The fundamentals of game design for Massively Multiplayer Online Games are beginning to become fairly well known in game development. Just the same, there is still a lot of argument about what is and is not a 'good call' when it comes to adding features to a massive service. The way to go about making those choices, and a good deal of attention to the concept of a game as a service, was laid out by Damion Schubert in his talk at GDC Austin on Thursday entitled 'The Zen of Online Game Design'.Damion Schubert is currently working at Bioware, but is known well for his work on UO, Shadowbane, and other titles. He's a very recognizable name in MMOG development circles, and maintains a blog discussing many of the issues covered in his talk at the website Zen of Design.
His talk surrounded the three experimental models for MMOGs he's had whirling around in his head for years. It also touched on general stray thoughts on the genre. They were based on his experiences, and his goal for the talk was to 'open source' his thoughts so that others could comment and amend them. The source of the name of both his website, and the talk, stems from an appreciation of Zen thinking. "True understanding is only possible via experience."
Many discussions of MMOGs go down unhealthy paths. Some view game design as 'Ant Farming'. These folks see game worlds as closed environment where they can do academic studies, looking from the outside in. "What happens if I poke a stick at it?" Some view it as 'Bean Counting'. Players are little more than walking wallets to these groups. "Let's pick up and shake our customers and see if they drop any loose change!" Then, there are the 'Crime and Punishment' types. These developers don't so much care about making money or learning, they just want revenge on the players. "My job became easier once I discovered I hated my players."
These approaches miss the point: MMOG design is about making fun. Massive games compete with movies, bars, television; you have to remember that you need to make a fun place to escape. In order to do that, it's imperative that you understand how players are approaching your product.
This brings us naturally to cupholders. The 70s was the origin of the window-clip cupholder, and it was a terrible design. But it was necessary because of the increasing suburbanization of society. Many auto designers now feel that the cupholder is a major purchasing decision in an car. The customer will have a long-term relationship with the car, and they need to know that they'll 'fit' into the car. The first thing a veteran car-buyer will do is just sit in the car, to see how it 'feels'. They know not to buy a car with the 'stereo blocker' style of cupholder, and aren't going to be fooled by poor design. You have to design a product from the customer's point of view.
The concept of long-term relationships is key. MMOG designers are in the same boat as car manufacturers. People approach a MMOG as the place where they'll be spending tens or hundreds of hours in a world. This is very unlike standalone, play-once games. Gears of War is a Playboy Bunny. World of Warcraft is the girl next door. You're looking for a little bit of sizzle, but you're looking for a lot of potential. You want to see bigger and better things coming down the line, where the game will go.
They also look for flaws. If they see a flaw in the first ten minutes, they'll extrapolate that out to have hundreds or thousands of flaws. Bug counts in released games are now actually quite low. That assumption is usually false. Just the same, designers aren't paying enough attention to first impressions. Damion asked the crowd, "What's the first thing you do when you get into a game?" The answer, of course, is: walk, and then jump. If you walk and jump - and it doesn't feel right - you're already put off. "They can't even get the first thing I do right?"
A helpful visualization appeared on the screen: a straight line, with an arrowhead on the far right side. The player's lifeline is simple: a player will keep playing until she quits. You can look for exit points, points in the game that would cause the player to quite, and you can try to avoid those. As an example, every time your credit card is charged, that's an exit point. Some are outside of your control as a designer. (Billy discovers girls.) Just the same, a lot of them are in the designer's hands. Some examples include: The Brick Wall - You realize it takes four times as long to go from 29 to 30. The Pimpslap - you spend 6 hours on a quest only to fail and have to start over. The End of Fun - you're 'done', you've hit max level, you've raided all the content. The Sudden Realization - I killed 2500 elementals to make this hammer, and now I'm going to replace it. All of these can make a player want to leave a game.
The three Rs, then, are required to keep the game moving forward. Recruitment, means new people into the game. Retaining, means keeping them there once they're in the game. And Reduction of costs and services. Of these, retention is the most cost-effective of the three.
Which brings us to the hardcore. Damion was strongly of the opinion that the word hardcore is overused and misused in the game industry. Mostly it comes from producers. It used to be that hardcore gamers were good; Quake 2 was all about the hardcore, for example, but now more games are aimed at the mass market. The producer asks, "Why can't you make this game for my grandma?" Hardcore is a relative measurement. It's not about whether you're hardcore gamer, it's whether you're hardcore to a genre, an idea, and then to a game. One game's hardcore market is not another games' hardcore market. It's a measure of investment. It's a measure of how invested they are in your game. People invested in your space can only be a good thing; invested people keep playing. Designers actually want to make people more hardcore.
