Monday, January 16, 2006

Will the Real Explorers Please Stand Up?

I am an Explorer. Hoo, boy, am I ever an Explorer....

Some of you may be familiar with a famous essay by Richard Bartle, one of the two creators of MUD1, the earliest successful multiplayer computer RPG. After watching players for some time, Richard perceived four common styles of playing.

He documented these types in his essay, "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs". Bearing in mind that today's graphical MMOGs are basically souped-up MUDs, his conclusions are still required reading for anyone who likes thinking and talking about multiplayer game design.

I won't go into all the details; those of you who haven't read Richard's essay should absolutely go read it right now. (Go ahead. I'll wait here for you.) (Now that you're back, I should mention that since his essay, he has further developed his four-type scheme into a system of eight playstyles. You can learn more about this -- and many other things that are absolutely crucial to multiplayer game design -- in his wonderful book, Designing Virtual Worlds. If you're at all interested in this kind of thing, you will not find a better guide to what's really required. It's that good.)

Of the four player types that Richard Bartle proposed -- Killers, Socializers, Achievers, and Explorers -- I'd like to say two words about those last two types: Achievers, because so many games these days are strongly oriented to that playstyle, and Explorers, because so many games these days aren't... but should be.

(Note: What follows is my own interpretation of Richard Bartle's concepts. I'm not trying to relay his beliefs, so please don't criticize him for anything I say here.)

Here are what I see as the distinguishing features of the Achiever and Explorer types:

  • Achievers are motivated by a desire for security, and seek it through collectibles: loot, money, status, fame, loot, guild membership, leader boards, loot, badges, ranks, and loot.
  • Explorers are motivated by a desire to know and understand, and seek these through experimentation: building, observing, analyzing, hypothesizing, mapping, boundary-testing, and structural decomposition and reconstruction.
There are some important things to observe about these two playstyles.

1. Different playstyles need different in-game rewards.

Notice how the goals of Achievers are often concrete -- loot, badges, kill stats -- while the goals of Explorers are more abstract. Explorers seek knowledge of structure, theories, cause-and-effect relationships.

This distinction matters when we're talking about game design because it's a lot easier to imagine how to code a tangible thing than an intangible thing. Programming a leader board, for example, is fairly straightforward. (Though offering one in-game in an in-context way may not be.) Ditto for loot, and for money, and for badges. But how do you program a game reward for something like "boundary-testing"? What does a reward for "structural decomposition" look like?

As a result, MMOG developers produce more game features for Achievers than for Explorers. This is not a successful long-term strategy... but more on that in item #4. For now, suffice to say that Explorers just aren't going to be motivated by Achiever rewards, any more than Achievers would value Explorer rewards. Take public recognition as an example. While Explorers don't mind getting recognition for the quantity of knowledge they've collected, it's not a major motivator (and it can actually hurt Explorers by attracting recognition-seeking Achievers). The typical Explorer is, on the other hand, very interested in earning the respect of their fellow players for the quality of their knowledge and the competence with which they collect it.

This can be a difficult kind of reward to offer in a game where once anyone knows something, the whole world knows it because someone (or something like thottbot) stuffed it onto a Web page. This is why the "personal recipe" idea -- the notion that each player requires a near-unique list of items to craft a particular object -- has become popular. It increases the quality of information.

Although I think this kind of mechanic may be a step in the right direction, I'm not completely sold on it. My preference would actually be for a world where "knowing how" is the province of only a few particular kinds of players who personally enjoy having technical skills and using them effectively. If you don't pick up those skills, you won't be nearly as effective at technical tasks as someone who did choose to earn those technical abilities.

Mathematics is a great example of this. Suppose someone gives you an enormous ballista. By the time you got done figuring out through trial and error how to aim it to hit a target, your target would have pincushioned you with flaming arrows. But now suppose you can hire a mathematician, who after one firing can calculate exactly where you should aim to hit your target. You don't understand the math, and frankly you don't care to... but you sure can appreciate someone who did choose to master that technical skill.

That someone would likely be an Explorer, who would probably get a huge kick out of a game that actually rewarded them for picking up a "geek" skill... as long as there are other uses for that skill beyond just whatever helps an Achiever. Nobody wants to play a hammer -- nobody wants to have value only so long as they're a good tool for someone else to use.

Let Explorers have specialty skills that enhance the gameplay of others and that promote the discovery of even more arcane knowledge. Find ways to reward them for the quality of their knowledge and their skill at acquiring the most difficult knowledge. Let them achieve a reputation for learning and wisdom that has value far beyond merely acquiring loot. You'll wind up with a game whose players help each other have their own style of fun.

And that will be a Good Thing for everybody.

2. Exploration is about mapping terrain, but is not just about geography.

Certainly physical exploration of places is the most obvious application of "exploration." But when I say that "exploration is about mapping terrain" I'm not just talking about physical terrain (physical within the virtual world, that is). To create a "map" of "terrain" is to produce a more convenient but still useful representation of a thing that has texture.

