AGDC07: The Zen of Online Game Design

 Posted by (Visited 14324 times)  Game talk
Sep 062007

Another liveblog…

Damion Schubert, Bioware Austin (and his blog)

My title is at least as vague as Raph’s. I thought I would tell you up front what I am talking about so if it is not what you think you can leave now.

Three mental models for MMO design, and I thought I would make those public and you can tell me if they are useful, because I have not actually researched them. I will also throw out stray thoughts on MMO design as they come up, they will seem random, because I am a random guy. And I will also discuss the history of cupholders.

I worked on M59, UO2, Shadowbane, Bioware Austin. And I write on my blog. (I skip most of this because most readers here will know about Damion. I hope.)

Why Zen?

It was the only good domain available. But I also like what it has to say about design of industrial products and games. In a nuthsell, the philosophy is that enlightenment only comes from experience, meditation, and then understanding. A lot of times the discussion about MMO design is skewed in unhealthy ways — even some of my talks, talks here, and terraNova.

One way it is skewed is ant farming. Looking at it from an academic point of view. “Allowing people to set each other on fire will create interesting dynamics!” Not player centric.

Another way is beancounting. We see players as walking wallets. I am sure that we have been in several talks that made us feel dirty even as we took notes on RMT and how to get a 9 year old to tap her college fund to buy a virtual horse.

The third of course is the executioners, talks by people who have been done wrong by players and want revenge. “My job became easier once I realized I hate my customers!”

At the end of the day we are trying to sell fun, and we are competing with TV, with the Web and YouTube, movies, etc. Fundamentally, we have to provide a place to escape to, and must keep that in mind. The Zen of Design is always staying with how users are experiencing your product.

Naturally, this brings us to cupholders.

They are a recent invention, date from the 70s. Here’s the priginal design — clipped to the window. Open the door, the window, whatever, and you spill your drink. As our lives became more suburban this terrible design mattered more. Eventually we got cupholders in the center console. Auto designers now know that the cupholder is a key decision point in comparing automobiles, because customers have an hour a day in that car or more, and that cupholder is key. The first thing a customer does is sit in the car and see how it feels. HEadroom? Stereo in reach? And is the cupholder not in an asinine position ?

Some crappy cupholders I have seen:

  • The bottom holder, the one that is too shallow
  • The thin wire that can only hold a can
  • The gearshift jostler, which smashes the cup when you shift
  • The stereo blocker

Clearly not designed with the customer in mind — just with the checklist of “we need a cupholder.”

So I want to talk about long-term relationships. They want to stick with a car, and also with an MMO. They want it to be their corner bar. Tens or hundreds of hours, and that this is something that scares them, just like marrying.

This is very unlike the folks who make single player games, who make one night stands and Playboy bunnies. We make the girl next door you bring home to mom and then marry.

So what do you look for?

  • A bit of sizzle, sure
  • but also potential, the idea that there’s bigger and better things down the road
  • Flaws, because you know that if you find a flaw in the first few minutes, you extrapolate it through 500 hours.

So games that hide the cool endgame but don’t let you know it;s there early.

We still do stupid sloppy stuff. Like, what’s the first thing you do? Walk, then jump. And how many games have you played that have crappy walk and jump? It’s the first thing that people do. Do it badly, and players see it as a bad sign. Think about having this experience on a first date.

Another stray thought: don’t lose sight of how players view your potential.

Now, a visual model. I am a fan of visual models, you can waste a lot of time with designers sitting around and looking at one. Like, Bartle’s Four. I am lazier than Richard, so my model has just one line.

A player will keep playing until he quits. You can graph what they do and see the exit points.

  1. Initial credit card signup
  2. Every monthly billing
  3. Little Billy’s mom discovers the credit card  charge on her card
  4. Litle Billy discovers girls
  5. Guild kicks Billy for not contributing to the guild fund
  6. Billy finally hears the real life voice of that hot elf chick
  7. The brick wall in advancement
  8. Huge do-overs
  9. Gameplay ends because there’s nothing else to do
  10. The realization that the goal you pursue is meaningless

Never underestimate how scary guild drama is!

A designer’s job is to reduce exit points.

The three Rs:

  1. Recruitment (getting them to trial, converting them)
  2.  Retention
  3. Reduction of costs and services

Every service industry knows that retention is the most cost effective one to do

Let’s talk hardcore.

I personally believe that this word is overused, misused, and maligned. Most of the time it comes from producers.  It used to be a good thing, because that’s what you made EQ or Quake 2 for. Now it’s something producers say is bad, and bring the grandma test. “Why can’t my grandma play this?” “Boss, I don’t think my grandma will ever like a babylon 5 game.”

But hardcore is a relative and specific measurement. It is not about whether you are hardcore gamer, but whether you are hardcore to an idea before launch, how hardcor eyou are to a genre, and how hardcore you are to a game once it is live. One game’s hardcore market is not another game’s. There are hardcore Sims players. Hardcore Habbo Hotel players. It is a measure of investment.

