Lipsticking The Chicken

Joel (Spolsky) on Software has a fine new start to a promising series of articles on software design ("Great Design: What is Design...").  His perspective is outside of game development and its industry, yet unsurprisingly, there are similarities.  After all, there is software in "them hills."

How should we parse the distinctions between the design of the MMOG as game vs. the design of the MMOG as an application?   As with all software -- especially those structured around deep human-computer interactions -- distinctions among different types of design (domain vs. engineering) are tricky and to a degree, artificial.  In the end it is always about the art of the possible.  Yet it is still worth considering these relationships from time-to-time in the hope that we may better parse the constraints imposed by one form upon the other.

Then there is a point about chickens and  lipstick...

Joel starts out by comparing art and function in software design.  He draws an analogy between brownstone architecture in New York City ("the elaborate carvings, gargoyles, and beautiful iron fences?") and how their embellishment was the work of individual craftsmen and not part of the orginal specification (do "beautiful fretwork" here).   The crisp claim is:

That's not design. That's decoration. What we, in the software industry, collectively refer to as Lipstick on a Chicken. If you have been thinking that there is anything whatsoever in design that requires artistic skill, well, banish the thought. Immediately, swiftly, and promptly. Art can enhance design but the design itself is strictly an engineering problem.

By an 'engineering problem' Joel goes on to explain that he means a system of decisions based on requirements (function) and trade-offs (e.g. cost-benefit per feature).

It might be easy to dismiss this nuts-and-bolts perspective as irrelevant to a theory of virtual world design.  What are the requirements of fun?  What are the trade-offs of immersion?  How to measure the ludic?  It doesn't apply, right?

But this would be misleading.  While we can quibble to the degree, in the end, every elf-in-tights you have seen is presented to you atop a vast pyramid of engineering (and game) design choices.  Put it another way, given an infinitely better computing environment and platform (pick your metrics) , would virtual worlds look and feel as they do now?   

To what extent is current virtual world design "a hack" to technology - is the MMOG a clever art, snake-like in tall grass (periodically capable of establishing a magical relationship with the users) whilst navigating elephant legs ?

First let's start with an easy premise.  In any domain of software with any community of users for any application, the expectations, the shape of requirements always involves at least some 'art'.  Even the most stodgy applications (oh, financial, logistics), where those systems intersect people some degree of fuzziness finds it's way.  After all, why is so much energy exterted (or should be) in human factors when building user interfaces?

But back to virtual worlds.  Raph Koster noted in A Theory of Fun:

The best test of a game's fun in the strict sense will therefore be playing the game with no graphics, no music, no sound, no story, no nothing.   If that is fun, then everything else will serve to focus, refine, empower, and magnify.  But all the dressing in the world can't change iceberg lettuce into roast turkey.

All turkey, no lipstick.

Do we wonder enough the design of the fowl, or do we spend too much time on the lipstick?

Comments on Lipsticking The Chicken:

Drew says:

Though Koster himself designs MMOGs, I think they are a special case of what he discusses in Theory of Fun. The distinction between the gameplay mechanics and the fiction that wraps them is an important one; in the quote you cite, he claims that if a mechanic works without a fiction, the fiction will enhance it. Furthermore, he says that great fiction can't make up for boring mechanics.

This is true for board-games, for sure. Abstract games like Go or Othello work well without fictions, though someone could have invented fictions for them. A friend of a friend refers to Go as "Samurai Paradrop" - a cute, though somewhat innaccurate metaphor for the game.

But here's where I think Koster is wrong. The lipstick in MMOs is crucial to the game. Bartle talks about this extensively when he talks about immersion. Imagine a series of MUD rooms with no descriptions, or WoW without textures or spell effects. The mechanics would all be there, but I suspect it just wouldn't be that interesting to most players. The lipstick adds that essential element of being "there" that mechanics alone don't offer.

I think this is part of why explaining synthetic worlds to people who have never tried them is challenging. When you try and talk about what you actually DO there, there's a certain amount of eye-rolling, especially if you describe it mechanically. The descriptions that really grab people are at a much higher level, eg "I hunted down a bunch of raptors who had stolen my town's gold, and returned the stolen goods to the quartermaster" is much more compelling than "I found the raptors, cast lightning bolt, then earth shock, then turned on my melee attack and waited for the raptor to die. I did that 12 times, and then right clicked on a box of treasure."

