Why They Hate Richard Bartle

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

13 thoughts on “Why They Hate Richard Bartle

  1. I hate to merely ad-lib but I couldn’t have said it better myself. People cling to their comfort zones, and the industry does twice so. How many RPGs, online or offline, have really created a world with more than city-states, with each zone of influence or nation or faction controlling no more than a (small) capitol and one single village? Or, if you focus narrowly on WoW, how do the dwarves feed themselves?

    In the MUD age, a much larger proportion of the playerbase would eventually try their hands with building or even coding, and think in terms of design. I think any former MUDder gets what Bartle is saying, not because we’re old and clinging to the good old times but because many, many among us got involved enough to think about a perspective much broader than “nerf this because I got pwned”.

    A shame most Bartle critics can’t broaden their perspective enough to listen to what he actually says (or rather, asks. Bartle is a pure example of the power of the Socratic Method).

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Your mention of the Socratic method makes perfect sense. I believe that is what I was trying to say about Bartle’s method’s of inquiry. :)

    I must admit that I never played MUDs myself but I do appreciate experiencing many of the earlier MMORPG’s such as Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron’s Call. Back then you could really sense the legacy that the MUD community brought with them into those early graphic online worlds. I think it’s that sensibility that I long for and sorely miss when I play WoW. Seeing this new breed of bloggers and developers dismiss Richard Bartle is very unfortunate in an industry that is so new and should be holding up these people with more respect and reverence.

    Great points regarding today’s developers clinging to their comfort zones. The WoW model is the current battleplan for most new MMO’s in development. Forcing these developers to think or even ponder the notion of virtual worlds changes everything and makes them feel ill at ease. WoW is like a warm security blanket of consensus for developers and industry types.

    Raising the bar above WoW is a threat to everything they think they know about MMO development. If they acknowledge that then they become accountable for a higher standard and that’s a scary place to be. It’s all about playing it safe for these guys.

    -Wolfshead

  3. Great article. Perhaps the most well reasoned and accurate that I’ve read since the start of the debacle.

    Credit where credit is due though, how many other people could spark this much debate with one interview? Its not the first time he’s done it either. Testament to how relevant he is to the industry methinks. Is it me or is this one a little bigger and more vitrioloic than his one about closing down WoW? Back then I didn’t get nearly as much enjoyment from trying to track down every single one of his responses in the blogs.

    But to me, this is wonderful. This one interview has sparked a lively debate that will hopefully get a lot of people thinking in different ways than they did previoulsy. Who know, maybe one of them will surprise Richard and us with a truely different MMO at some (hopefully not too distant) time in the future.

    Of course, it will be a commercial failure ;)

  4. TickledBlue I think you hit the nail on the head: at least now MMO developers and bloggers are discussing virtual worlds again — that’s been a very refreshing and positive result of all of this. I would probably agree that Richard Bartle likes to be somewhat controversial but sometimes it takes a kick in the pants to get people to wake up and take notice these days.

    Somehow in the past few years as MMO’s have become more mainstream the virtual world concept got forgotten. MMO designers and developers stopped asking the important questions and started using the achievment archetype EQ/WoW model as their template. Hopefully this debate will engender some positive change that we can actually see and experience in the near future!

    -Wolfshead

  5. Pingback: This amusing Bartle controversy. | mendax.org

  6. Pingback: Wolfshead Online » Blog Archive » Raph Koster on the Bartle Controversy

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  8. Forget virtual worlds, I want my blasted hovercar. It’s 2008 for crying out loud! At least give me a car that runs on trash and/or solar power. I’d settle for getting rid of inflation, any more.

    Tongue slightly out of cheek, commerce is the antithesis of progress in our world of investors and instant gratification.

    I’ve long longed for a real virtual world, with real choices to be made, and perhaps more importantly, real consequences. If I participate in that world, I want to leave a mark. If I’m a griefer, I should be punished.

    …but therein lies the rub. The anonymity of the web precludes real consequences. Also, when people can’t even take responsibility for their real life actions, what impetus is there for living responsibly in a virtual world? Sure, we as game designers can make vast, interesting worlds, but we as players don’t really want them too real. We still want our power fantasies, our “life without repercussions”, our holodeck.

    Without players stepping up to the responsibility of a true “virtual world”, designers can only go so far. No, that doesn’t absolve us as designers of the responsibility to push for something better than what exists… but virtual worlds are only going to be as good, interesting, vital, moral, ethical, and relevant as the real people who populate them.

  9. I am a believer in more freedom then less freedom in MMO’s. As you said I feel that griefers should be punished via in game mechanics. Griefers could perform very useful functions in MMO’s: they could be the outcasts, the brigands, the criminals, the outlaws — all living on the fringes of society.

