[GG] What if … I told you that making online death threats wasn’t normal?

red dot



It feels like shooting fish in a barrel to mock Gamergate right now.

Once the New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde have come out mocking the “movement” and even The Escapist had to pull some “interviews with gamergate-sympathetic developers” because said developers turned out to be idiots with histories of harassment, they’re pretty much going to be the butt of everyone’s humour for the next few years regardless of my putting the boot in.

What can you really make of a movement which claims to be about journalist ethics but which in practice mostly is about trying to shut down sites/ people they disagree with? Apart from POINT. LAUGH. It’s not about safe spaces for guys and/ or geeks – there are other male dominated hobbies which are way less toxic than gaming (sports, some music scenes). My beloved is big into prog rock and goes out with the guys for regular prog curries or beers and off to see bands or go to music festivals, and in their groups the older guys keep an eye out for the younger ones, try to give them decent life advice and make it about their joint interests, not about hating (tbh they can’t even agree which bands they hate anyway). That’s what a supportive male-dominated hobby could look like, if you want it to.

It would all be quite funny if it wasn’t for the death threats, and in the end it was the death threats that overwhelmed whatever else people thought they were being angry about. In truth, the only thing the participants could all see to agree on was that feminists make them so angry they lose their collective minds. That’s what I picked up from talking to GGers, and it’s nice to see I’m not the only one (that link is a reddit comment from a writer from the Boston Globe who was challenged by GGers to go “look at the proof” – he did Smile ).

There is no culture war. General society is moving into the internet and finally we are at the point where acts that would not be acceptable offline (terrorist threats, trolling) are no longer going to be acceptable online either. I would argue they never were. It was never cool to send death threats to developers or forum mods. Never. People didn’t do it because it was their culture, they did it because they thought they could get away with it.

If you’ve seen any of Sarkeesian’s videos about anti-women tropes in gaming, they’re about as mild and inoffensive as you could imagine while making their point (which in an industry where ‘boob physics’ is a thing, cannot surprise anyone.) Normal people can disagree with things without sending their blood pressure into the danger zone, just by comparison.`

No one is going to stop making games that sell several million copies out of the gate, but gaming constantly reinvents itself when some genres get tired or less profitable or when new markets open up. So it always has been, so it always will be. I have a lot of sympathy though for the poor saps who were fooled into thinking that GamerGate represented them as gamers.

Gamers are more than just the shit stirring reactionary death-threat-sending smack-talking hate-mongers.  There are many many good things that come from our hobby. Friendships that last years, innovative ways to manage online communities and interact with people, opportunities for learning and working together with people from all round the globe. And now it’s time for us to prove it.

[WoW] Proving Grounds–preparing players for group content?



The Proving Grounds are a one-person instance in WoW where you can practice tanking, healing, or dps roles with and against mobs that are a bit more interactive than training dummies. There are some NPCs that will help you, and the various mobs have different abilities and/or need to be attached from different directions.

So far, so good, it’s a neat concept. I have friends and guildies who love the Proving Ground mini game; it has harder and harder modes and you can keep going until you get to Infinite Mode which means carry on until you are bored or wipe. The idea also is that it is a good way to practice the roles before trying group content. So in the next expansion, you will have to complete the Proving Ground for your role at Silver level (Bronze is the easiest, Silver next step up) before you will be able to queue for heroic instances.

If there is an issue with the Proving Grounds though, it is this. Bronze level is easy and still does the job of making you use different tactics for different mobs. The more difficult tiers I find tuned harder (or at least different) than what you generally will be asked to do do in instances; harder in the sense of no one to help, and hard timers (i.e. count down in the corner).  So Silver Mode in WoD could actually be harder in some senses than the content it will be used to gate, and still not guarantee that people who pass it will be useful in heroic groups.

Also when the game does this in single player mode, it penalises some classes/ specs more than others because the encounters are tuned by role, not by class or spec. For example, if I’m doing a tanking Proving Ground on my warrior, my dps will be less than that of the other tanks because of class choice. It doesn’t make it impossible (they do tune it reasonably from that point of view), but it will be harder for me to make the timers, even if my tanking is otherwise flawless.

It’s not necessarily bad for the players if the gatekeeping requires a higher skill level than the instances. It implies at least that the people you will be queuing with will be good enough to manage the heroic. But if the gatekeeping keeps out too many people who would have been fine in the groups but are no longer allowed to queue then a) people will leave the game and b) queue length will increase. It’s a fine line. My confidence in my WoW skills is very low at the moment, so I’m assuming I probably won’t be able to do it. Still, there’s always pet battles.




