The Free Market of Fun

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…)

11 thoughts on “The Free Market of Fun

  1. I agree. Games are often the only chance some people get to escape from the reality which emphasizes aforementioned traits such as skill and individualism (among others). How many ‘productive’ behaviors does Grand Theft Auto, God of War or even Civilization espouse? Does that make them any less fun or successful? If using those sorts of criteria about the only ‘good’ game which has come out recently is Brain Age!

  2. I see your point but at the same time I can’t help but think what you are really saying is “if lots of people like it it’s good”. That is arguably false.

    The masses like lots of “crap”. The masses like hangings. The masses like bullfighting. I know that makes me elitist to think so but come on, 101 Dalmatians with Glenn Close? Inspector Gadget the movie? Those were in the top 5 movies that year and while you could argue that because they were successful they were good you could also argue there were innain, dumbed down, IQ lowering and many other things.

    I would say Mr. Sirlin was trying to argue that WoW would be even more successful had it followed different rules just like I’d argue that those movies mentioned above could have been lasting classics if they’d have actually bothered to write good scripts. I think we’d also both argue that the world would be a slightly better place in both instances too.

  3. Hey those ARE the right life lessons! I want to compete in the soft-drink market. I think I have the right skills to appropriately concoct, package, market, and distribute a successful alternative to Pepsi. To be viable, it turns out I need a level 60 Sodamaker with lots of gold and mindshare accumulated. Great blog btw!

  4. gman, I definitely don’t believe that “if lots of people like it it’s good” although I understand that my post could leave that impression.

    However, I’m not sure if Sirlin is saying that WoW would be a more commerically successful game if Blizzard implemented his suggestions – he’s saying it would be more successful morally (if that is indeed the right word). I’m saying it doesn’t matter. If Blizzard somehow changed WoW so that it had better skill- and solo-based content, then the millions who play the game for its time- and group-based content (which I can only assume are the majority of the users) will just move onto another MMO that does provide them with the original experience.

  5. “If Blizzard somehow changed WoW so that it had better skill- and solo-based content, then the millions who play the game for its time- and group-based content (which I can only assume are the majority of the users) will just move onto another MMO that does provide them with the original experience.”


    1. Do we know for a fact that those traits are why people stick with WoW? Have we seen examples of games that should have been the hit that WoW is but were done in specifically by relying on other kinds of gameplay?

    To be honest, all of this feels theoretical to me – almost all the MMOs I’ve looked at seem to rely specifically on WoW-style, patience-over-skill, optimize-once-then-execute-a-hundred-times gameplay. I don’t think I could even point to a game that has the kind of depth that I specifically value in, say, Street Fighter 3: Third Strike or Advance Wars.

    I think all of these things feel particularly speculative to me because a) MMOs are so susceptible to network effects and b) the player experience is likewise so affected by UI and world aesthetics. WoW excels at both of these (as does Blizzard generally).

    2. I find it funny that this has to be framed as an either/or thing anyway. Just as most MMOs seem to allow combat and crafting to co-exist pretty peacefully, I don’t see why an MMO couldn’t have existing grind-y time-based, team-based gameplay while also having some system, utilizing totally orthogonal resources, that was based on something more purely skill based.



  6. I think that WoW shows that the Everquest model (which includes a focus on time and groups) is the right MMO model for a significant number of people. It broke beyond the typical hard-core because of Blizzard’s great UI accesibility, game polishing, and art design – but clearly the people playing must actually enjoy the dish being served, which in this case is a RPG grind often done in groups.

    Good point on locking ourselves into a possibly false either-or debate though! The human mind often falls naturally into polar positions.

  7. Due to special rules in Battlegrounds, WoW PvP relies way more on skill than anything else. Sirlin chose to selectively argue about the honor ranking system, which at the end of the day, is mostly cosmetic. In addition, it’s very quick and easy for a very skilled player to quickly rise up most of the ranks. Sirlin chose to selectively argue about the highest rank.

    People discount the huge amount of depth and learning required in MMOs. Anyone with enough time can reach level 60 but a smart skilled player will do it in half the time. The primary skill in MMOs in time management. Non MMO players often forget that because all they choose to see is grinding.

    Also, why is it not true that “if lots of people like it it’s good”? What other metric is there?

  8. That’s an interesting post.

    Another noteworthy point is, I think, that somehow games with a design similar to WoW are very successful commercially. “A game which rewards time over skill” – that’s true of WoW, that’s also true of Sims, where very little element of skill is involved and which is, in fact, a goalless game.

    No, I’m not a WoW fan, far from it, and I fail to see what’s the basis of its success, why it’s so popular… Sims, which I dislike a lot, I understand the reasons for success there, not so with WoW.

