Feelin’ groovy (a rant)

 Posted by (Visited 16212 times)  Game talk
Dec 082005

I get told that I am more interested in social experiments than in gameplay all the time. Frankly, I am a bit sick of it. So I want to rant.

I said this in the comments to another post.

A game where the only productive activity is to kill things is the social experiment. A game where people can dance at a bar is more like normal humanity. πŸ™‚

Earlier today I saw a comment that World of Warcraft might be the last “general” game, because from now on most games will tackle niches. To which my response was, I don’t understand this definition of “general” game. The reply was

I think his definition of “general” is the tried and true…

1. Crafting
2. Combat
3. Dungeons
4. Leveling
5. Loot


First off, let’s think about what an incredibly narrow range of human activity that is. It’s also a set of human activity that by and large we don’t like very much if it happens in real life. Are these games intended mostly as vicarious chances to let loose with antisocial behavior in a setting where it doesn’t matter? (Call it the GTA theory of videogaming!) I hope not.

Second, let’s realize that when we describe our MMOs that way, we’re blinkering ourselves dramatically. Up to 50% of the time you spend in an MMO today is likely chatting. Why isn’t it on the list? Hell, why isn’t even questing on the list, instead of the generic “dungeons”? At least questing offers the chance to provide a wider array of stories!

Third, let’s remember that even the presence of crafting on there is evidence that johnny-come-lately features can become important. Never mind that this almost certainly means a bowdlerized version of crafting, because that’s what most of the games have. Crafting is a major major mainstream activity in the real world: just look at all those folks who have woodshops in their garages, or who keep the craft stores alive, or who do a little watercolor painting on the weekends.

The fact is that the abnormal picture, the social experiment, the weird mangling of human nature, is shoehorning the amazing variety of human activity into the pathetically narrow array of activities that are present in most MMOs, and then calling anything that doesn’t fit “ghey.”

And oddly, the “visionary” “pie in the sky” “social experiment” “out there” thing to do is to try to have a vague semblance of normalcy. Making games with more activities isn’t a social experiment — it’s trying to give scope to normal parts of human behavior that these games stunt the growth of or even refuse to acknowledge.

People will read this and say “but normal isn’t fun” and bluntly, they’re wrong. Some of the classic games of all time have involved doing dishes, picking up your room, planning a sewage system, driving a car, raising a dog, and even tending bar. Fun is as fun does, and fun games can be made out of darn near anything.

The reason to look forward to the niche games is because maybe filling each of these familiarly narrow niches (that were mostly done better in NetHack, fer crissake) will force us to explore the rest of the human experience for some gameplay. After all, I am pretty much done killing orcs, pretty much forever.

Yesterday in the comments, Nyght said

I hope you are trying to be funny here Raph, but I suspect you are not. Bescause we can also say, at least in regards to MMORPGs:

A game where the only productive activity is to kill things has a chance at success. A game where people can dance at a bar is likely a niche game.

I don’t understand the why of this. But not understanding why doesn’t make it less true. We are surrounded by an anecdotal evidence.

and really, that’s a sign of how distorted our perspective is. Almost the games we make are currently niche-sized in terms of the totality of popular culture. We get fooled by the fact that the industry pulls in a fair amount of money, when in fact our market penetration as a percentage of population sucks. And I don’t mean MMORPGs, either, I mean all games.

But if we look at MMOs in particular, consider that even assuming that every person who ever bought WoW in the US logs in every week, that would still give WoW an audience share comparable to the lowest-rated programs on network television. The mass market is a world where 2 million means “flop that must be cancelled in 2 weeks.”

It also means that Nyght forgot you can dance in WoW. πŸ™‚

Darniaq has said that the difference in mindset is one between “being” and “getting,” and that the issue is that “being” is too much work, too much investment. And yet, near as I can tell, it’s the “getting” games that have the high time commitments — yes, even the casual WoW seems to rack up the same weekly hours of playtime that the other hack n slash MMOs do. It’s the getting games that offer only a handful of things to do over and over as you chase largely illusory rewards in a mad consumerist scramble through identical challenges with minor cosmetic variations.

