The Games Business

What is it, really, that makes WoW so much fun? I feel as though I have a handle on what makes it effective and work well – a smooth rendering/processing, well-designed interface, beautiful backdrop at the right level of visual detail… But what makes it fun?

I don’t ask from idle curiosity. In a small way, I have found myself in the games business with this Second Life project. I am, essentially, lead designer and programmer of a basic, simple little video game on one specific island. There are things to click to learn about the plot, objects to collect, NPCs to talk to, threats to subdue, and buildings to explore. Second Life serves as our game development space, providing the infrastructure and tools, and we use it to tell an interactive story.

So, we’ve been working on figuring out what makes a game – a group-oriented version of an old-school point-and-click adventure game – fun and engaging. And comprehensible. Turns out that my brilliant and clever ideas of how to challenge players are often waaaaay too obscure and confusing unless you’re the one who designed it.

It also turns out that more to see and do doesn’t necessarily translate into more fun to be had by all. In fact, there’s a line somewhere I have yet to identify between “oh isn’t that cool, I want to go check it out” and “this thing is mind-numbingly dull and annoying.”

Furthermore, it also turns out that things that are fun to puzzle through on your own the way you do in, say, Myst, are far less fun to puzzle out when you’re in a group.

So the big question of the month: How do you provide structure and give players a sense of what to expect without spoon-feeding them and making the process a repetitive chore?

Part of the answer, I think, is in a consistent set of tasks you perform in each area, even as the area changes around you. In WoW, for example, you arrive at a brand new zone you’ve never seen before (remember what that was like?) and even though you don’t know what you’re going to do there specifically, you get the game overall, so you know what you’ll do generally. You know you’ll talk to a few NPCs, be told to go kill some things, to collect some things, and then report back. You do that over and over until you’ve finished the quests available in the zone. Then you go to a new zone and do it all again.

Why in heaven’s name is that fun? Sounds like a repetitive chore to me. But somehow, it’s fun.

Now, granted, part of what makes it fun is leveling, watching those bubbles fill up and getting more cool stuff and power and whatnot. Part of what makes it fun is, well, it’s just fun to kill things. Sorry pacifists of the world, but it is. But simply creating a world in which you kill stuff and get stuff and rise in levels does not an 11-million strong game make.

On the other end of the spectrum are games like Bejeweled or Tetris. Talk about repetitive. But also fun! No fancy graphics, no gorgeous interface, no intellectual engagement, just… well, fun. There’s something about their peculiar challenge that is satisfying and, yes, addictive.

Meanwhile, back at Adamourne on Wells, we struggle to walk the lines between interesting and overwhelming, challenging and confusing, progression and open space.

Or maybe we just need more lolz cats.


6 responses to “The Games Business

  1. Different personalities are engaged by different aspects of the games. Games like Myst, I think, target only a portion of personality types, whereas WoW has a much broader appeal because they have such a variety of activities you can focus on.

    I’ve been playing FarmVille with my wife (and 50 other random people I’ve never met that are somehow my “neighbors”). It’s a neat little social game that keeps people in touch, help each other and gets some competitive/creative juices flowing, but coming from a WoW gaming standpoint, FarmVille sucks to actually PLAY. There are all sorts of logical and playability issues that drive me batty.

    I don’t think I would continue to play if it wasn’t such a great activity to do with my wife.

  2. I confess that rumors of scams in Farmville ( have kept me away.

    But I am pretty sure it’s the single largest MMO in the world, now, by sheer player numbers, and I really should take a look, given how much I talk about this stuff.

  3. I don’t blame the advertisers all that much, I blame the get rich quick type of people that are looking for easy ways to beat the system. Advertisers are there to make money, and they are going to target the lowest common denominator. Ethical? Hardly, but it is realistic.

    I don’t click on ANY of those advertisements. I don’t join any of the groups. I don’t join any causes. Yes, I’m a cynic. If most people were like me, online advertising would have failed out of the gate… not that that’s necessarily a good thing.

    If you play the game the way it was designed to be played, and don’t look for/exploit any cheats, bugs or “features”, you’ll be fine.

  4. What makes WoW so much fun for me is all the people you run across and meet. I’ve made some good friends and aquaintaces over the last 6 years while playing. The social aspect is what keeps me playing. If it wasn’t for dungeons, group quests, and the like; i would have stopped playing a long, long time ago.
    Even while solo and questing i can still have fun with other people through guild chat (as evidenced by my latest post). Imo the single greatest draw for any mmo is the social aspect. If it is lacking, confusing, or nonexistent the game won’t do very well

  5. And that’s exactly the conundrum, priestgiblet. How do you foster that sort of social in a game? In somthing like WoW, big and complex, played over time, it seems relatively straight-forward.

    But how do you help that along when it’s a shorter little quest that you still want to make social?

    • Well, for me, it always seemed that i would be doing a group quest with some random person and end up helping each other on other quests. then i would ask them if they cared if i added them to friends list. On my priest, i earned a reputation of being a good healer and the tanks i enjoyed healing would get added to my friends list. At one point before i transferred my friends list consisted of 20+ tanks. I just try to leave a good impression that people won’t forget and that is where my friends and such came from.

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