Double Buffered

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

GDC 2010: Single-Player, Multiplayer, MMOG: Design Psychologies for Different Social Contexts

Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 17, 2010

Here’s the notes I have for Single-Player, Multiplayer, MMOG: Design Psychologies for Different Social Contexts as presented by Ernest Adams. Ernest has a long history of writing about and teaching game design, although primarily single player games. Roughly, this talk is about him extending his previous concepts to encompass multiplayer games, with varying success. It works as a good overview of how social context affects design, but Ernest is a BIT out of date with the MMO world, as he himself admits. Blah blah, any transcription mistakes are purely my own.

Ernest’s General Philosophy

  • Intellectual pursuits can be vaguely separated into deductive (which he described as English) or inductive (French) thinking. The Classic or Romantic contexts. Game design basically straddles the line perfectly, and is a Craft instead of an Art or a Science. DaVinci should be our idol.
  • But game developers aren’t really very good at their craft. They kill 2/3 of projects they start. They never seem to think through the final goal, and generally lack a philosophical direction.
  • Player-Centric design is a solution to this. A designer must imagine a single, idealized player. The goal of a designer is to entertain them, and to empathize with them. The designer has a responsibility to think about how their game will make a player feel.
  • The Tao of Game Design is the model Ernest uses to describe the relationship between player and designer. They are collaborating to create an experience, and neither would exist without the other. Each has the other inside of them, as far as trying to build a mental model.
  • But, Ernest says this model is incorrect, because it specifies a singular player. Ernest said he was falling into a bias of writing about games he likes to play and create: single player games

Player Versus Environment

  • The first type of game is PvE, which is not exactly the same as single player. A strictly cooperative game can be closer to PvE, and a single player game with a simulated AI player (such as football) is not PvE either.
  • In a PvE game, the designer’s job is to design interactions. It’s vital for the designer to maintain a fairness throughout. Difficulty spikes, learn-by-death, stalemates, insufficient information for critical decisions, and expecting outside information can all violate the player-designer pact and pull the player out of the game.
  • The relationship between player and designer is very intimate, and according to Ernest these kind of games can be Art (with a capital A) because they really have the concept of an artist.

Player Versus Player

  • In a pure PvP design, the job of a designer is to do competition design. The goal is to enable the fun that comes out of players interacting with each other, not over designing and trying to force the fun into the system. Fairness is fairly simple, and involves making sure that everyone has an equal start and can’t cheat.
  • Instead of a designer collaborating with a player, a designer is creating a system in which players will exist. Basically, a PvP designer is more of an Architect then an Artist. You can try to make all the rules you want, but players will add their own rules to the system.

Massively-Multiplayer Online

  • Ernest talked a bit about how he worked on one of the first online games, Rabbit Jack’s Casino at AOL. It was pay by the minute, so Ernest feels it kept him extremely honest as a designer. Everyone seemed really nice. If he didn’t keep the player engaged they would just leave. (Note: a cynical view here is that if he didn’t keep them psychologically addicted they would quit)
  • His recent MMO experience was to jump into Second Life, which was a very lackluster experience. Everyone was extremely rude to him, the game took forever to load, and it felt very unfamiliar. (Note: Yeah, that’s Second Life. Which is not a game.)
  • Designing fairness is basically impossible, as the starts are inherently uneven. The best people seemed to figure out was things like Raph Koster’s Laws. These laws are based on empirical evidence from existing communities, and tend to be about SURVIVING an online game, not having fun. Baron’s Laws saws that Hate is good because it brings people together. As long as Raph’s laws are true,  MMOs will suck for the vast majority of potential players. (Note: Many of Raph’s laws are super cynical and really don’t apply to newer designs like World of Warcraft. Which is kind of why it’s successful.)
  • As an MMO designer, it’s about servicing a cloud of players, who really won’t care about you until you screw up. Your job is to be a social engineer.

