22 November, 2004
Richard Bartle, a respected developer of the original text MUD, recently wrote an article talking about why online games are doomed. In essence, most players think only in the short term when these games require long-term thinking.
I left a reply on the TerraNova blog where I took the unpopular position of supporting Richard. I want to expand my thoughts a bit with this entry.
As I replied on TerraNova, I often describe my job as a developer on an online game, like Meridian 59, as balancing the short-term desires of the players with the long-term needs of my business and my interest in keeping the online game running for years to come. This means designers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The designer must keep short term goals in mind in order to attract players, but must also focus on long term plans to make sure the game remains profitable and playable for years to come.
The first answer that comes to mind is to make a game with both good short term and long term thinking. Unfortunately, many good design decisions don’t fit both categories. To use Richard’s analogy of a child that wants sugary treats while the parent wants the child to eat vegetables, this is like advocating sugar-coated vegetables! This doesn’t solve either issue. And most people realize that the vegetables are important part of the diet; of course, a bit of a sugar in moderation doesn’t hurt in the long run.
So, as I wrote in the comments linked above, I think the more interesting questions are: How do we get out of this situation? Is there a way that we can present new virtual worlds to players without falling into the problems Richard points out?
My answer shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with my philosophy of online game development.
Instead of going bigger, we need to focus on going smaller. The term “massive” is a conceit and that it’s distracting us from the true goal. The future is in niche games. Trying to offer the most watered-down content in an effort to gain that mythical “million-subscriber” status is the wrong way to satisfy players. Pandering to a large audience like that will only ensure that the developers end up making almost no one happy. If the players aren’t happy with the game itself, they’re going to want the sugar-buzz of demanded short-term designs to compensate.
If the developers focus on providing a focused experience will allow you to make people happier. They will understand the game better and they will be more interested in the game itself instead of short-term features they found in other online games. This means that you can have a balanced diet plenty of vegetables with a bit of sugar as a treat. It is foolish to say that there’s no market for these niche games; there are plenty of underserved niches out there (dark fantasy, “retro” Sci-Fi, RP-enforced to name a few) so there are lots of games to make.
Of course, this concept of serving a niche is unappealing to both existing players and existing big companies. Existing players hate this concept because it threatens the superb “all you can eat $10-15/month” deals they currently enjoy; niches will be more expensive given the nature of how markets work. Existing big companies hate this because it’s risky and they aren’t set up to exploit niches rather than appeal to the “mass market”. So, there’s going to be some big resistance to changing everything to improve the game.
We’ll see how things go, I guess.