    The key here is to have consequences for actions. Use the carrot to reward players and use the stick to penalize players. As long as the rules were upfront, fair and universal I think players would flock to a virtual world such as this.

    Imagine if a player decides it’s cool to kill a blacksmith in a small town. He goes ahead and kills the blacksmith. Word spreads to the blacksmith guild. Suddenly this player will never be able to buy, sell or repair at any blacksmith again. This player is then forced to go to a renegade blacksmith where the prices are astronomically higher. Trust me, that player will think twice before killing another innocent NPC again.

    The result is we’ve achieved a few important things:

      1) We’ve created a unique groundbreaking world that has consequences (no MMO has a world like this right now)

      2) We’ve given players unparalleled freedom to do as he/she wishes (again unheard of except for UO perhaps which was done poorly)

      3) We created a vibrant deep world by having those that abide by the law and those that live outside the law

    I agree with you that the attraction of video games and MMO’s is that they let players live out their fantasies without any real consequences. Still I think there is room in a future MMO for in-game consequences. I’d like to be a part of that world. A play experience without a sense of choice is really not worthwhile game as far as I’m concerned.

    Also I completely agree with your observations about people. MMO’s are really only as good as the people in them.

    Thanks for your great comments Tesh! I really appreciate your perspective. :)

  10. My trouble with giving a natural “role” for villains is similar to the deep misgivings I have regarding the Death Knight class over on WoW. Players who want to be villains shouldn’t be rewarded, or else it reinforces antisocial behavior in-game. On the other hand, players who just keep getting punished aren’t likely to stick around. If they do, the game is reinforcing sociopathic and masochistic behavior, which crosses lines of propriety, and may have deleterious influences out of game.

    Apparently, Fable was constructed along the lines of “do whatever, live with consequences”… but the dynamic world allowed for serial predators, among other things, and consequences weren’t really enforced. What responsibility do game designers have to permit things that are not tolerated in real life? And, what of the consequences? If someone in-game plays a serial murderer, do we really want that person playing the game? In Fable, the argument “for” relied on the single player nature of the game. What of an MMO in a similar boat, then?

    A lot of this starts to delve into concepts of justice in the real world, how laws are defined and enforced, and how morals and ethics place bounds on behavior. Can we make a virtual world as complex and interesting as the real world? I think it’s possible, given enough effort. Assuming it’s possible, wouldn’t it approach true reality though, and thereby become just as mundane as the “life” that gamers are trying to escape?

    Change the setting and framework, sure, but if people (the game’s laws) still tell you that you can’t just steal and kill with wanton disregard for others, where’s the escapist appeal? The “rules” are the same in that virtual world, or same enough, so why would people play when they could just live? As it stands, people play games because they aren’t like reality. They can be the dude that uses a sword that weighs more than them, or the oversexed vixen (rants for another time). They can kill animals and bandits and steal their stuff and be praised for it.

    That’s what I mean by wanting reality… but not too much reality. Raph Koster once wrote something along the lines of: ” ‘fun’ is experimenting and learning in a safe environment.” Rules are absolutely necessary for a safe environment. Put another way, if you know where the fence is, you understand exactly what is and is not allowed, and are extremely free to work within those bounds. Without bounds and absolute definitions of right and wrong (or allowed and disallowed), literally anything can be justified.

    I know, that’s looking at the extreme position, but it’s useful to look at as a way to define what we’re looking for in virtual worlds. We don’t really want anarchy, and we don’t want mechanics that pay attention to, reinforce, or encourage bad behavior. Giving players the awesome power to affect the world is a heady rush, but it must be tempered by checks on power, and strict limits to griefing.
    …which isn’t to say that I disagree with giving players more choice and freedom, just that there are some very real ramifications for that course of action. Neither am I disageeing with your comments, I’m just writing more on my thoughts, mostly because this is the first venue I’ve seen take these things seriously. I’m happy I found this blog. :D

    I’m not sure that the game playing population is mature enough for the sort of freedom we’re talking about. The industry itself isn’t really mature enough for that sort of thing. (Using the real definition of “mature”, not the ESRB misnomer.) We may never know until we try, but if it’s not handled with firm reins, it could get ugly fast, and it could put us the proverbial “two steps back” for the step forward we take into deeper creativity.

  11. There is one little known MMO in development that seems to be trying to create the virtual world, Darkfall. It looks like it’s finally in beta, so I would recommend keeping an eye on that.

  12. Fellan, thanks for mentioning Darkfall. I’ve been salivating about this virtual world/MMO for a while now. It seems like a very ambitious project. I hope they are a success! :)

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