Why They Hate Richard Bartle

by Wolfshead on June 24, 2008

MosesThis past week has seen some controversy stemming from the interview Richard Bartle gave to Massively that asks the grandfather of MMO’s how he’d improve World of Warcraft. Much of the brouhaha is centered around his critical assessment of the MMO industry due to it’s lack of innovation. Specifically he points to Warhammer Online being a clone of WoW which brings very little new to the genre. He also questions many of the design decisions made by Blizzard such as Karazhan, that 10 person instance that all but destroyed most WoW guilds when it first came out.

Well lots of folks are upset with Richard Bartle including players, bloggers and some MMO developers. Why? On the surface it’s because he has the temerity to speak his mind and tell the truth by challenging the conventional wisdom that WoW is the best the MMO industry can do in 2008. The truth being that MMO companies have failed to deliver on the awesome potential and promise of virtual worlds. The truth being that players don’t like to hear that they have been hoodwinked into purchasing another EQ/WoW clone game. It seems daring to speak against good King Blizzard is an unforgivable sin. Even contemplating that WoW should be shut down is grounds for treason of the highest order.

To get a sense of the impact of Bartle it’s essential to understand his past contribution to MMO’s and to read his insightful articles. Probably his most famous work is Players Who Suit MUDS. His essay for Gamasutra entitled Why Virtual World’s are Designed By Newbies is also a classic. He’s also a published author. Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Bartle’s excellent book Designing Virtual Worlds:

To design a virtual world is perhaps the greatest act of creative imagination there can be. The possibilities are absolutely limitless! — you can make and do anything in them. Anything! Today’s virtual worlds are mere children’s scribbles compared to the masterpieces to come.

It’s hard not to get excited about virtual worlds when you read something as passionate as that. MMO’s are the reason why I decided to become a game designer. I hope someday to be able to contribute to making a online world come to life. It’s very clear that like Raph Koster, Richard Bartle is on a mission; like a voice crying out in the wilderness he wants to see virtual worlds develop into something unique and meaningful.

Why Today’s Players Hate Him

This is the easy one. Today’s players hate him because they don’t understand him. Today’s player puts very little into a MMO but expects the world (no pun intended). Much like citizens who never bother to vote, they take no pride or responsibility in the MMO’s they play in. Contrast this to a few years ago when players actually cared about their motivations for doing things. Players seemed to believe back then in this new medium called virtual worlds. So much so that they would take what’s known as the Bartle test. By doing so they could get an idea if they were an achiever, explorer, killer or socializer — Bartle’s version of a Myers-Briggs personality test that seeks to ascertain the motivations of why people play MUDS and MMO’s. Therefore it’s no wonder that today’s typical TLDR MMO gamer can’t fathom Bartle.

Reading Bartle is like being at a MMO design master class. He continually challenges you as a designer with probing questions designed to make you think and reflect. He seeks to understand and examine the underlying motivations and reasons for things. These are deep discussions about *why* we do things as designers. I’m afraid they are too much “shop talk” for the average player.

To illustrate a point: how many people appreciate fine art such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? I’m sure there are many who do. However, how many non-painters and non-academics could sit through a 4 hour lecture discussing the various painting techniques involved in painting that masterpiece? I doubt many could. This is why Dr. Bartle’s musings could appear to be abstract ramblings to a layman.  As a designer and MMO enthusiast I honesty can say that I savor every bit of insight and perspective that I find in his writings. Luckily he’s had a chance to amplify his remarks at the Broken Toys thread.

Why the MMO Industry Hates Bartle

Instead of pushing the limits of virtual worlds, most MMO companies are interested in making money. That’s the cold hard reality of it all. The current wisdom is to do the safe thing and make a fun game with a few virtual world trappings. We can see this plainly in the design philosophy of WoW which essentially copied EverQuest and created a more polished version of it. The Blizzard way of making MMO’s is considered the gold standard today with investor’s lining up for a crack at milking the cash cow. It’s understandable why contemplating virtual worlds makes these people feel uncomfortable and uneasy; making just another MMO comes with much less responsibility and is far less risky then daring to create a virtual world.

Many people and companies are invested in the success and inertia of WoW. PC vendors, Microsoft and more. Thousands of people are employed globally at Blizzard/Vivendi/Activision because of WoW. Not to mention the 10 million WoW addicts that count on WoW each day. The spice must flow! Of course anyone who challenges the status quo will be attacked and vilified.

It’s a safe bet that most new MMO companies have secured funding based on the popularity of WoW. In that equation there is no room for the aspiration of virtual worlds. Make us successful game like WoW. We want to get rich! So these companies and their employees see Richard Bartle as a threat to their modus operandi. To these captains of industry, creating a virtual world is something like wind or solar power — admirable but something we relegate to a distant future. Heck, let someone else worry about virtual worlds; we are busy making money.

