Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Active vs. interactive gameplay

Cuppy lists possible reasons why traditional gamers dislike Farmville or similar Facebook games. Spinks hates Farmville. Scopique thinks that is gamers being territorial. Darren thinks Farmville is not a game, but Cuppy thinks it is. And a lot of other people chime in with the usual straw man arguments, dismissing Facebook games entirely just because some have shady business practices, or are spammy. I'd like to add to that heated discussion of Facebook games by having a look at the gameplay. My theory is that a good part of the Farmville hate can be explained by traditional gamers simply not "getting" the interactive gameplay of casual social games, because they are too used to more active gameplay.

I tried a bunch of different Facebook games: Farmville, Mafia Wars, The Fellowship, My Tribe, and D&D Tiny Adventures. And I found one common factor in all these games, and in various browser games, which is different from most traditional games: The need to wait. The pace of the game is mostly set by the game itself, not by the player. I call that interactive gameplay, because you can only interact with game elements when they are ready, you can't continuously act. Now having to wait can be quite frustrating for the traditional gamer, who is more used to active gameplay, where the game only halts when the player stops acting. But for social games the forced breaks are necessary to allow *other* players to interact with your game as well. If you weren't forced to wait for your harvest to grow, then how would other players have time to fertilize your fields?

MMORPGs had more interactive gameplay elements too, but they were phased out or reduced due to player complaining about "downtime". In Everquest a raid boss was an interactive gameplay element, there was only one per server, and guilds needed to wait for him to respawn and organize who had the right to try to kill him when among each other. In World of Warcraft raid bosses are active gameplay elements, the guild entering the raid instance *causes* the raid boss to appear, no wait involved. WoW still has interactive gameplay elements, where players interact with each other and the open world, but wait times for boats are a lot shorter than in EQ, and open world mob respawn times are so fast you barely notice if some other player just was there on the same quest. Interaction between players is strongly diminished. Most traditional gamers prefer more active gameplay, where they are in the driving seat.

But active gameplay has its disadvantages: As players set their own pace of advancement, some players spend inordinate amounts of time to get ahead of other players. That not only can be unhealthy, it also prevents players from actually playing with each other in a multi-player game. You can only play with other players of similar level, and only if they are online at the same time as you are. The more these multi-player games are becoming instanced, the more they feel like single-player games with a monthly fee, which ultimately isn't a promising business model.

Interactive gameplay, in which many players interact with each other not only directly, but also by interacting on the same game world area, over come a lot of these restrictions. I don't have to be online at the same time as you are to fertilize your Farmville farm, or to buff you for your next D&D Tiny Adventure. Forced breaks and wait times might feel frustrating to the traditional gamer, but might suit a casual gaming schedule just fine. And if progress is based on real time and the decisions players makes, and not just on played time, game progress reflects skill more than time spent.

And of course there is a future in games which combine the two gameplay elements better. I already joked about World of Farmcraft, but I do think that a MMORPG with more interactive world gameplay elements, where players interact more indirectly by each affecting the game world, could be hugely successful. But such interaction would have to be positive, repeated experiments showed that "sandbox" gameplay in which players are busy destroying each other's creations only appeal to a tiny number of players. Most people tend to object to their virtual keep being burned down by other players at 3 am while they are sleeping, but they sure wouldn't mind somebody fertilizing their fields at that time.

So I don't think we should see Farmville and similar games as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn more about gameplay elements which could work well in MMORPGs too. The latest generation of MMORPGs has often been criticized for being too instanced, not interactive enough, and here are models of how we could get back more interactivity into our games.
I do think that a MMORPG with more interactive world gameplay elements, where players interact more indirectly by each affecting the game world, could be hugely successful.

I think this could work well if done right. A lot of the economic gameplay in EVE involves indirect interactions. I've also been tinkering around recently with Outer Empires, an iPhone game that plays a bit like EVE.

The problem with games like Farmville and Mafia Wars is that there isn't really a whole lot of gameplay; they're like virtual slot machines. To make a social network game that appeals to core gamers you'd need to add more strategy and get rid of the microtransactions (at least the ones that allow you to buy your way to victory).
All this "gamer" stuff just makes it hard to have a non-partisan conversation about any of this stuff.

Just because someone's played games for years doesn't make them a "gamer" any more than having listened to music all their lives makes them a "music fan". I've played computer games of one sort or another since I saw my first Space Invaders machine in a pub in the late 1970s. I've played role-playing games since a friend of mine persuaded me to sit in on one of his sessions in the early 1980s.

But I'm not a gamer. Never have been. Never will be. Everyone taking sides over whether this or that development in gaming is "right" or "wrong" as if sects were about schism out of some arcane religion is just so much hot air.

If the stuff interests you, try it. If you enjoy it, play it. Otherwise leave it alone and forget about it. It's certainly of interest to academics and people whose interest in gaming and/or MMOs is as much analytical as participatory, but for players it's about as relevant as how the local rugby team is doing to someone who only follows football.
I find it odd that you seem to equate interactivity and wait times. Interactivity is, in fact, higher if you have lower wait times between actions and near-real-time interactivity is completely possible.

What you are observing is a deliberate feature of casual browser games. These games do not strive for real-time interaction at all but quite the opposite in fact to better suit their player base.

According to Chris Crawford, interaction is "a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak." (The Art of Interactive Design, p.5)

You may argue that something like Farmville is more interactive than WoW (which I would disagree with, but still) and you might even argue that this is caused by the additional wait times of the casual game (again not something i would agree with). That does not mean that wait times mean higher interactivity.
This property - you call it interactive - is not new. Play-by-Email games use it for many many years by now.

