Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fun is like a Firefly

In German they say "Der Weg ist das Ziel", "the way is the goal". It is obviously wrong, and yet it is obviously right.

MMORPGs are perhaps the best way to observe this truth. Virtual items are not only cheap, but really cost next to nothing to produce. And everybody knows that getting virtual items is fun. A lot of people even say that WoW was so successful, because it pushed players into a skinner box. Players would subscribe and as a reward they would get fed with epics.

But that can't be true. If it were true, making a smash hit MMORPG would be ridiculously easy. If that were the secret behind WoW's success, all other MMORPGs would be at least as successful; and they would give the player more epics per re-subscription than WoW. So, what's wrong?
Well, getting epics is fun! That's not a hallucination.

But the fun of getting epics is also diminished with every epic the player gets. And that is, because getting the epic is only fun, because you tried/hoped to get it. Yes, to find a surprise epic can be fun, too. But it is a very short-lived fun. Give players more surprise epics and very, very fast they don't want them anymore.

Hunting for epics is where the real long-term fun is at. Some call it working for epics in a attempt to discredit it. They don't understand. The way is the goal. Going towards the goal is where the long-term fun is. Reaching the goal is the more fun the longer the way was, and as long as it felt worthwhile. The real fun was in the hunt, in the way, not in the goal.

That's why the way is the goal.

Games should not be frustrating, yes. But what is frustrating? Frustrating is an activity that a player feels he should do, but shouldn't have to do.

Imagine you go to a party. It takes 2 hours by bus and train to get there. Once there, the host tells you to stand on one leg for 1 minute before he lets you enter. Nobody will watch you. There's no way around this.
Now, that is frustrating, because you feel like you should do this (you just spent 2 hours getting there), but then, actually you shouldn't have to. Also, it doesn't make any sense, it is arbitrary and exhausting. But it's also the reasonable thing to do. Actually, even should you decide to return home, you will be frustrated.

Now imagine the same situation, but the host offers the guy, who can stand on one leg the longest, 50.000€. If you are a normally rich person you will consider this totally silly, but worthwhile. Should you even manage to stand on one leg longer than anybody else, let's say for 4 hours, you will celebrate. It wasn't frustrating at all! Arbitrary, yes, exhausting, certainly, but not frustrating. In fact, the more of your competitors gave up, the more exhilarating it got! I promise you, you never had as much fun in your life than during the last 30 minutes of standing on one leg watching your competitors tilting.
Sure, the host is an idiot, but 50.000€! Damn! You will probably thank him with your best fake smile when he hands you the money!

Every time a player works for something in your game just as much has he would be willing to work for it and then gets his reward, you win. Well, and he wins. Yes, he wins! This is something I need to focus on more I think. Players don't like to be coddled. Yes, they deny it, but it's true nonetheless. Players like to be challenged, they like to hunt! The hunt is what creates meaning. Without hunt there's just nothing in life, only emptiness.

Every rich person can tell you, money alone doesn't make happy. Every playboy can tell you the 25th girl doesn't make him more happy than the 24th. Every 1st world citizen can tell a 3rd world citizen that eating and drinking alone doesn't make one happy.

Nothing makes happy, it seems. But then, most things do.
Most investors continue to invest long after they earned more money than they can ever hope to spend. Most playboys consider the process of 'hunting' much more pleasant than the 'endgame' - especially if the target is hard-to-get! But no western citizen considers hunting for food fun: We think it is frustrating, because we shouldn't have to do that!

That last part is important. It is why you can't turn back time. Once players know that you give in, they will genuinely hate you, and leave the game, if you don't act according to their wishes. Hi, Cataclysm!
Having to do something, that you feel you shouldn't have to do, is always frustrating. But keep the players from developing this attitude, and most things have the potential to be fun!

Just like giving players ever more epics is no solution, not giving them enough isn't a solution either. This is important to understand. Your game doesn't necessarily become better, just because you reward your players less. The trick is in the balance. The magic question is: How much can I ask my players to 'work', 'suffer', 'hunt', 'walk' before they leave?

The answer to that question is the amount of 'suffering' you should ask of them! They might complain, cry, shout, offend, maybe threaten you. But only if they hope to be able to change your decision. If it is commonly known that you don't surrender to demands, they will suck it. They would fear to appear silly and socially awkward. And if it is even completely obvious to them that there's no other way, they can actually gain the most fun out of it.

The trick is to make a game that seems worthwhile as much as possible! One way to do that is to make it known that a huge amount of players play your game. Another way is to release great trailers. Yet another is to make your players dream about the possibilities in your game. Like one day flying a dragon.

Once you made the game as worthwhile as possible, once you created that really big carrot on the horizon, that is just near enough and absolutely credible to seize, you put as many obstacles in front of the players as possible. Just as much as you can get away with.

Because the fun is not in actually flying your dragon. Every WoW player can explain to you how much fun flying was at first - and how 'unspectacular' it then became very soon. What a game needs is a perspective, a goal that seems worthwhile. And the more worthwhile that goal appears, the more players will be willing to invest into your game. And the more you make them (= allow them !!) to invest into the game, the more fun they have. Because that investment turns out to be where the fun actually is.

Fun is like a firefly: it disappears with a flash the moment you seize it.


  1. Nils, I absolutely agree with you on several points.

    1) The law of diminishing returns. We derive less pleasure or satisfaction from every additional unit of something, be it dollars, cookies or epics.

    2) The journey is what counts, not the destination. Very true also.

    3) We value more what we have to struggle for. Again I would agree with you. Struggle means that it cost us something be it time or energy, and those things which cost us the most carry more value.

    Obstacles and problems in our path do make the journey more interesting, but I can't help but think Blizz has gone overboard on this one. The Tournament is the perfect example. Yes, it's totally optional, but if you want all the goodies it has to offer you face the prospect of 251 days of dailies. A bit much.

  2. Wherein Nils asks the question: "Can there ever be too many It's-all-about-the-journey posts?" ;)

    Incidentally however, I think its entirely true that WoW was so successful, because it pushed players into a skinner box. The thing is, a skinner box only works if the player doesn't believe they're in a skinner box.

    So you need two things, a skinner box, and the ability to fool the player into thinking that there's more to it than that. And for the most part, we as players are complicit in that illusion. We want to be fooled because its only if we can pretend that our goals are worthwhile that we can actually have fun pursuing them.

  3. Eccentrica, that tournament (I don't play WoW anymore) seems to be a good example, for a frustrating journey. Maybe the reward isn't even high enough to start the jurney at all. That would actually be better for WoW.

    John, the answer to your question is a definite 'no'. :)
    About the skinner boxes, yes, WoW was and is a skinner box. But that's not the secret behind its success. Skinner boxes are way too easy to create.

    The secret is that WoW promised a long-term perspective, and successive goals. And then it made players work to reach their goals. And this journey was not too short. It was just short enough to not lose the players; thus maximizing their fun.

    About us wanting to be fooled. Of course I want to be fooled, just like every girl in the nightclub wants to be 'fooled' by the really charming and intelligent guy. We all want to be fooled into a long relationship.

    If the guy told he after 2 minutes that he loves her, he turned into a loser - creepy. Just like a MMORPG turns into a loser, if it gives out too many epics.

    And that is irrespective of whether the guy does love her after 2 minutes or not. It just doesn't matter at all. It is in everybody's interest that the guy lies about it if necessary.

    .. Hope I'm not going too far with this analogy ;)