Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

28 August, 2005

The fantasy of online games
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:53 PM

I was reading a new site (unfortunately now defunct) pointed out by Dave Rickey (also currently defunct, notice a pattern?) today. An interesting site with some interesting ideas. Not all of them I agree with, of course. :)

But, I got to thinking about these beasts we call online games (or MMORPGs or ‘fucking wastes of time’ or whatever), and I think one of the problems with a lot of analysis of online games is that people don’t understand what these games are really about. Some people think we should make simulations of offline life. Others thing we should make playgrounds for people to experiment in. There’s as many reasons as there are people I’m sure. But, all this misses the point.

The reason we make games, and online games in particular, is to fulfill fantasies.

Let’s face it, most games are about adolescent power fantasies. The player wants to feel cool and powerful, often in contrast to the hopelessness and powerlessness the player feels in offline life. Usually this is achieved by allowing the player to feel dominance over the game.

Now, things get a little weird in online games, because you have so many people. One of the problems we run into is usually termed as “everyone wants to be the hero, but there are too many people for everyone to be the hero.” What this means is that no single person gets the ultimate adolescent power fantasy in an online game (unless you include the inevitable bad-boy administrators who form cults of personality in the game). But, never fear, we’ve supplied other fantasies to make up for this.

The most common fantasy is of guaranteed rewards. “If you put in enough effort,” the developers tell the players, “you will eventually be powerful, rich, and popular.” This is one reason why we have seen a gradual decline in the death penalty in various games; falling behind harms the fantasy of guaranteed rewards.

This is one reason why I think people completely miss the boat in a lot of discussion about economics in games. Instead of asking questions like “Is Inflation Fun?” we need to realize that this fantasy is what creates the inflation. Of course, we can also see that certain aspects of the game, such as fixed NPC prices, also work to take the bite out of inflation; even if my buying power from other players has decreased, I can still buy more NPC goods than before. The player has increased in power and wealth in at least one measure, so the fantasy remains intact.

This is also why eBay (or RMT as the cool kids call them) is harmful to the game. Buying stuff for real money means that the guaranteed rewards fantasy is violated. We already live in a world where people with more money are able to afford better stuff, why would players want to subject themselves to this same frustration in a world with a $50 entry fee and a $15/month subscription? They pay that money to get the fantasy we whispered into their ear in the first place.

This is also why PvP is so hard to do right, because it violates this fantasy. If I am able to kill you repeatedly and hinder your advancement, then the fantasy falls apart. If there’s any sort of penalty for the loser, than this is doubly true. The whole concept of meaningful consequences for PvP goes directly against guaranteed advancement. In order to fulfill this fantasy, we need to develop a system that is non-zero sum. In order for me to win you do not have to lose. Of course, we also need to make sure this isn’t exploitable.

Once you understand about the fantasy we are offering, a lot more of game design and development makes sense. Why do we have levels in almost every game? Because it’s easier for the player to see that they have grown in power. Why do we have static content? Because players like a measure of predictability. While some people shy away from information sites, many people want to read how to complete the quest and then go through the motions. (It’s interesting to note that a lot of people buy “strategy guides” for single-player games. People use these guides to go through the game step-by-step, especially when collecting a large variety of items.) Developers don’t do what they do because they’re stupid, they do it because we’re giving the players what they really want: a fantasy.


  1. Brian said:

    Why do we have static content? Because players like a measure of predictability.

    There are good, sound engineering reasons for this, too. ;)

    Comment by Tess — 31 August, 2005 @ 12:04 AM

  2. Certainly, Tess. But, even if we could conquer the engineering and design issues of dynamic content, I don’t think our current players would enjoy that. The holy grail has been “dynamic content that doesn’t feel like dynamic content”, which I am going to say is an impossibility in the context of the people that currently play our games. The reason why our current audience doesn’t like dynamic content is because it is not predictable; not perfectly predictable, mind you, but I know if that if I want the Pants of Power then I need to kill the Malicious Goblin Taskmaster Middle Manager repeatedly. This speaks to the fantasy we’ve presented, “Stick with it and you’ll become powerful, cool, wealthy, etc.”

