Greedy Goblin

Friday, September 28, 2012

Are the MMOs games?

On Monday there will be a very important EVE economy post, not a philosophical one but one with numbers. Don't miss it!

My "favorite" comment is the "people have different priorities" aka "it's fun for someone else". It's a conversation stopper, you can't disprove it, can't argue with it, nor can you use it for anything else than ending the discussion. X thinks that collecting Peacebloom or camping a lowsec gate in a destroyer is fun, so it is OK, strike that a valuable game feature.

Again and again I try to knock down this wall of "it's fun for someone" that blocks any discussion about game features. Here I come again. What is common between the following things?
  • Eating chocolate
  • Watching a movie
  • Going to a concert
  • Having sex
  • Talking with friends
  • Dancing
  • Visiting an art gallery
  • Getting drunk
Each of them is considered fun by many-many people. None of them are considered games. Just because something is fun, it's not a game, nor it has place in games. It indeed has place somewhere in the entertainment industry. They should have their specialized places (on and offline) where one can enjoy them. But just like there is no chocolate in the art gallery, there are forms of fun that don't belong to a game.

What is a game? Wikipedia says "Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction. Games generally involve mental or physical stimulation, and often both.". It also cites several authors trying to define it:
  • fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character
  • separate: it is circumscribed in time and place
  • uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable
  • non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful
  • governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life
  • fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality
Several MMO features break these rules. The "uncertain" part is actually rare in MMOs. In most MMOs I can be absolutely sure that if I spend X time, I'll receive Y "progress" in form of XP, levels, skillpoints, currency, keys or whatever. Many even break the "non-productive" point as gaming allows you to earn real world money. Diablo 3 is all-out on this field, EVE allows you to pay subscription with in-game currency, and almost all MMOs have illegal RMT.

The most useful definition tells what activities are not games:
  • Creative expression is art if made for its own beauty, and entertainment if made for money. [and not games]
  • A piece of entertainment is a plaything if it is interactive. Movies and books are cited as examples of non-interactive entertainment. [passive entertainments are not games]
  • If no goals are associated with a plaything, it is a toy. The Sims and SimCity are toys, not games. If it has goals, a plaything is a challenge.
  • If a challenge has no "active agent against whom you compete," it is a puzzle; if there is one, it is a conflict. (noticeably algorithmic artificial intelligence can be played as puzzles)
  • Finally, if the player can only outperform the opponent, but not attack them to interfere with their performance, the conflict is a competition. (Competitions include racing and figure skating.) However, if attacks are allowed, then the conflict qualifies as a game.
So for a fun activity to be game, it must be non-creative, interactive, goal-oriented, having opponent whom you must defeat directly.

World of Warcraft leveling fails on the "interactive" part, as the spells on your castbar are equally good. You can "win" it by literally pressing them randomly, they merely function as "press any key to continue" in a movie. Raiding goes up to competitive puzzle-solving, as you must figure out and perfect "the dance" before other raider group does. However you can't really fight them. WoW PvP fails as lack of active hostile agent: you gain points if you lose, so you are motivated to play with and not against the "enemy" faction. Only competitive arena and rated BG qualifies as games.

EVE, despite being self-defined "sandbox game", is much more of a game. You can clearly compete other alliances for land. However it is done on a collective level. You as a player has little (but clearly non-zero) effect on what is going to happen. PvE is clearly a (very dumb) puzzle and most PvP lacks conflict, the word "gank" comes from the fact that one side did not even wanted anything from the other, and the ganker attacked for no reason. For many people EVE PvP is rather "creative" expression than game. The ganker merely wants to express himself as a "badass pirate" and he succeeds doing so even if the in-game action fails (if the target had warpstabs and gets away, the pirate is still a pirate). My own goal of making changes in nullsec is a form of expression too, an extension of this blog, trying to create proofs for my ideas.

