The Why, How, What of game design.

MMOs designers need to focus more on the ‘why’, not the ‘what’ 

This is an interesting article, in so far as it highlights a good thinking discipline — if you can’t accurately explain ‘why‘ a user likes an existing product or feature, you shouldn’t be thinking about how or what to build next.
It’s very easy to slip into a reverse thinking pattern where you do this backwards – what shall I build? How shall I build it?  Why would they want it? (i.e. how do I justify it?).  Instead it should be: Why do they like this, how can I improve it, what do I build to facilitate it?

In gaming terms, I don’t think MMO’s are any different from regular games, but they’re problematic because often skill based gameplay is substituted for repetitive grind tasks.  However, all games have one common goal and motivation (the why), and that’s to achieve a sense of accomplishment.  How do players get this? By making meaningful choices, through applied learning and mastery of the game’s world and systems.  Minecraft is a good example of this.

The  -What- varies from game to game, but generally speaking it’s signposted by overcoming challenges — beating other players in the game, finishing the game’s levels, reaching the highest level, or conquering all the game’s environments.  If the list of challenges dries up, or becomes stale (e.g. generic, never ending missions in GTA and Skyrim) the player loses interest – so you facilitate this by introducing more challenges to overcome.

For example, Tekken hasn’t really changed its core gameplay since Tekken 3, which came out 15 years ago.  They’ve extended the game with subtle refinements to game system, and more importantly by drastically expanding the character roster (to over 50) and the number of moves per character (which is in the hundreds).  In other words, they keep pushing that bar of ‘mastery’ out of the grasp of all but the very best players (who compete in tournaments).  As a result, there are always more characters to master, and always new opponents to overcome.

With an MMO, it’s pretty simple – you need to keep pushing that level cap, build new areas to explore, and even bigger monsters to beat (particularly those that encourage team play, or even an entire community of players, like that mobile game that has a billion HP boss).  Why do players do this?  Again – to get a sense of accomplishment, by overcoming all challenges.