Ongoing Uru Review: Players Versus Fun

(This is an edited version of a forum post that I made on January 22, 2007. I am not going to try to summarize the replies. See the whole thread on

(I was going to title this "Players Don't Want To Have Fun," but that felt too argumentative. Besides, the trend of game-criticism articles reffing 80s music pretty much died out after Zorkenheimer's recent three-book series: "Every Breath You Take (Until Your Inventory Fills Up)", "Like A Save-File Virgin", and "We Are The World of Possible Actions".)

I got caught up in two threads recently, on the Uru forums. I commented on both at great length, as I usually do; and I didn't notice until afterwards that I was contradicting myself.

The first was on possible CRPG-style mechanisms for Uru Live. That is, activities which players can do which are not exploration or puzzle-solving, but rather -- to be blunt -- time-suckers. You do them repeatedly and the game keeps track of how much you've done. In the oldest CRPGs this was (as I usually term it) "clubbing rats", for which you were rewarded with bigger clubs and tougher rats until you reached the end and bought the sequel.

Nobody is advocating that for Uru. (The market is super-saturated. Really; if you say "Night Elf" in any coffeeshop in Boston you'll find Warcraft players crystallizing out on your laptop.) But there are alternatives which don't involve clobbering NPCs. Most MMO-CRPGs have some form of "crafting", where you spend your time creating items in a player economy. A Tale in the Desert specializes in this, so it's not surprising that my notion of a good Uru CRPG activity looks like ATITD:

"The activity should be at least somewhat mind-engaging. Working smarter should be more efficient than brute repetition. The returns should diminish past (say) 30 minutes a day per person, so there's no real reward for a six-hour rock-clearing session. It should be more efficient in groups, to encourage social activity."

To which I got several replies, but the one that struck me was this:

"So some people don't like to grind? Fine. Don't make them."

Now I change the subject.

The other thread (no, I'll return to the first one in a moment) was about a new Age which was just opened on Friday. This Age is Uru's first truly multi-player puzzle. (There have always been places to hang out with other players, and you can invite them into your puzzle ages if you want to co-solve. But up until now, everything in the game has been completable by a solo player.)

As is inevitable, not everybody likes this development. I confess to a moment of annoyance myself: I have been in the habit of solving puzzles solo and then hanging out with other players to be social. That won't always be possible, from now on.

(The reward, not incidentally, is a very small "final" area and a trophy stone in your home. No major exploration or story stages are unlocked by the multiplayer puzzle. I don't know if that's going to remain the policy in future Uru developments, but it's what we've got now.)

But the reply that struck me was this:

"Either way, it doesn't allow for being forced to do both (some [Ages] alone and some together)."

These two replies have a commonality -- coercion. Make them do this (or don't); they're forced (or not forced) to do that.

I replied in the second thread, and spoke to that issue. I said: nobody's forcing you to do anything. You can choose to solve this new Age, by getting together with some folks, or leave it alone.

And as I was writing that, I was mulling over my reaction to the first thread. I hadn't gotten around to replying, but it was this: oh, sure, you're not forcing players to club rats (or weave cloth, or clean rubble). But they'll feel like they have to anyway. Because if it's a major part of the game, then not doing it is not playing the game.

Clearly, I'm trying to eat my cake out of both sides of my mouth.

Which is to say: I'm right both ways. (Naturally. :)

In the first thread, the same person who said "Fine. Don't make them," went on to say

"Where's the counter that ticks off one each time a person reports all 30 markers? Why aren't we pressuring more people to calibrate that thing so we can get it started?"

That is, suggesting that an existing gameplay element -- finding markers -- be made a measurable group CRPG activity, just as I was describing. And, entirely naturally, he described this in terms of group pressure -- players would feel forced to do this, to contribute to the group effort. I agree; that's exactly what would happen.

In the second thread, I tried to say that nobody should feel forced to join a group solving effort. But "you should not feel that" is always a warning sign. When those words come out of your mouth, it's time to step back. Someone does feel that way. Why?

A very common game-design mistake is to make two paths available, and say "Great! Every player will take the path he enjoys more. I've made everybody happy." What actually happens, as I've described many times, is that most players only find one path. Half of them (or, it sometimes seems, all of them) hate it but never look for alternatives. They finish the game and then write you hate mail about how you forced them (coercion again!) to do this stupid/tedious/illogical/unseemly thing.

The Uru case is slightly different. Two paths are plainly visible, but they lead to different places. You've got solo-puzzle Ages and multi-player Ages (well, one so far). If the game adopts something like my notion of CRPG activities, there would be exploration/puzzle areas and work/activity areas. And inevitably, players will... feel forced to do both.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Why do players do game stuff they don't enjoy? Aren't they playing for fun? Clearly, no. A player's goal in the game is not to have fun. The game provides goals; the player seeks them. If he has enough fun along the way, he writes happy blog posts, recommends the game to his friends, renews his subscription. If he doesn't, he writes hate mail, cancels his subscription, and microwaves the CDs.

The designer's goal is to make the game fun; but the player is not a fun-seeking entity. The designer has to work like hell to push fun into the player's way. If the designer fails (for a particular player!) then that player discovers goals which require him to do stupid/tedious/etc tasks. (For his particular tastes!) So you can't discuss why players complain, without analyzing their goals.

Where do these goals come from? How does the game "provide them"? Several ways. There are rewards -- both substantive (beautiful new areas to walk in) and abstract (trophies). There's sheer weight of content: if most of the detail, programming, or interface is devoted to path X, then path X becomes the primary goal. There's advertising, marketing, and labelling.

And there's player expectation -- which is self-reinforcing. If players expect goal X to be important, they'll sit around talking about X. That will be their focus. They'll attract new players to whom X is important. If X doesn't show up, their fun is spoiled. The designers, not being idiots, will pay more attention to X.

But, heck, forget about the feedback loops. At root, a game can only suggest priorities. I decide to be a trophy completist, or I don't. I decide to stick to solo play, or I don't. Or... I don't decide; I want one thing or the other. Decisions are conscious. Desires just are.

And this, I think, is why these forum discussions flare up. We understand that expectation is crucial; we try to manage expectation. And it's hard to do that without saying, dude, you expect the wrong thing. You want the wrong thing. No wonder you aren't having fun.

I say stuff like that. Sometimes it goes over okay, and sometimes it annoys people. (And both at once, I'm sure.) So... be aware of what you're asking. I guess that's my whole point here. Player expectations are decisions, and they're also desires. You can discuss them, but you can't demand them.

Last updated January 22, 2007.

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