    Of course, we might be able to attract a new audience to these games with dynamic content, but I think that will require a lot of work as that game will essentially have to attract an almost all new audience.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 August, 2005 @ 1:43 AM

  3. I’m about to type a lot, and it’s largely garbled nonsense. However, I’m sort of agreeing with you, in a roundabout fashion. I’m just trying to organize thoughts.

    The real world has “dynamic content,” and yet tends to be relatively predictable. It would take a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina to prevent a person from being able to exchange money for a Coca Cola down at the nearest 7-11. Our jobs are usually there, from one day to the next. The same people are usually in the office. The nearby restaurants serve the same food. The same flirty barristas are serving coffee down at the cafes.

    We expect a certain comfort zone of regularity, and it can be psychologically harmful to us when our moorings come untied, and everything changes. Changes in jobs, breakups, moving to a new home, having a new child… all of these things can cause depression and confusion. Chaos frightens us. Humans spend a lot of time planning for our futures, and it’s hard to make plans when the world is in a constant state of flux around you.

    You could create a sort of elastic normalcy — where things tend to be normal, but sometimes, they go haywire, and then curve back to their default states in due time. School is cancelled for a snow day, but everything is back to normal a day or two later. But, this begs the question, why bother? Setting aside game vs. world debates, for a moment, what does this lend to the player’s experience?

    The reason people want (or think they want) dynamic content are thus: 1.) They think they want realism, 2.) sameness is boring, 3.) surprises appeal to our neophile monkey-brain gambler nature, 4.) it may mean they can change the world, and 5.) it could lead to emergent whackiness that will create some kind of transcendant experience for the players. We’re going to set aside #1 for the moment, because realism is a red herring. As for #5, emergent whackiness can also annoy the piss out of people, so we’ll just say that’s zero sum, for the moment. #2, #3, and #4 are potentially valid rationales.

    You don’t necessarily need the world to be dynamic for people to be able to change it. The guy who drives home to the same house with the same wife and the same kids, in the same car every day can still cure cancer. His world wasn’t very dynamic, but he had a real, meaningful road for accomplishment, within it.

    So, maybe I’ve reduced it all down to the gambling skinner box. If that’s so, there are other ways to satisfy that itch, without dynamic content.

    And yet, on some level, having engaged in that reduction, I still find myself wanting it, for some reason. Why the hell is that?

    Comment by Tess — 31 August, 2005 @ 8:11 PM

  4. I think your line of reasoning is sound, Tess. I’ll admit that my post is a bit reductionist as well. People aren’t single-mindedly following the fantasy we’ve set out for them, but this is what tends to make them happy. People like it when the advancement comes easy (but not too easy). They want some sort of guaranteed advancement, but they don’t want things to be too predictable.

    Upon further reflection, this ties in with Raph’s book, where people are trying to pattern match and optimize. A good game allows people to feel progress on the pattern matching side of things, but throws in just enough unpredictability (in most cases: randomness) that the player can never quite perfectly match the pattern and master it. Good game design is when you achieve this.

    I suspect that you want that because you like challenge. You, like most game developers, thrive on new challenges. Most game developers, particularly technical people, solve a variety of tough problems on a regular basis, so we have to go out of our way to find more new challenges. Just my pop-psychology reasoning colored from personal experiences.

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 August, 2005 @ 9:06 PM

  5. “Upon further reflection, this ties in with Raph’s book, where people are trying to pattern match and optimize.”

    Oh man, you just reminded me of my 12th grade Research Practicum project. This is really a tangent, but it’s an interesting one. I created a bunch of little stupid A-Life critters that wandered around in an environment full of obstacles, and learned to navigate the obstacles.

    So, my experiment was to see how adding more obstacles to the environment affected their learning curve. Obviously, the hypothesis is that the more obstacles you throw in their path, the longer they will take to learn to navigate the environment.

    So, I left a bunch of test runs to go on their own, and walked away from the computer for several hours.

    When I came back, I was shocked. Those are the good experiments — when you’re completely shocked by the results. There was a tipping point, where the establishment of a habit pattern became remarkably short — almost as short as a nearly empty environment. The hell? I immediately started up one of my simulations to watch the critters in action.


    When the obstacles became sufficiently dense, the critters started navigating a much smaller subset of the environment. They were too shellshocked to explore, and thus stayed in the nice little safe pocket of the world that they found to be agreeable. They were, in essence, behaving exactly like campers.

