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Soapbox: Why Virtual Worlds are Designed By Newbies - No, Really!

November 3, 2004
 

[Author's note: What I'm calling virtual worlds, you might call MMORPGs or MMOGs or (if you're a real old-timer) MUDs. Macro replace with your preference accordingly. Got that? Then I'll begin…]

Introduction

Virtual worlds are being designed by know-nothing newbies, and there's not a damned thing anyone can do about it. I don't mean newbie designers, I mean newbie players - first timers. They're dictating design through a twisted "survival of the not-quite-fittest" form of natural selection that will lead to a long-term decay in quality, guaranteed. If you think some of today's offerings are garbage, just you wait…

Yeah, yeah, you want some justification for this assertion. Even though I'm in Soapbox mode, I can see that, so I will explain - only not just yet. First, I'm going to make four general points that I can string together to build my case. Bear with me on this…


Illustration by Erin Mehlos

The Newbie Stream

Here's a quote from Victorian author Charles Dickens:

Annual income £20/-/-, annual expenditure £19/19/6, result happiness.
Annual income £20/-/-, annual expenditure £20/-/6, result misery.
Annual income £0, annual expenditure £20,000,000, result
There.com.

OK, so maybe he didn't actually write that last line.

What Dickens was actually saying is that, so long as you don't lose more than you gain, things are good. In our particular case, we're not talking olde English money, we're talking newbies, although ultimately, the two amount to one and the same thing.

Now I'm sorry to be the bringer of bad news, people, but here goes anyway: even for the most compelling of virtual worlds, players will eventually leave. Don't blame me, I didn't invent reality.

If oldbies leave, newbies are needed to replace them. The newbies must arrive at the same rate (or better) that the oldbies leave; otherwise, the population of the virtual world will decline until eventually no-one will be left to play it.

Point #1: Virtual worlds live or die by their ability to attract newbies

Newbie Preconceptions

Another quote, this time from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams:

If we build it, they will come.

Well, maybe if you're an Iowa corn farmer who hears voices inside your head telling you to construct a baseball stadium, but otherwise…

A virtual world can be fully functioning and free of bugs, but still be pretty well devoid of players. There are plenty of non-gameplay reasons why this could happen, but I'm going to focus on the most basic: lack of appeal. Some virtual worlds just aren't attractive to newbies. There are some wonderfully original, joyous virtual worlds out there. They're exquisitely balanced, rich in depth, abundant in breadth, alive with subtleties, and full of wise, interesting, fun people who engender an atmosphere of mystique and marvel without compare. Newbies would love these virtual worlds, but they're not going to play them.

Why not? Because they're all text. Newbies don't do text.

Newbies come to virtual worlds with a set of preconceptions acquired from other virtual worlds; or, failing that, from other computer games; or, failing that, from gut instinct. They will not consider virtual worlds that confront these expectations if there are others around that don't.

Put another way, if a virtual world has a feature that offends newbies, the developers will have to remove that feature or they won't get any newbies. This is irrespective of what the oldbies think: they may adore a feature, but if newbies don't like it then (under point #1) eventually there won't be anyone left to adore it.

Point #2: Newbies won't play a virtual world that has a major feature they don't like.

Not-So-Newbies

Here's another quote (kind of), from a private study of 1,100 players by the Themis Group. Themis's researchers asked veterans of 3 or more virtual worlds how many months they'd spent in their first one and how many months they'd spent in their second one. Dividing the second figure by the first, we get these averages for time spent in the second virtual world compared to the first:

EverQuest 80%
Ultima Online 70%
Asheron's Call 70%
Dark Age of Camelot 55%
Anarchy Online 55%

Players spend considerably less time in their second virtual world than they do in their first. Why is this?

Well, the first virtual world that someone gets into is very special to them. It's a magical, enchanting, never-to-be-repeated experience. You thought it was only you who looked back wistfully on your early days like that? Nah, it's everyone.

This has consequences. There used to be a virtual world called NeverWinter Nights, unrelated to the BioWare RPG, on AOL. When it was closed down, its refugees descended on Meridian 59. They immediately wanted M59 to incorporate every piece of NWN functionality that they could remember.

In general, players view all their subsequent virtual worlds in the light cast from their first one. They will demand that features from their first world be added to their current world, even if those very features were partly responsible for why they left the first world. They'll say they hate treadmills, but if their first experience was in a virtual world with treadmills, then they'll gravitate towards other virtual worlds with treadmills, all the while still hating them.

