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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

What Do MMOs and Slot Machines Have In Common? (Too Darn Much...)

Posted by cmagoun Tuesday June 23 2009 at 12:52PM
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A friend and I were recently discussing the state of MMOs and sometime during the conversation, he said to me, "It's (computer games) all about making pushing buttons fun." Now, I could have sworn I read something to that effect before. I seem to remember an interview with a game developer where he was quoted as saying game development was giving the act of pushing buttons impact.

I tried to find the exact quote, but I couldn't. Nonetheless, the thought stayed with me for a couple of days and I toyed with it. After all, when deconstructed, playing a computer game is just a series of repetitive button-pushing. How do you make that have impact and be fun? I could be onto some great truth of computer gaming. And since MMOs are arguably the most "button-pushy" types of computer games, I might be close to revolutionizing the MMO industry!!!!! I am about to change the world!!!!!!!

Ok probably not, but you have to admit, “making pushing buttons fun” is one of those clever deconstructions that seems to bring to light some basic truth. So, I figured I would think about it for a bit and see if there was any core game-design concept there that I could use to REVOLUTIONIZE THE WORLD OF MMOs!!!!!!!!!!! (ok, got to calm down)

It was around that time that I realized that someone had already beaten me to the punch. There is an entire multi-billion dollar industry that has perfected the whole button-pushing concept -- Slot Machines. Walk into any casino and you will see hundreds of people repetitively pushing buttons for hours at a time and paying for the privilege... micro-transactions even :) How do they do it?

Well, for your button-press, a modern slot machine will give you flashing lights, some colorful graphics, an animation or two, various beeps and sounds and maybe if you are lucky, a mini-game which consists of more button-pressing for different animations and sounds. Most importantly though, slot machines make button pressing impactful with the promise of a cookie. Every press gives you the chance that something really cool will happen -- you get a big hit. Most of the times nothing happens, but the game strings you along with small hits and the ever-present promise of another reward. It’s a compelling formula – compelling enough that even though slots are the most boring games in the casino, and they give the worst odds, they are by far the most popular games.

So… if we go with the idea that a good game is one that makes button-pressing fun, we realize that computers games follow a very similar formula to slots machines. For every button press in an MMO, I get some flashy graphics, an animation or two, some sounds, and every so often I get a cookie – a cool item, a bit of story or a level up.

It is inevitable that when you play slots over a long period of time, you will run through your money. Even if you win every so often and even if you are “up” on the house at some point, if you continue to play, you will burn through your bankroll. Slots players call this the “grind”. Hey, where have I heard that term before? Fortunately, in an MMO grind, you don’t run out of money. Instead, you run out of patience with what is essentially a mind-numbing, repetitive exercise in pressing a button in hopes of getting an ephemeral reward.

And I think that is where the button-press deconstruction gets us – the novelty of the new buttons, graphics and sounds wears off and you are playing just to get the cookie. Once that happens, you are in the grind, and just like in slots, once you are in the grind, you are ultimately going to lose.
So, it isn’t JUST about making button-pressing fun. That quote holds a tiny sliver of truth, but it only gets us so far – about as far, it seems, as the current theme park model that plagues mainstream MMOs. Click button, PvE, get reward, click button, PvP, get reward, click button, craft, get reward, click button, quest, get reward…

Click button, engage in drama on forums about the grind, quit game… Which ironically, completes the slots analogy, since the only meaningful choice you have in slots is when to quit.

So, that’s all I have for now. Next time, I would like to take the next step; if games aren’t “just pressing buttons” then what the heck are they all about? (drum roll…)

Games are about making DECISIONS fun.

So, we’ll talk about decisions in games, why more meaningful decisions make games fun, and if they’re so darn cool, why don’t we see more of them in MMOs.

Deefgb writes:

Haha , you think about it for a little while and your like thats so cool! Then you realise it's true then your like T_T. He's right its kinda sad! But nice job. Can't wait to see about decision making

*ode joy another thing that I can say, HEY IM A LOSER! :D*


Tue Jun 23 2009 10:37PM Report
vendolis writes:

nice write up. 

"why don’t we see more of them in MMOs"

Well quite easy. MMOs have persistent worlds to give everyone the same experience. This means any decision you make must leave the world in the same state as it was before. This means The decision has no impact and is no real decision. The only decisions you can make meaningful are about your character and the entities that belong to it (like housing). On the other hand, this elements must also not interfere with the world.

You see meaningful (for the game as a whole) actions very seldom on some games, like finding a special item for the first time and then the item is named after your character. But that is for one person and not that often done. Another would be the place of the first destroyed Titan in Eve.

Wed Jun 24 2009 9:10AM Report
n00854180t writes:

You're almost correct.  MMO3DMUDs, and by that term, I mean those games that derive nearly all of their gameplay from MUD gameplay, but provide a 3D graphical interface, are the most "button-pushy" games around.

All MMO3DMUDs (EQ, WoW, LotRO, any of the ones with a hotbar, essentially turn based combat, etc.) are MMOs, but not all MMOs are MMO3DMUDs, which FAR too many people forget.  In MMO3DMUDs, it can arguably said that they have failed to make button pushing fun, since I think you would be hard pressed to find almost anyone that would agree that the combat in these games is inherently fun.

However, all of these games have mastered the gambling portion of Slot Machines, in the form of random item drops.  Most of the gameplay in MMO3DMUDs exists in the meta-game, such as the item collection, stat/level mill, and socialization (again, more things those games took from MUDs and added a 3D interface to), which is why many people would argue those games are fun, but would be hard pressed to claim the combat (99.99999% of the actual, non-meta, gameplay) is fun.

The answer isn't to add more random meta-game elements to the already un-fun button pushing grindfest, it's to simply get rid of the MUD-based gameplay altogether.  Thus, for instance, the somewhat recent trend of more developers branching into other genres, where the button pushing one performs is inherently meaningful, and thus, fun (i.e., an MMOFPS for instance, has inherently meaningful player-avatar interaction, because the outcome of the character's actions are directly determined by the player, rather than by a random die roll based on the character's number for Skill XYZ*).

The problem isn't the interface as a whole, or MMOs as a whole, but simply the assumption that MMOs can ONLY have gameplay derived from MUDs, which is simply untrue.  The problem exists in that what was interesting in text (and thus inherently turn-based due to the order in which you had to read said text) is not interesting in a 3D interface.

I'm sure someone will make an argument against my comment, entirely missing the point of anything I've said, since most players of MMOs don't really understand the underlying technology as any game programmer does, but I couldn't help making it anyway.

Fri Jun 26 2009 11:22AM Report
garbalen writes:

I agree with most of this...and yes it does all translate to button presses.

However, immersion is where I belive the hook lies, not in the reward process. Once you can seperate gamers from conciously hitting a W on the keyboard and convince them that they are walking through another world, you have the hook. Even button bars with turn based play generally have different lengths (cast times) per turn. I agree that spamming a button or key combination repeatedly does turn into a grind, but some games integrate character mobility into combat which greatly expands the decision process. A lot of companies are starting to realize that they won't crush Warcraft by adding a flashing blue light and an oatmeal raisin cookie to a WoW clone.

The success of World of Warcraft reminds me of when Doom hit the shelves. There was a long period of lackluster first person shooters. The games that are making the money now have put a lot of work into the AI models. Something I have yet to see with a MMORPG.

Sat Jul 25 2009 8:45PM Report writes:
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