Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

17 July, 2007

Update: Richard Bartle is still my hero
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:57 PM

Seen on Matt Mihaly’s site, an interview with Dr. Richard Bartle.

Richard has once again affirmed his place as one of my personal heroes. As Lum also says, why isn’t this man in charge of more things? Seriously, that interview is required reading. Oh, and add Richard’s blog to your daily list of required reading. Supreme insight in convenient daily form.

A lot of people are making a fuss about Richard saying he’d close down WoW if he had the chance. While this comment is more insightful than some people are giving him credit for, I think that this is a minor point in the things he talks about. The very first question about communication shows the man has a better grasp on these games a social vehicles than most major designers out there. Unfortunately, I think this is a case where Richard is simply too far ahead of the curve for most people, particularly people without years of working and experiencing these things, to be able to understand. That doesn’t make him wrong, though.

Update: Richard posted about the WoW quote, attempting to deflect the accusations.


  1. Aw, shucks…

    Thanks Brian!


    Comment by Richard Bartle — 18 July, 2007 @ 2:42 AM

  2. Which points did you find so special? I’d like to be ahead of the curve too, didn’t find anything of the sort in the interview. Seemed to be for the general public, not designers. :(

    Comment by Ola Fosheim Grøstad — 18 July, 2007 @ 2:50 AM

  3. (Gah, there were no comments when I wrote mine. Now it looks like a personal attack, which it wasn’t supposed to be. :P)

    Comment by Ola Fosheim Grøstad — 18 July, 2007 @ 3:38 AM

  4. I find this insight extremely… well, I’m at a loss for words to describe its awesomeness:

    It may be that “community” is the wrong word here, at least for the game players; perhaps “demographic” might be better in some cases?

    Comment by Michael Chui — 18 July, 2007 @ 3:51 AM

  5. The most important comment in the interview for me explained that designers need to know why things are the way they are. For example, there are Classes in games for a very good reason. Including Classes in your game is idiotic unless you understand exactly why they are more often used than Skills or some other system. Examine why everything is the way it is, don’t just include it because you think you should.

    Comment by Ryan Shwayder — 18 July, 2007 @ 6:33 AM

  6. I quite liked the commentary on virtual worlds and social interaction:

    “Anyone who is worried about the effects of virtual worlds on social interaction should direct their concern at television long, long before they look at virtual worlds.”

    Seems a nice little quote in a world where as soon as something new comes along everyone spouts how it’s going to revolutionise how we interact with each other. As though it’s going to hijack the way we do things already. To me, it’s always been the opposite – a new technology comes along and people hijack it for their own ends.

    Comment by Jpoku — 18 July, 2007 @ 7:20 AM

  7. I think the reactions to this interview, especially over at Lum’s site, show the huge gulf between being a designer and being a player. As a designer, I know exactly what Richard means when he says he’d just down WoW. It’s partially a flip answer, but Richard realizes that WoW is doing more to hold the industry back at this point than it is to help. Sure, it’s a wonderful game and I enjoyed it for about a year, but it has crippled development of other games. As I posted in a comment over at Lum’s site, Blizzard was in a rather unique position when it built WoW, and few other companies have a chance to duplicate that success because it’s virtually impossible to duplicate Blizzard’s position.

    Ola Fosheim Grøstad wrote:
    Which points did you find so special?

    Ola, how long have you been reading posts by Dr. Bartle and myself? You have already experienced most of this insight, but most other people (especially the crowd that will see WoW as the “first ever MMO” in a few years) need this insight. Fortunately, a few old hands like us already have most of this insight. Unfortunately, most of the wannabe designers that read this will not get it, largely because they are focusing on just one particular quote. I think the three posts after yours shows that other people catch some glimpses of the insight present in the article. You just need to go through and read the interview again from a less experienced person’s point of view.

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 July, 2007 @ 4:15 PM

  8. I think both EQ and WoW were in unique positions, so I yes that is a good point, and not very controversial (albeit by the looks of some comments elsewhere others apparently think so…) And frankly Meridian59 was in a unique position too, but 3DO didn’t manage to reap the benefits of that.

    Agreed, it was a nice interview for the general public. I was more curious about what points you personally, as a _designer_, found interesting. What issues do you find important and how do they affect how you think about design?

    (But, Brian, I don’t think I’ve experienced those insights from reading posts by Bartle and you if that’s what you’re saying. :-) Sorry!! Though, some of the arguments the past decade have been good… and long. ;-)

    Comment by Ola Fosheim Grøstad — 19 July, 2007 @ 1:09 AM

  9. Ola Fosheim Grøstad wrote:
    And frankly Meridian59 was in a unique position too, but 3DO didn’t manage to reap the benefits of that.

    Oh, yes. Sometimes I wish I could travel back in time and beat some heads, because M59 should have been better received and more influential than it ended up being. One just has to look at 3DO’s advertising for Meridian 59 (warning: large image) to see how they absolutely didn’t understand what they had.

