14 February, 2007
Thanks to Raph, I found some of my older writing online. Back when I was an active poster on MUD-Dev, the online 'zine "Imaginary Realities" (IR) asked to republish some of my posts. In the interests of preserving these posts, I'm reposting them here on my blog.
I wrote a series of articles for the mailing list about various topics. This started as an exercise in creative freedom after I was no longer working for 3DO. I continued for quite a bit into my next job at the now defunct Communities.com. The two articles picked up by IR focused mostly on socialization.
The first was entitled Acting Casual About Casual Gamers, published in July of 2000.
A little background before we leap into the article. One of the big topics of the time was how to get "casual" game players interested in online games. "Casual" in this context means someone who can't play as much as other people. (Yeah, some things haven't changed in the past 6-7 years, eh?) I was trying to spark some discussion about the topic with this post.
Also, the term "persistent characters" refers to a common design idea at the time that characters should remain permanently logged into the game. The argument was that this would create a more "realistic" environment. Some people had very complex ideas about how the characters could continue to adventure in the world using scripts written by the player. Yeah, it's about as crazy as it sounds.
Without further delay....
Let us consider the case of the casual gamer, before we do this it is important to get our definitions right. I think that too often people take definitions for granted. Words also have a lot of connotation that can sometimes be unintentionally invoked in discussions.
Definition: Casual gamers are people who like games but do not have the time or inclination to play them obsessively. For convenience, let us allow this definition to cover people that are casual gamers in a specific area. For example, I am a pretty hard-core gamer (I typically play PC and console games at least 4 hours per day), but I am a casual MUD player (I play maybe 4 hours per week).
I am intentionally excluding including people who are not gamers. Most people's parents are not gamers, and by extension are not casual gamers. These people may be considered "potential gamers", though.
Why the distinction? Because I think the first step in growing the market is to attract the casual gamers I have defined. Too often people talk about "attracting the casual gamer" when they really mean "getting non-gamers into games" (or more appropriately, "getting non-gamers to give us money" ;).
So, why should we worry about casual gamers? Because these people are interested in our games, but do not play because of the way the games are currently designed. They is the "low hanging fruit" of the industry. Many do not have the time to play, or do not have the desire to engage in the obsessive game play that is so richly rewarded in these games. We do not have to teach these people what an role playing game is, we do not have to get them familiar with a computer and a mouse, we just have to allow them to have an enriching experience with the amount of time they can commit to the game. As I have said several times before, no game company is getting my $10 (or $5 or $15) per month because I do not have the time or the desire to make the time to play the game as much as required to keep up with my friends.
So, what creates this problem? What prevents the casual gamer from enjoying our games? I think it can be caused by both an unbalanced focus on advancement and an improper handling of the social environment.
As has said, people feel penalized for only playing a couple hours (only?!?) per night. Why? Because they can not keep up with the advancement of other players they know. Every hour they are not playing that someone else is is an hour they are behind. The only way to catch up is to spend an extra hour playing that their friends do not. If their friends spend 10 hours per day compared to 2 hours, you can see how quickly they fall behind.
Again, the problems with too strong a focus on advancement rear their ugly heads. If a player cannot keep up with friends, then he or she will not be able to interact with them in a meaningful way. Socialization is harmed as well when you cannot spend time with your friends.
As an aside, I think that "persistent character" is a poor solution. Games have a hard enough time providing interesting AI for the monsters, let alone characters. Even with a scripting system, you have to make a trade-off between simplicity and expressiveness of the system. Simple systems are, well, simple; expressive systems are an obstacle the player must conquer before succeeding in the game. Unfortunately, there is no "right mix" that is good for everyone. In addition, players HATE it when their character is affected in negative ways when they are offline. If you make them invulnerable to avoid negative consequences, then what is the point of having them persistent?
