Learning Is Fun …
Have you read Raph Koster’s book, Theory of Fun for Game Design? It’s one of those books that people are always telling game designers to read. But I hate it.
I hate Raph Koster’s book because it teaches such a shallow and non-universal lesson: that the core of fun is learning, and that a good game is one that teaches you everything it has to teach you before you get bored. This is a convenient definition for a lot of game designers, because it fits them. They like games that they constantly learn from. It’s almost like some sort of pre-requisite for being a game designer.
There are also apparently studies that show that learning new things releases endorphins in the brain, and I have no doubt this is true. So does eating chocolate, and acting out violence, and reacting to outside stimuli that you’ve come to associate with rewards, and sex, and… on and on.
To suggest that learning alone is the core of fun is a really … well, arrogant … thing to do. It reeks of the forced-grouping hypothesis that held sway over the industry for half a decade — made popular by designers who got into the industry after playing lots of EverQuest. Maybe you remember it: “MMO’s are all about interacting with other people. That’s what makes them different than single-player games! So we need to force people to group, even if they say they don’t want to, because they just don’t know what they’re missing.”
It’s crap. These bogus theories of motivation are a dime a dozen because:
- Designers tend to create hypotheses that allow them to create games they like to play. (Duh!)
- Designers aren’t typically scientifically minded. It’s not our strong suit. Like stone-age philosophers, we simply correlate what we see with the most obvious possible explanation. This is how superstitions get started, too: the mind loves to correlate things at the drop of a pin, even if they shouldn’t be correlated.
You can probably tell that this pushes my buttons. It’s fine for Raph to hypothesize, but the real problem is that his thin little treatise is used by a lot of other designers, many of whom should really know better, as a way to rationalize their personal style of game development. Entire systems of game design are now based around the idea that “learning is why games are fun”.
It’s not a bad model for making certain types of games. Miyamoto’s incredibly fun action games fit this model well … up to a point. But learning is hardly the only way to have fun with games.
… But Other Stuff is Fun Too
The thing is, for most professional game designers, learning really is the most fun part of a game. We tend to instantly strip away the context, the art, the story, and indulge in the mechanics. “Ooh, here’s something new! This is great!” We subconsciously assume that other people are like us. (“I’m sooooo bored of traditional MMO mechanics, and everybody else is too!” Not so. You are projecting, wishing it to be true.)
But this interest in mechanics and learning is hardly universal — even for designers. What struck me when reading the “learning = fun” theory is how bad it is at explaining my MMO behavior. For months after I stopped regularly playing EverQuest 1, I kept logging in occasionally just to fish. I wasn’t learning crap, and I didn’t even care what I caught or what my skill was. I was immersed in a fantasy world and I enjoyed the simple escapism provided by watching the virtual sun set.
Escapism is fun for me sometimes, but so is the feeling of being a part of a well-oiled team. And sometimes I like to just beat the snot out of things weaker than me. And so is … huh, I guess I have a lot of reasons for playing MMOs. So do you.
So how do we unify all these motivations into a theory of fun? We don’t. That’s stupid. As H. L. Mencken once wrote, “Complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.” Just because you can unify every source of fun into one simple theory doesn’t mean it has any hope of being right. Our brains are chaotic, confusing, complex creations. A lot of different things trigger pleasure in our heads.
So how do we tell why people play games? Well, we can start by doing some empirical research.
…Wait, really? Empirical research? In the gaming industry?
Yes. It is true. Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project is based on surveys of real MMO players instead of empty theorizing. This is why it’s more valuable than your pet theory or my pet theory. It’s probably fairly flawed, but it makes theories like “learning is the core of fun” look like sun-god-worshiping prehistoric nonsense in comparison.
Here, let’s look at the Model of Player Motivations Nick Yee uncovered. Because I know you didn’t bother to click that link above, I’m just going to steal some of the important charts from his website. (Sorry, Mr. Yee. Hope ya don’t mind.)
