Fun Is What You Make It

There's been a great new accidental minigame spawned in World of Warcraft recently. On July 29th, Scott Kurtz of PvP fame invited his readers to join him on the new Dark Iron server. The Horde guild Panda Attack grew rapidly: 500 members by August 1st, and then spin-off guilds. On August 1st, Penny Arcade called upon their readers to create an enemy Alliance guild. There are now at least six PA-associated guilds (Knights of Arcadia, Fancy Lads, Cardboard Samurai, Keepers of the Wang, Annarchy, CTS Dojo). Not to be left out, Ctrl-Alt-Delete formed Horde affiliate guilds on the same server: The Rapscallions and now the Bloody Carrots.

Now obviously this has had some unplanned consequences for the Dark Iron server itself. It has huge queues and major stability problems. But it's also done a lot, in the estimation of most of the people playing in these guilds, to reinvigorate their enjoyment of WoW. All of the comic creators have been talking about how much fun it's been to play, though it's obvious, especially from reading PvP, that there have also been the typical administrative and political burdens that come with guilds, complicating the simple spontaneity of the initial gesture by Scott Kurtz.

There's all sorts of things that interest me about this turn of events. It's not necessarily a precedent for anything, given that the readership of all three strips is almost all composed of gamers, but the interconnection of media audiences and their loyalties with the sociality of guilds and in-game rivalry strikes me as a good demonstration of the cultural potential of virtual worlds, their ability to connect to and amplify the connections between our lives and our popular culture. At a minimum, if I were a MMOG development team (or more importantly, a MMOG marketer), I'd be thinking about the potential for media cross-overs of various kinds (something that Second Life has done an adroit job of playing with recently.) Imagine a WoW guild of "Survivor" contestants versus a WoW guild of "Big Brother" contestants. A WoW guild of baseball players like Curt Schilling versus a WoW guild of NFL players. And so on.

But this isn't just about promotional stunts. It's about how even a minor twist to the tired norms of virtual sociality instantly renews the fun of being in the virtual world. Guilds are guilds are guilds: if you've played enough MMOGs, you know what they're all about, you know the likely configuration of people you're going to meet in a guild. You know where the sources of internal drama and political tension are likely to be, what the kinds of fun you might have are going to be like and when they'll happen. But just a small tweak, a new kind of anchoring of a guild in something outside the game, and hey presto! The virtual air feels clean and fresh and the excitement is back. There's a lesson, maybe more than one, in there somewhere.


Comments on Fun Is What You Make It:

gus andrews says:

So, pardon me if this has come up in another thread and I missed it, but where is OUR guild? (Please point me to said other thread if such exists.) Columbia Teachers College is gaining critical mass on Silver Hand-Alliance in the Learned Freethinkers (not originally affiliated with the college). Sat down in an inn and had a lovely chat about Bruno Latour with one of my guildies the other day, while a local warrior punctuated the conversation with ersatz academic comments and his pet daemoness periodically slapped her ass and moaned. I know some other academics are on Terenas and Stonemaul....?

Posted Aug 18, 2005 12:42:44 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Well, it would make a lovely way to deal with the ludologists v. narratologists debate...

Posted Aug 18, 2005 1:06:42 PM | link

Pace-man says:

It's important to note that the more hype this gets and the more people that wish to join in on the fun, the less everyone can, in fact, join and have fun.

Isn't that ironic? The more people that attempt to join in on the Massive aspect of an MMOG, the more we realize that the infrastructure can't support it.

Posted Aug 18, 2005 2:11:31 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Timothy, that's hilarious. "Tell a story about this, Alliance scum!" ;-)

I think in general you're right about the potential for market cross-overs. I see this as sort of the first robin of spring or something: lots more to follow in amount and variety.

Posted Aug 18, 2005 2:17:17 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

The only problem with the ludologist v. narratologist scenario is that the ludologists would never level up because they'd be too busy thinking about how to fit what they were doing in a typology and the narratologists wouldn't level because be too busy debating what theoretical framework to draw upon in order to interpret the meaning of "levelling".

