[MUD-Dev] DGN: Reasons for play [was: Emergent Behaviorsspawnedfrom...]

Lachek Butalek lachek at gmail.com
Thu Nov 10 08:29:58 New Zealand Daylight Time 2005


Sean Howard wrote:

>> Mass-market appeal does not necessarily equate to fun, which is
>> why I've cancelled my WoW account and why I'm not hardly ever
>> firing up Sims 2 anymore.

> That's the trick, isn't it? Basically, this discussion has bounced
> back and forth between so-and-so isn't "good", well 10 million
> people say otherwise, but they don't have discerning taste, my
> that's arrogant to say, etc.

I know you're not arguing that it is, but I don't find that
statement arrogant at all. We on this list are game connoisseurs in
one way or another, either because we frequently play many different
games, or because we analyze them in ways the average gamer
wouldn't, or because we design them. The analogy in the wine world
would be a wine taster who taste many different kinds of wine very
frequently, a restaurant reviewer for a wine magazine who may not
drink wine that frequently, but has to precisely verbalize his
thoughts about them, or a winery manager whose job it is to ensure
that a good quality wine is produced. If anyone reads this who
actually know anything about wine, I apologize profusely for this
ridiculous analogy. =)

To dig the analogy below its current six foot depth, the majority of
gamers - who fall into the broad categories of
"once-in-a-blue-moon", "casual" and "hardcore" - would translate
into the "I hear you are supposed to have only white wine with fish"
type, the "let's have a bottle of red with dinner" type and the
"spare some change for... uh... a sandwich?" types,
respectively. The first type is pretty clueless and would tend to
condemn "white wine" as a whole if they had a bad first
experience. The second type knows a little bit about wine, but their
knowledge is narrow, they tend to mostly drink the stuff they know
and enjoy, and they're only concerned with "what tastes good to
them". The last type is extremely experienced, and may complain
loudly and wildly about a wine that doesn't meet "their standards" -
but they'll drink it anyway, in huge gulps, until it's all gone and
they need more. The only reason to listen to what any of these
groups have to say about wine is if you're trying to achieve massive
financial success by selling boatloads of barrels to a huge
audience. Designing a "virtuous" game has nothing to do with the
opinions of any of these groups, much like any winery worth its
barrels wouldn't pay attention to the opinions of your average wino.

So while wine connoisseurs may sometimes be arrogant, the fact that
they dictate to the rest of the world what a good wine (again, a
"virtuous" wine) is supposed to taste like is not. An "expert" must
be prepared to disagree with popular opinion - otherwise, the world
will be inundated with nothing but popscience and poorly disguised
marketing.

> I think mass-market appeal does equate to... wait for
> it... appeal, and I think appeal is a large part of fun, much like
> smell is a large part of taste. If it smells like Star Wars, then
> it can taste pretty bland and you'll still think it is yummy.

And again, a wine connoisseur would be able to pick up on the fact
that the wine has a rich aroma, but the grapes were picked too late
in the year and there is a slight aftertaste of ash. A connoisseur's
job is to report on the weak points and how it can be made
better. In my view, saying that a wine "tastes" good when it really
only has a nice aroma is an illusion, and saying that a game is
"fun" when it really only has "mass appeal" is a similar misnomer.

I frequently catch myself thinking that a game, movie or book is
"bad" simply beause I've read a review pointing out all the bad
points before experiencing it myself. More frequently, I sometimes
catch myself thinking how dull this supposedly amazing
game/movie/book turns out to be after the initial bedazzlement has
worn off. My theory is that there are many people out there who
*think* they're having "fun" playing a game that really only has
excellent marketing, or other tricks such as incremental "carrots"
that make you feel a sense of achievement as is the case of many
MMOs.

>> Mass-market appeal translates into short-term financial success -
>> that's all.

> I thought so too, but it doesn't look like WoW is suffering for
> it. I thought everybody would play it for a few months and get
> tired of it, but it seems to be retaining players - and the new
> expansion looks like more of the same.

My theory, again, due to the reason I outline above - people *think*
they're having "fun", but they're really experiencing something
entirely different.  "Fun" is also a strange word to use, and I
think the term has to do with historical reasons - that "games" was
something you did "for fun". I just finished playing Fahrenheit
(Indigo Prophecy in the US), and while I considered it a fantastic
game, looing back at the hours I spent I would not say I spent them
"having fun". I was experiencing an amazing, exciting, immersive
story which really tickled my mind in the same way a good,
intelligent movie or book would - that's something entirely
different than playing Mario or Breakout. The game refused to let me
go (thankfully it was relatively short, in the order of 10-15
hours), but it wasn't because I was "having so much fun".