Why Some Designers Are Afraid of Bartle

Near the release of WoW I recall reading interviews with the Blizzard dev team where they had contempt for experimentation and the virtual world concept. By gosh, they just wanted to make a fun “game” because virtual worlds are for oddballs. It can be summed like this: virtual worlds are for snobs; games are for real people. I doubt if anyone can find one article or interview where Blizzard’s dynamic duo of MMO’s Furor and Tigole ever mentioned the term virtual world and WoW in the same sentence.

Making games is easy; creating virtual worlds is hard. Every day there are literally hundreds of new games that are released in various platforms. Games are commonplace. Most games are unoriginal and fail. Why then do MMO companies keep trying to take the virtual world out of MMO’s by focusing more on the game?  I think it’s insecurity and fear on the part of most developers. Creating a virtual world is an awesome responsibility that takes serious thought and deep insight. I believe that most designers aren’t up to the challenge of creating a virtual world because they lack vision and understanding. There’s an element of faith and destiny involved in the virtual world movement. I feel you really need to “believe” in the idea and most game designers would rather make just relive their childhood and make another shoot ‘em up.  It’s no wonder why there is so much killing in MMO’s today and precious little else to do.

Richard Bartle is an affront to most of those game designers because he challenges them to go beyond creating simplistic games to create a true living breathing virtual world. Yes that sounds pretentious and scholarly but it’s visionary. Thank goodness for people who dream. If it weren’t for dreamers like John F. Kennedy I doubt we have landed on the moon.

The Unrealized Promise of Virtual Worlds

I believe the essence of what Bartle is trying to say in what he speaks and writes is that virtual worlds should be about freedom. With the exception of innovations like the Spore Creature Editor, freedom is something you don’t hear much about in games or MMO’s these days. Players should be able to make meaningful choices and should have outlets within the game world to express themselves. There needs to be more of a balanced approach that enables all player types to flourish and prosper — not just achievers and killers. Virtual worlds should allow players to have a dynamic impact on their world and also be affected by that very same world. Sadly, today’s crop of MMO companies have failed miserably to take us to that promised land.

In fact if you take a critical look at WoW you soon notice there is less freedom, more control and more restriction then ever before. Players can literally hide within the safety of instances and do “great” deeds that have zero impact on the “outside” real world. Instances are a virtual world within a virtual world. Instances are artificially capped too. NPC’s are like the Stepford wives — they react to you only if you have some business with them i.e. a quest. Monsters can’t be trained and are tightly leashed. There are no consequences in WoW just super-sized rewards heaped upon the player.

So for all of it’s glory and success, where are the innovations and achievements that Blizzard can boast of with WoW? Pez dispenser quest givers, auction houses, and in-game voice chat? Bravo!!! Oh let’s not forget the strip tease night elf dance. Innovation at it’s finest!

Amaranthar posting on Broken Toys really said it best with the following observations about how the current crop of companies have failed to scratch the surface of what is truly possible:

Some of you are jumping on Richard unfairly. Read what he said entirely, and you’ll already have the answers to your posted questions.

I completely agree on this subject. It’s not that what’s been done is unenjoyable. Mostly it’s that it’s fallen into a repeating pattern of narrow scope. Sometimes it’s that what’s “new” isn’t new at all, and isn’t done all that well, and is certainly very narrow in scope.

To give some examples:

Where’s the advancement in AI? Why are NPCs still locked into set patterns that never vary?

What about player choice, freedom, and range?

Where is the game world?

Why are there so few things you can reach out and touch, maneuver, push around, move, make work?

Where are more advanced social groupings, cities and kingdoms, worldwide guilds?

Why can’t we yet burn things down, anything we put a torch to?

Where’s the natural calamities, floods, avalanches, earth shattering quakes?

Why can’t we grow fields of crops, breed animals, etc.?

Why can’t we lose things and still feel like we want to continue playing?

Those are great observations with concrete examples of how today’s MMO’s companies are failing to deliver anything new or revolutionary despite the hundreds of millions of dollars they are raking in. 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. We get a healthy helping of Disneyland polish which numbs us to the shortcomings of WoW and it’s garish parade of clones.

In the end Richard Bartle is a valuable asset to the MMO world because he challenges the conventional wisdom and demands accountability from the industry. He’s too important to be ignored and dismissed by the blogerotzzi. Too many people in the gaming press and blogosphere are content to sit back and wallow in the pig slop that is WoW. It doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s refreshing to see someone who still believes in the nobility of virtual worlds and is not afraid to challenge the hegemony and dominance of WoW Inc. Bartle’s books, writings and essays have kept me going and believing in virtual worlds all these years. His dream has become my dream. It’s great to see many in the MMO community have come to his defense and still have reverence for his contribution and continued dedication to this medium we call virtual worlds.

-Wolfshead

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