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…]
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, 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…
a quote from Victorian author Charles Dickens:
income £20/-/-, annual expenditure £19/19/6, result
Annual income £20/-/-, annual expenditure £20/-/6,
Annual income £0, annual expenditure £20,000,000,
so maybe he didn't actually write that last line.
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.
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.
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.
#1: Virtual worlds live or die by their ability to attract newbies
quote, this time from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams:
we build it, they will come.
maybe if you're an Iowa corn farmer who hears voices inside your
head telling you to construct a baseball stadium, but otherwise…
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.
not? Because they're all text. Newbies don't do text.
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
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.
#2: Newbies won't play a virtual world that has a major feature
they don't like.
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:
Ultima Online 70%
Asheron's Call 70%
Dark Age of Camelot 55%
Anarchy Online 55%
spend considerably less time in their second virtual world than
they do in their first. Why is this?
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.
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.
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.
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.
#3: Players judge all virtual worlds as a reflection of the
one they first got into.
quote this time.
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.
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
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.
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).
#4: Many players will think some poor design choices are good.
so we now have the four points I need to launch into my tirade.
#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
can now construct a line of reasoning that supports my initial assertion.
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.
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
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..!
not convinced, huh? OK, here are two of examples of the theory in
action, one old and one new.
1 (Old): Permanent Death
characters that died stayed dead, it would open up all kinds of
very convenient doors for virtual world design:
prevents early-adopter players from gaining an iron grip on positions
It re-uses content effectively, because players view same-level
encounters from different angles using different characters.
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.
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).
is short-term bad, long-term good: rejected.
2 (new): Instancing
looks very appealing on the face of it: groups of friends can play
together without interference in relative tranquillity. What's not
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?
players don't see it that way, though.
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?
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.
is short-term good, long-term bad: accepted.
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.
You don't have teleporting! How can I rejoin my group if I miss
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?
Player: Are you listening? RIGHT NOW!
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.
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.
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).
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:
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
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.
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?
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…
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.
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.
for the purist there will always be text MUDs.
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.]