GDCuffs interview: Richard Bartle
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Most of you know him by his famous categorization of psycho-types of players. A British writer, professor and game explorer, known as the creator of MUD and author of Designing Virtual Worlds, the pioneer of MMORPG - Richard Bartle visiting GDCuffs.
Game Designer's Cuffs (http://gdcuffs.com/) is a professional game design blog in CIS game development industry. We're helping fresh game designers to not die on their first workday, and sharing our thoughts and experience with others.
It's in Russian, but we're going to add English section soon.
— Horde or Alliance? (Classic first question between game designers in Russia)
Alliance. I was given a free copy of World of Warcraft at a conference in the USA, and when I installed it found that I had to use American servers. Because of the time difference, I knew I'd be playing mainly alone, so I wanted to choose a character class that would be good for soloing. I looked at the specifications and decided that Paladin was the one that would work best. This was only available for Alliance at the time, so I chose Alliance.
— Are you a PC, console or mobile player? How much, in general, do you play videogames? Could you name a game you played recently?
I'm a PC player. I play videogames for 4 to 6 hours every day, unless I'm away; basically, I play games while my wife is watching TV. The game I'm currently playing (as in, I'd be playing it right now if I weren't answering your questions) is "Secret World Legends". I prefer "The Secret World", but they rather broke that when they added a new fight mechanic for the Tokyo zone and broke all that was beautiful about the old mechanic. I also have a game of "Divinity: Original Sin 2" paused and a game of "Civilization IV" that I crank up when I have a few minutes to spend waiting for phone calls or whatever. "Civilization VI" is not a great game, and although "Civilization V" is OK it allows archers to shoot arrows from England to France, which isn't exactly realistic.
— What have you heard about Russian/CIS game industry? Which games from Russia do you know?
I don't know much about games from Russia, but I've met Russian developers at conferences and do know there's more to it than just "Tetris". In my own sphere, MMOs, I've come across "Allods Online", which was well received when it came out. I think the upcoming "Life is Feudal" MMO is being developed in Russia, too. I would also have said "World of Tanks", except I've just checked and apparently it's from Belarus, so I guess I can't count that. As for non-MMOs, hmm, wasn't one of the "Heroes of Might and Magic" games developed in Russia? Other than that, though, sorry, I can't think of any well-known games to come out of the country.
— Could you please tell us a bit about your favorite games on different platforms — PC, PS4/Xbox, mobile — and what makes those game unique for you?
I only play PC games. I don't play console games because I don't like closed computer systems in principle (it's also why I avoid Apple hardware). I don't mind Android games, but I don't play them much because I usually have a PC or a laptop nearby, which allows for more sophisticated games on a bigger screen. As for what my favorite games are, well as a designer I tend to like the ones that have good depth to them. I play MMOs a lot, but in between will play regular RPGs, large-scale strategy games (such as those made by Paradox) and some trading games. Oh, I also play "Football Manager", but to be honest I'm not very good at it. As for which are my favorites, well for RPGs it would be "Darklands" and "Baldur's Gate II" (I know, these are indeed old games); for strategy, it would be "Civilization II" and "Victoria 2"; for trading, it would be "Patrician III".
— Which player archetype do you think you belong to? Could you please take this test: http://www.4you2learn.com/bartle/ ?
I don't belong to any of them. Player Types apply to people who play virtual worlds for fun. I don't play them for fun in the same sense that players do: I play them as a designer because that's what I am. I'm reading the design, which can indeed be fun, but it's designer fun, not player fun. Every time I've tried to take a Player Types test, I've got stuck on the first question.
— Do you think that new archetypes of players appeared? Rami Ismail recently stated that your archetypes are obsolete, but as there’s nothing else better, everyone’s using yours. Have you thought about updating them?
