[MUD-Dev] Structured Social Play

John Buehler johnbue at msn.com
Sun Sep 2 17:34:54 New Zealand Standard Time 2001

The design topic that's currently of most interest to me is that of
providing play for casual gamers.  The general idea is that players
should feel comfortable getting into the game for only 20 minutes or
so, and without feeling the need to prepare themselves for an
arduous or challenging experience.  This is a play style that I'd
like to accomodate, but it needn't necessarily constitute the entire
game experience.

Regardless of whether you agree with my definition of 'casual play',
I'm having a hard time contending with the social element of game
play.  As Raph has mentioned in a few posts, the social element of
these games is the most addictive (my memory of his statement).  I'm
not sure that it's so much as addictive as simply complex and
time-consuming.  The only style of *social* gameplay that I can
think of that permits players to engage in the game entertainment
and then depart from it is that of structured games.  Games with a
clear beginning and a very clear ending.  Chess.  Go.  Checkers.
Cribbage.  Backgammon.

The games that most naturally permit clean exits are the ones that
have the clearest delineation between an end and a start of a new
game episode or experience.  Consider that when one game of
blackjack ends, the player is unlikely to consciously consider the
ramifications of starting a new game.  The games are too brief and
generally many games are played back to back to back.  However, when
playing chess or go, there is a natural pause between games where
the players can consider whether or not they want to start a new
game.  The episodes are longer, giving the player pause to consider
whether they want to continue with a new episode.

I have played EverQuest and Asheron's Call most, and in those games,
the hunting process is very much like blackjack, but not as
structured.  Each kill is fairly brief and often multiple are taking
place simultaneously.  A steady stream of kills is the prefered mode
of operation, further blurring the overall process into one big
kill.  The idea of taking a pause between kills in order to consider
the time is simply not done.  Well, at least not until it's 2am and
the players absolutely want to stop playing.  Sometime soon, anyway.

So the first element of social gameplay that's difficult to contend
with is the fact that the tasks that the players work on are not
clearly delineated such that all players understand where one task
ends and another begins.  Players don't naturally tend to pause and
consider if they want to continue with the game entertainment.  One
other equivalent to this might be going to Disneyland.  Each ride
takes a certain amount of time due to lining up, then riding the
ride.  After each ride, there is an attitude of considering what to
do next.  If rides were dovetailed such that the exit to one ride
immediately placed you in line for another ride, it might be rather
more difficult to keep track of time.  Naturally, while standing in
line, glancing at one's watch takes place all the time, but what the
heck, we're already in line...

The second element of social gameplay that's difficult to contend
with is structuring the social interactions.  Are players
well-served by game designers who structure the gameplay?  As an
example, EverQuest makes one social element very structured:
grouping.  All players know that they have to find a group in order
to hunt.  As opposed to Asheron's Call, where grouping (forming a
fellowship) tends to be rather less structured: do I want to form a
fellowship?  Are others interested in one?  Do we just hunt
together, but not actually form a fellowship?  Obviously, Asheron's
Call is presenting options to the social element, but is that a good
thing?  It complicates and extends the social dynamic of the hunt.
It consumes time.

One last observation is that players who play together frequently
will be able to structure their own social interactions.  I've
encountered this, and it's one way to get things structured.
Everyone knows their role and they are expected to fill it.  In
these cases, of course, the first effect that I've mentioned (lack
of clear break points) tends to be the one that keeps people

In the end, I have two questions:

1. Is a highly structured style of gameplay best for casual
gameplay?  Where all players understand how to tackle any given
problem and they simply cooperate in order to tackle it (including
PvP against another group).  If so, how can this be accomplished?
By making the game inherently structured?  By encouraging structure
among the players?

2. Does anyone know of other techniques that have been implemented
or discussed in an effort to make the time cost and energy required
to play one session with other people as low as possible?  Most
designers tend to be fairly hardcore (extreme interest in being in
the game, understanding it and excelling at it), but how do we
design games for the non-hardcore?  The ones who just want to show
up, see and do a few interesting things with others and then leave.


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