Posted Jan 28, 2006 8:07:04 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

The mechanics would all be there, but I suspect it just wouldn't be that interesting to most players. The lipstick adds that essential element of being "there" that mechanics alone don't offer.

The logical conclusion of that, assuming Koster is right, is that they aren't actually fun in and of themselves. If it takes dressing to make the game fun, then the game itself needs to be improved.

I think this is part of why explaining synthetic worlds to people who have never tried them is challenging.

Ever had a chess match explained to you? I have. A chess nerd in my circles is more rare today, but when he describes his flawless execution, the difficulty of strategy, the close calls, etc.... I can understand how exclusive that club can be, even though I'm not that shabby. He's just on another level of skill and experience.

And this is chess.

The descriptions that really grab people are at a much higher level

Because it's not the gameplay that's grabbing people. The gameplay is not compelling. The narration is compelling. Gameplay is necessarily experiential. You can only properly share it with someone else who's been in the zone. Narration is dictative. And that can be flashy in a dozen different ways.

People don't talk about how fun the story is. The story is rated on a scale of bad to good. The gameplay is rated on a scale of boring to fun to too hard. If you read Theory of Fun, it mentions aesthetic appeal. That's where the story goes. It has a place, just like an epic battle between the armies of light and darkness on a checkerboard field has.

Posted Jan 28, 2006 10:30:06 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Let's be careful not to be too cognitive here. We're not as cognitively driven as we would often like to think.

Raph's description of how you can test stripped-down gameplay works only in the cognitive domain. It works for gameplay that depends on puzzles, tactics, strategy, or overt achievement. It dismisses as being merely "dressing" anything that we relate to perceptually, emotionally, or socially. This is a narrow view of fun and how we react to and interact with games affectively.

People are engaged by some games (as with movies) by their art direction, sound and music, background story, etc., in companionship with the underlying gameplay. These other things all serve to bring personal meaning to the gameplay, which is otherwise often nothing more than mouse clicks at seemingly random intervals. It's true that the best graphics, sound, etc., can't hide truly poor game mechanics, but it's an error to thus infer that the mechanics can somehow be separated from these other elements to stand usefully on their own.

Consider for example if a novel told solely in the present-tense declarative would be thrilling; or whether a great movie shot from one camera angle with no sets, lighting, or music would be as compelling as when presented in the typical form (yes, I'm aware of "Rope," but here Hitchcock was masterfully using the tension created by the apparent lack of technique to create a unique experience). While gonzo special effects can't hide a flaccid story or stilted dialogue, all of these elements can come together to create an engaging experience out of what would otherwise be a cognitively shallow one.

Getting back to the article referenced. The contention that

Art can enhance design but the design itself is strictly an engineering problem.
is as nonsensical as it is provocative. In fact there's an entire discipline, user-centered design, that focuses on the unity (not separation) of art and engineering that makes up useful, intuitive, graceful, even beautiful design. And for the few people who don't have it gathering dust on their shelves, there's an excellent book by Don Norman on this subject, "The Design of Everyday Things. If nothing else, that book will disabuse anyone of the notion that design is "strictly an engineering problem."

Now Spolsky does get around near the end of his article to say that good design is important, and to note that "Good design adds value faster than it adds cost." But putting "good design" in the engineering camp is a huge step backward -- right back to the pocket protectors, requirements gathering, and waterfall models of decades past.

This is true in almost any form of design and development, but it's most clearly true in games. Games are unique among software products for the amount and type of (non-engineering) design they require. As I've written elsewhere, this comes back to their usage model, which, unlike any other form of software, is not based on augmenting or accomplishing an external task. Some games can afford to engage (some) players cognitively -- chess for example is an example of highly cognitive game mechanics stripped to the bone. But most games, because of their optional nature (no one has to play a game, and anyone can opt out the moment it becomes boring), do well to engage us perceptually and emotionally as well. MMOs as a subset of games take this even further, with the added requirement for social design in addition to effective psychological design. This type of design isn't separate from the "fun;" the whole bundle is what enables the attraction, engagement, and enjoyment inherent in any successful game.

Posted Jan 29, 2006 12:45:06 AM | link

Raph says:

The quote from me is mildly misleading, because it leaves unexplained the "in the strict sense" bit -- which specifically refers to the cognitive sense in which I am using the word "fun." The entire next chapter deals with the importance of "dressing."

