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Dream factory

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22 December 2005

by Mike Rozak


In The attraction of impossibility I wrote about people being attracted to virtual worlds (and games) for the ability to do something they can't in real life. The player pyramid discussed how virtual worlds tend to emphasise social goals/desires that people can't get from real life, while single-player games can fulfil non-social goals/desires (or whatever their AI is capable of.)

Richard Bartle's player model in http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm discusses similar ideas, being more minimalist in his categorisation, and claiming that people play virtual worlds because they want to socialise (socialiser), be socially dominant (killers), compete (achievers), and explore the world (explorers). Explorers don't fit my "virtual worlds are socially motivated" theory as well as the other three player types.

Nick Yee has a similar set of "facets" that cover socialisers, killers, and achievers, but leave out explorers.

Basically, Richard Bartle's and Nick Yee's models both come down to the fundamental goals of the player: why the player is playing, often at a subconscious level. My musings came to the same conclusion.

However, games and virtual world can provide other goals, sympathetic goals. These are goals that the game gives to the player, and which the player internalises into his own goals. For example: "Kill the evil overlord" is a goal given by the game world, and which (through various devices) Fable manages to internalise into the player. (Random comment at the end of the article.)

The various player models and sympathetic goals are flip sides of the same coin. Player models describe what goals a player brings into the game/world, while sympathetic goals describe the goals that the players acquire once there.

I suspect that certain players are more strongly attracted to worlds that allow them to achieve their own goals, preferring to join world-like worlds. Other players find it more fun to take one the world's goals, joining game-like worlds.



Revisiting goals/dreams that players bring into the game/world

Since I have recently spent a considerable amount of time looking at sympathetic goals, I thought I'd revisit player models a bit, and fine-tune some of my thoughts from The attraction of impossibility.

To attract players based on their personal goals, a game design needs to resonate with their goals. Obviously, a world accurately based on the Roman Empire would attract players who are interested in the accurate depiction of the Roman Empire... all 10,000 of them. A world that allows players to be a cowboy might attract wild-west fans. Etc.

A niche-market world can choose a specific interest group and tailor its experience to the group, particularly if the group can't achieve its goals in real life. The specific features are, of course, dependent upon the group. People who are interested in realistic space travel might want a realistic simulator of travel to and then explore mars (that would bore the pants off most people).

What does a game/world do if it wants to attract a larger (mass-market) audience? Richard Bartle's and Nick Yee's models provide some insight, although I find them too general.

Teenagers seem to be more attracted to MMORPGs and CRPGs than adults. (Yes, most player are not teenagers, but (a) most of the real-life population is over 19, and (b) teenagers find MMORPGs and CRPGs more expensive than do adults. Despite these hurdles, almost 50% of the MMORPG-playing population is under 20.)

What "personal goals" are common to teenagers? Remembering back to those awful years (definitely not the best years of my life), I came up with the following list: (Feel free to make up your own.)

  • The desire to grow up - Teenagers can't wait to be adults, to be free, etc.
    • Power - Related to growing up is the ability to control your life, and have some power in the world. This may include power over others.
    • Freedom - Teenagers are frustrated with having to attend school, not having a car, having a curfew, etc.
    • Respect - Teenagers want to be respected by their piers and by adults, neither of which tend to give teenagers much respect.
    • Money - Money is related to power and freedom. Shopping is related to money.

  • Social issues - Teenagers are very social creatures.
    • Social status - Teenagers are very interested in social status; note the constant grooming and concerns over fashion. Also notice the bullying that takes place.
    • Grouping - Teenagers like to hang out in packs.
    • Friends - Related to grouping, teenagers have a strong desire to meet and make the "right" friends, more so than adults, who tend to marry and be more solitary.

  • Sex - Of course.

  • Experiment - Teenagers haven't figured out what they want to do in life (and neither have most adults). They are willing to experiment with new activities.

  • Lingering fears of monsters - Children are afraid of monsters. Teenagers still have a lingering fear of monsters from childhood. Adults are more afraid of men in expensive suits that kiss babies.


In case you haven't read between the lines by now, MMORPGs and CRPGs fit snugly into a stereotypical teenager's personal goals.