    “If lots of people like it it’s good” – that’s neither true, nor false. What’s “good” anyway? We’re not talking moral and ethical choices, we’re talking about a consumer product here. And the “goodness” of a consumer product always depends on what the consumer thinks… it’s good for one and bad for another. A product is certainly successful if many people like it. It may have a hundred problems in design, implemenation, or whatever, but it’s a success if many like it.

  9. I guess I’m still not quite convinced – I think people naturally want Massively Multiplayer spaces enough, or are drawn enough to them intrinsically, that it’s hard to make the leap from “people are clearly willing to tolerate or mildy enjoy the following types of activities to get their social fix” to “people actively seek out and enjoy the following types of activities”.

    I’d feel differently if massively multiplayer capabilities had been with us since the beginning of video gaming, and we’d already tried the MMO Contra, and the MMO Frogger, and the MMO Bard’s Tale, and the MMO Crono Trigger, and the MMO Street Fighter, and the MMO Doom, and the MMO Madden Football, and the MMO MULE, and the MMO Archon, and the MMO Civ, and the MMO Deus Ex, and the MMO Super Mario Brothers, and the MMO Guardian Legend, and the MMO SimCity, and the MMO XCom, and the MMO Rescue Raiders, and so on and on and on. But, with just a few exceptions, we honestly haven’t seen those games yet – and when we do see people trying to poke out of the MUD gameplay space, we’re often seeing really fairly middling or poor attempts at the genres being done, which I don’t think is proof of much of anything.

    I guess my point is, what WoW provides is clearly a type of gameplay that is more appealing and currently acceptible to a large enough number of paying subscribers than anything else out there being offered. But more than that is hard to tell, because we don’t have a lot of other options to compare it to.

    I might be a bit biased because I’ve had multiple dinners with guys from the MUD-DEV list, and I’ve had a number of convserations with key people working on MMOs out at GDC, and in general, talking to them makes it clear how deeply the roots of MMOs are still planted in the plot tilled by MUDs. And they do have a lot of institutional knowledge from all the MUDs tried over the years, and there have been a lot of possibilities explored, but my general impression has been that the strain of developers making MUDs has been surprisingly isolated from and resistant to developers from all other fields of game making, and it shows in their designs and their ideas. And from my perspective, WoW still shows a lot of that MUD legacy – it’s Everquest by Blizzard, with all their knowledge of how to polish.

  10. When you actually sit down and play WoW, the core of what you do is not all that different from, say, Diablo, or even Chrono Trigger. That may be over-simplifying things but it’s hard to deny. When you add to it the idea that a significant chunk of people in WoW don’t end up socially interacting all that much, well then. I mean, I spent my first 300 hours in WoW without grouping. Add to that things like universal player ranking in Battlefield 2, the rise of fantasy football, Xbox Live Achievements, then you start seeing why Raph Koster talks about how all games are increasingly becoming nested within social spaces, and this whole notion of MMO vs non-MMO is really going to go away. All that is left is the design work to fit it all together and the marketing work to get people paying money for it.

    But to go back to Mr. Sirlin’s article, it irks me when people talk about how games “ought to be”, not understanding that game design decisions aren’t about good or bad, but rather about tradeoffs. Because at the end of the day, there is no absolutism in game design and no fundamental rules. For every so-called rule we should follow, the very opposite can hold merit, hence the reason why Noah Falstein includes trumps in his 400 Project.

  11. “If lots of people like it it’s good,” has to be valid for a game. That’s the point of a game, to have fun. But that’s only the starting point, not the be all end all. Games can be more.

    There’s nothing wrong with David Sirlin criticizing WOW for what it lacks. Of course, people who enjoy WOW couldn’t care less, nor could Blizzard who with 5 mil subscribers has absolutely no incentive to change anything in their formula. Sirlin is wrong, however, if he doesn’t see the value in grouping to advance. Grouping is probably the single most beneficial aspect to WOW, as challenging as any skill in any single player game. Groups are collections of people, and working with people can be a lot like herding cats. Sirlin has probably never experienced the following in WOW:

    1. Spent over 60 minutes with a group in an instance, only to have a key member drop for no reason prior to beating the monster that drops the best item.
    2. Been kicked out of a guild for not knowing enough about the game.
    3. Spent over 60 minutes with a group in an instance when a member drops because he’s only ten years old and has to go to bed.
    4. Spent 15 minutes forming a group, then 15 more in an instance when a member declares “this group sucks” and drops out.
    5. Spent an hour in an instance with members who won’t work as a team and keep getting everyone killed.

    Grouping is hard. The practice dealing with personalities gained from WOW is identical to dealing with personalities in the real world and of immense value to anyone who plays.

    A game is not necessarily better for teaching someone’s idea of the “right lessons,” but a game that is both fun and benefits the player by providing something useful that carries over to the non-game word? Now, that’s a real gem. Ralph Koster was right when he said it’s up to designers to create games that teach a wider range of lessons. Why not if it could benefit 5 million players? It isn’t difficult. It’s just a design choice.

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