I wanted to talk very quickly about World of Warcraft, because you said some interesting things about that. You called it unethical in its game design, I guess because of its exploitative qualities.
JB: Yeah. Although, when I use a word like "unethical," that's a strong word. I do think it's a little bit accurate to say that about World of Warcraft, but what I'm really applying the word to is the widespread industry practice that produces all of those games. I
t's not like World of Warcraft came out of nowhere, and it's not like no other game is trying to copy World of Warcraft. Everybody is trying to, with the same gameplay mechanics. They exploit these psychological phenomena that are pretty well understood by designers right now, and will get a better understanding of over time, because that's how it goes. But they know what they're doing. That's what makes it unethical.
I was going to challenge that, not in the sense that I actually believe the challenge, but just to see what your take on it would be. Don't these kind of mechanics mirror all game mechanics, in that it's small returns for repetitive tasks that you learn, and with a social dynamic overlaid over that, whether you're doing it with your friends or whatever? You're having a nice time, and it's just a different way of framing Tetris.
JB: There's always a matter of degree. One of the things... I've done a couple of lectures on this, and I never remember what I said in which one, but one of the things that comes down to is natural rewards versus artificial rewards. Every game has both of those.
An artificial reward is a cool-sounding sound effect for when you... I don't know, Tetris didn't really have cool sound effects, but imagine that it did -- when you filled out four lines, you got a cool, Bejeweled-like particle effect or something like that.
Maybe it would've been a success if it had that. (laughter)
JB: Maybe the XBLA Tetris...yeah. (laughter) So that's even an artificial reward, and lots of games do that. But what I feel is that there's some very fuzzy line somewhere, where if you're on one side of the line, players are playing your game because of the natural rewards, because they enjoy playing the game's core mechanics. Tetris is like that. It maybe feels a little addictive, and we feel a little wary of having that addiction, but it's innocent in certain ways.
Tetris had little cutscenes in it. It had the little dancing Russian guys in the arcade version. But I think that was maybe more to provide a break so that you don't fucking die from all the intensity of dealing with this. But for the most part, when you're playing Tetris, you're enjoying it because you enjoy fitting the blocks together.
Whereas when you play World of Warcraft -- and what I'm about to say is a generalization, since different players enjoy different things, obviously -- a lot of the appeal of playing World of Warcraft is not in the core gameplay mechanic, because it's boring, a lot of the time. Sometimes when you're on a really good raid with a team and you're getting teamwork going and that's a close call, that can be exciting, but if you graph out what players are doing over the average 12-hour play session or whatever...
That's obviously hyperbole, but if you're looking at what activities they're actually performing, there's not that much good gameplay in there. I think what keeps them in there is, at first, the level ding, because it's very addictive to get that. "Okay, I've got more gold. Whatever." And eventually, they've made this huge time investment and they've got a character there and they know what that level ding feels like and the next one is pretty far off, but they can get there! And it's not any better, because this is like number 67. It's got to be better than 66!
And they've got their time logged that says, "I've now logged 78 days in this game, and if I throw that away, then it's all been a lie."
JB: It's all been for naught, yeah. There's many different reasons that people play these games, though. One of the things people have said to me after lectures is, "Well, I play World of Warcraft for the social element," which I think is a little bit true, but again, I think it's magnitude. They're playing World of Warcraft, and aren't on IRC or a forum or talking to people in real life.
Social interaction in real life is way better. If you look at how long it takes to communicate to people in World of Warcraft, and the depth and subtlety of the ideas you can get through may be a little bit better on a headset... often it's just typing, but even on a headset, it's not good communication like you have with a person in real life. If what they really cared about was rich, social interaction, they would be out there in the real world.
JB: Yeah. What it's really about is that the social aspect is something that they value in the context of this game, but it's really the game. In fact, what they've said is, "Oh, I like having social interactions when I can go out and kill some monsters with people." I think that's true, but you just look at the whole of it and how diluted all these things are -- how diluted the gameplay and social interactions and all that are -- and it just doesn't make it worth it, I think. It's on the wrong side of the line.