If a mass-market game were designed for adults, the question arises: What "personal goals" are common amongst adults? (Feel free to make up or modify the list to suit your opinions.)

  • Relationships
    • Strengthen ties with friends, and/or meet new friends
    • Get a girl/boyfriend... For those adults without one.
    • Get married... For those adults who are not married.
    • Spend more quality time with one's significant other
    • Spend more quality time with one's children
    • Take a road trip with the family - I'm placing this under relationships, but escapism is also a driving factor (excuse the pun).

  • Success
    • Get a bigger house/car
    • Climb the corporate ladder, become a manager, etc.
    • Be needed/important to society... This is a particularly strong urge for people who have been laid off.
    • One's children do well in school, and life in general
    • Be your own boss

  • Escapism
    • Many adults are bored doing the same thing day in, day out.
    • Take a holiday
      • Take a holiday in a tropical island - The Myst series takes advantage of the desire of many/most adults' wishes to go somewhere unpopulated (escape the city), tropical (escape the cold), and isolated (escape responsibilities).
    • Pay off the house/car - I put this into escapism because paying off a debt is often about having fewer responsibilities.
    • Escape the rat race and/or experiment with a completely different profession - One of my friends left Microsoft and joined the police force. I left Microsoft and moved to the outback.
    • Retire (early)
    • Be a kid again and not have any worries
    • Temporarily forget one's worries

  • Miscellaneous
    • I want to change who I am. Shopping is one technique to change oneself; a new wardrobe makes one a different person, at least on the outside.
    • Lose weight
    • Be young/youthful again
    • Is this all there is to life?


Of course, these goals are drawn with very broad strokes. Everyone is different. For example: I like watching the international news, and I like science fiction and fantasy. From this, I've concluded that my fundamental "dreams" are as follows:

  • Some of the standard adult goals resonate with me. I won't bother listing them.

  • I want to understand why things work. I like to watch the news because I can look out for larger currents that are driving history. I have been writing Deeply Random Thoughts as a way to sort out my thoughts about why avatar games work, which in turn, are simplistic models for the real world.

  • I want to understand reality from other viewpoints. What would an alien think about the universe, and how would the alien's perceptions and conclusions differ from a human's. The same can be said about animals, although most animals have a limited range of thoughts.

    By the way, most people won't really understand what I mean by this, and I don't expect them to. If you want to get a deeper understanding, volunteer at a zoo and spend some time around some non-dog/cat species and you'll gradually notice different thought processes at work.

  • I want to get off this rock. I can describe my feelings using an analogy: I feel like I'm in a small room populated mostly with children. The room is painted pink, and there are no windows or doors. I know there's an "outside", and I know there's intelligent life out there, but I can't figure out how to escape the room. Again, many people won't get this, and those that think they do will probably think I'm talking about space travel, which is only part of what's outside.



Mass market vs. niche

Notice that my goals don't particularly match what I've written for the standard "adult" goals. After all, everyone is different.

This difference affects a game's design: Teenagers are attracted to a game with virtual housing because it allows them to be an adult. Most/many adults would like to own their own virtual house so long as it's bigger/better than their current one. I'm not particularly attracted to virtual property, because in real life, I don't want anything larger/better than I already have.

Due to their production price tags, large worlds must target "typical" teenager or adult "dreams", like owning a big house or holidaying on a tropical island. Large Hollywood productions do the same.

Small worlds (and small movies) fulfil more niche dreams. I could take my personal goals and produce a world that fulfils them, but I wouldn't get many players. However, if my costs were low enough, a few thousand dedicated players might be all I needed.




Random comment at the end of the article

One way to create a sympathetic goal that I didn't think of when writing sympathetic goals is:

  • If you provide players a choice of goals, such as allowing them to kill the evil overlord, or become the richest merchant in town, or to explore the world, then players will internalise their chosen goal. A similar trick is used on children: "Do you want to put your shirt on first or your pants? Do you want a red apple or a green one?" Because they have chosen, they have more of a stake in the experience.



Copyright 2005 by Mike Rozak. All rights reserved.
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