There's a long explanation for this, to do with the search for identity, which I won't delve into here because you only need to know that players do behave this way, not why (that's a different rant). Read my book (Designing Virtual Worlds) if you want the full story.

Point #3: Players judge all virtual worlds as a reflection of the one they first got into.

Short-Termism

No quote this time.

When a virtual world changes (as it must), all but its most experienced players will consider the change on its short-term merits only. They look at how the change affects them, personally, right now. They will only make mention of possible long-term effects to help buttress a short-termist argument. They don't care that things will be majorly better for them later if things are minorly worse for them today - it's only the now that matters.

Why is this? I've no idea. Well, I do have an idea, but not one I can back up, so I'll keep quiet about it. The fact is, players do behave like this all the time, and it would only take a cursory scan of any forum after patch day for you to convince yourself, if you don't believe me.

This short-termist attitude has two outcomes. Firstly, something short-term good but long-term bad is hard for developers to remove, because players are mainly in favor of it. Secondly, something short-term bad but long-term good is hard to keep because players are mainly not in favor of it.

Design that is short-term good but long-term bad I call "poor". Virtual worlds are primarily a mixture of good and poor design, because the other two possibilities (outright bad and short-term bad, long-term good) either aren't implemented or are swiftly removed. Good design keeps players; poor design drives them away (when the short term becomes the long term and the game becomes unfun).

Point #4: Many players will think some poor design choices are good.

Summary

OK, so we now have the four points I need to launch into my tirade. These are:

Point #1: Virtual worlds live or die by their ability to attract newbies
Point #2: Newbies won't play a virtual world that has a major feature they don't like.
Point #3: Players judge all virtual worlds as a reflection of the one they first got into.
Point #4: Many players will think some poor design choices are good.

I can now construct a line of reasoning that supports my initial assertion.

The Newbie Induction

Under point #4, players will eventually quit a virtual world that has poor features. Under point #3, however, they won't necessarily recognize that a feature which caused them to leave was indeed poor. Under point #2, they won't play those virtual worlds that lack this feature. Under point #1, those virtual worlds that do lack the feature - that is, those with the better design - will die through dearth of newbies. Any absolute newbies, for whom this is their first virtual world, will be educated to believe that this is how things are meant to be, thus starting the whole cycle again. Q.E.D.

The normal rules of evolution by which computer games operate propagate good design genes from one to the next. Each generation of game takes the best mutations from the previous generation and adds to them.

Virtual worlds also propagate good genes, but they propagate poor ones more readily. The best virtual worlds don't pass their design genes around much because of their high retention rate: "Why would I quit when what I want is right here?". Poor design genes cause players to leave sooner, so it's these features that wind up being must-haves for the next generation of products. This leads to a bizarre situation: for a new virtual world to succeed, it has to have the same features that caused its antecedents to fail..!

You're not convinced, huh? OK, here are two of examples of the theory in action, one old and one new.

Example 1 (Old): Permanent Death

If characters that died stayed dead, it would open up all kinds of very convenient doors for virtual world design:

  • It prevents early-adopter players from gaining an iron grip on positions of power.
  • It re-uses content effectively, because players view same-level encounters from different angles using different characters.
  • It's the default fiction for real life.
  • It promotes role-play, because players aren't stuck with the same, tired old character the whole time.
  • It validates players' sense of achievement, because a high-level character means a high-level player is behind it.

Many designers and experienced players would love to see a form of PD in their virtual world, but it's not going to happen. Newbies wouldn't play such a game (under points #2, #3 and #4), therefore eventually neither would anyone else (point #1).

PD is short-term bad, long-term good: rejected.

Example 2 (new): Instancing

Instancing looks very appealing on the face of it: groups of friends can play together without interference in relative tranquillity. What's not to love?

The thing is, this is not what virtual worlds are about. How can you have any impact on a world if you're only using it as a portal to a first-person shooter? How do you interact with people if they're battened down in an inaccessible pocket universe? Where's the sense of achievement, of making a difference, of being someone?

Most players don't see it that way, though.

Newbies see it as familiar - "fantasy Counterstrike, cool!" (point #2). They don't know what it means for their long-term enjoyment (point #4). Of course, they eventually will learn what it means - boredom and disenchantment - but even so, they probably won't connect the effect with the cause. They'll just go looking for another virtual world that features instancing (point #3). Older-era players will perhaps initially avoid anything with instancing because their first love didn't have it (point #3), but they'll probably try it eventually because (point #4) hey, maybe it's that missing piece that will give them the sense of closure they crave?

