[mud-dev] Socialization requires downtimes

Raph Koster:
We may not like it, but all empirical evidence at the moment seems to show that requiring cooperative team play for success causes greater retention.

More data points would certainly be helpful, since it’s quite possible that other factors are at play here. I personally have nothing against team play but also wouldn’t want it to be the sole defining gameplay paradigm.

I think it’s a side effect. The team play encourages the socialization and the socialization produces ties between the players. When a game encourages the cooperation it also makes every activity more fun and varied. Perhaps just because you chat while doing something boring. It could be actually relaxing.

Group of players can then recursively motivate each member. You have goals and you have a role inside a group. The team play itself is simply an incentive, a stimulus, producing a series of positive side effects. Because those groups become the soul of a game, even more than what you are able to offer with the work of a dev team.

This isn’t going to the opposite direction of who likes the solo play. Forcing groups is both what players want and hate. Why? I think it’s not because we have different players liking different games but because being forced to group brings to consistent limitations. Often you are forced to wait. You could wait just for a minute or more than an hour. You could also find an horrible group and waste even more time. And so on.

Group dynamics are always more fun than playing solo but often you are more focused on what you are trying to achieve. Finding, building and mantaining a good group is often not easy and not fast. If all this blocks your activity you have the reason why many players hate to not have the possibility to play alone.

And to conclude, a team work (intended as contemporary play and notjust as interdependence) requires also “more” from the player. It requires a constant attention and it means that you have to focus on what you are doing. Playing alone gives, instead, a lot more freedom. You can stop when you want, you can surf the web for a few minutes, watch TV and so on.

Now I don’t think that one of those models is better than the other. Each player should have the possibility to choose considering a precise situation. Playing alone must be always an option. Group play must be always strongly encouraged. Remembering that bringing players together will be healthy for the game.

And I’d like to add because this point of view opens new perspectives. Considering what I wrote I think that the teamwork shouldn’t be enforced and isn’t the best solution to create a “relationship” between the players. There’s a better way. I think these games should move the focus outside the character. Loosing this egoistical obsession. Instead of requiring teamwork to achive something on a personal “power” treadmill, they should provide more communal goals. I think that at this point the design could advance, till now we had only games where the only purpose is about gaining more power for your character. All that you have around is a “tool” to gain that power, from experience, to loot, to gold that can be used to buy different “forms” of power. The only dynamical element is the single character, all the rest is faked. Nothing changes aside the fact that your character is stronger or richer.

An evolution is about adding more sense to the structure and build, “on top” of the personal treadmill, a different system where the players need to cooperate to achieve communal objectives. This not only will help the community to become stronger but it will also instill a good amount of motivation, enthusiasm, sense of participation and fulfillment, in each player. It could be a very strong force driving the game. More effective to provide fun and involvment. And it doesn’t matter if you use the PvE or PvP to achieve that because there’s potential in both.

The idea is about bringing the community *inside* the gameplay. To be part of the gameplay directly. I think this has the possibility to be more effective and successful.

Jeff Freeman:

Byron Ellacott:
That’s true, but Raph was speaking about retention. Force, encourage, require social interaction and you presumably forge bonds that people are reluctant to sever by leaving the game.

I have a hard time accepting this as fact, personally, because it hasn’t ever worked to keep me playing a game.

I play with the one or two other people that I came to play with, and if the game forces me to play alone or with people other than those, then I quit.

I understand that I might be atypical, when I am in an understanding mood. The rest of the time I think the ‘evidence’ of this effect is pretty weak.

Jeff Freeman:

Here we are considering the subscriptions numbers at an high level. Not many people play with one or two friends. Everyone is generally part of bigger groups even if then you can define sub-groups inside big guilds. These groups always work as magnets because they really make or break the game. A good guild is able to mantain alive the interest of each member, the guild itself becomes more important than the patch notes of the game.