If we look around, there is barely any games in the MMO field. We mostly find simple and complicated puzzles, reaction-time challenges, self-expression and at best some "outperform-competitions". Maybe the reason why they can't live longer than one-time content consumption is that there is no game involved. I feel exactly this in Mists of Pandaria: I see great graphics and an alive, interesting world. But I don't see that I'm playing a game, winning or losing. It's rather like watching a movie. Don't get me wrong, I like MoP, much more than I expected. I'm a very satisfied customer. But in a week or two I'll finish all Pandaria content (including the raids in idiot finder mode) and then I'll have no reason to stay subscribed. In EVE I can keep working on supporting TEST alliance in clearing the sov-nullsec from "pets don't talk back" people. But what could I do in WoW? Collect gear I don't need to see content and what will be outperformed by vendortrash in the next patch? Gather reputation, gold or tradeskill points that I equally don't need to see content? Kill people who respawn instantly? Learn a complicated dance to complete the same raid content at "heroic" difficulty which will be nerfed into triviality in a few months? To make people stay, the setting isn't enough, you must provide them a game in this setting.

For EVE trade and industrial discussions join Goblinworks channel.
If you want to get into nullsec but don't know how, go to the official forum recruitment thread and type the name of the alliance you seek into the search and start reading. I'm in TEST by the way.

Wednesday morning report: 161.7B (5.5 spent on main accounts, 4.8 spent on Logi/Carrier, 3.2 on Ragnarok, 2.7 on Rorqual, 2.4 on Nyx, 2.8 on Dread, 17.4 sent as gift)


Anonymous said...

so if games are "having opponent whom you must defeat directly" does that mean every single player computer "game" ever made suddenly not become a game? What about solitaire? What about if I have a round of golf on my own?

Druur Monakh said...

I am surprised to read this from your fingers.

What's next - that you praise the 0-dps raid "leeches" in WoW for understanding that WoW is not a game, and having taking process optimization to the meta-game level?

Micko said...

WoW's peak subscriber figure was after the release of WOTLK, where it flattened out, before starting it's steady decline post Cata (see But of the only serious changes to what you consider the "game" parts of WoW, rated pvp, didn't change to coincide with the slide. In fact the introduction of Rated BGs coincides with the slide, so that is definitely not an indicator that having more of a "game" is what will cure WoW's ailments. Almost all of the changes that have contributed to the slide are the changes to PvE, and I'm sure each person will have a different opinion as to which particular change has caused the slide the most.

My personal opinion is that WoW's plummeting subscriber numbers are due to them ironically making the game too accessible. This means that instead of all but the most hardcore always having more of the game to "explore and progress", they can "finish" the game with relative ease and instead find themselves with nothing to do except do content they have already done in a slightly harder format. Nothing makes someone quit a game faster than having nothing to do.

I think you are sort of saying this in your last paragraph, but this doesn't seem to correlate with your build up about "game" definitions. The PvE side of WoW is the thing that has changed for the worse, not the fact that it is lacking in what you define as a "game".

Druur Monakh said...

But more seriously, you're both wrong and deceptive again: you quote Roger Callois' definition of a game, but then form your post around a negation of Chris Crawford's definition, conveniently omitting that there are differing opinions. If there's something to be learned from the Wikipedia article, it's that there is no hard and fast rule what is or is not a game.

And you're also simplifying reality: take for example Chess. For most chess players, chess is a game: it has goals, it has an opponent, it is non-productive, and non-creative. Yet at the same time, there are people for whom playing Chess is their main source of income (ie., playing chess is productive). So where does this leave Chess now - is it a game, or not?

Same with WoW: just because you no longer consider WoW or other MMOs a game, it doesn't mean that they aren't for other people.

Azuriel said...

You could have shortened the post by saying "I arbitrarily define games as X," because that is once again what you did. I mean, you are quoting things like this:

Creative expression is art if made for its own beauty, and entertainment if made for money. [and not games]

So... the Sistine Chapel isn't art? Statue of David? Mona Lisa? Pretty sure all those were made for money, artists had patrons, were on retainer, etc. Nevermind how these art pieces are simultaneously non-art because they have a cash value and can be sold. Or that we have to divine the motivations of long-dead people before something can be considered art.

