Monday, October 1, 2012

Depth of Interest: Revamp

So back in the summer of 2008, before I was a fresh-faced first year at University of California Santa Barbara, I wrote this article on my video games blog. It was about the depth of games, what makes games fun, and how they hold our interest. I wanted to revisit the entry, for I thought it contained some pretty good nuggets of truth, as well as some predictions that I can re-examine and can follow up on to see how true they ended up being. I'm going to rewrite a lot of it. Please use the link to read the original. 

I use to think that I knew what it meant to play a game for a long time. When I wrote the first version of this article, I had at least 634 hours in World of Warcraft. My main character at the time, Akoris, a level 70 Paladin had about 20 days of play time, which is about 480 hours of playing. I never really stopped playing World of Warcraft and continued to play through Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm. The sun is set on the Cataclysm era, and I've racked up about 100 days of play time now. I have 6 level 85s, and a level 69. I think most people would say that I have spent a lot of time in that game. Crazily, there are people who've played this game more. When Pandaria launched, a lot of people who had been veterans returned to the game and they were talking in general chat and one guy said he had 200 days of play time on a warlock and a 50 days on another guy. That's more time than I've spent in total on all my guys, they've spent it on one guy. I have to say that I don't think this guy is alone in this kind of commitment. World of Warcraft USE to be joked about as the game that sucked out all the time out of your life. I can't remember where I heard about it (it was on a podcast, either Gamers with Jobs, Rebel FM or WoW insider, and I can't remember which one for the life of me), but I heard somewhere about a guy playing Guild Wars for about 10 hours a day since the game has come out. That's some outrageous commitment. It really says something about the game when it can hold a person's interest for that long. This leads me to a simple, but very important question: why do games strive to hold our interest for such a long time? For a game like WoW, there is a monetary incentive for it: the longer people play, the more subscription fees they collect. Yet that isn't the case with a game like Oblivion, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Fallout 3, etc which are entirely offline, single player games. Going back even farther, there was a time when Donkey Kong, a 2D platformer, was the pinnacle of gaming, and a huge factor in the success of it was that it is easy to pick up and quickly, very fun.

Why do we strive for depth in our games? Maybe the obvious answer is because we like to have fun as long as possible before going to do something else. But different games go about "having fun" in different ways. "Fun" is a contentious term, but I want to define it as "you are enjoying the game for the sake of playing the game". What it means to "enjoy" a game vs be driven for rewards is a topic that should have a longer space to do it justice and should be discussed elsewhere. Returning to the topic , having fun isn't about just shooting people over and over and over. Sure that can be fun for a little while, which is why Geometry Wars can be fun. It is a certainly different experience to fly around shooting shapes as compared to an MMO or an FPS. Yet, that doesn't remain fun. The game eventually introduces different modes in the game, different guns and more shapes and more enemies. However, that game loses it fun rather quickly because it is largely always the same game. It's an arcade style console shooter. Without offering new and different experiences to the player, the player will eventually lose interest in the game and go find something else to do. However, what the player does is up for debate. He could play a different game, or he can play the same game in a different way. Smart game designers will design games to be played in different ways, if they want to retain a player base for longer than 2 or 3 hours.

This tendency of human beings is the same one that WoW capitalises on to get its fun. There is always more. More areas, more spells, more levels, more dungeons, more fights, more gear and more quests. What asked my readers back in 2008 was, "Is this truly fun, or is all this new stuff just renewed novelty? Is depth just renewed novelty? Just an effort to give us new stuff all the time?". Now, after going to college and reading some Baudrillard, Hegel, Hume, Locke, Joyce, and other theory and literary critics, I'd have to say, I don't think I can answer this question. This question is too sweeping, too generalizing and tries to cover too many topics. But I think what I can do, is try to at least look at World of Warcraft, and see how it uses "renewed novelty" to stay fun. I think I made an error in judgment when I wrote this article because I don't think I understood WoW as much back then. A lot of the lower level experience is to prepare the player for the end game. I didn't know how deep the game went until I went through college, because that's when I really delved into the the number crunching aspect of theory crafting. The whole game you have to play with mastery, expertise and hit rating add a whole other aspect to the game. The lower level experience introduces new skills for your characters so you can learn them one at a time, and develop habits for using them. It also adds boss mechanics so you can learn them one by one as well. What I did not understand is that the game changes as it progresses. But I also think this redesign is recent to World of Warcraft. After Cataclysm, the whole 1- 60 experience was redesigned to flow better and to make more sense, so I think that this carefully crafted curve is a result of years of quest design and research.

World of Warcraft does a very good job at keeping a player entertained. With Mists of Pandaria, it added several new things to do with the game. It is avoiding the pitfall of constantly recycling and representing game mechanics in order to try and trick the player into having fun. The game changes and morphs into a different experience as you level, as this keeps people playing. By allowing us to play differently, it is encouraging player to stay with the game and to keep playing. Here's a short,  non exhaustive list, of ways they've introduced to keep us playing differently: Dungeon and Raid Finder, PvP for experience, pet battles, farming, Transmogrification, guild perks and experience, mounts at 20, Real ID grouping, and account wide achievements. These are all activities that were not traditional MMO affairs until WoW did them, and they are ways that Blizzard has come up with to keep us playing. They are allowing us to play how we want, and that is allowing them to remain relevant and it is the reason that people are still playing the game.

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