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Looking Ahead: 10 Challenges for Designing Online Games and Communities

What's the trick to making online multiplayer games successful? Is it building a community around them? More effective game design? If the industry wants to make games like Meridian 59 successful, we have to answer these important questions first.

June 19, 1997

14 Min Read

Author: by Michael Sellers

The Internet and the Web have gone from being a wild frontier to being a place for chat, commerce, entertainment, and education in the span of less than ten years. This is an enormous change in a vanishingly short time in human history, brief even by contemporary commercial standards.

In my work, I focus on the arena of online games and online communities. These have a brief history but a brilliant future, with the potential to change our notions of entertainment and society as much as anything since television. While we have thus far mainly seen the potential and hype surrounding online games and communities, it seems that finally their era is upon us: There are enough people on the Internet who are willing to pay for entertainment and other services to make these a viable proposition. The big challenge is, how do we make these work? How can we create games, communities, and companies that will be able to ride the online wave? What are the challenges we must each overcome to be successful in this new industry?

I certainly don't have all the answers, but I do have some vexing questions and a few observations gleaned from my experience designing the first commercial, 3D graphical MUD, Meridian 59, and from watching other companies rise and fall in this voracious little industry. For now I want to focus on three important questions facing anyone creating online worlds:

*How can we create an effective management model for creating online games and communities?
*How can we expand our audience from a niche to a mass market?
*And most importantly, how do we define community in the first place, and what sorts of design issues arise from this definition?

These are just a few of the many issues that keep me up at night. There are a host of others (such as, how can we fund online companies without falling prey to the same feast-and-famine cycle endured by most game developers? How can we find and grow effective designers for this new kind of software? What are the best ways to deal with Internet latency in a large and dynamic environment?), but for now these will have to wait. If you think you have the answers to these questions, or have even better questions, let me know!

How do we design effective online worlds, and how do we move beyond the movie-making management model?

Creating games is not like creating any other kind of entertainment product or software, and the production of online games is different from producing stand-alone single-player games. Unlike movies, successful games are decidedly non-linear and player-driven. Unlike other software, we have no user-tasks to model, as playing the game is the user's task. Nor can most online games rely on players staying within the geographic, thematic, or plot-driven bounds we might set in a single-player game; the players will make up their own stories for the most part, provided we create for them a world rich and varied enough to support their imaginations.

Despite the differences between game software and any other sort of software or entertainment product, it has become fashionable in the past few years to model game development loosely on the Hollywood movie studio model you can't swing a stick in a game company without hitting a Director or a Producer, even though no one seems to be able to define those terms in any sort of standardized way. Nor has anyone been able to give me a non-ego-driven reason why we all acquired this management model in the first place.

As a quick trip to just about any game company will show you, this model doesn't work. We need to come up with new corporate structures and development processes that recognize the creative, iterative realities of online game design and development without ignoring the fast paced, high pressure, high cost nature of this business. We don't yet know for certain what innovative roles and structures will work well in creating sustainable, profitable, fun online worlds, but we do know some things that do not work:

Anything that confuses design with development or marketing

Anything that feels like game design by management fiat

Anything that ignores or glosses over early player testing

Anything that supports big titles or big egos at the expense of big game ideas (see Chris Crawford's Soapbox in the June 1997 issue of Game Developer magazine.)

And anything that continues the traditional relegation of customer support to a largely ignored ghetto; in the online environment we no longer have the luxury of producing "fire and forget" products.

We need to figure out what new roles, processes, and structures will enhance profitable game design and development, rather than continuing with practices that get in the way of this goal.

How can we expand online games and worlds towards a mass market?

It is easy to forget that in the grand scheme of things, electronic games really feed a pretty small market, and online games feed an even smaller portion of the public (though the audience for online games is growing quickly). Nevertheless, when we talk about a "blockbuster" retail computer game we're talking about something above 500,000 units. By contrast, in the paper role-playing games market, a game that sells 10,000 units is considered to be doing very well, and one that sells 50,000 would certainly be a huge hit. In the online market it is difficult to tell what a blockbuster is because things change so quickly and no real baseline exists, but it is safe to say that healthy unit sales for an online game are somewhere between those of a successful paper game and those of a stand-alone computer game, or between about 10,000 and 100,000 units.

These numbers might sound big, but this is a very small piece of the potential online market. Figures from movies and other entertainment products tend to show that a highly successful title will penetrate about 30% of the maximum potential market. Translating this into online terms, if there are approximately 20,000,000 people in the US market who are actively on the Internet, then a very successful online game should be able to reach about 6,000,000 of them. And yet no game is hitting anywhere close to these numbers. For the most part online (and offline) games are reaching fewer than 5% of this blockbuster number. What are we doing wrong?

The first thing that tends to come up when discussing the mass market is that we have pretty much ignored women and girls as customers. This is true; making games that are engaging and satisfying for women and for men is important to creating a much larger market for games. One way to think about this involves trying to design games that move beyond what you could call the "blood and breasts" focus. When Tomb Raider came out in stores and its heroine Lara Croft was splashed across magazine covers earlier this year, the adolescent male target demographic was obvious from her anatomy. While some in the game industry felt that we were finally making strides towards attracting more women to computer games, most actual women have remained dubious. As one said at CGDC, "making a game with Handgun Barbie does not make it a game for women!"

Getting more women to play will not get us into a real mass market alone, however. If our industry was suddenly able to reach one woman for every person currently playing online games, we might get to 20% of the blockbuster numbers, or only about 6% of the total potential market. Clearly there are bigger problems to be solved here.

