Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Whatever you reward...

This post is in reply to a forum posting on On-Line Gamers Anonymous, about the nature of the Addicting Design of WoW:


You are hitting nails directly on the head here. These are some of the Rules of Game Design as I have come to know them:

1. Make it fun (Law of the obvious)
2. Whatever you reward you will get more of (jbash’s Law)
3. Be careful what you reward (jbash’s Corollary)

The sociological flaws here are in #2. The issue with WoW and so many other games is that they reward you for playing hour after hour. Rather than reward you for playing month after month.

Ironically, the time-intensive gaming leads to burn-out. Casual players drop WoW because they can't keep up with the Joneses. And even the top players burn out and end up at OLGANON.

What MMORPG designers need to learn is "pacing" and "tempo." You cannot sustain rockem-sockem action for too long or people begin to develop anti-social behaviors and maladaptions: PTSD, disassocations from real life, addictions.

There's nowhere near as many people who are this bad off from, say, playing golf. While some people get "addicted" to golf, the real-time limiting issues of tee-time, cost, geographic scope (the course itself , the distance between home, work and the course, and the distance between different courses) and, most especially, nature (time of day and weather) force players to pace their play. They'll continue to play as a healthy habit until old age. They'll likely put more money into it over the long term than WoW.

So why is Blizzard "forcing" players into an addictive playstyle and world?

Because, to be honest, they really didn't think about this when they began. Like many gamers they just wanted to make something "cool."

They never thought through the social impacts of a cool game from the beginning. They wanted "addictive" behavior from their inherent design, but never thought about long-term sustainability. Hence, the violated #3 above, by not being careful in how they designed their game for long-term sustainability.

Thus, WoW attracts many people, and then many people drop out. There is a burnout wave. Which only leaves the highly-addicted capable of sustaining play for those end-game features.

We see the same thing in surfing, where some people try it and never do it again. Others do it for a while then sell their gear. Only the very select top-end “surfing addicts” lose their jobs and take up surfing waves around the world. They lose themselves in their hobby. Yet the difference is that is, ideally, almost one of the healthiest habits on earth to pursue whereas the psychological damage done to an overly-addicted WoW player is far more severe.

Try to study the extreme sports markets -- those people looking for the Next Big Wave, or the Next Mountain Peak. See what is healthy and unhealthy between those sorts of "addicted" people. A mountain climber like Greg Mortenson can spend over 70 days attempting to climb K2 in 1993. Other teams to this day spend months away from family, neighborhoods and jobs to hit the tops of the most severe peaks and poles of the world. Real life-and-death experiences can occur. So far, no WoW raid required, as a pre-requisite of play, the on-hand presence of a real nurse or physician.

Yet there might be something about this which could be incorporated into the psychological-spiritual side of playing such games. How many guilds in MMORGs actually keep the equivalent of a "chaplain" or "human resources director" to talk to their players about their game play and addictions?

Perhaps something there might be sociologically adaptive.

Additionally, while we have a few people winning cash prizes from game play, the level of economic adaptivity for most games is minimal. The economic opportunity cost for playing WoW is incredible. It pays nothing, and it costs you the opportunity to interact with others in your family, your job, and your physical community.

While some WoW communities are the equivalent of primitive warrior societies, such as the immature groups of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys or the feral Lord of the Flies, or the maturely political Robin Hood’s Merry Men or Arthur’s Round Table, all these virtual societies come at a price of inattention to other communities and relationships in the real world.

Thus, the solution to this is to ensure that the needs of the game world do not equal or exceed the time requirements of reality. If a game is requiring 40-80 hours per week to “successfully” play, the game is broken. The only way a game would “work” at that level of commitment was if it was paying the equivalent of 1-2 full-time jobs, or was as satisfying as working 1-2 full-time volunteer commitments. In any regard, 80 hours is a “crunch-time” sort of schedule which is, over the long-term, unsustainable in any regard. Anything that is taking more than the amount of time that we ideally sleep in a week (8 x 7 = 56 hours/week) is too much.

What MMORPG designers need to design for is to enable people to have “sustainable” fun. Which is likely somewhere on the order of 1-2 hours per day, or 2-3 weekly blocks of 3-5 hours, or about 7-14 or 6-15 hours a week overall. A basic average of about 10.5 hours.

