Game talkSalsipuedes: leave if you can

 Posted by (Visited 9569 times)  Game talk
Nov 142007
 

In Baja California, on the way to Ensenada, there is an exit marked “Salsipuedes.” You can’t really see where it leads — the exit turns steeply off the highway, and the area is tall mud cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Somewhere down below, you can catch a glimpse of dusty pickup trucks and maybe a few dwellings.

Salsipuedes means “leave if you can” in Spanish.  It struck me because of the possible readings: you can’t leave because it’s so beautiful; you want to leave because it’s so horrible; you can’t leave because it’s too hard to get out.

Seems like most virtual worlds are kind of the same way.

It’s interesting how environments created as consumer spaces are designed to be as close to Klein bottles as we can get. Casinos don’t give you line of sight to the doors, even though from the outside, the doors are glaringly large and provide great views of a tantalizing interior. Grocery stores place tempting impulse buys at eye level right where you are most obliged to move slowly: rounding corners and standing in a queue. World of Warcraft places quest hints right in your path to keep you from straying. It is all very “Hotel California” — you can check in, but you can never leave.

From the designer side, of course, there’s reasons. It’s about retention, it’s about force-feeding the consumer activities and purchases. Once you have managed to entice your customer to set foot in your space, you want to ding them as much as you can before they leave. There are no straight lines in theme parks, and instead around every corner, there’s a new zone with new challenges.

There’s a few curious effects from this. Theme parks become a bit of a chore after a while. “Have we done this one? And this one?” A checklist of places to visit. Grocery stores become obvious in their tapping of hunter-gatherer brain stems, until we learn to control our impulse for that candy bar. The endless chiming of casinos wears on you. And so does the grind.

This makes for an interesting contrast to social networking services, which are premised not on you hanging out there, but on your leaving and then coming back. Oh, don’t get me wrong — they are still like Klein bottles. The difference is that instead of stuffing yourself into the bottle, you stuff all your friends in the bottle, and then you get visitation rights. You hear their plaintive cries — or pokes, or twitters — and stop by to peer in the opening, and maybe toss a few notes in and some stale bread.

It strikes me that third places in the real world aren’t flypaper. There’s a few characteristics that set them apart from the way we build all these environments:

  • They aren’t events. Events happen there from time to time, but they aren’t “peak moments” the way something like a theme park is.
  • They aren’t driven by content. Content is the lubricant for social interaction. No one speaks of running out of content at the bowling alley or the bar.
  • They aren’t exclusive. You don’t have the issue of stuffing your friends in one bottle. In real life, we have many overlapping social circles that we interact with in many different ways; we don’t maintain categories or tag systems for people, and our friends surprise us.
  • They aren’t desperate. By this I mean that they don’t go to absurd lengths to keep us there. There’s a lack of fear, essentially, that the people will leave. Provide a great experience, and don’t worry about blocking the exits.

One wonders why it is that we don’t seem to create that sort of experience for most of our users. Why are we more like theme parks than the neighborhood bar? Is it because we pursue volume? (Inarguably, these Klein bottle spaces seem to maximize revenue; arguably, over user satisfaction).

And one also wonders whether the “stuff your friends in the bottle” effect is something that we don’t understand when we try making synchronous spaces. A lot of it is just about presence — knowing that your security blanket of people interested in you is out there, listening, knowing that you can hear them rustling around. It’s like the comfort of hearing other people moving about your house. That’s a very different sort of “interaction” than raiding together.

One core feature that differentiates real life from all these spaces is the insistence on the part of stores and services that they are the only space that matters. In practice in real life, we place-hop without losing our network of friends. We intersect with them in surprising locations, we try new places for the sake of novelty.

Would the experience of virtual places of all sorts be better if we were less hung up on getting people to stay, and more hung up on getting them to come back, more hung up on serendipitous encounters, more interested in creating a space which operates socially like real life?

