Anti-Establishment is Fun. Work is Not.

i want to say first that i really enjoy raph’s big picture, academic-style takes on game design. however, there are times where this gets him in trouble.

exhibit ‘a’ is the original star wars galaxies. i think the new version is what the old version should have always been. unfortunately, the kind of folks populating the original game are the diametric of the audience that would adhere to the latter. more on this later.

over on raph’s site, he talked about making a healing game. a gentleman over on the cesspit has taken up the flag in argument against it. while his argument reflects some of the same feelings i have, i don’t think he’s conveyed it very well.

here goes.

games, in and of themselves, are about escapism. doing things you normally can’t do in real life. raph really says that as long as there’s a valid, compelling narritive you can attach to your fine-tuned game mechanics you can have a good game. it’s a balancing act between the two.

and, from an academic standpoint, i agree.

however, from a realistic standpoint, i don’t. it ends up being sort of a sterile ‘theory of fun.’

it’s not only metaphor vs. narrative but also sandbox vs. narrative. (sandbox representing the barest close-to-the-metal form of a metaphor-strong game) single player vs. multiplayer. the player needs to feel like they can affect change on some overall storyline bigger than just themselves. in a sandbox game, that doesn’t exist. it doesn’t have to.

the sims is a great example. it’s a strong sanbox game vs. a strong narrative game. this game works because it allows the player (it’s important to note that’s ‘mainstream player’) to step out of their normally grounded self into a world they can relate to, but don’t have to. in the sims, people love it because they can be anti-establishment and it’s fine. it scratches that anarchist itch in all of us.

gta is the same way.

it’s about doing things you can’t really do. escaping. however, you can’t really do a sandbox game with an mmo. with your actions affecting other people, consequences come in to play. if everyone in a realistic world ran around in anarchy, nobody would have fun. if there are rules and everyone can relate to the context, it’s not fun either. it’s just like real life.

that’s why the sims as a single player experience works, but sims online doesn’t. you can’t have a strong narrative and a strong sandbox game at the same time.

that’s why second life will be stagnant forever. it’s sales curve will reflect that of the original swg. it’s for people who are primarily social creatures. the second the escapism becomes work, they quit. it will turn into a giant irc channel.

narrative needs this sense of escapism. metaphor heavy content works well with a passive medium like television or movies because watching people do spontaneous superhuman feats for good (or evil) is thrilling. you end up empathizing (both with context and effort required) as opposed to actually working your own way up through the veritable ranks in order to accomplish a similar feat. especially in something largely regarded as taking huge amounts of boring work to get there — i.e. medical, law, politics, etc.

through this emotional connection, you get all the fun and suffer none of the work.

you can’t achieve that level of drama in a ‘work related’ narrative in an mmo, tho. why? because the very nature of games makes it a slow grind to get to that point. you take away the ‘high’ in ‘high fantasy’ and you have something similar to the brokenness that was the original star wars galaxies. you’ll have a core of min/max types and a core of irc folks.

you could make the game, but it wouldn’t be considered fun by the majority of the people. it wouldn’t reach out to the populace at large because it’d just be work to them. you’ve taken something folks relate to as effort and put a happy face on it.

meaning, i guess this: if players can relate to it in the real world, yet, are unable to step outside their normal boundaries because it’s on a large social scale, it’s not fun.

killing monsters is fun. flying spaceships is fun. playing doctor by the rules is not. playing lawyer by the rules is not. a simulation where you are not allowed to ‘go wacky’ is not fun.

it’s the intersection between mechanics and narrative where a game like that breaks down.
academically, goal progression and character growth will dictate the game is fun. realistically, you really need that escapism component in there. and, saying it’s just a matter of wrapping imagination around it doesn’t cut it. (kind of like an educational game breaking into the top 10 mainstream games. if only they’d be more imaginative!) it’s more of a matter of rewiring the entire population that needs to happen — that is to say: it’s not going to happen.

now, back to swg.

so, with his argument about a good game designer blending game design from the narrative end as well as the metaphor (that chocolate coating over the top of the mechanics) into something lovely in the middle, where does the original swg stand?

it was birthed strictly from the underlying mechanics. worked up and out, layered with the star wars mythos. not a bad way to go, but you end up taking the fantasy out. taking the escapism out. making it a grind for everyone — not just the min/maxers. it turns into the pinball game that is themed for star wars.

the updated swg, however, goes far and wide to bring the narrative back into the game world. it’s a fantastic thing. more attune to escapism. more attune to fun and less work. you can still do some of the wrote tasks that encourage socializing, but it’s not the crux of the game. it’s much better balanced.

i’m thinking this is what cemented the narrative v. metaphor concept with raph.

unfortunately for raph, it didn’t come out first. it took the giant experiment to get the proper insight. by then, all of the early adopters, the aggranders, the real world prophets of the game are indoctrinated. you change that and everything goes to hell. change is bad. pissing off your early adopters is bad.

which is a total bummer because swg is turning out to be a great game. i only hope it will weather the initial fury and come out battleworn but unscathed on the other side.