When you think abou it that way, you have to think hardcore is goodm because investment is good. In factm we want to push people to be hardcore about our game.

Also, it’s not a binary thing. It’s not like one day you suddenly decide to be a hardcore Sims guy who is going to script objects. You move step by step.

So here is a second mental model.

  • Casual: char creation, newbie quests and areas
  • Interested: adventuring in low levels, chatting, bnlow battlegrounds
  • Committed: higher levels, crafting, gropuping
  • Devoted: running instances, 10 man raids, guilds
  • Hardcore : 25 man raids, rep grinding, Competitive PvP, modding

Also, the reward cycle gets long, from seconds, to minutes, hours, days, and weeks per tier.

This is something we can probably improve. Even if your game does not look like this, it’s important for game designers to fill out this table for their own game. What are people doing at different levels of investment? And how often are they rewarded? You want to ask yourself, are there any gaps? Any boxes that have nothing? You are asking people to make huge leap, like jumping from short reward cycles to long ones without indoctrinating them. You need to use a “boiling frog’ approach.

Make the movement up the investment ladder as seamless as you can.

We want people to stick because communities that are full are interestingm, and empty ones are boring.

Don’t ask your players to make a leap of faith over a stage of development.

Hardcore can also help with the other graph — the more hardcore, the more dramatic the exit point has to be. A casual player exits easily.

People are not as hardcore as they think. Everyone thought they were leet hardcore until they got to Shadowbane. Most of them realized they were actually there to die. And no one is hardcore on their first log in. Sure, we have all encountered fanboys who were there two years in advance, and so on. But until you touch it, you cannot truly be hardcore. They are just at the “interested” level at best.

Why are hardcore import? They are rockstars in the game. People knw who you are. These are cultural touchstones, provide aspiration for other players, provide a trajectory and horizon for people. Hopefully they evangelize. And this is really important. Blockbusters happen when the hardcore evangelize to the casual people they have as friends. (I hope everyone here has read The Tipping Point).

When you go to make a purchase decision, you go to the folks whom you think know the space. So when a hardcoreguy evangelizes, other people take notice.

But your game is too hardcore if:

  • if hardcore players are too ashamed to admit they play the game. I had a boss who played EQ obsessively — 5 accounts. I asked him, “How many times have you recommended EQ to your wife or your brother.” “No, I wouldn’t do that to them.” That’s a bad thing.
  • Your hardcore customers are exclusionary. We made this mistake on Shadowbane. Casual people wander intot he boards, express casual interest, get told “U suk, play2crush!” and they leave. Yes, it is possible to make a good martini bar, but they probably charge $15 per martini. Mass market is more like selling beer.

You must control your culture. You wanna know why more women aren’t playing? Because the game environment is often sexist. And never underestimate the damage that can be done by a charismatic idiot. You have to control the tone. People are deciding whether they want to live in your game.

People easily take cues for social behavior. Go read about the Stanford Prison Experiment.  On the flip side, last year Mike Steele talked about Burning Man, where there is a culture of 50,000 dirty screaming hippies who pick up trash and clean up after themselves. Control your culture, or it will get hijacked.

Another stray thought: matchmake. We really should see more experimentation on this — EQ2 does cool stuff here.

Have you ever heard a rock band talk after breaking up? “It was like being married to five people.” Well, being in a raiding guild is like being married to fifty people. Guild drama fucks you up. And we let guilds form ad hoc, and let people find them randomly. How much stickier would things be if we could actually put people in compatible groups and let adults find adults instead of finding people who spell dude with zeroes?

I didn’t have a good segue, so here’s a slide about hippos.

The great game/world debate. My third mental model.

For a very long time, people have argued about whether these thngs should be games or worlds. And honestly, it’s mostly been driven by the world guys because worlds sound important. I tend to be traditionalist and on the gamey side. But this is much more relevant than the academic debate makes it seem.

World guys tend to talk about freedom and realism and immersion and simulation. And games are about balance, limitations, powerups, and fun.

First observation, it’s a sliding scale. Almost no game is all the way to one or the other.

Second observation is that there is a third point, which is equally important, and that is community.  After all, the “multiplayer” part is a key unique element of “massively multiplayer.”

Th first time I talked about this, Bartle pointed out that if you added “Arena” you woul dbe at the Bartle Four, but I disagree. More on that soon.

Socialization has its own key elements too: socialization, cooperation, competition, interdependence, social rewards.

You can graph games on this triangle. Raph called it the Schubert Triangle, but I am not that egotistical, and now call it the activity landscape.

The sweet spot is in the middle. If you are not in the middle, your community will tend to push you there. When Quake launched, it was heavy on game, on world, and players added in the stuff that made community happen and pushed the game to the middle. Players invented Capture the Flag. UO started over closer to the world point, but players added in stuff — so they rerolled characters to add guild name tags to their name, or ran IRC tofix the lack of global chat. And on the game side, they created wrestling matches, etc.

