Richard Bartle at Metanomics

Richard Bartle dips in and out of Second Life. He likens it as going to London. He might not be there for months, and then multiple times in a week. To him, Second Life is a place, much like many others.

Bartle was in that place on 11 March, as a part of the Metanomics series, hosted by professor Robert J Bloomfield. Bartle often regarded as the father of the first MUD. In a sense he's the progenitor of all existing virtual worlds, both those based on games and those that are game-free.

Bartle acknowledged the seminal role of Dave Arneson and (the late) Gary Gygax. Dungeons and Dragons initially spurred pen-and-paper role-playing, then that drive continued on into virtual fantasy worlds of various sorts, and then the non-game worlds that started to appear through the social and non-games based virtual worlds of the early 1990's.

Bloomfield asked about the Bartle Test which categorizes players of game-based virtual worlds into four distinct types (Bartle himself has since expanded the number of basic types, as the richness of game-based worlds has allowed more differentiated gameplay than previous game systems allowed). Bartle pointed out that the Bartle Test isn't actually his own work, but credits Erwin Andreasen for it.

Bartle pointed out that the test had no applicability beyond people who are game-playing for enjoyment, thus it doesn't really apply to gold-farmers, journalists, or users of assorted non-game-based virtual worlds or to those who are not taking a part in the actual game, as the Bartle types classify kinds of motivations of fun. While we might enjoy tasks and business or have fun at them, business and tasks occlude our basic motivations for fun. Just about every MMOG requires assorted similar tasks - a large part of the question is just why we do them, and which ones we enjoy for which reasons.

The Bartle types were basically to allow developers to roughly categorize the audiences for their games and provide content that suited the predominant player-types, and that there are many potentially useful models each with their own types, classifications and criteria.

Bartle regretfully admits that being too aware of the underpinning mechanics can sap the enjoyment and immersion out of things.

Bartle also talked about the overall market opportunities for virtual worlds. He observed, quite rightly, that in order to draw users to your new venture you need to share them with an existing one, take them from an existing one, or broaden your appeal to attract those who are not already in the market. There isn't any magical place where users are minted to become MMO subscribers.

Players also tend to measure their next virtual world or MMO by the sum of the features in their previous ones. When they move on, they won't generally be very satisfied in their next venue if it lacks features that they've come to expect in the past. These days many users won't log in a second time to a virtual environment without voice support, even if they never use it.

To pull new users into the market and properly manage expectations requires more accessible and less demanding systems, though there is always the risk (and most of us worry about it at some level) of simply diluting the pool so far that there is very little of actual value in the majority of it.

Bartle observes that the community of text-based virtual worlds that flowered over the last 20 years began to stagnate when there simply wasn't enough differentiation between them.

That in itself is a sobering long term lesson for those who want to keep reworking the successes of Diablo or World of Warcraft or even Second Life if any of them are listening.

The costs are high, and the risks are even higher, but if people don't look out of their existing worlds and give others a chance, any number of good worlds could collapse simply from having failed to draw enough users to break even.

Bartle has quite a lot more to say including some quite valid criticisms of Second Life and some fulsome praise as well. Whether you agree or disagree with Bartle's positions, though, they're well thought out and approachable and well worth your attention. The odds are that Bartle's been thinking about this and gathering data for far longer than you have.

Be wary though as the text transcript appears to differ just slightly from the audio recording at times, sometimes a missing word that reverses the sense of things.

This article was originally published on Massively.