Liveblogging State of Play, Day 2, Session 1

I’m at the developer roundtable.
Dan Norton, Raph Koster, Jesse Houston, Nick Fortugno, Mike Sellers

[Me: Thank god for these guys, just as an aside: developers interested in exploratory conversations about the form, who don’t just stare at people and say, “It’s all under NDA, everything is under NDA, my breakfast cereal is under NDA”.]

Raph Koster: there’s much less diversity in MMOs, no experimentation.

Mike Sellers: it’s easier to talk about the few places where something is changing. Mike says even Eve Online is “kill monsters, get gold” [ME: I don’t really think so]. In some respects, tools are less sophisticated now than they were in the 1990s. So question is, where are the little mammals that will survive if the dinosaur designs die? Says, “Maybe the little games in Facebook”.

Nick Fortugno: We conflate too many things together, an MMO doesn’t have to be a fantasy RPG. Why does everything get defined by World of Warcraft? Massively multiple participation before these technologies was about voting, other kinds of big social experiences; we don’t have a deep imagination of what a game with 10,000 people might be.

Jesse Houston: Let’s stop talking about WoW as the winner. It isn’t a winner, it’s a benchmark.

Raph Koster: WoW just has as many players as a bad little cable show that’s heading for cancellation. [ME: 1. Guys, stop talking about WoW: it always makes developers look like sour grapes purveyors. 2. NO individual game scales well against other popular culture.]

Mike Sellers: there are more bird-watchers or NASCAR fans than MMO players.

Dan Norton: let’s be positive!

Mike Sellers: I want to stay negative for a moment. Virtual worlds aren’t real the way lots of things are real. Maybe we’re just talking about buggy whips or player-pianos. [ME: but Mike, when player pianos had a big market, player piano makers talked about them. Should they have stopped talking about them then because someday there was going to be an iPod Touch? By that context, stop talking about airplanes, televisions, etc.]

Mike Sellers: publics are media and entertainment agnostic, meaning they’ll move on. Who cares about Joanie Loves Chachi these days, for example? [ME: Mike! Take a look!]

Nick: Learning curve difficulties, ossification of the form as obstacle to new players. If these are skewed always to people with huge amounts of time, they’ll never evolve.

Raph: average in all virtual worlds, even pre-graphics, is 20 hours/week. So economies, graphics, etc., doesn’t make a difference in terms of engaging players. The nature of the engagement hasn’t changed.

Quick exchanges between whole panel: upshot, we’re not as mass market as we could be, some things are. [ME: GUYS WHY IS BEING THE MOST MASSIFIED THING POSSIBLE THE GOAL? Seriously, not even television or movie producers imagine that the film they are making must have total penetration of the mass market to succeed.]

Jesse: We need tools for players to take more control over experience of play.

Raph: I’ve tried.

Nick: We have to approach games keeping in mind what they are for people, what they expect.

Raph: Dancing is my poster child in MMO design. There was dancing in text muds, then it went away in graphic MMOs, then I got a lot of people asking for dancing in SWG, so I put it in. But a lot of people complained, why are you spending time on dancing as a design? But now we have dancing in every MMO. [ME: Did AC, EQ, UO really not have a /dance emote? I can’t remember.] So we need things that have common cultural touchstones in MMOs.

Nick: A lot of emergent behaviors in earlier MMOs have become codified, and then become expectations for hard-coded design structures in all subsequent MMOs. Strong tied people: my real friends VS. my acquaintances/loose ties.

Mike: MMOs today are good at supporting strong tied connections, actually, not weak ties though.

Raph: agree with Mike. They cluster people a lot, they make strong ties, and that’s as much a design consequence as a social prior. We should figure out how to support ‘weak ties’ better–that’s what something like ‘Mafia Wars’ does.

Nick: But I think there’s been lots of experimentation with weak ties in MMOs and not so much trying to imagine in new ways dealing with strong ties. But weak ties are what’s new and interesting in our world, and these technologies, so it’s where all our attention should be.