That said, I think even Norman and other advocates of user-centered design begin with the affordances, which is analogous to the nuts and bolts in software design. Inputs, outputs, etc. The presentation of those affordances is the next step.

Combining them into a holistic experience is of course the ideal. That was my point when I said in the book that chess played with pieces of snot would not likely have the same appeal.

There are plenty of games out there where the appeal is almost entirely from the dressing. Most RPGs, for example. Certainly it's the case in the hack n slash MMORPGs, where the gameplay is remarkably similar from title to title. In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that in most well-established genres, the differences are almost all in the art and fiction, not in the mechanics.

Posted Jan 29, 2006 1:28:20 AM | link

Ken Fox says:

User centered design is absolutely not a synthesis of art and engineering. UCD puts the consumer first in both design and process. UCD forces the creator to compromise for the benefit of the consumer in ways that I don't think any pure artist would accept.

Joel seems to consider engineering to be any activity where an objective value formula can be used to evaluate the design space -- art ends up being everything else. That view is simplistic, but works for him because he doesn't say anythng about art. Joel is certainly not slamming creativity, or endorsing formulaic design.

My heroes are artist/engineer/scientists like da Vinci, Feynman, Tufte, and Paul Graham. I think designing a virtual world requires that kind of person. Lipstick in one context is turkey in another and the designer has to be talented enough to know the difference.

Posted Jan 29, 2006 10:52:09 AM | link

nate says:

The lipstick in MMOs is crucial to the game. Bartle talks about this extensively when he talks about immersion. Imagine a series of MUD rooms with no descriptions, or WoW without textures or spell effects.

The question here, however, is to what extent are your choice in the color, texture and demeanor of your lipstick is shaped by the contours of the beak and the bristle of the feather of your chicken. Put it another way, how you wish to tell your fiction is shaped by the medium, which in this case is a profoundly technical one.

Posted Jan 29, 2006 11:07:35 AM | link

Mark Wallace says:

Joel via Nate > "Art can enhance design but the design itself is strictly an engineering problem."

At the risk of blaspheming: Do we really think Spolsky is actually right about this?

It's my understanding (having studied computer programming in school, as well as music composition) that you can't really separate the two. The substrate on which the art is built informs the resulting product very deeply. Or at least, if the design is good that's what should be happening. But I suspect that very little of what goes on in an MMO is lipstick, i.e., something layered on top with no reference to the technical infrastructure (in hardware and code) that runs the game.

Now that computing power is so vast, we don't see it as much, but 30 years ago you could feel this intimate connection between the "art" and "design" of a computer program much more intimately. You really had to think about whether you were going to use those last four addresses in memory for instructions or for storage. Or maybe you could steal a register during one subroutine that didn't do too much calculation. Every decision had a large impact on what you could and couldn't do at the user's end.

As anyone who's ever experienced server lag in an MMO knows, MMOs push the current limits of software and hardware in a way that's similar to how the simplest programs pushed the same limits 30 years ago. For instance, I've spoken to people who don't like World of Warcraft because of the cartoonishly low polygon count of Azeroth. But to raise the poly count of WoW would mean a sacrifice somewhere else. I'm not saying the look of WoW was completely a technical decision, but I am saying that all aesthetic decisions in an MMO have a technical impact.

Now, perhaps I'm off the mark here and the lipstick takes the form of the world's lore and choice of playable races, etc. Blizzard could just as easily have made Taurens out of horses as out of cows. But the range of available choices is limited by the technical underpinnings of the system.

Nate's original question was, "Do we wonder enough [about] the design of the fowl, or do we spend too much time on the lipstick?" (Who is "we," by the way?) I think if anything we tend to spend too much time thinking about the fowl, and not enough time on the more lipsticky elements. Designers are forced to split the difference, and I imagine these are very difficult choices to make. Success comes when the two are well balanced, when the design supports the aesthetics and the aesthetics are of the right "size" to fit the design. When the chicken is proud to wear its liptstick, in other words, and the lipstick complements the chicken's feathers nicely.


Posted Jan 29, 2006 12:16:48 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Mark, as I said before, Spolsky's comment about design and engineering is nonsense.