If you want to spend more time on your hobby than that, you could. If you want to spend less time on your hobby per week, you could. Some people might play for 5 hours a week at most — the equivalent of a long, leisurely golf game. Others might play for 20-40 hours a week. Yet in the 30-40 hours per week area, they really are pushing boundaries of lost opportunity costs for other elements of their life. Their leisure activity at that level of play begins to interfere with other possibilities.

At that level of commitment, the only way for it to be sustainable is if it provides some form of tangible or intangible credit or benefit to their lives. Such as either economic or educational.

My buddy at Cisco, jbash, taught me those two rules. I’ll clearly recall him saying those words: “Whatever you reward, you will get more of... Be careful what you reward.”

Cisco itself was not too careful about its reward system, or I would not have been laid off, along with about 10,000 of my closest friends in the year 2001. It is not only the virtual world which has a sort of “demographic bulemia” where we binge ourselves on attracting too many people too fast to a game world, or a workplace, or a metropolitan area, or an Olympic games, and then we need to shortly thereafter deal with the mess and aftermath of getting rid of the excess in a great disgorging of humanity. Some of the worst of these situations are called “layoffs,” “depressions” and “wars.”

Sustainable growth is required thinking for game companies to truly prosper and benefit their players over the long run. Blizzard should reconsider the fundamental of WoW, and redesign a lot of their game play from the ground up.

Or someone else should teach them a lesson in sustainable game play.

-Peter Corless.


  1. Greetings I'm John I notice this too since hardcore gaming for now seven years of my seventeen years of life as a hobby that took over all other activities and hobbies.

    I have to say today well this entire weekend I have been strugling with gaming to stop or not to stop.
    The reason for that is I enjoy the virtual world because of all the possibilities it gives to you as a hobby.
    Now the problem is I currently give a try to Eve Online I enjoy it great game but not that great in the classes that is has no sort of organization within that.
    I think the reason why gamers are getting so burn out is the what your said overview your invention see the flaws of the ideal and make a improvement or redo your ideal for the game world that specific game.

    I think that one hours of a persons time put into a game should be just enough for the for player to enjoy that time spend in that world instead of it being a hassle a duty instead of voluntary duty do you get my point of that duty where you force to do something and voluntary duty?

    A example Fable I played that game with enjoyment without any form of addiction or guild wars to Elder scrolls or final fantasy offline version I could go on with the great titles that made me to make virtual gaming as a main hobby.

    The problem I see is how you said burnout many or most games if it is a online or offline or both together have that same problem of making the player burnout of the video game atmosphere.
    I think if the Video gaming industrial head towards putting a good a logical point of why am I doing this what will it give to me in game concept.
    I think that Video gaming industrial is looking more at points that don't contribute to the logic of what you doing but instead contribute to nothingness nonsense that has no enjoyment of doing it that in turn makes the player burnout.

    PS.I do think that people do need to always keep in mind that this advance technology is new to us to our life style it is very radical to the lifestyle in the past generations of our specie.

    *I could have made it shorter, I just went with the flow of my mind telling me what to write.

  2. I agree, John.

    One hour is about right to be able to enjoy a game and feel like you got your money's worth for a month.

    One hour should be about $15-$25. Which is about what you pay for a satisfying meal at a nice restauraunt.

    Not a "great" meal, but a "good" meal. Not a "cheap" meal either, which might cost between $3 - $7.

    Different people have different tastes. Some people might want to pay $100 for a meal. Some might want to have a whole "wedding banquet" that lasts all night and costs hundreds of dollars.

    Each game designer needs to think more like a restaurateur or chef: how do I satisfy my customers, let them enjoy themselves in a recreational way and feed them spiritually/emotionally, then let them get back to their lives?

    One hour is good. That's about a lunchtime.

    Two-to-five hours is "an evening's entertainment." Like a movie or concert. Whatever that would be worth to a consumer.

    It also has to be compared to the "always on" cable or broadcast television/radio spectrums. There is a push for "free" content as well as for "premium" channels.

    But no one should be expected to have to put in 40+ hours into a game per week. And if you do play, I'd prefer you spent far less time playing than you'd put into a full-time job or your school classes.

    If you do play that much, there should be some opportunity to make a little money, or earn some school credit for what your are doing.

    Something so that it's not just a "time sink" of life, and a wasted opportunity cost of your existence on earth.