Saturday, May 2

critiqueing Bartle's Keynote Address

After having placed myself firmly in one corner yesterday, I'll be coming at it from a completely different angle today. I'll be taking shots at the arguments Bartle's ideas in his Presentation (or what we can glean of it from the slides anyway) and try to debunk them. I'll still be agreeing with his overall conclusion, but pointing out some of the blind spots he has in the thinking that led him there.

Apples aren't Oranges!
Let's start with his "make games like the initial MUD" chorus. Richard really wants people to stop making games it sometimes seems and make a more gamey Second Life, as that nearly ammounts to what he wants.
There are some substantial differences between the MUD's of the eighties and the MMO's of the naughties. Let's start with the bleeding obvious and move on into the abstract shall we?
  1. MMO's are graphical, sometimes visually stunning things whereas MUD's were text adventures played over anything but userfriendly networks.
  2. The MUD audience consisted by and large of College people. Students, teachers and people who were there but probably shouldn't be. They could be numbered in the tens of thousands a couple of hundred thousand maybe at their peak, never millions though.
  3. MUDs catered to this specific audience and this audience became MUD authors themselves in time.
To start with point three, it keeps amazing me how Bartle is so opposed to User Created Content. Even though this was a big part of what made MUDs big. Maybe it has something to do with the differences between the MUD audience and todays Interweb/MMORPG audience?
I mean, Bartle has repeatedly been attacked by representatives of the type of mind that generates the 99% of crap you find in Web 2.0, so he may have become predisposed to it due to them.

Who were these mudders anyway?
I personally only caught the tail end of the MUD phenomena when it was being 'destroyed' by graphical games like Ultima Online and EverQuest. While at college I saw the occasional mudder (a pejorative term in the general populace's mouth btw). They'd be sitting all day at a terminal or PC with terminal emulator software on them, not go to classes e.t.c. They were ostracized and for the most part were to much caught up in their own little world of text to notice.
On the other hand, if you needed help setting up a route to a host or a telnet connection, you needen't look further than the closest mudder for advice and assistance.

Let's get ballsy and make a statement: MUD's by and large were played by people of above average intelligence and a desire to 'live' in a different world, a fantasy one. These traits allowed them to create a Magic Circle using nothing but a terminal and the amber glowing text (or green or white if you were stuck with hercules) within which they could be anything they wanted and thereby escape the dreariness of their lives. In short, they had a lot in common with the D&D and other P&P RPG crowd. Not surprisingly that latter group also centeres around college kids of above average intelligence and 'social acceptance issues'. The 12 to 14 Million people playing MMO's today (US/EU marketspace) have almost nothing in common with these people, except that maybe one in twenty of the current day MMO players is the type who would have played MUDs (if they had the tech skills and the net access) or P&P RPGs (if they were a bit more sociable and less tech-savvy) back in the day.

Butt naked through 20 feet of snow is for pansies
MUD's demanded a lot more from their players. More time. Doing everything from moving between rooms to combat and checking your inventory took typing out full commands and reading a lot of text. Former Mudders tend to be really fast typers and very appreciatiev of auto-completion elements in any application. More creativity. You had to translate textual descriptions into your own mental vista's rather than simply take them in from the screen.
You had to describe your character in the available space rather than pick eye- and hair- colors from a colorpicker and adjust your boobslider. You had to memorize and mentally visualize the route from room 314 in the Dark Forest to room 456,231 in Grand Capital and back. You had to have a basic understanding of network protocols to even get in the game and some understanding of how programming worked in order to advance in the game.

So far have I mentioned any skill that's required of a current day MMO player? You think someone who thinks latency issues can be solved by 'port forwarding' would have been able to connect to a MUD? Or someone who wil reinstall World of Warcraft because of an error slipped into a configuration file? The whole Hardcore vs Casual debate becomes silly when you look at what divides the old skool MUD player from the current day MMO player. Only a subset of those who call themselves 'hardcore' today have what it takes to have played MUDs, fewer even would have actually enjoyed it.