Also, the "lipstick on a chicken" adage assumes within it the old art/engineering split between "application" and "UI." This is a false dichotomy, which is what, I believe, the saying is meant to convey: a lousy chicken isn't any prettier for the lipstick, and a hard-to-use application isn't any better with cool icons or graphics.

This is what I meant earlier about UCD being a synthesis of art and engineering: products that are designed and implemented from the beginning with the user(s) foremost in mind has no need of "lipstick" being slathered on later -- the visible UI is just the tip of the product's usability. Doing this is only possible when design and engineering synthesize their efforts rather than one group "throwing them over the wall" to the other side.

Does this apply to MMOs? In some ways. The technical design of the deep systems of the game has to work with and often conform to the gameplay design. But this is a two-way street: requiring graphics or other gameplay capabilities not possible with existing technology is often a way to kill a project. And leaving the visible UI to be slapped on at the end almost guarantees the game will be a turkey -- and not the succulent roast kind either.

Posted Jan 29, 2006 5:16:47 PM | link

nate says:

Now that computing power is so vast, we don't see it as much, but 30 years ago you could feel this intimate connection between the "art" and "design" of a computer program much more intimately.

I think this claim to vastness is misleading. There are still some pretty basic ways MMOGs architect player interactions (e.g. N^2 illusion) to accomodate limitations in network and user interface.

Spolsky's comment about design and engineering is nonsense.

Well it is and it isn't. It really hinges on a point raised by Ken (above): what is art (or should I say the different kinds /levels? of artistry involved)?

Posted Jan 29, 2006 5:53:08 PM | link

Ken Fox says:

Mike, did you read the article or only the quotes? You're arguing points that I think everyone, including Joel, agrees with. He has narrowly defined art to be synonomous with decoration. Perhaps he should have kept with the term decoration and avoided this swamp completely.

Here's an example of what I think is lipstick on a chicken: WoW's animated blood splats for certain warrior combat events. It's like Bliz figured out late in the design process that the warrior wasn't a very tactical class and they tried to "fix" it with animation and difficult button sequences.

Counter Strike on the other hand has blood splats, but they're not lipstick because you can use them in the game to figure out if you wounded your opponent (the blood on the wall persists and you can run up to where the opponent was to see if you wounded him).

Posted Jan 29, 2006 7:09:38 PM | link

Manuel says:

Hello, if I hear of chickens me badly the bird flu to have we of China get now the Chinese to have from the USA google gotten. Unfortunately neither of them gives a vaccine, unfortunate or for. I would like to mention still one the bird flu to have we soon in the grasp.

cu manuel

Posted Jan 29, 2006 10:07:46 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Ken, I read the article. Read my initial post above. Spolsky may in fact agree with what's been said here, I don't know. All I can go by is what he actually wrote.

He has narrowly defined art to be synonomous with decoration. Perhaps he should have kept with the term decoration and avoided this swamp completely.

Such a definition is so narrow as to be pretty much useless. Also, his column is titled "Great Design: What is Design" so it's pretty clear what he's talking about -- or trying to talk about. Unfortunately, Spolsky provides a strangely skewed view of art, design, and engineering.

Spolsky says, If you have been thinking that there is anything whatsoever in design that requires artistic skill, well, banish the thought. Immediately, swiftly, and promptly. Art can enhance design but the design itself is strictly an engineering problem.

I stand by what I said before: that's a provocative but nonsensical (and stunningly dated) statement. It's also an attitude I've encountered in many areas of software development from CAD to medical imaging to games. What results from organizations that hold this view are second-rate, lackluster products.

When you understand that not all design is engineering and that not all art is decoration, you get a better garlic press, power hammer, the Ipod, the Honda dashboard, a CT scanner that reduces training and errors dramatically, airport defibrillators usable by anyone, or games that provide enduring value for people. Products like these invest heavily in non-engineering design, understanding that it's much more integral to the product than is a stonework facade on a building.

Now it may be that Spolsky is trying to talk about purely technical design, shoving everything else to the side as "decoration." That's an error in itself, but there is of course a great deal to be said about engineering and strong technical design -- one area where the games industry often lags behind many other areas of software develeopment.

Anyone who wants a treatise on great design should read Norman's book (which treats this subject with a lot more rigor and knowledge than Spolsky's article), and throw in a touch of Alexander and Tufte for good measure.