If players are nudging it, that may be a sign you should push in that direction too.

My take is we need to build well-centered games. This is not a purely academic exercise, because it gave me the rule of three. And this is why I excluded the arena, which would make it the rule of four.

Systems should satisfy two of the three points. Try asking players to vote on a system.

Let’s say that you are considering adding permadeath (fire that guy). World says “yes! realistic!” Game says “No fun.” And community says “disappearing identities makes it harder for me to track my friends.” Permadeath out.

Voice chat: World says it breaks immersion, game and community people both like it, games because of the tactical benefit and social because of chatting.

Long travel times: world says it is realistic, but  it makes it longer to hit the fun, and makes community harder because it takes too long to find your friends.

Crafting: yes across the board. Shouldn’t even be a debate.

  42 Responses to “AGDC07: The Zen of Online Game Design”

  1. in general, very well. At least, the people who liked it were willing to tell me so. You never know who doesn’t like it – people don’t exactly rush the stage to tell you off if they’re bored or disgusted by your talk. Various talk writeups:Raph’s Site.Slashdot. Next-Gen The slides are here. I plan to be writing full-length articles about the three game models discussed within over the course of the next few week. Incidentally, I know that Sulka Haro recommended my talk on writing design

  2. . It’s a good talk that discusses what Damion Schubert calls the Three Rs: Recruitment (of potential players), Retention (of existing players), and Reduction (of costs). There are great write-ups onRaph’s website, Slashdot, and Next Generation. Keep an eye on the Zen of Design blog for more in-depth articles on each of those Three Rs. As I catch other good write-ups from AGDC, I’ll link them here (and don’

  3. in general, very well. At least, the people who liked it were willing to tell me so. You never know who doesn’t like it – people don’t exactly rush the stage to tell you off if they’re bored or disgusted by your talk. Various talk writeups:Raph’s Site.Slashdot. Next-Gen The slides are here. I plan to be writing full-length articles about the three game models discussed within over the course of the next few week. Incidentally, I know that Sulka Haro recommended my talk on writing design

  4. was full of crunchy stuff.  Honestly, in my current context, I don’t have a lot of use for the ‘design for everywhere’ concept, but anytime Raph starts talking about a formal grammar for game design it makes my socks go up and down. Damion’s talkwas entertaining, and started me thinking more closely about a contention I have (that there is no ‘world/game’ split), and will explore more in a future post.  Bethke’s talk was not immediately useful to me, but included lots of practical

  5. of the speakers that will be participating in the event. The list includes industry heavyweights like Nexon America’s Min Kim, BioWare’s Damion Schubert, and Cryptic’s Gordon Wei. We’re particularly interested in Mr. Schubert’s talk. Last year hisZen of Online Game Designdiscussion was one of the highlights of the conference, and his discussion for this year sounds equally engaging. Entitled “Endgame: How to Build High-End Gameplay for Your Most Devoted Players”, it would seem to be tackling one of the issues that a

  6. […] Day TwoThe Community Panel.  They are not laughing with us.Also, Raph is better at journalism than we […]

  7. […] yegolev @ 17:39:25 on 9/6/07 The Community Panel. They are not laughing with us. Also, Raph is better at journalism than we are. [discuss]       […]

  8. Damion,

    This is a really nice write up and explains a lot of different things about the make-up of the games. But I don’t understand why the industry has not looked to go more on the simulation side. Seems our games really are just going hack-n-slash or as I like to call it (arcade style) instead of role-play.

    The industry removed down-time, and socialization has suffered. Who’s got time to talk when it’s down to a rat race to the end game?

    The industry introduces solo content to, or near end game and socialization has suffered. Who wants to group when you can play the game solo, and new game Conan is going to introduce off-line play to the MMO genre? Where are we heading?

    The industry has been removing any forms of consequence or risk really, from the character or their actions – cooperation has suffered. Who cares if I die or I steal your node of resources, nothing will happen to me.

    The industry, after releasing a game, seems to either loose touch on what they were building in the first place or has to make the game as easy as possible to get in as many people as possible. This often affects the enjoyment of those who look for a challenging, mind thinking, and social experience. But these changes often make the game so easy and solo, that people don’t want to talk unless its is that sexist or some other immature connent that don’t even belong in the game. I find myself watching the /ooc channel longing for the old days when it used to be something useful, and you watched it to find in-game topics and chatter. Now it like an IM (instant messanger) with better UI for immature children.

    The industry is just putting out the same game model with new graphics on it and trying to sell it likes its the next ‘big thing’. Players most likely will find out in the first 30 days (usually free with game purchase) that its the same exact thing as they’ve been playing. Everything will be compared to World of Warcraft, just as World of Warcraft was compared against EverQuest, and EverQuest to Ultima Online. Why haven’t we seen different types of alternate rule servers? I mean once your game is up and running – hopefully making a profit, why not put in a permadeath server just to see the reactions to such an rule set. Why has there not been another Firiona Vie server, all we get today is a carbon copy of the PvE server with a “(Role-Playing Preferred)” but there is little to no name enforcement, all race all class (ARAC) guilds are still just as common on a RP server as they are on the normal PvE servers.

