On the subject of subjectivity

Several weeks ago I discussed the ending and entire first season of A Game of Thrones, the adapted TV series from George R. Martin’s fantasy classic, with two of my best friends. One of them has been a big fan of the author’s for many years; the other was mostly curious and in for the ride. As for myself, I watch pretty much anything that comes with a high fantasy label on it and promises an above-average production quality and cast.

As we drew our final conclusions, we didn’t necessarily agree on what we liked/hated the most about the series. I for one, felt that it had had a very slow start, picking up on pace and depth only after the 3rd or so episode. I also found the script somewhat lacking in places. However, I absolutely loved the setting, the care that had gone into authenticity and atmosphere – that alone justified keeping watching for me, and then there was the character of Tyrion, so brilliantly depicted by its actor, a joy to observe. Unlike me, my book-savvy mate loved the pilot and first few episodes the most. His overall praise was all on how the film makers had respected the original material and how well a lot of it has been put onto screen. I’ve no way to judge this because while I did read the books a long time ago, I frankly didn’t enjoy them at the time (don’t tell him) and so I’ve forgotten most. As for my other friend, he did apparently not notice the dialogues, nor does he care for nice settings in general; he loved the gore and naked skin and that “Sean Bean lost his head in the end!” Right…

Subjectivity can be a beautiful thing. Despite the fact that we all enjoyed different aspects of the series, we arrived at the conclusion that we definitely want to watch the second season when it comes out. We had fun with the first and never did it come to our mind to try battle each other over which one of us had truly found “the correct or better reason” to enjoy the series. How pointless and silly would that be?

For the film makers, the outcome couldn’t have been more successful; instead of only appealing to the book nerd, or the fantasy geek or Conan, they managed to get all three types for an audience. Had they focused on just one of us instead (not to call this a realistic option in this context, but anyway), they’d have cut down their success by 66% and might never afford that announced sequel. As for us – we would’ve had a lot less to talk about together and missed out on the chance to share an experience. I don’t believe I would prefer to watch the series all by myself.

Why we gravitate towards absolute truths (and think we have them)

It’s human nature to assume that our own needs and values are essential and absolute. That’s how we start out in life and got by for a very long time, on a more primal level where survival is a struggle and everyone needs to push through his own needs first. While resources are limited, everyone else is the enemy.

Today, we are a lot more cultivated than that. For one, we don’t live in caves anymore and we enjoy the luxury of having our food carried over for us from across the planet. We still have slaves, but we call them “third world” people, as we enjoy our first-world after-work cocktail at 5AM in the afternoon. We can afford to relax about social pecking orders, a little, and we can dare to switch perspectives – as long as we’re on the safe side and it’s halfway agreeable (there be dragons). Oh yes, a lot more cultivated.

For all our displayed culture and intellectualism, we’re not so far away from our cavemen ancestors. We’re still the most important person in the world and have to be, and we’re still kinda right when others are wrong. Most of all we are still subjects and as such subjective. It’s harder to disagree with yourself than with others, objectively speaking.

Why we don’t want absolute truths (even when we think we do)

When we’re discussing video games, design aspects and what developer teams “should and shouldn’t do” (for us) in our future MMOs, we can only ever hold our stance from a very individual point of view. We’re convinced of what we call fun or challenging or meaningful because it’s fun and challenging and meaningful for us. We play the same MMO, but we do not necessarily play the same game, so our strong opinions easily clash with others. However, it’s exactly this diversity that makes MMOs such a great experience. Yes, I actually believe that.

MMOs are vast worlds, by nature appealing to more than one type of player. And while I am pretty sure I know what I want from them, I’m not sure I’d like things always designed completely in my favor. Frankly, if I was to determine the “3 top focuses” of the next game in development, I wonder if that would really make for a lasting experience. Would I feel entertained enough to play it for months on end?

I myself am no gamer “stereotype”: some days I’m a raider, a theory crafter, a guild leader. On other days I’m a PVPer, utterly uninterested in PVE. I am an explorer always, looking for the next ingame secret, special landmark or beautiful tune. And then I am happy enough to spend a few hours on wardrobe as I chitchat away with friends in guildchat. Those friends again have different priorities than me but they’re an essential part to my gaming experiences – I want friends to be there with me.