The thing that annoys me most about Proving Grounds is that in the tanking one, you get an NPC healer who also nukes mobs. You have to tab around to find out which one they are nuking so that you can make sure to hold aggro on it. In a just universe, you’d be able to mark the mobs so that you can control which order the healer kills them in – IMO that would be a far more useful thing to learn before queuing for instances than whether or not you can kill illusionary mobs in under 10s.

It does make me wonder about how else you could train players to be more skilled and confident in group roles.

[MMOs] Farewell Titan: Beginning of the end, or end of the beginning?

Blizzard broke the news this week that they have cancelled development on the MMO they had in development for the past few years, codenamed Titan.

This news does not come as a surprise. For two reasons.

1.  When a project has been kicking around this long, has been through complete redesigns, and the ‘buzz’ we’re hearing about it still doesn’t sound particularly interesting, the chances of it becoming a massive hit are fairly minimal. It would have been an albatross, not the “omg successor to WoW’ that some people were touting.

2. I’m not saying MMOs are finished, but clearly producing huge expensive MMOs  is not the way to bet. There are successful games which involve massive numbers of players, which may have a lot in common with MMOs, but they aren’t based on the classic Diku model, or even the less common EVE model. If there is a true successor to WoW, in terms of being a breakout viral hit that involves millions of people then it is Minecraft, not the large WoW-alikes.

So what changed? The games have become more refined, gameplay has improved, graphics have improved (hugely), lots of new ideas have been tried. The players changed. The internet and social media became more mainstream. People learned that there are large downsides to interacting with massive numbers of people. There are also many many more games on the market where you can interact with massive numbers of players competitively, with carefully designed gameplay, in more controlled ways than just throwing everyone into a virtual world together.

This is a post I wrote on rpg.net about why MMOs are not the in-thing any more:

The genre feels increasingly stale. There are plenty of players with enthusiasm to try new games, but they tend to demand very similar features. They also tend not to want to stick with a new game for more than a few months, which isn’t a problem per se, but means it’s harder to form new communities. They also tend to be much less patient than players were in the past when we were all a bit new to the whole idea.

One reason is that people are increasingly likely to see being around massive numbers of people as a downside, not an upside. You need massive numbers for some mechanics: to simulate an economy and support a quick LFG queue and good PvP ladders. But other than that, actually being in a gameworld with that many people can be frustrating. And ultimately the elitist, more abusive elements have tended to have a big influence on the culture (I know not every elitist player is abusive, some of them are lovely) — it’s increasingly challenging to learn a new game when you have a high chance of meeting hostile oldbies in your groups.

Another is that so much of the discovery about MMOs is probably on neat little websites before the game even launches. And due to competitiveness in the player base there is an increasing pressure for players to have read it. That means the content barely lasts any time at all before it is beaten unless there is an unholy grind involved. Not a problem, but the discovery process was a big part of the appeal of the MMO back in the day.

It’s also about the tendency of open world games with PvP and a full economy (like EVE) to become really cut-throat. It’s great for the players who love it, but there’s a limit to how many of that type of game can fruitfully exist. And they tend to drive out anyone else from their games.

I think there’s a huge future in open world games — but they’ll be partitioned neatly between single player elements, co-op elements (like raiding), PvP elements, massive elements (like the economy), large group elements, and maybe even open world server shards with contained numbers. Something like Diablo3 (with better designed economy) is going to be a better picture;  you can play solo or with friends, or in LFG, or with the economy, and chat on your friends list and share pictures of your armour — and each of those parts of the game is neatly designed for that kind of group of people.

I think there is still a possibility for a more social open world type of game to become a breakout hit at some point, but it will do so by reaching out to people who are not currently core gamers (like Minecraft did). I think there are definitely still possibilities for huge procedural simulationist/ survival type open world games to become breakout hits. But for the rest of the MMO-type genre I think success will be much smaller scale – the pattern of the big influx of players and then drop off after a month or so is too frequently seen to blame on individual games and the days of the huge investment AAA MMO as we know it are done. There will still be successes and opportunities, but devs will have to design around the steady state numbers.

And maybe, sometime in the future, the MU* model of player run shards – which has been so successful in Minecraft – will re-enter the MMO-type area and the cycle will begin again.