    Had I known then what I know now, I’d have immediately started experimenting with different reward heuristics to see if I could get them to change their behavior. ;)

    Comment by Tess — 1 September, 2005 @ 9:46 PM

  6. Dave Rickey wrote a post in a similar topic, only he uses pretty graphs and explains it in terms of evolutionary changes.

    Recommended reading for people interested.

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 September, 2005 @ 1:54 PM

  7. The journey vs. the reward

    Raph has a picture of a sign he made up during one of the previous MUD-Dev conferences on his blog ( The picture displays Raph’s doodling skills and has the caption: “Th…

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 20 May, 2006 @ 6:10 PM

  8. Yes, exactly right, thank you. Now I finally understand why i was never very satisfied with the MMORPG experience. Because they were all MMOG, and no RP. My fantasy did not match any of those that you mentioned above.

    My fantasy was to be a nightelf warrior. To experience what such a creature would feel, to see what it would see, hear what it would hear. To “try it on,” to learn how it would speak and behave in order to prosper in it’s imagnary world.

    The skill that I wanted to learn was not “own newbys in pvp” or “hold aggro and soak up damage.” I wished to learn how to walk the “warrior walk,” and talk the “nightelf talk.” That isn’t what the games were about, and it is not what the other players wanted.

    My dream was to be a warrior in a fantasy world, but their dreams were to be themselves in another world. It was not roleplaying that they wanted, it was a masquerade. What i found in world of warcraft was not frodo baggins, it was bart simpson in a hobbit costume.

    Comment by Mikyo — 21 May, 2006 @ 3:14 AM

  9. One problem with this is that true role-playing is very hard. One of my greatest talents is to be able to put myself in another person’s shoes, and I used to take it for granted that everyone could do this. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I think most online RPG developers have given up on real role-playing as a viable part of a typical online RPG.

    Putting yourself in the frame of mind of the “night elf warrior” is hard to do. Not only do you have to get into the mood of the role, the game has to cooperate and the other people with you have to be in the proper mood as well. Some part of the gameplay breaking your immersion or some player going out of character can ruin the experience. Unfortunately, few people really want this type of experience. Most people want to kick back and talk about the latest gossip from work while getting their Tier 3 gear.

    This is one of the reasons I still play paper games avidly. I have played with a group of friends I know well, and we all enjoy playing our roles. We’re not the most dedicated role-players, but we have fun and I can still explore a role without constantly being knocked out of character by people asking, “Where’s the cheetos?

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 May, 2006 @ 4:40 AM

  10. Just so. I quit WoW last month to reopen my NWN server. I can only host about 40 players at once, but I get to be host, dungeon master and even scenario designer.

    Blizzard says “learn to play (the way we think you should).” Bioware says, “have it your way.”

    “Online LARP?”, “chatroom with toys?” Perhaps, but I think of it as performance art.

    Roleplayers are few and hard to find, but there are enough to fill my little town. Here’s to us and those like us.

    Comment by Mikyo — 21 May, 2006 @ 5:50 AM

  11. I think there needs to be a much more naunced model for the end use of games than ‘people want a power fantasy’. Such a simple view invites stagnation like that in the comic book industry, before manga’s popularity forced people to realize that, ‘hey, those girly relationship stories will actually sell?’

    I agree that a large portion of the current gaming population would be happily lulled to sleep by a fantasy of irresponsible power. But I think, like comic books, the real growth and creative potential for the medium lies in more ambiguous feelings and motivations.

    This topic reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Epic Pooh’ article, which I recommend highly:

    I guess in closing, I do agree with your assessment of this specific usage of the fantasy RPG genre, but I think there are other equally important uses that you seem to be ignoring.


    Comment by Eli — 26 May, 2006 @ 1:54 PM

  12. You’ve touched upon one of the great conflicts of our time, Eli, commercialism vs. art. Yeah, on one hand it’s always great to be the person that challenges the status quo and wakes the sleeping masses from their stupor. The sad reality is that this scenario rarely happens. On the other hand, people like the comfort given from inoffensive stories and games and have shown that they will pay for them in large numbers.

