Thursday, August 15, 2013

MMO Game Theory

It's taken me eight years or so to come to the realization that different people want different experiences from their MMOs.  Yes, I'm familiar with the now-traditional designation of Achiever, Explorer, Socializer and Killer, but I feel like things break along different pathways as well. To put it frankly, it misses what for me seems to be the main purpose for playing, the core of what MMORPGs can deliver:  the experience of a shared story in a created world.

In fact, I have a hard time fitting the story experience into any of those four categories. So what alarms me is that these four categories are offered as a model for how online games should be designed, to address these four "gamer-types."  If this is indeed the developer's model, I'm going to be rapidly left out in the cold.  

MUD's Player Types

Back in 1996, Bartle wrote a paper describing "the four player types" of online gamers called Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDS.  In this paper, Bartle summarized an online discussion among experienced MUD participants addressing the question "What do people want out of a MUD" and this is where the designation of the four player types appears.  Later, the Bartle test was created to allow players to determine their own type.

It's important to note that Bartle was specifically talking about MUDs, Multi-User Dungeons, which were a key fore-runner of modern MMOs, but actually quite different in practice.   Muds were text-based games based on an interconnected series of rooms.  The major activity was interacting with the room, and the objects it contained, or with other characters. 

One critical difference was in the area of storytelling, which was largely limited to reading room descriptions as the character moved among them and attacked the mobs that resided there.  Most other storylines emerged from social interaction with other users. While there were narrative experiences, MUDs aren't viewed as a primary vehicle for storytelling.  I mention this as a way to explain why there was no reference to narrative in the four activity types.  Players just didn't think of MUDs as a way to tell complex and detailed stories.

TRPG's Gaming Models

If MUDs were the predecessor of the Multiplayer Online part of MMORPG, the other ancestor that completed the name was the Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TRPGs).  Online roleplaying games obviously owe a lot to their tabletop ancestors, notably Dungeons and Dragons.  And what's different here was the tRPGs were viewed as storytelling vehicles.

About the same time that Bartle was summarizing his "player types" discussion, another discussion of roleplaying theory was taking place concerning pen and paper roleplaying games.  What initially emerged was the Threefold Model, suggesting that rpgs were focused on Gaming, Drama, or Simulation.  This discussion led to the GNS model (gaming, narrative, and simulation) as well as GEN (gaming, explorative, narrative). The proponents of each of these models obviously felt that the nuance of meaning provided by their own system was clearly superior, and as these things sometimes have a way of doing on the internet, the whole discussion collapsed in flames and a lot of bitterness before it was all over.

What's interesting is how similar these three systems look from the perspective of twenty year's time.  These models obviously point to the strengths and weaknesses of the tabletop experience:  social interaction was taken for granted since obviously this was a social experience with a group of friends regularly meeting around a table. The social experience wasn't something the game had to regulate, it just took it for granted.  However, how carefully a system modeled a created world was very important and was captured under the Simulation or Environment tag.That rpgs were a method of storytelling was unquestioned in each model, referring to "narrative" or "drama" to refer to exactly that thing.

All of models clearly identified that there was a component of gaming (dice rolling, combat), of simulation (world creation), and of narrative (storytelling).  And game systems, game masters, and players emphasized each of these components differently. 

Contemporary MMOs

So, from a marriage of these two fractious parents we produce the modern MMO RPG.  Neither of the models describing the parents really works perfectly to describe their offspring.  Current MMOs have their own inherent strengths and weaknesses that require a new description.  For example, the task of Simulation is largely taken out of the hands of the players and is handled by the developers.  Modern game engines are so sophisticated that the task of creating a world that the players can interact with is generally taken for granted (in much the same way that socializing was taken for granted with tRPGS). 

On the other hand, the evolution of the MUD into the MMO has given developers many more tools for telling dramatic and deeply moving stories on several levels. 

The first group is the Gamists.  To this player the MMO is most akin to a quick pick-up game after school.  They want to show up at the field at recess and jump into whatever football or basketball game is going on.  They want to play, and they want to compete. This Game might be dueling one-on-one or in a team vs team pvp environment where there are clear winners and losers. Alternatively, the Game might be a raid or dungeon, but then they want to compare dps numbers, they want to compare gear score, they want the feeling of progression.  Interestingly, they don't necessarily have to be killers or achievers.

Gameists generally don't care about story as much as they care about the activity of the moment.  Their method of socializing is to compete with one another.  The jostling and buffeting of competition creates camaraderie and fosters a shared experience that reinforces their sense of accomplishment.

