Richard Bartle Responds To WAR Accusations

June 23, 2008

Because comments sections often go unnoticed, and because it’s unfair to say something about someone without letting them respond, I’m reposting two comments Richard Bartle left in the “I’m Feeling Snarky” post, along with my interlude comment. I think we have our disagreements here, but I respect that he took the time to fully voice his viewpoint.

Regular programming will return after these brief messages.

Richard’s First Comment:

Hmm, I think perhaps it didn’t come across very well what I was saying with that “I’ve already played Warhammer” remark: I wasn’t saying that WAR was just a knock-off of WoW, I was saying that the Warcraft universe was a knock-off of the Warhammer universe.

That said, when you take the wider perspective, WAR is indeed quite close to WoW, in the same way that AoC is; it’s an evolutionary change, but it’s not a revolutionary one. It has a very different atmosphere, yes, but what is there that’s new? What’s going to inspire other developers to say “what a great concept – I’m putting that in my game”? Is there anything that’s going to knock our socks off, or are all the changes incremental?

Remember, by the way, that I was speaking at a conference for independent game developers when that interview was recorded, and that my intended audience was therefore designers, not players. It’s rather ironic that my complaints about complacent design, about lack of experimentation, about giving players the same old fare they’ve been fed for years, is taken as somehow being anti-player and anti-MMO; what I want is a stream of newer, better MMOs, taking us to places we haven’t been dozens of times before, offering experiences that aren’t mere retreads with “more realistic graphics” or “grittier atmosphere”. I want virtual worlds to leap ahead to fulfil their potential, not cling to aging paradigms that hold them back.

If you seriously think that WoW or WAR or whatever is just a smidge off being the best we’re ever going to get, and that only minor changes to gameplay or atmosphere are all that’s needed for MMOs to reach the pinnacle of what they can be, OK, feel free to take pot shots at me on that basis. If, however, you sense that there’s a sterility to the designs of these worlds, that they have much more promise than what they deliver at the moment, and that there are games that have yet to be written which will blow today’s out of the water, why wouldn’t you want to say so if you were talking to people who have a chance of making them? I was talking to such people, so I said it. Believe it or not, I’m on your side here. Why would I want to design MMOs otherwise?

Another point: when I said I didn’t play MMOs for fun, I wasn’t saying that MMOs weren’t fun for players, I was saying that they weren’t fun for me. I envy players, in a way, because they get 18 months of fun from an MMO whereas I only get a few hours’ worth. When you’ve looked at play for long enough, you grok the concept. If you think you’re going to play the same kind of way 20 years from now as you do at present, think again: you can’t help but pick up on the patterns, and you can’t help but learn from them, and then you can’t help but lose the desire to run through those patterns time and time again every evening.

In terms of having fun playing MMOs, this is bad news. In terms of design, though, it has some benefits. If I did enjoy playing MMOs as a player, that would mean I couldn’t really be an unbiased designer. People play MMOs for many reasons, and their different playing styles are all in balance. The key to design isn’t to enjoy play, it’s to understand what the players will enjoy – yet the players enjoy different things. If I were looking through some particular lens of experience (gaining in power, PvP, figuring out how the virtual world works, whatever), that would compromise my ability to provide fun experiences for other types of player. My fun comes from designing and interpreting designs, not from playing; if it came from playing, I couldn’t design for other playing styles.

As for the “aging rock star” analogy, that would work if I’d ever been a rock star in the first place. I haven’t. People don’t invite me to speak at conferences because of what I did 30 years ago, they invite me because of what I’m saying now. As soon as they think what I’m saying is irrelevant, they’ll stop. That’s the same rationale behind the consultancy work I do, by the way (which, incidentally, means I’m not only “in touch” with today’s virtual worlds, but am also apprised of what the immediate future’s virtual worlds will be, too). In turn, this just adds to my frustration that this industry isn’t moving forward anywhere near as fast as it could and should.

I believe virtual worlds in general and MMOs in particular are a force for good. I just want to see better ones, before I drop dead of old age.

My Response:

Thanks Richard, for responding and presenting your viewpoint and context. I agree that we’re on the same side of wanting MMOs to improve and jump forward, but I think you’re being far too harsh on the current crop of games in an industry that is still in its baby phase. Evolutionary development is how most forms of entertainment grow — the movie industry had a few revolutionary jumps, but by and large, most of it was evolutionary in nature. And by nature, things will be slow to change, even slower in an industry that doesn’t pop new AAA-title MMOs out more than 1-3 times a year, and where they cost tens of millions of dollars to develop. When development costs were lower, people could take more risks; right now, companies want to take risks to differentiate their product, but they can only do it so far without getting into the area of “unacceptable” risk.

Why this irks us in the Warhammer community is that it appeared as if you were quickly dismissive of WAR as having the “same old patterns” without taking into account the features and style of gameplay that has either never been done before or has been done poorly in this field — the Tome of Knowledge, Realm vs. Realm conflict, Public Quests, Living Cities, Living Guilds, etc. These are features that are well worth your notice, and all we ask is that you reserve judgment until the point where you actually test them out and see if they represent a leap forward for the genre or more of the same.

Richard’s Second Comment

Syp>Why this irks us in the Warhammer community is that it appeared as if you were quickly dismissive of WAR as having the “same old patterns”

I can see why you might think that from the transcript, yes. Sadly, though, I don’t have enough time to go firefighting every blog that damns me for it, so I guess there’ll be a lot of people who continue to think that, too.

