Danny's Lab

Engineering the World

Online Games: How To Bring The Fun Back

Published on: Jun 20, 2010
Reading time: 4 minutes


The greatest advance the Internet has brought us is a new level of connectivity between people around the world. And one area that has enjoyed the greatest benefit is online games. Now, no matter where you are or what time it is, you can find someone to play a game with. Anything from Chess to World of Warcraft, and even Monopoly.

However, because of both the sheer number of people on the Internet and because of the anonymity it offers, one aspect that holds back new or casual players is gaming etiquette.

In this article, I'll describe some of the problems that an Internet-based game has and why this is compounded by traditional scoring methods. And I'll propose a method to alleviate these issues, making these games once again fun for all.

Case Study: Yahoo Chess

The Chess world has it's traditional rating system. By playing an opponent of a certain level, your own level is increased a certain amount. But when you lose, your level is decreased.

Having played a few rounds of Yahoo Chess, I noticed that while there were a good number of players that were friendly and had good sportsmanship, there were also a fair number that didn't. What's good sportsmanship in an online game, you might ask? What happened was Yahoo calculated the score once somebody won the game. So you'd have people attempt to game the scoring system one of several ways:

  • disconnect
  • stop moving, essentially boring the other player into quitting
  • cheat by using a computer

Yahoo has to deal with real world issues. Sometimes your Internet connection goes down or your computer freezes or whatever. So to be fair, most online games try not to punish players much if at all for disconnecting. Often they won't have a convenient way to do it in software. But that doesn't stop a determined player from literally pulling the plug off their network.

From what I've heard from other chess players, this is fairly common behavior in rated games on any online chess system.

Case Study: World Of Warcraft

World of Warcraft has perhaps the most diverse group of players due to its accessible storyline and playability and enormous user base. Therefore, there is a wide range in player's maturity levels. You'll have 13 year olds and 31 year olds. I've even heard of 50 year old university professor and a grandmother who enjoys playing the game. From my experience, the older folks didn't have as much emotionally invested in the games and so tended to be more friendly and generous with in-game bounties. It's more common in the young people, however, to get more deeply invested in the game and in acquiring in-game awards. They'll often have little patience when things don't go exactly their way. In many cases they'll simply drop out of a team-based encounter if they don't get what they want or when their team doesn't seem to be working out. Imagine a player walking off a baseball field because his pitcher's having a hard time!

Note, I'm not saying that all young people behave this way. What I'm identifying is the disparity in maturity levels. And how the in-game reward structures do nothing to cultivate better sportsmanship.

Most regular gamers solve this problem by building a Guild, which basically amounts to a small community within the game. Here you get to know your specific people and tend to play mostly with your Guildmates. However, for casual gamers, this presents a problem. Especially with the older folks who have more things that take up their time, they aren't able to play regularly or meet people online at specific times. So you end up playing with random people, known as a PUG (pick-up group).

Because of the anonymity offered by the sheer size of the population, when you play with random people you once again have the same problem as the chess situation itself. There's little reason for anyone to be friendly. Indeed the in-game reward structure seems to cultivate a certain level of selfishness.


So what can online providers do? Interestingly, there is an online service that had similar problems: eBay. Their entire model works off encouraging transactions between random people around the world. But one of people's biggest fears was how do we know we can trust the other guy?

Their solution was to build a community based on reputation. By simply allowing people to rate each other, most of those types of issues went away. In fact, you'll see many sellers go out of their way to provide top-notch customer service just to get and maintain high customer ratings.

The online games industry can use a similar model. A simple question at the end of a Chess match or World of Warcraft battle: Would you play with this player again?

Obvious extensions to this method could include:

  • A 5-point rating of the player
  • Multiple questions:
    • Did you enjoy playing with this person?
    • * Was this person technically skilled? Of course, care must be taken to minimize the cost to individuals to rate others.  If the cost ends up being too high (i.e. if it's too much trouble to rate people), then you'll only get people to respond under extreme cases (usually when a person is exceptionally bad). But the point is clear.  By offering a method of building reputation beyond in-game rewords (like a typical score), you allow the community to regulate itself.  Not only do you give people a reason to be friendly, but you now reward the efforts of those who are.