    The genre is still young, but from the trends I see, we’re heading back to a single player game with multiplayer help or support system. The games are becoming less and less of social environment than they are farming fields. We’re letting the RMT people control the game and in some cases dictate the play experience of the players. Why create an EULA that prohibits the activity but then do NOTHING to stop or prevent it. Seems like a waste of Legal gargon and a mouse click.

    We build games for the 2 hour spurt player, when they are not the majority of players in the game worlds, and thus just hand the end-game to those who ‘play’ your game. New expansions come out and within 3 days, you’ve already got people at max level again. Why even have levels in the game if your going to give them out like candy at Halloween? I do like levels, just feel they are abused, I mean 10 newbie levels? For what, can’t we teach a player the game in levels 1 – 2 or 3?

    I could go on… but Damion, I enjoy your insite and your site, thanks.

  9. Hmm, you may want to post that on his blog, not mine. 😉

  10. Sorry to co-opt your blog Raph, but this *is* where this entry is, so it makes sense to discuss it here.

    The one thing that bothers me is the world-game duality. I really think it’s more of a structured-unstructured thing, or amusement-park vs sandbox.

    I find myself on the “World/Sandbox” side of Damion’s divide, at least, compared with most MMOGs which are released nowadays. I don’t think that opposes “game” at all: increasingly, we see that simulation *is* game. How many games are we seeing now that use world-simulation as a key part of gameplay? Modern racing games are founded on it. Half-Life 2 really brought it into the shooter genre, and now it’s everywhere. How many hours did I spend fooling around in Gary’s Mod, welding zombies to rocket-cars? How many hours in “Dwarf Fort” despite the lack of graphics and a usable interface? How many hours in “Bridge Construction Set 2” building the least practical working bridges possible? Simulation makes things novel and interesting because it opens new aspects to gameplay. What it is, however, is very hard to control, and so opposes *structured* gameplay.

    I think that the decision to land on the structured side of things is a good choice financially. Most people play to be entertained: the simulated world is EXTREMELY intimidating to new users. On the other hand, the structured game means you run out of things to do when you reach the “end” of whatever the designers have planned out for you, and all you stick around for after that is because of time invested. I played UO for more than 3 years. I played WoW for less than 1, left, and came back once they added new content with the expansion, played a few months, ran out of content, and left again.

    All the best stories about UO are the great things people did precisely because it was unstructured. Piracy on the high seas. Sieges at the Shadowclan fort. Merchants forming cartels and “DeBeers”ing all the NPC coloured armour. Jumping through a Moongate to fire island with nothing but a newbie hatchet and a knife, and playing the survival game. WoW stories, on the other hand, are empty in comparison, because virtually everything you can do in the game was designed for you, so it’s not really an accomplishment. Most of the WoW stories I’ve heard are just bragging about the biggest, shiniest item, and the only people that entertains are other people playing WoW. (Incidentally, all my good UO stories end in “and then the Devs added more structure so you couldn’t do that any more.”)

    Structure certainly has its place. But you can’t lock down everything and expect to be able to plan, produce and balance as much content as enterprising players could do for themselves otherwise. (The most fun I’ve had in WoW in a long time was founded around those “Heavy Leather Ball” items you get from the faire.) An ideal circumstance, I’d say, is an unstructured system which runs in parallel to the normal structured “endgame” we see in MMOs today. Let players make at least some of their own content, and they’ll be more willing to wait for your team to come up with more. Bliz would get my money for an expansion pack which consisted of nothing but a very large, procedurally generated continent with *no* new items, *no* new quests, *no* new instances, but some open systems that let me play with my friends. (Open PvP, basic player housing in some regions, etc.) I can tell you right now I’m not shelling out for another 10 levels of grind, some new “halls with boss rooms” uninteresting instances, some shiny new overpowered items, and more factions, which is what Wrath of the Lich King offers.

    UO got more money out of me than WoW ever will not because it was a better “game,” in the sense that in this usage of “game” every moment of my experience is planned out for me, but because it was a better experience. Now I just need to convince WoW’s remaining 8,999,999 subscribers of the same…

  11. Oh, the discussion is fine, it just seemed addressed to him, and who knows if he will ever see it here! 🙂

  12. Matt, you don’t have to convince me…I am in the choir. Oh…thanks Raph for all the play by play from the conference. I was just in Austin visitin my mother, had I paid attention it might have been cool to stay for this. : )

    Back to Matt’s comments: I whole heartedly agree. All of my UO stories end the same way too. It is very hard to have a “life experience” that everyone one else has and consider it an experience. Yes, UO was a game and yes…it was not structured to encourage or dissuade RP’ing, but it was structured to create experiences. And in that case I would call it a simulation. It created a place where you could do…and be…and experience your own things. Because of that, we (all those that played it) have our own experiences. That means as a game it succeeded, up until the point they started pulling the reigns in. And it also made some folks some cash. But sadly, UO would not be made today. And that is the point I get from Damion’s point. Neither would Shadowbane…and that is sad. Because like it or not…no one walked away from that game without experiences either. But neither game speaks the words publishers think sell. But they do create vast experiences.

