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.