No, no new types have appeared. They won't, either, because the underlying theory is exhaustive: there's no room for new types in the theory. There is room for sub-types, and indeed I split each of the original four types into two back in 2003, in order to explain some observations that the four-type version had trouble with, but no-one uses the resulting eight-type version. It supports the theory and grounds it in other theories, but it's not itself of great practical use. As for my archetypes being obsolete, well they still work so they're not obsolete in that sense; however, if what they work on is no longer important, they would be obsolete. Their aim is to explain why people play virtual worlds (mainly MMOs) for fun, but if developers no longer want to know that then they're not going to be useful. For example, if your company survives from free-to-play micropayments, it may be more important to know what types virtual goods people will pay for, rather than what types of fun people have. My main intention with Player Types wasn't to say "these are the four player types" anyway: it was to say "there is more than one player type", with the four player types I listed just being examples of what these other types might be. I was expecting them to be shot down and replaced by a better system within six months; I was quite surprised to find that actually I'd hit on a set of types that worked well.
— Are you developing a game these days? Or you’re not into development anymore? Aren’t you interested or you see yourself more in education?
I'm not developing a game, no. I design them, and I occasionally make fragments of them or make board games, but it's for fun, not for employment. My problem is that if it takes $25,000,000 to make an MMO, I need to have $25,000,000. I don't have $25,000,000, and the people who do have $25,000,000 are not going to give it to me to try out new, unproven ideas. I do consultancy for game design, but so do many other people these days, so there isn't as much work as there used to be. I don't see myself more in education, but the games industry does (which is rather ironic, because education sees me as games industry).
— Did you ever have a wish to bring back MUDs — in a brand new format, or the good old one?
MUDs never really went away. They're still around, and some are quite profitable (as in millions of dollars a year profitable). They have better gameplay than graphical worlds, greater depth, more opportunities to role-play, more variety, and they're more immersive - they have so much going for them that they'll always be around. None of that matters, though, because you're not even going to try them: they have no pictures. They're not just popular among blind people, though, and if "Dungeons & Dragons" is making a comeback, well, who knows, maybe MUDs will be next. As for a new format, well from my perspective MMORPGs are a new format (they were called "graphical MUDs" before they were called "MMORPGs"). Yes, there'll be new formats, but fundamentally a virtual world is a virtual world: how to get to it, whether graphics, text or something else, is merely an interface choice.
— Do you participate in any indie game project development? If yes, which one was the latest?
I help out current and former students with free consultancy (not that they realize this is what it is!), but I don't do any coding of games anymore. That doesn't mean I don't code, but it's hard to get a free run of a few hours when I know I'm not going to be interrupted, so I'm limited to small projects I do for fun or to test out ideas.
— What are you busy with nowadays? Which projects do you develop? Which ideas excite you?
Nowadays, my big projects involve writing books, rather than writing games (although they are game-related books). I can write a book on my own, and I don't need $25,000,000 to do it. As for exciting ideas, well it's not so much the ideas that are exciting as the enabling technologies which will give us those ideas. It's becoming easier and easier to write big programs by simply sewing together pieces of a program that have already been written. Once we reach the stage when anyone can create an MMO as easily as they can currently create a MUD, then we should prepare to be amazed. It's not the ideas we have that is exciting, it's the thought of all the new ideas we will have that is exciting.
— In your opinion, what is the future of video games? How may games look in 5-10-15 years? Will they keep becoming more casual?
The revenue model for games is a mess. Free-to-play means that the only way a regular studio can make money from games is by going pay-to-win and hoping that the average cost of acquisition per player is lower than the average lifetime value per player by an amount that is sufficient to cover the developers' salaries. It's so hard to get a good game noticed that success is hard to find, and even if you do produce something that excites players, you can expect 50 rip-offs on the app store within a week. Eventually, I see the F2P model being casual-only, as players who have played casual games develop their tastes and look for something more fulfilling. The only way they'll get that is if they pay something financially realistic (which "free" is not). They'll also wise up to the various cheap psychological tricks being played on them to try get them to buy in-game goods using microtransactions. I'd hope they'd develop a sense of fairness that would lead to an end to pay-to-win practices, too. I doubt that this will happen in the next five years, but it could be happening within ten and there won't be a games industry unless it happens in the next twenty.
— Could you tell us about your experience with VR/AR? Do you believe these platforms can become something big for the gaming industry? Which devices have you tried (HTC Vive, Oculus, HoloLens, Samsung Gear, Daydream, Cardboard)? Who’s going to win — Vive or Oculus?
