Thursday, August 25, 2011

Goals and Journeys

So, you've read all my latest ramblings and now you wonder what it means for game design?

The Goals
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
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.

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".

Fun Journeys
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.


  1. "Generally, G must be larger than J. But just a bit!"

    the crux here is really that the 'worth' of G is up to the individual player. depending on just how attractive we deem a reward, we are willing to undergo longer or shorter journeys. but a developer can only ever respond in fixed numbers and equations when creating a game. it's therefore impossible to always make everything appeal or 'worthwhile' to every player. subjectivity is hard to satisfy for a program. ;)

    then, there's also that 'added' effect of some items appealing more than others exactly because the journey there is especially long and hard. so, bigger J can create bigger G. some players will go for notoriety before all else, no matter how bad the grind. again, subjectivity.

    and for some players like myself, J is often the same as G. if an interesting and fun journey to rewards is the most important thing for me, more than the end reward, J turns into G. we constantly define and re-define goals in MMOs for ourselves. this is where it really gets complicated from the dev's POV.
    I doubt very much that most players really farmed MC 40man for 6 months just to complete a tier 1 set; no, there were a lot more motivations behind it, guild-driven and individual to stick around for so long. that can be anything from team spirit / guild fun, to progress drive or server 'fame'. these effects are much harder to calculate with for developers than the actual, implemented rewards.

    So, to make a long story short: Tesh is probably very right when he keeps pointing out that the best future MMOs can do, is try to make space for different types of gameplay. have a hierarchy sure, but in general try not to define fun too much - give the players the options to define it for themselves.

  2. this is btw also the problem of WoW today and why more and more people leave; with it's fast-paced reward-driven and coop-light version of itself, it has simply removed most of its variety in terms of playing motivations. it might still appeal to many, but offers a lot less 'modes' and therefore less room for different players. I cannot keep playing the way I played in vanilla even if I wanted to - my personal G is simply not part of WoW's 'G-palette' any longer. and that's mostly because J was stomped in the ground. :)

  3. I thoroughly agree, Syl. Thanks for adding to my post in such a constructive way.

    Just like in many sciences one has to differentiate between the purely theoretical thought and the practically viable thought.

    And just like in science the practical value of a thought often turns out only until you completed thinking about it. And to make matters worse, most thoughts have no end :)

  4. I have been reading and re-reading your four-part series on this, trying to pin down exactly why I have a problem with your argument (aside from the tangential Pick-Up Artist interlude). And I think I have found it:

    Fun is resolving the cognitive dissonance of long-term play, according to your analysis. Specifically, Effort Justification and (ab)using the Contrast Effect in game design.

    In fact, the Contrast Effect essentially explains the Pick-Up Artist method in three sentences:

    "For example, at the beginning of a relationship one partner made significant efforts in supplying love, care or attention to another person and the receiving party enjoyed and reacted positively to these efforts. However, at a later date, these practices diminished or were omitted to some degree (the expectation of the other partner not being met or the behavior not persisting or increasing), the receiving partner would experience a negative contrast effect.

    However, if the reverse was to happen and the partner started out with a lesser degree of love, care or attention and were to increase the practice over time, the receiving person would experience a positive contrast effect."

    "Hook" them while appearing to exude little effort, so that once the relationship begins they can be amazed by your natural level of attention; as opposed to being interested, and then having to out-do yourself later to keep them. In other words, set the bar low.

    The underlying problem I have with this is that it replaces substance with psychology. There is no question that it works, and as you aptly argued earlier there seems to (usually) be little difference between substance and illusionary substance in the long-term anyway. But this line of thinking inevitably leads to the bleak conclusion that wires electrically stimulating our nucleus accumbens is interchangable with fun, pleasure, and all the heights and depths of human emotion and creativity. Or perhaps wires with constant sensation won't even be necessary themselves, as long as you can chemically (or psychologically) alter the memory of the experience itself; adding the Fun tag to a memory like on a blog post published years ago, and reality shifting to accodate the change.

    I played Xenogears for ~80 hours 13 years ago. I stopped playing WoW a few weeks ago after ~7000 hours across four years. By your metrics, WoW was the Great game, and Xenogears was merely Good. I consider Xenogear the best game I have ever played, bar none. Yes, like Limbo, it would not work as a subscription game. But what makes games Great is not something that can be spun out into an indefinite subscription.