Yet, I think that character persistence can be partially applied to ease the problem of the casual gamer. Many people have suggested allowing characters to do typically repetitive activities (such as using trade skills) during offline times. Although the character is not "in the world", they are still doing something productive for the player. This would allow a warrior character to patch up his or her armor using offline time instead of online time. Or, it would allow a merchant to produce and procure items during offline times, allowing them to focus on the more "fun" social interactions. Or, another merchant character could sell items during offline time, allowing them to focus on the more "fun" exploration for new items to sell.
Given this option, it becomes even more imperative that we discard the linear power curves currently found in most MUDs. If advancement can happen when the player is logged off, it becomes meaningless. The ideal tactic then becomes creating a character and waiting enough time before using it for it to have gained significant power. We still want people to, you know, play our games, just not require it to the obsessive degree we have to today. Alternate advancement mechanisms need to be explored.
(A side note: Someone said that the power curves in a typical advancement system are not linear. Actually, strictly according to the raw numbers, they generally are linear; AD&D's levels all gave you roughly the same hit point and THAC0 adjustment (at least in the first 9 or 10 levels). Yet, in comparative power, a level 10 character was more than a match for 10 level 1 characters. I will continue to refer to the power curve as "linear", however, for understandability.)
The goal is to allow people to log on, enjoy the game, and leave knowing that they can log on sometime in the future and still enjoy the game as much as they did the last time, if not more. This is not accomplished when people stagnate in advancement because they do not have time to find a group or do not have time to camp a spawn to get an item they want. We have to rethink our whole system.
Yet, no matter how many problems are caused by advancement, poor social tools can hurt just as much. When a casual player cannot keep in touch with other players, it hurts his connection with the game. In order to make up for this lack of connection, a typical player must play more often in order to maintain it.
In my recent ponderings, I have found it useful to divide in-game communication into four categories: instant vs. persistent, and personal vs. broadcast. Instant messages happen in real time, while persistent messages are stored for viewing at any time. Personal messages are "private" messages between specified recipients, which can include a small, select group. Broadcast messages are messages viewable by anyone (or members of a large group) in range of the message. For example, tells are instant personal messages, chat channels would be considered instant broadcast messages, and bulletin boards would be persistent broadcast messages.
Any game that does not have sufficient messaging options will hurt casual game play. EverQuest, to pick a favorite target, has a definitive lack of persistent communication in the game. If I wish to leave a message for someone, I need their ICQ number or Email address. If I am the type that does not like giving out my Email address or ICQ number to strangers, then I have a hard time keeping track of friends in the game. If I want to leave a note for my guild mates, I have to put a message on a web forum. The time I spend outside the game posting to web forums is time I am not spending participating in the game.
To be fair, there are problems with allowing this communication within the game, such as monitoring for inappropriate posts; however, the problems caused by not having it far outweigh the costs of any problems they can create, in my opinion. The biggest reason many people stick around a game in the long run is for the friends they have made. Making these friends hard to keep in touch with in the context of the game hurts to an immeasurable degree.
Times are changing, my friends. We can no longer sit around in smug satisfaction at the wonderful works we have made. Our current audience is bored with us, and want something newer and shinier. They are a fickle crowd, and we need to make sure our industry and hobby continues to grow; we need to attract the casual gamers into our games in order to thrive.
How do we do this? We need fix the glaring problems with advancement. Abandoning the useless linear power curve that defines advancement-based game play is the first step. We need to develop a replacement advancement system that does not reward obsessive play. We must also provide sufficient communication options within the game. Ignoring options (particularly persistent messaging) can harm the connection a casual gamer has within your game. If the casual gamer cannot find his or her friends, he or she will not be playing our game for long.
All MUDs should consider this lesson. Text MUDs as well as graphical muds can benefit from attracting casual gamers. While there are obviously successful games that do not cater to casual gamers, one has to wonder how long this will remain possible.
I think, overall, this essay withstands about 7 years of time passing. It's interesting that many people advocate WoW's more laid back style of gameplay as one of the keys to its success, because it allowed more "casual" players to enjoy the game as well.
What do you think? Amazingly ahead of my time, or merely stating the obvious?