  24 Responses to “Salsipuedes: leave if you can”

  1. The interesting thing is how this aspect, which is central to a raid game that a fair chunk of the players (call it 10-20%) of the players play, touches on a lot of the things that Raph harps on. First off, it’s clearlyAsynchronous Competition- players do not have to be playing at the same time to play the same game. Yet, they often ARE, mind you, especially when new content is released. When the new raid, Zul’Aman, was released this week, three different guilds on the server snagged

  2. Every once in a while, someone comes up withsomethingthat’s a lot of fun to think about. By now, you’ve probably heard the analogy that MMOs are like themeparks. Well, what if an MMO was more like a bar or pub? HAPPY HOUR That’s the first thing that camed to mind when I read Raph’s article. Sometimes,

  3. in-game… The latter aren’t (entirely) in-game issues, of course, but perhaps an opportunity for the “ecosystem” NCSoft are talking about, which touches on social networking, and asynchronous play, and all sorts of other goodness dealt with in one ofRaph Koster’s recent posts…

  4. nearly as well as a group of 25, and that doesn’t work as well as a group of 10. And as much as players say they want to play with their friends, just how many friends are we talking about? Continue reading Could smaller be better?Read| Permalink | Email this | Linking Blogs | Comments[IMG]

  5. Still, the image of romance makes me think of monogamy, and one thing I do not think any game has any right to expect from most of its players is for them to never play any other games. Raph Koster wrotean interesting blog post

  6. Excellent.

    Something of note too, in RL those impulse racks at the checkout counter aren’t nearly as effective now as they were when they first went into practice. Watch most people waiting in the checkout lines at your grocery store. They avoid looking at the impulse items, and even often make an attempt to dissuade their kids from “wanting”. My point is that that sort of thing gets very old, and people catch on to what it’s about, and eventually start to even avoid the impulse activity as if it’s an insult to their intelligence, and contrary to their real needs and desires.

    Games, on the other hand, due to their extreme availability, are almost as if that checkout impulse rack is being shown to everyone outside the store, and catching all those who are susceptible to the impulse.
    But that leaves all those who avoid impulses. That’s got to be huge and unrecognized market, somewhere out there.

  7. Salsipuedes is one of the great surf spots in upper Baja, all those trucks you saw were probably for that. Either that or they were having the annual Salsipuedes Wii championship :) J/K

  8. Even when we attempt to create a content heavy theme park experiences, a percentage of users (a very high percentage of my users) will just hangout as if it’s the neighborhood bar. They will treat your creation as nothing more than chatroom. That’s ok, because content is expensive and can be a bit of a trap. There is often a disconnect between how creators think their worlds are being used, and how they are actually being used. I guess it’s embarrassing to discover that players care more about the people they meet than the stuff that you spent so much money shoving into the world. Club Marian is basically the neighborhood bar. There’s too little content to call it anything else. Other MMOs advertise right under it, so I expect players to leave and rely on the stickiness of people to bring them back. It’s earned back it’s development costs 1.5 months after release mainly because neighborhood bars are way cheaper to make than theme parks.

  9. I guess it’s embarrassing to discover that players care more about the people they meet than the stuff that you spent so much money shoving into the world.

    I would think that developers would be more embarrassed by the fact they either didn’t know or completely forgot relationships really are more important to people than content.

  10. [...] Salsipuedes: leave if you can Cues and queues [...]

  11. Yes, it’s about volume, and advertising.

    the worst part is when you sense that these ‘friends stuffed in the bottle’ are just the bottleable part of those friends which they’re willing to have stuffed in a social media page or game.

  12. [...] In Baja California, on the way to Ensenada, there is an exit marked “Salsipuedes.” [...]

  13. [...] 14th, 2007 at 1:07 PM In Baja California, on the way to Ensenada, there is an exit marked “Salsipuedes.” You [...]

  14. Hmm, potable bottled friends. Can’t get that at WalMart! :D

  15. (Raph’s insights like this are why I keep returning to Raph’s blog.)