VR is fine for short experiences, but there aren't many people willing to sit in a chair for four hours every night wearing a VR headset. Yes, 15 minutes in a Disneyland "Star Wars" ride could be amazing, but for decades the military has used high-end VR for training purposes and there are well-known problems associated with long-term use of it. VR is not going to be taking the games industry to the next level, but it could good for general entertainment and for non-gaming applications (such as surgery). There's an old joke among long-time game developers that the breakthrough in VR is only 5 years away, and has been for 30 years. The latest excuse for failure is that the controls aren't very good, but even if those were sorted it wouldn't alter the fact that if your eyes tell you one thing and the rest of your body tells you something else, your brain is going to have to do things it would rather not. AR is less of a gamble, and I can see it becoming more popular in games and in general once the problem of excessive battery demands has been properly addressed. For headsets, I've only tried the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive: I thought the Vive was better when standing up and moving about and the Rift was better when sitting down, but there wasn't really much in it.
— What you personally see video games as — commercial product, or a piece of art? Should games earn money, entertain players or bring joy to developers? What do you think about f2p games?
Games are works of art. They may not always be good art (especially when written to "be art"), but they're works of art regardless of whether their designer (or anyone else) thinks they are or not. How could they not be? That doesn't mean they can't be commercial, either, and in fact the better the art, the better the chance of commercial success. This is because the art in games is carried by the gameplay, so if the designer is trying to say something through the game, at the very least the gameplay is going to be powerful, consistent and coherent, and have some passion in it. Whether games "should" do any of the things you mention depends on their purpose: they can do any of them, they can do all of them. It's the same with books, movies, ballets, symphonies, or any work of art. Regarding what I think of F2P games, well that depends on the game. I don't like the revenue model because it inevitably leads to P2W and undermines what games are about; it also makes game studios less able to plan their finances, and rarely brings in enough money to cover development costs anyway. It's not even all that great for the consumer: sure, they get more choice, but a choice of 2,000,000 games on the app store is like being given a pile of 2,000,000 antique postage stamps and trying to choose which one is worth the most money - it's impractical. The fact that developers now have to design their games around the F2P revenue model is also a concern because that alters the gameplay. I guess it could strengthen it in some cases, but in most it's going to weaken it, forcing the designer to make compromises that don't fit what the game is saying. It's not a happy situation.
— Which path for a developer will benefit the developer and which — the industry: to be hired into a company to work on an AAA title, or to go indie?
It depends on what the developer's specialty is. If you're an expert in, say, AI, then you're going to need an AAA title because an indie title won't require your particular strengths. If you're a fast coder, then you'd be better off in an indie studio as there'll be fewer dependencies between your work and the work of others. I'd usually favor the indie path, though, because all AAA developers were indies once and if we don't have indies then we're not going to get more AAA studios either. If the indie studio fails, well at least you have experience in development now that might get you that job at an AAA studio you've always coveted.
— How do video games influence real life? Will gamification ever work for domestic cares and other everyday activities?
Video games influence real life through the players. I personally believe they're a force for good because they help people be and become themselves, and they give Reality some competition. If it doesn't improve, players will take their time elsewhere into the worlds of games. Gamification is a bit like advertising: it does work, but it has to change from project to project so that it always stays fresh. People aren't stupid, and giving them worthless points for something is only going to work for so long. If you can be creative with gamification, there's no reason it can't continue indefinitely like the advertising industry has.
— How many communities in video games are different from those in real life? What do they have in common and what is completely different?
So many people play games these days that asking how they're different from communities in real life is like asking how many communities of people who wear glasses are different from those in real life. They overlap. They're the same people. Certain games may attract people with certain interests, which may shape the way the community develops but they're really no different to other "real life" communities of people with similar interests.
— Nowadays MMO is in crisis — fewer people are eager to spend several hours a day for dedicated gaming, which is almost a requirement for the genre. What could you say about it? Do you think that MMO will finally adapt to the market and casualize, how some games already do — with several-minutes-long sessions, not hours-long? Or something else lies in the future of the genre?
