a theory of fun?

I’ve been interested to read Raph Koster’s “A Theory of fun for Game Design” ever since I saw its title. He is “Designer Dragon” of Ultima Online fame and was Chief Creative Officer for SOE’s “Starwars Galaxies” when it was at it’s peak. Both games were groundbreaking just over a decade ago – peerless in some respects. They both also saw rise of key challenges still faced by game designers today.

Ultima Online practically invented PVP combat in an MMO, and saw the birth of many social (and anti-social) phenomena that rose from competitive, anonymous player vs. player interaction. Most of the actual software written to govern anti-social behavior in UO was written after the initial game was finished. (which was the groundwork for rules generally assumed to be functional in most future MMO titles). What started as “arm the players to police themselves” with a functional crime and honor system was far insufficient to protect the majority of casual gamers from a very small percentage of players who played only to cause casual gamers grief, interrupt their game play experience, or even cause loss of virtual assets (experience, loot, etc).

Only after peeling back the player vs. player features of the game till they were almost non-present would they casual gamer find peace, at the cost of numerous features previously fundamental to character design. This sweeping redesign changed the game completely, as well as the direction for future content releases.

The same type of problems dogged Starwars Galaxies, despite a promising start that encouraged better division between casual and competitive players. Numerous game redesigns rendered Starwars Galaxies unrecognizable next to its original released form.

EverQuest (also a SOE title worth it’s own series of blogs, which built on the success of UO in the same MMO space) had a very interesting faction-and-deed-based system of player vs. player combat and character advancement, but that system was more or less abandoned soon after release and today features mainly cooperative and solo play.

Fast forward ten years. “World of Warcraft”, easily the most successful MMO ever, polished “optional” Player vs. Player combat as both separate from cooperative player vs. environment advancement and occasionally tightly integrated. Even still, game dynamics that govern PVP in WoW are in constant flux and have been central to a few minor redesigns. Warcraft raised the “fun” bar very, very high. It will take a truly kingly title to ever rival Blizzard’s runaway success.

I am interested to see what Raph has to say about fun in a game, a decade later, and if it touches on any of the many social aspects of his previous game titles at all. Either way, the future successor to WoW stands on the back of folks like Raph – that is assuming that Designer Dragon doesn’t pen it himself. 🙂

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