Less Is More

Over at his MMO blog, Mr. Koster made an interesting observation on the fidelity of games. In short, he asserts that many recent titles crank the volume up to 11 instead of offering a range of intensity.

Being the old record store aficionado that I am, I’m fond of drawing parallels between music and games. And in this case, I think the comparison is a valid one.

There is a prevalent belief in the entertainment business that you need to grab the audience’s attention right away and never let go. It’s a logical assumption, especially in our media-rich environment of instant gratification. Whether it’s a TV channel, the first few pages of a book, or the first fifteen minutes of a game, the fear is that you will lose your audience unless you hammer them over the head with non-stop excitement.

What gets lost in this premise is that not all audiences are the same, and not all audience members are looking for the same types of stimuli. Someone going to a Broadway show doesn’t expect the same style of entertainment they’d see in the latest Die Hard film; so why should every computer/console game be forced to offer the same style of fun?

This is especially true in the MMO world, where games tend to play at a more measured paced than the average shooter or platform jumper. Each style of game should play to its strengths, not try to force itself to be like another genre solely for the sake of potential box sales.

Another appeal of MMOs is that they can offer a broader range of content to resonate with multiple types of players. Those looking for dramatic combat and heroic feats should be able to find them in the same world as another player who enjoys more lighthearted fare and less intense action.

Along with gameplay variety, I believe another key appeal of MMOs is charm. A certain sense of wonder and warmth helps connect you to the game world and establishes a personal connection between you and your character. No matter how harsh and warlike your avatar may behave in the depths of a nasty dungeon, you still want to return to a place that offers the comforts of home. EverQuest was great at giving each race this personal charm; World of Warcraft is pretty good at it; EverQuest II sucked in this regard at launch due to the conglomerated starting areas of Freeport and Qeynos, but has gotten a lot better since Echoes of Faydwer.

In music, the space between the notes is as significant as the notes themselves. In games, the moments between the action are opportunities to help the player invest in different types of fun. Game makers should take advantage of those chances to offer a wide dynamic range of appeal, from intense action to subtle charm. Compressing your experience down to one extreme or the other limits your range, and potentially your player’s connection to the game world.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

2 thoughts on “Less Is More”

  1. I agree, and would add that MMOs should go in new directions for down-time activities beyond tradeskills. The basic formula of leveling a manufacturing skill and a gathering skill is stale. Getting good at that stuff it is more of a chore than fun, if you ask me.

    What about a social ability, like the ability to charm? You could get to “irresistible” level and then charm the socks off other players, which could be used in amusing ways. How about the ability to become a better comedian w/ a larger inventory of jokes opening up as you gain experience? A home-maker who gets better stuff for their house as they progress? And speaking of music, why not bring in the ability to perform live? Guitar (or some old-world instrument) duels instead of fighting duels. Form a band, practice, perform live, import your own songs (either parody songs of the game like those on youtube or just originals), and get an in-game following who’s willing to pay to see you play. (A tall order for developers, but you get the general idea.)

    It would also be fun to have throw-back gaming available, kind of like some Mario games have, where you can go and play an old school version of an MMO…just a specific quest, battlegrounds, or something like that. I remember a later version of Pitfall that had the original Atari version that you could play, complete with crappy old sound effects. That was a lot of fun.

    Anyway, in some respects I could see MMOs migrating toward the social networking space and eventually having a broader appeal than just being a “game”. And the reason that they have that option available is they don’t always have to be experienced with the volume craked up at 11. So Steve, I agree and I hope that game makers start breaking barriers in this area.

  2. Horder touched on a fantastic notion that has a wealth of possibilities in the “throwback” statement… I find that many MMOGs have that special special little something missing that goes beyond a shared chat channel.

    I think it best to explain what I’m thinking by speaking to this point of “In music, the space between the notes is as significant as the notes themselves.” Sticking with the music theme, Mile Davis said it best in “Don’t play what’s there. play what’s not there.” Good games, give you enticing content. Great games, empower the players to be creative and build social content for themselves.

    I’m one of those players that is always looking to synergisticly stretch the envelope in a MMOG with other players, to do what’s not been done before. Not by exploiting weaknesses but, by discovering hidden strengths, organizing events that challenge the imagination.

    Player housing is great for social gatherings and shenanigans but, imagine the possibilities of something as simple as making an in-game piece of furniture like a chessboard playable, even a little throwback popup of monotone pixels on a playable chessboard would generate massive amounts of social opportunities.

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