Massively Overthinking: ‘Every MMO inconvenience is someone else’s game’


A while back, someone in our comments (I can’t find it again, so I can’t remember who!) dug up a quote from Raph Koster that I wanted to resurface and talk about for this week’s Massively Overthinking. I’m sure we covered his blog post back in 2012 on Old Massively when it first ran, but I had forgotten all about it. The premise is that replacing inconvenience with convenience in MMOs can be counterproductive.

“Every time you make a design choice you are closing as many doors as you open. In particular, you should always say to yourself, ‘I’m adding this feature for player convenience. How many people live for the play that this inconvenience affords?’ The small shopkeepers; the socializers who need the extra five minutes you have to spend waiting for a boat at the Everquest docks; the players who live to help, and can’t once every item is soul bound and every fight is group locked and they can’t even step in to save your life; the role player who cannot be who they wish to be because their dialogue is prewritten; the person proud of his knowledge of the dangerous mountains who is bypassed by a teleporter; the person who wants to be lost in the woods and cannot because there is a mini-map. Every inconvenience is a challenge, and games are made of challenges. This means that every inconvenience in your design is potentially someone’s game.” [Emphasis ours.]

There’s obviously a lot more to this 10-year-old blog post, but that’s exactly why it’s worth making the subject of Overthinking today. Do you agree with Koster’s piece? Where do you draw the line – which inconveniences are you willing to part with, knowing you’re parting with a chunk of the potential playerbase with it?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Koster is very on the money. The “knowledge of dangerous mountains” “bypassed by a teleporter” really hits home for me, especially because in my first MMO, was one of the few players who lived without teleportation magic… or any magic, actually, for a good year or two.

Oh man, this one’s so hard because I always want my friends to come to games, but we obviously don’t agree on everything. I’m very much the large-scale, alliance-wide politics PvP guy in my circles. but I have friends who don’t even want to do Smash Bros. Gun to my head, though, I think my big “must haves” are maps, minimaps, and coordinates. I can live without explicit quests and their big yellow question marks, pre-made classes, and yes, even teleportation given the right counter-balances, such as no quest level restrictions, open skill choice, and multi-player mounts. The issue for me, however, is where my friends draw their lines, and a lot of the people Koster mentions are rare in my adult gamer circles.

Andy McAdams: This sentiment really resonates with me, and readers can probably recall my issues with fast-travel as the primary means of travel in games. But I think the main distinction here for me is that inconvenience has to be engaging in some way. I think of it in a slightly McLuhan-esque phrasing of “the inconvenience is the game,” when we define rules that govern the games really as just inconveniences to the player. Sure it would be way more convenient to be able to waltz up that max-level city guard and sneeze him into a murder of butterflies as a level1 character. Sure it would be more convenient if my rogue didn’t have positional requirements. But those things are actually what makes the game fun and engaging.

This is however not to imply that all inconveniences are created equal.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Anarchy Online was the buffing system. I played a Metaphyscist in large part because I loved handing out moochies for tips. Was it inconvenient for players to have to find a high level MP to buff them enough they could cast a high level nano or equip high-level gear? Of course, but getting to be on the other side of that and helping other players was fun for me. It gave me a reason to just hang around Old Athens and shoot the breeze with guildies and buff people so they could play the game they wanted. I miss inconveniences like that; they increased the social fabric of the game.

I think the line for me is “nothing in extremes.” If I can just teleport around the world to wherever the hell I want without any tradeoffs, that’s no fun. On the other side, if I can only get places by walking and it takes me 20 minutes to just get to a quest location, that’s also no fun.

Anarchy had a really novel solution to this too: You have the teleporter networks to move around the world to fixed places, but then you also have the Grid that could move you again, other places. Then you had fixers who had special access to the Grid and teleport you to even more places. So you might hire a Fixer to join your group long enough to run through the grid to the exit you wanted, then tip the Fixer, who would drop the group and go on their merry way. It wasn’t full-on convenience, but it also wasn’t full on “it takes 20 minutes to fly from Stranglethorn to the Undercity and YouTube wasn’t a thing yet” For more contemporary examples, Lock porting in WoW used to be a huge win to get places quickly. Mage ports to all the cities are the same. The inconvenience of getting places was offset by the engagement with other players… at least for me.

