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After spending a bit of time playing World of Warcraft together a few years back, colleague Gordon Calleja and I had a discussion by phone about how we felt about it. We were impressed with the technological achievement and visual style, certainly, but we were perplexed as to why we weren’t getting that spark, that feeling of really falling in love with a game (often characterized by fiending to get back in immediately after logging off, just like wanting to call your best friend the minute they’ve walked out the door). Our consensus was that though the game is stunningly beautiful, there was something about the gameplay that wasn’t really doing it for us. As Gordon said, it ‘felt like too much of a grind’. I struggled with this feeling in other online role-playing games as well, but felt like something was wrong with me.

As I imagined continuing to play, I visualized more errand running (and more running, followed by more running!), more monster whacking, some beautiful locales, but nothing that really seemed spontaneously delightful or unexpected. I thought, maybe I’m a bit too jaded? Am I seeking some kind of game-playing nirvana that doesn’t really exist? Or maybe I just need to get to higher levels to really start enjoying myself?The need to get to higher levels might be the crux of it. Gordon and I have decided that we have Busy Person Syndrome: These games with grind might be fine for college students with a lot of time on their hands, but I’m a busy mother working on myriad projects, keeping house, cooking meals, and trying to exercise occasionally. When I play, I want maximum fun in minimum time. That means my psychological responses had better be manipulated exactly right, otherwise I’m just not going to play, given all the other options for fun that I have (and given how much work I do in real life, I don’t want games to feel like work).

The industry calls people like me ‘casual gamers’. But I don’t really agree with that term. Casual players are people who play Solitaire or Minesweeper because they can’t be bothered to find anything better. No, I’m a person who really enjoys great games, but unlike BC (before children), doesn’t have much time to play. As such, any game I’m going to play instead of doing more important things had better be good.

So what is it that works then? What keeps me coming back? Well, as a socializer/explorer type on Bartle’s virtual world player scale, it’s gameplay possibilities that offer lots of opportunity for exploration or discovery, plus mechanisms that foster social interactions. It also has to allow for all this from the get-go, or at least within a conceivably achievable amount of time. The 15-20 hours per week I spend playing (multiple games and multiple characters in each game) is a lot of time in my estimation… if I need to play 40+ to achieve the pay-off then it’s not working. (Games Researcher Nick Yee has some interesting thoughts on motivation and time spent, by the way).

Here are the things that I think give great online games their magic:

Player Searching/Matching:

(This can be as simple as the ‘looking for team’ flag that could be set in City of Heroes, through to the much more complex player matching system in Star Wars: Galaxies (great idea, but rarely used, in my opinion, because of usability issues). Automated solutions eliminate the hassle and embarrassment of finding people to play with. I announce my availability, people invite me to their team. Simple. I can play with them for a while to see how we gel, if we don’t then I can leave. If I like them I can take note and play with them again later. It affords a great deal more flexibility and injects my gameplay with that element of randomness that keeps things interesting. Cross-character ‘universal’ chat is also super helpful, because it sucks to lose a dear player friend just because they have migrated to another character or shard.

Group Intradependence:

How to Level With Friends in Guild Wars 2

Different class abilities should be such that players can take on distinctly different roles, or combinations of roles. I might play a healer or tank, but that doesn’t mean I want to heal or tank exclusively – other abilities can be weaker, certainly, but not useless. It’s nice to do different things depending on the group’s composition. And it’s really nice when different classes have distinctly different skill sets that require entirely different group strategies depending on who’s in the group. Figuring out that balance keeps things really interesting.
(on a similar note: City of Heroes gets more kudos for its sidekicking/exemplaring system that allows players of different levels to group)

Allow Spontaneity:

Darkfall Unholy Wars PvP [1080p]

The trends towards kill locking and instancing have been put in place by game designers to prevent problems like kill stealing and camping. But in some instances, they’ve thrown the baby out with bathwater, preventing spontaneous social interactions and bonding that can result when strangers come to one’s assistance.

