2006/10/17

Gaming Theory

or why computer games like we know them die

Gaming theory is old, pretty old. Older than Pong. It discusses reasons why we play, and how we play. What use do games have for us anyways? If you go back in time games where educational to teach kids the tools for survival in the real world.


If you watch small cats play they actually train fighting for the life when they have grown up. The same gameplay existed for human kind when we still lived in caves or huts.
Of course games evolved since then, but the basic principle never changed: two or more humans play with or against each other under certain rules.
Since humankind existed those rules never changed ... until recently (counting the timespawn I call it recently): the computer games arrived.


Lets talk about pong: two players sat together, threw in a quarter (0.25 Dollars for you foreigners) and played against each other in front of one machine. That machine had one screen and two sticks to steer a paddle in order to hit the ball into the other players area. This game didn't violate the game theory rules.


It changed when games came along where you could play alone. Space Invaders for example let you shoot aliens out of the sky and you alone sat in front of the machine and had fun ... sort of.
They became big, very big. Some arcade machines tried to squeeze 4 or more people in front of one screen (remember Gauntlet?) with good success. Larger arcades later could network four to eight of those machines together and fit up to 16 people into one game.


The computer games however never could do this. It has only one keyboard and one mouse if you forget the "old" times where you could connect 2 joysticks on one PC. They became never popular however.


So the PC became big in single player games. For years. Forgotten was the fun how much more a human being can add to a game. Until ... the internet arrived.


The internet connected each PC of the world to one huge network. Multiplayer games appeared and became popular. First and foremost shooters (so called FPS, for First Person Shooter) like Counterstrike, Doom, Quake and the recent Battlefield series.
But shooters usually are the first genre to go into new territories as they are the most simple game mechanic you can put into a game (destroy everything).


Then MMOG's arrived with Ultima Online (see www.owo.com) being one of the first successful ones. But was it the first? Actually no. But thats a point for a later topic. Ultima online had over 250.000 people playing at its peak of success.
Everquest came and doubled the number, being the first (western) MMOG to beat the 500.000 mark of active players. Lineage from Korea beat it hands down with over 2 Million online players. Two million, thats 2.000.000. Thats nothing compared to the success of World of Warcraft (or WoW): over 7 (seven!) million people playing it.


But is it the largest MMOG of the world? No. Financially yes, maybe, but let me tell you: in China there is a MMOG with 25 million subscribers. Woah. Thats more than the population of small countries. But hey, it only runs on mobile phones. No joke, and it costs only $1 per month. Still it boasts the largest number of subscribers.


Will this be the end of success? The CEO of Blizzard thinks so, he said the market is saturated, no room for more MMOG's. Boy how wrong he will be. In 5 years time we will have the first MMOG to beat the 50 million mark. I bet. And it wont be the only one. We are still in the stone age to discover what to do right and wrong with MMOG's. There will be far more exciting possibilities in the future what we can do in those virtual worlds.


What does MMOG mean for the game theory? Well the old style of games is back. Play with and against each other. The ultimate form of games what we do since the stone age.
If you consider the length of time where games came from the single player games are just a blimp on the time line. And they will stay a blimb, nothing more. In fact from my point of view (and many others in the industry) single player games like we know them will be a niche market in five to ten years.


Why? Well first and foremost all electronic devices in 10 years time will be online. Your PC is already, otherwise you can't read this. Your mobile phone certainly is. Your TV will be soon, your next gen Video Game will be (Xbox 360, Wii, PS3). In 10 years all devices will be online as soon as you turn them on.


So when games appear they can by default connect to a huge community out there ... and connect you. It is the deep game "lust" we have when playing with humans.
IF you play World of Warcraft you will see that the players actually are the reason you continue playing, not necessarily the game itself. Thats why so many very old MMOG's are still alive. With old graphics, game content everyone knows and old game mechanics those games still survive, some with 200.000 players online. They survive because of the human beings playing in those worlds.


It is key to understand that we want to play with people. Its so much more than a computer with Artificial Intelligence can give. In fact its so much more than people who play online games for a longer time stop playing offline games. Very rarely they buy a high end hit game and play it ... for a couple of hours until they miss the human factor and go back online.
Good bye single player games. We grew up with you, we will miss you, but we will have so much more in the future.

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