Hardcore is not a binary thing. It's a sliding scale, and the goal of designers should be to nudge players down that path. A slide revealed Damion's mental model of investment: starting at casual, a player moves through the interested phase, to committed, to devoted, and to finally hardcore. The further you are down the chain, the more time it takes to get rewarded by the game. A casual gamer might be rewarded in seconds, and a committed player might wait hours for his reward, but hardcore players can wait for weeks between payoffs. Even if your game doesn't apply to the general model, Damion encouraged the designers in the room to try to slot the chart onto their game. What's the committed guy doing vs. the casual guys, vs. the hardcore? The big question: are there any gaps? If you ask someone to jump a level of commitment, that's hard to do.
Designers want to create investment in the game by making people move up the commitment ladder. Not everyone should be hardcore, but communities full of people are at their most interesting. The ladder should be as smooth as humanly possible. Mapping that back onto the lifeline, it is harder for a hardcore player to jump through an exit point than a casual player.
People aren't as hardcore as they think they are, and no one is hardcore on their first log in. With that said, why are hardcore players all that important? Hardcore player are the rockstars. People know who are in the top three guilds on their WoW server. These players provide aspirational models for more casual players. Seeing fully decked out players is not daunting, it's uplifting. It motivates you for future successes. Hardcore players are also evangelizers. They pass the word on to the more casual folks, and get them interested. Ala 'the tipping point', key influencers can make or break a game.
Your game is too hardcore if your hardcore players are ashamed to be playing it. That's not healthy. Also: don't build up your hardcore players in those terms. That terminology ends up being exclusionary. It's dangerous to make a martini bar. You probably want more to be the corner pub.
Damion paused before going on to a topic he obviously felt very strongly about: As a game designer of a massively multiplayer game, you MUST control your game's culture. It's important to try to keep the culture of your game as clean as possible. As much of a losing battle as it can be, it's extremely important that you try to keep the misogynists out. Damion quipped, "Never underestimate the damage a charismatic idiot can do." Keep the gamespace civil, for the sake of everyone from casual to hardcore. People take social cues from behavior around them. Compare the behavior exhibited in the Stanford prison experiments vs. the socially conscious culture at Burning Man.
On the concept of forming you culture, Damion noted that it's perfectly reasonable to apply that to gameplay as well. Matchmaking in-game is a great idea. Being in a raiding group is like being married to 50 people. Guilds are very ad hoc in most games. How much stickier would your game be if you could easily find a group with similar goals and mores? If you can get those people together, how much more powerful would the game be?
Damion then went on to his answer to the great game/world debate. The answer is something that's been in his head for 10 years. It's not new, but it's not finished. Both games and worlds have pros and cons. Worlds offer realism, simulation, immersion, and freedom. Games offer balance, limitations, powerups, and fun. Just as with the casual/hardcore dichotomy, it's important to understand that game/world is a sliding scale. No game is entirely game, and no game is entirely world. Damion then notes that there is a third leg to the scale, and that's community. They are MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER games.
Into the mix, community adds socialization, cooperation, competition, and interdependence. Any MMOG can be plotted on the triangle. The ideal, the sweet spot, is in the middle. If you're not there the community will move you in that direction, because that's what the vast majority of players are looking for. Quake was in the bottom part of the triangle (dead between world and game, but removed from community) when it launched, and the players moved it towards the center. Players created the concept of capture the flag all on their own, to encourage community. UO was in the lower left hand corner (very world-oriented), and community moved them towards the center with elements like beauty pageants. Early UO players even had the 'rule' that they'd recreate characters with guild tags in their names, because there was no other way to facilitate that at the time.
As a game designer, your goal should be to build a well-centered game. You want to aim for the middle of the triangle. You can turn the triangle into the 'rule of three': systems should strive to be good for at least two of the three aspects of the game. If you have a question about whether a feature is a good idea, just run it past the rule of three. For example: "Permadeath" - World says yes, it's realistic. Game says no, as it's not fun. Community says no, as it makes it hard to track friends whose characters are deleted. "Voice chat" - World says no, as it breaks immersion. Game says yes, as it makes it possible for more tactical combats to be run. Community says yes, as it's easier to communicate with friends. It's also a tool that can be used to turn a bad feature into a good one. For example, long travel times are often seen as a negative by players. The rule of three would tend to agree. World says yes, because it's immersive, but both Game and Community say no: it's not fun, and it takes longer to get to friends. What if the game were to add a profession with the ability to teleport players? Game still says no: long travel times is unfun. World still says yes, because long travel is immersive. Community, though, swaps to a yes; having to talk with someone to get teleported is an inherently social activity.
With that, Damion wrapped up the talk to enthusiastic applause.