This is what I was trying to say when I said “the grind is a state of mind.” Yes, of course there can be repetitive boring mechanics in any sort of game, and yes of course the designer should take them out. All too often, though, what we seem to hear is that the grind goes away if there’s enough pretty pictures mounted on the hamster wheel.

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.

What does it take to change that mindset? Is it inborn? Is it human nature? Are we congenitally incapable of stopping to smell the roses?

I’ve got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.

To me that couplet defines summer vacations, and some of the most fun times in my life. Why is that the social experiment now?

  29 Responses to “Feelin’ groovy (a rant)”

  1. Blogroll Joel on SoftwareRaph Koster Sunny Walker Thoughts for Now Sex, Lies and Advertising

  2. will be doable just by clicking the mouse on that one guy. The goal here should be to think PopCap games instead of Gears of War. The second hurdle, then, is content. The first legitimate MMOG (which because I’m lazy I’ll now abbreviate to LMMOG) will not have you hunting rats in a sewer for the first ten levels so you can join your friends. In fact, LMMOG probably won’t even have levels. Or, if it does, they’ll be mostly hidden from the user. What LMMOG will be about is, in fact, going to be people. LMMOG will be like Habbo hotel in

  3. Bartle?s 5 most important folks in virtual worlds [IMG] Posted by Raph’s Website [HTML][XML][PERM] on Fri, 20 Jul 2007 03:12:38 +0000

  4. Ugh.


    I just think mmos could be so much more, even if you don’t change the setting from high fantasy. I’m resigned to waiting on the 5th generation tho :p. Actually Seed looks pretty cool (but I don’t think Runestone’s employees have ever made a game):


    As far as the “being” vs. “getting” issue: most of those examples involve crafting of some sort (I’m assuming dancing belongs in there somewhere tho). Why can’t I “be” a paladin, instead of just another tank? Why can’t I “be” a shaman, instead of a primary/secondary healer? Bleh I’m starting to repeat myself. :/

  5. Isn’t “shoehorning the amazing variety of human activity into the pathetically narrow array of activities” exactly what SOE just did to Star Wars Galaxies with the NGE? While SWG probably didn’t live up to expectations (especially in the wake of WoW’s success), I would think 250,000 subscribers would be enough to justify that an open world dependant on the creativity of the community of players can exist in the MMO market.

  6. Are you trying to put billions of digital monsters out of work? You’ll get their unions angry!

    Some thoughts:

    1) As I mentioned in the Law of New Invetions, most people won’t believe its possible until someone does it… And then they’ll clone it. (I’m trying to head down a similar path, although not as world-like as your writeup seems to imply.)

    2) Someone should host an annual contest for a short “MMORPG” that encourages experimentation. The interactive fiction community does this, producing 2-hour IF titles for competition.

  7. Mike, there’s still plenty of room for the monsters. As has been observed, sex and murder account for the core of most of the powerful stories told in human history. Usually what makes them interesting is contextualized sex and murder (see the last post for more on this, of course).

    I don’t want to remove the murder; I want a better context to place it in.

    The challenge with #1 is actually building the thing; ironically, my sense right now is that “being” games are actually cheaper to make than “getting” ones, because the latter depend so heavily on vast piles of static content.

    The challenge with #2 is that no good rapid dev platform or methodology exists for making online worlds right now. πŸ™

  8. […] I ended up writing a ranty rant on my blog over this thread: https://www.raphkoster.com/?p=192

    The word of mouth and "I have to play it because my friends are playing it." has been the backbone of the best selling PC game ever

    Uh, by what metric is WoW the best selling PC game ever? Not even close. Sims has moved over 35 million copies. […]

  9. Damnit Raph. I spent about two hours last night working on a post for the Carnival of Gamers, and you hit almost every one of my points in like two paragraphs of text.

    I too am extremely tired of the tiny space that MMOGs inhabit. I found it incredibly frustrating to read over Brad McQuaid’s rant and think to myself “so every MMOG has to have grinding and levels and dungeons and stuff?” Why does shopping have to be hardcore?

    What I really want are more games along the lines of Tale in the Desert. Social collaboratives that move the community ever-forward towards an end goal. A *game* world where there is a beginning, a middle and an end. I want a real Narrative, not some crap that the design team thought up in the middle of the night to explain how the new models are going to fit into the game world.

