Several weeks ago I discussed the ending and entire first season of A Game of Thrones, the adapted TV series from George R. Martin’s fantasy classic, with two of my best friends. One of them has been a big fan of the author’s for many years; the other was mostly curious and in for the ride. As for myself, I watch pretty much anything that comes with a high fantasy label on it and promises an above-average production quality and cast.
As we drew our final conclusions, we didn’t necessarily agree on what we liked/hated the most about the series. I for one, felt that it had had a very slow start, picking up on pace and depth only after the 3rd or so episode. I also found the script somewhat lacking in places. However, I absolutely loved the setting, the care that had gone into authenticity and atmosphere – that alone justified keeping watching for me, and then there was the character of Tyrion, so brilliantly depicted by its actor, a joy to observe. Unlike me, my book-savvy mate loved the pilot and first few episodes the most. His overall praise was all on how the film makers had respected the original material and how well a lot of it has been put onto screen. I’ve no way to judge this because while I did read the books a long time ago, I frankly didn’t enjoy them at the time (don’t tell him) and so I’ve forgotten most. As for my other friend, he did apparently not notice the dialogues, nor does he care for nice settings in general; he loved the gore and naked skin and that “Sean Bean lost his head in the end!” Right…
Subjectivity can be a beautiful thing. Despite the fact that we all enjoyed different aspects of the series, we arrived at the conclusion that we definitely want to watch the second season when it comes out. We had fun with the first and never did it come to our mind to try battle each other over which one of us had truly found “the correct or better reason” to enjoy the series. How pointless and silly would that be?
For the film makers, the outcome couldn’t have been more successful; instead of only appealing to the book nerd, or the fantasy geek or Conan, they managed to get all three types for an audience. Had they focused on just one of us instead (not to call this a realistic option in this context, but anyway), they’d have cut down their success by 66% and might never afford that announced sequel. As for us – we would’ve had a lot less to talk about together and missed out on the chance to share an experience. I don’t believe I would prefer to watch the series all by myself.
Why we gravitate towards absolute truths (and think we have them)
It’s human nature to assume that our own needs and values are essential and absolute. That’s how we start out in life and got by for a very long time, on a more primal level where survival is a struggle and everyone needs to push through his own needs first. While resources are limited, everyone else is the enemy.
Today, we are a lot more cultivated than that. For one, we don’t live in caves anymore and we enjoy the luxury of having our food carried over for us from across the planet. We still have slaves, but we call them “third world” people, as we enjoy our first-world after-work cocktail at 5AM in the afternoon. We can afford to relax about social pecking orders, a little, and we can dare to switch perspectives – as long as we’re on the safe side and it’s halfway agreeable (there be dragons). Oh yes, a lot more cultivated.
For all our displayed culture and intellectualism, we’re not so far away from our cavemen ancestors. We’re still the most important person in the world and have to be, and we’re still kinda right when others are wrong. Most of all we are still subjects and as such subjective. It’s harder to disagree with yourself than with others, objectively speaking.
Why we don’t want absolute truths (even when we think we do)
When we’re discussing video games, design aspects and what developer teams “should and shouldn’t do” (for us) in our future MMOs, we can only ever hold our stance from a very individual point of view. We’re convinced of what we call fun or challenging or meaningful because it’s fun and challenging and meaningful for us. We play the same MMO, but we do not necessarily play the same game, so our strong opinions easily clash with others. However, it’s exactly this diversity that makes MMOs such a great experience. Yes, I actually believe that.
MMOs are vast worlds, by nature appealing to more than one type of player. And while I am pretty sure I know what I want from them, I’m not sure I’d like things always designed completely in my favor. Frankly, if I was to determine the “3 top focuses” of the next game in development, I wonder if that would really make for a lasting experience. Would I feel entertained enough to play it for months on end?
I myself am no gamer “stereotype”: some days I’m a raider, a theory crafter, a guild leader. On other days I’m a PVPer, utterly uninterested in PVE. I am an explorer always, looking for the next ingame secret, special landmark or beautiful tune. And then I am happy enough to spend a few hours on wardrobe as I chitchat away with friends in guildchat. Those friends again have different priorities than me but they’re an essential part to my gaming experiences – I want friends to be there with me.
So, how am I supposed to find one definition for viable gameplay motivations? Even for myself?
Absolute truths don’t necessarily make for fun games. They certainly don’t make for diverse games and p(l)ayer bases, or even for a game you would enjoy long-term no matter how clearly you perceive your own factors of enjoyment (this moment in time). Maybe you want to eat a Filet Mignon today, but do you also know how to prepare the best one possible? And would you like to eat it ever day, all by yourself?
