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  What can we learn from Neopets?  (Read 5753 times)
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Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Posted 2003-08-26 22:36:31 »

Being the father of a 10 year old girl (yes I'm that old!) I have been besieged for the past year and a half with the details of my daughter's exploits in the shared virtual world known as Neopia.

For those of you unfamiliar with Neopets (http://www.neopets.com) it's currently the third most popular gaming site in terms of player minutes per month ranked just behind EA Online and MSN Gaming Zone, and currently has 26 million registered users with 50,000 new users registering daily.

EDIT: The site now claims over 59 million users, though how accurate this is I don't know. The 26 million number cited above was from an article written about the site a few months ago.

Neopets shares a lot in common with many MMOGs. The world is divided into numerous territories each with its own rewards and dangers, there's a rich economy complete with currency (neopoints), commerce (user shops), gambling and even a stock exchange (the Neodaq)  Players can go on quests, play a variety of games and other activities for money and challenge each other in the battledome.

At this point, Neopets diverges from what we've come to expect from MMOGs and this is where things get interesting. First, ~60% of the 26 million registered users are girls between the ages of 9 and 19. Second, though the game progresses in real-time, the graphics consist almost entirely of static web pages. (with the exception of some 2D flash games).

The reason I bring this up is not to promote Neopets, but to raise the following question: Given the enormous popularity of the game, as well as the extent of its appeal to the hard-to-reach "girl gamer" market, what can we learn, if anything, from this game (and the half a dozen knock-offs that have appeared since Neopets inception) in our attempts at designing MMOGs that have the same kind of enormous popularity and broad appeal?

(I encourage you to avoid the "not my kind of game" argument, which I agree with and assume will be the case for many people here, and focus on the fact that something must account for its enormous popularity, and that there may be something we can learn from this)

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Reply #1 - Posted 2003-08-27 01:10:50 »

I should also point out that Neopets is free, which may account in part for its popularity. That said, the company claims it's making money on the site through secondary revenue. (advertising, merchandising and, I believe, selling demographics information gathered through online surveys, though I don't have proof of this)

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline kevglass

JGO Kernel


Medals: 118
Projects: 23
Exp: 18 years


Coder, Trainee Pixel Artist, Game Reviewer


« Reply #2 - Posted 2003-08-27 06:09:52 »

Lessons learnt:

Make it Cute, Make it Free ?

Smiley

Kev

Games published by our own members! Check 'em out!
Legends of Yore - The Casual Retro Roguelike
Offline troggan

Junior Member




no guts no glory


« Reply #3 - Posted 2003-08-27 10:55:07 »

Hei...I'm on the right way with my Sheeps Smiley

(http://www.wannawork.de) - Will work for food
(http://tvbrowser.org) - Java EPG
Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Reply #4 - Posted 2003-08-27 13:55:40 »

Quote
Lessons learnt:
Make it Cute, Make it Free ?

Hmm... Could be. Smiley

I wonder if any of the continued appeal has to do with the simplicity of the interface. One thing that impressed me was how easy it was to get to where you wanted, whether that was a particular game, or someone's shop or whatever. Because it's basically click on the map & go, (or use the search tool) there's no time spent running around from place to place. A friend recently commented on how boring some of the missions in SWG were, because of all the time spent travelling over featureless terrain. It's what got me thinking that maybe in the quest for immersive realism, we risk sacrificing game play.

I wonder if an MMOG set in a more sophisticated environment, like a fantasy or science fiction world, or perhaps a more mass appeal environment like 19 Century NYC or Chicago in the roaring 20's but with the Neopets format, would be similarly successful among an older audience. Perhaps not on the same scale, but with an equally broad demographic.

I also find it interesting that with several million users, they don't seem to be having any of the scaling or reliability problems SWG is having with a few hundred thousand, in spite of the fact that there are a number of activities in which any number of players may be competing with each other at the same time.

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Reply #5 - Posted 2003-08-27 14:00:41 »

To be clear, it's not that I don't think there's a place for immersive realism, I just wonder if, for a number of MMOGs, the goal of making it "as real as possible" isn't actually working against the goal of making the it compelling and fun.

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline ChrisM

JGO Coder


Medals: 1
Projects: 1


END OF LINE.