Posted Jan 29, 2006 10:23:26 PM | link

Ken Fox says:

Perhaps your expectations are not consistent with Joel's audience -- the software and web industries often confuse decoration with design. I don't think it's silly to start from there and work forward. We'll have to wait for the rest of the series. (How many "web designers" have you met that got the job because they know Phtoshop? Or Javascript roll-over images? Or some other narrow little bit of lipstick technology?)

I'm not arguing with you -- I said Tufte is one of my heroes -- but you seem to want to fight about art vs design instead of taking a critical look at vitual worlds. I imagine most of us here have read Don Norman and Christopher Alexander -- probably Jakob Nielsen, Bruce Tognazzini, Jef Raskin and zillions of other design experts. You're preaching to the choir... ;)

I would like to hear what extraneous decorations you've been forced to add to your software to compete with other companies. What design warts have you tried to conceal behind rich Corinthian (virtual) leather -- and how successful was it?

Posted Jan 30, 2006 12:46:19 AM | link

Rick R. says:

Though the discussion(s) on TN centre primarily around MMO's, this one reminds me heavily of the design process of a first-person shooter level. Often the gameplay is tested and refined (and indeed deemed "fun") in the level before any textures and decorations are added.. pure BSP. Only when that is satisfactory is it then given over to the artists for texturing, adding static meshes, lighting, etc.
Both phases of the design though are very necessary. Without properly tested level geometry, gameplay simply is not there, no matter how pretty it is. By the same token, no matter how solidly designed and executed the level geometry is, if the texturing, lighting and decorating isn't up to par, few will play and enjoy it.
I don't think the engineering and the art can be so easily separated, at least in terms of game design.

Posted Jan 30, 2006 7:51:16 AM | link

Chas says:

So, we have the "Brownstone" architecture analogy, but we also have the "Frank Lloyd Wright" design method, where the architecture itself was an expression of art... and we're ignoring a third.

With the "brownstone" method, the designer sought to build a building- and the detailing was an afterthought... all he cared about was the structure. The craftsman would add something pretty later. In Wright's case, the structure was bound to the style, often inseparable from the environment. The entire work, taken together, brings to life the expression of the designer.

I toured Fallingwater in high school. While we marveled at many beautiful design elements, I remember how narrow the corridors were- choke points to the bedrooms that would have been tight with just a family sharing the place, but binding to a tour group. The flat surfaces were constantly covered with rotting leaves that refused to wash off easily, and I can just imagine the difficulty in cleaning the gutters.

So, for all its beauty in form, there were some sacrifices in function. The brownstone architects, able to focus on function and leave the "pretty stuff" to others, might not have made something as remarkable, but it might not have some functional issues... maybe.

We have some excellent "brownstone" desings, where the game mechanics are defined long before a "pretty face" is placed on it. As Rick mentioned, there are many FPS games that take this approach, as did (IIRC) many of Sid Meier "civ" games. We also have some incredible games where the art and story drive the popularity- particularly roleplaying games.

But, just as our landscape isn't covered in brownstones or unique Wright houses, the game store shelves aren't filled with these 2 designs. Perhaps the most predominant home in America today (can't speak for anyone across the pond) has its roots in the "Levittowns," that popped up after world war II. The current crop of "housing community" might work hard to conceal the simplicity in design, but they're just well-dressed versions of what's come before.

The developer starts with 1-3 basic floorplans, each slightly altered by a few "canned" additions in one place or another. Perhaps a different color, or different siding, or an extra garage, room, or window to make things appear "unique." Tried and tested, there's little risk to their construction or sale, and while they'll make a nice home that may even become endearing to the residents, few will ever be called memorable works.

And that's what dominates our game store shelves. Sequels, clones, and knock-offs.

Posted Jan 30, 2006 10:29:15 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Ken: ... you seem to want to fight about art vs design instead of taking a critical look at vitual worlds.

Not at all. Sorry if I've left that impression. I find statements like Spolsky's about design and engineering uninformed and frustratingly counter-productive, so I may have come on too strong.

I would like to hear what extraneous decorations you've been forced to add to your software to compete with other companies. What design warts have you tried to conceal behind rich Corinthian (virtual) leather -- and how successful was it?