I do agree, though. The most successful MMO(RPG) will utilize all forms of gameplay:
-interactive (the way you define it)
- direct
- indirect (eg. auction house)
- casual
- hardcore
- real time strategy
- non-real time strategy
- fps
- tactics
- dices

These things and more need to be brought together into one credible game world.
I don't feel like developers throttling content makes a game "interactive". It just makes the players react to the play schedule dictated by the game. I guess it would make the 'play' of the game interactive, but not the 'playing' of the game.

I think good MMO's have to throttle content. WoW throttles content -- there are heroic dungeon locks, raid locks, cascading raid boss unlocks, rested XP, daily quests, weekly quests, and tradeskill cooldowns, among others I'm sure.

Group content itself, raiding especially, is a form of throttling -- how long would Arthas survive if players could kill him solo?

I've never tried any facebook games, though just from automatic 'help' messages I get from my friends, they seem pretty boring.
The active vs. interactive designations are also seen in strategy games, called real-time vs. turn-based.

The innovation in Facebook games is that turn-based movement can be stretched out over a long period of time. So you can take your daily turn in one big 15-minute chunk or 15 1-minute chunks. And spending more time offers greatly diminishing returns.

On a separate note, why is there so much hate from the MMO community against these ultra-casual Facebook games? I think it's not so different than the age-old hardcore vs. casual debates. First, there is the ego factor of some hardcore players feeling "better" than casuals. And second, there is the issue of developer resources. If everyone is playing an MMO, more companies are going to develop better MMO's, making your MMO experience better in the future. But if everyone is playing a Facebook game, then developers flock to that platform and draw resources away from MMO development. As a personal example, I stopped playing WoW last year, but have cycled through a few Facebook games to find other forms of entertainment that don't require big blocks of time for raiding.
My early D&D style gaming was PBM games that meant I had to wait for my turn to be proccessed and returned in the post. That kind of grounding lends itself nicely to D&D Tiny Adventures...

I disagree that throttling is part of good MMO design, but otherwise agree with you.

Throttling content in modern MMOs is a tool for money generation, little more. It can be a pacing tool for storytelling, but in MMO design, it's mostly just used as a hammer to pound out more sub time. (Or in something like a Final Fantasy game, to pad out the "play time" in an effort to make it seem like there's more content.)

Imposing a pace from on high in an MMO is odd, though; with so many players and so many differing interests, it makes more sense to me to design such that players can choose their own pace. In other words, what harm is it if players can solo the Lich King? (Note, ignore the loot. Soloists shouldn't expect the same sort of loot as groups; the risk/reward balance suggests that.)
Tobold, while I agree with you in principle, I think the mentality of the hardcore player is simply incompatible with the casual player. Hardcore players want to feel that they are "better" than other players because of the time they put in, while casual players specifically want to avoid a game that makes them feel inferior because they play less.

In Farmville, you can plant your crops and wait 8 hours for them to grow. The casual player is happy about this, because he cannot or is not willing to play for 8 hours straight. The hardcore player is frustrated that nothing he does during that 8 hours can speed up advancement, that he cannot do anything to be "better" at the game.
the terms you're looking for aren't "active" vs. "interactive". they're "synchronous" vs. "asynchronous".

I'm not sure "interactive" and "active" is the best choice of terminology; "asynchronous" and "synchronous" are probably a bit closer. I'm a firm believer in asynchronous interactions in MMOGs due to the time constraints of synchronous interactions, having to plan your time around the game, asynchronous interactions should still allow you to help out your friends/guild/other players without necessarily arranging your diaries.
Oh Tobolds, you're so reasonable. :D
I grew up on turn-based games; before the mouse was invented. I really wish there was something like Empire for Windows 7/Snow Leopard.

This, something that is important to me that I don't usually see discussed is "iterruptability" . it was inherent in turn-based games: If I take a 5 minute TV/RSS/bathroom/coffee break while at the WoW AH, it is not a big deal. Some inattention in EVE could cause a US$7,000 ship to be destroyed.

The irony is that EVE and skills-based games are in some ways more casual friendly than effort based games like WoW. It took 80+ hours of effort to be in Nax 10 days after Wotlk shipped [and a month before vehicles were debugged :-( ]. In EVE, especially as a second game, all you have to do is spend a few minutes a week keeping your skill queue updated.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I like Auction House PVP;

I would go with "realtime" or not real time. I.e., would an extra 100 ms or even 10 seconds response time make a difference? it would in a twitch game. Poker, Chess, Go, Bridge are all games as challenging as an video game, but an extra 10 seconds is not the deciding factor.
When would you actually say something is NOT a game? Can you give an example, made up or real?

Is it a game, or do you just call everything a game and so make the term meaningless in any practical terms?
Quoting Wikipedia: "A game is a structured activity, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas."

They have a photo of people playing Tug of War next to that article. Wouldn't you agree that the ruleset of Farmville is far more complex than the ruleset for Tug of War?

Note the term "structured activity", which delines the difference between games and toys.
There is a game akin to World of Farmcraft that I'm enjoying -ZombieFarm. You plant the usual fruits and veggies as well as different kinds of zombies. You can unlock mutations, for example you can choose to have a more nimble girl zombie planted near potatos and you can then get a potato mutation which adds defense. You then can take your zombie army and attack other farms. Or just chill decorating and harvesting.
I have played WoW for years, I'm pretty casual though, have only 1 level 80. However I try to do my best though I generally prefer to spend my time getting cute vanity pets, fun toy items, and some mounts. I recently joined Facebook and have found myself rather addicted to some of their games, and yes, Farmville is one of them. It gets updated often and there are fun holiday items to get.
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