Free to Play MMO

  • Much of Ernest’s material for this section is based on slides from a presentation Zhan Ye gave at Virtual Goods Summit 2009. That presentation is from the perspective of someone from the Chinese free to play MMO industry giving advice to western developers.
  • In a pay-per-time-period MMO, the only goal of individual features is to increase fun and general engagement, because specific actions are not monetized. However, in a Free to Play (ie, not free at all) MMO the design goal ends up being to maximize revenue from specific actions. Every feature in a F2P game must directly add revenue, or do so secondarily.
  • Fairness is no longer a goal at all, because it doesn’t help revenue. Instead, the goal is to create drama, love, and other elements of the real world. These elements will spur people to purchase items. The large advantage you get from an item, the more likely a player is to buy them.
  • As a result, in the first generation of successful Chinese F2P games, rich players would buy all the weapons and then use them to kill all the poor players. This ended up being too unbalanced, as all the poor players would immediately quit and not provide the player base needed to keep the rich players buying items.
  • So, the solution in the Chinese F2P community is to set up a series of family clans that will hire poorer players to fight for them. They would use gifts, threats, and extortion to control the poorer players. In other words, form in game criminal cartels.
  • Most successful items are based explicitly on exploiting human emotions. “Little Trumpet” is an item that can be purchased and used to publicly humiliate another player. That player can then pay money to have that curse removed, and is very likely to do so due to emotional distress.
  • Zhan compares F2P games to Las Vegas, but Ernest says they are worse because in Las Vegas you at least have the chance to make real money. F2P uses all the same psychological hooks of a slot machine, but with 0 chance of winning.
  • Ernest believes that these games are in fact evil. The designer has a set up a system that explicitly subsidizes real hatred, because there is no such thing as virtual hatred. If a game is set up to incentivize players to inflict emotional harm that game is evil.
  • There are two solutions to this problem. The first one is to NOT make your game zero sum, and remove competition (Note: So Farmville is not evil in this SPECIFIC way as it does not encourage hate), and the other option is to institute various methods to restrict it to competition instead of hatred and destruction. Something like the NFL salary cap vs. the America’s cup or F1 where richest always wins.
  • In F2P the designer’s goal is to be an economist. They still need to entertain the players, but empathizing with them is strictly bad business. If these games continue on this path, Ernest asks that we shoot him.
  • In conclusion, the craft of game design is fragmenting, there is no longer a single unified philosophy.

Note: As a focused response, I found his discussion of F2P MMOs very interesting, although I think he restricts it a bit too much to that genre. I would expand it a bit, because hatred can happen in PvP or MMO environments just as easily. For instance, take your typical 360 shooter populated by teenagers: they clearly want to inflict emotional harm and there is nothing in the game systems to help ameliorate that. But I can definitely stand behind his basic conclusion: Developing games that prey on the weak emotions of players is basically evil, and F2P games are much more likely to incentivize such decisions because of the focus on revenue over empathy.


5 Responses to “GDC 2010: Single-Player, Multiplayer, MMOG: Design Psychologies for Different Social Contexts”

  1. […] Different Social Contexts: Ernest Adams is always a good listen. Expect notes of this. (Posted my Notes) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)GDC09: Plans For AwesomeGDC09: ‘Winging […]

  2. Very accurate summary, thank you. I do realize that Second Life isn’t a game. However, it IS a massively-multiplayer online environment in which people can talk to each other. I only mentioned it because the VERY FIRST thing anybody said to me when I got into it was a gratuitous insult. That provides a nice illustration of the core problem.

    I do believe it’s possible to make MMOs that don’t obey Koster’s Laws — many of which were formulated in the MUD and Ultima Online days. But we need to make the effort. I’m glad that you agree that creating incentives to hatred and abusive behavior is a bad thing. 🙂

    — Ernest Adams

    • JZig said

      Thanks for the clarification on Second Life, makes sense. Thanks for posting, and for the talk!

      Personally I would say that my experiences on playing pure PVP RTSs or on XBox Live playing shooters are FAR more hateful than my experiences playing World of Warcraft. I would suggest you try them out, but honestly I don’t wish the Xbox Live social experience on anyone 🙂

  3. Raph said

    People always tend to miss that the Laws are a collection of aphorisms from a lot of different folks.

    The “hate is good” law can be rephrased as “team rivalries” or “passion.” WoW uses this heavily with its realms.

    In fact, I can’t actually think of any of the laws which are cynical, or outdated. I’ll have to go re-read them. 🙂

  4. […] Meier talked about the “Unholy Alliance” between designer and player, and Ernest Adams talked about the “Tao of Game Design”. On reflection the concepts have much in common: […]

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