Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

18 March, 2013

The old, spiced with the new
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:39 AM

What makes a game successful? Well, if I had the answer to that, I’d be bottling it and selling it and buying a gold-plated sports car. The reality is that there are a ton of little parts and pieces that contribute to the whole. You have to figure out each of those little elements (and have a healthy dose of luck) to succeed

Let’s take a look at one particular aspect: how much of the game should be new, compared to how much should be familiar to your players.

Mixing the old and the new

It’s been a rule of thumb that you generally want to mix the old and the new together when creating a new work. The old is tired and boring, but the new can be too alienating to players.

Recent I read an excerpt from a book on junk food that drove home why a mix of old and new tends to work:

“So I started asking soldiers how frequently they would like to eat this or that, trying to figure out which products they would find boring,” Moskowitz said. The answers he got were inconsistent. “They liked flavorful foods like turkey tetrazzini, but only at first; they quickly grew tired of them. On the other hand, mundane foods like white bread would never get them too excited, but they could eat lots and lots of it without feeling they’d had enough.”

This contradiction is known as “sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more.

The interesting lesson for game design is that while people are much more likely to pick up something novel, they are likely to get tired of it faster. On the other hand, people tend to be able to continue with something that doesn’t overload the senses. In food, this is the preference turkey tetrazzini but being able to eat white bread endlessly. In games, this means that innovative indie title will probably grate on you after a short period of time, while you can keep playing the latest clone or sequel until 4 AM in the morning, if you decide to play it in the first place.

(As an aside, I realize the pitfalls of pointing to a book about how junk food manufacturers manipulate tastes when discussing game design. Armchair Designer has already covered the comparison between the two in some depth. But, to repeat what I said in a comment on that site: game developers are generally more interested in developing a fun experience than trying to “addict” you. And while I’ll agree that play is as basic a need as eating, I think modern games and modern (junk) food have a LOT of vital differences to take into consideration before trying to damn the game industry by association. This is largely beyond the scope of this article, although that quote does really illustrate the point.)

But, with “sensory-specific satiety” in mind, let’s think about what the right mix is for a game.

Too much new

Time to revisit our old friend, innovation. What happens if you focus too much on the new? You fail. As I wrote in that post, innovation and polish are diametrically opposed to each other, so you can’t create a game that is mostly new gameplay mechanics and perfect them. That intriguing new mechanic attracts people, but it can’t retain them. And, you want that retention to spread good word-of-mouth recommendations to other people. This is especially true for MMOs, where you also need people to stick around and build your critical mass of users.

It can be tricky to determine what’s really “new”, though. There’s a danger where someone immersed in a field (like game designers tend to be for games) forgets that not everyone has the same depth of experience. What can seem like old hat for us can be a bolt from the blue to someone else. We designers can get bogged down and feel jaded when our experiences set us too far apart from the average person. Sometimes even recombining existing elements can feel like a whole new thing that is greater than the sum of the parts. But, this newness can overwhelm the player, making them feel “sated” and tired of the game quicker.

Of course, not everyone reacts the same way. Some people will be interested in sticking with a product that is truly “innovative’, creating a core audience. But, if you’re relying on having a large audience for your game, you’re going to be limited if you focus purely on new elements to the exclusion of old, familiar elements.

From a business point of view, thought, you want the new parts to offer should be something that isn’t easily duplicated by others. Larger companies tend to be terrible at true innovation, but they will be only too happy to copy what you’re doing and throw more resources behind it if you’re doing something interesting. Again, innovating carries risk, and proving that your innovation works is the hard part.

Too much old

If you rely too heavily on just copying older works, then you’re just cloning rather than designing a game. Depending on how recently your “inspiration” was created, you might at best be tagged as unoriginal or at worst get accused as ripping off another game developer.

The value of the old is that you have something that you can polish, because you can analyze what has come before. Further, this is the comforting part that keeps people coming back. Players know what to expect, and they will keep playing in order to master it or just to “pop virtual bubble wrap” in a way that feels comfortable to them. The old is established for a reason, and trying to compete directly with another company at something they’re already doing is probably not a great way to attract people; existing fans will stay with your competitor, while people bored with the old will give your work a pass.

