A Hybrid Elder Game

Over at Broken Toys, Scott Jennings comments on Richard Bartle’s IMGDC keynote. Go there and read both, I won’t repeat them here.

Jennings’ response seems to agree with a critique of Bartle’s Elder Game proposal, namely that letting users create content during that last phase of the game. I’ll quote just a little:

Many – probably most, in fact – players *want* to be content consumers, not content generators. They want to log in, be entertained, and log out.

True, at least IMHO1. But that doesn’t conflict with Bartle’s ideal. Read on if any of this interests you, it gets worse from here.

First and most obviously of all, letting users create content in the Elder Game does not preclude the game publisher from doing the same. You might think that this would be the end of the discussion, but I don’t think so — because if the publisher cranks out new content on a regular basis, the motivation for users to actually play the Elder Game may be lessened, and that’s not what you want if you want to keep users from leaving.

But this sort of conflict isn’t new, it’s been explored and refined for at least a decade — not by game-themed virtual worlds, though, but by websites with a social component to them. Note that I deliberately don’t call them social networking sites, as that buzzword is relatively new.

Now some of my readers may cry out that virtual worlds and websites are two entirely different things, and comparing them is comparing apples to oranges. I disagree very strongly with that.

I’ll grant any critic that I haven’t actually designed many games yet — there were a few clones of existing games as a teenager, there’s a half-finished set of RPG rules, and a collection of notes on various games I kind of want to design but don’t find the time to. But I do read what various game designers write about their profession with a lot of attention — and a huge chunk of it literally screams of being the exact same experience that social websites have made over the years.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been working on one form of web application or another for nigh on a decade, and therefore know pretty well the sort of community-related problems that exist in that industry, and how people tend to solve them.

The interesting part is that each industry has come up with some solutions that the other industry hasn’t yet, or hasn’t developed to the same maturity. User generated content, for example, is everywhere on the web these days: any comment you leave, any YouTube video uploaded, any personal website, you name it — that’s all user generated content. It might be disputable how much users generated and how much they copied, but the fact remains that they performed a minimal creation step, namely making something public.

Websites, on the other hand, have begun to introduce game-like features into their websites, mostly to motivate users to contribute more. One example I found strikingly game-like are the badges you can earn on Stack Overflow. Call them trophies, badges, achievements or whatever, it’s something to denote your status in a community.

I wouldn’t go as far and say that virtual worlds, game-themed or not, are identical to websites in the problems they face — but there’s more than enough opportunity to learn from each other, because the problem domain is similar: it’s all about user acquisition and user retention2.

  1. I have to say that while I agree overall, the comment Jennings quotes also assumes that each and every player thinks about the Elder Game in the same way. That players have differing objectives is something that Bartle himself explored with his player types model. []
  2. That ignores for the moment that a game set in a virtual world introduces complex rules of it’s own, but from a certain point of view, the game is unimportant — what’s important is that there is something that draws users, and motivates them to come back. []

  • http://www.mentalechoes.org Andy

    Excellent post! I quite enjoyed that keynote by Bartle and the follow up discussions by the naysayers at f13.net. They seem a very bitter group of people that lot for some reason, which I can’t quite figure out why. But let’s not get districted.

    Firstly, let me start by saying that I think you have outlined some exceptionally good points, and I agree with most of what you say. But this statement is one where we have a fundamental difference of opinion:

    “Now some of my readers may cry out that virtual worlds and websites are two entirely different things, and comparing them is comparing apples to oranges. I disagree very strongly with that”.

    I’m going to cry out here and argue that they are entirely separate entities, the main reason I see is really because of “immersion”; the totality of the user experience.

    What do I mean by that exactly? Well to start let’s try to make a loose comparison if we can between the user experience of Slashdot and say, Age of Conan. Slashdot is a content presentation site that has levels of user participation that allow for a self organising system of power/responsibility for the moderation of this content. But that’s really all there is to it. Oh for sure, there is a very strong community built around this, as this is a group of people who share the same interests and social ideals.

    Age of Conan on the other hand is a virtual world that offers a rich environment for exploration which can literally take months of real time to do. This goes way beyond anything a site content presentation experience can replicate. There is are also other things like an economy and guild infrastructure that are quite complex and organise themselves on very sophisticated social levels. Guilds themselves can evolve to a point where they are microcosms of real world militaries in terms of roles and responsibilities. There is even in some cases apprenticeships involved in bringing new guild members skill levels up so they become fully functioning members of the guild.

    For me these are just a couple of reasons I can’t consider a social website in the same league as a virtual world. I will admit there are some similarities, yes, but when taken in their entirity, one is a website that presents content with social features, and the other is virtual world, and all that implies. They are simply too different to consider in the same basket of goods, let alone as apples and oranges.

    I do think though this exploration into user generated content is going to produce some fascinating results. I fully expect that 99% of what will get made will be midly interesting and mostly incoherently put together. However, I am certain that there will be a top level of amateur designer that will produce some truly awesome content. And much like the best MUD wizards areas were always the most populated ones, I see the same thing happening in games like City of Heroes. A few people will make names for themselves and most likely will end up on the staff of the game design team. The best part for the game company is, they get to know the talent of the person before they sign them on, and they’ll get umpteen amounts of top quality quests/scenarios out of them before they pay them a cent. Mind you, the downside is someone is going to have to moderate the stuff that is made by the other 99% of the amateur designers. But perhaps that will all get done mostly by the user base themselves. Who can tell at this point? It’s going to be a very interesting next couple of years for MMO’s from this point! :)



    • http://www.unwesen.de/ unwesen

      Andy… I tried to reply with a new blog post, but it kind of ended up in a different direction.

      I do understand your point about immersion, but disagree somewhat again. A lot of what you describe isn’t about immersion to me, it’s about communication, socializing – which is something I did manage to get into in my newer blog post.

      Immersion to me is more about not realizing that you’re not sitting in a chair any longer, or that you have to type in order to get your ideas across to other participants. Maybe we need to discuss this more, preferrably over a beer or two :)