That's an excellent question and an opportunity for self-examination. Before I got into games I was a UI designer and UCD consultant, so I spent several years working hard to avoid just this sort of situation (and have continued that since), and to make sure that visible design elements aren't just slapped on at the last minute -- though of course there are always compromises. "Concealing design warts" leads to the "that's not a bug it's a feature" kind of thinking... but which may sometimes be more positively thought of as "making lemonade out of lemons." I'll have to think about that in terms of past projects.

Chas, I think you extend the "brownstone" analogy well with your references to Wright and "Levittowns." Consider how in the current generation of MMOs the basic player roles, gameplay, mechanics, goals, and UI have been refined to the point that the differences between a WoW "tank" and a EQII "tank" are truly cosmetic. In terms of broader games, there are occasional rules-makers, those that start a new genre or advance an existing one, but most get along with small twists to well-known (and well-worn) design tropes.

But is this the same as separating design and engineering, or seeing UI as decoration? I think maybe we're talking about a couple of different things here, none of them all that clear to me. What is clear to me is that a) design is not solely an engineering issue, and b) trying to pretty up an ugly design with a spiffy UI is where we get into problems with lipstick and chickens.

Posted Jan 30, 2006 12:26:44 PM | link

hikaru says:

The descriptions that really grab people are at a much higher level, eg "I hunted down a bunch of raptors who had stolen my town's gold, and returned the stolen goods to the quartermaster" is much more compelling than "I found the raptors, cast lightning bolt, then earth shock, then turned on my melee attack and waited for the raptor to die. I did that 12 times, and then right clicked on a box of treasure."

You know, that quest in WoW is the quintessential example for me of Blizzard's "let's crank out plot #12394" design philosophy. The lipstick does a terrible job of hiding the crusty drag queen underneath.

Raptors robbing people of chests of gold. Please, think about this for one second. It's all you'll need.

Sometimes games "with a great personality..." really do need some makeup advice.

Posted Jan 30, 2006 2:55:06 PM | link

Gene Endrody says:

I'm often amazed at how often World of Warcraft gets knocked here. I would imagine many of Blizzard’s designers are frequent readers of Terra Nova and, for obvious reasons, can’t respond in a public forum to this type of criticism. They didn’t create the perfect MMORPG, just one that’s more successful than any of it’s North American competitors. All of a sudden Blizzard is the Microsoft of MMOs and everybody can’t wait to take ‘em down a notch.

Blizzard is more about quality execution than innovation, but that still requires quality designers. Readers that have designed for MMOs and actually had to carry through to execution will likely appreciate that Blizzard does know what it’s doing.

Posted Jan 30, 2006 8:22:07 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

Actually, I think Sony is the Microsoft of MMOs... or maybe they're the IBM? =P

But think about it, Gene: what's the most likely to get attention? The biggest, latest, and highest revenue stream. Out of the large percentage of "that which gets attention", that which gets a LOT of attention is "that which breaks".

Notice that no one ever talks about, "Here are all the great things that have happened." Because that's the end of it. Great stuff, yay! We need to talk about the bad things and the brokenness and the travesties so that we know to avoid, circumvent, or solve those very problems when we come to execution time ourselves.

Blizzard did good. That's not even up for debate. They blew Everquest out of the water, if I recall correctly (the same way Microsoft blew IBM out of the water). But just because it's beyond reasonable to expect perfection does not mean it is beyond reasonable to talk about their mistakes, or even the more abstract and generalized the ramifications of such a mistake in an industry as a whole, applicable to every MMORPG.

Posted Jan 30, 2006 10:19:22 PM | link

Alex says:

If by lipstick we mean artwork/texturing in MMORPG, then we should we aware that artwork does not necessarily means piece of art ;)
Given various technical constraints of such a wast player base WOW caters to, I am sure it were quite a challenge for Blizzard to solve magnitude of tech issues and constraints to mage game “well-playable” for all “on average”, - and sure they where (had to be) if not artistic, then at least rather creative about finding balanced tech solution to this. Sure there IS such a thing as an "elegant code", and soft design/coding can be an art form in itself, - just like a good chess game, all depends on the code, challenges and solutions.

As to artwork, - oh man, do those low-poly characters look tacky and ugly indeed, and probably would never make it to Metropolitan any time in either near or distant future...

Yet, its a free mans world... Want to escape into fantasy world and walk around trolls and elves together with lots of many others running various config. systems many-many miles away, linked via all sorts of network links(DSL, dial-up etc)? Well, then maybe WOW is the best large-scale hybrid 3d game/chat gaming solution there is, at the moment that is...

