It’s The Dancing, Stupid

From Cnet’s Dan Terdiman, an interview with the PARC PlayOn team, plaintively /auctioning their wares…

“When faced with the decision, ‘Do I put in another dungeon or do I improve the experience for (groups of players)?'” said Ducheneaut, publishers often say “‘I’ll put in another dungeon.’ I think that’s incredibly shortsighted.”

That’s because the PARC team–whose project and blog are called PlayOn–firmly believes there’s real money to be made in designing MMOs so that they make it substantially easier for players to not only slay beasts together, but also communicate and socialize.

The group acknowledges that it may be hard to convince publishers to change fundamental design principles of existing games in order to improve socialization. But should publishers do so, it may well make worthwhile the countless hours the team has spent collecting and analyzing data about the ways people play MMOs.

I suspect a more fundamental problem is that MMO publishers tend to keep people on staff inhouse who also spend countless hours collecting and analyzing data, which is then ignored and another expansion involving 15 dungeons is released into the wild, because that is what distributors look for when printing shiny boxes on store shelves.

Expansions == more content. That’s a given. Occasionally they have other things (Camelot traditionally introduced newer engine versions, for example, as NDL/Gamebryo became less and less bugridden) but publishing a CD or 4 and cramming a gig worth of models and textures on it is the most cost-effective way to (a) get those models and textures and thus an extended gameplay experience into the customer’s hands and (b) not incidentally, keep an ongoing development team paid.

Social experiences are important. Vitally important. Game-destroying if you don’t get them right. But they’re not the demesne of the expansion. They’re what you should have included in the first place, and if you didn’t get them right, your live team is working on pushing them to everyone, not just whomever paid for Expansion X.

“I think we can make a dollars-and-cents argument,” Ducheneaut said. “They can look at a new dungeon and how many extra players it’ll get them, and we can counter very easily, because now we have the numbers (showing the value of improved socialization tools) and you can translate that into money.”

This seems more like self-justification than an actual argument. If a game needs improved socialization tools, that is a core function of the game that is missing. Upselling it is a hideously bad idea. Socialization is, at the core, what these games are. If, for example, your game is missing a decent Looking for Group interface (using a purely hypothetical example) then trying to use “NEW LFG SYSTEM!” as an expansion bullet point is not only something that will spread ill will among your players, who rightfully expect that such a thing is what they originally paid for in the first place, but also won’t work when deployed because by limiting it to the subset of users who paid for the expansion, you’ve hard-capped the adoption of a social system. Which will kill it.

So why is this a problem?

And to Ducheneaut, it’s not all that surprising that MMO publishers would fall short on some of the socialization elements that could make their games and the environments in them seem more lifelike.

“It’s incredible the palette of skills you need to design these spaces in the right way,” he said.

Among the skills that would be helpful would be urban planning, sociology and politics, fields of expertise game companies are not brimming with.

Oh, that’s right. We’re dumb. Yep, I’ll cut em a check right now.