    And to me…that is what we should be shooting for. That is what you guys should be giving us. A palette for our experiences. And as long as we can have that…people will play…and continue to play. I find it interesting that Damion contradicts himself here. He suggest that the middle is what we should go after, while building the experience so that people will become Hardcore. I don’t see how anyone can build an experience rich world without creating a place where people can have individual or shared experiences that are different and play to the game model more than the simulation model. But I could be missing something in his points.

    I look at it like I look at any other art form. We all get something else out of the songs we listen to, the books we read, the movies we watch…as long as those mediums are created from that perspective. We forget that last trite pop song by those guys we can’t name, that action movie that was a carbon copy of the last bullet fest, and that pop culture book that told us everything some else thinks we need to hear.

    But, we take away our own experiences, good or bad, from things that are created to touch us and open up that experience. UO touched me. I played it. I created my own experiences. EQ didn’t touch me…because my experience was the same as everyone’s. Didn’t play EQ2 because it was more of the same. Shadowbane touched me. Precisely because of the world. It was hard, it was different. Every day was something new that only myself, my colleagues, and the guys on the other side of the line were experiencing. Only those that were there would ever know what happened and why it was fun. I played WoW and quit before I even got to the “middle game”, precisely for the same reason I quit EQ and never played EQ2…I got tired of the quest grind that everyone else does and some one “thinks” I will like to do like everyone else. And no amount of socializing saved the game. My friends played on…but I quit…precisely because I was not having my own set of experiences that I could call my own or share with my friends.

    I want something that speaks to me. Sure…Web 2.0 like player driven content would be great (under some form of structure to avoid the Second Life nonesense), but in the end, I want a place to have my own and shared experiences. And I don’t see that happening in Damion’s world, uh, game. I loved Shadowbane though. So..hats off to him for being apart of that game.

    In the end, he is right…this is not about Martini’s, good Scotch, or even Mead…this is about watered down beer that everyone will buy and drink, and say “thank you” and “may I have another”.

    Sad really…


  13. […] but you’ll have to wait for it. Yeah, you could read Next-Gen’s. (edit: Raph has a liveblog of it that’s pretty complete. I can’t pretend to type that […]

  14. Nah, Half-life 2 actually proves the point in my presentation, which is that entertainment experiences which has some world and some game are going to be stickier than something that is all world or all game. Half-Life 2 is much more ‘well-centered’ – it’s got a lot more room to play with environments and physics than, say, Fear, but it still brought all of the game things to the table: directed goals, relatively linear story, etc. It’s an artful blend.

    I’ll address some of your other concerns on my blog, but the short form is that Simulations have not really taken hold in MMOs largely because if you challenge most people to find their own fun, the vast majority of them will fail to do so. The ones that succeed will swear up and down that those are the greatest online moments of their lives. But they will end up being in the minority.

    Erik Bethke’s talk was a marvelous talk this year – he talked about how they are adding quests, levels and other ‘mmo’ reward structures to GoPets, a game which was until very recently, purely a sandbox. They talked repeatedly about focus groups where players were lost, confused and discouraged because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do next.

  15. […]…ne-game-design/Bioware designer Damion Schubert's keynote speech about how to design a good MMO game.I suppose some of this applies to other online games, too. ——————– Gorbachev SGNAHL Season 1 & 2 ChampionThe 11,111!1!111!!11est of them allPlatform Bigotry Must Die!Gamersch play aaalll night!Nintendo for World Domination!The PixelantesFuck RussiaMy 360 talks […]

  16. Half-Life 2 was structured, yes (and I can’t chalk up its’ excellent pacing to anything but very careful design). I was merely using it as an example of a more generic idea of world simulation contributing to an idea of “game.” Many of the puzzles were designed with clear solutions, but the freedom that the physics simulation allowed served to make the designed solution a little “fuzzier,” so the solution feels like it belongs more to the player and less like a hoop they’ve been told to jump through. That’s more rewarding (which leads to another topic entirely.) However, let’s not forget that Half Life’s simulation aspects allowed for Gary’s Mod, which is as pure a sandbox as you can get, really. It’s an example of players using the simulation created by the developers to do their own thing – or really, a player using the simulation aspects of the game to do his own thing to allow other players to do even more of their own thing. (The primary weakness of which is that it’s so hard to share what you’ve done, a problem that isn’t shared by MMOs)