    I believe the pressure to make virtual worlds operate like casinos or theme parks doesn’t come from designers or inhabitants, but from the corporate owners and investors. When a meatspace venue is having a slow day, operation costs are less for that day. A virtual world needs computers, which cost a lot to operate even if no inhabitants visit. Meatspace geography is land, usually a secure investment; virtual world geography is computer hardware, assets that depreciate quickly over time (to $0 value over three years if you ask the I.R.S.)

    Virtual worlds that are not theme parks will end up in the long tail; venture capitalists I’ve dealt with are an impatient lot. I believe virtual worlds that become a third place will be built by hobbists who are happy to live in the long tail for a while, not the Blizzard/Sony/Disney/MTV or other companies who are more finance-oriented.

  16. [...] has a thought-provoking post today. At its core is a question about synchronous vs. unsynchronous gameplay, and the expectation of [...]

  17. “we don’t maintain categories or tag systems for people, and our friends surprise us.”

    I must be a total mutant. I have a fairly elaborate set of categories, sub-categories, and tag systems for people. Luckily for me, I apparently live amongst a tribe of mutants because most of the people I interact with on a regular basis also seem to have categories and tag systems. We seem to share some categories but certainly not all.

    Some of my friends surprise me, some don’t [or not very often I suppose I should say]. That’s actually one of my tag systems…

  18. A virtual world needs computers, which cost a lot to operate even if no inhabitants visit. Meatspace geography is land, usually a secure investment; virtual world geography is computer hardware, assets that depreciate quickly over time (to $0 value over three years if you ask the I.R.S.)

    A player that pays you money but does not log in is described by many server programmers and producers as ‘the perfect customer’. However, it does not lend itself for having a cohesive and interesting community.

  19. As the number of virtual worlds approaches infinity (thanks to VW creation kits such as Metaplace and Metaverse), the average amount of content per VW will decrease towards zero.

    IMHO, every generation of mega-million dollar VWs will be just a little bit smaller, and just little bit easier to “complete” than the last generation. After all, how many people can afford to devote 500+ hours to an entertainment? VWs will never be mass market with such high barriers.

  20. Why are we more like theme parks than the neighborhood bar?

    Part of it (though certainly not all of it) is that neighborhood bars have a captive audience. There are a finite number of bars in your neighborhood and only a fraction of those will fit your preferences (drink selection, pool tables, TVs). Online games have to be more ferociously competitive, because they can’t rely on geography to limit their competition.

    I think the holy grail of virtual world stickiness really is your social circle. It’s interesting to me that no game has yet come along that made it very easy for me to get my friends online. I’ve got a host of friends interested in games and gaming, but we’ve never established a guild and played together on an MMO, because the friction is enormous. We all have to be willing to drop $50 on the same game at about the same time, willing to pay the monthly fee, be on frequently at the same time (and my friends and I keep weird schedules), and derive satisfaction from the same aspect of play (questing together, raiding together, grinding together).

    Progress on that would involve 1) greasing the skids on getting my friends on the same game (e.g. letting two or three people play off a single box purchase, at least temporarily), 2) allowing some sort of delayed interaction even if my friends aren’t currently on (see facebook for examples of unsynchronized socializing). And I don’t mean mail. Something deep. Let me run their characters as NPCs and decorate their house. 3) Exposing in-game content and even functionality outside the client so people can take some action and maintain the social link even if they don’t have time to log in. and 4) something brilliant I haven’t thought of.

    To some extent, maybe it’s even possible to represent a social link fundamentally in the game mechanics. Right now it’s more useful for me to have a lvl50 character with me that I don’t know than a lvl40 character run by my best friend, even though it’s in the interests of the game developer to have me playing with my friend as much as possible.

  21. “Why are we more like theme parks than the neighborhood bar? Is it because we pursue volume? (Inarguably, these Klein bottle spaces seem to maximize revenue; arguably, over user satisfaction).”

    Its because people don’t pay money to hang out at the neighborhood bar. Yes, there’s a healthy markup on alcohol, but at most bars its not an outrageous markup. There are also social rules about alcohol that come into play. Bar that do charge to enter quickly become much more like theme parks/events than “social gathering places”

    VWs that are primarily about social factors are up against a lot of essentially free competition. When you run out of content in a virtual world, it basically becomes an expensive chatroom. If I’ve exhaused all the content in a game that I consider fun, why would I pay $15 a month to hang out with my friends when I have so many free (IM/Skype/IRC/RL) alternatives?