    If I asked you to name your favorite game of all time, would it be an MMO? Would anyone's? Could it be?

  5. Good points, Azuriel.

    The problem you mention is there whenever you succeed too much in analyzing the human psyche. And that's what game design does.

    In these few posts I mostly looked at two questions:

    1) Is there a general theory about how to make things that people like/love? How can it be applied to MMORPGs?
    2) What parts of an MMORPG are actually fun? What does this mean? This is part of my battle against those still think and claim that fun is an inherent property of an isolated activity.

    Assuming my answers are somewhere near the truth, the reader gets into trouble. For example, he has to ask himself the question:

    a) Does my knowledge influence my gaming experience?

    (Un)fortunately the answer is: yes. Once you know (or even believe) that in front of every goal there needs to be a journey, the journey might be experienced as less fun.

    In that game design is like quantum physics. The very fact that we are watching in such detail changes the outcome of our experiments. The very fact that we analized a game, changes the experience of playing it - sometimes dramatically.

    About your last question. You certainly have a point. I used to say that Planescape: Torment and DSA 1 (german) where the best CRPGs ever.

    However, if you asked me whether I would rather like a 7000 h MMORPG or a 80 h CRPG, I'd say that 7000 hours beat 80 by a wide margin.

  6. Are you saying you would trade WoW for Planescape: Torment, simply because one consumed more time than the other? Are the quality of the hours meaningless? Is the depth of the experience less important than the breadth?

    Maybe I have not be sufficiently far removed from my WoW time yet, but right now I do not think I could point to any particular moment of those 7000 hours that comes even close to emulating the moments I remember from Xenogears (or Chrono Trigger, FF6, FF7, FFT, etc). I remember downing Prince Malkazar in Kara for the first time, and perhaps the Lich King. I remember breaking 1800 in Arena for the first time ever, and finally being able to purchase an Arena weapon (in... Season 6?). But none of those experiences were from the game itself, but rather from the social experience. Sure, the MMO facilitated the social experience, but so would literally any other thing. If you have fond memories and crazy stories from Poker Night with your buddies, was the actual Poker game the origin? Could it have been interchangeable with Bridge? Or Magic: the Gathering? Or Pokemon? Was it from the specific activity or simply any activity?

    Think about what makes WoW better than another MMO. Would it be impossible for the memorial experiences I had in WoW to happen in a "worse" MMO? No. Even if you believe that WoW is worse now than it was back in vanilla or TBC, would those experiences be diminished in any conceivable way having occurred in vanilla versus Cataclysm? How could they be? If I learned to ride a bicycle tomorrow instead of 20+ years ago, would the experience be impactful any differently? The circumstances would be different perhaps, but "better" or "worse?"

    What I am getting at is that it is useless to associate any social memories to the quality of the MMO itself. The only way to evaluate an MMO is in its single-player elements. And while I played WoW for 7000 hours and Xenogears for 80, if WoW had been only 80 hours long I would have filled up the 6920 hours of free time with anything else - the 7000 hours does not speak to WoW's quality per se, merely to my frugality or its "good enough" or habit-forming or non-frustrating qualities. And honestly that is a pretty low bar. America's Funniest Home Videos is a dumb TV show that mostly consists of videos of dads getting hit in the balls by various objects, or cat videos, and similarly low-quality entertainment. The fact that someone watches it instead of getting off the couch or spending the next 15 minutes trying to find an interesting channel does not mean America's Home Videos is better television than [insert favorite show here] (Lost, The Wire, Rescue Me, Dexter, whatever).

  7. Mmh, I guess I am saying that quantity has a quality all of its own ;)

    And while I understand it when you write
    What I am getting at is that it is useless to associate any social memories to the quality of the MMO itself,
    I have to disagree.

    Many memories in WoW would have been impossible without WoW for me. But then, maybe, WoW was just a hell of a lot of fun for me - while it lasted. While I could fool me that it is important. While WoW allowed me to fool myself.

    Sure, I might have done done different things without WoW. Perhaps I would have had more fun, perhaps less. I don't know. There's a good chance that it would have been less, actually.

    *When I say 'fool myself' that's not to be understood in a negative way! I'd like to be able to fool myself that *anything* is important. Problem is that at the end of the day nothing *really* is.