    I agree whole-heartedly that a pure simulation/sandbox MMO wouldn’t succeed commercially any more (at least under the $60/game + $15/month model of the AAA MMO, but Raph’s quite fond of pointing out alternative experiences around here. Look at the “Hotel Goldfish” keynote summary. That place is “locked down” in its own way in that interactions are very limited, but when you consider that all they provide are rooms and furniture, most of the real content *has* to come from the players). Most players *do* want the experience provided for them. My argument is for provided sandbox elements that exist alongside of a structured core experience. (I think we’re on the same page here, it’s a question of degree, but I really don’t think the current generation of MMOs provide nearly enough of this. You mentioned going with the players’ “push” for World/Game/Social elements – what happens when your initial design is so locked down, the players hands are tied to the extent where they can’t push at all? Blizz has actually moved *away* from what little “World” elements they had – look at the Gurubashi Arena, for instance. The only spot in the world, pre-BC, where you could do open/group PvP. Then they coopted it with some treasure chest event.) Allow the players a free hand, even if its in an environment separated from the core, structured play so as to not risk “breaking” the experience you’ve designed, and the minority which will create its own experience will do so… and furthermore, they’ll create things which will draw in other players which won’t.

    I suppose modding is the ultimate example of this in action. (I’m trying to find game-related examples beyond MMOs because there are so few “open” MMOs around any more. Also, community content is a bit of a buzzword right now, so I’m shamelessly coopting it onto my side of the debate!) Players want an experience provided for them, that’s what they’re willing to start paying $15/mo for after all, but some players want to create experiences and will provide them to others. Open MMO environments get rid of the technical hurdles because the simulation provides everything the players need to create a new experience. Never underestimate the power of novelty in keeping people interested in your game. No matter how appealing your core gameplay is (and let’s face it, most MMO aren’t so hot in providing fun core gameplay, and make up the enjoyment provided by raw “fun” with a sense of accomplishment – you play the game to achieve something, not because that part of the game is fun. “Grinding” is the ultimate expression of this: players are willing to toss fun out the window entirely for the sake of accomplishment.) people still need novelty. They’ll either provide that for themselves if your game allows that, or they’ll get it from another game. (Or you can pay staff to do it, good luck in keeping up.)

    A world environment *provides* for *new* gameplay. So I can’t view “World”/Simulation as being in opposition to the “game” aspects of the MMO. It certainly interferes with designer-crafted, structured gameplay, which is, of course, only a subset of the gameplay provided by an MMO. So either design with simulation in mind, (i.e. design problems with solutions rather than solutions with problems, build your world around necessary non-real gameplay elements rather than trying to fit gameplay elements into an established world, etc) or find a way to physically separate the two. But you can have both, and I don’t think one has to limit the other.

  17. […] our small world, too. I learned a lot of things reading it, and wanted to share with you all. […]

  18. One problem with leaning too much towards the world/simulation side, is that you can easily end up with a game that’s more like work than like fun.

    Like this, for example.

  19. That’s an issue of whether the core mechanics are fun, and whether you rely on accomplishment and the grind (the “I’ve invested too much time to quit this crappy game now!” phenomenon) to retain players more than the world/structured game divide, I think.

    That it’s “work” is one of the most common complaints I hear from WoW players, for instance, and nobody would argue that it’s on the simulation side of the spectrum.

    When we’re talking about MMOs, “work” usually comes in the form of simplistic, repetitive tasks. It doesn’t matter whether you’re mindlessly digging ore (“simulation”) or clicking the “attack” button on a creature for the thousandth time (“game”), if you don’t introduce some variety into what the player has to do, it’s going to be painful. We’re back to the novelty thing again.

    I think part of the issue is that MMOs tend to be built around games that really aren’t based on gameplay. I don’t think anyone would play the majority of RPGs for the combat system alone. They stand on things like plot and emotional attachment, which MMOs substitute with accomplishment as a goal. Instead of resolving a plot, you get a level, or a new item to show off. (It would be called a “Higher Score” in the arcade days, with the exception that since the score never resets, the primary measure is time… and the only way to lose is to quit. No wonder they’re addictive.)

    If you want a game that doesn’t feel like work, the gameplay should be based on interactions that are proven to be entertaining and engaging on their own, without any outside crutches. FPSes are one. Puzzle games are another. Fighting games are another still. Side-scrolling shooters are another still, as are platformers.

    I wish could talk about Tabula Rasa’s step towards the FPS MMO (NDA and all). I’d point out Planetside, but it’s a less pure case as it’s pure PvP. Or “Puzzle Pirates.” These games are less likely to be considered “work” because their gameplay is always engaging. Purely social games, which lean heavily towards “world” because they don’t provide a structured game at all *never* feel like work because there’s no goal you’re told to accomplish at all.

    Hmm, thinking about it, I don’t think world/simulation is a decent category at all, there need to be some distinctions made in there. As before, I’m stuck returning to the structured/unstructured definition, which is, I think, the core issue in design here.

