The following is a quite excellent session from the Worlds in Motion GDC track given by Erik Bethke, CEO of GoPets. The takeaway message is about what virtual worlds can learn from MMOs in terms of providing intelligent goal structures.
Erik: How do we apply MMO goal structures to virtual worlds (and to almost everything)? Virtual worlders tend to hate games like WoW because they're not "erudite" enough but look at this screenshot (shows slide of a UI from a raid) and look at how complicated the user interface is. With 10 million people playing, is it hardcore or is it casual? I get really frustrated with arguments about UI: the raid screenshot proves that even this level of complexity can break through to a larger audience.
Shows slide of quest-giver goblin in WoW: "virtual worlds are missing the little guys with exclamation points above their heads." Looking at other examples of goal structures: look at how successful Puzzle Quest got by combining Bejeweled with RPG elements. Look at Chore Wars -- suddenly I get excited about walking the dog (laughter). Even something like the LinkedIn registration process -- I logged in one day and saw that my "progress bar" was only at 40% and how can I live with that?! I had to level up in LinkedIn. I found out I needed to get testimonials from my contacts to get higher -- it was a group quest! I got pissed that I couldn't solo LinkedIn (lots of laughter).
Perspectives on WoW and the total market in entertainment:
An example from GoPets: we were making our registration page and at first it involved a lot of multiple short steps where you'd input information and go to the next page. Then we got lots of advice from experts that said we should streamline it into one single page interface, so we did that. But it turned out that the feedback we got from users showed that the multi-page "levelling up" interface was actually more successful, more enjoyable.
A little bit about GoPets: the core is about "people, pets and games." The primary audience is women and girls and we've built in a ton of social features. You can play GoPets from within the Microsoft Messenger client -- when we built that tie-in with MSM we had to completely redesign the UI to make it palatable there. We found that when we did that, the number of users went up, but the conversion rate to paying customers didn't go up at all. The takeaway from that is that catering to user goals is probably far more important than UI tweaks.
We started to look at what the paying customers were actually doing. It turned out that the common thread was that a huge percentage of them were buying fruit trees, an in-game item we only sold at certain times of the year. You would get the tree and it had a 60 minute timer where it would produce a piece of fruit, but the problem was that the timer would reset if you logged out or if you left the area, and people wanted to go off and visit their friends while they waited. We kept getting isolated support requests on it and we just weren't paying attention to the big picture at the time.
One of the biggest lessons we've learned so far from that: you need to actually measure what your users are doing. You don't need to reinvent the wheel to increase your user base -- you can use the systems that already work and do more with them. We discovered that paying customers were also really into the basic crafting system that we had, so we worked to implement a better, more WoW-style crafting system and we saw our revenue triple. Now we're working on quests, because people love jobs. Goal structures are good. You need metrics: log everything, start reports right away, and create new experiments to figure out what users are doing.
Even for "casual" games the hardcore players are really important because they serve as heroes and models (and evangelists) for the more casual players. Looking at the Bartle diagram -- you want to try to accomodate as many different types of players as possible.
Goal interfaces are better than user interfaces. Goals should be measurable, comparable, accessible, meaningful, and scale in challenge. The UI should exist to support the goal interface. I think Blizzard starts to break down at level 70 where your goals become a lot less clear. A friend of mine hit 70 and was so excited to go get that flying mount. She ran around Shattrath City asking where to go to get the mount and the training, and no one would say anything other than "oh, it's obvious." It's *not* obvious! There's one NPC in the world in Shadowmoon Valley where you learn the training. I mentioned this before and I like to toot my own horn that I made a difference because Blizzard since built in a questline for it.
People like transactions also. Transactions are simple, pleasurable, rewarding, measurable.
Good online games are just pasttimes. Great online games have robust market economies with significant time, capital and intellectual creativity inside these spaces. All great online games are virtual worlds.
Anecdote about a guy who works at 7-11 and leads a big WoW guild: which is the more true expression of his humanity (his work or his play)? We can't all be hip San Francisco tech geeks. Maybe in these worlds we can offer better ways of being and expressing ourselves.
"The real world is a big MMO" -- we're all walking around levelling up our "classes" and playing mini-games of life, we're not just lying around on a beach somewhere doing nothing. Why do we relate so much to levelling, XP, gold, items? Because MMOs best replicate our real-world goal structures. We see the same competition for scarce resources. It's important to play the role of a human-like agent.
Takeaways: you want high revenues and low costs. You want to consider both the casual and hardcore. The applications for these structures are vast: education, exercise, public policy/transparency, e-sports, web 2.0, etc. YouTube could be an MMO -- imagine how much more exciting it would be.