So, how am I supposed to find one definition for viable gameplay motivations? Even for myself?
Absolute truths don’t necessarily make for fun games. They certainly don’t make for diverse games and p(l)ayer bases, or even for a game you would enjoy long-term no matter how clearly you perceive your own factors of enjoyment (this moment in time). Maybe you want to eat a Filet Mignon today, but do you also know how to prepare the best one possible? And would you like to eat it ever day, all by yourself?

MMOs have room; they have room for a multitude of playstyles and different players – players with different moods, preferences and priorities. That diversity is part of their selling point, letting us enjoy many facets and thus find something to do for years. It keeps our servers populated too, because it offers room for change and choices. Our disagreements encourage developers to maintain diversity and choices in their games. Did you ever think about it that way?

We can’t define what should be enjoyable to every type of MMO player. We shouldn’t even try and define it too much for ourselves, in an all-exclusive kind of way. This is why we cannot agree on fundamental aspects like “fun”, “challenge” or “meaning” in discussions either; the only thing we can agree on is that “having fun” means that a person is enjoying himself in some shape or form; that he’s having a good time and that this personal, positive outcome justifies his choices for him. Choices which are just as good as ours. Whether we’re watching movies together, playing games or ordering from the breakfast menu, we have valid preferences and motivations that govern our personal choices. If you love mushrooms with your Full English and I don’t, that doesn’t make me any “better” than you. It doesn’t mean mushrooms are lacking nutrition either, just because I happen not to care for them.

MMO players who find fun and meaning where I cannot, are not my opponents. While we might enjoy different things, there’s one thing all of us have in common: we want to enjoy ourselves in online games. We want online games to become the best they can be – and that is something that should unite us.
Now, if some of our wishes seem diametrically opposed, well that’s when I turn to developers: to create games that make room for everybody. For choices, for variety, for alternative, yet equally valid roads we can only benefit from.

In “A Beautiful Mind”, the biographic tale of John Nash’s life and his discovery of the governing dynamics theory, the ideal outcome of a game is being redefined in this not-so-serious analogy; the bottom line being that when looking for summary success (rather than a mutually exclusive approach), players should strive for solutions that are the best for as many as possible, rather than best for one individual. Transferring this philosophy to MMO game design, it means that we all benefit from games that appeal to a variety of players, rather than just one or two. It means that there can be subcultures and niches, all equally satisfied by the same game allowing its player base to define fun and meaning for themselves.

One of the biggest, monumental achievements of World of Warcraft 1.0. was uniting countless gamer types under one banner like no other MMO ever had before; there was something here for everybody! Not everything for everybody maybe, but something for all of us. Sadly, as is often the case, things started to change when WoW became so obviously successful. Today, it doesn’t feel as if the game still means to appeal to the same big crowd – in fact, it’s become rather clear that when Blizzard say “we want to make the game fun for the most players”, what they’re actually saying is “we want to make the game most fun to a group of players”. Apparently they have found the definition for fun in WoW? And so they take choices away from the audience, ultimately losing many of them (losing more and more of them still). There’s no room any more for all of us in Azeroth.

Their entire reasoning is of course a fallacy; they have not in fact achieved to appeal to “the most players”, current quantitative evidence speaks against that. Instead, they’ve reduced the room to co-exist in WoW, they’ve chosen to focus everything on somebody. From a financial viewpoint that makes hardly any sense either: there’s no such thing as making your audience pay for more than one subscription per month. If you want to increase profits, you need to create space for many, equally happy people.

Why my house is still your house

We are not competitors. None of us are in a race for the exclusive formula for fun, challenge or meaning. We don’t make MMOs worlds any more enjoyable by dismissing a variety of playstyles – and we shouldn’t have to. Developers are in charge of how much room their virtual worlds can offer to the audience, of just how wide they want to open the floodgates. They’re the ones responsible to prioritize and balance content – let them fight over how to achieve this. Easy or not, one thing is for certain: we get better games and more colorful communities if they manage this balancing act. If they succeed to create an MMO that defines as much as necessary, as little as possible. Where the player base can be more than mere consumers and all add to the world instead.

I want to live in a bazaar, rather than a cathedral. I prefer the house with different windows and paints, with arches and funny corners, secret tunnels and weird trees. Not a house built after a harmonized plan on paper, finalized a long time ago. I want to explore a garden where wild things keep growing and the next bend in the road is ever unexpected. I want my MMOs to be mazes and bottomless pits.