Plenty of people are eager to spend several hours a day for dedicated gaming, they're just preferring MOBAs over MMOs. It's not the people who are the problem, it's the MMOs. In my view, casualizing is what cause the problems MMOs have, so it's not going to be a solution. I was discussing this with an Australian academic at a conference in Hong Kong once, and he came up with a good analogy: it was like what happened with sports cars. In the 1960s, sports cars were fast, responsive, exciting to drive and just sheer fun. In order to widen the market, manufacturers started adding new features (such as softer seats) and de-emphasizing existing features (such as having only two seats). They made the cars bigger and more stable; yes, they lost some acceleration, but more cars were being sold so all was well. Then, they noticed that sales of their other cars were falling, because their sports cars were now in competition with family cars. Sports cars became a thing of the past: if you wanted one, and were rich, you bought a British or Italian model from the 1960s. If you weren't rich or didn't know you wanted a sports car as you had never driven one, you were left in limbo. You were left buying a modern car that didn't deliver what you wanted but was sold as being what you wanted. Then, in Japan, Mazda was looking to launch a new car. They considered various options and realized that the market for sports cars was no longer being tapped. They designed the Mazda MX5, and at launch, all those people who wanted a proper sports car but couldn't get one went out and bought an MX5. It became the best-selling sports car of all time. It's like this with MMOs: today's MMOs are watered-down versions of their past selves, and the people who want to play them are out playing MOBAs, RPGs and FPSs instead. When the first MMO is launched that has the sensibilities of the early 2000s but the modern technology behind it, they'll flock back. That's the theory, anyway. Adding more water to something already tasteless certainly isn't going to improve it, though.
— Is it possible to create a roleplay MMO game, in which players will genuinely role play and not spend time on leveling up their characters and everything the developers are trying to tell them to do?
Yes, of course, it is. It's not something that scales well - you might need 10,000 servers with 100 players each instead of 100 servers with 10,000 players each - but it can be done. Not having character levels would be a start, for example.
— What do you think about using AI in video games — for NPCs, scenario generation, etc. ? Is there future for such projects as Project Milo from Lionhead Studios?
It depends on what the AI is used for, and how much AI you have. In general, I favor having AI standing in for people, by which I mean controlling opponents or NPCs. I don't mind it's being used for content-generation, although mainly as fillers (because it's very samey). I am opposed to having AI do dynamic difficulty adjustment, because then the players end up gaming the AI, not playing the game. Even for AI opponents, I'm wary about allowing them to learn: again, this is because the player ends up having to try to teach them to play badly then unexpectedly playing well so as to beat them. Learning-capable AIs on the same side as players is less of a problem, but AI opponents that watch what you do across several games then develop a response are back in the realm of DDA again.
— What do you think about the massive developers enthusiasm about lootboxes — items, which hold a random reward and often require paying real money for the opening? Some kind of ‘gambling’ monetization in f2p games.
I'm against it. It's just about acceptable if the only items you can win are cosmetic, but it never is like that - there's always something that's pay-to-win, whether it's outright obvious (XP multiplier potion) or passed off as quality-of-life (free teleportation). My problems with it are two-fold. Firstly, it uses real money. If you could only open them using in-game currency, that wouldn't be so bad, but real-money makes it P2W. Secondly, they don't say what the odds are of winning the items they say are inside. If they did tell you the odds, that would be less bad, although still not actually good. I'm not fundamentally against gambling so long as problem gamblers are identified early, but I am against exploiting players and legitimizing cheating.
— As a professor, what do you think about game dev education for particular specialties (game design, game project management, game artist, etc)? Do you think it’s better than classic education (project manager, developer, artist), regarding future job in game dev industry? Could you name good educational institutes, which provide game dev education?