Still, we’ll always have Warcraft.

Here’s a couple more blog posts from other people on similar themes, go read them they are good! (Will add more tonight, feel free to suggest links in the comments).

[Wildstar] Game difficulty, player confidence.

“… each struggling MMO is struggling in its own way.”

— Tolstoy (sort of)

I have read a few blog posts this week about Wildstar, and the inevitable subscription drop-off and server merge. I’d be hard pressed at this point to name a recent subscription MMO that hadn’t experienced a drop-off after the first couple of months. Players have wondered whether the game’s difficulty compared with other similar MMOs may be part of the explanation for why the new MMO on the block has failed to break the 3-monther pattern.

I played the game in Beta and wasn’t hooked, but at the same time, when so many other MMOs have trodden the same path it’s hard to pick out anything exceptional about this one. Except that the magical lightning-in-a-bottle MMO factor that will get a game to go viral and grow the playerbase rather than shrinking doesn’t seem to be there. It isn’t doom for Wildstar though – other games such as SWTOR and Final Fantasy 14 have recovered from the slump and stabilised the playerbase at a lower level. At this point no MMO is going to go viral unless its new and different, or appeals to a wildly different audience from the usual crowd. WoW did it. Minecraft did it. Lots of other games were decently successful but without setting the world alight, and that’s fine.

At the same time, if their target core audience was hardcore raiders, that was only ever going to be a small proportion of the player base. And it was always likely that unless those people were very burned out with WoW, they’d be tempted back for the next expansion. It’s certainly possible to raid hardcore in two different games at the same time, but not when one of them has a new expansion out.

I did like Keen’s analysis of ‘the quit wall’ in games. “People reach the wall and they quit.”  It could be a frustrating grind, or a really hard solo quest, or dungeon that it is impossible to find a group for – whatever it is, it becomes so frustrating that players no longer enjoy the game because they cannot see a path to the next goal that looks achievable.

I think of difficulty as being in two types:

  1. Something you could do with time and effort and/or help from other players, but it might take more time and effort (and motivation) than you want to spend.
  2. Something you just can’t do, and you aren’t confident that time and effort would change that.

When you describe it in these terms, 1) sounds like a rational choice. If it takes me 2 hours to run a dungeon and I’d need to run it 20 times to get the tokens that I need, I could rationally step back and think “Whoa, 40 hours for one doodad that will probably be obsolete in the next patch. No thanks.” Sometimes the sheer sticker shock when you realise how much hassle will be involved is enough to put people off even trying.  2) is a judgement call – how long do you try an event/ grind/ etc. before you decide that it isn’t possible?

So our judging difficulty is all about confidence. How good am I at succeeding in difficult things? (Women, incidentally, tend to underestimate this, men are more likely to overestimate – they call this ‘the confidence gap’). If people are already stressed out by other aspects of the game (eg. being yelled at for being a newbie in instances) then they are already likely to be feeling less confident.

So if you put a difficulty wall in a game, the least confident people are most likely to leave first. If your game attracts a crowd who are bullying and elitist, more of the other players will lose confidence and leave. It may be because they are bad players who couldn’t keep up. Or it may be because they lost the will to try or felt they would not be able to learn quickly enough. In either case, the player base reduces.

But still, admitting to yourself that a game is too difficult feels like failure for a gamer. It’s hard to do and even harder to discuss – I think every time I have written a blog post about where I thought part of a game was overtuned, I’ve been challenged on that by people who felt quite strongly about wanting their games to stay difficult.

So this is a tough topic. But does anyone want to share a time when difficulty made them decide to drop a game and how that felt? I never did complete the solo part of the legendary WoW quest this expansion – it was too hard for me and my shadow priest, and I don’t play MMOs because I want to do hard solo content (I’d get Dark Souls if I wanted that). And though I will play the game again, I will always now feel that the designers are telling me it’s too hard for me, and I’m probably not going to raid other than very casually. Because I got the message.

[Diablo] Seasons greetings, and the demotivating effect of world achievements


wn.com review of GoT episode

So, a new patch dropped recently in Diablo 3 and with it new loot and the new concept of game seasons. A season is like a ladder event from Diablo 2 but with fewer scoreboards and more season-specific loot and rewards. If you create a seasonal character, it will be wiped at the end of the season but other than that, you will have an entirely new game to play with other season specific character. Tragically, there aren’t any seasonal graphics changes – I thought maybe some season-themed foliage or NPC garb might have been cool but clearly Sanctuary is clearly Not That Kind of world.

