What experience designers can learn from games

October 18, 2008

Last month Aleks Krotoski spoke at dConstruct on Playing the web: how gaming makes the internet (and the world) a better place (listen to the podcast, or see a write up of the talk here).

Two main things I got out of this talk: (1) carrot: good games should reward people for contributing more, with points, levels, collectable items. (2) goals: good games should have an end goal.

Casting my mind back to various games I’ve played, I’ve never been so hooked on a game as Ultima Online. I played this game compulsively for about a year – quitting only when I really needed to focus on schoolwork (and when I finally switched to a Mac).

Rewards and goals are everywhere in Ultima Online. The gameplay is rich on hundreds of different levels: across the macrocosm of the game down to the tiny little details. I loved that spell ingredients, known as ‘reagents’, spawned across the land – which could be picked up and used, or sold. I could also harvest cotton from cotton fields and sell it to tailors in the town. If you’re like me, you’ll find both of these ideas hopelessly novel.

Another thing I liked about the game: killing monsters gives a character an amount of “fame”. And with enough “fame”, you gain a title. This brings a compelling social aspect to the game: you have something to show other players for your participation in the game. Your title also reflects your skill level, ranging from “novice” to “legendary” (they might have introduced more levels since).

Building a character within a system, within a world, is satisfying, compelling, and addictive. A character can take one of hundreds of possibilities. The game is not just about “killing stuff” within a contrived “level”. In addition to being a mage or a warrior, you can make a living as a tailor, a chef, a bard, a thief, and even a beggar. Skill increases as you practise it: so, to build your bard character, you’d need to first raise enough gold to buy an instrument, then walk around playing said instrument.

This does get a little dull. In some professions, raising skill is much too mechanical and technical for sustained interest, so you could macro or automate it to rise. (If you get caught, though, you put your account at risk.) On the whole, I think the game manages this well: although it can get boring, it is more likely that you will invest the time to build your character than it is for you to give up or quit the game.

How does Ultima Online manage this? You can clearly see the structure and process for raising a skill. In other words, you can see the journey ahead, and know what you need to do in order to reach the end. You can see the rewards in the future: e.g., a tailor with 100.00% skill can make better quality leather armour for your mage. An animal tamer with 100.00% skill has a much better chance at successfully taming a dragon. Getting to 100.00% skill is difficult, but fun: the rewards are both in the journey and in the destination.

I think Ultima Online is the perfect game. Sadly, its membership is dwindling: possibly because World of Warcraft is the new MMORPG vogue, and possibly because gamers aren’t known for their lengthy attention spans.

So, some basic principles which are useful to interaction and experience designers, or anyone planning a social website:

  • Reward your users for participation.
  • Allow them to build something, and allow them to see the end-goal.

Another principle:

  • Give your users a structure: give them limitations

From ‘Rules of Play’:

The idea that players subordinate their behaviors to the restrictions of rules in order to experience play – and its pleasures – is a fundamental aspect of games. The restrictions of rules facilitate play, and in doing so, generate pleasure for players.

From L. S. Vyogotsky:

To observe the rules of the play structure promises much greater pleasure from the game than the gratification of an immediate impulse.

Now: how to bring these principles to social websites?

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