  20. […] from Zen of Online Game Design (posted at Raph Kosters Blog)So I want to talk about long-term relationships. They want to stick with a car, and also with an […]

  21. I have to agree with Matt about the core mechanics being fun. It would be nice also to see a combat model that is different from what I’ve been playing non-stop since 1999, it’s getting a little old all the dps stuff. Heck, leave DPS in but at least create Chinese checkers instead of giving us the same game of checkers with different names on moves.

    DDO had (haven’t played in a while) an really different and fun combat model and system. It just suffered from a lack of content, at the release forced grouping, and nothing outside of combat to do. Shadowbane had some great elements in it, but there were some horrible design flaws the took a lot of the fun from the game as a whole and hurt its success. Without a development team willing to patch up these flaws, the game pretty much fizzled out.

    I don’t want 100% simulation such as ‘The Sims’, but it would be nice to have other things that ‘would make sense’ get back to being apart of the game.

    I would like to see how every is some fun and engageing combat mechanics. This DPS button mashing game is far from fun (at least for me). We’ve been doing it pretty much since EQ. Why not try and add in the fear of the unknown in combat, the heart pounding action of a FPS, and elements of other games that give a bit more role defining abilities to the classes. I don’t need to have two classes that are the same with different names.

    DDO had a pretty decent combat engine, just the rest of the game was rather shallow.

    I want there to be a world that requires those roles and your typical group of 6 players could should not have every role needed possible in the group. However the world does not need to be so linear that this would prevent the players from access said content or area, they just need to find an alternative route to their destination.

    Why do we build/design the classic struggle of good vs. evil and then do nothing with it. While World of Warcraft did more than other studios and Firiona Vie server did the best job, in most games it is an afterthought if thought of at all by the players.

  22. […] ( ) and re-worded on Raph’s site ( ) by Damion himself about the “Zen of Online Games”. I found it extremely interesting, if a bit […]

  23. […] Mr Schuberta, polecam jego bloga Zen of Design. Wicej na temat wystpu Mr Schuberta w Austin tutaj. sobota, 08 wrzenia 2007, nef.the.grey pole znajomemu » led komentarze (rss) » […]

  24. Boon —

    I really don’t think there was anything in my talk that was specifically about classic men-in-tights games, although I do think they tend to get shortchanged in the court of public opinion. My advice was “make a well-centered game. have both a casual audience and a hardcore audience, and make ways for players to move up that ladder. think about why people quit. control your culture.” These things are all as true whether you’re making WoW, Shadowbane, Habbo, or Hot or Not.

    When I read the overall gist of the rest of your complaints, it seems to be asking why we are not making more hardcore simulationist worlds. The answer is simple: they are niche. They need to be softened before a truly viable market will come. They need more ‘game-y’ elements and more ‘community’ elements. They need to be designed to be player-centric. Otherwise, they will always have a ceiling, and that ceiling is probably a little above what UO and SWG got.

    On the flip side of things, EQ was a hardcore ‘game-y game’. What WoW did was take that model and soften it. Add in better immersion factors. Make it easy to solo for a strong part of the game. But the real hardcore portion of MMOs – the PvP and the raiding – is still in WoW, for those who are willing to invest in the experience. Raiding in WoW can be incredibly hardcore – but the casual players are never affected it while they get their feet under them.

    Unfortunately, this mentality is against the grain of most pure simulationists on the web, who are much bigger fans of the harsh reality, fuck players and let ’em find their own fun point of view. Someday, and probably not too long in the future, someone’s going to design a game meant to be a simulation first, but they’re going to soften it up so that new players can actually get acclimated, get a sense of direction, and get a sense of personal power. The way to do this is almost certainly by adding in some ‘gaming’ elements. Thus, the well-centered thing.

    Is it possible? Absolutely. Let’s not forget that Grand Theft Auto and Oblivion are both simulationist games at heart, and both are ridiculously successful single-player games. But they also both are heavily player-centric, and borrow heavily from the ‘game’ side of things to keep players directed and invested.

  25. Why do you feel that players need, or want, to be directed?

    “Invested” is easy, and can be accomplished in various ways. Only one of which is through direction, which implies an end of the road on a map made by developers that players can’t move off of.

  26. Okay, I think I see where Damion’s going with this. In fact, I think we’re on pretty much the same page. What got me was the idea of the “triangle” and finding the middle. That analogy brings to mind the “power management” of space shooters like Freespace or Wing Commander. The immediate implication for me, anyway, is that you’re dealing with a fixed resource: that if you make the game “gamier” then you automatically have to remove simulation and social aspects to maintain balance. It implies an inherent conflict between the three, which I don’t think is always the case, and I’m pretty sure you don’t think so either as you give examples where it isn’t.

