Monday, October 29, 2012

Ennui - Repetition and Dissatisfaction

Did you ever play the sequel of a game you absolutely loved, found that it had all of the same mechanics, was perhaps even of superior quality, yet still put it down after a few days, never to play it again? That's Ennui.

Ennui is a common affliction across humanity. It affects relationships, careers and even politics. The same repetitive stimulus becomes less effective each time it occurs. 

This dissatisfaction is a powerful force - one that drives us to break up, change jobs or vote for the opposite team. In fact, ennui is such an important factor that humanity would quickly become stagnant without it. 

Combating the Curse

World of Warcraft has been around for 8 years now. In a 25 year old industry, that is ancient, unprecedented and intimidating. From a distance, it's an untouchable success, yet every expansion Blizzard deals with a sea of naysayers and frustrated customers disappointed by the new expansion.  

If you step back and look at each expansion sequentially, there is little doubt that each one has been a dramatic improvement upon the previous one. 

Classic WoW was a smash success which was a dramatic step up from Everquest, the previous industry leader. 

Burning Crusade saw a dramatic expansion of the talents system and an explosion of scripted boss encounters. Wrath of the Lich King saw the rise of story-driven questing, closed by the death of Arthas, a popular hero/villain of Warcraft 3.  Cataclysm literally rebuilt the entire game from scratch.  

Mists of Pandaria introduced a new continent, dramatically increased the artistic level of the game and brought a sweeping revision of the talent system that effected every character in the game. 

Despite this, you hear about players logging in, playing for a while, getting bored and leaving. What's going on?

"The Game Hasn't Changed"

If you were expecting to hear either pro-blizzard or anti-blizzard tirade here, guess again.  The problem isn't with the game - it's with you. Hold on now, don't throw that keyboard at me, hear me out.  The longer you've been playing this game, the more you've lived through numerous reputation grinds and thousands of random battlegrounds. 

These systems worked. You've spent hundreds of days working hard to achieve whatever goals you had. Millions of other players are still playing the game and enjoying them too. 

There's something bigger that's changed here: You. 

I struggled with this a lot during the Lich King era. As my guild fought through Ulduar and was about to enter the Coliseum, I found myself disinterested with the game, despite knowing personally the extremely epic experience awaiting in Icecrown Citadel. 

After spending some time self-reflecting, I realized I wasn't interested in playing the game any more. In 6 years, I had gone from being a carefree college student, slipping Arathi Basin matches in between classes, into a self-sustaining adult working 40-60 hour weeks and riding motorcycles on the weekends.  

I knew firsthand that each WoW expansion was hands-down better than the last. My brain didn't care and I quit raiding with my guild.

The Trouble with MMOs

"MMORPGs are dead" cries the random voice on the forums. While he's not right, as proven by the continued success of WoW and other games in Korean and China, he's not wrong either.  The point he's correct on is that MMOs are dead to him.  

Anyone who's played an MMORPG for long usually hits a point where they need to start interacting with other players. For many, this becomes an amazing period, filled with new relationships, new socialization and mutually shared experiences.

These social bonds harden and often reach far outside the game. The now famous "Guild Guilt" -the tendency to keep playing to stay in touch or preserve the relationship with their guild - is famously credited with the long-term success of MMOs.

Unfortunately, this same force is also a huge factor in their decline. Over time, as people become afflicted with ennui, their negativity carries over into the social circles they inhabit. At school during lunch or over the water cooler at work, WoW is no longer the exciting topic it once was.

This leads to a snowball effect, where just as quickly as a game rose to popularity, it declines.  For the MMO genre, this is insanely costly. While most of the hardware required to run Skyrim was purchased by me, the hardware required to connect thousands of players is expensive, requires constant maintenance and quickly becomes obsolete as players consume the content, then leave.

Why Does WoW Survive?

Blizzard constantly pushes themselves to be better. Each new generation of designers builds on the shoulders of the previous generation. Quite simply, Blizzard demands that each employee keep growing and pushing the company forward.  
"Damn... that's one huge bird."
I felt this firsthand while working on my second game at Blizzard, when a guy I had worked with daily left the company.  A few days earlier I had asked him what his dream was. 

He turned to me and said, "quite frankly, I've always wanted to be a gym teacher, but I don't know how to walk away from this." 

Afterwards, I talked to other people about him and his work.  "You know, before WoW shipped, he was the best we had, but where others kept pushing forward, he was stuck."

Those dreams are important - when your actions are aligned with your dreams or beliefs, you push not only yourself, but also your coworkers along with you.  This is how successful companies work - by hiring and inspiring people better than themselves. 

Slowing the growth of Ennui

Ennui is inevitable. It can only be slowed, never stopped. 

The first tool is to increase the stimulation provided to the players. You can see this in the increased quality of art, boss fights, questing and game systems.  By increasing the quality of the game, the novelty and learning reactivates the brain and helps keep the player engaged. 

The next tool is to have a nigh-unreachable ceiling on the game, coupled with a steady sense of personal growth and progress. This sense of growth and mastery helps reinforce the player's investment in the game world. 

Come back, soon!
Finally, you can accept that players need a break and build systems that allow players to leave for a while and come back unpenalized.

The introduction of scroll of resurrection, cross-patch questlines and super-rich quest content at the beginning of each expansion are great examples of giving players the ability to play your game as periodic content.

This one is fragile - as the tendency for expansions to reset the player's progression to allow new players to catch up is directly in conflict with the sense of rewarding players who have already obtained that power.  You can see this issue delicately handled with the release of new item levels. 

Push yourselves. Master the unmasterable. Be comfortable letting go.

