Koster’s Laws

Over the weekend I stumbled on to Raph Koster’s blog site about game design. (Yes, I know I have no life, don’t judge.) If you don’t know who he is — and I did not before I did some research on him — he was the lead designer for Ultimate Online and the creative director for Star Wars Galaxies. He has also written a book that I think I want to read, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. He is a prolific writer and talker on the subject of game design, and his approach seems to be at once academically sound, practical, and very readable — three qualities you do not often find meshed together. I have no idea how well- or poorly-regarded he is within academic or gaming circles, but I found his ideas very well grounded.

(I subscribe to some scholarly technical journals, one of which is Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media. It frequently has some interesting studies in it, but I have to say they are very tough reading, full of mathematical formulas, obscure references, and long sentences filled with words and phrases like “ludic”, “mediated self-representations”,  “avatar-body schema integration and identification”, “traditional regression analysis”, etc. You get the idea. They are not exactly ideal bedtime reading. Or maybe they are, as they definitely promote sleep….)

But I digress. Back to Koster. One of the pages on his website caught my eye, a collection of aphorisms titled The Laws of Online World Design. As he points out, many of them fall into the “no duh” category, but I found them to be interesting. Some of them jumped out at me as being pertinent to WoW, both at Blizz’s creative apogee and in what I consider to be their current decline.

Some excerpts and comments, in no particular order:

Persistence means it never goes away
Once you open your online world, expect to keep your team on it indefinitely. Some of these games have never closed. And closing one prematurely may result in losing the faith of your customers, damaging the prospects for other games in the same genre.

This, in my opinion, could explain WoD and Blizz’s apparent “lick and a promise” attitude for the past year and a half or so. They may, in fact, realize that they cannot close down WoW, even though it is a ten year old game well past its prime, because to do so would threaten their other franchises. They are caught between a rock and a hard place — they cannot phase the game out, yet Activision Blizzard’s new games devour most of the resources. So they have opted for expansions and patches on the cheap.

In fact, now that I think about it, maybe they think subscription declines is a good thing in the long run — if they eventually get down to a couple of million players, that will give them the perfect excuse for closing down the game without negative reaction. They can claim that the player base has changed, that there is no longer any real market for this type of MMO, thus it is with regret that they [yada yada yada.]

J. C. Lawrence’s “do it everywhere” law
If you do it one place, you have to do it everywhere. Players like clever things and will search them out. Once they find a clever thing they will search for other similar or related clever things that seem to be implied by what they found and will get pissed off if they don’t find them.

One comment here: flying. Once Blizz introduced flying, they were committed for all time. In some very limited instances — mainly special patch islands like Tol Barad, Thunder Island, Timeless Isle — they got away with disallowing flying, but they made the mistake of assuming that meant they could do it for all territory for all future expansions. Wrong. Since they did it in one place — the main world where players spent their time — they were going to have to do it in all future expansion territories. Players liked the clever flying thing and the flying mounts, and assumed it was implied for all future expansions, and they were pissed off  when they were denied this.

Online game economies are hard
A faucet->drain economy is one where you spawn new stuff, let it pool in the “sink” that is the game, and then have a concomitant drain. Players will hate having this drain, but if you do not enforce ongoing expenditures, you will have Monty Haul syndrome, infinite accumulation of wealth, overall rise in the “standard of living” and capabilities of the average player, and thus unbalance in the game design and poor game longevity.

This actually struck me as something Blizz does well in WoW. Not perfectly, mind you, but well. Think about gear, for example. Every new expansion, all the gear you accumulated in the last expansion becomes essentially worthless. Same with most gathered items and crafting mats. Even within an expansion, Blizz makes us spend various currencies by putting limits on their accumulation and by setting high rates for their expenditure (like 90 Felblight to fully upgrade a piece of crafted gear, for example). They have done less well with gold, but they do have obvious and continuing efforts to manage the amounts in game, with things like the token and the BMAH.

If your game is narrow, it will fail
Your game design must be expansive. Even the coolest game mechanic becomes tiresome after a time. You have to supply alternate ways of playing, or alternate ways of experiencing the world. Otherwise, the players will go to another world where they can have new experiences. This means new additions, or better yet, completely different subgames embedded in the actual game.

I think Blizz understands this, but I think they are stumped at how to make it happen any more. They  went too far with the “completely different subgames” in WoD — the extensive garrisons and follower missions and shipyard tine-wasting are examples. But some of their previously-introduced subgames became very absorbing for players and may have kept some of them who would otherwise have left. I am thinking about pet battles, for example, or item collecting, mat gathering, achievement hunting, leveling new characters as your main activity, even playing the auction house. These are all subgames that give players an alternate way to experience the world.

Where Blizz is running into a barrier is when their penchant for dictating “acceptable” play styles conflicts with these subgames. As they narrow the end game to their “raid or die” philosophy, for example, they effectively cut out other subgame options for players at level. By defining player success in terms of gear (and also by making certain classes fully functional only with certain gear such as tier gear), and by making “successful” gear only available by raiding, they diminish the possibilities for non-raiders to experience the game in alternate ways. Yes, players can opt out of raiding, but they do so only by giving up any chance of becoming “successful” as defined by Blizz. Granted, some players could not care less about some external definition of “success”, but many others do not wish to play a game that brands them failures if they do not adhere to the prescribed path.

At any rate, I have probably nattered on too long for a Monday. If you are interested, take a look at Koster’s web page and check out some of his writings, it really is good food for thought.


About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

2 Responses to Koster’s Laws

  1. Casually Odd says:

    Thanks for the link, that was interesting.

    One thing I saw that I was somewhat taken aback by was occasional the animus towards the player. I’m not saying players are perfect but calling them the enemy seems a bit far.

    “Never put anything on the client. The client is in the hands of the enemy. Never ever ever forget this.”

    I appreciate it is a bit tongue-in-cheek but I do feel that sometimes it creates of mindset about the players that drives the “fifthly causal” type-attitude.

    And for people like me, this wholly untrue: “It is always more rewarding to kill other players than to kill whatever the game sets up as a target.”

    But to be fair, the caveat at the top takes care of that 🙂

    Good find!

    • Fiannor says:

      Yep, I had the same impressions on those two items. I definitely do not find it more rewarding to kill other players, and my eyes got a bit wider at the “enemy” remark. Still, to be fair, the list is a compendium from him and a bunch of other game designers. I suppose it is an easy mode to get into, and if I am honest, I have to say I sometimes think of Blizz devs as the enemy!

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