    Would I be correct in rephrasing your argument to say “stick as much game, social, and simulation aspects in as you possibly can, insofar as nothing added harms the areas it detracts from more than it benefits those it benefits?” We’re not looking for the *middle* of the triangle, we’re looking for the *biggest* triangle possible, understanding that any single design decision will effect the length of each side differently.

    As an aside to address one point, I’ve always wondered how many of the advocates for permadeath (as in, both those who want it, and those who see the appeal for the sake of verisimilitude but don’t think it’s worth it) would be satisfied by a simple change of verb. Let’s just stop having the game refer to what happens when your HP reaches 0 as “death,” and when you respawn as “resurrection” and call them “unconsciousness” and “revival” instead. Suddenly the simulation is much better – as this is really the natural process we’re most closely replicating – and we don’t change the actual gameplay at all. (RPers have been explaining away “death” as “unconsciousness” for years!)

    I think the importance of direction was an important lesson of UO. UO was very newbie unfriendly, because for all its possibilities, they were really quite overwhelming to the new player. They’d pop into existance in front of an Inn. And… that’s it. (To be fair, the layer of the simulation that would provide direction was never really finished – Raph has notes up about it here someplace.) There were countless efforts made to make the transition to UO for new players easier. (Mentor program, “young player” features, etc) Ultimately, I don’t think any of them were really all that successful, because they were tacked onto a game that really didn’t have a sense of direction.

    If you want to experience the shock that was UO to a new player, try Wurm. ( – basic accounts are free, and it’s Java based so no client) Technical issues aside (it’s in a pretty crude sate right now), it’s scope is truly enormous… and really quite terrifying even for experienced MMOG players. The sense that there’s so much to do and yet nothing to do is quite bewildering.

    The issue isn’t whether direction should be provided, I think, it’s whether players should be forced to follow that direction exclusively due to a lack of outside, supporting systems to allow unstructured play. (One of the worst consequences of which is running out of game and quitting – players will never “run out of game” if they’re eased into an environment where they create their own game for each other as they go.)

  27. Matt Fisher,

    As to your Permanent Death verb change to unconsciousness. Lord of the Rings Online does this and it does not resonate well as all the actions are the same.

    Your hit points reach zero, the world goes black.
    When you regain vision, your at a bind point or resurrection point closest to where your when unconsciousness.

    That ^^ and the fact that everyone still says they died. Different name is not going to do it alone. You need to change more than just a name to make a difference.

  28. Well, we’re sort of off topic now. But anyway:

    People still refer to the identical mechanics of unconsciousness and death as death because that’s what every other MMO refers to it as – not to mention just about every other game before it. They already associate the mechanics of game death, where you come back again, with being death. That’s not going to change from one game.

    *However,* this isn’t the case for people who advocate permadeath on the basis of realism. They don’t associate death with coming back right away – that’s the whole issue. Referring to unconsciousness as death because that’s what death *is* in every other game and then complaining that the game’s death isn’t realistic because you can come back from it is inherently contradictory. The fix is a non-issue for those who don’t care about the realism of death, but addresses the concerns of those who do.

    Have there been many advocates for permadeath in LotR online? (You know, post – Middle Earth Online from Sierra…) Or are they satisfied by the rephrasing?

  29. […] etc) of his that I saw or heard about, had to mean he didn’t sleep.  Period.  His liveblog of Damion Schubert’s Zen of Online Game Design is absolutely top notch, for […]

  30. […] cupholders, triangles, and walruses. I really really really encourage anyone who missed it to read Raph’s liveblog of it.. It was stellar. Make sure to tell Damion that you loved the part about the triangle the […]

  31. […] his session both called “Zen of Design”), many of us came in there with a fairly blank slate. As Raph Koster related on his site – and which notes are much better than my own cramped scribbles in my trusty cleanroom notebook – […]

  32. […] talk that it’s worth buying the audio to. The slides are here, and Raph was live-blogging it. Lunch was a big rush to get to this one early so I could actually get in the […]

  33. […] titled session had a huge turnout. Those who managed to get a seat were in for a treat, as Schubert ran through several mental models of massively multiplayer. His discussion included some hints on why you want to make all of your […]

  34. […] mean about "world" and "game" players refer to Schuberts article on Raph’s Blog here Then again, I might be reading too much into it Last edited by Hozloff : Today at 05:42 […]

  35. […] up a committee on legal issues involving virtual worlds and MMOs.Raph also mentioned this guy, Damion Schubert, who had the following interesting stuff to say regarding Gender & Games: You must control your […]

  36. […] cupholders, triangles, and walruses. I really really really encourage anyone who missed it to read Raph’s liveblog of it.. It was stellar. Make sure to tell Damion that you loved the part about the triangle the […]

  37. […] particularly interested in Mr. Schubert’s talk. Last year his Zen of Online Game Design discussion was one of the highlights of the conference, and his discussion for this year sounds […]

  38. […] Schubert, BioWare. Damion gave a design talk at AGDC 07′ that should be stapled to the foreheads of anyone making one of the damn […]

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