Of all the other forces at work in getting people to buy and play a game, particularly an online game, one of the largest hurdles is simply getting them into the game. For most games, starting out is a humbling process of learning the controls and the often labyrinthine rules, or a boring process of having to read a hefty manual before setting out to "have fun." Contrast this with TV, where the time and energy for going from decision to being entertained is encompassed in the click of a remote control. It's not likely that we will provide entrance to online games quite that easily anytime soon, but I believe that we must lower the barriers to entry for more people younger and older, male and female if we are ever going to reach the numbers of people we need to keep our games, our companies, and our industry viable.

Beyond lowering the barriers to entry for people interested in playing games, there are likely a host of other methods for increasing the number and types of people who spend their time in online games and communities. Entertainment in every other medium is big business; we just have to figure out how to bring it online as well.

Just what the heck is a community anyway?

As far as I'm concerned, this is really the Big Question we're all going to spend the next few years figuring out. No matter what the genre or the cool engines or special effects used, online games flourish only to the degree that a living community grows up around the game. To make online entertainment and community successful over the long term, I believe we need to provide environments rich enough to grow vibrant, deep forests of communities but I also believe that at present we're pretty much just growing shallow weeds (to borrow Chris Crawford's analogy). As with most other parts of the online world, we have a lot of work to do to reach our potential.

Despite some very interesting early sociological work, we're mostly still stumbling around trying to see what aspects of real community make sense online. Many are too dumbfounded by the complete and axiomatic rule changes there the easy reality of things like gender-bending and virtual romances to consider what larger societal structures might make sense in a setting where there is no overt age, race, gender, or class, where there are no real limitations of 3D Euclidean space, and where there may be vision and limited sound, but where the universe exists without things as basic as a sense of touch. If we are going to create online communities where people will want to come work, talk, buy, and play, we have to make sense of this new universe.

The most basic thing I think we need to realize about online community is that while we are responding to a very deep human need to group together, we are doing so in an environment fundamentally unlike any other. Many people still believe "cyberspace" will look like the vision contained in the fiction of William Gibson or more especially, Neil Stephenson's Snowcrash. As fun and compelling as those visions are, they pay little attention to the realities of a virtual world: why, for example, do we need motorcycles, cars, or circumnavigational trains in a world with no physical existence and none of the limitations that come with physicality? In such a world, you can "be there now" no matter where "there" is. Having said that, we are still visual, spatial creatures, so I don't believe that either 2D web pages or amorphous blobs of light await us as our future in cyberspace. In making online communities we need to respond to both the efficiencies afforded by being "in" a non-physical world and the need that people have for some forms of physical, spatial organization around them.

Having considered the foundation upon which online communities will be built (even in writing it's difficult to avoid spatially based metaphors), we need to figure out what will bring people online and specifically to virtual worlds, rather than just to existing, flat web pages. What will attract them? What will they do there that they cannot do as easily or as well on the Web or in real life? I suspect there will be lots of reasons people congregate in online communities, many which we haven't yet thought of, but entertainment, commerce, and education will certainly be at the top of the list.

We must be wary, however, of believing too strongly in our own technology and hype. No online community is likely to succeed based on just "being cool." Technology is nothing more than a means to some other end for the vast majority of people on the Internet; showing them animated avatars or expansive scenes that enable no other abilities are not in and of themselves reason enough for most people to spend their time there.

There are a host of other questions surrounding online community that must be considered before we are able to create them well enough to realize their potential: Are there really residents of virtual communities, or merely many frequent visitors? How can an online community both accept new members and protect its existing ones, balancing the age-old question of insularity vs. cosmopolitan nature? What does it mean for such a community to have its open plazas and its private, safe sanctuaries? How does a community's profile affect the resolution of questions surrounding personal privacy, anonymity, and intimacy, each of which are of paramount importance in online worlds?

Then there are structural questions, both literal and metaphorical: How can we enable non-technical people (the mass market) to build their own communities not just buildings, but the functions that go along with them? In worlds that, unlike ours, are not bounded by a limited amount of space or materials, what new meanings might building take on? How do the caretakers (if there are any) of the community resolve issues of quality, appropriateness, and even bandwidth use?

In addition to these questions, there are questions of social structure: What larger social units will evolve, and how much should this evolution be directed by the builders or providers of a community? Do villages or companies or nation-states even make sense in an online world? What new social forms will arise online, and on top of all of that, what effects might they have on people's real-world lives?

Finally, if we are ever to reach the potential that online worlds possess for extending our ideas of entertainment, community, and culture, then we must incorporate the more subtle qualities that make the real world so real. As long as our online worlds are static without ecology or economy, without the dynamic homeostasis that is visible everywhere in life, they will ultimately feel flat and stage-like, rather than compellingly vibrant. Oddly enough, I believe that we will have to introduce useful analogues of friction and waste into our online worlds for them to feel real; otherwise we will be dealing with cartoon worlds in which perpetual energy is evident everywhere and in which ultimately nothing has any perceived value.

This is true both "physically" and socially. I believe that we must design robust economic and ecological mechanisms into the architecture of any successful online world. We will also have to anticipate and even embrace the potential actions of all sorts of people, young and old, male and female, friendly and obnoxious, as natural parts of the online community, just as they are here, even when they create social friction. We must be able to create and evolve social structures that provide for the citizen and the outcast, the novice and the authority, so that new and appropriate social norms can take root and grow. The more the online world conforms to our notions of what is real, and the less we allow the "holodeck walls" to show through, the more successful our online efforts will be.

This may all appear to be abstract philosophy, but I believe that such issues are actually at the core of the challenge of creating self-sustaining online games and communities. Fundamentally, the nature of the game has changed: no longer is there a simple winner and a loser, nor a flat board on which we push around our pieces. Now in the online environment, we are in the game in some very real sense we are the game, and we are the community.

To the extent that we enable millions of people to be immersed in the depths of our online worlds, we will certainly succeed financially. More importantly, we will have opened the door to the next stage in the development of our real world.

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