I teach game design. Game project management is not all that different to regular software development project management, which I find an exceptionally dull topic so try to avoid it if at all possible. Game art, which tends to be taught alongside animation, has some utility in other industries (such as film and TV), but all too often a first-rate young artist who has exceptional imagination and creativity will leave university and land a job at a large studio where they spend their first three weeks creating textures for bricks and the next three creating textures for more bricks. Game design is frequently little more than interface design or level design, with good students having all their passion squeezed out of them through group work with people who just aren't designers. Some people are game designers, who have things they need to articulate through gameplay; for them, games are their medium of artistic expression. Some people are designers of games, who want to design games so they can make or play them; for them, game design is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. I can't teach people to become game designers, but I can teach people to recognize that they are game designers, and I can help game designers start to reach their potential faster than if they were left to their own devices. My aim is to educate, not to train. Regarding good educational institutes for game dev education, well most of them aren't education, they're training. They take students, open their heads, pour in knowledge, close their heads up again, and push them out of the door with all the skills to do what we know the game industry wants. Those few academic institutions that do education in games taken in students, open their heads and pour in gasoline. If there are no sparks there, nothing will happen. If there are only a few, the gasoline will put them out. If there are enough, though, WHOOSH! The sparks ignite and the students are inspired. As for which institutions I recommend, well there are many I could (and many, many more I couldn't!), but I'm going to pick out one in particular because it has a different model to the others. This is the games degree at Falmouth University in the UK. Falmouth is a small university miles from anywhere (it's further from London than Paris is from London), but it teaches in a novel way. It splits its students into groups by specialization and runs each group as a studio. All their projects are group projects run with other students. At the start of the next academic year, the students are split up and put in new groups. These also operate as studios. The result after three years of this is an educated group of students who have effectively worked in three games studios for three years. When they leave for industry (or to set up their own studios), they know exactly what to do. It's amazing to see what they produce! Their main problem is that that drop-out rates for programmers are higher than for artists, designers, writers or sound engineers, so it's hard to get the balance right. Still, it impresses me!
— How did people see our industry in your country? You’re a professor — what do your students think of your work in gamedev? Do they see it as something insignificant? For example, in Russia video games are usually considered something toyish and not serious, and in some cases even dangerous and affecting drastically. Often they are seen as a can-carrier in high-profile cases involving murder, violence and misconduct.
We've had video games in the UK since the early 1980s when the government put a computer in every school. Schoolkids used them to write games, and as a result, they are long established here. The average age of people in the UK is 40: this means that half the population was born in 1977 or later. They grew up with video games. They are not in the least worried by them, except maybe the quality of the gameplay isn't as good as it used to be. Ten or twenty years from now, the Prime Minister will have grown up playing games in his or her youth. It will be no more controversial than the fact today's members of parliament grew up watching TV, and the ones in 1957 grew up listening to the radio. There are very few people here, even among the older generation, that think games cause violence and misconduct. If games did do that, the streets should be running with blood by now, given we've been playing them for so long. What those who think games make people violent fail to realize is that when you play a violent game, half the time you lose. Instead of being the shooter, you're the shot. People see both sides, not just one. They have perspective. When people find out I'm a Professor of Computer Game Design, they think it's rather cool!
— How often do you get job offers from gamedev? Which was the most interesting one?
I don't get permanent job offers these days, as the games industry is just as ageist as any other. I do get consultancy offers, most of which I accept, but I can't talk about them as I sign non-disclosure agreements. I get two or three offers a year to take up an academic post somewhere or other, though.
— You’re internationally famous in game dev industry. Which benefits have you managed to gain out of that?
Well, it's nice to be known and to be invited to speak at industry events. I'm more famous internationally than I am in the UK, though. Most game developers here have never heard of me except as an examination question when they were students.
— In Russian industry, people love telling funny and ridiculous stories about development, bizdev, marketing or community. Do you have one you could share with us?
No. Sorry, but most of my industry stories are tragic rather than funny.
— What would you advise the beginners in game development?
Make games for yourself, for fun. If you don't find it fun, leave while you still can: if you're going to spend the rest of your life doing something, you'd better enjoy it. If you do find it fun, keep at it: it's who you are.
— We have a tradition: we ask our guests to make a photo of their working space (usually the PC/laptop and surroundings). Could you share yours?
Hmm, I wish I'd read this before it got dark outside and I had to put the light on.