    I certainly am not going to argue that things that sell better are instantly better. I think that Meridian 59 is just as relevant to online game discussions as UO, EQ, or WoW. Of course, not everyone agrees; some people do link quality with popularity as measured through sales performance. And, one can’t really blame them; while something that sells well may not be of higher quality, it sure does make it easier to pay rent and put food on the table. We can talk all we want about “real growth and creative potential” of a medium, but most people are more than happy to let someone else be the starving artist that is needed to accomplish this.

    In other words, taking the “road less traveled” may make you feel good on the inside, but it doesn’t exactly lead to a long and healthy career. Look at how many authors Moorcock praised in his article that have since faded to at least relative obscurity. I’ve noticed that some online game developers have stopped being quite so friendly around me; I suspect it is because I’m not really helping their career by remaining in that same relative obscurity. I play the bit part of the starving artist, although I also moonlight as a sellout willing to work for a rather nice hourly wage when I can find the work (as I have, thankfully, for the past few days). But, not everyone is cut out to do what I’ve done and am still doing.

    When I wrote this post I was really talking more about what sells. I agree with you, Eli, in that there definitely is a market for people who want something deeper. There’s a market for people that want movies that aren’t typical mindless blockbusters, too. Or people who want books with more meaningful stories than the latest spy thriller. But, let’s not pretend that most indie film makers or small press authors are anything other than starving artists themselves, and let’s certainly not pretend that there isn’t a strong temptation to sell out to the commercial side of things in order to live a bit more comfortably. For game developers, that means relying on juvenile power fantasies to pander to the same audience that has proven they’re willing to spend money on the same old thing again and again.

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 26 May, 2006 @ 8:57 PM

  13. To jump topics, I’m sorry my comments brought up the idea of ‘selling out’. I think this is a really troublesome concept, which generally comes more from feeling resentful of someone’s success (as you mention) as opposed to any idealism. I don’t buy the idea that making money somehow cheapens creativity, nor do I think that making something outside an industry’s working model will necessarily gimp you (though as you say, it is risky). Then again, in an age where a title’s marketing campaign will often determine sales more than its quality, a creator may find themselves at the mercy of their publisher; give them something too far outside the boundaries, and it could get lost in the marketing shuffle. “How do we market a game where you just do interior decoration?”

    I was moved to post here because I was struck by the focus of this specific article on one facet of fantasy, that of comforting escapism (a point I’ve been thinking a lot about recently). perhaps this was merely because you, as you say, were only concerned with ‘what sells’, but I stick to my point regarding comics: Marvel and D.C. would have argued furiously that ‘what sells’ is super hero stories, and that trying to mass market soap opera comics to girls would be a disaster. That in fact, super hero fans had proven they would buy the exact same fantasy over and over again, and so they were the only market for financial success. They became so ossified into one market model that they could never imagine people who would read comics for different reasons. We see now how wrong they were, but at the same time, there needs to be an organic process to drive that shift in demographic makeup – one person can’t come along and revolutionize the market through their idealistic art comic.

    Another example would be harry Potter; clearly a financial success, clearly fantasy, and clearly providing an escape, and yes, a bit of a power fantasy; but at least it’s written better than Tolkien. Could someone believe that the foremost fantasy novel of our time would be about a boy in school? I don’t know, but it’s promising. I believe it points to the fact that there are many ways to be both creative and successful at the same time.

    I do apologize if I came across too flippantly; I think there are too many arbitrary distinctions between ‘commercial art’ and ‘high art’, and would hate to seem judgemental of your decision to pursue more ‘popular’ work. As a fantasy writer who publishes ‘zines with a group of much more ‘artsy’ artists, I know the feeling of being ‘the commercial one’. What I argue for isn’t either side of the Art vs Commercialism debate, but a reframing of the discussion into one of ‘well made’ vs ‘dirivitive and conservative’. I am not familiar with your work, so I cannot comment on it, but you seem intellegent enough that I would not accuse it falling in the latter camp.

    Good luck with your future projects of whatever persuasion.


    Comment by Eli — 27 May, 2006 @ 1:54 PM

  14. Eli,

    I did intend to word “sellout” to be a little flippant in my previous post. I did, after all, call myself a sellout. ;) I just got done doing some work as a hired gun that most likely won’t grow or display the true creative potential of the medium. I should have realized that this is a charged word; but I did intend to use it in the more traditional “compromising artistic vision” meaning rather than the “lucky enough to make filthy lucre” connotations the word has acquired over the years.