    Well, at least on Mike’s point #2 there are some advances being made.

  10. Well, Zonk, now you can link to my rant in your rant! πŸ™‚

    I do actually agree with Brad on the shopping mechanic he describes, though. Enabling price variety enables all sorts of cool economic gameplay, and we know there’s a lot of people who enjoy economic gameplay.

    Heck, if we wanted to reach out to say, the female audience, you’d certainly have to include that sort of variable pricing and comparison shopping. πŸ™‚

    So Kristen is commenting over my shoulder, pointing out that the teenage shopper girl would want to discuss a whole different of issues from price. And it makes me wonder, what exactly WOULD be the feature set for the ultimate shopping game? I suspect we’re not even close.

  11. Raph wrote – “Challenge #2…no good rapid dev platform or methodology exists for making online worlds right now” – I think Richard Bartle would tell you to use text. I would probably tell you to get your research team to write your own prototyper.

    When I worked in speech recognition and text-to-speech at Microsoft (in the research org), I concluded that the quality of a company’s SR & TTS technology is highly correlated with the tools they use to TEST how good SR & TTS is. I suspect it’s the same for any product; the faster the feedback cycle, the better.

    You might also want to watch Star Wars I-III DVD making-of parts again… While I don’t think they’re the best movies in the world, George Lucas’s approach is pretty intriguing. Before spending $100-$200M on a movie, he actually creates it several times: First as a script, then a hand-drawn animatic, then quickly-rendred animatic akin to machinima, then a cut with the filmed elements and fx, re-do a few shots/scenes, and then the final thing.

    Raph wrote – “So Kristen is commenting over my shoulder, pointing out that the teenage shopper girl would want to discuss a whole different of issues from price. And it makes me wonder, what exactly WOULD be the feature set for the ultimate shopping game?”

    Never having been a teenage girl, I suspect that shopping is about what you could become, and what social groups you could hang out with. As you wander around the store, you try out clothing and accessories in your mind and imagine how they change your life… Not only, does accessory X make me look pretty, but will it help me get a date with Brad tomorrow night, and what happens from there? Or what does clothing item X do to my relationships with my friends, my enemies, and people I want to be my friends. Etc. Getting a bargain is way down on the list, although 30% off makes you feel better.

  12. —————Audience Size—————–

    —————Entertainment —————-

    ‘Popular Culture’ is largely on the right

    The target market for games is largely on the left. It’s the clunkyness of the UI that will likely keep what we call games on the left for some time to come.

  13. Don’t forget escapism. Dancing at the bar is a very experimental idea for an escapist market.

  14. Why do people consider “social experiments” a bad thing in MMO’s. The second “M” indicates that there will be social interaction in the game. It is what defines the genre. If you define “social experiments” as situations intended to draw people together to interact then I say, “Yay for social experimenting!” I have tried many of the MMO’s out today. The only one I was able to really enjoy and look forward to on a social level was SWG. (I am referring to the original pre-CU version. (I am not trying to suck up to Raph. πŸ™‚ )) But it required you to be social at times but in a way that was natural and fit the situations. There is a basic human need for interaction and while some people will look for it proactively, there are many people that need to be pulled in. Oh sure, you may need to get into a group in order to complete a task or kill a mob but that is cooperation not necessarily interaction. I have been in groups many times that got the job done, but the chat log had little more than “heal please” or “Pulling whatever”. While it seems there are a whole mess more people that enjoy “general” games (kill, loot, level, repeat). I think you will encourage a much stronger player base that will maintain subscriptions longer with a game that is more of a “social experiment” even if the story line or writing is weak. My 17 year old son doesn’t even read the story line unless it is telling him how to advance. If your only motivation to play a game is to get to the next level or have the most “uber” loot, what happens when you reach your goal and you have not garnered any social interaction? Meeting new friends and playing among friends is what an MMO should be all about. Combat, leveling, dungeons and loot should be the things you do between social interactions not the other way around. (I will stop here as this is Raph’s blog, not Wudu’s. Hehe)

  15. Mike, on using text: yes indeed, and believe me I have thought about it. Alas, many of the things I personally want to pursue require graphics (albeit only crude ones).

    On having my R&D group make a platform: yeah, we’ve talked about it. It’s not a small task though.

