Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Games Are: Expectations

Blizzard knows that there is no turning back the time. The second a competitor changes the feature, they have to follow suit or accept that players have genuinely less fun playing their game.

You should probably read and understand my prior post to have any fun while reading this one.

Imagine a new Facebook game. In this game there is a shop at which you can buy items for in-game currency (no RMT here). You buy by selecting the items with the mouse and then clicking on a “buy button”. After you have done this, you need to keep “T” pressed for about six seconds.
1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... 6
After the six seconds are up you can click on another button which opens a window. In this window you can access the bought item. You can click the item to transfer it to your inventory.

Anything unusual about this game? Before you say anything, consider that WoW has an auction house that works like this for many years now. You select the item you want to buy, you click the buy button, and then move your character next to the mailbox by keeping “W” pressed for about six seconds. After arriving at the mailbox you click at it to open a window, and finally click at the item to retrieve it. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

This is the power of expectations and immersion. In my last post I said that a frustrating journey is a journey the player thinks he shouldn't have to make. And I said that for a game to be fun the journeys must not be frustrating.

The journey in our example is what the player has to do to retrieve the item he bought. Retrieving this item is the goal. But whether the journey is frustrating or not is not set in stone. In fact, it almost entirely depends on the player's expectations. In WoW you move your character on a flat landscape next to the mailbox by keeping “W” pressed for about six seconds. I haven't read any player complains about this yet. But make the facebook game above and I guarantee you that the few players, who play it, will complain about this feature all the time.

The difference is that players in WoW don't expect the retrieval of items they bought in the auction house to work in any other way. And one major reason is immersion. The mailbox - as abstract as it may be - is still rooted in the simulation. It makes sense that you have to move your character next to it before you can retrieve items. It makes sense because the player is immersed enough in the simulation.

This can very easily be changed, though. Shortly after SW:TOR adds more convenience by putting bought items directly into the player's inventory, Blizzard will follow. Blizzard knows that there is no turning back time. The second a competitor changes the feature, they have to follow suit or accept that players have less fun playing their game. And the players would have genuinely less fun playing WoW, if they had experienced a game that puts bought items directly into their backpack. The players, too, can't turn back time. Nor can you now, that you have read this. I just spoiled something for you. Less fun is sometimes the price you have to pay for insight.

Another difference is that moving your character on a flat virtual landscape next to the mailbox by keeping “W” pressed for about six seconds, actually keeps your mind a bit more busy than just keeping “T” pressed in the facebook game while the seconds are counted down. The point is not that moving next to the mailbox requires any amount of skill - of course it doesn't. The point is that your brain is kept busy enough to not become bored during the six seconds. It is also important to note that you feel the anticipation of future gains, that are connected with a trivial activity, while you move next to the mailbox. This is a very powerful combination that can easily keep your mind busy for six seconds and more. In fact, it easily keeps humans in front of slot machines for incredible amounts of time without being bored.

Finally, it should be noted that moving next to the mailbox in WoW is worth the goal of retrieving the item. And thus all bullet points of section (3) of my last post are currently fulfilled in World of Warcraft.

Maybe you ponder the question right now, whether developers should add time sinks, like the six seconds. The answer is: "Yes, if they are not frustrating". In WoW you sometimes have to wait up to 60 seconds before you can access your mail. Of course there are technical reasons .. are there? Would 30 seconds break Blizzard's databanks? 60 seconds seems like an awful lot for nowadays servers, doesn't it?

There are humans on this planet who, each day, have to walk for several hours to carry home fresh water. And they don't mind! Unless you allow them to experience a water tap for a few days!
If a human genuinely believes that something is necessary, or simply never thought about it, he suffers through it without even noticing. In fact, the delay can increase his fun! Beating Ragnaros after having wiped for 50 times can make this experience much more fun. The whole experience, not just the final kill.

It's not just a time-sink consideration that makes companies add, well, time sinks. Slowing players down isn't even all that effective at increasing revenue in a subscription business model. The real reason companies add time sinks where possible, is that delaying gratification makes their games genuinely more fun. But it only works if the player doesn't notice; if he doesn't expect otherwise; if he doesn't feel “entitled”; if he doesn't think that he shouldn't have to do this; if it isn't frustrating.