12 comments so far

  1. Raph on

    Actually, MANY systems in SWG originated with the narrative, including the much-maligned dancing, the TEF system, and so on. Systems that originated with mechanics were things like the economy and crafting.

  2. m3mnoch on

    heh. i had a feeling you\’d call me on that. i tried to cover that with the whole \’socializing\’ aspect.

    i was mostly speaking about, as you said, the economy and crafting. the more often quoted \’good\’ aspects of swg.


  3. Darniaq on

    Great read m3noch. I\’m sorry I hadn\’t ever been here before now.

    Having said that, I disagree 🙂

    I cannot point to a strong narrative-driven MMO experience, but I don\’t think it\’s because they are diametrically opposing concepts. Rather, I think it\’s because they haven\’t really been tried. To date, \”narrative\” is the occasional quest text or even more rare cut scenes people generally breeze through in order to pull their objectives. Further, those objectives are decidedly personal. You may need 40 to 60 other people to achieve the objective, but it\’s for your own reward only, for you alone to effectively turn the page in the proverbial book.

    To me, that\’s the growth opportunity for game-directed objective-based experiences. Instead of making the games about singular heroes achieving singular goals with other poeple, make it about singular heroes achieving meta goals on higher levels.

    In a sense, EQ2 tries this with their Guild Levels system. This allows core groups to rise the ranks of a city for honor and benefit (and a big huge friggin house in South Qeynos 😉 ). This is effectively a group of people building their own story within a much larger narrative of NPC/Player society building.

    And this leads to the next point.

    SWG is entirely player narrative. I created an Energy business. From scratch. My guild helped get me started, but eventually the thing got so big I had to start a Cartel. This is all while I was a 0-0-3-4 Artisan, just enough for max surveying and to host one of the five vendors we had around the galaxy.

    Now that\’s a story. The big difference between that and insert-random-quest-here is that I created it. I owned it. I wrote the pages and closed the book. And the reward was that customization of experience and so many game credits I never wanted for anything again.

    So there\’s two elements here to consider:

    1. The goal of narrative- To drive traditional mechanical game goals or to drive a long path of self-actualization.

    2. The source of narrative- The game or the player.

  4. Opa on

    m3mnoch, you’re not on the Kargath realm in WoW by chance? Our guild had this same exact discussion/dissection of the massive failure known as Star Wars Galaxies.
    I haven’t played SWG so I honestly cant give any feedback on it, but several of the hardcore players in our guild swore they would never play it again even after the redesign because of their overwhelmingly negative impressions

  5. m3mnoch on

    heh. i’m not. tho, i have noticed it’s a fairly popular topic. a postmortem on a worldwide scale.

    darniaq! welcome aboard!


  6. […] note the descriptor "recreational" there. that means that hanging out and working is not fun. well. not unless you enjoy the work. some of us do, but the large majority of the world thinks work is… well… work. […]

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  8. Philosopher1976 on

    I know I’m coming to this post late, but I agree with it wholeheartedly.

    The problem with SWG’s “sandbox” approach is was twofold, in my view:

    1) Yes, you’re right, it ruined other players’ experience. On my server, most of Naboo was taken over by Alliance and Lok was taken over by Imperials. It was fun for those of us in the PvP storyline we had created, but it ruined the experience for everyone else. A new player getting out of the very short tutorial was no doubt perplexed and wondering what any of his nonsense had to do with Star Wars.

    2) Players’ imagination and ability to create fun is not as great as the game designer’s. Players are paying designers to create fun for them, and generally they can do so better than the players can do themselves. Sure, there is always room for player-created fun even in the least sandboxy MMOs (like WoW). The difference is that the majority who aren’t creating their own fun have fun provided by the developers and that their fun is not ruined by the imaginative minority.

    P.S. I totally agree re Second Life.

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