Oh, there are definitely wider groups of people we know that we play with occassionally. But there aren’t too many MMO’s we could go to and NOT find a subset of this sort of game-spanning meta-guild. That wider circle of friends and acquaintances doesn’t keep us in any one particular game, because we can change games without leaving the circle. Talking about people we’ve known in UO, EQ, DAOC, SWG, AC, AC2, E&B and now COH (we even played NWN, Diablo, Serious Sam, Dungeon Seige and so on without leaving “the guild”), that we mostly keep in touch with via webboards.

So how does that ‘guild membership’ (so to speak) serve to keep me tied to any particular game?

Well, rhetorical question that, because in my case it definitely doesn’t. But you look at other web/forum game communities and it seems obvious those folks are also playing lots of different games and migrating from one to another as the spirit moves them – without ever leaving their circle of friends.


Jeff Freeman:
I think we’ve wandered pretty far away from the topic of “forced grouping increases retention”, though.

I agree :) Let me gather back the two parts to go back to the topic:
I think you are a special case because you are a dev, even if not *that* special, so you like to jump from one game to another, trying different things and follow the “mmorpg community” as a whole, and not specific to a particular game. I really think that this behaviour is going to increase with the time but, till now, the communities seem quite steady, in particular when it comes to the big guilds.

Passionate players don’t like at all moving from game to game, they like a lot more to settle down, build their name and consolidate, if they are able to find a place they like. Instead, if they move is not because they like to, but because they are generally pissed off by how a company manages the game. It’s not the curiosity to move them, but the disappointment and the hope for something better. In particular this is a genre where the dedication is always rewarded. The gameplay itself wants you to stay and open your possibilities with the time, otherwise the experience is bland.

What I meant is that this “nomadic” attitude isn’t common, at least I dont think it was till now. Forced grouping increases nothing by itself. This is the same infinite discussion going on at Grimwell. The relationship between the players *is* one of the strongest elements to determine the health of a game, and so the number subscribers, but it must be considered from the right point of view.

I think that the players like to find a “home” and settle down. If the gameplay supports this I’m quite sure it will have a strong, positive effect on the raw success, in particular in the long period. The point is that this consideration has been translated into a poor application. The socialization is important, but it must be supported from *inside* the game. It’s what I wrote about breaking the “third wall”.

As a designer you surely have to look at the socialization as one of the most important part of the game (the most important along with the accessibility, I think). But when you start to define its role into the game you must do this from *inside* the game layer. The discussion on Grimwell demonstrates how the focus on the socialization part always happen at the *expense* of the fun. The fun, in this case, is simply the “gameplay” level. So you accept compromises, exactly what is explained into Raph’s essay.

The rule is that the “socialization *requires* downtimes”. So, or you simply build a fighting game, where the social layer is sacrificed. Or, if you want to give depth and prevalence to this other part, you need to accept compromises and take design choices that go against the fun. This happens exactly when we consider the forced grouping or when we consider the “wounds” in SWG, or all the various interdependencies in it to excuse the various classes together. You are forced to go back in a cantina after a fight to cure the wounds so that the socialization has a “space”. To open this space Raph choosed to sacrify the gameplay.

What I think is that this breaks the “third wall”. In the design stage the socialization takes over the game, but the game is also our frame, we cannot break it because we are going to break a basic rule: the third wall itself. The common belief (that brings to ignore this warining) is that you can then excuse the design decision inside the game (I call this process “dressing”). So that, first, you take a design decision, outside the game layer. Then, you work on the excuse to “dress” the idea and make it fit into the setting. The third wall seems not broken because the idea seems believable. Well, my idea is that this “dressing” process isn’t of any use. Every single player is able to see that the third wall was broken, because every single player is able to understand where and when the gameplay is sacrificed. Exactly where the devs have choosen to take the compromise to push on the socialization at the expense of the fun.

