Tuesday, August 19

The Worth Game

My brother and I are designing an MMO, called Project Fun. We were talking about the game’s design last night, and, having not discussed the game in a while, we wanted to return to the roots

Last night we were discussing the game’s design, and I wanted to return to the roots of the project: what makes Project Fun fun? Fun is, after all, the entire purpose of this game’s existence. So nailing down this aspect seemed fairly crucial. The problem was I couldn’t answer the question. Why is Project Fun fun? To find the answer, I asked myself a rudimentary question: "what makes most games fun? what makes MMO's fun?" Perhaps seeking some revelatory light, I decided to be a break-down of World of Warcraft, because it is both a game and an MMO, and it's successful.

The fun gameplay of WoW, I discovered, comes from the support of three pillars. These pillars not only share the load of “fun” in WoW, but also the weight and effectiveness of one another. At the most basic level, WoW is fun moment-by-moment. Running, jumping, attacking, managing talents, these are the game's cells. Supporting this pillar is the mission-game. Players are constantly moving towards an objective, a quest, the next level, a raid. The end-game of this pillar is better loot. The third pillar, which reinforces both the other pillars and an overall concept of fun, is the meta-game. WoW's primary meta-game is making your character uber. Another meta-game is your social- and support-role in a guild.

And then what? Hm. Let's recap.

WoW has three pillars, all of which support a goal of fun. You may have noticed that these pillars can actually be attributed to most games. Let’s look at Mario. Moment-game: run and jump/collect coins. Mission-game: collect a star/get to the next level. Meta-game: save the princess/beat the game. The structure is sound. The moment-game is essential. And so is the mission-game. And so is the meta-game. The moment-game provides an immediate stimulus of fun. If the immediate action, be it physical or mental, isn’t fun, then the rest of the game is meaningless. But without an objective, the moment gets old pretty fast. The mission-game provides a challenge or set-piece in which to test the player’s moment-to-moment skills. But then the mission ends. And there to reinforce the structure is the meta-game. You wouldn’t play moment-by-moment without a goal to test your skills against. And you wouldn’t complete the goal without a larger, more meaningful objective. And then I ask: but why complete the meta-game.

I’ll just tell you right now, the answer is fun, which effectively brings the pillars full-circle. The goal of playing is to have fun. And maybe that’s good enough. But maybe not. I don’t really have an issue with the structure. Game design wise, this system makes perfect sense. Assuming each pillar is solid, fun is perfectly balanced. But is that all there is to the system? I lied; I do have an issue. My issue is intention.

I’m speaking specifically about WoW here, because Mario ends. Blizzard has perfectly honed this system. Call it science; call it math; call it whatever you want. I call it crack. WoW’s pillar system is built with a bait mentality. It is a carrot and stick reward system. Let me break it down: get quest, run to quest, kill mobs, loot mobs, return to quest-giver, receive loot, gain level, get new quest. Blizzard isn’t lying about anything. Your character is getting better. But as a person, you are getting worse. At first, the addiction might be fun. The pillars are indeed solid. It’s a new experience in an exciting world. But pretty soon, WoW becomes a reward grind. But are you still having fun? Doing the same things you did at level 1, are you still having fun? Or is it just an illusion? Addictions mentally and chemically make us believe we enjoy something. But at what point did the addiction stop contributing to our lives? At what point did the game become less so fun, and more so necessity.

I do need to make a disclaimer. There are many out there who do learn and grow from WoW. Specifically, those who nurture relationships in-game, who learn from others, who become better people through their social interactions are benefitting from WoW. But they have escaped the addiction. To them, the game is no longer about getting more loot. They are taking advantage of WoW’s other attributes to grow as people, not as avatars. Another example, WoW can teach players how to work together. Teamwork, leadership, sacrifice, some players learn these skills from playing WoW. But again, for them the loot becomes secondary, a perk, they enjoy WoW as an outlet for social expression. I also think of the Penny-Arcade guys; I know for a fact that they are too smart to become addicted to a system. They derive some other, more valuable, meaning from the game.

I am making a very large assumption. That WoW’s pillar system was designed to be addictive to players. The present MMO structure is what’s really at fault. The game and company thrives from long-term play. So designing a system that promotes long-term play is essential to the game’s success.

My issue with all of this is intention. What is the game intended to do for players? A better question: what is the game intended to do for people? What is the game’s purpose? Why does it exist? How does it benefit a person’s life? I cannot answer these for WoW, though I can make guesses. The most obvious is fun. Or, how about relaxation after a long day at work, or vegging out, or escaping the torture of homework? Intention. What is your game intended to do? If WoW’s answer is fun, does it succeed? The answer to that, however, is not intention, it is affect.

Affect is what people gain from the game? Regardless of intentions, what do people get from playing? WoW might act as a stabilizer. Maybe the pillars of fun are something solid for people to lean against. Maybe WoW is something people can rely on for support and comfort in a difficult life. It’s always there. It’s easy to do. It gets your mind off of the craziness of day-to-day life. This is great until it becomes a crutch. Also known as an addiction. Where players cannot function without it. Where the game becomes necessary to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. And then what are people learning from the game?

And now the question isn’t about fun at all. The question is, what is the purpose of this game. I asked my brother that very question last night. “Fletcher, what is the purpose of Project Fun?” He answered, “fun.” And I asked, “Why fun?” He responded, “Why life?”

The great Carl once said, “Why does anyone do anything?” This question is the meaning of life. The answer is to grow as people. To learn. To develop. Our goal is to change. Not to change negatively, and not to remain static, addicted to something that stopped giving long ago. We need to ask, “what is our purpose?” If the answer is to design games, then the designing of those games should help us grow as individuals, and our creations should help others grow as individuals too. It’s the golden rule.

The question is, what is the purpose of my game? What is the worth-game? The answer might be fun. The answer might be to provide relief from stress to individuals. But we need to seek a higher purpose. We need to find something deeper than a take-twice-daily dosage of stress-relief.

In his book Jonathon Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach writes, “There’s so much more to flying than just flapping around from place to place!” Game should be fun. I mean heck, I love fun. But games can offer so much more than fun for the sake of fun. Games can offer experiences that help us grow. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, games can take us places that we didn’t expect, to universes we didn’t know existed, but can be fun while doing it.


  1. Anonymous11:27 AM EDT

    Good reading.
    I don't agree with all of it, but very well-put and intelligent.

    / ztrapwn@edge

  2. ExtraCool5:02 PM EDT

    I had (emphasis on had) a friend who was so obsessed with WOW, that he would always hurry home just to play it, eventually he quit his job to play full time! I hope that he is still not playing, because it has been 2 years since i last spoke or heard from him. I don't understand how a person could be so addicted to one game, I have trouble playing the same game for more than a week! I am always moving on to something else. Good article.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I'm not entirely sure I agree with my own article either. There is definitely plenty of good to be found in WoW, as they're are many people who love the game for legitimate reasons: they learn something or evolve as individuals or discover their own social personality or comfort zone. Plus, for some, the game is just fun and not addictive. However, I think by and large, WoW is taking advantage of its system to retain players without giving anything of value in return. Games should give to people, not take from them.

    ExtraCool: I'm sorry about your friend. Eventually he'll learn that he is only hurting himself. But as is typical with addictions, it takes external moral support to break them. Addictions are a terrible thing. We become so absorbed that, even though we can see the pain they are causing us, we are physically, mentally, and emotionally unable to break ourselves away. this is why we need to friends to help us escape. Please don't take this as a criticism of yourself, however. If you see him in the future, see if you can help him out, assuming the problem persists.