« Reply #6 - Posted 2003-08-27 15:02:06 »

The real question is that, if Neopets started charging a $10 fee, would you pay it?  Your daughter wouldn't necessarily care if it's free or not, just so long as she is able to play.

THEREFORE, you would be forced to pay, because your daughter wants you to Smiley

-SG

Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Reply #7 - Posted 2003-08-27 15:42:24 »

No doubt subscribership would be lower, but with over $20 million in secondary revenues last year, I don't think the folks at Neopets are worrying about charging subscription fees any time soon, so maybe there's something to be learned from this as well Wink

As I mentioned in my first post, Neopets ranks third in player time per month next to Pogo and MSN Gaming Zone (neither of which could be described as an MMORPG) and AHEAD of Yahoo! Games and any of the other free games sites. My daughter and her friends have played games on other sites but it's precisely the RPG aspect of Neopets that keeps them interested in a way these other sites haven't.

EDIT: If they did charge a $10 fee and this scared off 95% of the users that would leave them with 3 million subscribers which would still be decent by MMOG standards. My guess is that given the sheer amount of time players spend on it, that the retention would probably be higher than 5%.

Neopets it's a still way too cutesy for me, but the more I look at it the more I appreciate the game mechanics and game play. There's definitely something to it that goes beyond just cute and free.

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline nickdotjava

Junior Member




I have fallen to the dark side.  I'm using DX9


« Reply #8 - Posted 2003-09-01 03:26:46 »

Neopets is cute.  I used to play it.  A female friend got me into it.  But the downside to me (a 19, almost 20 year old male, so the typical gamer) is that there wasn't much replay.  And with these millions of gamers all viewing the exact same web page, things are impossible to gain.  Like take their "money tree" for example.  You click on a money bag, and if it's still there, you get it.  But there are millions of people trying to get it.  I also didn't find the games that interesting.  Not much replay.

However, my little sister continues to play it.  So I guess Kevglass has figured it out.  Make it cute, make it free.  You'll at least attract the young females.

-Nick

"Oh ya, that's trivial.  I should have it done in an hour."
Offline gregorypierce

Senior Member




I come upon thee like the blue screen of death....


« Reply #9 - Posted 2003-09-02 21:47:05 »

All about the business model. Since they have found a way to make money without charging their consumer base, I would suspect they would stick to that - makes sense to me. Why mess up a good thing to try and make speculative revenue and potentially harm the $20 mill that you're already bringing in.

http://www.gregorypierce.com

She builds, she builds oh man
When she links, she links I go crazy
Cause she looks like good code but she's really a hack
I think I'll run upstairs and grab a snack!
Games published by our own members! Check 'em out!
Legends of Yore - The Casual Retro Roguelike
Offline William

Junior Member




No Exit


« Reply #10 - Posted 2003-09-03 09:12:00 »

The pet concept and the graphics immediately connote My Little Pony and Pokemon to me, so maybe you don't need to make it free as long as you just make it sufficiently cute Smiley (wow, really deep analysis going on here)

About interface design in MMORPGs. While I appreciate usable interfaces, I think it is important to retain the "enthusiast feel" in the interface and that making the form too clean can make the game seem shallow and "marketing driven".

Perceived shallowness was the reason why I did not subscribe past the free month for Earth and Beyond and I suspect that the interface and all the cutesy start-up tutorials contributed greatly to that experience. I suspect this is a trap that SWG also risks falling into, but the staff there seems to realize this and try to remedy it with plenty of communications from developers and the lead designer in the forums (I guess the buginess also contributes to the enthusiast impression).

This may be a hardcore gamer issue, but I wonder how many returning users Neopets really has. After all, users don't have a reason to unregister from a free site and Neopets certainly has no reason to claim that they have fewer users than the ones they got registered, even if a large part of those users are inactive.
Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Reply #11 - Posted 2003-09-03 12:23:07 »

Quote
This may be a hardcore gamer issue, but I wonder how many returning users Neopets really has. After all, users don't have a reason to unregister from a free site and Neopets certainly has no reason to claim that they have fewer users than the ones they got registered, even if a large part of those users are inactive.

