The MMO is the MessageBy Danny Nissenfeld
I’ve been “playing” a lot of progress bars lately. The widely disdained mobile social game genre (e.g. Facebook Games) has a strong place in the overall market. There’s a good reason traditionally structured multiplayer RPGs don’t thrive on mobile and it’s not just the lack of keyboard + mouse controls.
While it may be true many of us shrug off or put a lot of design thought against “how can I make my text based game with loads of typing work on a mobile control scheme” the two main reasons we throw in the air may not be the primary problem with the medium.
The main red herrings both involve the UX.
_ Problem One : How can I play a mud properly with this awful keyboard I keep fat fingering and that takes up half the screen real estate?_
This is a huge problem to be sure but it has design solutions some have already worked out. A less typing intensive experience with a more macro-button oriented UI solves it for the most part. It may not solve it for my or your vision of what a MUD is but it can provide somewhat of an equivalent experience.
_ Problem Two : How can I play a mud when the text is scrolling by so quickly I either have to make the font tiny or risk missing information._
Also a problem but this is a general problem others have solved many times over. A custom client (face it if you’re targeting mobile you’re already building one) that has more static screen elements and less scrolling text is something many are building for their desktop experience anyways. Graphical MMORPGs (and single player games even further back than the original might and magic) have long since established the value of segmenting the screen real estate between play experience and informational status alerting.
Really though, these are herrings and they’re blushing at our efforts. The real problem here makes me hearken back to Marshall McLuhan — if you’re opening a new browser tab to Google that name honestly shame on you, or perhaps shame on the educational system. Go find his book The Medium is the Message. It’s short, and honestly something anyone making any kind of media should have already read — it’s more of an experience than a read. It’s all in the title, of course.
The Medium IS the Message
The medium you choose to work within instills and envelopes everything you’re trying to say. Why aren’t we writing books? Why aren’t we writing movie scripts and producing televised media? It’s not because we can’t. You’ve probably written a wealth of environmental descriptions and backstories. It’s not like you couldn’t be writing a novel instead of making a game.
We make games because we want to create an interactive experience. We want to not only be world-builders, but involve other people in building that world. We want a collaborative experience. We want a living, breathing world where we don’t just define and describe the dirt and grass but we get to put our feet on the ground and walk amongst it.
The What and Why of Player Behavior
So why are we targeting mobile? We want to open the experience up to a wider variety of users, but what are those users expecting?
As with all consumers of media those users are aligned towards one of two similar goals: they are trying to accomplish something, and they are trying to fill their time.
The “skinner box” of MMORPG design fulfills the first goal. Ever increasing numbers that you bash against other larger numbers to get more numbers to face even larger numbers. Nearly every game on the Android and iOS store fulfills this desire.
The second goal, however, is what we’re after. “At home” on the desktop, the laptop, and the console, users have more time generally. The expectation of the medium is time investment. People log into 4+ hour raids in World of Warcraft, hour+ long matches in DotA2 and League of Legends, and dozen+ match sets of Overwatch and Call of Duty.
I would imagine very few people sit down after work and jump on their computer to play a single 5–20 minute competitive match of Overwatch. They sit down and expect to knock out 5 or 6 or 12 or 20; 2+ hours at the minimum. The same applies for MMORPGs. No one wants to log into WoW or Guild Wars 2 or any other MMORPG, including your MUD, to play for 5 minutes walking between towns or doing one quest just to log out for the rest of the night.
It’s an unfulfilling experience.
But that’s what a lot of mobile use consists of. The 5 minutes standing in line; the 20 minutes on the commuter train; the 30 minute lunch break. The games that thrive on mobile fill those expectations. I can dump all of my “action points” in a casual game within 5 minutes or spend 30 doing more time consuming things and then it’s used up; it’s done for another 2–4 hours.
Hopping into a MMORPG is an emotional investment for a lot of people and that’s not something that feels worthwhile on a 5 minute stint.
If you’re interested in a mobile UX for the sake of your own vision of sitting on your phone or tablet for hours at a time instead of sitting at your desk at your keyboard then sure, it makes a lot of sense. It’s not the general audience, though, and perhaps that is what we need to be examining.