Ladders have an evil Pavlovian effect. You think ‘Oh, I could start a new character!’, and then the first levels go so quickly and you find yourself levelling up the Blacksmith again and before you know it, Diablo has neatly inserted itself (again) as your go-to game for those moments when you want to kill demons in an explody way by clicking on them, without needing too much thinking. I think the seasons will be massively successful for Blizzard. The other bonus is that a new season/ ladder is the perfect time to lure your bestie/ partner/ sister into playing the game with you again. A new start with everyone back on a level playing field is appealing for drawing back old players who drifted, and it is the same reason MMO expansions tend to clear the decks swiftly of any game changing advantages for people who played the last expansion to death.

Not only is new game plus (which this isn’t strictly, I know) a time honored way to encourage players to keep playing a game they already finished, but levelling ladders were a mechanic that was closely associated with Diablo 2 also. Thematically, it fits. Genius really.

It’s all great until you and your levelling buddy have knocked off the Skeleton King and reached the heady heights of level 25 and …. you see a world broadcast informing you that legolasxx has just gotten the world first paragon 50 seasonal character. But this season only started this morning, you protest, how is that even possible?

Same old, same old. Anyone else lured back by the new season? I think D3 is playing very well these days.

[Problem Players] Guild culture, game culture, gamer culture (with notes on GamerGate)


 In life, a lot of the way we behave is drawn from the social groups we hang out with and the wider culture and societies we grew up in. Humans are social animals. We know what kinds of acts will make our friends like us more, and we also can look at high status figures in our groups and try to be more like them. We also fear being shunned or cast out of the group.

There are also reasons why (most) people don’t do things that local culture feels to be anti-social.  Negative consequences include being thrown out of the group or being punished by group appointed peacekeepers  — eg. guild leader, forum mods, or even the police or feds. And for anyone with social anxiety (that’s most people to some extent), fear of those things happening – particularly social exclusion – is very strong.

So if a group culture can reinforce positive behaviour and punish problem behaviours, if we could encourage groups to take on board behaviours that we want to see, that could keep problem players and behaviours under control. This is a particularly timely topic right now, when parts of the gamer community are fracturing because of differences in the behaviours they are prepared to tolerate (or reward).

That fracture will never be repaired. Moderate gamers could make common cause once the ultra hateful total-war-against-women faction are pushed out though, and that is very likely to happen.

The other baseline for talking about gamer cultures is the notion of geek social fallacies (GSF). This goes along with the idea that gamers are poorly socialised geeks – I don’t think this was ever true in the main (you can tell this by the number of us who hold down perfectly decent relationships with friends and family), but there is a subgroup who cling tightly to that self-identity. In any case, their social groups were always likely to feel angry and oppressed and that they need to be loyal to each other because regular social humans won’t want them.

Guild Culture

Time was, your guild was your portal to multi-player gaming. They are your team, the people you play with regularly, the people you train with regularly if your game has group content that is difficult and/or competitive. At the more competitive ends of the spectrum guild leaders, with their power to kick people out of the guild, are pretty much dictators. Players who want to maintain access to the social and gaming benefits of the guild need to not piss the guild leader off, or they risk being thrown out. Alongside the dictatorial guild leader, hard core guilds tended to be quite fascist in their demands that players should put the needs of the group above their own. Loyalty was demanded, ‘treachery’ punished, and the way to prove yourself could be made arbitrarily difficult. The rewards were good though – being part of a tight knit cadre where you could schedule your weekly routine around your hobby. Shared victories. Great memories.

When servers were more limited, a guild would care about its server reputation. Players would care about their reputations. If a player showed some bad behaviour, you could report it to their guild leader who would probably tell them to knock it off. Sure there were always some bad boy guilds who felt they were so superior to the common folk that normal rules didn’t apply, but they were never the majority.

So guild culture is set by the guild leader, and every player in the guild contributes to it.

What has changed as MMOs have become more gamified is that being able to play at the desired skill level of the rest of the group has become more important to this social cohesion. It becomes harder and harder to keep a social guild together when the best X players are heading off every week to do hard, well rewarded content and everyone else is sitting around. I don’t say social guilds are impossible, they work very well when everyone is very clear about their expectations (one of those expectations is that ultra hard-core players will probably go find an ultra hard-core guild and stop trying to turn the social guild into something it is not.)