Consumer Rights
MMO Players are consumers, MUD Players used to be participants. When playing the MUD would become boring, you had one way to go, and that was to become a Builder. getting (limited) admin rights on a MUD allowing you to expand upon the world, introduce new challenges for your fellow players, run 'life' events much like a Dungeon Master or Storyteller would in a P&P RPG. Can you imagine today's MMO crowd having even limited admin rights in an MMO?
The word Nightmare comes to mind. Maybe that's why Bartle is so adverse to User Created Content? because he's to stuck in old design patterns himself as much as developers who base their games too much around catering to his original archetypes?

So really, making a MUD-like game today would mean ignoring what more than 85% of your potential market is about and be a show of bad understanding of your potential market in general. Well, Richard Bartle is a game designer, not a marketeer. Is that an excuse to suggest more market-savvy designers and developers make his kind of game? Not really.
The MMO made like the original MUDs has already been made by the way, it was called Ultima Online and has a place of pride in history. Yet again I feel that over half the current market would not enjoy UO even if it'd get a current-day engine to run on. Except this time, we are talkign Hardcore/Casual divide. I also feel that the people saying "I don't want to have to go find my fun" have their rights to.

Heck, one day I'm the one, the next day I'm the other. Whymsical like Alice. A lot of the time the more hardcore or sandboxy playstyle has its appeal to me. But on other days I have the luxury of an actual life and the choice between 'being in the virtual world' and going to look for some fun there, or go and pick some fun to do in the Real Wolrd. Have some friends over, watch a funny show or movie or read a book. Some days I want to make/find my fun, some days I want to consume. It'd probably be 'better' for me if I spent the want to make/find my fun days in a more productive manner. Studying/horsing around with some piece of tech or software or another hobby producing actually useful skills. But that's something for Yet Another Post :-)

Don't flog a horse because it died on you once.
This doesn't mean I've stopped seeing merit in his idea to have games start out as the guided tour then branch out towards a more sand-box like environment with lots of ways to have User Generated Content. The 'wanted' posters on Auction Houses is a very simple yet very good example. User Created Content should have its place to though. But only if the actual goal really is empowering your playerbase, not geting Free Content. You can't.
You always pay for it some way. Either through setting up quality selection systems of quality (It takes money and time to get that right, though in the end this will save you money). Or you'll have to get paid moderators in. Or you pay for it by people leaving because your game's in-game experience is deteriorating into the kind of manure you find on 'moderated' Official Forums. You may guess I'm in favor of a well designed semmi-automative quality selection process. I'll be very interested in how CoX will evolve this. So far the seem to be going with the third option and pray not too much NSFW/ERP content is presented to minors.

The User Created Content is more likely (provided there's decent Quality Control) to keep the casual/consumer-like Dorothy happy than sandbox-like User Generated elements, as well as give the Wendy population something to do. Sorry, to me Wendy is way more a homebuilder than a Socializer, probably because I'm basing her upon the 'original Wendy' not the Porn Comic version. I'm sure that Wendy is a lot more ahm, open, than the original one that I'm familiar with. Still, I can see Wendy as a homebuilder merge with the image of a Guild Leader as well, so Bartle's not completely off his rocker either.

We all played with poo sometime.
But he is when he completely ignores the tons of fun Users are having while creating crappy content. I have a box with old P&P RPG memoribilia. Character Sheets with backgrounds, maps of churches and villages and other scenario documentation from my hey days as a Roleplayer. Most of them make me wince now. But then I remember the fun I and my friends had with them at the time. Maybe it's an occupational hazard for a professional game designer/developer to whom this is work, to not realize how much fun it can be to flex your creativity, even if it's really not that good. Most of our scenario's weren't all that good. Most were crap actually. But we had tons of awesomeness in terms of the fun we had with them. Some of my best memories to date are of completely messed up scenario's where the players went completely rampant.