Thus, instancing will get locked into the paradigm. New virtual worlds that don't have it will get fewer players than those that do have it, even though they have the better design.

Instancing is short-term good, long-term bad: accepted.

Analysis

It's not just permanent death, it's not just instancing: it's teleportation, it's banks, it's non-drop objects - it's everything that makes sense in some contexts but not in all (or even most) contexts.

Player: You don't have teleporting! How can I rejoin my group if I miss a session?
Designer: Well gee, maybe by omitting teleportation I'm kinda dropping a hint that you can have a meaningful gaming experience, without always having to group with the same people of the same level and run a treadmill the whole time?
Player: Are you NUTS? I want to play with my friends, and I want to play with them RIGHT NOW!
Designer: But how are you ever going to make new friends? How -
Player: Are you listening? RIGHT NOW!
Designer: (Sigh)

Virtual worlds are becoming diluted by poor design decisions that can't be undone. We're getting de-evolution - our future is in effect being drawn up by newbies who (being newbies) are clueless. Regular computer games don't have this problem.

The market for regular computer games is driven by the hardcore. The hardcore finishes product faster than newbies, and therefore buys new product faster than newbies. The hardcore understands design implications better than newbies. They won't buy a game with features they can see are poor; they select games with good design genes. Because of this, games which are good are rewarded by higher sales than games which are bad.

In virtual worlds, the hardcore either wanders from one to the next, trying to recapture the experience of their first experience or they never left in the first place. Furthermore, in today's flat-fee universe, the hardcore spends the same amount of money as everyone else: developers aren't rewarded for appealing to the cognoscenti, except maybe through word of mouth that always comes with caveats (because of point #3).

Possible solutions

I'm not completely pessimistic here; there are ways the cycle can be broken, mainly by attacking points #2 and #3 (that is, by overcoming prejudices concerning what "should" be in a virtual world). Here are half a dozen hopes for the future:

  • Innovation. If evolution doesn't work, maybe revolution will? A virtual world different enough that it doesn't map onto players' existing experiences may attract newbies and oldbies alike. Of course, there's no guarantee that the new paradigm won't itself be short-term good, long-term bad…
  • Marketing. People can sometimes be persuaded to overcome their preconceptions. Even a text-based virtual world could become a monster hit if it had the right licence and was advertised to the right group of people. Unfortunately, marketing costs money.
  • Cross-fertilization. If no poor features are ever added, point #4 becomes redundant. How do you know that a proposed feature is genuinely good, though? Simple - there are two traditions of virtual worlds (West and East) so you cherry-pick the best ideas from the other one. You speak Korean, right?
  • Works of art. Virtual world design involves much craft, but at root it's art. A designer makes decisions based on how they feel things ought to be. Players will eventually pick up on the differences and play a new virtual world just because they like the designer's previous work: Raph Koster, Brad McQuaid and Richard Garriott already have more creative freedom than first-time designers. Point #3 evaporates! If only designing a virtual world didn't take so long…
  • Time may heal. If you wait long enough that people forget why they ever objected to something, that something can come back. Fashions change, and who knows what the newbies of 2024 will think? Good ideas will always get a second chance to enter the paradigm, it's just that "wait a quarter of your life for it to happen" thing that's a little depressing.
  • Growing maturity. Perhaps the best hope for the future is the growing maturity of the player base. First-time newbies will always assert the supremacy of their first virtual world, but oldbies who have been through the mill enough will realise that some of the features they've been taking for granted are actually counter-productive. If they're around in sufficient numbers, we may see virtual worlds appearing that do everything right and very little wrong, removing point #4 and leading us into a golden age. I can dream…

Conclusion

Virtual worlds are under evolutionary pressure to promote design features that, while not exactly bad, are nevertheless poor. Each succeeding generation absorbs these into the virtual world paradigm, and introduces new poor features for the next generation to take on board. The result is that virtual world design follows a downward path of not-quite-good-enough, leading ultimately to an erosion of what virtual worlds are.

Fortunately, there are a number of processes at work that have the potential to arrest this descent. Thus, although the future of virtual worlds may look disappointing, it's not completely bleak.

Besides, for the purist there will always be text MUDs.

[Author's second note: A non-Soapbox version of this hypothesis will be presented at the Other Players conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, later this year. Academics should refer to that, not to this.]

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