  22. In many cases it’s important to ask: are these features due to the developers or is it what our audience wants?

    Often people who play Meridian 59 complain about something in the game. I will often tell them, sometimes in public, “you can leave, and the game will still be here when you want to come back in the future.” This creates an almost unbelievable amount of outrage when I say this! “That’s not good customer service!” people cry out. No, but it’s honest.

    I think on some level the audience for our traditional games, especially the “hardcore” that stick with a game for over 10 years, want these games to be the way they are. If you want to use the bar analogy, they want our games to be Cheers where they’re part of the central cast. They want everyone they care about to shout, “Norm!” (or “Psychochild!”) when they log on. Yeah, there’s other people in the bar and sometimes the core players sometimes change, but they know where they’ll be for several hours each week.

    On the other hand, most gamers are neophiles. Why does bowling not get complaints of “being a grind” despite being more mind-numbingly repetitive than anything we design? Someone who goes bowling isn’t looking for a new experience every night. Someone playing games usually does want a new experience; this is mostly, I’d argue, because the single-player game industry encourages it so people buy new games. One could also argue that games are much more compelling than bowling. I go bowling with friends not because I like bowling, but because I like my friends. The bowling is an excuse to socialize. For some people, this is the same attitude we have about games. I don’t love WoW, but it’s an excuse to play and keep in touch with my friends (and learn more about the game for game developers). (Of course, it’s possible there’s more WoW players than regular bowlers, so perhaps bowling isn’t a great example….)

    My thoughts.

  23. [...] the players play, touches on a lot of the things that Raph harps on. First off, it’s clearly Asynchronous Competition – players do not have to be playing at the same time to play the same game. Yet, they often ARE, [...]

  24. Bowling is a pure skill game. Pure being the key word.

    There is a plateua that you hit naturally before you become a “student of the game”. That ramp is where casual gamers live. You know, the ones who raid thrice per YEAR.

    Banana Republics and Renegade Pesos. But he says he’s never been in another song.

    Tryin’ to find what is ailin’, livin’ in the land of the free.

    Can’t it be more simple? Runnin’ from the freezin’, flu-inducing rain and screaming life everwhere? And of course, the lure of the sea. Hopin’ to find some fun.

    I made once the off-hand disparagement of Big Buck Hunter for which I was chastised (as if the chastiser worked on that game) to the defense of equally disparaging Golden Tee, while snarking about how lucky we are that we sometimes get Galaga and singing the praises of foosball. XBox == JukeBox.

    Too far and not far enough at the same time. Talk about NPC Permadeath. A cool and artistic castle in the sky.

  25. Bowling is a pure skill game. Pure being the key word.

    My mom is a former professional bowler. PBA, USBC, championships, tours, TV, celebrity, the works. She also taught bowling to other sports professionals, mostly Chargers and even Chevy Chase. I’ve won bowling trophies as well, seven to be exact. I’m pretty sure my mom would disagree with you.

    Bowling is just as much about skill as it is about luck. You’d probably find more bowlers, pro and amateur, who would say that bowling is more about oil and proper lane management than about skill. That said, skill doesn’t hurt, but skill alone doesn’t guarantee success.

  26. Your mother taught Chevy Chase how to bowl? *blink* I do believe that wins you the thread, sir.

  27. Whether or not bowling was the right analogy, Brian’s point is right on. Raph’s blog is obviously going to attract designers, industry people and the hardcore. We are not the typical audience but so many MMO designers treat us as THE demographic and that can lead to some bad decisions around what features to emphasize and where to spend your development dollars. (navel gazing?) The grind is a classic example of something we think is so horribly broken, yet just keeps on sucking people in. How much time and money is spent on high level content and the end game? What percentage of your players actually get there? Or do features like trick or treating in Stormwind actually give you more bang for the buck?

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