Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
 
Why do we play? - Introduction

Over the coming weeks I'm planning to write a series of blog posts exploring various aspects and possible answers to the question of why we play MMORPGs, or rather why we play them for so much longer than single-player games. Single-player games that last for a hundred hours are few and far between, but our favorite MMORPGs are often played for thousands of hours. But then there are other MMORPGs that we give up on after having played the open beta for a few hours, or during the free month that came with the box when we bought it. Why do we play one game, but not another, similar game?

This is something I've been thinking about for quite some time now, but never managed to comprehensively cover in a single post. So finally I decided to split up the discussion into various aspects, different elements of motivation that might make us play. For example storytelling, character development, challenge, social interaction, "polish", or achievements. So every post of the series is going to be titled "Why do we play?", followed by the element I'm covering in that particular part. I'll use examples from various existing and announced games to illustrate my points, but don't be surprised if a majority of the examples is from World of Warcraft: It simply is the best point of reference, best known both by myself and most of my readers.

I don't think we'll come up with a final answer to the question, because obviously there is a lot of personal variation. But I do think there are some general trends. And seeing how many games were published in the last 5 years which either failed completely or at least failed to meet expectations, I don't have much confidence that the game developers have the answer to the question of what motivates people to play. If by looking at various aspects, and hopefully good feedback and discussion from you, we can illuminate a bit what is likely to work and what isn't, I think we can produce something worthwhile and interesting.
Comments:
Before you spend a lot of time on this, please spend some time reading what others have said over the past 30 years about why people play RPGs--tabletop and CRPGs alike. Over the past few months I've run into at least five central articles on this (Edwards' models, both GNS and his later model, are the first that come to mind). It seems like every blogger and his brother have posts about this and they all seem to circle the same drain, few treading new or interesting ground. I don't doubt that you have a unique perspective, I'd just prefer that you referenced the big stuff and got out what you have to say without rehashing the same stuff over again.

In short: This is a very popular topic and I'd rather not read the same thing for the 30th time. That said, I look forward to seeing what you have to add to the discussion.
 
Time investment itself should also be brought up. I realize that time played in WoW is sort of the whole point of the series, but it is a category that deserves discussion in its own right.

There are other MMOs that might have become a lot bigger if WoW itself didn't dominate the market, with literally millions of MMO players not wanting to leave WoW for something new when they had so much time previously invested in WoW and thier characters.

Obviously you haven't started the discussion of individual topics yet, but the fact that many people have thousands of hours already invested is definitely a reason why I and many other people still play WoW. I tried out Warhammer and liked it, but most of the people who I play WoW with refused to start playing another MMO, or a different MMO...and eventually I let my sub die and went back to WoW.

The time investment already made, by itself, is a reason I believe a lot of people continue playing WoW.

Its easy to form the belief that after thousands of hours, it almost doesn't make sense to stop playing, else those thousand hours basically become wasted time.
 
Before you spend a lot of time on this, please spend some time reading what others have said over the past 30 years about why people play RPGs--tabletop and CRPGs alike. Over the past few months I've run into at least five central articles on this (Edwards' models, both GNS and his later model, are the first that come to mind). It seems like every blogger and his brother have posts about this and they all seem to circle the same drain, few treading new or interesting ground.

I'd argue that the more I specifically prepare and read about what others said about the subject, the more likely I would be to regurgitate old stuff. I'm consciously *staying away* from boring old schemes like the Bartle classification of player motivations. As I said, I believe the existence of so many bad games proves that there is no accepted good model of what motivates players.

But of course, feel free to link to anything you consider relevant in the respective comment sections.
 
I recently restarted a level 1 mage in WoW. After a break of almost 18 months I just wanted to have a long engagement in a game once again.

I had lost almost all my social contacts with other WoW players over the time and started with a new account - no twinking.

At first it was quite strange - it was fun to play - but not to the same extend that I remembered it to be. After a week, however, I really started to enjoy it once again and asked myself: What do I enjoy?

1) The social contacts were superficial at best.
2) The random groups after lvl 50 were often really terrible.

Why do I like it, though?
My answer: The main motivator was the skill tree. I wanted to explore it.
- It was not the story. While the athmosphere of lvl 1-40 is really good, after that it starts to become worse and is almost at 0 with TBC. WotLK recovers a little bit, but it all seems 'artificial', like constructed for me.

Now I really love BGs and hate arena, so I were always part of the BG queues and the 'searching for group channel' of all levels.

I really enjoyed to be able to find gear in solo play and dungeon runs and use it in the BGs.

I do remember that the inability to do that, was what stole a major amount of fun at the time of the introduction of resilence.

What was quite important was the possibility to switch between 3 to 5 different talent speccs that drastically changed the way my character was played after lvl 40.

Since I don't really have the time to raid, I will probably continue to make BGs. And I will once again hate that I cannot gain any gear for BGs by doing dungeon runs.
 
I too have speculated on this topic.

My theory is that the REAL modern world is actually nothing like what we have evolved to live in (eg. we are trapped in where we can go and what we can own).

