Thursday, July 15, 2010

Player-eating spiders, and why collecting real data is important.

I had an interesting conversation with a couple of co-workers at lunch today. We were reminiscing about fond memories from older MMOs, and a number of examples were brought up. A newbie zone in WoW which was directly adjacent to a very high level zone, leading one co-worker to be very swiftly eaten by a very horrible spider. Another co-worker in WoW who tried jumping into the Ironforge, thinking that surely the game wouldn't let you do that, and then discovered that (a) yes, in fact, the game would let you do that and (b) the corpse was now unrecoverable. Zone sweeper mobs in EverQuest that would come out of nowhere and stomp you flat. Terrifying zones like Kithicor Forest that would guarantee your horrible death if you entered at night, but which were directly adjacent to starting zones full of clueless newbies. And so on.

One co-worker was quite certain that it was these hair-raising experiences and the abrupt deaths that actually made the games so memorable. Of all her early memories in these games, those moments now stood out the most strongly. And certainly all of us had similar strong memories we could refer to, and now thought fondly of, even though at the time they were most certainly frustrating or terrifying or both.

Coincidentally, I noticed that Laralyn posted a few similar thoughts on Twitter today:
The question we raised at lunch though was, for those "eaten by a spider" "lost my corpse" "dead in Kithicor" moments in MMOs, for every person who gets past that point and turns it into a fond memory, how many other people never get past that point and quit the game because of it?  For every person fondly remembering "ha ha, I lost my corpse in Ironforge", how many just left the game in disgust because they lost their corpse in Deep Forge?  How does a game designer create an "almost failed" moment when one person's fail point is another person's easy mode?

We who are in the first group are the ones who love games and who are resilient enough to get past these setbacks, and even turn them (eventually) into fond memories.  We are the ones who, because we love games, end up being the ones who go into game development and make more games.  But have we ever stopped to try and measure the hard numbers?  Is there any way we can get actual data that would give us an idea of how many people just quit the game at that point, compared to how many stick it out and end up with a fond memory?  I've never seen any information of this type, although to be fair I haven't gone looking extensively.  

We tend to assume that everyone is like us and will be able to handle, and even enjoy, the same types of challenges.  But what if that assumption isn't true?  (It probably isn't.)

If we don't have a way to measure this kind of data, will we ever know?

And if we keep assuming everyone is like us, will we ever bother finding ways to measure this kind of data?


  1. Alex Afasiabi gave considerable insight into WoW's design process.
    It's player-centred - he mentions disillusioning bright new designers of their fond notions about storytelling because while the designers want to do it the players won't want it. It involves meetings, perhaps there's a metrics person who sits in on those meetings. He does imply though that most decision making is based on the experience and knowledge of the live team rather than metrics.

  2. Oops, his name is spelled: Afrasiabi

  3. I was a halfling in Misty Thicket to terrified to leave because of the danger. At some point around lvl 12 someone passing through pointed out as a cleric I could invis against the undead and run the wall in Kith safe and sound.

    You need trials like these so that when game designers say 'your epic mobs on a seven day timer but your epic is going to change the way raiding happens so expect every other cleric in the game to try and kill it to even if you've gone a week without sleep' you don't swallow your tongue in shock

  4. Oh, this is wonderful. I recognize so much of this.

    - The spiders have to be Western Plaguelands. I was level 30-ish, and a friend said it would be an easy run. It wasn't.

    - Yes, I jumped into the Ironforge forge. I've been swimming in lava before, inside and outside Sol A. I thought the forge would be the same. It wasn't.

    - Kithicor made me nervous when I ran through it at 13. A friend and I decided to run to Qeynos from Freeport to get the Tumpy hammer. Since it didn't go too badly, I didn't realize just what Kithicor was like, and I was showing another friend EQ in person... and ran into the dark elf camp. It took about a week before I could get back home and find a way to summon my corpse.

    But yes, my most treasured memories of EQ1 involved getting squished like a pancake - or coming close to it. Black wolves and orc pawns when I started as a level 1 magician in Felwithe. Kithicor on several occasions. Running down the path into East Karana from High Keep (I'm terrified of heights in real life). Trying to get a necro out of Odus, when slow zoning meant that the boat was already in Qeynos with a guard standing over my corpse before I could see anything. Getting killed by dervishes in Iceclad, and then the druid who came to help got squished, too. My son added "Running to Sebilis for the first time." I'd forgotten that; it was much later, but still scary.

    I loved and hated the Plane of Nightmare in later days, because there's really no safety anywhere.

    WoW never gave me those moments of terror. EQ2 doesn't a whole lot, certainly not like EQ1, but it has its moments. About the closest I've come to feeling the don't-look-over-your-shoulder sense of dread in EQ2 has been doing the Kunark crafting faction quests. Most times I've been between 20 and 40 adventuring level when I start on New Lands, and being surrounded by very red, very hostile beasts and humanoids brings back the days of "What would you like your tombstone to say?"

    I did invest in a fairly fast mount before I started with my first crafter, and much of the time speed is all that stood between escape and dinner guest. I chuckled every time I saw "A no-hope needletail is no longer worth any experience or treasure." And I did die, several times.

    Whether everyone or even a significant number of players feels this way, I don't know. From the cursing and drama I've seen after so many character deaths, and from the way so many want to get from 1-max level in a couple of days with no deaths I suspect not. I'd love to see more scary moments in MMOs. And being slightly outmatched against a mob doesn't quite do it. It was more the risk of sudden unavoidable demise that I think made my EQ1 time so memorable.