May be you are an avid RPer, taking joy from things like player housing and cosmetic items. May be you’re a raider who gets kicks out of optimizing his stats and gear. Or maybe you’re a PVPer, looking to gank both the RPer and the raider for equal reasons. Either way, we should be able to live in the same place – even if just to meet someday at a crossroad, to exchange a fleeting glance as we pass down the way.

If the house gets too small, it’s not the people in the room who are the problem.
I will see you there, I hope.

14 comments

  1. Great post and so very true. I feel that different playstyles can lead to clashes though. I think it is very important for them to co-exist, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get annoyed from time to time when a change is made that clearly targets a group other than mine and hurts my gameplay experience. Juggling different interests keeps an MMO alive, but it is a very hard thing to do.

    I blogged about this almost exactly two years ago (is this a summer topic?) I still like that post so I’ll shamelessly plug it here ;)

  2. @scrusi
    Thanks very much. this topic has certainly been coming for a while now, but I’ve personally never written about it so explicitly before. I’ve been a little bewildered lately by some articles and comments I read in the blogosphere where people have in places forgotten that we’re all in the same boat really and not each other’s enemies, whether we want different things or not. more than that, we need each other to create the best of games.

    I’m with you on how difficult this is to balance however, and I’ve many times in the past blamed different mindsets from my own for the things I dislike in current games. I think it’s important to criticize things rather than people though and realize too that it’s about implementation first and foremost. if it’s not working out at the moment, it’s because of balancing issues, wrong perceived ‘goals’ and actions on the developers side. and I’m not even suggesting that balance means giving everything to everybody, quite the opposite. that’s a paradox maybe, but I feel that there was more room in WoW when they did not try so hard to make room (by trying to give everything to everyone, for example). players want a certain degree of direction, but they also want diversity.

    finding that middle way is a lot to ask for absolutely; but that cannot keep us from asking. besides, I’m having one of those days where I want everything – and why not? :D

    Thanks muchly for your link too, I will read your article with great interest.

  3. Oh absolutely, it never hurts to ask and I wasn’t trying to say that this is impossible to achieve and therefore not worth trying. It’s just hard ^^

  4. I understood what you said. :) it’s hard too, not to sound contradictory while trying to talk about this. on one hand I want devs to be stricter, on the other I want them to stay away from defining things and certainly player enjoyment, too much. it’s a case-by-case thing, depending on what we speak of.

    I hold to my belief though that you can entertain many (even more) players with a great game that does exactly not try and give everything to everyone. simply because not everyone wants everything, but everyone wants something. so there’s less to lose by just giving people something to start with (does that even still make sense lol?).

  5. Whoa.. I actually disagree with most of this, Syl. I am a firm believer in absolute truths where appropriate. The guy who loves Haris Pilton does not enrich my MMORPG by encouraging Blizzard to include her. He subtracts from my fun. Because we are different. It is his right to do that, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it – or that he enriches my game.

    I think you romanticize subjectivity. Humans are different. We play games (and generally approach life) from different points of view. That’s why we come to different conclusions – not because there is no objectivity. For example, if I love a game and you hate it, both can be absolute truth. There’s no arguing whether “from my point of view you actually liked it”.

    And even though you are entitled to your own definition of “slave”, if you use the common definition, your assertion in this post about them is wrong: objectively wrong.

    If I prefer to raise taxes and somebody else prefers to lower them. That’s what we want. We are entitled to want something and there’s no arguing whether we want it only subjectively. However, the guy who wants to lower them is still my opponent. And moreover, if we both argue that raising/lowering them stimulates the economy, there’s only one absolute truth. We can try to find this truth by arguing with each other – or by testing it.

  6. @Nils

    Hehe, I’m glad I’ve caught you off-guard! ;)
    you see, the guy who loved Harris Pilton never ever bothered me. I don’t even think I noticed her before late, late into TBC. WoW’s pop-culture cameos were a bit much in places, I agree, but that specific NPC didn’t ‘lessen’ my personal gaming experience. this is what I mean with room.

