Tactical Play
Successful Publishers

Pleasing the Masses

Crowd If what sets a social virtual world apart from the many single player videogames is the presence of other players, why are the vast majority of commercial virtual worlds built upon established single-player game structures? To explore this, we must look at what attracts players to the social worlds.

In 2002, Nick Yee published research examining motivating factors behind people’s desire to play in Massively Multiplayer Online games. The paper, "Facets: 5 Motivation Factors for Why People Play MMORPG's" is available online here, and is essential reading for anyone interested in this subject. (Yee’s work took Richard Bartle’s informal model as its starting point). The motivating factors identified in this study were:

  • Relationship: players expressing this factor were interested in forming friendships and having discussions with other players. (This factor also correlated most strongly with the amount of time spent in social virtual worlds).
  • Immersion: players expressing this factor enjoyed losing themselves in an imaginary world, and desired role-playing experiences, favouring the company of others sharing the same motivation.
  • Grief: players expressing this factor objectified other players as tools for their own personal gain and entertainment. Player killing is the obvious outward side of this, but scams, deceptions and begging also express the same theme.
  • Achievement: the desire for progress in the game space, and increased power.
  • Leadership: the desire to play with others and specifically to take on a leadership role.

What do we notice about these five (independent) factors? Of the five, three of them (Relationship, Grief and Leadership) inherently require a social world, and a fourth (Immersion) is partially dependent on other players. Only one – Achievement – is possible in a lone world.  

This brings us back to the opening question: if the players of social worlds are predominantly visiting for reasons unconnected to solo game play, why build the infrastructure of virtual worlds on the same principles as single player games?

I believe there are several sound answers to this question, but the first and most obvious is that the videogames industry does not know how to leverage inventiveness and originality very well. If it did, we’d have a thriving indie market. What it does do exceptionally well is create clones of proven commercial formulas, usually with small improvements. Why is World of Warcraft built upon the model of a basic single-player computer role-playing game? Because Blizzard knew that this model would work. And they didn’t know which other models might work. It was a sound commercial decision, albeit a disappointment for anyone interested in play innovation. 

A second and equally significant answer is that in order to support a social community, a game must have players. The easiest way to attract players is to provide a form of play that certain players (any players) really want. Building an MMORPG on classic cRPG structures inevitably attracts some early adopters, who in turn bring other players into the game. Marketing may be a consistent force in the growth of online communities, but word of mouth is more significant. I do not have research that confirms that a large number of MMOG players arrive in that particular world because of a specific friend, but I am fairly confident this is the case.

Equally significant is what happens if this conventional play element is absent. During the golden age of MUDs (Multi-User Domains or Dungeons – the original text-based MMOGs) in the 1980s and 1990s, a variety of different types of communities emerged. One trend that is not often mentioned is what happened to those MUDs that did not feature either a game-like structure (usually classic cRPG structure) or a role-playing bias (suitable for attracting players who enjoy the Immersion factor, mentioned above). Such MUDs often became functionally equivalent to chat rooms – once the virtual worlds had communities, those communities invariably skewed towards social forms, and as a result would often be populated primarily with people who had logged on solely to chat. (Remember that tools like Messenger did not become popular until after 2000).

However, modern MMOGs no longer have this problem. There are plenty of chat solutions outside of a virtual world, and so there is no need to co-opt a MMOG as a purely discursive space. As a result, any virtual world that provides no game framework of any kind is in trouble: it cannot support a community because it cannot hold the subset of players interested in pursuing game activities which appear to be the seed population from which the majority of the members of the social worlds grow. The majority of the players may be there for social reasons, but they are anchored into the game world by personal connections that connect them directly or indirectly with players who are locked into the goals and rewards of the game space (those motivated by Achievement in Yee’s model). 

It is worth noting that one does not have to use the cRPG structure as the basis of a virtual world. Second Life is a notable exception, and seems to have survived simply by virtue of the persistence of its operators, but there are other examples such as the noted niche MMOG A Tale in the Desert, which is structured in a manner which includes no combat. But this game attracts only a few thousand players, not the millions of players drawn to World or Warcraft. There is, therefore, a great opportunity for small independent companies to run their own niche market games (provided they correctly anticipate the needs of their community, and anchor that community somehow). But the big money right now will remain in the hands of established game patterns – established single player game patterns – until some lucky innovator stumbles upon a viable alternative framework.

And it is possible that there are no virtual world frameworks with greater commercial potential than those we currently have. But even if this transpires to be the case, it won’t stop a thousand bold entrepreneurs pushing the frontiers of online play into new and amazing places. 

Research Notes

Yee’s research is correlated with the “Big 5” personality model, which is transformable into Myers-Briggs, and hence Temperament theory. In this light, the following hypothetical observations can be made: 

  • Immersion relates to Abstract (hence to Strategic and Diplomatic play)
  • Grief relates to Thinking (hence to Strategic play) – I suspect this would actually correlate with Pragmatic, hence Strategic and Tactical play.
  • Achievement also relates to Thinking (hence to Strategic play)
  • Leadership relates to Extroversion (hence to Extroverted play)
  • Relationship did not correlate with a Big 5 factor – this, interestingly enough, contradicts my suggestion that Introversion/Extraversion could be used to predict the split between the appeal of lone and social worlds. It seems even Introverted players are drawn to virtual worlds as a source of friendships.

Also worth noting is that among male players, age was negatively correlated with Grief and Achievement – that is, younger (male) players were more motivated by these factors than older (male) players. This finding does not strike me as especially surprising, but I note it for completeness.


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Well...I also think a lot has to do with the shared knowledge of achievement. Achievement in MMOs can but also can't be compared to single rpgs for example because they basically wear their achievements on them. They're able to brag about the gaming goals they have achieved - but I also think that this can be applied to single player games as well. Whereas in MMOs you can show off your achievements by having certain skills, money or weapons - if there's a community base to single-player games players can get involved with - they pretty much supercede the popularity of MMOs. The Sims is a perfect example of this - players want to show other players what they created and more importantly how they play the game. Of course we see a lot of attempts of this coming out - with the Xbox blog and so forth - but this doesn't exactly work the same way. I guess what I'm trying to say is that you really can try and use the formulas of MMORPGs into single player RPGs just as they are doing the opposite. You can get all of Nick Yee's motivations in there - is it innovative? Well - yeah - it seems that's what Wright's doing with Spore - and I for one am looking forward to it. Am I making any sense?

Linn: certainly making sense! :) Nick's Achievement factor is couched solely in terms of power and accumulation, so although there may be a social factor at play in the MMORPG versions, the data as it stands suggests that it is purely a single player motivation - and there are certainly players whose MMOG experiences largely ignore the other players. I agree with you when you say that this can cut the other way - some of the elements of the MMOG can be converted back into single player games. Animal Crossing is the pioneer example, but as you say, Spore will be pushing even further.

Thanks for your comment!

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