And as that changed, suddenly guild leaders felt more pressured to keep ‘problem players’ (could be anyone with poor impulse control) in the guild if they are needed for the raid team. Other players felt forced to put up with a horrid guild culture to sustain that raid access. Suddenly the only criteria are ‘can they play well’ and ‘will they turn up regularly’.

It’s not true of every guild or even most. There are plenty out there who continue to require that members behave like grown up human beings and not lord of the flies. Players who value that will be able to find a home. There will also be plenty where ‘don’t talk about politics’ is one of the pieces of guild culture.

But now times are changing again. The hard-core, never a huge proportion of the player base, has less of a grip on access to group content. Group finders, raid finders, these things all make that need for guild membership less total for a player who wants to see the endgame unless they are committed to the most challenging content. In truth, staying with a game long enough to see endgame is probably less prevalent than in times past. At the same time, the gamers who used to make up those hard-core guilds have gotten older, and in many cases more mature. It is more accepted now that people will want to plan their game time around families or other commitments. And also, the real problem players tend not to be good team players anyway so wouldn’t fit the disciplined guild team model. There are exceptions. Some of those are connected with larger game culture (such as griefing being widely acceptable in EVE). And finally, people are more likely to game in groups dominated by people they have met outside the game, either online or in real life. So the culture and the leadership doesn’t stay in neat game silos.

The key point though is that the culture of this type of group is dominated by the leadership. And that a lot of players will go along with being led if the results lead to fun gameplay for them. And they will do it without too much critical thought about what they are being asked to do, and will be willing to swallow a lot of objections if it means staying in the group. This is more of a human weakness than anything specific to guilds.

So how can games encourage better guild cultures? I’ll leave this as an open question, because I think it is less of an issue now than in the past. If there were hard rules in the game to discourage problem behaviour, guild cultures would automatically improve (for those who need improving). Less requirement for organised grouping is more likely to destroy guilds, rather than just change them. And it’s hard to reward people such as guild leaders for basically being decent human beings.

The issue of what to do with a problem guild is larger than ever, especially when they aren’t limited to a specific game. How to stop people whose idea of fun is making your life miserable. And how to make sure they know where the lines are beyond which it isn’t right to go.  But most players, most of the time, will not have to deal with problem guilds.

Game Culture

Why is it that in pick up groups in FF14 or SWTOR, other players seem more polite than they do in WoW? (This is based on my observation).

  1. It’s the culture of the game. They are all similar in other respects.
  2. WoW is just that much larger. While the good runs vastly outnumber the bad ones, you are just more likely to run into that one bad egg in WoW. And people always remember the bad experiences more.

When we talk about game culture, we are discussing something that describes a whole swathe of behaviours ranging from when you are ‘allowed’ to roll need on loot to what kind of discussions you are ‘allowed’ to have on the in-game chat channels. Unlike with guild culture, there is no single person with authority to reward or punish behaviour. Instead, in MMOs, the rest of the player base will tend to make its feelings known. Come out with something homophobic (for example) in public chat on a more tolerant server and expect to be a) reported and b) slagged off in chat by many other players, some of whom will be more influential on the server.

Every game and every server will have its own cultural quirks, but there are still a few general observations. There are always exceptions, of course.

  • Competitive PvP games tend to have more aggressive, anger-tolerant communities
  • RP servers tend to be more sociable and well behaved
  • Games where everyone does things with their guild tend to have quieter chat channels

Sandbox games also offer many more opportunities to grief other players. Where the game does not explicitly prevent behaviour, it is very difficult for the rest of the player base to show their distaste for it.

Gamer Culture

Gamer culture is currently in flux. Here’s my brief rundown though. In the beginning of computer gaming, through to the early 80s, gaming wasn’t particularly strongly gendered or associated with bad boy behaviour. It was geeky for sure, but it was also really common when I was at school to go round your friend’s house to play on their ZX Spectrum or BBC B computer.

The gaming industry had a crash mid 80s. After that, when it was being rebuilt, marketing people decided that their core audience was going to be young men. They were dubbed core gamers. Games were marketed explicitly to them. And the core audience responded. Games sold. The industry did well. A lot of gamers got very entitled – after all, video games were for young guys, along with guns, beer, titties, fast cars, and Maxim. All the advertising tells you so. So the majority of AAA gaming was aimed squarely at this group.

