Friday, March 20, 2009

A bigger lesson

Darkfall sure evokes strong emotions. That, or syncaine developed Tourette syndrome. :) I'm watching Darkfall from the outside, by reading various blogs, and I noticed an interesting trend. Everyone who loves Darkfall is playing with a guild, everyone who hates Darkfall was trying to solo it. You can't really solo Darkfall any more than you could solo Everquest, another game evoking strong emotions. These games are designed to be played in groups, and soloing means playing against the underlying design philosophy, which usually ends up with unpleasant results.

But the bigger lesson behind that is that a game which is fundamentally hostile and unpleasant, not to mention not technically mature, can create strong positive emotions through social interaction. There is a barrier to entry, where players hate to have to rely on other players. But once that barrier is overcome, playing together like a real team is a lot more fun than soloing. In Everquest the idea that the game had to be hostile to force players to band together and ultimately create more fun by better social cohesion was called "The Vision". "The Vision" died a slow and painful death when it turned out that far more people were willing to play more user-friendly games. Today many people think that the World of Warcraft model in which the game lets you solo all the way up to the level cap is inherently more successful.

What if that is a misconception? What if we could have the best of both worlds, a game which is both user-friendly *and* fosters more social interaction? Maybe "The Vison" is right in saying that playing together is ultimately more fun than playing alone, but modern games are right in saying that getting there by making solo life unbearable is not the way to go. And the way to get to that point is so obvious, seeing how strongly players react to rewards and incentives. Just make a game you *can* solo all the way in a pleasant way, but add plenty of incentives to group instead. Make gaining xp and levels in a group twice as fast as gaining xp solo. Add tons of guild features which foster cooperation, guild projects in which people can work together even if they aren't online at the same time and having the same level. Introduce systems in which remaining loyal to the same guild for a long time gives you rewards, so it becomes better to solve minor problems with compromise instead of simply joining the next and more powerful guild. Extend social relationships to outside the game, using Facebook-like game websites accessible from everywhere.

I think we haven't reached the last stage of massively multiplayer online role-playing games yet. We found a lot of puzzle pieces which make those games better, but there is still room for a lot of innovation and putting these puzzle pieces together to form a better game. The "MMO accessible for everyone" is good, but the "MMO with strong social cohesion" is good too. And the game that'll manage to have both will be a huge success.

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