I asked myself this question as well. I assume that a pretty large percentage of the registered accounts are inactive (if it's free, there's no incentive to cancel) but even so, the site is still number three behind Pogo and MSN Gaming Zone for average minutes of play time per user per month (ahead of Yahoo Games and other game sites) To answer the next obvious question, the site is getting over 3 million unique visitors a month, so some significant percentage of these must be playing a lot.

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Reply #12 - Posted 2003-09-03 12:34:49 »

Quote
About interface design in MMORPGs. While I appreciate usable interfaces, I think it is important to retain the "enthusiast feel" in the interface and that making the form too clean can make the game seem shallow and "marketing driven".

Perceived shallowness was the reason why I did not subscribe past the free month for Earth and Beyond and I suspect that the interface and all the cutesy start-up tutorials contributed greatly to that experience. I suspect this is a trap that SWG also risks falling into, but the staff there seems to realize this and try to remedy it with plenty of communications from developers and the lead designer in the forums (I guess the buginess also contributes to the enthusiast impression).

I'm curious about this. I'm not sure I'm reading you correctly but it sounds like you're suggesting that a raw, more "unpolished" feel to a game (or at least the interface) is more likely to attract the hardcore gamer, and that there may be an inherent contradiction between appealling to both the hardcore gamer and the mass market audience. (kinda like making a big budget Hollywood movie, that also appeals to the art house crowd) I'm not sure I entirely agree with this, but I'm curious what other people think. Any thoughts, anyone?

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline William

Junior Member




No Exit


« Reply #13 - Posted 2003-09-03 13:32:09 »

Well, I was just retelling my experiences, but it is possible that is the case. The GUI communicates and you may want to communicate differently with your hardcore users than your first time users.

I guess the effect of polished GUIs on hardcore gamers may be similar to the effect of Apple iMacs on hardcore techies ("we know where they spent their money, and it is not on function").

Anyway, I think having a great GUI is fine if you have some even more memorable aspect in your game.  EverQuest stands out to me because of its amazing world. Shadowbane stands out to me because of its raw PvP (or at least it would have if it had been released before DAoC). However, Earth and Beyond only stands out to me because of its polished interface, and that is nothing that will make me play the game again.

Btw, SWG also has a very polished GUI, but it is shock full of real functionality.
Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Reply #14 - Posted 2003-09-03 13:50:23 »

Quote
Anyway, I think having a great GUI is fine if you have some even more memorable aspect in your game.  EverQuest stands out to me because of its amazing world. Shadowbane stands out to me because of its raw PvP (or at least it would have if it had been released before DAoC). However, Earth and Beyond only stands out to me because of its polished interface, and that is nothing that will make me play the game again.

Well, this I definitely agree with. No matter how polished the interface, it still has to be an interface to something. I don't think good interface design can really do anything to help otherwise bad content, but I also believe that bad interface design can destroy otherwise good content. This is what sparked my interest in starting this topic in the first place, which taken a little more abstractly poses the question, "Are there other cases, similar to Neopets, where a fully immersive, hyperrealistic 3D interface actually works against the player experience in an MMORPG? and if so, what are the alternatives?"

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline Breakfast

Senior Member




for great justice!


« Reply #15 - Posted 2003-09-03 15:07:11 »

I remember my housemates being strangely compelled by a game on digital TV based on growing and trading virtual fish. Obviously, the medium constrained it greatly in terms of screen resolution and it was basically a bunch of static screens, but the breeding and trading options made for a really compelling game.

It seems to me that for small games like this it is mostly a question of coming up with a set of rules that are fun and allow for a lot of open-ended play. In the real world Cheapass games do a briliant line in this.
Offline bmyers

Junior Member





« Reply #16 - Posted 2003-09-03 20:20:43 »

I've been reading Richard Bartle's book, "Designing Virtual Worlds" and it's got me thinking... One of the points he makes is that immersion comes into two flavors -- perceptual and psychological.

Perceptual is what most game designers aim at (with photo-realism, audio-realism, etc), which is *wrong*, or at least not the right end-goal. (IM!HO)

Psychological immersion is what we really ought to be aiming at, which means immersion inside the player's head, which is harder to reach.

Sometimes attempting perceptual immersion can interfere with psychological immersion, because people are really good at spotting "fake" stuff or things that break the immersive sense.  Bartle talks about when it's okay to break the immersion (e.g. in favor of inter-player communication) and when it's not.

