The Paradox of Difficulty (aka Social Fun)

I recently got an email from one of my favorite people in the whole world. Oddly enough, he was writing to tell me how much he missed playing the old Everquest (EQ). “Really? Everquest?” I replied. But he was quite insistent. For days, we went back and forth. He spoke quite eloquently about the many great times he had, of getting lost, falling off of boats, and crazily scary corpse runs. He recalled tons of things I had forgotten, including some really harsh memories. But, he seemed to miss all of it, whether it was a triumph or a spectacular failure.

Now, you have to understand. Ben is a mid-western, quiet, stoic kind of guy. He’s more likely to give a weighty nod that to actually say anything. For years, my wife was convinced that ‘cool’ was the extent of his vocabulary, until she realized that it was the digital equivalent of a cowboy tipping his hat (ala Clint Eastwood). So, this was an uncharacteristically long set of emails. It was clear that he was frustrated. We’ve been friends for over a decade and he wanted to talk about what he felt was missing from modern MMO’s. And the answer was pretty simple. He missed the deep and meaningful social experiences that he had while playing EQ.

EQ?  Really?

But, seriously, Everquest?! Really? I mean, we’ve both played dozens of MMO’s. Everquest was neither the first nor the last and I definitely wouldn’t say it was the best. Plus, EQ had so many design flaws, so many things they could have done better to make the game more engaging with better Flow and more appealing to a lot more people. Heck, for years, I considered it one of those secret ‘guilty’ pleasures that I played in spite of all of it’s design flaws. So, why EQ?

Well, that’s a really interesting question.  Sometimes, everything you think you know in your head just doesn’t fit into how you feel about something in your heart. You can’t quite explain it. And, I have to concede that there really was something about EQ, somehow. I mean, from a design perspective, EQ was hardly full of ‘win’. The goals were murky at best, the feedback was so-so, and the difficulty was pretty much straight off the charts. Brutal is more like it. Brutally difficult starting at level 5 or so. Unlike modern MMO’s, every single monster was really tough. And, dying? OMG, dying in the Everquest could not only lose you levels, but you could literally lose everything your character owned. Six months of character development could be lost forever in the deepest parts of the Plane of Fear from a single missed heal. So you darn well better stay up until 3 AM on a work night, if there was even a chance a rival guild could help you get your corpse back.

And, don’t even talk about solo’ing.  EQ was a group game. From beginning to end, EQ was meant to be played with others. In fact, almost nothing in that game could be done without a solid group of friends. And that … right there … is the answer to Ben’s riddle. This game was so difficult that it required a strong reliance on others. Others. Strangers. People that you don’t know, that soon become people you hunt with, that slowly turn into people you look forward to logging on, that eventually become your friends, until they are the very reason you play the game at all. This wasn’t an artificial, casual interaction with random ‘others’. No. It was a deep, meaningful reliance on skilled players that you really trusted. And this, is the key to what Ben was missing. A wonderful thing that Nicolle Lazarro, founder of XEO Design, calls Social Fun.

Social Fun

Social fun is exactly what it sounds like: having fun with others. It’s one of the strongest  forms of motivation we can experience and its been one of the major evolutions in design over the past decade. Facebook, Twitter, American Idol, the Wii, and Youtube are all successful because they foster wonderful social experiences.

You see, over the past 50 years, our social experiences have been on the decline. Even Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, talks about this. People are more isolated than ever. We do less team sports, church activities, and family get togethers. We move away from those we grew up with and hardly know our own neighbors. You could say we are starving for interaction with others and we’ll grasp at almost anything that is even remotely social. Humans are hardwired that way because we “are generally much happier and more motivated when with friends, regardless of what [we] are doing.” (Csikszentmihalyi, p 81)

Back to Games

So the point is that our audiences are craving social experiences. But, all too often, what we give them is meaningless social fly-bys. Consider the recently released Rift MMO. Rift embeds this wonderful idea called a ‘public group’ where just by being near an important event, you are automatically offered an opportunity to join up with others. Just like that, with one click, you belong to a ‘group’. You’re in! Bam!

At first, it’s incredibly exciting. You feel this instant rush of belonging to a marauding hunting party as you travel the land, protecting the innocent. It’s thrilling! Look at all these people that could be your friends! But, after a few times, you realize that this experience is much more like shopping at the mall, then hanging out with friends. You see other people around you, but everyone’s sort of doing their own thing, shopping for their own stuff. Waiting for the check-out clerk. You rarely talk and almost never learn their names. You start to feel like your participation doesn’t really matter that much. It kind of feels like non-social peer-play. After a few weeks, it all starts to feel pretty meaningless, which is the exact opposite of what had happened in EQ.


Ben’s thoughts and questions really got me to thinking. I mean, I’ve been pretty harsh on EQ because of all of it’s design flaws. But, there is something deep and fundamental about the social experiences that it forced upon players. You either made friends and had an absolutely compelling experience or you didn’t and you quit. There’s really no other way to play EQ. And, I think there is something very important to learn from that. EQ was successful for a long time, but it didn’t grow. It never evolved. Soon, other games came along that did learn from EQ. Games like WoW. These new games were able to create meaningful social experiences while still embodying the design principles of Flow. And games like WoW were 20x more successful than EQ.

The point is that social fun should be one of our highest goals. And, I’m not talking just idealistically here. I mean for the good old-fashioned, bottom-line. Customer retention, player satisfaction, product loyalty, and in-game purchases are all higher when social fun is involved. Think I’m crazy? Then go watch ‘The Social Network‘ or look to how the underpowered Wii blew away its competition. Look. You can make any game you want, but the facts are, if you can design a compelling social experience too, then you’re going to blow away your competition, like Blizzard did with Sony Online Entertainment. And, if you’re still not quite sure how to design social experiences into your game, then I suggest you check out these 40 suggestions from Raph Koster.

Socialize for the win.

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