A few months ago, David Sirlin wrote an interesting rant/article on Gamasutra criticizing various aspects of World of Warcraft for “teaching” the players the wrong things. He says some interesting things about the fairly obvious points that WoW encourages time over skill and group-play over solo-play. However… the article fails because of one false assumption, and I wanted to talk about it because it is a mistake made commonly by those who discuss game design. Namely, game designers do not get to decide how players have fun.
This point is so important, that I will imitate Sirlin by repeating it again. Game designers do not get to decide how players have fun!
Players invest their time in a game if they are enjoying themselves. We, as game designers, provide fun in a free market. In other words, we create the supply; they provide the demand. World of Warcraft is successful because it meets the “demand for fun” of some five million players. This demand comes from players who, using his arguments, prefer a game which rewards time over skill and encourages grouping over solo play. Certainly WoW is not without imperfections, but one must assume that the game’s subscribers are playing the game because they like the core features which Sirlin has decried.
Of course, these features may in fact teach the players the wrong lessons about life. They may be teaching that it is wrong to be highly skilled and self-reliant. It doesn’t matter. In a free market, we cannot control what games people choose to play. Sirlin may be able “to design an MMO that teaches the right things”… but will it matter if no one wants to play it?
I don’t really feel good about making this point because, after all, I’m sure we would all like to think that the games we make do teach the players important lessons and perhaps make the world a slightly better place. Well, a good game always does the latter but not necessarily the former. Good games entertain us, help us enjoy ourselves and forget our troubles – that entertainment is the value for which players are looking. Creating it is not an ignoble cause… but a good game will not be made better just by making sure it teaches the right lessons.
By the way, I would like to add that Sirlin has written many, many excellent articles that do a great job of spelling out the challenges of game design. For example, his article on rock/paper/scissors mechanics is the best I have seen on the subject. (In fact, I shamelessly stole from it for my 2004 GDC presentation…)