But for MMOs this is all a red herring, because you want to get past immersion and get into identity, which Bartle argues is what really keeps players "hooked".

Am I convinced by Bartle's argument?  Partly.  In my case, the game we are currently making doesn't fall 100% neatly into his definition of a "virtual world" so I am trying to take that into account, but it's really interesting reading if you want to wade through some of the philosophy of it all.

Offline Breakfast

Senior Member




for great justice!


« Reply #17 - Posted 2003-09-03 20:34:21 »

I'm sure I've said this before, but one of the things that I  am particularly intrigued by is virtual worlds with a completeness to them. As a (gasp!) non-mmporg player who wanders out on a lan or for online games from time to time but mostly plays single player stuff, I have found the thing that really marks some games out is that the world they create is complete and internally coherent. That doesn't mean they are photorealistic in any way - Zelda 64 is a classic example of it, it creates a small but complete and compelling world. You never feel the game is getting between you and what you want to achieve. That isn't to say that you weren't stopped from donig what you wanted to, but it was your failing - you had to find the Boots of Float or learn the Song of Magic Frogs or whatever.  

In a way I think that what I'm saying is that once your game has created it's world and the user understands that world it needs to get out of the way and let the user achieve their goals.

I think I may have wandered off from the topic and stated the obvious, but that seemed interesting when I was writing it.
Offline bmyers

Junior Member





« Reply #18 - Posted 2003-09-03 21:07:37 »

That would be an example of a pyschologically immersive world.

The key phrase you used was:
Quote
You never feel the game is getting between you and what you want to achieve.


That's what all games should strive for....

Offline Athomas Goldberg

Junior Member




Grrrrrr...


« Reply #19 - Posted 2003-09-03 21:11:06 »

Quote
I've been reading Richard Bartle's book, "Designing Virtual Worlds" and it's got me thinking... One of the points he makes is that immersion comes into two flavors -- perceptual and psychological.

Perceptual is what most game designers aim at (with photo-realism, audio-realism, etc), which is *wrong*, or at least not the right end-goal. (IM!HO)

Psychological immersion is what we really ought to be aiming at, which means immersion inside the player's head, which is harder to reach.

Exactly! And for this, frequently a more abstract representation, in which more of the action takes place in the player's head than on the screen, will be much more successful. The question I have is this: Is it possible to formulate a set of strategies (not techniques) for achieving psychological immersion that can be applied across a variety of MMOGs regardless of level of perceptual immersion embodied in the graphics, sound, etc?

Quote
Sometimes attempting perceptual immersion can interfere with psychological immersion, because people are really good at spotting "fake" stuff or things that break the immersive sense.  Bartle talks about when it's okay to break the immersion (e.g. in favor of inter-player communication) and when it's not.

This is why (for me) Bugs Bunny is much more lifelike and believable than the characters in the Final Fantasy movie. The less perceptually real something is in design, the more we "fill-in-the-blanks" and the less disturbing divergances from reality appear to us.

I've thought about picking up Bartle's book for some time now. I think you may have convinced me.

Athomas Goldberg
Project Lead / Wildcard
Game Technologies Group
Sun Microsystems, Inc.
Offline blahblahblahh

JGO Coder


Medals: 1


http://t-machine.org


« Reply #20 - Posted 2003-09-07 23:03:47 »

If you want to discuss MMOG and community-game design, I'd strongly suggest you go somewhere like MUD-DEV

http://www.kanga.nu (and look for the MUD-DEV link at the top of the page)

...Bartle is active on the list, as are most of the influential (and experienced) people in the MMOG and commercial MUD industries. But first you should probably read the last 4-5 years of the mailing list, all online and web-browserable by thread/author/etc. Most of the things you can think of have been discussed, analysed, and conclusions (where possible) made. And with a good variety of viewpoints, too.

If you just want a quick look at state-of-the-art in MMOG design and development, take a look at the Agora Twiki:

http://agora.cubik.org/wiki/view/Main/GameDesign

...which accumulates quite a lot of the distilled knowledge of MUD-DEV (although this twiki is young, and probably only covers 0.01% of the material in the MUD-DEV archives). I've put that link in the Wiki here (there didn't seem to be anywhere else for it to go other than the front page...hope that's OK?).

malloc will be first against the wall when the revolution comes...
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