28 August, 2005
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.