation, goals and rules. The rules, in combination with the goals, generate the journeys. If you are confused now, go read my last 17 posts or so ...

I spent a lot of time and effort on listing how classic-WoW questing and DX:HR missions keep your mind busy. I also added that journeys need to fulfill three requirements to make a good game

(a) The goal needs to be worth the journey.
(b) The journey must not be frustrating*.
(c) The journey must keep the player's mind busy.

For Syl and the subjectivity debate: I believe this to be an objective truth. I might iterate it in the future, but I believe this to be true for all ('normal') human beings. However, it is still a subjective statement, because whether something is worth something, whether something is frustrating and what exactly keeps a player's mind busy varies from person to person (from subject to subject).
And while it does vary, it does not vary erratically. There are reasons behind our differences and they can be understood; at least most of them. By understanding them and by understanding how they effect subjective 'fun', we can make games that more people like more. You could call that objectively better games, if you want.

Fast forward to what keeps the player's mind busy while traveling

The player
- anticipates arriving
- explores the landscape
- executes the travel by directing his character

hard thinking .. yeah .. I think that's about it. The problem is rather obvious: Travel is boring. Now, that's not exactly a revelation. We knew that travel is boring before. What we didn't know was how to change it. The only thing we could come up with was: "you are attacked by monsters". But that's a really thin line there, before traveling becomes frustrating.

Fighting monsters is ok, if we set out to fight monsters. But fighting monsters becomes really frustrating, if we set out to get from A to B. A different goal means that we need a different journey, obviously.

Fortunately, we got a list of basic things that keep the mind busy from the last post:
  • learning/exploring/searching/listening/watching/reading/information gathering
  • understanding / comprehending / setting into context
  • decisions
  • educated guesses
  • planning (=imagining the consequences of different decisions)
  • optimization/management under constrains
  • tension/relaxing/climaxes/adrenaline
  • gaining/growing/losing/rewards/penalties
  • fear/hope/anticipation of learning/gaining/losing.
  • Execution: pressing buttons/moving the mouse
  • interacting with other humans (that's a category in its own right)

And we can go through that list from top to bottom and ask ourselves:

1) Is there something that we can add to travel that makes you learn/decide/guess/.. ?
2) Can we make it non-frustrating? A strong root in the simulation really helps here. Arbitrary, abstract games are wonderful at keeping the mind busy, but the player would really think that he shouldn't have to play these games, because all he wants, is to get from A to B.
3) Would the goal (arriving in B) still be worth the journey?

And by doing so, we have some tools that help us to make travel less boring.

Of course, we could also scrap travel completely and decide to make a MMORPG without travel. But that's like making a MMORPG about cows milking each other: I bet this could be a facebook hit! if the abstract gameplay kept your mind busy etc, but I just don't want to play this kind of game. And, more importantly, I want to play a MMORPG with travel that is not-boring.

*An activity is frustrating if the player thinks that he shouldn't have to do that.


  1. In a TBS such as Civilization, players instinctively understand that instantaneous travel would ruin the game. The fact that units take a long time to cross the map is a central aspect of forming strategies, both offensive and defensive. Take that away and you have a completely different game.

    If, in an mmo, you want to convince players that they shouldn't be able to send their character instantly to another place, there needs to be an obvious reason why doing so would be game breaking.

    Only if there is such a reason, and a way to effectively communicate that reason to players and get them to accept it unquestioningly can you ever hope to successfully distract them with other mental pursuits while they are waiting to get from point A to point B.

    Oh, you can temporarily distract them, but once they start questioning the reasons for travel taking up time, they will become unhappy all over again.

  2. It's probably just me but I am not always sure when you mean journey figuratively - the story arc from creating character to dancing on Arthas' corpse, the "loops" as part of the questing process, or just literal travel from Stormwind/Jita to Hek/Ashenvale.

    I love exploring and nooks and crannies of the zone. But regarding literal travel, if it is just a time sync - I am at A and I want to do something at B and I have been from A to B many times, then for me it quickly gets to the "I shouldn't have to do that" However, I am quite tolerant of AFK time sinks. I.e., instead of trying to make annoying monsters pop up as I go on another trip from A to B, just let me hop on a single AFK device. I can understand gameplay reasons why a crafting transaction should not be instant. But that is a far cry from I need to be logged on and paying attention for the two days it takes to craft that epic gear.

    I.e., travel does not have to be all that compelling if I am not there when it happens.

  3. Have you tried Ryzom and traveling across zones there?

    It's a very different experience from the standard MMO, both good (interesting and complex activity) and annoying (at times you just "want to be there"), but at least it's significant, contrary to many MMOs where it becomes automatically AFK time once you've explored the travel points.

  4. "I believe this to be an objective truth. I might iterate it in the future, but I believe this to be true for all ('normal') human beings. However, it is still a subjective statement, because whether something is worth something, whether something is frustrating and what exactly keeps a player's mind busy varies from person to person (from subject to subject)."

    I agree with that Nils. I'm still not sure you understood exactly what I meant in my article though (partly my mistake as well, it's just tricky to tread there). I don't say "everything" is subjective. the need for balance, goal vs. journey etc. are all evident needs to be figured out in an MMO, that is an objective truth. the 'how' is maybe more subjective, but only to some extent. there can be no doubt that this is tricky business and there's not an unlimited amount of solutions here. also: here you are debating things instead of people and you are not making judgements - you're being "sachlich", if I may use a german term (which I know you understand).

    however, if you make statements such as "XY is not fun / no content" or "XY is stupid", when evidence is clearly against you there (because millions of players actually enjoy what you might not), then that has nothing to do with objectivism. it mostly has to do with you - and maybe your fear that their fun is going to ruin yours.

    I'm obviously very familiar with that fear, I doubt I have to tell you this. but this fight, "them vs. us" cannot be the answer. at least not for me. MMOs also live from the social factor and if you've read articles such as Gazimoff's "MMO blueprint" lately, community is a big dealbreaker for a great many MMO players today. this little aspect has the potential to overthrow any, ever-so-perfectly-balanced game. we should take it seriously.

    the question of how far future MMOs can go here (and how far they really shouldn't go), technically and overall, is what really interests me at the moment. not in the sense of unhappy compromise, but really giving room back to the player base to define their own fun (and find it too). surely we agree that a lot can still be improved in this area after WoW. ;)

  5. John, I mostly agree. I'll go into it in another blog post eventually ;)

    Hagu, the 'journey', the way I use the term, is everything you have to do before you reach a goal. Any goal, self-set or selected by the game. If you watch yourself while playing games, you will realize that you always want something. For example, to get into a raid, or see how that new abilitiy works or beat that boss, etc. Goals are nested into each other and each goal requires a journey. Because, if the game just gave you what you wanted, the game would be over .. instantly.

    Helistar, I haven't tried Ryzom. Thanks for the tip.

    Syl, seems I have misunderstood your post. I'll re-read it later today.