Similarly, I think people grinding away at your average MMO is not
"having fun" but perhaps just working towards a feeling of
achievment. One (insubstantial) piece of evidence for this is that
when people are "trying" to quit an MMO session, they usually do it
right after having gained that level / looted that magical sword /
killed that monster. When people are "trying" to quit an arcade
game, they do it right after they lose. "Save points" make this
theory hard to test - Fahrenheit for example would only save your
progress between chapters, so you had no choice when to quit - but
if the appeal of MMOs was about "having fun" how come we're still
playing at 2am on a Thursday, red-faced and ticked off, because we
need to find one more ogre to kill and none are spawning? We are
(usually) able to quit at any time and our progress is saved, we're
not having fun, and we need to quit - but we still slug it out until
we can get that level / complete that quest / kill that foozle.

For WoW, I think my "short-term" financial success theory still
holds, but "short-term" may be on the order of a few years rather
than a few months because of the nature of the game - people refuse
to let it go, even if they're not enjoying the game, for the same
reason that it's hard to quit a job (and destroy all your previous
work) even if you didn't enjoy doing it in the first place.

> I don't think we can equate virtue with financial success or
> failure either way. Something can be appealing and virtuous (ie
> GTA3, Katamari Damacy), appealing but not virtuous (ie Final
> Fantasy, WoW), or virtuous but not appealing (Unlimited SaGa,
> anything by Treasure). They don't seem to be related, and I can't
> for the life of me find a situation where virtue is the key to
> financial success except for word of mouth campaigns.

As you say, appeal = financial success, while virtue has little to
no correlation with financial success.

> BUT, it seems that appeal does have a shelf life (even if it does
> take several years). The games that are remembered best are the
> virtuous games and not the appealing ones. Games like Guardian
> Heroes or Valkyrie Profile tend to sell poorly, but be remembered
> more strongly with a heavy cult following compared to the better
> selling contemporaries (Legend of Dragoon, Final Fantasy 8 or
> 9). If these older appealing, but shallow games are remembered at
> all, it's only because they have sequels and they represent some
> sort of black mark on their past. It's why games like Crash
> Bandicoot or Spyro have a three sequel shelf life compared to
> Mario or Mega Man - when the appeal dies down, is there something
> there worth remembering?

> I'd say, if you want to make money, be appealing. If you want to
> be remembered, be virtuous. But ultimately, you want to do both.

One thing that may have been overlooked here is this buzzword
phenomenon called "long tail". The theory goes that the area under
the "long tail" of the curve is larger than the area under the "high
point" of the curve, which is known as mass-market appeal and what
we currently associate with financial success. If a game was
commercially viable for more than a year (or 3 months, or whatever
the cutoff point is these days) *and* a "virtuous" game, it may see
a greater commercial success over time than a hyped but ultimately
cookie-cutter blockbuster game would. Of course, you will probably
have a hard time giving away Unlimited SaGa by now - the problem
would be to create a commercially viable landscape for
past-primetime games.  And no, I don't mean sequels and franchises.

Personally, I believe the key is for smaller developers with more
focused development teams to produce more narrowly focused games for
smaller audiences. This has been possible in the text world of MUDs
and M***s for a long time, and is starting to become possible
graphically with off-the-shelf games like Neverwinter Nights. I
hope, in the future, that we will see more inexpensive "middleware"
for this sort of thing, as well as open source packages that can be
stringed together to make this sort of thing easier and cheaper for
designers and developers. I believe that similar to big-budget
Hollywood movies and ultra-appealing books like "DaVinci Code" and
other bestsellers, MMO developers of today often find that they
*have* to go mainstream and dumbed-down in order to appeal to a huge
audience, just so they can earn back their development costs which
soared because they had to build everything from scratch. Also, they
have to sell their soul to a giant publisher because they're the
only ones who can provide them with the capital needed, and the
giant publisher demands mass-market appeal. This is part of the
problem.

>> To direct the thread in its original direction, it may be
>> beneficial to consider only market forces (great graphics,
>> marketing) and ignoring virtues (great level design, ingenuity)
>> when considering why a person whould choose one game over
>> another, as it would be far closer to the truth.

> Disagree. There's such a distaste for marketing out there. I think
> all designers think they are the next Miyamoto and don't want
> their pure vision soiled by such unclean forces. As designers, I
> say we let the marketing department work out the marketing, and
> we'll worry about making sure that our pure vision is worth
> preserving :)

You misunderstand - I do not mean that developers should focus on
mass-market appeal, I mean that *we* should focus on mass-market
appeal rather than "virtues" when *discussing* why a person would
choose one game over another ("Reasons for Play").
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