MMOs have room; they have room for a multitude of playstyles and different players – players with different moods, preferences and priorities. That diversity is part of their selling point, letting us enjoy many facets and thus find something to do for years. It keeps our servers populated too, because it offers room for change and choices. Our disagreements encourage developers to maintain diversity and choices in their games. Did you ever think about it that way?
We can’t define what should be enjoyable to every type of MMO player. We shouldn’t even try and define it too much for ourselves, in an all-exclusive kind of way. This is why we cannot agree on fundamental aspects like “fun”, “challenge” or “meaning” in discussions either; the only thing we can agree on is that “having fun” means that a person is enjoying himself in some shape or form; that he’s having a good time and that this personal, positive outcome justifies his choices for him. Choices which are just as good as ours. Whether we’re watching movies together, playing games or ordering from the breakfast menu, we have valid preferences and motivations that govern our personal choices. If you love mushrooms with your Full English and I don’t, that doesn’t make me any “better” than you. It doesn’t mean mushrooms are lacking nutrition either, just because I happen not to care for them.
MMO players who find fun and meaning where I cannot, are not my opponents. While we might enjoy different things, there’s one thing all of us have in common: we want to enjoy ourselves in online games. We want online games to become the best they can be – and that is something that should unite us.
Now, if some of our wishes seem diametrically opposed, well that’s when I turn to developers: to create games that make room for everybody. For choices, for variety, for alternative, yet equally valid roads we can only benefit from.
In “A Beautiful Mind”, the biographic tale of John Nash’s life and his discovery of the governing dynamics theory, the ideal outcome of a game is being redefined in this not-so-serious analogy; the bottom line being that when looking for summary success (rather than a mutually exclusive approach), players should strive for solutions that are the best for as many as possible, rather than best for one individual. Transferring this philosophy to MMO game design, it means that we all benefit from games that appeal to a variety of players, rather than just one or two. It means that there can be subcultures and niches, all equally satisfied by the same game allowing its player base to define fun and meaning for themselves.
One of the biggest, monumental achievements of World of Warcraft 1.0. was uniting countless gamer types under one banner like no other MMO ever had before; there was something here for everybody! Not everything for everybody maybe, but something for all of us. Sadly, as is often the case, things started to change when WoW became so obviously successful. Today, it doesn’t feel as if the game still means to appeal to the same big crowd – in fact, it’s become rather clear that when Blizzard say “we want to make the game fun for the most players”, what they’re actually saying is “we want to make the game most fun to a group of players”. Apparently they have found the definition for fun in WoW? And so they take choices away from the audience, ultimately losing many of them (losing more and more of them still). There’s no room any more for all of us in Azeroth.
Their entire reasoning is of course a fallacy; they have not in fact achieved to appeal to “the most players”, current quantitative evidence speaks against that. Instead, they’ve reduced the room to co-exist in WoW, they’ve chosen to focus everything on somebody. From a financial viewpoint that makes hardly any sense either: there’s no such thing as making your audience pay for more than one subscription per month. If you want to increase profits, you need to create space for many, equally happy people.
Why my house is still your house
We are not competitors. None of us are in a race for the exclusive formula for fun, challenge or meaning. We don’t make MMOs worlds any more enjoyable by dismissing a variety of playstyles – and we shouldn’t have to. Developers are in charge of how much room their virtual worlds can offer to the audience, of just how wide they want to open the floodgates. They’re the ones responsible to prioritize and balance content – let them fight over how to achieve this. Easy or not, one thing is for certain: we get better games and more colorful communities if they manage this balancing act. If they succeed to create an MMO that defines as much as necessary, as little as possible. Where the player base can be more than mere consumers and all add to the world instead.
I want to live in a bazaar, rather than a cathedral. I prefer the house with different windows and paints, with arches and funny corners, secret tunnels and weird trees. Not a house built after a harmonized plan on paper, finalized a long time ago. I want to explore a garden where wild things keep growing and the next bend in the road is ever unexpected. I want my MMOs to be mazes and bottomless pits.
May be you are an avid RPer, taking joy from things like player housing and cosmetic items. May be you’re a raider who gets kicks out of optimizing his stats and gear. Or maybe you’re a PVPer, looking to gank both the RPer and the raider for equal reasons. Either way, we should be able to live in the same place – even if just to meet someday at a crossroad, to exchange a fleeting glance as we pass down the way.
If the house gets too small, it’s not the people in the room who are the problem.
I will see you there, I hope.