>without taking into account the features and style of gameplay that has either never been done before or has been done poorly in this field

Some of those changes look interesting, and I’m eager to find out more about them in due course. Some are variations on a theme (RvR has been done well in Korean MMOs, but only really DAoC has tried it successfully in the West up until now), but it’s the nature of the variations that say so much. That’s what I want to get from WAR – a sense of what the designers were trying to say. One thing I like about Mark Jacobs as a designer is that although he isn’t above making occasional pragmatic changes to improve gameplay, his designs are consistent and direct. I don’t always agree with what he wants to say in those designs, but that doesn’t stop me admiring how he says it. For example, his designs plan for launch, you can feel it in a way that isn’t usually there in MMOs, it’s very distinct. So part of what I want to pick up from WAR is how true the design team as a whole has been to this basic vision.

>These are features that are well worth your notice, and all we ask is that you reserve judgment until the point where you actually test them out and see if they represent a leap forward for the genre or more of the same.

They’re innovations, and for all I know they may be on a par with, say, instancing or VoIP in their impact on future MMOs. That doesn’t alter the fact that much of the rest of WAR is strictly paradigm. When you come from WoW or EQ, well yes, these things do look to be advances. However, they’re not radical departures in the way that, say, EVE is. Before anyone flames me, no, I’m not saying EVE is better than WAR, I’m just using it as an example. If WAR were as different from WoW as EVE is, but in some entirely new direction, now that would be more exciting!

The thing is, though, it was never going to be that different, and for a very good reason: it’s a continuance of Mark Jacobs’ oevre, which he’s been building on for 25 years. He has every right to take it in the direction he wants to go; he’s one of the few designers around who actually knows what he’s doing, and although I haven’t heard how much of WAR’s design is down to him, you can bet his philosophy is embodied in it somewhere. If you look at it in that context, WAR is the latest articulation of themes explored in DAoC, Imperator, Dragon’s Gate and (probably – I don’t know enough about its design, sadly) Aradath. So, rather ironically, WAR is one of the few MMOs where incremental changes are to be not only expected but celebrated.

That doesn’t mean I can’t rant about it, though..!




  1. It seems someone is hitting the “Big Time” to get such replys 😛

  2. Syp… the new Larry King? Nice!

  3. Nice response, well thought out. I don’t he sounds crazy at all 🙂

  4. Seriously Syp, you’re a regular internet celeb now, lots of theoretical dollars in that(You need to post if you gain a dramatic amount of readership for these posts).

    Also, I do actually agree with what he’s saying in full context. The problem is most players dedicate themselves to an MMO too hardcore, so they don’t branch out, especially to ones like EvE, as he mentioned. I would also like to add, as a miny-plug, that it IS available for a free trail on the website, and everyone who reads this should take the time to play it, it is a fantastic MMO(Be warned, it takes time to learn, much).

    We’re piling on too much nerdrage on this guy right now! Relax, he just wants to see some amazing innovation, the problem is he is looking in the wrong place, major companies(Especially now that Mythic is under the EA umbrella) do not want to try a style completely untested, and we’re at the point in the genre where major innovations occur rarely, especially as the formula gets deeper and deeper rooted into our MMO minds.

    The next great innovation will come from someone who hates all MMOs, not from people who love them.

  5. If I’m a celeb, can my wiener dog be my agent? She’s great at sniffing out opportunities.

  6. What is interesting is that Graphical MMO’s are sorta following the same path as MUDS. There were MUDS, dungeon crawls, Diku type gameplay etc. But off of them came MOO’s, MUSH’s and other completely different forms of text based games. Games like Second Life have broken off the basic GMUD , err MMO 🙂

    Lets hope the Graphical games stick around long enough to evolve farther. Text-based games kinda got cut short due to the ‘graphical revolution’.

  7. It would definitely be nice to see some new direction(s) in MMOs. The problem is finding one that doesn’t suck.

  8. I don’t know who this Richard guy is. He sounds popular. He is not as popular as Syp because I don’t know him.

  9. Much better. When one of the smartest guys in the industry says something we don’t like, it pays to take the time to understand what he’s saying.

    Now I need to go download EVE and see what a truly different MMO is like.

  10. […] since been defending himself at length all over the shop – key to his argument is the claim that “I wasn’t saying that […]

  11. “Much better. When one of the smartest guys in the industry says something we don’t like, it pays to take the time to understand what he’s saying.”

    Personally I think we give Mr. Bartle a bit too much credit. First he is not in the industry. He hasn’t ever made an MMO or had anything to do with them beyond creating the first MUD, that’s it. He’s purely a professor who hasn’t truly stepped outside the walls of academia, and good evidence of those who can do and those who can’t teach. Also evident that he doesn’t and hasn’t really operated in “the real world”(tm) when it comes to design and development otherwise he would already know the most likely answer to most of his questions and the foolishness of his statements in the original speech, and yes this comes from a software designer/programmer for a major financial institution. Have I created an MMO? Nope, but I’ve been in the software development field for long enough (more than 10 years) in the real world and for a living to know how things work and that there are certain commonalities existing in all software development, obviously he doesn’t or he wouldn’t have made half of the statements he did. Essentially IMO he’s an armchair quarterback. He’ll spend all day telling you the way it “should be” but not do anything to actually show it himself or demonstrate it himself and personally I have no use for the opinions of people like that.

  12. It’s a market too costly to try different things.

    It’s hard to predict how people will enjoy a certain concept. Developers might think of what seems to be a good idea on paper, but as cool as it sounds, it isn’t all that fun. The cost isn’t the only limitation, it’s the inability to tell whether you’ve struck gold with a new concept, or just crap.

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