Posted Jan 31, 2006 1:26:12 PM | link

Ken Fox says:

Lipstick could be graphical, but that doesn't define it. Lipstick is a superficial add-on that tries to hide or distract from the underlying (flawed) nature of the design. Sometimes it's added not to cover flaws, but just to "freshen" the design and increase sales.

It appears in human-computer interfaces most often as whizzy eye candy, but it could be anything. A flawed game economy might have lipstick in the form of strange money sinks. A flawed interaction/scalability design might have lipstick in the form of client animations that aren't really part of the world.

Posted Jan 31, 2006 7:35:16 PM | link

nate says:

Here is a provocative though to toy with [ for the sake of discussion]:

if you believe that the MMOG is an odd beast that is neither quite game and play (all that work) and not quite some breed of social software (all that other funny stuff involving elves and quests). Throw in bits such as personalization, /pizza, RMT...

Is it in fact then true that 1/2 (say) of the MMOG *is* lipstick?

Ah, but the trick then is ID'ing which half (or rather more subtly - where are the lines?

A thought experiment only.

Posted Jan 31, 2006 9:31:55 PM | link

nate says:

Related, ref. "Are MMORPG Games".

Posted Jan 31, 2006 10:28:10 PM | link

Daniel Speed says:

It seems to me that while some MMOGs are sandboxes (in effect, I think, VWs), it's the rules (like the rules of chess acting on the chess board) that are formative in creating gameplay within them. The more restrictive the path, clear the final goal and strong the rules, the more something is a game.

On the other hand, I think this falls apart more and more when you're talking about a sandbox with many people intended to be in it at once when you foster interaction, where fewer rules are needed to create gameplay, because competition requires fewer rules for adjudication.

The more I consider it, the more I'm convinced that you could take a lot of the lipstick out of Eve and still have something there, but that you can't manage it with WoW to nearly the same extent. Of course, it must help that there's a large amount of "gameplay" in Eve that's largely based around cognitive challenges like understanding things like market trends, logistics and the economics of manufaturing.

I suspect that this is based on a belief about primarily non-competitive games requiring more rules AND lipstick to retain a player's interest because they don't derive as much depth from emergent competitive human interactions.

Perhaps card games provide an interesting arena to ponder that idea (particularly the differences between competitive and non-competitive card games).

Posted Feb 1, 2006 12:46:40 PM | link

function says:

Joel Spolsky's article strikes me as a semantic and logical muddle, Nate Combs nonetheless extracts a few ideas well applied towards the current MMO field. Blizzard's tremendous success on the art end of WoW being a prime example of the triumph of decoration. For all that it conceals the mind numbing "play" design of RPG numbers-vs-numbers combat, widget retrieval quests, bodycount quests, barrens/guild chat, auctioneering, and now team deathmatch, it's got the best "surface" design around.

This is where the pejorative tone of the whole "chicken and lipstick" expression does a disservice to the conversation. While it may be tempting to be flip about the surface, there's obviously 5+ million arguments on Blizzard's ledger for why art/surface/lipstick matter in a medium where the primary dirt-world user experience is visuals on the monitor. Low poly counts, and textures that are 256x256 MAX mean a lot of leeway for the underlying engineering, on the other hand it creates a large challenge for the team in charge of surface. By my reckoning it's (precisely because of graphical constraints?) ended up as the first MMO that looks like it has an "Art Director" on staff. There's also an aspect of engineering-meets-surface in which WoW serves as a triumphant example, user designed UI in the form of addons. Think there's something missing? Add it on. Think there's a UI wart? Fix it. And no, 99% of these are not crap.

Below the surface, it also fares well as a complex piece of software that treads lightly enough to still feel like a game. Players aren't wading knee deep in multipaned windows as in SWG. I'm continually grateful that patches are occasional and recognized as an inconvenience to players, rather than the "sucks to you for wanting to play" constant game patching style that Sony has gone with. It's pretty, and it's successful at being simple.

For all that "brokenness and travesties" deserve their time to wriggle in the glare, I think there's just as much time to recognize what works. If I've learned anything about design, it's that it's a lot easier to find examples of what not to do than to find good examples, and that it's a lot harder to learn by bad example than by good.