The next group is the Narrativists.  These are the people who want to experience a story.  They want the feeling of being the hero, or even a hero, in a story being told by the world around them.
They want to know the lore, and are willing to take extra time to read, or watch, or explore in order to discover it.  They want isolated story elements to make sense from a larger perspective.  They want character progression of major lore figures to make sense.  The want to experience the story from within, and that means participating as a major character.

These are the people who are affected the most when they feel the main story of the game (expansion, zone) is being told in an area that they are denied access to because it is targeted at someone else.  Namely, that the gamist atmosphere of the raid is not conducive to the experiential atmosphere of the narrativist.  Challenge, for the narrativist, is valuable when it parallels the challenges implicit in the story being told.  In order to defeat the Lich King, a massive effort of mobilization and armoring was required, and that in itself is a story that moves them to participate.  Grinding dungeons seems to break the narrative.  Since you seem to be defeating the same enemy repeatedly, it is like the player is reading the same chapter over and over again.

The other group is the socializers.  These are the people who play mmos as a mechanism to make friends and communicate.  They understand the value of shared experience and shared achievement.  The importance of achieving something is paralleled by the value of achieving it with a group.  A game that lacks the tools for group participation, lacks social features, or introduces mechanisms that artificially divide players (such as enforced solo instances), will not support socializers.

This doesn't mean that they are socially outgoing people, who like to talk and gossip in a stereotypical fashion.  They are equally likely to be introverted or extroverted.  Socializers value the game as a place to interact with other individuals, even if that is only a few close friends.  Socializers could thrive in large guilds, but others could be equally comfortable in a small group of 3 to 5 friends who tackle the same challenges together.

Understandably, socializers value group activities like dungeons or raids, but only when there is a positive social vibe.  Repeatedly running up against failure, something that is accepted and welcomed among gamists, can be a source of frustration and negative feeling among socializers.  Similarly, Narrativists feel frustration because they want to experience the culmination of the story and are concerned that they won't be able to do so.  For them, it is like reading an epic story with the later chapters of the book torn out.

Socializers like daily activities, because it gives them something to do while they socialize, it gives them a topic of conversation to discuss.  It forms the communal effort around which the community coalesces.


  1. Did anyone else have the experience of constantly looking for a "none of the above" or "other" button on the Bartle test? I didn't even finish the test, so irrelevant were the choices I was consistently offered. I kept making almost random choices to get through the questions thinking that at some point I would get to a place where the quiz would begin to describe my goals and preferences. Never happened. In fact, the questions described a game experience so limited that I was surprised that players could be divided into 4 categories: all the options being offered seemed to appeal to only one type of gamer and one type of gameplay. I kept hearing the Bionic Man voiceover -- stronger, faster, better, able to leap tall buildings (wait, no, that's Superman). I have no interesting in being stronger or faster or better than any other player. I don't really care about how other players play or what they feel makes them special. I want to play the game (not the other players).

    1. Yes, I constantly felt that what interested me about games was not found in either the four categories or in the questions in the test. I think the Bartle test is basically self selective. People who like the concept take the test, and that's about it.

      Now imagine that there are developers out there who take this Bartle system as the whole truth. It's very likely that they are going to make a game that doesn't appeal to me at all.

  2. I'm don't see me here. I'm not sure what category I am but I'm not in one of these. I want to play the game and I want the game to be playable. I don't want to win, particularly. I don't need the game to validate me or praise me. I don't feel achievement when I finish a dungeon or down a boss. But I do want the story to be coherent, interesting and memorable, not repetitive and throw-away. And I don't want to be bothered with time-wasting chores like farming supplies with a low drop rate or grinding dungeons. You go ahead. I'll wait here and flirt with the barmaid.

    I want to move forward through the game at a pace I choose without getting stuck at some point where moving forward means going over and over and over the same territory in pursuit of unattainable loot or otherwise useless "skill." Wow, I just killed a thousand baby dragons in 3 seconds, look at me! Really?

    Nothing has to be easy, but if I can't get it done in a reasonable amount of time with a reasonable amount of effort, I'm out -- why would I pay to be frustrated? What will I gain if I keep at it until I win through? Nothing. dull waste of time. Stop pitting me against people who are really into this competition and let me play the game. Please.

    1. "But I do want the story to be coherent, interesting and memorable, not repetitive and throw-away."

      I think this is a perfectly reasonable expectation. I wish game developers took this more seriously.

      Achievements like Leeroy Jenkins are curiosities, mildly interesting side activities, and to me should be incidental to the main story of UBRS, not the focus of the trip.