    The animatics approach to filmmaking and CGI is huge, really huge. The challenge is finding the equivalent — it’s essentially rapid prototyping in an alternate medium for low cost. Board gaming? Play by email? πŸ™‚

    And yes, you are dead-on regarding teenage girl shopping, based on watching my teenage half-sister shop, anyway. πŸ™‚

  16. Hello Ralph, I must admit I just recently found out who you were and what contributions you have made to the gaming industry. I appologize if you consider this off topic but there has been alot of talk about your opinion on this matter.

    SWG…have I lost you yet? As Im sure you know where Im going with this, and in reguards to attempting to dumb down a game to be nothing more than rudimentary combat, less so even than WOW I would say. Whats your take on it?

    Being this was for a very large part your baby and you truely allowed it to become what it had become, what is your point of view on the stripping of virtualy everything Koster-esque and the total abandonment of the current user base?

    Please understand Im not talking about this from a personal point of view, or marketing, or even ethics, simply design. Also if your able could you give your impression on why it was done perhaps?

  17. Hmm….point taken on the shopping thing.

    I guess it would more precise for me to say “I don’t think that power-shopping is something that the average gamer looking to have a good time in a fantasy setting is after.”

    An ultimate shopping game….The Sims meets SWG’s crafting?

    Hundreds of mini-gucci’s hooking up with their friends to design fashion and then craft it in worker-friendly sweatshops. Just watch the simoleans pour in as avatars stroll the (player-designed) streets of virtual Madison or Michigan avenue.

    Heck, I’d play that game.

    (minor quibble: I would *heart* a ‘preview’ button on your commenting system. πŸ™‚

  18. dhask, do you really think that bars and dancing are an unusual escapist fantasy?

    Or are perhaps our views on what is normal escapism slanted somewhat by the fact that we’re gamers?

    I suspect that for most people, escapism can practically be defined by dancing in a bar in (pick one) Cancun, Tahiti, Hawaii, the Riviera, Manhattan, 6th St, Mardi Gras, Rio, Barbados…

  19. Heh, and I end up saying the same thing to you, Zonk. I suspect a lot more people daydream of plain old shopping than daydream of slaying dragons.

    It could be argued, though, that the appeal of Diablo is actually shopping. The clerks are particularly obnoxious and generally need slain, but they have a nicely randomized set of goods.

    I am pretty sure there’s alternate editors I can plug in that include preview. I’ll go look.

  20. Zonk, I’ve installed quicktags (which you can see above) and a live preview (which you can see below the comment as you type. Let me know what you think. It seems to work OK, though I seem to have crashed it a couple of times by directly typing in bad HTML.

  21. There is some barrier which keeps alot of people from feeling groovy. First a social barrier keeps them away in real life, secondly they dont understand a game can deliver the feeling.

    I would guess the mainstream TV audience has slotted their lifes into allowing groovy feelings to surface according to scheduled activities. Once you go to that groovy mood you start being naughty and neglect your duties, you watch TV and that is allowed.

    Western culture has little room for people who dont support their society financially or practically. The people who are free enough from this standard culture to allow themselfs to feel groovy through non-standard channels are missfits, junkies or wierdos.

    Expecting the quality of game design to be the source of breaking the “normal life” pattern is amitious. Its a slow process and its ongoing.

  22. I think that there has to be a balance between bringing normalcy into a game and the bashing aspects of the game, which a good number of people obviously enjoy.

    For me, the fact that originally in SWG, as one example, you were forced to sit and watch a dancer to ‘heal’ you in a sense wasn’t fun. Sure some people might enjoy dancing, and others enjoy watching them, but to ‘have’ to do it so you can then whack the next mole (if that’s your thing) is what made a lot of people angry. Forcing downtime/time sinks is a very bad practice.

    I guess forcing interaction, in a predefined set of ways, is just as bad as not having interaction. Again I always go back to online gaming is just that, a game, not a reality/emotional simulator. You play them, and pay monthly to do so in these games, to enjoy yourself. There shouldn’t be one way to enjoy yourself, the dev-way in effect.