    I was more curious about what points you personally, as a _designer_, found interesting. What issues do you find important and how do they affect how you think about design?

    I’ll point out the one I did above: the first question about communication. Allow me to quote the first question and add some commentary. Now, this is stuff that most experienced people know already, but the density of information can boggle the mind.

    Can interaction in a virtual setting via limited means (text only for example) be compared to real social interaction?
    It can be compared, yes. Whether it comes out of the comparison well depends on what you want from your social interaction. For some people (and I’m one of them), the telephone is bad for social interaction; for others, it’s exactly what they want. So it is for virtual worlds.

    Notice how Richard slightly turns the debate on its head. There’s an implicit assumption to the question that communication in a virutal setting isn’t “real” social interaction. But, Richard points out that a telephone is no more “real social interaction” than a virtual world is. Yet, most people don’t go around bemoaning the destructive influences of the telephone on socialization quite so loudly as people are able to bemoan virtual worlds (or even the Internet as a whole) for doing the same. The comparison is brilliant because both communication systems are limited, but people understand telephones more even if many of them might not understand virtual worlds. Richard also points out that for some people (such as himself), telephones aren’t a good substitution for “real social interaction”.

    What virtual worlds give you is a more limited set of channels plus some editing capacity (ie. backspace keys). They also allow for a degree of deliberate body language (I can insert commands for my character to wag its finger, or scowl, or gape open-mouthed in horror). Now for some people, the limited set of channels means they can’t convey all that they want to convey, so they aren’t going to like interacting that way; for others, the lack of fidelity in the channels gives them freedoms to communicate that they don’t have in real life. For example, if in real life you sound like Kermit the Frog when you speak, a virtual world is going to be a great release for you.

    Because the channels are limited, it means you can keep several of them open at once. You can communicate with lots of people simultaneously and independently. It’s hard to do that in real life (unless you use some other real-time computerised communication system, for example Instant Messenger).

    Now he moves on and shows how social interaction in virtual worlds can be better in some instances. Sometimes you want the channel to be limited, so your Jim Henson-like voice doesn’t make people not take you seriously. Of course, there are many other alternatives that Richard didn’t mention, that we are familiar with: the cancer patient that is too weak to speak, the precocious child that is wise beyond his or her years, etc. In all these cases, there are reasons why someone might not want others to have full audio/visual information that you get with “real social interaction”. The next benefit is that you can carry on multiple conversations at once. “Limited” text allows you to do this because you can reference the past parts of the conversation you might miss while you were paying attention to a first conversation; this is not something you can do so easily with voice.

    Human beings are very adaptable. If a virtual world allows freeform communication, then its players will communicate. They will be able to express every emotion between love and hate based on the contents of that channel, even if it’s only words. Anyone who is worried about the effects of virtual worlds on social interaction should direct their concern at television long, long before they look at virtual worlds.

    However, when all is said and done, reality is far more detailed than virtuality can ever be. There are some forms of social interaction you can’t get any other way. Reality always wins in the end. A kiss in a virtual world or a kiss over the phone is never going to be the same as a kiss in real life.

    And, again, Richard shows that this “limited” and potentially worrying form of communication is superior to another offline medium: television. Television does not encourage much direct interaction; even in cases where you’re watching TV with friends or family, you’re not interacting with people as widely as you could in a virtual world. He also shows, again, that telephones (and most other widely-accepted “substitute” media) are not perfect, either; nothing beats a real kiss!

    If you want the importance of this piece for a designer, then you have to dig a bit deeper, as usual. Richard has previously argued against voice chat in online games. I think this this answer to the interview question shows that the default assumption that voice chat is superior to text chat is not true. I think many developers assume that since voice chat is similar to an offline communication medium (telephones), it’s something people can understand and use easier. But, there are some definite cases where this is not true. So, by arguing against the telephone, Richard is also reinforcing his arguments against voice chat.

    The one reason why I love reading Richard’s stuff is because he is so very clever. If you really pay attention to what he says, you catch a lot of his cleverness. I suspect that part of this is because he is an exceptional game designer.

    Does that clarify my point? I’d go on with the other questions in the interview, but I think this has rambled on far enough. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 July, 2007 @ 4:43 PM

  10. Richard’s British, being clever comes with the territory. Although I suppose it’s not a requirement, as I’ve met some very un-clever British folks before.

    Snark aside, that was a great interview, and I agree with you and Lum. Someone give Richard a design position already :)

    Comment by David (Tal) — 20 July, 2007 @ 5:05 AM

  11. Dr. Richard Bartle, human being

    [...] common when the target of criticism is considered a developer. Now, I have to admit that I’m a big fan of Richard. I think Richard is perhaps the wisest and one of the smartest of the online developers. Richard [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 21 March, 2008 @ 10:45 AM

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