Some of the other gamers drifted away to new hobbies. Others kept on supporting the games they liked but drifted further from the mainstream. Why even buy a console if the only games it will have are genres you don’t like? We could see this pattern breaking up though. Nintendo proved with the Wii that there was a huge market longing for fun family games. Sony ran with Japanese RPGs, massively popular among the non core gamer group. Themepark MMOs picked up a lot of female gamers.

So back to now when there are a large number of gamers who don’t fit the core gamer archetype. Games of all sorts are getting out into the mainstream, helped by smartphones and mobile gaming.

In addition to this, a subset of  gamers identify as poorly socialised geeks. It doesn’t matter why this is exactly except to note that gamer communities have been accepting to them and have been their safe spaces to hang out. Add to that the guild/ group mechanics of liking to follow strong leaders and we can see how vulnerable these people (mostly guys) are to being used as massive griefing machines by bored sociopaths who don’t see why the boundaries of the game end at the client – or to put it another way, they want to play MMO PvP in real life. It would actually be better for a lot of these people to just find a game they like and play that, they’d be fine in EVE if they would just stay there. They might even enjoy it.

But now gamers are up in arms. Core gamers feel as though they are fighting for their ancient rights against the legion of social justice warriors who would like to play female characters in decent armour. Everyone is against game journalists. And the ultra arseholes are taking an opportunity to punish women (also other minorities but the level of abuse that female devs and journos get is shocking).

The oddness to me about GamerGame is that it all seems so pointless, unless you buy into the culture war. No one is going to stop making video games that appeal to young men, there’s no much money in it. We have known for years about the close links between the gaming industry and journalists, anyone who was paying attention knew that. So all that we have left is a small number of people who think its fun to make death and rape threats to women who get out of line. Then a larger number of people who are tired of the sexism in the industry (again this isn’t really debatable) and have decided this is a good time to make a stand.   Not to mention the usual 4chan suspects who are trying to fight a MMO PvP fight for the lulz. And a load of people in general who are exploring what tactics work to get their messages over on social media, and mostly just annoying each other a lot.

Just as an experiment, I retweeted a headline from the examiner “#GamerGate revealed as misogynist and racist movement from 4chan” ; within a minute I had 5 tweets from strangers telling me how bad examiner is or that 4chan doesn’t work like that. None of them were rude. And 6 other people had retweeted my link. It wasn’t harassment. But my retweet got to a lot more people for a lot less effort than the attempts of the people who wanted to tell me they thought it was incorrect. In social media, it is very hard to suppress the message.

Gamer culture is changing, though. The trolls will increasingly be excluded, because everyone else will realise they just make them look worse. But social media right now is like the Wild West, it cannot yet be tamed.

[Problem Players] What if games didn’t make people angry?

So I talked a bit in the last post about problem behaviour. I haven’t tried to define yet what it is. Before I try to do that,  I want to talk about what triggers problem behaviour – because we assume that people are not like this all the time. (If they are, then they probably are problem players.)

The reasons that players act up or rage out are basically down to: rage/ frustration, boredom, and/ or peer pressure/ local culture. Maybe another way for games to tackle this issue is to address those directly.


Gaming and Frustration

Things that (can) cause frustration while gaming:

  • Losing in a competitive game
  • Team members playing badly
  • You playing badly
  • Waiting around
  • Playing a game you don’t really want to play because you want the rewards
  • Being taunted by other players
  • Facing a barrier to an in-game goal
  • Feeling let down by other players
  • Being excluded socially by other players
  • Learning new content
  • Guild drama
  • Having to miss an in game event due to RL
  • Playing with people who don’t speak your language
  • Playing with people of very different skill levels to yourself
  • Playing with other people
  • Bugs
  • Staying up too late
  • Having a bad day (anything else outside the game)


Yup, a game that tried to eliminate frustration would lose most of its gaming aspects. It would have no competition, probably no multi-player, minimal challenge, and might start playing calming music at you and telling to relax if the time was getting late. It might still be fun. There are games like Journey that are designed to be as calming for the player as possible – and I love Journey — but it wouldn’t be an MMO as we’d know it. It is debatable how far it would really even be a game, and no game can really stop you from having had a  bad day at work or an argument with your partner.