    You do touch upon the problem with doing original work with your marketing comment, but it’s more than that. If I go to an investor (or publisher) and pitch a wacky idea, I’m going to get the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” speech (assuming I haven’t been wildly successful previously with some other wacky idea like Will Wright has). On the other hand, I recently started working with a business guy in trying to get a company funding, and I was amazed how well buzzwords really do work. We discussed some ideas and he threw together a 30-second buzzword-filled pitch that got various money people to take notice. It’s just the way the game is played, and buzzwords are what people notice. (Thankfully we seem to have attracted some people that have some clue rather than just buying into buzzwords, though.) The lesson here is that unless you can quantify your idea, like you can define a game enough to market it, you just won’t get investment. This is true for all levels from investment to marketing. So, really, originality is dangerous because it is hard to classify.

    Let me be clear, I do not disagree with many of your points. I think your comic book example is great, too, because the games industry really is starting to cater to a core group while ignoring the fringes. Yet, as you mentioned above, manga came in and is eating American comic company’s lunches. Yet, manga isn’t some plucky upstart. It’s a well-established industry with decades of history (and without the Comics Code Authority fucking with it) from another country. Of course, now you notice that the comic book companies are now making most of their money from movies and video games, taking familiar faces and putting them in new media.

    On the other hand, I think Harry Potter is a bad example here. The stories follow a traditional form; Rowling didn’t blaze any original trails in that regard. And, Harry Potter enjoyed a lot of luck. It just happened that the books took off like wildfire and that the media latched on and fanned the flames. Your link to Moorcock’s essay points out a lot of other original and well-written books with similar settings in similar genres that failed to find the same level of success, and not just because they were poorer books.

    In the end, there’s a lot of factors that go into success. Unfortunately, originality can’t carry the day. The thing keeping games from succeeding on this front is a lack of “indie aesthetic” as Greg Costikyan has said before. As long as people keep buying the flashy game with the great screenshots on the back of the box, that’s what will keep being sold.

    I do apologize if I came across too flippantly

    Not a problem. If it weren’t for flippancy, I’d have little to write about! :)

    Thanks for your comments. I find them very thought-provoking.

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 May, 2006 @ 1:49 AM

  15. Levels of domination…

    I made a comment over on Raph’s blog ( that use-based systems kinda suck for achievers. Levels make it much easier to compare e-peens and see who has more time to spend.
    I said:

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 27 July, 2006 @ 4:07 PM

  16. Apologies for being very late to this party, but I wanted to chip in a comment or two.

    Regarding the “indie aesthetic”, a large part of why we don’t have one is the current American obsession with “investments”. When the barrier to entry is financial, be it from hardware, software, promotion, publishing, or whatever, there will naturally be a limitation to the players. When that barrier is raised sufficiently to require outside investors (in the form of loans, shares, or “investor angels”), game design suffers even more, as those investors demand returns, and the only way to cater to that desire is to reduce risk as much as possible.

    That’s true for any industry that relies on investor capital rather than self-funding, hence the “starving artist” label that gets bandied about. The bitter reality there is that the companies that are most economically stable (and could absorb a failed risky venture or three) are those who are slaves to their board of directors and shareholders. In the American push for “bigger, better, faster” with its twin “the race to retirement riches”, innovation just doesn’t have a high enough ROI for the number monkeys.

    So yes, players need to step up with a mentality that accepts innovation, but when their 401k depends on it, they really don’t want the risk involved. No, not all players are investors, but my point there is that things are deeply stacked against devs, who, after all, need to feed their families after paying off their bookies/investors.

    Without the financial intermediaries and steady bloodletting of usury-loving vampire shareholders, would players be happy to enter into direct relationships with devs? Even using money (a valid intermediary; it’s the loan sharking investment system that is the problem), would players sufficiently recompense the devs for the time it takes to craft a game? Only when making a living making games is possible without investors and debt will we start to see games being taken seriously as a valid profession, and will we get the state of the art of games to step forward to its vast potential.

    Comment by Tesh — 31 July, 2008 @ 12:32 PM

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