Again, these reactions aren’t universal to every person. Some people might have their curiosity piqued by the old familiar; nostalgia has a certain lasting appeal (especially, it seems, on Kickstarter). And, as I wrote in the linked post, cloning works for many reasons, so sometimes people don’t need the allure of the new.

Getting the mix right

So, you’re a designer and you realize that you need some of the old when you’re doing something new. This makes sense since Everything is a Remix, meaning that every work tends to have a bit of what came before it incorporated into the work. You start with the old, then hopefully express something new as well.

Keep in mind that presentation matters. There is the risk of what feels like “bait and switch” if you focus so much on the new that the old is a surprise. Let’s take a look at Guild Wars 2 (GW2), and some of the current feeling about the game. The original Guild Wars was a rather innovative game. It was easy to get to max level, and players spent most of their time getting small upgrades or earning titles. GW2 had an infamous “manifesto” where they talked about how they were going to do bold things and not follow in the footsteps of other MMOs. This is the novel taste that piqued the audience’s interest.

However, even though they were excited about the game, some people aren’t happy with the new focus. Having to “grind” for new tier of gear doesn’t feel like it’s keeping with the original promises from GW2′s manifesto. Other fans are beginning to question the entire direction the game is heading, arguing that the game seems to be painting itself into a corner in how it can continue to develop and still pretend to be unique.

Yet, for all the cautious pessimism, these two fans are still playing. I think at least one small part of it is that there’s still some intriguing tastes to sample yet in the game. Or, perhaps the old familiar patterns are establishing themselves in a game that is more optimized and streamlined, and people are secretly happy to fall into those patterns once again.

We could also look at the example of WoW to see a game that got the balance just right. Take the old, established formula from EverQuest and other DIKU-derived games, build upon an established and beloved franchise like Warcraft, but then add in a focus on the ability to play solo and streamlined questing. You can perhaps see why the game did so well; they offered something a little different and appealing while sticking to a familiar core.

No single right answer

In the end, there’s no universal measure of what mix you need. You can’t easily determine that X% needs to be original and Y% should feel familiar without being derivative. It’s hard to draw the line where the familiar becomes derivative, as that tends to be a matter of personal taste.

What do you think? How much new do you want to see, and how much do you like the old, comfortable, familiar at the core of the new experience? Do you think you have more tolerance or less patience for novelty than others do?

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  1. As someone who has put down more MMOs than most people have picked up, I have a finger on my own pulse as to what I “need” in order to remain interested (it’s not just MMOs, either).

    I like the “newness” of a game. Even though MMOs (in particular) by and large have similar tropes in their UI, mechanics, purpose, I really enjoy the “discovery” phase at the beginning when I’m trying to find out where and how the “old” features are handled. I rely on this knowledge to not bog me down so I can keep moving ahead.

    When that font of newness starts to segue into normalcy, I start to get bored. This usually happens about 1/2 to the level cap (in MMOs).

    The problem, then, is that a lot of the “discovery” (from my perspective) or the “presentation” (from the design perspective) is front-loaded; after a certain point, I don’t have anything to look forward to learning except which area I need to be in next. Some would say GW2 fits this mold perfectly, because you can master all your weapon options before level 10, leaving you with nothing but point assignment duties as you move from zone to zone. Most MMOs that I’ve played are like this, and are generally no better and no worse than GW2.

    Comment by Scopique — 18 March, 2013 @ 11:31 AM

  2. I read the links in your article and some links from the linked pages… interesting what people have to say!

    The bottom line of your posting is that the right mix of things people like, of a certain basic and sustaining white bread nature, plus something new that entices people makes a good game. Among other things, of course.

    Innovation doesn’t need to be much to turn something into something wonderful. Think of Apple products. Tablets were there before the iPad for instance and telephone and organizer existed before the iPhone as well.

    I think WoW is a very good example for crunchy classic core and innovation. By now the game is an old hat, but in its day up to now it was really making MMOs popular with the masses. The word “polish” was missing from your article, I think that’s also important. Even if the launch of WoW wasn’t that polished but for many a nightmarish experience. But people still wanted to play, even after that because it had a nice UI, nice quests and overall it was a really good feeling.

