Where’s The Fun?

Jonathan “Ardua” Doyle has a post up this morning on MMOGames in which he laments the loss of “fun” in the games we play. I agree with him, and started to tell him so, but the comment got too long (as usual). In the writing, I managed to articulate some things that I had been having trouble putting into text previously, and wanted to fit that discussion into an ongoing framework here at the site.

The thing is, of course, is that “fun” is entirely subjective. There is no getting away from that fact. There is no viable argument to the contrary. Jonathan and I, and you, and your guild mates and friends, will all come up with different definitions of what makes a game fun. That’s key: I’m not going to argue with strangers about how X is more fun than Y. It’s as pointless as…arguing on the Internet!

What I do think we may agree on, then, is that MMOs have been chasing an ideal that we’ll arbitrarily call “World of Warcraft-level Subscriber Numbers”, for a lack of a better, more specific term. MMO design has become less of an art, and more of a science, a modular kit in which designers convene and check boxes during initial meetings: The game must have crafting (check), dungeons (check), raids (check), guilds (check). Only once that list has been compiled do the designers engage the cretive process to figure out how to tweak that formula so it’s not so obvious that they just assembled this game from the pieces of someone else’s battle-tested design.

Part of the reason is financial, as MMOs a big budget projects, and companies footing the bills want assurances on the viability on a return for their investment. The MMO market is pretty saturated, and there’s no stomach for risk. The designers MUST provide security for investment, so they look to what has been successful in other games and adopt those mechanics. But they also look to the consumers. With big budget MMOs, designing to an existing audience’s past preferences hopefully increases the chance that a game will succeed (hopefully).

Before you go getting a big head about your individual importance in the design of MMOs, step back and look at your community. The design of these games reflects the ebb and flow of the community at large, what they (think they) want, what they have rejected, and even a little of what the designer thinks the community will accept.

So it’s finances that tie the hands of designers, but it’s also the consumer’s behaviors that make these games what they are. Let’s face it: the WoW Clone wouldn’t be an optional ideal if people didn’t keep demanding WoW Clones.

So what about the fun?

If we accept that MMO design is more math than inspiration, then we need to shift the talk about the influence of the community. In my opinion, humans like to be assured that their decisions and interests are valid. As individuals we think we like what we like, but in the age of over-sharing and instant feedback, we can get that other people’s thumbs up or thumbs down to validate our decisions. A the end of the day, we just want to be part of some community, and we want to be appreciated for who we are, what we think, and what we bring to the table.

Geeks value knowledge. It’s our currency, our XP, and our Faction rating. According to “stereotypes”, geeks lack physical prowess, attractiveness, and business acumen, but if there’s one market that geeks have cornered it’s knowledge. We trade it among ourselves to prove to one another that we belong in this community, and we expect one another to provide similar bona fides for that purpose. We’re suspcious of poseurs and “fake geeks” who haven’t “paid their dues” but who lay claim to the mantle of “being a geek” simply because it’s become trendy (and profitable) in today’s wider culture.

But geeks are also just like every other human, and want people both inside and outside the culture to appreciate what they bring to the table. This is why we stream our game play, blog, tweet, write guides and add-ons, and do an insane amount of self-promotion for a sub-culture that’s been stereotyped as “socially awkward”. We’re constantly trying to achieve and justify to others our place in the geek sub-culture by sharing our knowledge (whether people want it or not) in exchange for the high-fives, re-Tweets, and subscribers.

Games are what we know. We want people to know that we know. And so it really helps when what we know doesn’t change, because that would mean re-learning everything we thought we knew, setting us back as a community by devaluing our knowledge-currency. So we demand that these companies not deviate from the formula that we’re familiar with, thereby allowing us to maintain our place in the greater geek hierarchy that we’ve proven we deserve.

Still not hearing anything about the fun…

That’s the pre-amble. Here’s the payload.

MMO game design has been boiled down to a LEGO set that designers provide, for financial reasons, and that gamers demand because it’s familiar. We don’t get new ideas because no one wants to pay for them, and because as a community we’re unsure that we’ll be able to trade in them. Ergo, we get games that are painfully similar to one’s we’ve already consumed, and yet we as a community continue to strip them bare for our own self-interests.

I have to reiterate that fun is subjective. There are boatloads of people who find WoW Clones fun, who find games like EVE Online fun, and of course there’s less game-specific wildcards like friends that can make even the most boring, cookie-cutter clone stupidly enjoyable.

Still, the demands of the plebes and the financial disincentives for the developers are going to produce games which are known quantities. Games with XP, levels, the Holy Trinity (or a smokescreen that looks like it’s Trinity-less, but which gamers will insist on bending back to the Trinity), dungeons, raids, achievements, and the reliance upon loot as the most desirable goal in the game are going to make up the majority of options on the market. Guides are written, streams are fired up, blog posts dissect, and community stars ascend as players figure out who to trust and who’s blowing smoke. Everyone is expected to commit to the community-discerned, community-sanctioned “right way” to play so not to cause a wipe or waste other people’s time. And we do, because we all want to be well thought of, and don’t want to be “That Noob” that ruined the experience for everyone through a demonstration of ignorance.

What we lose out on is exploration and discovery, the opportunity to have dynamic worlds and unique systems, and a personal learning experience through doing, failing, retrying, and basking in our own ultimate success.

Again, fun is subjective, and to be subjective we require an environment where we’re able to find the fun. Most modern MMOs expect us to find the fun in what we’re given, because other people — possibly us — have found fun in a very similar experience in the past. There’s little to no leeway any more as the pressures of conforming to community expectations designed by the community itself matter more than the Zen of the experience of playing the game.

Overall, I think we’re poorer for it. We’ve demanded “different” in the past, but like anything we rarely know what we want, but we absolutely know what we don’t want once we see it. Not every experiment will succeed, but then again, not every MMO has to appeal to everyone. I’m very much OK with the idea of a massive splintering of the genre which allows smaller titles to appeal to different segments, so that everyone can find a game that they really enjoy, rather than have to rely on expensive AAA titles which must succeed in being palatable to a wide a range of paying players. With a more diverse genre, I think we can all find a game which is fun for us on the individual level.

As a foot-note, I’d also like to appeal to folks who believe that guides and walk-throughs are an inseparable part of the MMO landscape. They’re really not. Yes, our time is valuable, and yes, success is much preferable to failure, but I’ve always looked at the reliance on guides as “playing someone else’s game”.  They tell you what to do and what not to do, like an outline or a Paint By Number project, which leaves you only as the mechanical operator of a soul-less experience. Part of the conceit of these “products of fantasy” is giving ourselves over to the experience as much as we’re able. In my opinion, relying on guides is breaking the fourth wall and robs us of a fully realized experience. Yes, that means a high chance of failure, but I know that for myself, the feeling of accomplishment I get from eventual success after failure is far and away more satisfying than simply going through the motions for the carrot on the stick.