Though I can think of some dandy guild names:

The Structuralist-Functionalists
Hermenauts
PoMo PoCo
My Other Guild Is Complicit in Capitalism
Department Chairs
Discipline and Punish
Form Follows Function

Posted Aug 18, 2005 2:45:52 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Seriously, though, Pace-man has noted something important. Basically, unique experiences are fun in MMOGs: but unique experiences by definition do not scale. The moment something distinctive or unusual is happening, players swarm to it because they're so starved for sensation, for something that interrupts the predictability and repetition of the gaming experience, and in swarming to it, they kill it. The deeper design challenge here might be, "How do we make unpredictability and surprise a scalable, reliable part of these games? How can you make the experience of unpredictability a predictable source of satisfaction?"

That's not just a problem for MMOGs, but all computer games. I'm struck at how when I play online poker, nothing more than the random dealing of the cards creates a sense of suspense, surprise, the unexpected. Yes, I've seen any hand you care to name a zillion times, but the juxtaposition of different hands against different players against the history of a particular table is always sufficient to generate a sense of the excitingly unanticipated. Somehow as computer games get more complicated and multilayered, whether they are run entirely by AIs or also have human players, that element often disappears, gets lost in the noise of the design. A very few shooters like Counter-Strike have the suppleness of play to allow for something of the same, I suppose. The more to a world, the less alive in this precious sense it can seem. The only thing left that can animate it is an event like this: a person doing something new, some well-liked cartoonists saying, "Come play on my side!" And that's enough to push it over the edge, and enough to kill the fun precisely because the players need that new sensation so very badly.

Posted Aug 18, 2005 2:53:59 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Poker hands are signal; random assortments of cards are noise. To take that another way, when the web was shiny and new, Seth Godin said something like "the good news is, everyone's visible online. The bad news is, we're all three inches tall."

The point being that uniqueness doesn't equal meaningfulness. You can have a fully simulated world with lots of things happening, but if those unique events hold no importance, they also hold no meaning or fun.

The trick then is to figure out how to extract or present meaning from non-handcrafted background events in a way that scales. Celebrity guilds won't sustain this for long (though I suspect this could easily be the equivalent of inviting celebrities to a restaurant opening to drum up traffic). But as an indicator of what might be doable, I think this is an interesting direction to look at.

(BTW, if you make a guild called Hermeneuts, I'll join. ;) )

Posted Aug 18, 2005 3:06:34 PM | link

Nate Combs says:


uniqueness doesn't equal meaningfulness. You can have a fully simulated world with lots of things happening, but if those unique events hold no importance, they also hold no meaning or fun.

Perhaps this can be restricted further: one can have a world (e.g. RW) with lots of things happening and have that still carry/communicate no (particular) meaning or fun.

Somehow unqiueness still needs to be plugged into a player's scene/interests.

I don't know if this is absolutely true. I can recall a particular discussion in London (Ren and Richard) which touched this a bit: if I simulate a world would that be intrinsically fun?

Part of the counter argument is that adequately observing/interacting with a complete world (say RW) is sufficiently fun. A philosopher's spin, after all RW is presmuably fun enough for us all to stick around. I don't know if this works for all people / players in an entertainment venue, though.

So to return to the opening bias: uniqueness has to be contextualized.

Posted Aug 18, 2005 5:01:56 PM | link

Nate Combs says:


Mike>
uniqueness doesn't equal meaningfulness. You can have a fully simulated world with lots of things happening, but if those unique events hold no importance, they also hold no meaning or fun.

Nate>
Perhaps this can be restricted further: one can have a world (e.g. RW) with lots of things happening and have that still carry/communicate no (particular) meaning or fun.

Doh, sounds similar. The restriction I omitted is wrt the individual player experience. Meaning + fun, therefore doesn't need to scale (Tim's point).

Posted Aug 18, 2005 5:29:08 PM | link

Dianna says:

I agree, Guilds can signifigantly increase the fun in a game. You should also take a look at Guild Wars as, Guilds are front and center in that game.

Posted Aug 18, 2005 6:33:23 PM | link

gus andrews says:

>Pace
Isn't that ironic? The more people that attempt to join in on the Massive aspect of an MMOG, the more we realize that the infrastructure can't support it.
Haven't there been findings that human social organizations "naturally" max out at particular numbers -- I seem to remember 12 people and 150 people as numbers which can make for a stable organization?