    GW2 is the innovative kid on the block. It’s doing things differently and this causes all kinds of problems.

    The turkey tetrazzini of Guild Wars 2 is the combat. Firing a Rifle or Flamethrower without even having a target, just for fun – it’s fun! They really nailed that! Just like Sword skill 2 makes me take a sword as Warrior even if Axes and Greatswords kill so much better – it’s a wonderful jump, it’s amazing and fun. And I use it in jumping puzzles, it’s more reliable than me jumping.

    The downside? It’s no white bread and as GW2 also distributed the trinity functions over all classes and the combat is different, the dungeons are very very different – too alien for many to adapt. It’s an odd kind of gameplay and even when you get used to it: Downed vs Defeated and rezzing people in combat nonstop several times in a row and winning nevertheless, that happens now and then. But it’s not satisfying for me and feels like a defeat, being downed and getting rezzed over and over. For me. I also have a hard time to start rezzing people. When Jim is dead, Jim is dead till the boss is dead or everyone else, too. :> That’s how I and other people got trained by MMOs over the years. Hard to overcome that.

    The good news is I think there is still room for improvement on the dungeon and dungeon combat design and we can see they are working on it. I often see the Fractals as a dungeon design experiment. There are still too many avoid countless red circles fights and pure DPS races. Plus something I don’t like either, there are some dungeon bosses where my jumping skills and all that are tested while in combat and under pressure. The Fractals have more varied objectives, that’s nice.

    GW2 has no quest log but the “hearts” are always simplistic tasks bound to a certain area of a zone. No wonder people sometimes salivate about the latest evolution of questing, quest hubs that now also tell a story. There are also contradicting design goals, hello Darkfall players and UO veterans, some also want not so much questing and story but to kill stuff, be it mobs or other players.

    There is a lot of innovation I like in GW2 – but at the same time you know I am having a hard time with it. One point is that it isn’t GW1, it is an entirely different game. After Eye of the North I expected GW2 to be like GW 1.5 (Eye of the North) but evolved, turned out there is not much left if anything at all is left from the old GW1, it’s playing and feeling so very differently.

    The second point is overpromising and broken promises. GW2 is indeed grindtastic, but GW1 also had grindy activities. Despite the no grind design mantra. GW2 unfortunately abandoned this mantra completely. Just take a look how you craft things you need to craft things and all that. It’s double and triple dipping and GW2 is really expensive. I cannot afford testing all rune and armor bonus variations on one char, even less so on my 2-3 major chars atm. Even with “green” or blue gear that is affordable it’s quite a daunting task, too much for all those who are not hardcore to boot. And even those probably don’t bother.

    About “Ascended” gear: I think people overemphasize the focus on the “extra tier” of gear. While they are actually talking about something else, a very grindy progression system. The other is more a problem of the exploration mode of the world vs dungeon design. The “Fractals” are a grindy and very special kind of dungeon. It’s like an experiment, but it feels odd compared to the somewhat story driven dungeons. They are also nowhere in the world and people are dropped into them like into a puzzle to solve. I want a pizza when I order pizza and not a spring roll that’s named pizza 2.

    The Fractals are really very well designed, but people might not want that and especially expect something different. The grind and extra tier of gear is for sure annoying a lot of players. Very popular is the short and one-dimensional “Path 1″ of the Cathedral of Flame that isn’t nearly as well designed as the Fractals, but extremely popular nevertheless. People kill stuff en masse, it’s short and lots of rewards. It’s a lot like the “Maw” daily loot distribution for the masses, a very short and easy event, great rewards. Now compare that to the pain in the ass that it is to kill the “Megadestroyer” which also drops less loot. But it’s actually a more meaningful and fun thing to do, but people skip this one for the reasons mentioned above.

    So GW2 is a lot like a pizza with chili – I love that! But it also has living Klingon gagh and the dough has little feet that move! Eeew. Also, why did they put salt on the chili?!

    GW2 is not a coherent game. It’s, even after so many years in development, quite experimental. Both for the consumers as for the makers.

    What it needs most is some white bread.