Sure, a map could be of some place's topography. But we can also talk about mapping the frequency with which players visit certain cities, or about maps of economic activity, or even diagrams of crafting processes. All these things highlight what Explorers do: they discover and chart the internal features of systems. They uncover lore. (Explorers all think of themselves as Loremasters.)

If a MMOG implements "exploration" as game features allowing players to discover and map unexplored places, OK, cool. No objection. But it seems to me that a game that really wanted to reward Exploration would do more -- it would include game systems that are designed from the very beginning to be both broad and deep. That is, it would have numerous richly interacting systems ("broadness"), and each of those systems would offer meaningful complexity in itself arising from simple fundamental rules that interact with each other ("depth").

Once they'd laid that framework, developers of an Explorer-friendly game would then work hard to find many ways to reward players for discovering those interactions. Not through badges or leader boards or big recognition; those are Achiever rewards that tend only to encourage Achievers to act like Explorers (to neither's benefit). As hard as it may be for a non-Explorer to understand or believe, many Explorers value knowledge for its own sake. For them it's enough that they can put together a map of the Shadowy Chasm of Certain Doom, or figure out the secret code that reveals the location of Captain Greenbeard's treasure, or discover which ingredients increase by 25% the efficacy of the formula for making Potions of Clearmindedness.

Maybe they'll share that knowledge, or sell it. Maybe they don't. Maybe they use that knowledge. Maybe they don't. For the Explorer, it's just really cool to know it. A game that wants to encourage Explorers to play will find ways to respect that worldview through explicit gameplay and world features that reward it.

3. Crafting is not just about sales.

Explorers tend to enjoy crafting in MMOGs that offer it. SWG attracted a lot of Explorers initially by offering a remarkably full-features crafting system.

But too many people think that "crafting" means "selling crafted goods." Not so!

Many (most?) MMOGs put the two things together out of expedience; it's just simpler to let the people who make things sell those things. But these are two very different kinds of game.

Crafting per se is about creation; it's about making, building, constructing, and about trying new combinations to produce unexpected results. It's a non-zero-sum game because you're adding to the total of wealth in the world by creating new wealth -- your success doesn't depend on anyone else's failure. So the creating/building part of crafting winds up being very attractive to many Explorers.

Sales, on the other hand, is a competitive game. A big part of the fun is measuring your success against that of others. This means it tends to attract not Explorers, but Achievers, since the latter are the folks who most enjoy collecting things like money and seeing whose stack is biggest. A sales game can be a lot of fun in a MMOG (EVE Online corp and market players know this well), but it's not for everyone. And it's not inherently part of a crafting game.

So my request to developers is to recognize this distinction. Don't believe that you can attract Explorers to your game by designing a crafting game that requires sales. A sales game is good if it can be played by non-crafters, and a crafting game is good if non-merchants find it rewarding in and of itself.

I offer some ideas on how to accomplish that in my "Player-Centered Crafting Design" essays....

4. Explorers help maintain strong communities.

Trying to attract Explorers by offering game features that respect and reward their interests is not merely about bumping up your subscription numbers with Explorers... although I personally think that's a nice benefit.

A massively multiplayer online game isn't a single-player game. At least as important as your gameplay features (combat, crafting, sales, etc.) will be the community of players that develops inside your game once you release it. Otherwise, what's the point of being massively multiplayer? If your players never need to interact with each other, you might as well save yourself the trouble of writing client/server code and just ship a single-player game with really clever bots.

Assuming you still want to produce a MMOG, it's not good enough to cater solely to Achievers. Achievers tend to become bored quickly -- like locusts, they swarm to a new game, burn through anything resembling "content," then zoom off again to consume the Next Big Game. (Note that I'm not anti-Achiever. Achievers, in proper measure, are good for a multiplayer game; they add tremendous energy. Their approach to gameplay doesn't make them "bad" or "wrong," it's just the expression of their motivations. They expect to be actively and continuously entertained by your product's gameplay features; once that's no longer true, they'll leave. It's that simple.)

Explorers bring multiple benefits to a persistent world:

  • They're great at answering "how do I?" questions because they know the answers and don't hoard them for advantage.
  • They're great at helping keep a game fun by freshening content... if you let them.
  • They tend to add atmosphere to a world by just being around doing in-context things.
  • The more outgoing Explorers make fantastic guides for Achievers who appreciate them.
  • Reward their love of crafting and they'll keep your world supplied with crafted items forever.
If you want to promote a long-lasting community in your game, if in short you want your game world to function and feel like a world, then you need Explorers. You need to explicitly design your game to attract and retain Explorers -- and Socializers, too -- because these are the kinds of players who treat the game world as a world. They form long-lasting attachments to a world, and to the other players in that world, and just by doing the kinds of things they enjoy, they perform the critical world-maintaining functions that benefit every player in that world.

No comments:

Post a Comment