I think MMOs let us live out our true destiny (esp. as MMOs create a vaster virtual world that single player games).
 
Nick Yee has done some empirical work in this area. His model is different from Richard Bartle's, though, so there's certainly room for disagreement.

Why do we play one game, but not another, similar game?

Leaving aside the Bartle types, I've noticed a huge bandwagon effect. People like to play games that their friends are playing, or even just games that seem like "the place to be." Obviously game design is important too, but without looking at social effects it's hard to explain the difference between the number of people playing WoW and the number playing nearly-identical games like LotRO.
 
Just to add to what Tolthir mentioned, Nick Yee's emperical work is very high quality research in this area and he's been published a number of times on play motivations.

I think theres an odd cross over between the player motivations and the customer here as well which I've mused on in my own blog a while back. I see player motivations as a subset of customer archetypes, i.e. first, what sort of customer are you, and then, what sort of player are you, though of course, the two are intrinsically linked.

http://metaresearchboi.blogspot.com/2009/04/my-relationship-with-my-game.html

Interestingly many attempts to define a "player archetype" or create a "player model" which pigeonholes a person seem to forget the tranactional ongoing nature of the customer experience. With the question "what sort of customer are you?" often overlooked.
 
Yesterday was the start of a free "welcome back week" for Lotro Europe.

I have no intention of getting back into an mmo at present. I am enjoying single player games and I love not being tied to any one game for hours and hours on end.

However I logged in an started playing and quickly found myself getting sucked back in. ITS NOT THE SOCIAL ELEMENT I am playing an unguilded alt and have not even spoken to my old guild. For some bizarre reason I found myself eager to get back to the keyboard to fulfill some mindless kill ten wargs quest.

What is that all about? I don't even know myself.
 
The difficulty here is the isolation of variables. Even if there are elements to an MMO that you don't like, if there are other elements that you do like, they can outweigh the one you don't and you continue to play the game.

One reason I think the developers get it wrong sometimes is that they listen to feedback too much. People will tell you they want one thing (or a very vocal majority will) when in fact that's not what they want at all.

But numbers don't lie. We speak with our time and money in the games we play.
 
I think one ought to distinguish between two questions: why do we start playing? and, why do we keep playing?

While I'm sure everyone has their own answer to both questions, I think the answers to the second would cluster around some notion of the community. Both the "local" community of one's regular play group, guild, kinship, etc.; and the larger community of people playing the game, create an environment in which players can distinguish themselves and pursue goals shared by many others. Why keep playing? Because one's friends and so many others are playing, and the game constantly reflects that critical mass of people who continue playing.
 
Whoa, asking why we play is like asking why people watch movies. You'll get all kinds of answers and all kinds of attempts to find the find why one recipe is better than another. Really, it's very personal. Any objective measure is only an aggregate of subjective measures!

My list is:
1. Sense of accomplishment (persistent character progression is strongly linked to this)
2. Sense of adventure

My other interests are similarly motivated. I think why gaming has such a strong pull is that the rewards for these motivations are almost immediate, even if only in a virtual setting.
 
With respect to Evizaer, Tolthir and Metaresearchboi I think we should adjust our expectations to suit the context.

We come here for opinion, not research. If Tobold feels he plays because of X but the research proves X is a insignificant factor it doesn't make his insights insignificant, they're just personal.

In other words, give the man a break!
 
I play for two main reasons:

1. Collecting and Inventory Management

2. Virtual Tourism

Prior to playing MMOs my main leisure activities, other than reading and watching t.v. were travelling to places, looking at them, hoing round their flea-markets and junk shops and buying stuff, then bringing it home and looking at/sorting it.

Discovering EQ in 1999 allowed me to do the same thing, but without having to drive for hours, fill my house up with stuff I had no room for and spend waaaay more than the cost of a sub.

All the monster-bashing, roleplaying, storylines, etc etc is just the icing on the cake.
 
It might also be interesting to look at "why do people *not* play these games?" and "what makes people *stop* playing these games?"
 
Tolthir>Nick Yee has done some empirical work in this area. His model is different from Richard Bartle's, though, so there's certainly room for disagreement.

OK, two points here.

Firstly, Nick Yee does not have a model. He has data. A model requires some kind of structure and a predictive ability. Nick gives you a set of overlapping categorisations.

Secondly, Nick's data does largely support my (8-types) model. It could support others, too, of course.

My model is aimed at designers. Nick's data is provided for social scientists. They address different constituencies. Anyone who is planning on creating a new model would need to decide who is going to use that model and why. For example, a model for use by players is not necessarily going to say anything useful to designers.

This isn't to say that I don't think there are better models out there waiting to be discovered; indeed, I yearn for the day when my player types model is superseded, because then we'll get better MMOs. I'm just saying that for it to count as a model it has to be structured, framed by context, reasonably complete, self-consistent and (preferably) dynamic.

Richard
 
Note that I DON'T try to create a new model. I just have a bunch of thoughts to the subject of why people say, which might or might not fit into existing models, and I'm throwing them out for discussion. If I split up the discussion into several elements it is just because each single element already causes me to write a wall of text, and covering all at once is impossible.
 
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