Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Active vs. interactive gameplay

Cuppy lists possible reasons why traditional gamers dislike Farmville or similar Facebook games. Spinks hates Farmville. Scopique thinks that is gamers being territorial. Darren thinks Farmville is not a game, but Cuppy thinks it is. And a lot of other people chime in with the usual straw man arguments, dismissing Facebook games entirely just because some have shady business practices, or are spammy. I'd like to add to that heated discussion of Facebook games by having a look at the gameplay. My theory is that a good part of the Farmville hate can be explained by traditional gamers simply not "getting" the interactive gameplay of casual social games, because they are too used to more active gameplay.

I tried a bunch of different Facebook games: Farmville, Mafia Wars, The Fellowship, My Tribe, and D&D Tiny Adventures. And I found one common factor in all these games, and in various browser games, which is different from most traditional games: The need to wait. The pace of the game is mostly set by the game itself, not by the player. I call that interactive gameplay, because you can only interact with game elements when they are ready, you can't continuously act. Now having to wait can be quite frustrating for the traditional gamer, who is more used to active gameplay, where the game only halts when the player stops acting. But for social games the forced breaks are necessary to allow *other* players to interact with your game as well. If you weren't forced to wait for your harvest to grow, then how would other players have time to fertilize your fields?

MMORPGs had more interactive gameplay elements too, but they were phased out or reduced due to player complaining about "downtime". In Everquest a raid boss was an interactive gameplay element, there was only one per server, and guilds needed to wait for him to respawn and organize who had the right to try to kill him when among each other. In World of Warcraft raid bosses are active gameplay elements, the guild entering the raid instance *causes* the raid boss to appear, no wait involved. WoW still has interactive gameplay elements, where players interact with each other and the open world, but wait times for boats are a lot shorter than in EQ, and open world mob respawn times are so fast you barely notice if some other player just was there on the same quest. Interaction between players is strongly diminished. Most traditional gamers prefer more active gameplay, where they are in the driving seat.

But active gameplay has its disadvantages: As players set their own pace of advancement, some players spend inordinate amounts of time to get ahead of other players. That not only can be unhealthy, it also prevents players from actually playing with each other in a multi-player game. You can only play with other players of similar level, and only if they are online at the same time as you are. The more these multi-player games are becoming instanced, the more they feel like single-player games with a monthly fee, which ultimately isn't a promising business model.

Interactive gameplay, in which many players interact with each other not only directly, but also by interacting on the same game world area, over come a lot of these restrictions. I don't have to be online at the same time as you are to fertilize your Farmville farm, or to buff you for your next D&D Tiny Adventure. Forced breaks and wait times might feel frustrating to the traditional gamer, but might suit a casual gaming schedule just fine. And if progress is based on real time and the decisions players makes, and not just on played time, game progress reflects skill more than time spent.

And of course there is a future in games which combine the two gameplay elements better. I already joked about World of Farmcraft, but I do think that a MMORPG with more interactive world gameplay elements, where players interact more indirectly by each affecting the game world, could be hugely successful. But such interaction would have to be positive, repeated experiments showed that "sandbox" gameplay in which players are busy destroying each other's creations only appeal to a tiny number of players. Most people tend to object to their virtual keep being burned down by other players at 3 am while they are sleeping, but they sure wouldn't mind somebody fertilizing their fields at that time.

So I don't think we should see Farmville and similar games as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn more about gameplay elements which could work well in MMORPGs too. The latest generation of MMORPGs has often been criticized for being too instanced, not interactive enough, and here are models of how we could get back more interactivity into our games.

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