Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Talk is more important than Play

Posted by Ben Zeigler on December 29, 2006

I read a short article yesterday about some new research from the University of Rochester. The article is a short fluff piece, but the summary is that accomplishment, exploration, and connection with other players are more important for keeping players involved than ephemeral fun is. This is not particularly novel to anyone who has thought seriously about MMO’s, because they rely on ephemeral fun far less than your typical game. Fun has a huge effect on short-term enjoyment, but to keep players for month after month it’s just not as important. The other thing about MMO’s is that connection with other players doesn’t have to take place within the context of game play. To a potentially larger extent than playing, just TALKING about a game is what keeps players happy, involved, and paying the developer’s bills.

There are two basic contexts within which discussion about a game takes place. The first I’ll call Wide, and is so named because a wide group of people can effectively engage in the discussion. At the most basic level, this includes the marketing speak that is used push product on consumers, as well as word of mouth recommendations. If your game is easy to describe in one or two sentences and has an interesting “hook”, you will draw in players initially. This isn’t enough to pull in jaded MMORPG junkies and ex-players, but more sophisticated discussion can. If your game is both interesting and discussable, recountings of anecdotes and comparisons of game systems will take place on forums and blogs across the net. As I mentioned in an earlier post, controversy is a great driver of this type of discussion. If your game can be talked about in a compelling way, you’ll steal players from the competition and get lapsed players to return. You might even get some mainstream media attention, who knows.

The other context, which I’ll call Deep, requires a much deeper level of knowledge to participate. If you’re not familiar with the details of a particular game, it tends to be deathly boring. Because of the investment required and the intimidating nature of obsessive forum-goers, many players won’t take the plunge into this level of discussion. However, the players who do get this involved in ongoing discussion about a game have a good chance of staying for a long time. Arguing the merits of different character builds, performing a monologue in character, or participating in in-game events all help to draw different types of people in to this conversation. The more players who participate in this level of discussion, no matter what specific area they participate in, the larger your core of players is, and the longer your game will last.

Now that two levels of discussion about a game have been identified, how do developers encourage and foster that discussion? I’m going to talk a bit more about that over the next few days, but both obvious and non-obvious factors affect these conversations. The areas of discussion that a developer decides to focus on go a long way towards determining the character of a game’s community. And, the character of a community is a major factor in the life cycle and overall success of an online game.

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