Discovery:

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Review

This isn’t really what Bartle means by exploration, but I’ll lump it into that category anyway… it’s not just about game physics, a new town or area to visit, or new monsters to kill, though those things are definitely interesting. I’d say it’s more about new capabilities or options that significantly change my experience of gameplay. Maybe it’s a new mode of travel, or an ability that allows me to interact with other players or groups differently. Pets and shapeshifting are great examples of this in World of Warcraft. The ability to respec (re-roll) my characters occasionally also falls into this category. (Nick Yee might call this ‘immersion’, but that doesn’t seem quite right either…)

Identity-play:

Guild Wars 2 – Character Creation (All Races)

This is very much related to the above item, but also includes opportunities to change my appearance or other characteristics that affect the way other players view me. Having the ability to differentiate my characters from others is a very important aspect of the creative part of gameplay. I also want to be able to choose my abilities and have a unique set — different, if only subtly, from those of every other member of my class. I need something to differentiate myself! Anything!

The Secret World, though I didn’t love it in general, had a really fun class system that allowed the player to accumulate a range of skills which could be stacked and restacked to create new combinations of integrated abilities. I also loved the factions, but it turns out that I found the real world setting a bit too much like real life, and the quests (find 12 missing people by finding their addresses and going to them) too much like work.

The Secret World – Complete Skill Wheel and UI Preview Video

Flow:

Star Trek Online Gameplay – First Look HD

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly has dubbed the ‘psychology of optimal experience’ with the term ‘flow’. It’s one of those words (like love) that’s hard to describe to other people, but it’s obvious what it is when one’s in the midst of it. A lot of flow is about pacing and difficulty, though… in the case of a lot of MMORPGs, flow can be interrupted by activities that are too repetitious or easy — or too hard, for that matter.

Humor:

Guild Wars 2 – Funny Moments

I just saw a conversation the other day bemoaning the lack of humor in games and realized that’s part of what draws me to online games, though they are not intrinsically humorous (Kingdom of Loathing being the exception!). I find humor and delight in groups. In fact, I’m starting to think I should do a study about how often LOL, LMAO or ROFL shows up in a chat log. People are funny… and people in groups that really work are able to interact in endlessly entertaining ways.

New Stories or Universes

Age Of Wushu – First Look

Frankly, the epic quests set in Tolkien-inspired fantasy universes have gotten really boring to me. Give me sci fi, superheroes, or asian animism, anything but elves and trolls. My recent article on Imagineering the Xbox One will give you some ideas about what I mean.

Personal Agency and Dynamic Content:

Guild Wars 2 Review – IGN Review

This was Gordon’s point. Players want to see the effect they’ve had on the worlds they play in. If too many of a particular species has been whacked by all the newbie gamers that flooded in after Christmas, maybe they should go extinct. It takes a bit of work, but updating the games to reflect what’s happening in the game world (or in RL) is a very effective tool for stickiness. Lots of players flooded back into City of Heroes at Halloween to experience the well-publicised Halloween activities. And Guild Wars 2 and the Secret World have both recently played with this idea. As server hardware gets ever more powerful, I think the ability to store player interaction state will become even more ubiquitous.
And if a game offers crafting, it’s really dull if everyone makes the exact same items. Customization is one of the best player differentiators, both in terms of how they look and live, but also in terms of what they can provide to other players. Second Life (and to a large extent, Star Wars: Galaxies also was) is particularly great in this regard. The powerful scripting language means that residents really are co-producers of this world, and one’s individual contribution can be easily seen. Perhaps this isn’t everyone’s bag, but certainly we all like knowing that we’ve had an impact.

Now back to my larger point…

I’ve been playing games for about 30 years and can remember many a weekend spent enamored of a new game. I remember not being able to sleep at night for all the puzzles and possible solutions swarming around in my head. And when I did sleep? My dreams were full of determined little sprites, beckoning me back to play with them again. Was it just some sort of novelty effect? Or do I now require instant gratification? And if so, why do I play at all?
These questions confound me because I experience that feeling of discovery and delight more rarely these days, even with games that are deemed to be really, amazingly great.

I buy them, play them for a while, but am often left with an empty, sinking feeling that I’ve just wasted more money on a game that while great for many people, I won’t really play. I suspect that I’ve played so many games that I’m really tired or more of what feels like the same old stuff in a prettier, slicker and much bigger package… but really, I just want the quality. The delight of things that are thoughtful, clever and elegant. The fun of getting to know people online and feeling like I’m part of a team…

What online games do you all play, and what do you love about them?

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