When I compare this to Guild Wars 2 where you have some cockamamie rationale that these magic beacons that just happen to be everywhere you go, and you can use them to teleport… nothing about that is really fun to me. It’s convenient, but not engaging.

In short, inconvenience is good, when it’s engaging. It’s bad when its not.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think Koster was right that every inconvenience is potentially someone’s game. That just doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to deeply inconvenience half a million people by making them wait 30 minutes for a physical boat just to make sure the guy who wants to roleplay the captain of the boat as it runs between continents can do so. This can get absurd in a hurry. If you’re going to build in designed downtime (or any other designed inconvenience), it needs to be engaging for a range of players at different ends of the playstyle spectrum.

I hope everyone reads the whole original blog post because in my opinion, Koster’s example is a poor one, even if the quote itself holds up (and it’s been a decade, so he might well have changed his mind anyhow). In this particular piece, Koster essentially argues that the bazaar (specifically, vendor searching) was a net negative and therefore harmed the merchant-class players in SWG because vendor searching created a perfect information economy that allowed people to find the best prices and therefore the “big guys” to flood and undercut markets.

In practice, though – and I say this as a hardcore merchant player then and now – the big guys already flooded and undercut the markets, even before vendor searching. They were the ones who had already swallowed up the best shop spots, the top entry on the planetary map, the forum ads, the guilds, the popular cities with shuttleports. They already controlled almost all the business on the servers because they sucked all the air out of the room. A “perfect information economy” from vendor searching didn’t help them at all; it helped the little guys and the newbies because suddenly people could actually find their tiny vendors in their tiny houses on the edge of nobody’s empire. The information economy Koster is focused on is pricing and availability, but findability and location in SWG were just as if not far more important (to say nothing of selection and the little buzz you get when you buy from a cute indie shop instead of Amazon). The choice became: hop two planets and drive a few k to save a buck, or overspend at the local big box store? Prior to vendor searching, you didn’t even know the first shop existed, and most of them gave up before you ever would. You had no choices, and neither did they.

This same pattern played out in Koster’s earlier sandbox, Ultima Online. Broadsword’s introduction of a centralized vendor search neutralized the stranglehold of a very small number of obscenely wealthy players who’d scooped up the best vendor house plots first decades ago and never let go. Search was a huge net positive for the vast majority of people in the game, whose vendors in the boondocks of Yew could now be surfaced and profitable, to say nothing of the shoppers no longer held in thrall by the Luna gougers. Yes, it devalued the property of the people who scripted for a plot in Luna or bought it off Ebay for thousands of dollars. But were you really building the MMORPG for them anyway?

Probably not. And I’m not just saying all this to argue. The example isn’t great, but it does demonstrate that no matter what decision you make, you’re privileging one group of players over another. Which players to inconvenience or accommodate is always going to be the real choice you’re making as a designer. That’s the part that sucks.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I tend to lean towards the idea that the point when quality-of-life changes intersect with gameplay design issues is when the feature encroach upon another’s experience in the game somehow – basically taking the part about adding convenience removing someone’s gameplay as the metric.

Add a compass? Make individualized harvesting nodes? Add an LFG tool? No big deal. Making crafting feel pointless because the best possible stuff is crammed in a raid? You’re basically gutting a game’s in-game economic potential.

Of course, there are outliers to this line of thinking. As much as I would love to be able to run my own in-game item shop, having that stuffed in one specific location, thereby forcing people to come to me and possibly narrowing my sales, is more than a bit annoying in gameplay terms. So the auction house is the best answer to that problem, albeit at a dampening to the storefront ideal. Or letting me run multiple stores at different locations.