Now what's scary about that is that World of Warcraft was the most concentrated gameplay version of an MMO ever, right? They have the least downtime. I haven't played some of the games since then, but certainly EverQuest is like fucking downtime forever. It's like you have one fight, then you go sit and meditate for like five minutes before you can have another fight.
Think about what you've done! (laughter)
JB: (laughter) Think about the tragedy of killing the poor swamp rat that you just killed, and the next 100 that you're going to have to kill. That's I think is one of the core reasons... obviously there's audio and visuals that WoW has that are better and stuff, but they also did give the player more gameplay. I don't want to say, "WoW is completely barren," and things, but by the standards of any good single-player game, the gameplay in WoW is really kind of terrible.
Is it possible to have an ethical MMO? How would you go about doing that? Or are MMOs basically about hitting things for numbers?
JB: No, I think that you easily could. What is an MMO? It's just a game where you have a lot of players in a world. That really could be almost anything. I actually had a plan for my next project after Braid, which I almost would've started by now if I hadn't decided not to do it, which was like an MMO with a different core gameplay mechanic, which was heavily about communication and puzzle-solving and that stuff.
It had a level progression system, but it was more about having pacing to how the levels open up. It was like a Diablo-style, isometric perspective, 3D rendered game, but like that, where you're looking down at a dungeon.
So the leveling system is more about having the dungeons open up at an appropriate pace of complexity. It wasn't about keeping people playing. In fact, people would max out relatively early, and hopefully they would keep playing the game after that because the new levels they could explore are interesting, and they actually enjoy exploring the levels.
I think there's some extent to which some games have already had gameplay that people enjoy for the gameplay. Puzzle Pirates is an MMO that's done very well, especially for an indie game, and for the budget they developed it on.
It doesn't have WoW kind of numbers, but it's an MMO, and you go in there and there are games like Bejeweled and Dr. Mario and stuff like that that you play.
I haven't played that into the late game, but I played like eight hours of it or something, and the time that I was playing it, it was really about the gameplay. It was like, "Awesome! I'm going to beat a carpenter on this trip and fill in the little gourds," and it was fun.
I enjoyed it for what it was, unlike every other MMO that I've played. And I'm sure that there are other ones. I haven't played one percent of MMOs, and if you count all the ones out of Korea and stuff, I don't even know what they all are. So I'm sure that there are some doing it, but they're not the most popular ones.
One final question. You sat out the start of your session about how you just want to make games that change peoples' lives, in a way, which is a good vision, but a grand one as well. Is that possible? Has that ever happened before, you think?
JB: Absolutely. In fact, it's not a question of whether you can change peoples' lives, because that was the point of my three-minute opinion thing that I gave. And actually the first Montreal lecture where I was talking about World of Warcraft being unethical, which is that games are part of peoples' environment now. They're everywhere.
And it's the whole nature versus nurture thing. The old philosophical question is "Are people products of their origins or their environment?" And it's kind of been resolved that it's sort of both. We always seesaw in different ways, but your environment has a big effect on who you are, so games have to have an effect on who you are, because they're just there, and you play them. They're a mental environment and an audiovisual environment that you spend time with.
So then the question is not "Do they affect you?" but "What is the effect and how big is the effect and how long does it last?" And I don't know the answers to those things, but it's definitely something that we should explore thoughtfully. That's all.
Which is something that previous people haven't done. Television, obviously, has an effect on people, whatever that is, and various contradictory studies say different things, but it does have effects. Television very rapidly degenerated into just crappy shows, like "whatever we can get viewing eyeballs for."
In some sense, the same thing is inevitable in the games industry, because if you're just chasing money, that's what you do. The big companies are going to chase money, and that's fine, but I'm hoping with the internet, people who have different goals than just chasing money will be able to find distribution for their game. It may be a smaller audience, but they hopefully can find it.