9 September, 2005
The often insightful (inciteful?) Dave Rickey has posted an entry thinking about what “MMOs” really are. Using the metaphor of the blind men encountering the elephant, Dave advocates that we really don’t know what these beasts are.
I will, of course, politely disagree with Dave. These things are one thing: entertainment. What that means, of course, is the catch. As usual, the devil’s in the details.
Dave had a partial list of what MMOs are:
- Escapism Vehicles
- Story-Containing Dramas
- Multiplayer Puzzles
- Conflict Generators
- Time Fillers
But, I advocate that all these are just facets of entertainment. So, let’s define entertainment. We can resort to a dictionary, but the basic definition of entertainment is an activity done for enjoyment, usually not related to the basic necessities in life (food, shelter, etc.) In our modern world, we put a lot of focus on entertainment because modern technology has provide us with a lot of free time. Therefore, entertainment is big business.
Keeping that in mind, let’s look at Dave’s list; I think the core element is Communities. Without a community, our online spaces are devoid of anything unique. But, as Dave mentions a community is nothing by itself because there are plenty of free alternatives out there. However, I think this is perhaps the most important element because our creations might as well be single-user experiences if we don’t have some sort of community. Note that there are different levels of community as well. Most games allow easy communication between people, but some games like ToonTown or Planetside encourage communication primarily through pre-recorded macros due to protecting other players or due to the fast-paced nature of the game. But, even these games have a sense of community as you interact with other people.
The other elements in this list really just support the entertainment aspect, which as a whole are just about as important as the community. These things can be Games or Worlds (or even a bit of both), but these establish the setting of the space and give it more depth than some random, free social site. Escapism is a classic motivation for seeking out entertainment, and as I pointed out escapism is one of the core things most current games supply. Stories help give context to a game, treadmills are how we provide cheap content to people in a game, and puzzles are one aspect of gaming; and, again, gaming is one form of entertainment. Conflict is the basis of nearly all good stories if you believe the writers, so this makes sense that it would be an important part of entertainment. And, “time fillers” is about an accurate description of entertainment as any.
Okay, great, but how does this help us make better entertainment? Well, I agree with Dave’s basic argument: that these things are complex because they have a lot of “moving parts”, so to speak, and it’s hard for some developers to wrap their head around all aspects of this. In addition, the focus of virtual worlds changes as they get older. At the beginning, it’s important to focus on the non-social aspects as people move into the space and establish themselves. It’s hard to push a community that hasn’t formed yet. As the virtual world becomes more established, then community starts becoming more and more important. “Come for the game, stay for the community,” is how most developers phrase this. Of course, you can’t forget the game aspect as it gets older, because you still need a hook to bring fresh faces in and keep the community going.
I think the other important lesson here is that everyone has a different concept of what these things are. Hell, you can look at the wealth of terminology (most of which I’ve used in this post, if you’ve been paying attention) just to see the differences: online RPGs, virtual worlds, online worlds, online games, massively multiplayer online [whatever] (MMO), social spaces, time fillers, etc. It’s the old cliche, “Ask 10 people what they get from online worlds, and you’ll get at least 12 different answers.” Unfortunately, just recognizing this doesn’t help much, because now we have to figure out a way to cater to all these tastes. Do you try to make a monolithic game and cater to a single, wide audience? Do you make niche titles and cater to smaller groups? Do you throw up your hands in defeat? Tough questions.
In the end, I’m going to disagree with Dave. I think we have a pretty good grasp on what these things are in their current form. I think the difficulty comes in trying to balance the hundreds of different aspects to make them appeal to people, and from doing the careful dance of adapting to the demands of the future. Although, I think it’s important for smart people like Dave to go back and start questioning assumptions every once in a while to make sure we’re on the right track.