    I don’t try to romanticize subjectivity, in fact I think it can be a big issue if people act as if they all hold ultimate truths. we can only find individual truths when it comes to what we like or find “fun” (as opposed to math equations etc.) which is exactly what you said, really. I like it, you don’t – there’s no point in trying to convince you. however, there IS a big difference here in terms of how we value others and most of the time, we value the different negatively. If you’ve read my article on the napkin analogy by chance, you understand why I disagree with this. to me, differences are needed to retain balance and they can also inspire greater things (just like in a multi-cultural society, groups might have difficulties to understand one another, but at the same time they have huge potential in terms of becoming enriched).

    That’s the point of this article, more than anything. that differences can inspire devs to create something bigger – they have to in fact, if they want to appeal to many of us. I’m not saying though that to achieve this, there cannot be any boundaries or definitions; I’m saying we need the “right ones” and overall more room to co-create. because there IS room for everybody (if not in virtual worlds, where else?). we are not per se ‘enemies’ if we want different things from the same game; maybe you want the opposite of me, but does it really need to come down to “either – or” in an MMO? maybe not. maybe they can become smarter than that, more dynamic and innovative in meeting this challenge. the point should be that different flavors of players can co-exist instead of excluding one another. at least that’s what I’d like, maybe then me and my friends would all still be playing WoW..

    As for slavery etc. I disagree; there’s the terminology for “modern slavery” or in-direct slavery, and there’s still forced slavery on this planet today, too. but debating this is really not my focus here and it’s frankly too big a topic of its own. :)

  7. I’ve just added a paragraph in my latest post just for you, Syl. I hope to finish it today. ;)

    “Out of many one” or “Strength in diversity” are good ideas. But they are only part of the truth.

    If you want to make an MMORPG that offers a great experience for traders and at the same time a great experience for bandits who can try to rob the traders, then I am all for it. It’s certainly a game design challenge, but a really worthy goal.
    A great MMO should cater to different people and create fun out of their diversity.

    However, if you want to cater to the lowest common denominator, for example by instancing the trade and having bandits rob NPC traders, then I don’t think you’re making a great MMORPG. Your MMORPG might still be successful. But it does not draw this strength from the diversity of the players. It just catered to the lowest common denominator and thus makes a game that is “just good enough” for as many consumers as possible to pay the price.

  8. @Nils

    We’re back in agreement then. as I’ve actually written in my article (although I can imagine the topic in itself is just conflicting enough to oversee this), I don’t want an MMO that tries to give everything to everyone. this is when WoW went downhill, in my eyes. paradoxically enough, they destroyed ‘room’ this way although they aimed for the opposite. the problem is (I guess) that they think you create room and diversity by just handing it all out; but you don’t. and many of us do not want ‘everything’ handed out. we’d rather have something we really like (and have the freedom to create it), rather than just getting something everyone can like a little (common denominator).

    it’s hard to explain, but maybe the ‘candy overkill’ is a good analogy; some candy is good, too much is not. you seem to be given a lot, when you actually aren’t (…given the right things).

    I don’t want such games and I don’t think they’re successful long-term. but I think we can have ‘extremes’ (if you prefer that term) side by side in the same game; different types of candy, if the developers let us. until then, I conveniently call everything else their failure. :P

  9. Yes… and no.

    You are correct in saying that an individual likely benefits from having a game appeal to a wide variety of players instead of just for themselves, at least in the long run. Instead of having just one (if you are lucky) A+ games being designed for you, there will be dozens of C+ titles. Then again, if you are a gamer who enjoys WWII/military FPS, you have dozens of A+ games each year, the lucky bastard. In any case, I had a similar experience to you in WoW insofar as what “game” I wanted to play changed weekly, and it was useful having them all be inside the same game space.

    That being said, we are all competitors once the MMO has been released. Not even counting how design talent has been shifted away from WoW over the years, the designers have only a finite amount of manpower available in which to create content. A larger issue comes in the form of the diminishing returns of fun. Adding additional character progression content is relatively easy: come up with 10 quests, then require players to do them every day for 30 days to get item X. Bam, “content.” Coming up with new things to explore is significantly more difficult; same as new storyline, dialog, crafting, RP options, and so on. While it’s fine to say “let the designers figure out how to balance everything,” it does not change the fact of scarcity of design resources.

    As Locke might say, we cannot eat the same apple.