    Because I find my excitement about my pretty pixels in GW2 quickly waning due to not so fancy and questionable presentation of my so called personal story nobody and not even me cares that much about and combat and events get very repetitive and grindy. The more varied daily quests might be a beginning but so far they have not yet found the proper dough that makes me want to eat GW2 on an almost daily basis for several years without getting tired of it, something which happened to me with GW1. GW2 is like eating candyfloss, after a while its enough and then you vomit. When you return after a while it might be sweet for you again.

    Maybe that is what RIFT is missing. It’s a very good game, but people know it. Not even “souls” or “rifts” are enough to differentiate it from MMOs people have already played and were done with.

    Star Trek Online was a very very buggy game lacking content in the beginning, but it was also very different and kept me hooked for years till their F2P cash grabs and playing the game for too long already turned me away.

    So yeah, good old stuff plus some working innovation, that’s way to go. Pure innovation is for sure also possible, theoretically – but not even GW2 could be as innovative as they maybe wanted it to be, falling back to grindy token exchange mechanics for dungeon gear etc..?

    Comment by Longasc — 18 March, 2013 @ 12:31 PM

  3. I’m an outlier. The innovative draws me like a magnet. The thing I appear to like most is figuring out how things unfamiliar to me work. Once it gets familiar and the patterns become old hat, I start losing interest fast. (The only caveat is some days I’m in the mood for repetitive meditative grind, then I’ll sit around and farm mobs for an hour or so, but even then, I can only manage an hour or two ever so rarely – unlike others who can do that for multiple hours for days on end.)

    If anything, I’ll say the one unexpected thing that ArenaNet hit on that is keeping me around is WvW and the community built up around it. If I run around solo and PvE, I tend to disconnect from the larger population, only mixing just enough to PUG dungeons, that’s it. I can’t recognize familiar names, there’s just too many running around.

    In WvW, there’s a much smaller community of regulars and you grow a lot more familiar with them, working together in common cause. The unpredictability of encounters is part of the appeal (will I meet one person, a duo, a group, a zerg as I travel?)

    Even then, there was a time when I got bored because no one within my view was trying out unexpected or innovative things. Giving the meta a few months to develop and switching servers seems to have done wonders because there are all kinds of sophisticated strategic or tactical surprises I am seeing in WvW now, and it is beautiful to witness. I can only hope it never stagnates because that’s when I’ll get bored yet again.

    Comment by Jeromai — 18 March, 2013 @ 3:22 PM

  4. Reminds me of that piece of common wisdom in the trade of writing genre fiction : “You can innovate on voice, or setting, or plot — pick one.”
    The rationale is if you move more than one of those pickets at once, you’ll overstretch the fabric of the genre apart and people will fall through the cracks.
    Commercially successful games generally abide by that rule, too : if you majorly innovate on experience design, don’t mess too much with the other conventions in the genre so that players can feel comfortable while tasting the new flavors ; likewise for worldbuilding and mechanics tropes, respectively.
    A new genre is what you get after successively and successfully moving two pickets out of a genre’s original three.

    Your point about the ‘relativity of new’ is really worth pondering, as it’s the fuel of much critique and outrage in simulationist games such as strategy and MMOs : grognard syndrome and whorish dumbing-down. These are two sides of the same coin, whose visibility (and very existence) depends on the position of the observer.
    Lots of food for thought in figuring ways for a game to remain accessible and confortable for new and casual players without quickly getting old and thin for hardocore gamers and bittervets.

    Speaking of food for thought…
    I reckon the fast food analogy in my own article(s) is/was a fruitful comparison because it’s a stimulating one, both in the ways the metaphor sticks and where it doesn’t.
    I also feel compelled to state for the record I do disagree with your interpretation that I’m trying to damn the whole game industry by association, which is not my intent, and I’d suggest you’re on the back foot due to over-exposition to internet forum warriors trained in the Yahoo School Of Debate. :)
    If I say Mc Donalds McNuggets alone make more profit than all gourmet food trucks combined, I’m merely stating the obvious, if striking facts, not saying all fast food cooks are guilty of crimes against humanity, nor am I advocating for my delicious corner deli to ramp up on the msg in their sandwiches.
    Now, if your argument is the likes of WoW do not heavily rely on skinner boxes to keep people playing in the face of the physical impossibility to churn enough new content to keep up with the pace of their rabid gerbils playerbase, man… then we have to disagree on facts, and that’s another matter.