    Have the social interactions, of various types, but don’t force a person to have to spend X amount of their time doing that just because you (dev team in this case) think they should. Reward those that enjoy the social interactions, and participate in some way, but don’t penalize those that just want to whack the next shiny mole because they don’t want to spend an hour in a virtual bar watching a spinning character in order to go on with their desired playstyle.

    Balance is the key, and fun should always be the main thrust.

  23. Blake, I think you just prompted another blog post. πŸ™‚

  24. An awful lot of the motivation in WoW seems to be based around getting better stuff and flaunting it to your peers. In that respect, Orgrimmar and Ironforge resemble a garden party without the cucumber sandwiches. The PvP, complete with its social ladders and badges of rank only serves to reinforce that appearance.

    And yet, many of the people in WoW are driven by the goal of exploring Molten Core, Blackwing Lair and Ahn Qiraj. They’re very happy to get the loot, especially as that means they get to explore how their character scales with better ability scores. However, the repetition required to advance through the content often results in players leaving prematurely when they are less concerned with flaunting.

    I understand where Darniaq was coming from with respect to the ‘getting versus being’ and I think that he has a valid point, certainly with respect to some of the systems in persistant games that offer non-combat activity. While we may be social creatures, and interested in playing massively multiplayer games, we dont always play those games in simple social ways. Virtual worlds are not simply places where one must be social to be useful – the persistant nature of them makes them desirable to people who dont want to be social at a particular given time. You come home from a rough day of meetings in the office, interact with a few thousand irate people on the commute, and log into a virtual world, only to discover that to be productive outside combat you must interact with other people.

    Sometimes, even persistant worlds need to be social downtime, still requiring that the gameplay be fun, the reward seem valuable, the time sink be parcelled into small and accessible chunks and yet not revolve around solo combat. To date, nobody has done this well, and so the games fail to persist as well as they could.

    I’m not in the mood to busk with my sax down at the starport for tips or shoot bunny rabbits for hides. Since I can’t be productive laying down some bass lines for my next album here, I guess I’ll leave the Universe and load up something else.

  25. […] Blake on Feelin’ groovy (a rant) […]

  26. […] What’s in a name? Apparently everything you need to know. So far the main argument against any debate on the purpose of the game is based solely on the name, astroWARS. Now if this was truly the case then we include the first half of the name as well, you know the “astro” bit. This gives us a game about Space Combat… so why do have planets, buildings, pop, alliances, NAPs, etc. after all these are elements of “farmers” or “diplomats”. We should just have a game that gives us an empire (holistic and not based off individual planets), a battle fleet, and of course a system to attack one another. But this game isn’t just “astro” – “wars”, it has many additional features, some of them emergent features which weren’t originally designed, but the players required. Raph Koster of SOE fame, recently ranted about what players thought MMOs were all about. What prompted it was that someone thought that a general game was “crafting, combat, dungeons, levelling, and loot.” Combat was the most important one, with the others supporting it. Now this isn’t really the case. There are more than that to an MMO, except that players generally only see the things that are fun, and not the things that might be needed. This where the designers and players figure out how the game should evolve, using each others views to cancel out the conflicting blind spots. Richard Bartle (co-father of MUD) wrote an amazing piece on the categorization of players within a MMO. It divided players into Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and [Killers]. Each of the categories could place on a graph like so: […]

  27. Up to 50% of the time you spend in an MMO today is likely chatting.

    You’d be surprised how many people play World of Warcraft without doing any chatting. And there are MMORPG that are played on consoles, and which don’t even require a keyboard. In FFXI you could do some basic communication with menu commands, with no actual typing required.

    Please note that while I started the “Is WoW the last general game” thread, the reply with the short feature list is not from me. I would define “general” as being a game that at least tries to be everything to everybody, while some of the newer games have certain playstyles already excluded in their mission statement.

  28. Tobold, people are routinely surprised by how much time they DO spend chatting. I once challenged a designer on the time he estimated, so he sat down to a play session with a stopwatch, and was totally taken aback by the amount of time he spent talking — and he regarded himself a hardcore instrumental player, always charging ahead, never taking the time to chat.

    It may be that the newer games are losing this phenomenon; that might be why I have trouble meeting anyone in them!

  29. /sniffle…

    That was my “narrow” list… and be damned if I am going to try and explain general again πŸ˜› Oh well… weak post by me πŸ˜›

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