Posted Aug 18, 2005 8:00:52 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

(closed the hanging italics, I hope.)

I think you're talking about the Dunbar number. There appear to be various breaking points in human organizations. Chris Allen has a great post from a year or so ago about this, and another one from earlier this year.

Posted Aug 18, 2005 8:17:49 PM | link

ren reynolds says:

Mike > (closed the hanging italics, I hope.)
Thanks Mike, I was a bit slow getting to it, but i've used my magic super powers granted to me by the TN gods to fix it good.

Posted Aug 19, 2005 6:53:52 AM | link

magicback says:

Mike, it's good that you mentioned the Dunbar number as I previously did not have a name to this phenomenon.

The Dunbar number applies to Live-Action Role Playing (LARPs) games too in that stable mid-sized groups have around 50 to 150, based on my anecdotal information. There is also some anecdotal information that points also to the splintering of groups. In the case of my old LARP, membership grew quickly to around 300 before breaking off into two.

Now if we revisit this progression from a solo play to a group of 5-8 to a guild of 50 to 150 to a server of 1,000 to 4,000 and overlay the probability of emergent group play plus the probability that an emergent group play will be adopted by another group of similar size, I think that in the 50-150 range emergent group play will most likely be adopted by another group. This goes to fit into the event Tim describes in the original post.

This fresh, yet-to-be explained phenomenon is the ‘magic’ that I mentioned elsewhere on TN. The idea, the concept touches us without rational explanation and analysis and inspires us to join in a do the same. This ‘magic’ excites and attacts. Isn't this a Lorenz Attractor? Isn’t this what worthy stories are made of?

Posted Aug 19, 2005 8:29:28 AM | link

magicback says:

In regards to the scalability of this 'magic':

While unique experiences may not be scalable, they may cascade and develop like a fractal-like manner. In the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex (GITS SAC), the concept of emergent behavior cascades.

From one perspective any plot seed could cascade and develop into a full blow phenomenon, so seed many plots and hope for luck. From another perspective, probability of cascade can be determined, so plan to be lucky. Do we as human go from wonder to pattern recognition to flow or vise versa? Are those our hot buttons?

Also, how we code a scaleable, cascadeable seeder?

Posted Aug 19, 2005 8:49:45 AM | link

Torley Wong/Torley Torgeson says:

I'm rearry enamoured by how spontaneous that sounds. I like the names of the alliances too. It's almost like a great prog rock album, A Collection Of Great Guild Names, no?

Posted Aug 19, 2005 3:06:20 PM | link

WorldMaker says:

There are many striking possibilities inherent in bringing together intriquing groups of people into interesting landscapes. As the article says, this isn't anything new, but it perhaps its something that hasn't been pondered to its full extent.

I'm reminded of the idea I had once:

I thought that it would be really interesting to take some of the 'greats' of Military Science-Fiction (like Flint, Weber, Ringo, et al... maybe even Clancy and ilk), give them the chance to help out with a MMO design (the stuff they consider in their own novel designs from topography to logistics, technology to military culture), then give them "commanderships" of individual armies and let them see amongst themselves whose strategery reigns supreme.

Imagine the possible fun that could come out of it for players. Then there's the fact that you have a military sci-fi setting collaborated on by so many good authors. Each author could have quite a bit of writing material about their own "exploits" within the world. (Or, alternate histories where their exploits work the way they hoped they did.)

Posted Aug 20, 2005 1:24:20 AM | link

web designer says:

i would have to agree with what Pace-man said

Posted Aug 20, 2005 8:03:40 AM | link

Poker forum says:

Thanks mike.I am fully agree with your views.And Guilds can signifigantly increase the fun in a game.

Posted Dec 15, 2005 5:08:01 AM | link

Athena Hoeppner says:

gus andrews wrote:

"Haven't there been findings that human social organizations "naturally" max out at particular numbers -- I seem to remember 12 people and 150 people as numbers which can make for a stable organization?"

150. This article on the monkeysphere explains it all.
www.pointlesswasteoftime.com/monkeysphere.html

Posted Oct 29, 2006 4:35:45 PM | link