Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 21, 2009
 
Why do we play? - Summary

I'm wrapping up my why do we play series of posts here with a short summary. After an introduction of the subject, I covered a range of possible factors of why we play MMORPGs so much longer than single-player games: Storytelling, gameplay, challenge, character development, rewards, social interactions, and finally learning.

What I think evolved from these posts and the various comments is that the reasons why we play MMORPGs are very different from the reasons why we play single-player games. Factors that are very strong in choosing a single-player game, like whether it tells a good story, or whether it has the right level of challenge, or whether the gameplay is just fun, are much weaker when choosing a MMORPG. Social interactions are much more important, but not necessarily direct social interactions. The indirect social interaction of just sharing a virtual world with other players appears to make character development and rewards much more powerful motivational factors than if similar character development and rewards were available in a single-player game.

There are different theories for that effect: One is that the rewards are treasured more in a multi-player environment, because the rewards serve as status symbols. Another is that how far you can develop your character, and equip him with rewards, is part of an indirect competition with other players. The fact that character development and rewards do not depend 100% on the player's skill, but can all be achieved with sheer determination and effort, is not a disadvantage, just the opposite: Being able to achieve everything if you just put enough effort into it is a definitive plus for motivation.

For the developers of MMORPGs, the motivational factors have consequences on how to produce better games. Of course improving storytelling and gameplay are always important. But if player behavior is mostly influenced by rewards and the social effects of these rewards, it is important to well balance these rewards to encourage social cohesion and to make sure that all areas of gameplay are equally desirable. By controlling what sort of activity gives what sort of rewards, developers engage in some sort of social engineering, whether they want to or not, with potentially catastrophic consequences if this is done badly.

There is no single answer to the question of why do we play, and the same answer might be true or false to different degrees to different people. The matter is further complicated by the observation that what players say they want on game forums and in surveys does not always correspond to what they really do in the virtual world of the game. The sometimes excessive chase after rewards, and conflicts arrising from a group effort resulting in group members not all being equally rewarded, is very visible inside the game, while players tend to downplay greed and jealousy as motivational factor when asked about it in a survey. Overall it appears that MMORPGs provide their players with a sensation of success of some sort, and that it is this which is one of the strongest reason of why we play.
Comments:
An interesting series, Tobold. As a developer, it's always interesting to see what someone else thinks about topics like this.

Thanks for posting it. Hope to see more insightful posts like these in the future.
 

The indirect social interaction of just sharing a virtual world with other players appears to make character development and rewards much more powerful motivational factors than if similar character development and rewards were available in a single-player game.


To phrase it more clearly:
A persistent world makes things matter more, just because it is persistent. I am not certain that it's just the other players. It's also the feeling that the world exists even if I am not logged in.

This is what keeps me from playing fallout and similar games for more than a few weeks.. whatever I do, I become too powerful and things just don't seem, to matter as much.
 
There is no single answer to the question of why do we play

I think the single answer is the most simple answer: Because we have FUN.

Of course, our individual definitions of FUN can vary dramatically and that's where your insight is valuable. One player might put more emphasis on storytelling and character development while another is more focused on challenge and rewards.

Even the same individual can go through mood swings where his tastes on a given afternoon alter his perception of what makes a game FUN.

Obviously, the very best games with the longest staying power (like WoW) have a pretty good mixture of all of the elements you describe.

I'm reminded of your earlier blog entry about reviews. When players "review" a game and state an opinion, what they are really doing is attempting to measure the FUN. The problem is that you and I might not be using the same measuring stick for FUN.

Perhaps a BETTER way to review would be to score each of your "Why do we play?" categories. After all, if the sum answer of all these individual areas comprise our reason for playing, what better way to measure a game than by scoring the basic parts.
 
Nice summary post. I agree that the social factors are more important than people often think.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the upcoming Bioware game, since they seem to be taking a single-player-game storytelling approach. For example, will people take the time to listen to the dialogues (as they would in a single-player game), or will they zip through them just to get to the rewards?
 
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