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Why?

Editorial By Erich Von Hase on August 05, 2005

The Roles of the MMO Gamer (Page 1 of 2)

If you’ve been playing MMOGs very long, you’ve either asked this question or know someone who has. It is part of the life cycle of playing an MMOG that most of us have come to know very well.

First there is a ‘Buzz’. Players hear news of a new MMOG soon to be released or they hear good things about an MMOG from magazines, websites, or friends. Second is the ‘Acclimation’. We all know the drill - buy the game, install, and then spend a little time figuring out how to make it work. Depending on the game, it can take a few minutes, hours, or days to master the interface and basic gameplay so that we can actually get rolling. Next comes ‘Fascination’, or so the developers hope. This is the point at which players become enamored with the game, get lost in it, and make friends there. If a player doesn’t lose interest in the Acclimation phase, the Fascination phase is what sets players onto the path of the recurring monthly subscriptions. During this phase players are having too much fun to worry about the price of the subscription. It is negligible compared to the amount of fun they are having. There is so much to see and do. At this point, many of us have gotten so infected with an MMOG that we’d probably pay more each month because the game has become such a priority in our lives. But eventually, most of us lose interest for one reason or another and ask that inevitable question, ‘Why do I keep paying to play this game?’ I’ve played enough MMOGs to know that when someone asks that question, a cancelled subscription is not far to follow. Which brings us to our final stage, ‘Cancellation’, where we ask ourselves what we were thinking for playing so long and stop paying our hard earned money to do something we no longer enjoy. Although many players have gone through what could be called the ‘Reactivation’ phase, it is essentially just the cycle starting over.

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If you’re visiting this website as a player, you’ve probably got a little bit of an interest in figuring out why this cycle is so common. People like to read up on the real reasons we do the things that we do, especially when we find out that we are not unique in doing them. However, there is another group that has a much more vested interest in why you keep paying to play MMOGs, and that is the community of developers. Their livelihood depends on your desire to keep your account active. Surprisingly, few players understand the lengths that successful developers go to to get players into and keep them in that subscribing ‘Fascination’ stage. As you’re about to find out, this article is about a lot more than just player sympathy. I’m going to explain how it all works.

Let’s start with the history of MMOGs. In the early 1970’s a guy named Gary Gygax invented a little game called Dungeons & Dragons, which became responsible for pathetic grades all over high schools and colleges for the next two decades. The game, although an entirely imaginary table top and dice sort of thing, encouraged players to pretend they were someone else, such as a heroic knight or wizard, and weave the tale of their lives with a group of friends. So many people became so engrossed in playing this game that ministers declared it satanic. Truly, it was a phenomenon, and it sold millions and millions of books. But even then, the formula was not quite perfected. It still had two more elements to be added.

Back in the late 1980’s a group of college students who were inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, created a text based video game that used many of the same elements called Multi-User Dungeon, that continued the tradition of character classes, levels, hit points, but most of all – adventure and player interaction. While the MUD created an environment where players could play whenever they wanted instead of having organize a group of players together so that they could play, it also did something unexpected. It created an addictive environment. Computer users all over the world began to play these games for hours on end, often ignoring real life responsibilities. At the time, few people bothered to wonder how or why, most likely because anyone who knew about MUDs was either too busy playing them or too put off by watching their friends get sucked into the text based internet mind control device that had taken them over.

Here is the spot where I have to explain a few principles of behavioral psychology. Living creatures that can think learn and react to stimuli. That much we know. However, many people don’t know that if something happens only some of the time, it creates a situation in which subjects can feel more compelled to engage in the activity than if something happens consistently. It is called Random Interval Reinforcement. It can be positive or negative. For example, if a child is checked up on at random times, the child is less likely to misbehave than if they are checked up on at predictable times. As another example, if someone wins a prize unpredictably they are more inclined to keep playing the game than if they win it every time. If you doubt these principles, just drop by a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting sometime. Millions of people become obsessed with gambling every year due to the addictive principles of Random Interval Reinforcement. But what does this have to do with a MUD? Pretty much everything. You see, the reward system of a MUD was designed to be random to simulate probability. Players never knew what they would get when they defeated a monster or challenge. And just like with gambling, players became obsessed. They quested for the chance at bigger and better rewards. In order to remain competitive, MUDs had to expand. More and more levels were added, tougher and tougher challenges were introduced, and bigger and better rewards became possible. Before anyone knew it, the MUD had transformed into a game design that included volumes of desirable short, medium, and long term goals for players to achieve, but only through Random Intervals. In otherwords, the MUD became a perfect recipe for obsession.

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