Mike: intentional communities as an interesting way to think about weak ties. But it’s very risky to experiment with novel forms for intentional communities.

Nick: when casual games started, we were very surprised by the people who played them, we thought it would be the same people who were already gamers. So suddenly there are conventions for casual games: don’t ever use the keyboard, don’t use the right mouse button, etc. So the way forward is to look at the interactive conventions that exist for an audience. You want what’s natural, e.g. Wii Sports. [ME: But what’s ‘natural’ in physical, real-world games like golf and tennis has layers of complexity, too: there’s the casual golf and the serious golf in the real world too]

Mike: All other software besides games has an external task it has to satisfy, some external need; a game has to create the task that will be fun.

Raph: there is a collision between making the game challenging vs. increasing sociability. Can you make a better chat system? Yes. But does it make the game worse? Yes. Instancing makes the game run better, but it ruins the social system. Travel is treated as a nuisance in virtual worlds, but it forces people to have social connections to people near them, not always be where their friends are. In-world economies need more travel, but we don’t think about that.

Dan: Are there things that players expect in MMOs that you wish had never happened? Features you’d love to eradicate forever?

Jesse: I wish guilds had less rigid structures, and there were more innovative structures supported.

Mike: We did have other structures in Meridan 59. But then you have to support those variations, and that’s a design burden. So we moved towards a norm, which takes relatively minimal and modular design.

Raph: I would kill levels and classes. They’re rigid and limiting. [ME: But then why does Metaplace, a fairly social world, have levels????]

Mike: Asheron’s Call’s allegiances were a non-guild system that was kind of an alternative to level-class.

Jesse: City of Heroes has a weak-tie mechanic.

Mike: So what I would kill is questing. It robs us the ability to experience deeper, better narratives. Appeal for dynamic world.

Jesse: right, we should have dynamic worlds where lots of things can happen.

Nick: Let’s get rid of MMOs that present to each player the promise of being the hero.

Raph: the problem is just the weight of the conventions we’re importing from game to game, to the detriment of the form, some of which come from before digital media.

Jesse: that’s a problem with more than MMOs, all digital games have this issue.

[ME: I’m going to need to think about this panel and write something later. I think these guys are largely stuck chasing their own tails in some curious and unnecessary ways.]

Dan: So what should we be building?

Raph: Let’s make persistence more central, the dynamism of worlds more important.

Mike: yes, but persistence can take a lot of forms, can be just about identities and not about worlds.

Jesse: I think achievements are a really nice feature, can be even more of it, giving people more and more ways to be distinctive and individualized.

Dan: But achievements are almost a better, richer way to data-mine player experiences.

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3 Responses to Liveblogging State of Play, Day 2, Session 1

  1. Sok says:

    I really hope Raph grasps the distinction between dancing as an expressive emote and Dancing as a system for advancement that affects other players.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. And nobody’s done the latter, really, except SWG–and the latter isn’t required to get people to use dancing for all those expressive purposes that create a lot of fun in many games.

  3. rkoster says:

    I do love that you start with “Thank God for these guys” and end with “stuck chasing their own tails” 🙂

    /dance has existed as an expressive emote for a long time (it was in the text muds, for example). However, the range and variety of dancing in WoW is well beyond the singular dance emote that was common prior to SWG. It’s not a system in WoW, certainly. Having the variety (not the game system) is necessary to get the range of expressive stuff that we see such as extended dance number videos.

    There are entire dancing MMOs in Asia, btw, so saying nobody else has done it as a system for advancement is not accurate. Audition, for example.

    On massive appeal: the goal isn’t reaching mass appeal per se, but market penetration is a useful (though not sole) measure of cultural relevance. It’s easy for us to not stand back and get a sense of perspective on what we are talking about here, basically, so I find it fruitful to reset expectations by making comparisons to other popular media.

    BTW, yes, many games DO scale against popular culture. Plenty of casual games do, for example.

    Metaplace’s levels: are just about entirely cosmetic, whereas I meant the game design structure of levels in an RPG.

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