Basically, let me run a fantasy MMORPG tavern chain – Ye Olde Sizzler.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think this is an important topic for all MMOs players to ponder because Koster is absolutely right on this. We all think we know how a game should be designed, but if someone took our advice and implemented it, it would not make everyone happy.

My concern as of late is that the industry had such an allergic reaction to too much downtime, slow progress, and fiddly systems that it’s swung far to the opposite side of the spectrum with too much streamlining, dulled features, and a complete stampede away from anything related to roleplaying.

These are worlds, and I want to be sucked into them. Combat and loot alone won’t do that. There needs to be “magic” — that attention to detail, those little moments of immersion, those features that are a whole lot of fun even if they aren’t related to power progression.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): It depends on a lot of factors. Take the idea of getting lost without a minimap and take that into say New World. Admittedly there we don’t have minimaps, but we do have a map that you can and will flip to, constantly. If we had the minimap, I’d simply run between two points and potentially enjoy the scenery a bit and harvest more in the run since I always know I’m on the right path. Without the minimap, I’m constantly flipping back and forth, making sure I’m not heading directly into a mountain that’ll cost me time.

On the flip side, imagine New World had no map to flip to either. I’d yank my teeth out because I’d absolutely get lost and waste so much time.

Now back to the question: is that someone’s game? Well here is where it depends on what the point of playing New World is and what goals are achievable. Most of the game’s best and well developed experiences in PvE (and all of them for PvP) require you to be at our very near the endgame levels. That’s where you need to be to be PvP competitive. and that’s where you need to be for most players to join up with you for dungeons.

So what game is there for getting lost in the woods? There are no other players lost with you. If they are lost they’re just trying to get to their next objective location too. You can’t build an epic secret base in the middle of the woods. There’s no mobs in there. There’s no game there. There’s just frustration and wasted time.

So it really depends on the game’s features and goals. If I can build whatever I want, wherever I want, yeah maybe getting lost and discovering a nice spot to call home could be cool. If there’s a way to set up your own forward advance base for attacking an enemy stronghold or something, then that could be fun. But if your game doesn’t give you the tools to make your own adventure like that, then you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I think it’s helpful to be clear what we mean when we say inconvenience. To me, an inconvenience — as opposed to a legitimate challenge — is something that serves only to eat up time. An inconvenience tests patience, not skill. Generally it’s something with no possibility of failure (or an infinitesimally small chance). The outcome is never in doubt; it’s just a question of when. Memorizing a boss’s attack pattern is a genuine challenge; spending an hour traveling to the next quest hub is just an inconvenience.

Removing actual challenges can be a lot dicier, but I’m pretty much always in favor of lessening or removing inconvenience. It better respects the time of the player.

I realize these are broad generalizations, and there can be some gray areas. Chris’ example of in-game shops come to mind. Unquestionably inconvenient, but also deeply immersive. A little harder to judge what the right call is in situations like that. But in most cases I think it’s pretty cut and dried.

I’m not particularly concerned about losing people who may have preferred the old inconveniences. In the large majority of cases, the option to do things the old way still remains. If you don’t like dungeon finders, you can still find groups the old-fashioned way. If you preferred the long walk between quest hubs, no one’s forcing you to fast travel. If you’re upset by the option to do things in a more convenient way, it’s not really about how you prefer to play, but how you think others should play, and I don’t have a lot of respect for that.

In a lot of cases I think it comes down to gatekeeping. Inconvenience does serve as a way to stratify the player-base, and it does so without skill coming into the equation. So if you’re not a very good player but want to feel like you are, inconvenience lets you feel superior by lording your higher level and better gear over those who don’t have the time or patience for the grind. When those inconveniences are broken down, you have to reckon with the fact that you’re not really any better than the casual who can play only a few hours a week.

I won’t say that’s everyone who prefers things slow, but I think it is a pretty common factor when people start pining for the “good old days.” And if making things more convenient drives elitists like that away, that can only be a net benefit to the community, IMO.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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