And then there is nonsense:

World of Warcraft leveling fails on the "interactive" part, as the spells on your castbar are equally good. You can "win" it by literally pressing them randomly, they merely function as "press any key to continue" in a movie.

Even if I accept it on face value that pressing random buttons results in victory in WoW leveling - good luck even walking out of Goldshire assuming directional buttons are among those pressed randomly - I have to ask how absurd does the argument get when it comes to failure? Is any game "more of a game" when you can make random decisions and hypothetically win? Do you recognize no difference between potentially random moves winning and optimal moves winning faster? After all, since you can start over in most games infinitely, all games are potentially winnable with X iterations of random moves.

Gevlon said...

@Azuriel: there is huge difference between having a 0.00000000001% chance to win by doing random moves (like in Poker) and having 100% chance.

We can agree that watching a movie is not a game.
You can pause, slow and fast forward a movie but it still not become a game, right?
Now imagine that you watch a video of someone else leveling up in WoW. That's a movie, not a game, right?
Since you simply can't fail in leveling in WoW, you playing the game would make the very same images visible on the screen as in the previous movie.

Compare it with HL-CS. My actions make serious differences in the outcome. If I suck, my "movie" will be very different from the movie I watched about HL-CS, as I end up dead and "opposing side won" message at the end. My actions affected the outcome. The actions of the WoW player has no effect on his "movie", he can only make it slower, faster or completely stop and interrupt.

Anonymous said...

Eve is an universe where thousands of games are played all the time. Some are big, like sov, other are small like a 1v1 or station trade.

Who knows from where this need that you have to box things in empty concepts come from? Eve is a mimic universe with a small set of rules and the same level of human interaction of real life. From the begging of your blog you've been expanding in this silly definitions that have no explanatory power, or reality changing consequences.

On a positive note, that makes the commentary part of your blog nothing short of awesome. Guys like Hivemind that post regularly are just great. If you could collect his comments you could make a very good blog.

I was just a bit sad with your last post and the right wing, withe supremassists nuts that comment on it. You left a guy that comment that given rights to women, blacks, etc was the cause for today's economic problems.

Well, apart from that, your blog is entertaining. Hope you have luck in 00 and can find a way to make a lasting effect in our little universe.

Ephemeron said...

Will Wright, the creator of Sim City, always insisted that it was a "software toy" and not a game, since it had no ultimate objective and, therefore, players had to invent their own goals and criteria of success/failure.

Perhaps the same viewpoint could be applied to MMOs.

Anonymous said...

Gevlon, you and Micko almost seem to be coming to a similar conclusion, but from different courses. If WoW is made harder, it will increase subscriber numbers, which is the concomitant conclusion you have reached in Eve about making it more dangerous.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that leveling and 5 man dungeons were harder in vanilla WoW. The death penalty (although trivial compared to EQ) was harsher than now. In addition 40 player raids dragged in more players than the 10s and 25s of WoW in 2012.

Are you suggesting increased WoW subscibers on a more vanilla style game?


Anonymous said...

1) No MMO is by most definitions a game. What if there were a button in the WoW BG/Arena or EVE fleet fight that was "kill all the enemy without cost or risk to me." Nobody would press the button in a sport or game. Almost everyone would press the button in real life or EVE and only slightly/no fewer in WoW.

2) I don't see how you can ever make MMOs into games or why you would want to. Certainly the EVE player base would resist making it a game more. Turning MMOs into games would cost the publishers money. Nobody expects that their opponents chess pieces are more powerful if they have been playing for 3 years. Developers have a financial interest in subscribers feeling some sense of growth.

3) Big MMOs are cafeterias not a single food. "Make WoW harder" makes increasingly less sense. The financial incentive is to make *something* that more people want to do. MoP is starting that with adding perhaps their hardest PvE ever (Challenge Mode) along with their easiest. Some people make do both or neither. But if you are top the gold leaderboard, you still benefit, since Blizzard and thus the game benefit, if their are millions of Pet Battle only customers.