Some of these areas could be addressed in games, though. You can reduce the frustration of team members playing badly by making team events easier, or making the matching better so you are always playing with or against people of similar skill ratings to yourself. You can stop people staying up late by having the server close down at night. You can reduce the frustration of people feeling excluded by having random group finders (most MMOs these days). You can reduce guild drama by not having guilds. You can reduce the frustration of not understanding people by not allowing players to communicate using free text (Hearthstone, Free Realms (RIP)). Learning new content can be less frustrating by making it more obvious what the player needs to do, or making the new content easier. Different games can and do experiment with these kinds of mechanics.

Not all of those things will make a game more fun for all players. That is the payoff for less frustrating games.

The elephant in the room is the trigger that I have marked in red in the list – it is frustrating to feel forced to do content you don’t enjoy because you feel you need the reward. The reward doesn’t need to be big or important to lure people into this play style. People who feel they need to min-max (for whatever reason – being an elite gamer, playing ‘properly’ etc.) will feel pressured to pick up as many of the rewards as they can.  This has been an ongoing issue with Themepark games. Warcraft for example has made a lot of tweaks to their raiding schemas due to players feeling they need to maximise their loot options. And every tweak reduces options for those players who don’t feel the need to min-max. The players who are mature enough to manage their gaming do suffer for the sake of those who claim they are being forced to run content. HINT: No one is forcing you.

Not all of those things will make a game more fun for all players. That is the payoff for less frustrating games.

On a more futuristic level, games could try to measure when a player is becoming frustrated. Maybe the player’s avatar jumps around more, for example. Maybe some day authenticators will be worn and will have blood pressure or heart rate monitors built in.  Or the game could ask if the player is feeling stressed, or give them a button to press (“press this button if you wish you could slap your opponent”). If so, maybe they could be directed to less stressful content. “Go pick some flowers, deathknightxxx, you need to chill out!” At the cost of removing some player choice, bad behaviour could be reduced. (Would it be a fun game? Who knows?)

Perhaps we don’t need to reduce player choice. Maybe when there is some calmer paced content available, players will choose to do that instead when they don’t feel up for the hassle of grouping. “Yeah right,” you may  think, but actually this is one of the appeals of big MMOs. If you log in and want to do something non-stressful, you can opt for gathering or redesigning the interior of your guild house.


Boredom: For the Lulz

Bored players are both the joy and the pain of MMOs. This is because boredom is a trigger for player initiated activity. Some people use it to devise really cool ways to entertain themselves and each other. Plenty of social guilds run really fun events, for example – quiz nights, scavenger hunts, wide ranging RP events, server-wide markets.

Boredom triggers players to sit around talking to each other. When people talk about modern MMOs being less social due to lack of downtime, this is what they mean.

Boredom triggers players to go and explore, or think up new challenges for themselves and each other.

Boredom has probably been the source of most of the best MMO player stories we’ve ever had. And it definitely is the source of most of the good stories you have ever read about sandbox games (in which the player is expected to be bored a lot of the time, that’s part of the appeal, and is why people say you have to make your own fun in these games).

But boredom also means the cat starts to play with the box. It can trigger people to go off and try to mess around with other players, for the lulz. And that means it can trigger problem behaviour also. Granted, in some games, the difference between problem behaviour and productive behaviour is very small – that is where the game culture comes in.

So this leaves a couple of questions.

  1. How to encourage players to start thinking about whether it’s time for them to take a break from the game?
  2. How to help boredom trigger good outcomes?

With (1), MMOs often try to keep people as long as possible which means a committed player will be encouraged to stay in the game long after they are actually burned out and bored. It doesn’t have to be this way. They could be more proactive with a call and return approach. To do this, the game needs to give benefits for the players who keep playing but also make it quick and easy for players who have taken a break to catch up and be able to play with their friends again. I think Blizzard has transferred smoothly to this type of model with Warcraft. There seems to be an understanding now that many players will not stay for an entire expansion. But at the same time, the game needs to stay fun for the players who don’t dip in and out. They need to feel their commitment was worthwhile.

Again, it’s a payoff. Making it easier for players to come and go will reduce the number of bored players hanging around, it will also reduce dev income and may make the game less fun for the committed core players. That’s a big risk. We also hope people will be able to decide for themselves when a break is warrented.

With 2, it is all about the in-game culture and the player’s social circle. Most people don’t do things for the lulz without an appreciative audience. And they can’t recruit a group to do it with them if no one is interested. It is also harder to recruit people to the cause if the majority of the players shun that type of activity. In any case, this brings me to … guild culture, game culture, gamer culture – which is a subject for the next post.