Posted Feb 1, 2006 4:29:33 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

With discussions of art vs. design vs. engineering vs. craft, I like (again) to come back to the root question of goals. Always me with the goal thing.

I've had friends who were fanatical, chess playing fiends. They read books on chess, talked on the phone for hours with friends on it, emailed problems to each other, went to tournaments, etc. One particular problem had been kicking my buddy, Norm, in the butt for weeks. I playfully suggested, "It seems like you're really having fun with that latest chess thingy that your friend emailed you last month."

He scowled at me like I'd insulted his mom and grumbled, "It's not about fun."

Games aren't always about fun, and buildings aren't always about sleeping in them and art isn't always about being pretty and poetry doesn't always rhyme. So... what's the goal? What is "fun?"

For me, for example, listening to in-game music is never fun. Period. End of story. Never. Ever. I give them all a shot... because of "Diablo" (Thank you, Trent Reznor, for the exception that proves the rule), but I always end up turning it off. So... as far as I, as a game-player am concerned, any time that any musician/programmer/producer spends on in-game music is wasted. But does the soundtrack add "fun" for other players? Of course. Do I ask that it be removed for everyone else because I don't care for it? Of course not.

On the flip side, I very much enjoy well-rendered, outdoor, computer-animated scenes a-la stuff you can get from Bryce. For that reason, part of the "fun" for me in WoW was just wandering around the vast, open areas going, "Wow." Not fighting, not questing, not farming, but just standing there, admiring what the artists and programmers had done. That, for me, was "fun." If you had removed that element from the game, it would have been *less fun.*

Is chess "less fun" for me than WoW? Hell, yes. Then again, so are contract bridge, Red Rover, Pokemon, mud wrestling, skiing and mailbox baseball. Here's a newsflash about fun: lots of people define it very, very differently. And if one of the key components of games -- including MMOGs -- is that they be "fun," then there's room for lots of definitions.

Can great graphics "save" bad design? Sure. If the players of that game demand great graphics as their form of "fun" and don't care about the programming. Same holds true in the other direction.

I think that WoW has been so successful because they've done a great job of balancing art and design. It is as "pretty as it needs to be," and as "designed as it needs to be." Six of one, half-a-dozen of the other. Too much on the "pretty" side of the see-saw, and you'd have lost the hard-core gamers (who were the early adopters, and core to WoW's first few months of success)... not enough "pretty," and you'd never have seen them hit the numbers they now have.

Where is the balance? Ask your customers. If your customers want to live in utilitarian boxes, don't design Fallingwater and then chastise them for being unartistic, lowbrow goons. If they want to live in Cinderella's Castle, don't build them a suburban strip-house and give them crap for being pie-in-the-sky fantasists.

Posted Feb 1, 2006 8:54:17 PM | link

Terry Mitchell says:

I've heard of the "lipstick on a pig" analogy, but never "lipstick on a chicken"! The former would be ridiculous; the latter would latter would be impossible. But I guess that's the point, right?

Posted Feb 2, 2006 2:08:17 PM | link

Larry Kyrala says:

In some times its hard to make the distinction between art and engineering.

For example, as I've been playing "alts" in WoW, I've noticed a subtle yet consistent design where each class' actions have a different sound and appearance. Of course there is a combat log that also explains these actions -- but I never look at that ordinarily. What's interesting is that when I play a new class, I start recognizing the pattern of sounds that I've heard countless times before -- and I realize I have an *emotional* response built from experience about which rough combinations will damage the most or draw the most aggro. (notable example: who can mistake the frost nova + arcane explosion + blink cycle of the mage when they are on a melee nuking spree?)

Current psychology research suggests that emotion may by partially driven by preconscious pattern recognition -- i.e. it can help us make decisions before we have enough evidence to base our actions on logic.

Other perceptual research talks about how our senses are multi-modal. We coordinate hearing, vision, etc. to create mental models -- but different people do this in different ways. I key onto sound a bit easier because I have a background in music -- but someone else might be more textual or visual.

The point is that to a purely textual person, the visual and auditory aspects of WoW are window-dressing ... "lipstick" on the chicken. But multi-modal sensory experiences heighten our perception of realism in such games.

To me, this is not merely "lipstick". The idea of "visceral" realism is often a requirement for many gamers.

Posted Feb 8, 2006 4:50:36 PM | link