Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 07, 2011
The unfamiliar valley

In robotics and 3D animations there is a hypothesis called the uncanny valley, which states that people accept robots or 3D avatars that either look exactly like humans, or that are very different from humans, but that they are revulsed by them if they are "almost human". I was wondering whether a similar "unfamiliar" valley exists for MMORPGs, and in how far that valley will hurt Rift.

My theory starts with a personal observation: I do consider Rift to be a perfectly good game, but I feel no desire whatsoever to buy it. I did buy Cataclysm, because it is exactly like World of Warcraft, and I will most probably buy Star Wars: The Old Republic, because it is sufficiently different from World of Warcraft. But for Rift I would have to relearn a lot of stuff, e.g. how the different classes and stats work, and I would have to level up new characters, find a new guild, make new friends, all to finally end up doing pretty much the same as I'm currently doing in World of Warcraft.

Now that could be just me, but I'm wondering if that feeling isn't more common, in view of comments I received on my previous Rift post. Cataclysm famously sold millions of copies in the first 24 hours, indicating people do want "more of the same". But an expansion offers that "more of the same" bundled with familiarity. Cataclysm changed a lot, but not so much that players are now unfamiliar with the new World of Warcraft. A lot of the knowledge of the game they have is still valid, and in spite of the gear reset they still have access to a lot of the committment they invested in World of Warcraft, be that in the form of character development, or in the form of social contacts.

If you switch to a different game, you will be unfamiliar with many things. You might be able to apply some of the knowledge from previous games (e.g. a mage in Rift still pulls mobs from maximum distance of his fireball spell, just like he'd do in WoW), and you might bring a part of your friends or guild over to the new game. But there are certainly things that you will have to learn, because the new game is somewhat different, and your circle of social contacts will be different in the new game as well. You might be willing to accept that unfamiliarity, if in exchange you get a sufficiently different game experience. But are people willing to accept the unfamiliarity just for minor variations of the game experience? Or is there an unfamiliar valley between "more of the same" and "something completely different"?
I am a self confessed MMO tourist and I enjoy playing new MMOs as they come out, if they are the genre I enjoy. Learning new skills, new tactics and most importantly exploring a new world is a big part of the fun for me. Rift is more of the same in the same genre as WoW, ROM, Aion and Warhammer, yes, but it also is a new world with new skills, new friends to make and new adventures to have. What is not to like about that? Personally I do not raid in WoW, I cannot afford the time or the bandwidth. This means that I am "gear capped" to heroic gains. I play a lot of alts to experience new skills and new tactics. I love extending this "newness" experience to new MMOs. The fact that Rift has familiar structures makes it that much more enticing to me. I do have my doubts that it will retain even half of its initial accounts as people flock back to the familiar. I doubt I will be playing it past the release of the next new MMO such as SWTOR or GW2 but it will be fun until then.
It would depend on the player on what they're looking for in a game. WoW to me seems to be a safe choice for most people. It's established, it's polished, it's working, it's good. You can't go wrong with WoW. Those who are looking for even better should try other things outside WoW though. Unfortunately, most people are happy with their safe comfort zone. Nothing wrong with that, just saying that it might prevent them from experiencing better stuff (or worse!).
I think you are right and I'd add a personal point: I feel animosity when thinking about MMO designers cloning WoW. Maybe it's just me and maybe it can be argued that it is irrational, but it is real.

I don't blame Blizzard to making addons for WoW, but I do blame other companies for cloning it instead of advancing MMOs.
A game has to be sufficiently different than [insert favorite MMO] to justify discarding [X] time played. If the MMO is to similar it would feel like relearning everything I already had on [insert favorite MMO].

So Star Wars is so much different than WoW for me to try that game. Rift looks so similar that I'm not going to waste 5 years of investment in Warcraft to experience something so similar.
Interesting variation of the uncanny valley theory..As boerewors describes i also like the 'new(ish) ness' and learning experience of new mmos and games in general, even if they use very familiar mechanics. Also i dont consider time spent in games an investment: that would imply you expect a return some day. A mindset that can undermine the reason you are playing games, as you described in an earlier post.
"I would have to relearn a lot of stuff, e.g. how the different classes and stats work, and I would have to level up new characters, find a new guild, make new friends"

That's the attraction.

A huge proportion of my enjoyment in MMOs comes from learning new systems and mechanics. The closer I come to understanding them, the more my interest and involvement diminishes.

I can maintain this for quite a while by changing classes, races, areas, roles but learning to play a whole new game adds a level of involvement and interest that is unmatchable.
I see it more as an "uncanny mountain" between the frustration and difficulty of starting a new MMO, versus the familiarity and comfort of one that you have been playing for years.

The "sweet spot" in this case is the sense that you are heading up the mountain, sufficiently far along that you know what you are doing, but there's still lots to learn and the adventure of the looming peaks beckon.

Too far down the mountain, you're still getting blisters, getting eaten by mosquitoes, and have little sense of what's to come other than the same dull path.

And after summiting peak after peak of the same mountain range, you begin again to get a sense that it's just the same dull path.
LOL, I have been using "uncanny valley" to describe my experiences with various MMOs for a while on Twitter, not sure about my blog. I believe you are entirely correct. An MMORPG too similar to my favorite and it won't be worth adapting to the little differences.
I think you are definitely on to something.

I also have no interest in Rift despite thinking it will be a good game. I've sampled (for some up to as much as a year) other MMOs with varying degrees of success -- LOTRO, AoC, Champions Online, EQ2 -- but I am now back in WoW.

And while I absolutely loved parts of EQ2 and LOTRO, I don't have that instinctive feel for it like I do with WoW. The game has changed dramatically from when I started playing (launch), but it's still easier for me to come back to it than start over in a new game. It's confounding, really -- I would love to make something else my main game. But switching to something else can be odd -- learning new keybindings for menu options, for example, always throws me off in a new game.

But I think the biggest obstacle is the time investment. Will someone who has devoted hours and hours be willing to abandon that and jump to another game that may be familiar? I have not successfully gotten my boyfriend to try another game with me yet, even when he is completely bored with WoW, because he doesn't want to "start all over again." With WoW's expansions, you can start fresh after leaving, but you don't have to start from the beginning. I think it does make a huge difference.
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