Raph Koster on the Bartle Controversy

YodaA few days ago after the fog of battle finally cleared, Raph Koster the resident Yoda and Zen master of virtual worlds weighed in on the Richard Bartle controversy. I knew it was just a matter of time before Raph would deposit his pearls of wisdom into the debate. Leading his article off with a direct rebuttal to the circling of virtual wagons from the designers at 38 Studios, he made some noteworthy observations that seemed to echo what I discussed in my previous article on the subject.

While I respectfully disagree with some of what Blackguard and Moorgard have said on this Bartle issue, they have my genuine admiration in that they are a rare breed of developer that actually believes in engaging the MMO community by means of open discussion. If the Bartle/MUD issue has taught us one thing,  it’s that we can most certainly all benefit from the free exchange of views and ideas. Hopefully the MMO industry will benefit by producing better MMO’s.

Getting back to the Raph’s comments, here’s one quote from that he posted on June 27, 2008 that caught my attention and has seemed to generate a lot of buzz and interest:

MMOs have removed more features from MUD gameplay than they have added

I completely agree with him. Successful MMO’s like WoW are reducing the number of features that are available to players from previous MMO’s. Instead of a lot of features poorly done, Blizzard has taken a few features and polished them to great success. Having a polished MMO has obviously been a great boon to the video game industry. But, there is a downside.

The problem is that those features are designed to attract the achiever and killer archetype while starving out explorers and socializers. By driving out the latter group and pandering to the former group, it has the effect creating a player demographic that is one-dimensional, bland and uninteresting. Just as a normal person would soon find a steady diet of pizza and burgers boring, why then would someone want to be part of a virtual world that is utterly dominated by two types of players? I would content that players are the greatest asset that a MMO has. It makes sense that more player variety makes for more compelling and interesting virtual worlds.

The Influence of WoW on New MMO’s

Now we can clearly see that WoW’s success has affected the design philosophy of other MMO companies such as EA Mythic. Check out the following telling quote from a G4TV interview with Warhammer Online Creative Director Paul Barnett where he said the following:

It’s fantasy with all the crap taken out…it’s all the boring bits taken out

This is a reference to the *hardship* of having to run back to your corpse after dying. It’s difficult to imagine what could be left in MMO’s that is “boring” that Blizzard hasn’t already surgically removed but I’m sure they’ll find a way.

The Cost of the Cult of Polish

There’s been a price for the focus and polish that Blizzard has introduced as the new gospel of MMO development. Here’s what I said on June 24, 2008 with regard to the idea of player freedom and the apparent devolution of MMO’s which I feel are somewhat parallel to Raph’s observations:

Today’s MMO industry is literally devolving instead of evolving. We see less freedom, less community and fewer consequences. Instead we get more restrictions and control.

Fewer features and mechanics definitely reduces the ways a player can express themselves in the game world and has the effect of reducing player freedom. The fact that MMO’s like WoW have reduced the ways that players can enjoy and express themselves is I feel one of the major thrusts of what Bartle is saying. Without more emphasis on exploring and socializing, those kinds of player archetypes will migrate to a MMO that supports those features. What’s worse is they may even stop playing MMO’s altogether. You would think that Blizzard would want to broaden their demographic appeal by being more inclusive then exclusive.

Raph addresses this lack of variety and monotony with an analogy about popular music:

By analogy, Bartle, like many of us, is arguing from the perspective of all music — all virtual worlds. And his detractors are people who only listen to indie rock from the Athens, GA, area circa 1989. All Richard is asking for is for someone to please play some jazz.

That’s exactly the point that Bartle is making. It’s a call to arms to MMO developers to start widening the appeal of their MMO’s by serving more then just pepperoni pizza and cheese burgers on the menu i.e. content that just isn’t directed solely toward achievers (PVE) and killers (PVP).

Blizzard’s Admission

Tim Howego in a great article entitled Peeking Into Blizzard’s Development Process explains that Blizzard at the recent World Wide Invitational in Paris revealed that they have a very small staff that works on non-item generating parts of the game such as holidays. That’s a staggering admission when you consider the $520 million in profits that they have earned from WoW and the economies of scale that having 10 million subscribers gives them.

Blizzard could be doing much more to enhance their game world for explorers and socializers. Instead they are putting funneling their profits into e-sports, motion pictures, card games, action figures and sword replicas. All well and good but why so little content for role-players? Where are the GM events? Where are the tools for players to create their own events and content? Where is the player housing? Where are the guild halls? Where is the ability for players to make a profound and lasting impact on the world?

At the end of Koster’s piece he states that incremental evolution toward a true virtual world may not a bad thing after all:

Failure to evolve more radically isn’t a flaw — in that sense, I agree completely with Moorgard. But then, I tend to think that all the current MMOs in the game industry are already the Old Guard relative to the new webby folks.

And all’s well that ends well in the warm and fuzzy MMO blogosphere. Or is it? Here’s where I disagree with Raph Koster. I feel that most MMO’s today suffer from a lack of ambition. Those dozen or so MMO power brokers that have a stranglehold on the medium are a timid lot. Like Blizzard, they and their investors are afraid to try new things. The result is a trend to go backwards and do the safe thing.  It’s been almost 10 years since the release of EverQuest yet we are truly no further ahead in MMO development.

The Crux of the Problem: A Lack of Will

Before you can evolve you have to *want* to evolve. You just don’t stumble upon greatness; you need to aspire to something greater. First comes the desire, and then comes the attempt to fulfill that desire. When we stop talking about virtual worlds and instead talk about MMO’s we risk removing the “world” from the game.  That is precisely the mindset of Blizzard and the rest of the MMO industry. They are comfortable where they are right now. Evolution toward creating a true virtual world is not a priority.

In the end Richard Bartle’s provocative and sometimes misunderstood comments have been a boon to a MMO industry that has grown complacent and predictable. The recent campaign to discredit him and the importance of MUDs has essentially backfired. Bartle’s case for making better MMO’s has received a great deal of publicity as a result. Hopefully this debate will inspire someone in the MMO industry or some other field to start dreaming of the endless and exciting possibilities that will someday await us in fully realized virtual worlds.

-Wolfshead

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