Start out with the guided tour, branch out to User Generated AND Created Content Options. Give your players choice. No one's really 100% Alice or Dorothy or Wendy. More like we're 40|30|30 or 20|50|30 or some such. Maybe if Bartle had designed his Bartle Test to have a 100% total scale rather than 1-100 per Type we wouldn't have had the problem of games catering to one or the other type? You still need to deal with global chat though. I distinctly remember Vanguard's greatest post-launch issue, the community tearing itself apart over whether the death penalty was harsh enough and other hardcore/vs casual "debates".


  1. Interesting: Google's Timeline may give an indication of Richard bartle's "relevance" in the scheme of things over time.
    Provided Google search results mean relevance of course :-)

  2. Since you mentioned it one or twice i want to start with saying something about Hardcore vs Casual. I think there are two separate hardcore vs casual definitions. One is the MUD world hardcore where you need to know/remember stuff and where NPCs don't have yellow exclamation points above their head. I am pretty hardcore in that sense of the term.

    But the way I think of hardcore is the kind that spends hours planning a raid, that demands all team members to have gear X and teamspeak, and that demands they spent 4 nights a week behind their PC. In that sense I am the ultimate casual.

    The first hardcore vs casual divide is dieing out. 85% of MMO players have grown up with the exclamation point. And our entire culture evolves in consuming more and more. So it doesn't make sense to cater for that type of hardcore in any game, eventhough I would like it.

    The second kind of hardcore is still very valid. This is the one that will bring players together. If the game doesn't cater for this the game will fail. I think AOC proves that. Although the majority of players might be casual/solo players, these hardcore players are the ones that make or break a game, I think.

  3. Now on to Bartle and user created content. For certain games user created content works great. There are brilliant FPS maps, like for Unreal Tournament and the like, created by true hardcore addicts. But the easier the creation is, the more crappy the content will be. And since in my previous comment I have already been advocating for simple consumer fare, I think I agree with Bartle that user created content is not the way to go.

    Unless they make it really complex. A bit like the Hero's Journey associates program. I am not sure if they still have them around, but they had small work-from-home-for-no-pay studios designing entire cities. That kind of content would be awesome. I am sure there are tonnes of people out there (including me) that would love to spend hours and hours working with a few 'friends' to make something really amazing.

    The small scale P&P RPG events/worlds were awesomely fun because you did them with friends. You put little jokes in it they would only get. Translating that to MMO is hard. Nobody gets the jokes, and you will never get the same gratification as you get from friends sitting around.

    I am a bit rambling now. And hungry. Let me go to lunch and say more later :)

  4. I think you're underplaying the sheer number of different hardcore's maybe, but that might be something for a post tonight during night-shift :-)

    I understand your point of view regarding UCC vs UGC. I think whether or not CoX gets a handle on things with Architect Missions is an important means of measurement. Stuff like that isn't exactly new. As you said we did it with P&P RPG's, we did it in MUD's, the Gamemasters as mentioned in the Simultronics interview, We did it with Bioware's Neverwinter Nights modules. Some of the people who made those for fun got a call from Canada and were leads on Mass Effect even. It has been done before and the quality was good enough and fun. THe main issue that I see is scale. This causes more druss / crud to appear lowering the signal to noise ratio. It also creates a situation of disjointedness due to hardly anyone sharing the same experiences as you pointed out. Those are the two challenges to tackle. I think six years of Web 2.0 could have taught us a thing or two about the former. The latter might be a bigger concern, especially as there's an increasing trend to create stuff that's either for Solo play or for the Achievement/Hardcore Raid-style play you mentioned before.

  5. P.s. please tell me you laughed, or at least chuckled at my "Butt naked through 20 feet of snow is for pansies"?
    If not the whole article was wasted effort.

  6. what? where? how? you mentioned 20 feet of snow? I must have missed that :)

  7. *Grrrr*

    You know, the main thrust of my disagreement with Bartle lies in the fact he seems to be giving up on UCC and go with UGC because it's easier. You thinking UCC isn't worth the trouble is one thing. Bartle is the balding, aging, somewhat overweight poster-child of MUD's which more or less depended on UCC.