These are the virtues that Blizzard encouraged and it shows.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Certainly it could be me. But, after cancelling my sub to WoW at the end of last year, I went very happily to EQ2. The thing I found the most was how much I enjoyed the gameplay -- it felt like "Advanced Classic WoW."

      My evaluation is that I really enjoyed Classic WoW, and they changed the game enough that it became something else. Now I have something that is much closer to what I liked, and have switched happily.

      Ennui? I don't think this matches my experience. Rather, I think Blizzard decided to pursue a new demographic, and succeeded.

      (edited for spelling problems)

  2. Mr. Brazie,

    This is an interesting and informative post that helped broaden my understanding of the considerations that go into extending the longevity of MMOs. The three tools you identified for combatting ennui were particularly fascinating to me. It would build on those to add two more: dynamic recombination and persistent game elements. For the first I think it is important to offer players the challenge of continually changing gameplay. I think it is most clearly illustrated in PvP centered games. As players develop a metagame it invariably shifts and they have to adapt to the new meta. This idea relates to the second tool you identified, but if that could be thought of as vertical growth then this would be horizontal growth. The focus is not on long term character advancement, but long term player advancement. The reward falls on the player’s psychological fulfillment at the experience of mastery. As WoW is more centered on PvE this may be more difficult to implement. I’m curious to know if you think WoW has any potential for implementing such a system and how you think it would look. However, I think any system that built around this model would have to go hand in hand with more broad player customization. Players should be incentivised to rebuild their character frequently, not restricted from it by gold costs, etc. This carries with it the added bonus of infusing variety into the players experience at all levels (though this may actually lead to dissatisfaction in some situations).

    As for the persistent game elements I think a modified form of the public quests used in games like Warhammer: Age of Reckoning and Guild Wars 2 would create a feeling of investment in the game. I say “modified” because I think the current way they’re implemented doesn’t confer any investment in the world simply because the outcomes reset so frequently. A better system, I think, would be to have monthly or bi-monthly events that result in lasting impacts on the server world. Varying degrees of success in an event can markedly impact the appearance of the landscape, for instance. This would give players the feeling of having witnessed something historic and, more importantly, been a part of it. This also increases variety in content for the players and works into the third tool you identified because it allows players to only come and play the events, then leave without penalty (nor would it make long term players feel disenfranchised because their power is not threatened by these event-only players). Do you think a system like this could work in WoW in some form? Perhaps more importantly, would this even be economically feasible? I don’t know that much about the costs associated with producing content in a large game like WoW, so insight into that facet could be quite enlightening.

    1. I'm glad to hear you've enjoyed these musings. I would argue that WoW already supports immense levels of mastery - the difficult ceilings of heroic raiding provide a barrier most players can only aspire to cross, coupled with the basic accessibility of raid finder and group finder.

      These features let the player who wants to refine his personal prowess explore those areas with the chance to eventually become the very best.

  3. I've walked away from WoW twice now, but after 6-8 months I always come back. When I return, it feels new again. I love that the game changes while I'm gone...I'm not penalized for my absence, and I know my character progression will wait.

    When I've left it's not for another game...usually it's a work project (which also equals fun for me) that I want to invest the time into, while reading or pursuing other hobbies for a while in my free time.

    WoW is THE game for me. A good portion of the reason why is the walkaway and return factor. Not only do I know they'll be there when I return, but I also know they'll have continued stepping up their game so I have awesomeness waiting for me.

    You have a great understanding of human nature, and I love the entry.


    1. Thank you, Dawn. I'm just lucky to have friends who've shown me the way over the years.

      Understanding human nature isn't easy, but it also isn't hard, when you're willing to be open to the truth.

      WoW's continuous growth shows the value of continuously challenging yourself to grow and learn. This value is what lets them keep presenting a new game each time you return.

      They don't rest on their laurels. :)

  4. I'm not sure how much I agree with this. When the game changes, I feel like I've permanently missed out on things that I can now never do. Familiarity breeds boredom, but there must be a way to combat that while still allowing people who never finished doing the content the first time to still play it and have the same experience. What if I want to do any level of content except the latest tier? I skipped a bunch of them. Now, in the interest of "keeping things fresh," they're gone. Maybe the portals to the dungeons are still there, but the experiences aren't.

    I mean, it doesn't have to literally be exactly the same. It just has to feel the same. Questing in Outland with the new talent system, new classes, archaeology, dungeon finder, new battlegrounds, and other features is very different from before, but it still feels like the game I loved is there -- because the game successfully tricked my brain into thinking those things were added alongside the old game instead of overwriting it. If I can ever get my dad to level high enough (after years of playing he's not even to level 40 yet), I feel like he'll be able to experience the game I loved.

    1. It's a difficult trick to balance nostalgia with a great experience. The simple truth is that what you remember has been filtered through the emotional lens of what you felt. (Something you yourself clearly understand)

      The problems come in when the "old experiences" provide a barrier to new players entering and enjoying the new experiences.

      This is a complex problem and one I hope to see Blizzard solve someday.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Brilliant post, Alex.

    I'm not surprised it is not often argued (and not something Blizzard can come right out and say officially as a company) because it is something subtle. Often the subject of the issue doesn't actually realize that Ennui is the root of the problem. Not just that, but your social circles explanation is also very good - people can end up disappointed with new features and unable to explain why, and I feel it stems from negative experiences being shared in social circles.

    I would link people to this post frequently (which expresses the concept far better than I could), but I don't think it would really help. People won't truly examine their inner thought processes unless they have a very good reason. While that doesn't make somebody stupid or a bad person, it does happen to hurt this issue because they will spread dislike for the game based on a reason that is not accurately representative of their feelings.

  7. I fully expected when I saw the title of this post included the words "ennui" and "repetition" to see a mention of the daily quest grinds introduced with Mists of Pandaria. What are your thoughts about how that has played out?