  10. @Azuriel

    Well, I agree with you that resources are limited. I don’t agree however that there’s not more potential here for future MMOs – and I don’t agree about the fatalistic “K.O.-match” some seem to be in against other players. I hold to what I said about variety; the players are not the primary issue, implementation is. and why do you automatically assume that the next generation of games cannot achieve more in this area, go even further, WITHOUT lessening your personal enjoyment? is this genre so ancient that we’ve seen it all? I think not…

    If I’m a raider, I don’t compete against the PVPer in WoW. I can spend 7 years in instances, never touching ‘his’ content and vice versa. if the devs can balance our two worlds at the same time, in the same game, we can co-exist. whch has been the case in WoW for a long time (not to claim that it was perfect). the same goes for RP elements; WoW never offered much for RP despite the fact that probably a million of players would’ve loved it. it’s a case of priorities, sure, but there’s no reason why WoW couldn’t have implemented more features to keep that part of the community satisfied.

    and already we have 3 different gamer cultures within the same game. what’s the problem?

    Frankly, I think a few people do not understand the difference between what they don’t like subjectively and what REALLY hurts them (their play styles) objectively. I’m not saying that everything is always subjective in my article – far from it.
    I’m saying, your judgements on ‘fun’ or ‘meaning’ are subjective, if you make statements such as “traveling is boring” or “cosmetic features create no content” – maybe that’s true for you, but there’s BIG evidence against you out there, because many players beg to differ. now if a game offered you choices here, such as use transmogrification or not, how does that hurt YOU? and why do you have to value their fun negatively?

    Other things are objective; the need for balance, design aspects such as ‘journey vs goal’, the tricky line of short-term and long-term thinking, and so forth.
    these are objective needs, although again there’s room as to ‘how’ you can achieve things properly.

    “As Locke might say, we cannot eat the same apple.”

    why do we have to? how about the tree has enough apples for everybody?
    or at least plenty of people?
    MMOs might not have endless room, as you said too, but they have ‘room’?

    I don’t think I need to mention on what side I am in the design debate – there’s plenty of articles on this blog that show you exactly where I stand among the more oldschool crowd. :) but I still don’t appreciate how (fatalistically) the discussion is being held in places – especially not when writers become judgemental about what other players enjoy. if you want to be more “objective than others”, you should start by being less personal (‘you’ generally speaking).

  11. I think players with other playstyles add a ton to gameplay that we might not even realize. If WoW had been full of hardcore raiders and no-one else, how would people get enjoyment out of presenting their awesome gear in Ironforge? How would I ever have learned that I actually do enjoy PvP? Where would tomorrows raiders come from if casuals don’t care about the game? What would happen to your glyph business if there were no raiders anymore? And, maybe most importantly, how empty would such a world feel?

    Variety is the spice of life and I can name at least one awesome, fun encounter with a player with interests differing from mine for each time I’ve been annoyed by them or changes done for them. Those players might be my “opponents” in a very limited sense (on one particular issue) but if I always won, they would leave and my game would be worse for it.

    To take Nils’ tax analogy, I don’t like paying taxes at all. Increasing taxes takes money away from me and gives it to other people (my “opponents”). That doesn’t mean that paying taxes to pay for other people’s social security is a bad thing, not even from my point of view.

    Oh and when I talk about other groups being worth to have around, I don’t mean entitled casuals. Screw those guys! ;)

  12. @scrusi

    I couldn’t possibly add anything to that – so very, very true! :)

    sometimes we think we want something, but once we have it, we realize how it doesn’t work out like that at all. I don’t think a game all catered to only myself would be worth playing. I want variety, yes even that part of variety that annoys me at times. now the only question is which developer will live up to the challenge next, and maybe do much more here by doing less.

  13. Might I suggest that this isn’t all on the devs’ shoulders? Players have to live and let live, too. There are just some human attitudes that devs can’t override.

  14. @Tesh

    Hehe…as in you will never be able to make everyone happy or haters gonna hate, you mean? ;)

    of course. I don’t expect that they can achieve that. even if they achieve brilliant co-existence, some players will complain about just that. well…screw them (offense very much intended)! ^^

    apparently it’s easily missed that I actually called this a matter of (tricky) balance and priorities in my article – yes, there are limitations obviously. :)
    it’s really rather difficult; if I say I expect them to create room, everyone wants to know just exactly how much I am talking about, lol…I dont know how to answer that. “as much as there can possibly be, while still maintaining a good (uh-oh!) game. as much as realistic (uh-oh!) boundaries will allow. more than in WoW, less than in second life”. gah.

    I don’t think I’m the one payed to find this answer. ;)

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