Slot machines could run much faster. At first glance one would assume that this is in the casino's interest. But it isn't, because faster slot machines are less fun!

Edit: Changed the title of the post to make clear that it belongs to the series.


  1. Re: mailboxes, let's not forget that you can see a lot of crazy things in that six-second trip to the mailbox. People you know, night/blood elfs dancing on the mailboxes, someone in a full set of tier gear you want, reading Trade chat, some RP event going on, people seeing you, and so on. I also have more fun on my mage (Blinking to mailbox) or warrior (Heroic Leaping to mailbox) or rogue (Sprinting to mailbox) in those < 6 seconds.

  2. Very good point, Azuriel. To speed it up by using an ability is a lot of fun. More fun, in fact, than having the items appear in your inventory instantly ;)

    Always assuming that you don't think about this too much and don't consider all of this a completely ridiculous timesink - which you, Azuriel, probably do now.

    But most players never thought about it, and thus have a lot of fun sprinting to the mailbox. Do you remember the time when you were just such a player? :)

  3. I never had a problem with these little sinks, for the aforementioned reasons. The difference between the mailbox and, say, an 8 minute flight path is because there is literally no interaction whatsoever on the FP. When my hands come off the keyboard/mouse, that indicates the designers are doing it wrong.

    I doubt I would care if SWTOR instantly teleported items in my bags. Indeed, there are many situations in which I enjoy the mail delay, at least in regards to successful auctions (once you collect your gold, you lose the ability to remind yourself who bought the item and for how much).

  4. Will your facebook game have a huge mammuth-shaped object over the box which makes it harder to click on it?


    And yes, I agree, there should be more "short time time sinks". I think "connected gryphen rides" were a good concept. Teleports and flying mounts were not. Because even when you're afk during your 20 minute flight from Dalaran to Tanaris it does increase immersion (for me) if the game just doesn't allow you to take a short cut. You might not get a perfect simulation of the travel but you get a perfect simulation of the fact that travel is not instantanious.


    The bad thing they do to elongate your subscription are things on a longer scale like daily caps. Those should be removed to increse my fun.

  5. The problem with your example is that the game is not limited to buy/get item. The event, and the lost 6 seconds, occurs rarely.
    With time-sinks it's important to compare the amount of time spent in them vs. the rest. A pause between to mob packs is good, it lets you rest your fingers (and brain), but if you look at the overall experience, you spend a lot more time fighting the mobs (the fun/important activity) than in the timesinks.
    Azuriel's example with the flight paths is a good one. They are way too long...

  6. @Kring

    Twenty-minute FPs increase your immersion? Do you literally sit and watch the screen for the whole twenty minutes each time?

    I have no problem with it taking a long time to get somewhere the first time. But at some point, we need to acknowledge that "the world" served its purpose. Fallout 3/NV-style exploration is the best way to go about it IMO: explore everywhere on foot, but allow you to quick-travel back to known locations.

    I'm not interested in world simulators; if I want it to take me hours getting anywhere, I'll walk outside.

    I mean, if we're talking about 20-min FPs, what does that say about how long of a play session you have to schedule? I could complete a satisfying BG in that time. And wouldn't this discourage people being "out in the world" if they are all separated by immeasurable distances?

  7. This is why I don't really like the word 'immersion'. Obviousyly getting a coffee doesn't immerse you in a game. And still it can make the game feel more consistent with the underlying simulation. And this can add to the fun while playing.

    Note that I said 'can'. It in no way always leads to more fun - obviously.

  8. > Twenty-minute FPs increase your immersion?


    The fact that I can't reach Tanaris NOW but only in 20 minutes from now does.

    > I'm not interested in world simulators; if I want it
    > to take me hours getting anywhere, I'll walk outside.

    Why do you need a world at all, then?

    What you're describing is a lobby based gamed which requires the world as a time sink to unlock the different mini-games?