Another common source of “motivations” is Bartle’s famous player types. After many studies, Nick found that several of Bartle’s types don’t really map up very well. For instance, Bartle hypothesized that Explorers love finding new places in the world, as well as unraveling game mechanics. In reality, these two motivations don’t tend to appear in the same players too often.
Most players do have multiple different motivations from this chart, though — and that’s one of the most important takeaways from Nick’s work: most of us have many reasons for playing games, which vary from day to day and game to game. You probably have motivations in many of these categories. (You can even take a little quiz to see which ones.)
It’s true that many of these motivations can be mapped to “learning” — especially if you’re willing to make really tenuous connections like “competition is just a form of learning about other people!” and silly stuff like that. But many of them are just simple human needs, like being dominant, being liked, being part of a group, or escaping from reality for a while.
Pick What Your Game Is Good At
Every MMO in the “virtual world” vein supports a large number of gamer motivations; this is part of the secret to MMOs’ success. But no MMO can be great at all of them. I suggest you pick several motivations from Nick Yee’s chart (three or four at most) and be really good at them, then let the others happen as best they can happen.
It’s tempting to conflate motivations with demographics, but that’s a mistake. For instance, it’s true that slightly more females than males prefer “socialization” motivations in MMOs, but the gender difference is pretty small. Similarly, you may be tempted to assume that any game aimed at 18-24 males should be all about achievement. But that demographic’s motivations are all over the place, and older demographics are strongly motivated by achievement as well.
One method of getting a handle on your target audience is to create personalities to represent them. This is an old marketer’s technique: create a handful of personal stories and backgrounds, and then tailor a game to what those people would like. If you have a well-established IP, you can pull from the demographic data of your IP to help you figure out what personalities to use; otherwise, you’re going to have to do some research on the sort of people you envision playing your game. If you’re planning to reach out to existing MMO players, maybe you can start by picking some bios of traditional MMO gamers.
It boils down to the First Question: who is this game for, and why? In theory, you should know this before picking motivations. But on the other hand, if you don’t have a clue who your game is for, choosing several key motivations will at least narrow down your choices!
If I had to guess, I’d say that WoW’s three most powerful motivations are advancement, competition, and teamwork. EQ2’s strengths, on the other hand, might be mechanics, teamwork, and discovery. Asheron’s Call could be mechanics, discovery, and competition. All of these games are considered “hard core” MMOs. They just don’t focus on quite the same motivations to quite the same degrees.
Unfortunately you can’t safely pick, say, your three personal favorite motivations and run with it, because there may not be a large enough audience to support that mix. So when you have your polling contractor research your target demographic, make sure they include some questions that can highlight their motivations.
And please don’t tell me that your $20,000,000 game can’t afford to use a professional pollster, because if you think that, you obviously haven’t even looked into the prices. Hey, wait, you were just going to make a game without even deciding who it’s for, weren’t you? Shame on you! You’re not a novelist who can just write anything you want and hope somebody likes it; you’re spending a ton of money to create a service. You need to know who your service is for.
Thanks, Daedalus Project
I’d like to thank Nick Yee for his many years of researching MMO players. He recently put the Daedalus Project into hibernation, which makes me sad, because this is impossibly valuable data for any MMO developer. If you haven’t perused his data collection, you should go do that now.
His stuff isn’t perfect: there are some motivational categories that aren’t as strongly tied together as others, and his polling subjects were largely self-selected, which no doubt influenced the results. It’s also highly biased towards Western culture in general and EQ1 (early on) and WoW (later) players specifically.
But it’s a lot better than what you had before, because before you were just making stuff up and pretending it was universal. I know you were. Yes, I saw you doing it. Cut it out!
You still haven’t clicked the link above, have you? Fine, I’ll leave you with another Daedalus Project chart, stolen for your amusement. This one breaks down how various stereotypical statements relate to player motivations.