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Social Scientist as Game Designer

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I have wondered for a while now if a social scientist, given the proper training, would make a good game designer. Heck, give him a double major in psychology and I think one might have the next super dev.

This thought sprout out of my recent break from LOTRO (and blogging). Why did I just drop the game? Well, I started getting bored. I played LOTRO since August of '06 when I was invited to the closed beta. That's three years to the point that I stopped playing (a little longer). I don't think anybody could fault someone for taking a break after that sort of investment. But why was I bored?

It's that kind of question that speaks to a social scientist. I happen to be one, or my degree is in social science. Perhaps armchair social scientist is a better term for what I do. I'm certainly not employed in the field. I digress. If we can answer those types of questions then I think MMOs can be designed to with greater sticking power.

This type of discussion came up in the latest Shut Up We're Talking. Interestingly enough, this is the latest episode after Darren (the host) took a break from MMO playing and podcasting/blogging. Coincidence? I don't think so. Every guest agreed that there is (was?) a general discontentment amongst the blogosphere about MMOs through no fault of the games. Instead, it's the player's attitudes that are changing, rather than the games themselves. Perhaps that's the problem? Shouldn't the games adapt to what the players want?

I speak in generalities, of course. Not every MMO player is burned out. The industry is still going strong. And MMOs do try to cater to what their population wants. So what's the missing link here - the muscle tissue, bone structure, that can lead the way to better design?

I think the answer lies in understanding how people think, particularly players. One way they think is that not all of them think the same thing. SUWT touched on this and I think they're right: MMOs cannot cater to all audiences. WoW is the exception to the rule, the fluke, the unrepeatable success (well, maybe another Blizzard MMO). Instead of sending a dev team off with 50 million dollars to make the next WoW how about a few million and focus on a particular playstyle? Darkfall anybody?

Seriously. Darkfall did that. So did Fallen Earth. Both are successful in their target audience. And those who don't like PvP or post-apocalyptic worlds don't care. That's fine. Ideally there will be a MMO for you.

So what does all this have to do with LOTRO? Yes, this is still a LOTRO blog and I will not post without somehow linking it back to my beloved game. And yes, I still love this game. As a wise parent once told me, love is a choice, not an emotion. I choose to love LOTRO even though I'm not feeling it right now. Eh, more digression.

LOTRO seems to be lacking something for me - I'm not quite in their target audience. Oh, sure, I look like it on the outside. I love the Lord of the Rings. I love RPGs. I'm a completionist. I can't stand PvP. Still, I'm straddling the line.

I game for story. LOTRO has an awesome story. But all the other mechanics have impeded me in my quest to experience the story. Not because they're bad mechanics, or cumbersome. No, they're just required to use in order to play the story. So am I complaining that I can't just watch the LOTRO story passively? No. That wasn't what LOTRO was designed for. My increasing appetite for story out of my games is my own problem, not LOTROs. But I think games can be designed for people like me: The Longest Journey for instance. Or even the Bioware RPGs - heavy on talking and story (which is what I have been playing instead of LOTRO).

Those are single-player examples. Can MMOs focus on story to the extent I want? Sure. The better question is "Is the target audience large enough to sustain such an MMO?" Let's go back to that money thing: Yes, if the budget and development take into account target audience size. What would that MMO look like? Good question. One I'm going to save for later.

In any case, a social scientist understands personal and group motivations (or attempts to understand them). Considering MMOs deal with both motivations shouldn't we consider the value of such perspectives when developing these games?

4 Responses to "Social Scientist as Game Designer"

Almazar Says:

Great post!

Yeebo Says:

I think inevitably big budget MMOs will more strongly come to resemble single player RPGs. If you think about it, WoW was actually a very large step in that direction when you compare it to the MMOs that preceded it.

Not a single sub based MMO has garnered more than a million users in the western market apart from WoW. Yet dozens of single player RPGs have done it. Consoles versus PC as a platform is a part of it. But I have to think that a part of it is the quality of the storytelling.

For example, LoTRO is far above average in the storytelling department, but still pales before any number of single player RPGs imo. A single player RPG often feels like reading a novel or watching a movie where you are a primary protagonist. LoTRO feels like an MMO with some above average writing and occasional bits and pieces of a high quality single player RPG thrown in.

The only real leg up MMOs have is the social elements, and those seemingly aren't enough to crack an audience of 200-300 K users (globally) in any but the very rarest cases.

Jaxom92 Says:

@yeebo

I think part of the problem is the transformation towards single-player RPGs. Someone on SUWT made the comment that the blurring of MMOs in regards to sandbox/theme park was a problem. MMOs like that were ignoring the target audience factor and pleasing no one in their attempt to please all. That's true in a lot of cases, but I think there's a distinct middle-ground between massive MMO worlds and single player worlds - a whole new genre if you will. This is where a strong story can be present even with the some of the social aspects of the game. I'm jumping the shark a bit on my next post, bit I wanted to respond to your comment.

Adarel Says:

Story in an MMO is hard to create, at least in a meaningful way for each participant. It's just much easier to change the world and its inhabitants in a single-player RPG based on player actions because there's only one player to deal with.

I'm assuming you're aware of SWTOR. Looking forward to it? If it's a success, should be a big impact on the future of MMO design, at least from a narrative standpoint. Also, check out The Secret World. The main designer of The Longest Journey is working on it and the minimal footage they've released is very intriguing.