    Comment by AcD — 18 March, 2013 @ 8:03 PM

  5. Using the food analogy with MMOs:
    The ‘perfect’ MMO would be make-your-own-sandwich. All you can eat white bread, with a large variety of optional meats, veggies, and condiments. Core commonly accepted concept with innovation at the edges.

    I strongly suspect WoW fit(s) this profile. Say at launch they had 7 different activities (number pulled from thin air), that’s around 5040 (7 factorial) different combinations. Given WoW’s age, a lot of satiation has kicked into effect. So WoW releases new activities. But the old combinations are still old, meaning you only get a small number of new combinations that ‘taste’ new. Road to renewed satiation is shorter.

    This would also bolster the repeated reuse of the holy trinity concept. Tank/healer/DPS is being seen as the white bread, while the iterations and extras are the ‘specialty foods’. I’d even hazard that the reason some MMOs are publicly decried as WoW clones and boring quite quickly are because the ‘specialty foods’ are too similar to those sampled previously, so some degree of previous satiation carries into the new environment.

    Not to deride GW2, as I’ve found it enjoyable, but, for all their desires for breaking new ground, their core (combat) looks a lot like white bread with the crust removed. People were anticipating multigrain.

    To a degree, quests from mobs, dungeons, raids, PvP are played out – they are either expired flavours or migrating into the white bread. They shouldn’t be ignored or dropped, but MMOs will need to launch with new innovations and can’t simply rely on iterations of these concepts for spicing up the sandwich.

    Comment by Sutekh — 19 March, 2013 @ 5:48 AM

  6. Ehhh, I’m trying not to “defend” Guild Wars 2 as much anymore. Frankly, I tire of having to justify why I like it, or explain that I don’t see where it “went horribly wrong”. It went wrong somewhere, but “horribly” seems overselling the point. I guess the biggest sin it committed was that it was hyped by fans into something it could *never* be.

    I still enjoy playing it, but not so much for the game as for the players who are still having fun playing with . . . well, other people. Strangely, that’s why 90% of the people I approach say they still play World of Warcraft (“I got friends who still play, and we enjoy playing together.”). As opposed to the people who still play EverQuest (“If I quit, all the stuff I got is meaningless. I’ll never get it back.”).

    And on the other hand, I wouldn’t feel anything bad if I just walked away from GW2 for a couple weeks or even a month. I had to do it with GuildWars once before, because I was facing a grind for titles (which would do nothing other than give me a trophy to look at . . . and they were ugly trophies) and realized I didn’t want them that badly. And after that, there wasn’t much else for me to do other than mess around.

    I know I’ll reach that point in GuildWars 2. Heck, I reached that point in Minecraft and Nethack. (Actually, I reached the point where I got tired of Nethack putting my balls in a vice, but that’s Nethack.) I just recently reached that point with my addiction in single-player games “Monster Hunter Freedom Unite” on my PSP.

    And here’s the part where I wind up diverging from a lot of people:I see nothing wrong with putting down a game I am not paying a monthly fee to have the privilege of playing.

    Now, as to the topic of the post? So far the lessons seem to be, if you want your MMO to be successful?

    - Don’t try to be better at being WoW than WoW is. I know it’s tempting, but don’t. Why? Everyone who wants to play WoW is already playing WoW and you’re not prying them loose unless Blizzard really drops the ball.
    - Don’t try to go pay-to-win by offering the top tier goods only to premium currency buyers. Not enough people will do it, and you’ll get a bad reputation.
    - Get writers who know how to do humor which is more than reheated memes and references.
    - Get writers who know how to do drama without using the Hero’s Journey as a template.
    - Pay your writers well enough that they actually want to do either of those things.

    Comment by Kereminde — 19 March, 2013 @ 7:39 AM

  7. Quotes of the Day

    [...]“The interesting lesson for game design is that while people are much more likely to pick up something novel, they are likely to get tired of it faster.”

    ~ Psychochild[...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 19 March, 2013 @ 9:51 AM

  8. So, does this mean that players would not enjoy an experience that is always novel? If you could somehow perpetuate that “discovery” phase at the beginning of an MMO, would players become worn out and yearn for something familiar?

