MMO Theory Everywhere

They say that artists see inspiration everywhere. Now I’m not going to get into the “games as art” debate today, but I have noticed that I tend to see the world through my own MMO-colored glasses.

For example, I have recently been reading up quite a bit on web design in an effort to make my various web pages and blogs more usable. I found a really excellent source of great advice on web design in the book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug. (That’s it on the right; note that both links are affiliate links in case you feel like buying this book.)

In addition to some truly useful web design advice, I also found the philosophy to be very applicable to MMOs. Paraphrased: If you want people to play your game, don’t make them think too hard about how to do it — just let them do it!

And check out this direct quote from a section called “The myth of the Average User” — tell me if this doesn’t set off MMO design bells for you:

The more you watch users carefully and listen to them articulate their intentions, motivations, and thought processes, the more you realize that their individual reactions to Web pages are based on so many variables that attempts to describe users in terms of one-dimensional likes and dislikes and futile and counter-productive. Good design, on the other hand, takes this complexity into account.

Another example: I read Seth Godin’s blog. Seth is a marketer; he tend to express his knowledge through marketing. But what he has to say goes well beyond marketing — or perhaps it’s easier to say that it also addresses the components of our lives that are fundamentally marketing even when we don’t think of them that way. At any rate, I often find his posts help illuminate aspects of MMO design for me. Check out his post on Mean vs. Median in which he says (slightly snipped for clarity):

Consider a website that reports a mean (average) of 2.1 pages per visitor.
Then realize that the median is 9…
That’s because there’s a large number of people visiting 1 page and a large number visiting 10 or 20.
Once you see that, you will completely change your understanding of what’s happening and what you need to do to change it.

You’ll find the same behavior among McDonald’s customers. The typical (mean) American eats a meal at McDonald’s once every two weeks. But I never go and some people eat there twice a day. That’s a lot more useful to know.

Put these very disparate bits of inspiration together and what do you have? That there is no single average player in your game, and that reducing complex behavior down to a single number to describe that non-existent average player is meaningless.

But more than that, by assembling bits of wisdom from other fields and applying it to your own, you are building a deeper, multi-faceted toolbox to understand your audience. Or so I like to tell myself as I obsessively filter everything I read through my MMO-colored glasses …

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6 Responses to MMO Theory Everywhere

  1. Ryan says:

    Steve Krug’s book is a gem, I love the fact that even the way the book is written and layed out is accessble and highly user friendly.

    Personally I couldn’t agree with you more. I work in web design and often find it an uphill battle to explain that even within a single marketing demographic you will see multiple user types and multiple user behaviours. We’ve had some headway with doing ethnographic based persona development workshops where we invite the stakeholders, we often generate 10+ personas and the stakeholders see how difficult it is to narrow that field down :)

    The true turning point though is when we can get them into our usability lab to watch (and this is key) ‘more than one’ usability session. When they actually see 2 users who fit their demographic profile behaving completely differently as they interact with the prototype site it suddenly becomes very real for them. After that they are a bit more reasonable when it comes to our suggestions and site designs :)

    I know that user testing is become more prevalent in the gaming world but I wonder how often the decision makers, producers, developers etc sit in on these sessions and see how actual users ‘use’ the game. Would this have an impact on the overall game design, or is it too late by this stage for this kind of insight to have an impact?

  2. Babs says:

    “Put these very disparate bits of inspiration together and what do you have? That there is no single average player in your game, and that reducing complex behavior down to a single number to describe that non-existent average player is meaningless.”

    Agreed. And yet we do it so often it’s rote at this point, isn’t it? Because we’re constantly seeking that single quality that has universal appeal. One game to rule them all.

    But imagine if an MMO spent parallel amounts of time in both tool-building =and= analyzing Venn diagrams of their target audience. They’d never launch =) Which is not to say they shouldn’t be looking for the overlap between person 1 and person 2, it’s just that they end up with the same 50% chance to fail by thoughtful analysis as by having the wrong gut feeling about features. For amount of effort required, it’s cheaper to go with one’s gut.

  3. Sandra says:

    Ryan: Generating user personas sounds fascinating. I’d love to hear more about how you go about that.

    In my experience, however, user testing outside of the obligatory beta has actually become less prevalent for MMO games. I know AC1 did some basic user testing, largely at Microsoft’s urging — I had the videotapes stored under my desk for several years, even though I wasn’t around to see the original sessions. But I’m not aware of many games since then that have made the effort.

    But even if user testing is done relatively late, I think it can really help target the polish in a very useful way. And polish — what I might call getting out of the player’s way — is way more important than we give it credit for even today. For instance, watching Eric play through the newbie area of Greater Faydark in EQII was an education in itself. *grin* That sort of thing can really help smooth out unclear directions, confusing terrain, misplace fight difficulty — all the little bits that can drive players away in a heartbeat.

    Babs: “But imagine if an MMO spent parallel amounts of time in both tool-building =and= analyzing Venn diagrams of their target audience. They’d never launch” — oh, I disagree. Considering how absolutely little time most games put into tool-building, we’d only need a day or two of thinking about the target audience to reach parity! *grin*

    Unfortunately I think the odds of an MMO being “successful” are currently way below 50%. I have to believe that there’s something we can do to improve the situation. I will concede, however, that given the current megahit-focused investment model, it probably is easier and no less predictive to go with our gut.

  4. Babs says:

    Going for the megahit is dangerous. It’s like being a boy band from the 80′s and 90′s. Once your audience has moved on, you pretty much have to marry a troubled pop icon to get your picture in People Magazine.

    I must be tired. I tried for analogy and got lethargy instead =/

  5. Sandra says:

    Exactly why I’d like to see us develop more mature ways of designing and developing MMO games — who wants to marry a troubled pop icon these days? :>

  6. Babs says:

    What would you consider a more mature way?