The Diminishing Returns of Fun

I was listening to an episode of The Instance (#242) today and was struck in a rather fundamental way by what they said in the Mailbag segment. So much so, that I went ahead and captured the 8 minute audio exchange and uploaded it to Youtube so it could be more easily accessed. The reader email question itself was rather asinine, but it elicited a (brief) discussion on how the playerbase of WoW has evolved over time. The evolution of the playerbase, or devolution as some say, has been a frequent whipping boy of forums posters and bloggers for ages – Blizzard dumbing down the game, catering to casuals, and so on.

The thing is, I firmly believe that the argument has always been backwards. Blizzard is not catering to casuals, they are desperately trying to retain that ever-sliding core of veterans. Blizzard is not shaping players, the players are shaping Blizzard. The rest is worth listening to, but I went ahead and transcribed the most important portion of that audio clip, spoken by Scott Johnson:

[Repeating content] is a distinct downside to MMOs in general, and it is why I really enjoy a cultivated experience like Diablo 3 – like the Elder Scrolls games, like I am expecting with Skyrim, like a lot of single-player RPGs – where the wonderment and the excitement and the newness is always present. Because, unless you are freak who plays games six times through for no reason, everything is new as you consume it. Whereas in World of Warcraft, and other MMOs like it, as much as Blizzard tries, and they do the best out there to make things SEEM as fresh as possible. After a while, like that Blood Beast fight… [snip]

But again, I’m kinda with him. This is why I don’t pug much. Because I find that so grindy and so not fun. What I want … if I’m going to do that stuff, I’ll do it with my friends because then THAT is the newness of the experience. Because we’re laughing, Manny said something funny, Pootinky made a fart noise, whatever. We’re having a ball in there. So THAT is fun for me. The actual pugging of the thing for the 5000th time is not fun for me at all in the least. It is just earning money, currency to go get something. And that’s fine, that’s working as a system. But I’m kinda with him that you lose that cultivated experience, you lose that wonderment of walking into a room for the first time, like walking into Ulduar and going “Holy crap! Look at where we have to go and how we have to get there.” And then after a while you are “Oh my gosh, Ulduar can suck it. I hate this fight.”

That is reason the “vanilla forever!” mindset never made sense to me, nor the appeal to nostalgia that was Cataclysm; as they say, you can never cross the same river twice. People like to imagine that if everything had stayed hard, they would not have gradually lost interest in the game. But think about your favorite games of all time. Are those games still fun for you today? Would they still be fun to you if you replayed them half a dozen times back-to-back? You can never recreate that original experience – the wonderment and newness is consumed in the act of experiencing it. And as much as I agree with Scott that Blizzard does a lot in trying to keep content fresh by constant iteration and new boss abilities (etc), at some point you understand on a fundamental level that the Ship of Theseus has sailed, so to speak.

The “catering” is not to casuals, but to the veterans who have reached the end of their original experience and who, through boredom or social ties, are looking for more things to do in-game to fill the time while they wait for schedules to align. But why would veterans actually want extremely fast leveling, faceroll dungeons, and so on? Some of that is actually trying to capture the 80-90% of players who never finish games, sure. But the things like Justice Points and LFD are firmly for the vets. Nils suggests that Blizzard uses “ease” as a weapon in the form of competitive advantage against other MMOs (or perhaps in response to others doing it). Or perhaps in reaction to player “entitlement.”¹ I would argue instead that fun in games has diminishing returns. Running across the entirety of Searing Gorge each time you wipe in BRD might have given you a healthy respect for safe pulling in your formative years, but I guarantee that you would be sick of it four or five years later if it was included everywhere. You learned that lesson, and reinforcing it constantly adds nothing of further value to your experience anymore than would repeating grade school as an adult.

Ultimately, I feel theme-park MMOs are their own worst enemy. Nils told me once that it was in my best interests for an MMO journey to last as long as possible. If I was purely fixated on the eradication of my free time, then sure. I played WoW for over 7000 hours as compared to Xenogears’ 80 hours. But I never once, for a single moment, felt that the magnitude of fun with the former came remotely close to matching the latter. In fact, as is the case with any novel or movie or TV series, the extreme danger is that efforts to elongate the experience instead poisons it². More becomes less. Instead of cultivating a complete experience with a beginning, middle, and end, the theme-park MMO model demands an open-endedness at odds with its progressive narrative.

Perhaps this is merely a sign that (theme-park) MMOs are not a genre meant for me. I do not think that is entirely true though. The genius of MMOs is that they appeal to and accommodate a huge variety of players with different interests – as vapid as questing seems to be to vets, it was actually an endearing experience the first (few) times. Instead, I think designers should embrace the end of their games, incorporating a more conclusive experience while leaving the door open for an encore. Or the after-party.

¹ Entitlement is a word so abused by bloggers and commenters that it has lost most of its meaning. Entitlement should not be synonymous with the expectation of a fair exchange of value. Nor should it denigrate legitimate instances of design criticism. It’s honestly getting to the point where you cannot say something is superfluous or inelegant without being accused of feeling “entitled” to, you know, better design.

² See: Lost, Rescue Me, every Terminator movie after T2, every Alien move after Alien 2, etc etc etc.

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Posted on September 1, 2011, in MMO, Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the links. When I used the word ‘entitled’ I didn’t intent any negative connotations. But given that a lot of players do use the word in this way, I agree that I should perhaps not use it.

    About things becoming boring once you played them long enough: I would like to treat it like that: Games -> Journey -> keeping the mind busy -> exploration/learning

    Less cryptic: The longer you play a game, the lower its potential to keep your mind busy, because you get ever better at it. If you so want, the game is in the cache now and you don’t have to think as much to play it (strange anology, yes:). Especially the exploration / learning suffers from this.

  2. Fundamentally, I believe novelty is what make journeys interesting in of themselves. A goal might give a purpose for the journey, and decisions might make a journey less mindless, but the novelty of original experience makes the journey itself fun. Unfortunately for MMO designers, novelty is consumed as it is experienced. Substituting different goals and decisions mid-journey can make it less of a chore, but they are attempts at filling an abyss – they can only make it less boring, never more fun. The essential essence is gone forever.

    It is like refrigerator magnets. Once the novelty of them wear off, you realize that you are left with simply rearranging letters.

  3. Certainly true that for any “fun” activity becomes less fun overtime. On the other hand if I crystallize what I really want in my “game” is really a virtual world I want live in (yeah escapism). I been wanting this since I played my first sandbox RPG (it was Elder Scrolls:Arena) . Does the world ever becomes “unfun”?

    I guess it does at some point but I feel like it should take much more than it currently takes. The journeys can be so much more than just going from ride to ride, from one cardboard front to another (and you know at this point all the dirty little tricks behind it)

    MMO…scratch that…. virtual worlds have so much potential. The worlds of scale with events unfolding. Not some dozen scripted npcs and 2.5 houses passing as a “city” and 5 of them as an “epic huge ancient capital of a large empire”.

    You cant create content of that size by dev team. And procedurally generated content is just not there (yet?), but we already have the tools to make it possible -players themselves. That is untapped potential MMO themeparks waste. From the very first MMO (UO) you could see how much it could be. Unfortunately mainstream developers sacrificed player generated content for “expertly designed experience”. The few projects which tried to explore that direction unfortunately fall too far off the mark (mainly for design reasons, but there are technical problems too)

    I believe themeparks have its place. But virtual worlds era would be the future. Maybe not as mainstream, but entirely different kind , not a “game but long and rich in experience journey.

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