    Perhaps “interleaving” that phase, where there are cycles of discovery vs. routine, much like the pacing in a book?

    Comment by Machination — 20 March, 2013 @ 6:56 AM

  9. I don’t think it always has to be the same patterns that keeps people playing. Familiar patterns of play (and food), change of generations so that a norm is never going to be completely static.

    White bread as you say is also never going to be the taste that everyone can eat indefinitely, I’m guessing there is a standard deviation or so around that wherein a sizeable portion of people don’t want and don’t like white bread for whatever reason. And that is the key I guess towards games they need to be subtle general tastes to be mass marketable but that taste doesn’t necessarily need to be the same as the most popular to be successful.

    Tastes that to you may first appear completely alien and novel at first yet undesirable for long term may be what a certain demographic does find completely normal. Looking around at different cultures we have varying styles of “white bread”. Japan would be steamed rice, as isprobably a bowl of noodle.. And it can even be something that would completely assault our own senses like a curry.

    The point here is that you can pretty much acclimatise to any in particular taste even if alien at first given enough time. It just requires the player to enjoy it long enough for it to become the new norm. Wow did this rather successfully. This is where I think that key 3 month saying comes to play.. If someone hadn’t left by then they become more then comfortable with whatever innovation or widely different mechanics it may have.

    Your expectations of an experience are just as important as the taste when getting acclimatised to a new game (or food). Expecting say, chicken tetrazzini and getting something widely different would be more likely to turn someone away then not.

    Comment by J3w3l — 21 March, 2013 @ 2:05 PM

  10. I always end up back at WoW, and are no longer apologetic for it. It just has a flow that feels so natural (and sadly, right). I say sadly because I hate their gating, dailies, etc. But I love the 5 mans. And as a tank class, I can log in, get into a 5 man instantly, and have 30 minutes of fun – and log out.

    The games I am attracted to typically align with my current goals. When I was a hardcore raider in WoW Vanilla/BC, heck yeah, WoW was awesome (when I had 30+ hours a week to put in).

    Now I want easy grouping and fun.

    GW2 is slow leveling for me, and into my 30′s haven’t had a group. I am so alone there. Solo grinding isn’t fun. I don’t know anyone playing it either (sadly, and oddly?!?) although I have been unplugged from my online friends for a bit.

    The developer question for me here is – with a multi year development cycle, that sweet spot blend must be hard to keep the pulse on and deliver before it is already off base =)

    Comment by Isey — 22 March, 2013 @ 1:46 PM

  11. A few more thoughts.

    Obviously, when you’re talking about things like taste, you talk in the aggregate or in general trends. Take something like added sugar in food. Some people have a “sweet tooth” while others can’t stand something that is too sweet. As a food manufacturer, you try to pick a “sweet spot” that conforms to general taste, but know that some people just won’t like it.

    Games are a strange beast, MMOs even more so. I think a lot of gamers are neophiles, where we tend to crave more variety than your average person. I know that, personally, I can chew through a few small Flash games per day. I play them, analyze the mechanics, see if there’s anything new, and move on. Almost everyone I know has a Steam account full of games we haven’t even installed, yet we continue to buy more games when they’re on sale. We crave the new, even when we’re already overloaded in practical terms.

    MMOs are even more interesting in this perspective because they’re intended to change. So, a smart developer can keep spicing the comfortable, familiar gameplay with enough new and interesting things to keep players going. And when you talk about a game that lasts for several years, you have to realize that tastes change. I suspect Blizzard has the type of content to release and the frequency down to a science, where their content patches come at just the right frequency with just enough variety for their playerbase.

    Further, most of the people who are active enough to follow blogs and comment are almost certainly outliers. You might be too analytical to be satisfied with the same old, or grudgingly accept that your ideal game is not likely to exist soon.

    Of course, there are also a bunch of exceptions for MMOs beyond just the game design. For example, consider the community. You might like to play with your friends, or want to meet new people. There’s been a long history of people playing a game they’re not terribly excited about because their friends are playing. Just look at the previous comment. ;)

    Comment by Psychochild — 23 March, 2013 @ 12:17 AM

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