4) I could argue that EVE's HTFU culture makes it the least like a game of any MMO. Fair fights? Honesty? new players on equal footing? clear victory conditions?

5) If I am a developer and paying customers consider X fun, then it is a valuable feature addition to the product I am selling - independent of any game definition.

6) It seems to me that what differentiates MMOs from "games" like WoT or LoL is all the focus and effort on not having game features. Why WoW or EVE is labeled an MMO and not WoT or LoL is for all the features deliberately designed to not make them "games": persistence, character progression, no victory conditions.

Anonymous said...

From your sep-26th post (its addendum after the main post):

"Mist of Pandaria is out and I'm playing"

So what now? Honestly, if you make such a fuss about proper definitions and use of words you better be precise yourself first.

The reast of us will still use "playing WoW" or generally refer to "computer games" and be perfectly understandable.

Azuriel said...

@Azuriel: there is huge difference between having a 0.00000000001% chance to win by doing random moves (like in Poker) and having 100% chance.

Come now, there is no reason to use junk percentages to prop up an argument. Nevermind how if we are talking about Texas Hold'em Poker, the percentage win rate is not really any different than WoW assuming you do not randomly Fold (which would be the equivalent of logging out of WoW, IMO).

Besides, people DO die while leveling. If you randomly kill grey mobs, no XP is gained. And again, at the other end of the spectrum there are more efficient leveling methods, moves, and levels of mastery. I mean, are you suggesting there is no difference between your EVE skill point scheme and someone else who just trains randomly? The difference can be counted in *years* can it not?

Now imagine that you watch a video of someone else leveling up in WoW. That's a movie, not a game, right?

It is a bit of a tautology, but yes, I agree "watching a video" is not playing a game.

Since you simply can't fail in leveling in WoW, you playing the game would make the very same images visible on the screen as in the previous movie.

Non sequitur. Even if I accept your premise that there is no failure states in leveling, at every point of interaction you can choose a different set of actions that do legitimately result in different outcomes. You can pause or rewind or skip scenes in a movie, but the protagonist never goes through the left door instead of the right. If you level in one area, you will get X drops instead of Y. I could level solely by gathering, or dungeon runs, or PvP. I could level by questing or by simply killing mobs.

You can suggest that WoW leveling is easy or trivial or inevitable. And it may very well be all those things. But you cannot rationally compare the interaction necessary to get to the level cap to controlling a DVD.

Your ultimate intent here is simply silly. Are my tax returns a game? I can turn them into one! And even if I agree that WoW leveling isn't a game, it is largely irrelevant since I can turn it into one by shifting my goals. Remember the "Iron Man" leveling challenge? There are thousands of variations one can do, if the leveling experience itself is insufficient entertainment.

Coralina said...

Just a small comment on WoW levelling.

As you may have experienced in MOP, due to mob tagging there is a large amount of player v player competition.

You will see players using all the speed boosts and tagging abilities available to their characters (requires more skill for melee than ranged classes that have spammable instant dots) to round up all mobs in sight and then of course they are very much at risk of dying if they don't play well.

Dying results in your resources (the mobs) being taken by another player. Failing to tag mobs comes with a punishment in the form of having to run around for a minute or two waiting for respawns - and you may lose again.

Pretty much what would happen in a real "game" where you die and have to restart the level.

Unlike the old 8bit home computing days, most modern games have infinite continues which for me plays much the same as infinite mob respawns. You can succeed eventually but you will be punished many times before you reach that point.

Kristophr said...

Ermmm ... many English words have more than one meaning, Gevlon. Not all games are competitive.

From's online dictionary:

game [ gaym ]

1) something played for fun: an activity that people participate in, together or on their own, for fun

2) competitive activity with rules: a sporting or other activity in which players compete against each other by following a fixed set of rules