This isn’t just Raph. This is everyone. Too often design decisions have been taken as compromises against the fun. In their eyes this is a compromise that you *have* to accept. Another part needs the focus, if you want it you need to make a choice. Instead I think this is just an *alarm* that tells you that there’s a problem *before* this stage, before you arrive at this point. The problem is about breaking the third wall. It’s an error in the approach, not in the implementation. The error in the implementation is derivative of the approach. The solution I’ve found is that everything you want in the game must be considered, analyzed and implemented from *inside* the game itself.

Academic discussions absolutely missing any kind of context are foolish. You cannot define how long should be a treadmill or how much time players should spend socializing, *without a context*. It could be interesting for the discussion but it’s absolutely avoid of any use. Designing a game from the outside to the find then excuses to dress the idea, doesn’t work. It breaks a basic rule, it shatters the game, it isn’t fun, it feels faked, it feels forced and we can go on. A long list of side-effects because there’s a mistake at the origin.

I really believe that the socialization can be a strong gameplay element that doesn’t hinder the fun, fighting against the “game” part, but that it’s coordinated with the other part. The tricks is about finding solutions from inside the game and not starting from general academic reasoning out of context. The socialization shouldn’t be “excused” or “well dressed”. The socialization must be concrete, not simulated.

The example: The common treadmills are about personal goals. The mistake is that the goal is personal, but the process to achieve it is communal. It’s a strongly egoistic society that still forces people together, helping each other. This is broken. The opposite should happen. Players should have *communal* goals that can be achieved both solo and in group. “Magically” a faked design that *enforces* the socialization at the expense of the fun, becomes completely natural. Asking cooperation where the damn objective (goal) is about the cooperation itself.

This is the good way to bring people together. This will create ties between the players, this will make them more involved in the life of a community. You don’t work anymore just for yourself. You work on a bigger scale but where your role must always be valuable and perceptible. Being part of a community with communal goals to achieve adds a lot of depth to a game. The socialization isn’t anymore an external part of the game. Out of context because it is used to reach a personal goal. The socialization becomes the game itself. It’s both “means” and “end”. And you’ll never be forced to take decisions against the fun because the socialization doesn’t rule the game. It’s the game to rule and define the socialization.

It’s *stupid* to give the players an egoistic goal and then tell them they have to group. Every damn game I know is based on this mistake at the origin of the design: academic reasoning without coherence and cohesion with the rest of the game. A list of damn “features” linked together with excuses.

This is flawed. If you want a MMORPG to be “healthy” you cannot plan it as a collage.


Yannick Jean:
Repeating myself here, but it must said again: If you want casual players in your game, downtime and travel time as mean of encouraging socializatrion must go.

Well, it’s fun to see that even if we have different topics we all talk about the same issue. But really, I just joined the list two months ago, noone till now has ever tried to see if the socialization can be part of the game *without* going against the fun?


Michael Sellers:
If retaining more subscribers for longer is a goal, one of the best ways to do this is to provide an environment that strongly encourages social interaction and bonding.

I agree. What I’d hope is that the designers won’t translate this into a three-months hole/timesink in the design to make happen this interaction.

What is fun is that they choosed to not design to encourage this social interaction. Add a timesink here, add another there. Non-design for the win! The solution for the best game ever is to not implement the game at all! The game is so empty that you’ll have to chat with someone to find some sort of fun. Clever!

Perhaps someone will take IRC, rebrand it and add a monthly fee of 12.99$? A genius!

I really think that the instant you make a player turn the head to watch TV or start to chat about politics or football, you have *failed* in your work big time. Same if someone yawns watching a movie. A defeat, not a success.

You know, I’m so stupid to think that you can encourage social interaction WITH the gameplay. And not without it.


I don’t really see why it would be impossible to have “downtime” within the sphere of game-play?

That’s my whole point. That’s what I tried to justify in my message with a lot of reasons. Not only the socialization will be meaningful but it will also be stronger (because excused and tied within the game). In particular it will also remain immersive, without breaking the third wall with artificial stratagems to hold the various, unexcused parts of a game together.


Raph Koster:
However, you seem to have arrived at a conclusion as to which of the above are in-game and which are out-of-game. I am not sure that the issue is quite that simple–I can read all of the above as “in game” or “out of game” depending on how we define “game.”

Well, I agree with the rest of your message, so I quote just this.

Yes, I tried to define downtimes within the gameplay and downtimes outside it. My whole critic is about that. In my opinion the best way to make the distinction is right at the design stage. I already said that single player games don’t even have this problem because the design NEVER goes out the gameplay. The problem comes up when we involve the socialization as an external element (the “error” I assume you are making is exactly about considering the socialization as an external part). Parallel to the gameplay and not within it.

Let’s make an example: travel.

Travel in Diablo 2 is managed in two ways. You can walk out the camp or you can use teleporters. The first happens when there’s gameplay involved. The travel is part of the gameplay because you search monsters, fight them, explore dungeons and so on. The movement is gameplay. So it’s in the game. The second way is about the use teleporters. When you use them? When you need shortcuts to bypass zones that you have already explored. It means that now the travel is empty of the gameplay. You have killed already the monsters or you are not anymore interested in their value. This is why the designers have added a way to “jump” a part of a game where there’s no gameplay.

You see? Timesinks = empty part of a game. In a single player game the gameplay is all. A “void” is of any use, so the timesinks (or downtimes) are ditched.

Another example could be about a PvP game. In DAoC the players are complaining because now they can port everywhere. This means that you’ll never be able to ambush someone else by patrolling a zone. Because people use the teleporters and don’t walk anymore on the roads.

You see in this case? The timesink related to a long travel, in a PvP context, becomes a STRONG gameplay element. Because the travel gives depth to the geography. You can be attached when moved from a place to another. The players could use strategies to attack a village as a diversion while they plan a bigger attack far somewhere else. IF the travel has a gameplay value the defenders won’t be able to port everywhere. And this, again, gives the travel a STRONG gameplay value.

In both examples, single player and mmorpg, a “downtime” is allowed or ditched based on the *gameplay*. When there’s gameplay involved the system remains. If there’s zero gameplay the system is ditched (teleporters in Diablo 2). This means, to go back at what you write, that these cases happen “in game”.

Instead, your “socialization requires downtimes” is *completely different*. You *deliberately* open empty spaces into the gameplay, so that the gameplay itelf is tossed away (“at the expense of fun”) to produce a space to encourage a different part. The other face of the medal: The socialization. In your model the medal have two faces. The game and the socialization. They exist on the same level and “socialization requires downtimes” just explains that to allow a face to exist you need to go against the other (a similar problem happen with PvP hindering the PvE and vice versa). The downtimes (in the gameplay) are required (compromise) to allow another part to exist (socialization).

The downtimes *happen* in the gameplay. But AREN’T for the gameplay. They are there because a designer needs them for an “out of game” purpose: the socialization.

From my point of view “in game” downtimes CANNOT be confused with those “out of game”. It’s way too obvious. Where the edge is blurred is when we go back To Jeff Freeman’s message about “pacing”. The downtimes regulating the “pace” always happen “in game”. Even when the side purpose is to encourage socialization. Why? Because the downtime doesn’t happen at the expense of the gameplay, but it’s coordinated with it. Pacing is an important part of the gameplay, not outside it.

This is why a type of travel that has no role in the gameplay and is in the game just to force the player to chat is a timesink/downtime “out of game”. In SWG this happens for the shuttles, this happens for the “wounds” and it even happens in the relationships between the professions. Because the interdependences are ALL “out of game” to excuse the two face of the medal together (gameplay / socialization). Like using the image designers to change the statistics of the characters.

It is your “socialization requires downtimes” to produce an “out of game” downtime. And just because you have a model where the socialization exists aside the gameplay and not within it. This is the whole center of the issue, the beginning of what I define “the error”.

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